Kanna’s eyes were open. She could see the outline of the clouds rushing overhead. She felt like she was suspended in some brilliantly gray void, because the watery mud that had broken her fall had also made her weightless against the ground.
The train rushed away, its wheels scraping along not far from her feet. All of the shocks had faded. She turned her head to look at the arm that half-floated in the mud beside her, and she felt relieved to find that the cuff was still around her wrist.
Kanna sensed the giant before she even saw her. She lifted her head to peer down towards the end of the tracks, and she saw a landscape of flickering light that made the curtain of rain around her glow with life. Emerging from that veil was Goda Brahm. Her image strobed with the landscape itself—pitch dark, then blindingly bright, then pitch dark again. Kanna wondered if it was really the lightning or if her own eyes had started to falter and revive in turn.
When Goda crouched down beside her, the look on the woman’s face held no question. It seemed she had already accepted any reason, any explanation. It seemed that Goda did not care. It seemed that Kanna didn’t have to say anything at all.
Still, she did: “Who are you?” Kanna croaked out. The effort of shouting against the blowing wind made her have to turn over and cough. Her muscles hurt when she moved, but it wasn’t from the impact of the fall. She was exhausted from running, from evading—though with another forced burst of energy, she managed to get up onto her knees, to look up at the stooped form of the giant and to hold her master’s gaze with dignity.
“Who the hell are you?” Kanna shouted again, her tone accusatory. “And how can I be so happy when I’m so miserable? Tell me!” She rammed both her hands hard against Goda’s chest, and Goda’s brows flicked up in confusion. “You know why, don’t you? You know why, but you’ve never told me; you kept it from me like some kind of secret. Look at you! Look at that empty face! Now I know what I was seeing when I looked in your eyes, and why it terrified me: You’re happy. You don’t want anything. You sleep on top of rocks, you eat food that tastes like dirt, you have to scrounge your supplies from the garbage, the world wants to send you to Hell—but you’re happy! You’re so happy to be alive that you barely even mind if you die! What kind of a lunatic are you? How do you live like this?”
Goda merely stared at her, another crazy smile coming over her eyes. The lightning flashed again and it sent colors dancing across her face. It seemed, Kanna thought, that the giant had assumed the question was rhetorical.
Kanna slammed her palms against Goda’s chest yet again. She gritted her teeth. Her gaze didn’t waver. “How do you do this? Why are you like this? Show me! I want to know. I have to know. I can’t live the rest of my life not knowing what black magic you’ve tapped into that’s turned you into this; it would eat away at me every day!” She heaved a loud, shaky breath. She hung her head towards the ground and pressed her hands to her face. “People like you don’t deserve to be happy—not when the rest of us try and try, and grasp and grasp; not when the rest of us exhaust our spirits searching for the best life, the best food, the best pleasure, more security, more freedom, more love; not when the rest of us resist and fight against all of the evil things around us, hoping that once—just once—we’ll be able to taste an ounce of contentment. You don’t even try, Goda. You won’t even give us that. You won’t even pretend to try. That’s what I hate the most about you!” She fell forward, but she caught herself with her hands, and she pressed them against the ground as she cried. “Show me why you’re like this, you bastard!”
Then, through the grit of the mud, she felt a set of long fingers snaking down to clasp against her own. Kanna jerked her head up.
Goda’s face was framed by the light of the sky, the water dripping down from the giant’s hair and falling into Kanna’s eyes. “I can’t show you,” Goda whispered. Goda took her by the hand and helped lift her up out of the mud, until they had both stood up to meet the freezing rain. She smiled down at Kanna with a look that Kanna hadn’t seen before, a look she couldn’t interpret. “But you can see for yourself.”
* * *
Instead of following the well-trodden path of the tracks, Goda took Kanna into a grove of trees that scattered through a line of empty lots, and they found a trail inside that hid them from the street. Kanna could see the shapes of buildings through the holes in the thicket as they walked, but they flashed by quickly, and the space was dark enough that she doubted anyone could see them.
At first, she hadn’t been entirely certain why Goda chose the route, but then she noticed the collection of military trucks concentrated on the main road, near the trading building that Kanna had used as a landmark. She stopped to peer through a few of the trees.
The soldiers were milling around near some twisted heap in the gravel, and in spite of her recent experience, she still couldn’t help but recoil when she saw what it was. It was a woman, very clearly dead, blood and drool trickling from her mouth as she lay motionless with her eyes still open. The air about the soldiers didn’t match the gruesome sight at all: they were standing casually, some of them flashing lights at the body, some using their knees to prop up clipboards stacked with paperwork.
Wide-eyed, Kanna turned to glance at Goda, who had also slowed down to catch a glimpse of the mess. “Is that…?” Part of her didn’t want to know, but the fact that so many soldiers had come to poke and prod at the body with such keen interest made her wonder.
“Yes, probably,” Goda said. “That’s what it looks like when they discover someone who has died from swallowing Flower. Most people can’t keep it down, but those who don’t purge often end up like this when they’re not vessels. You bleed from the inside out. Your breathing slows and eventually stops. The dead body becomes a vessel itself, though, so the soldiers wrap it up and hide it so that no one will eat of it.”
“People eat the body?” Kanna shouted.
“Quiet.” Goda yanked Kanna by the hand and pulled her along, so that the scene was no longer apparent through the trees. “It is said that Flower can cure any disease. Whether that’s true or not is up to interpretation, but the important thing is that people believe it, so yes they siphon processed Flower from anywhere they can get it because it is safer to eat.”
After stumbling across a few gnarled roots in her effort to keep up with Goda’s strides, Kanna finally ripped her hand away from the giant’s grasp. “Stop jerking me around!” she grumbled. The rain had thinned out, but the sound of droplets splashing against the leaves above still competed with her voice, so she found herself raising it louder than intended. “I’m not your slave anymore.”
At this, Goda tilted her head. A smirk came over her face. “Is that right?”
Kanna crossed her arms, refusing to take another step, though Goda hadn’t yet tried to pull her along again. “That’s right. I could have easily escaped and I chose not to—not because of you, but because of my own reasons.” Kanna found that her mouth was suddenly coming up with justifications for what she had done. When she had been speeding down the track, away from Goda, her reasons had seemed perfectly valid, but with some distance between her and that moment, it suddenly felt too humiliating to admit that she had leapt from a moving train car simply to be with Goda. “I spared your life this time,” she continued, “but I could easily take the cuff off at any moment. Your life is in my hands. If anything, doesn’t that make you the slave now?”
Goda stared at her in silence for a long moment, her eyes intense, her expression overcome with surprise.
Then she laughed out loud. Her shoulders shook with the fits and she had to press her hand against a tree trunk to keep herself steady. She laughed so hard that she started wiping the corners of her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Do you want me to prove it to you?” Kanna cried, her tone becoming so hysterical that even she herself nearly broke out into a laugh once she heard it echoing back. She didn’t know why she was saying what she was saying; she couldn’t stop herself, but for once it was like she was watching herself think and say these things, instead of being the one who said them.
She looked down at her body, at her cuff-covered wrist, at everything she could see around her that excluded her own face. Something had quite abruptly connected in her mind. “Is that a snake?” Kanna blurted out. She looked up at Goda. “Is that a snake that was talking just now?”
Goda’s eyes widened again, but this time it wasn’t with surprise—it was with the closest thing to excitement Kanna had ever seen on the woman’s face. “Yes!” Goda said. “You see?”
Kanna began to nod slowly, entirely bewildered. The truth was that she didn’t see—not really—but she had started to feel an inkling. If that had been just one snake inside her that was talking through her…then how many were there?
But it still sounded like half-nonsense to her—even if it was disturbing nonsense—so she tried to put it out of her mind, and she followed Goda when the woman began trudging through the thicket once again. She fixed her focus on Goda’s image, on what she could see of the woman’s body in the bath of moonlight that had started to break through the clouds as the rain died off. She watched the muscles of that back stretching to and fro with every stride; she lowered her gaze a bit more and watched the motion of some of the more pleasing forms and flesh.
She didn’t feel ashamed of it anymore.
“I lied,” Kanna said after awhile.
Goda didn’t answer and kept stalking along through the trees, and Kanna couldn’t help but wryly think to herself that the monster was distracted because she was in her natural habitat.
Kanna let out a low sigh and sped up her stride and reached out to touch Goda’s back. “I lied about a lot of things,” she said, feeling the body flex beneath her fingers. “I lied about why I jumped off the train. I jumped because of you. I don’t know what that means yet, but that’s the reason why. I also lied about how I feel. I don’t hate you. I feel something strong towards you, and I don’t know what it is, but it’s not hatred.” She drew closer, until she could smell the mud that was smattered in patches on Goda’s skin. “You were right. It’s not just your body that I want. It’s something more dangerous than that.”
Goda stopped. She turned to glance over her shoulder at Kanna, who was now nearly pressed up against her. “We can slip out through here,” Goda said, pointing towards an exit to the trail. “We’re close enough to the house now that we probably won’t draw any notice.”
They pushed out through the trees and onto the gravel, which felt jarring against Kanna’s bare feet because she had grown used to the soft dirt of the grove. Once the house was in their sights, Kanna noticed Goda’s old satchel strewn on the ground, along with the leather scroll that they had discarded in their haste. Kanna picked them both up.
“You lied, too,” she murmured. “That first night, you told me that this was a steel baton, that you were going to beat me with it.” She turned the scroll over in her hand, but kept walking because Goda had not stopped. “What is it, anyway?”
When they reached the opening in the fence, Goda still had not answered, but she looked down at the mess of footprints that littered the floor of the entrance. Kanna couldn’t be sure, but it seemed that not all of those tracks belonged to her or Goda.
But Goda pressed on. She glanced over to make sure that Kanna was nearby, and it was then that Kanna finally noticed the giant’s exhaustion. Together, they slipped quietly back into the house, where Kanna found the space to be empty of anyone’s presence; it was only the Goddess that stared at them from her new spot at an altar near the door. The faint smile on Her face seemed a touch mysterious; it reminded her a bit of Goda’s earlier smirk.
Goda was still smiling faintly when they passed through the threshold of their shared bedroom. Distracted with dropping the satchel and scroll on the floor near the wall, Kanna didn’t notice the strange energy at first. It was only when she stretched up again and glanced at the room that spread out in front of them that she realized it had changed.
Just as before, the room was smudged with shadow, the only light coming in from the moon and stars through the window—but something was different. When she had awoken in the room earlier, every corner in the chamber had stood out to her as some frame that confined her from her escape. Now, she hardly noticed the walls, except as vague silhouettes at the edges of her vision, as curtains that shut out the rest of the world.
She heard Goda push the door closed behind them. She heard the latch click shut. She heard Goda’s soft breathing, because the room was in total silence, because the clock had stopped ticking, because the weights that drove the clock had already touched the floor and no one had changed them over.
Kanna slowly turned to look at the naked woman who was leaning against the door next to her. Goda’s face was empty again, unconcerned, the face of someone swimming in an eternal moment that never ended.
But there was something else, too. There was a small edge of tension in those muscles; not the tension of a creature in the midst of hesitation, but rather the posture of one easing to strike. Kanna drew in a sharp, shallow breath. Primal fear washed through her, but by now she knew how to face it, and what it really meant.
The giant took hold of her neck and squeezed.
When Goda lashed out at her, Kanna did not waste her time acting shocked. She met Goda’s kiss with an open mouth, even as the woman dug her fingers into the back of Kanna’s head and roughly took a handful of her hair. Goda groaned into that mouth. Kanna felt the sound shooting into her bones through her teeth. She let the giant press her hard against the wall.
Still, Kanna made a production of fighting her off—because it was her job to not make things too easy. She pushed against Goda’s chest, so that she could feel the giant leaning harder, overpowering her, drawing her in against her struggles. When Goda stooped down to kiss her again, in the midst of their increasingly messy tangle of arms that were each grasping to touch and invade and caress, Kanna bit hard into the woman’s bottom lip.
Goda pulled back and pressed her hand to her own mouth. In her eyes, there was no pain, not even the ghost of a wince. She only looked serious, her eyes locked on Kanna’s face. She was mirroring Kanna’s focused stare, a stare of desire that was free from need or expectation—only a knowing.
It made Kanna feel naked, even though her robes remained slickly against her skin. Kanna gritted her teeth and gave Goda a look of disapproval. “The bed,” Kanna told her. “The bed!”
Goda jolted forward and grabbed Kanna by the neck of her robes and dragged her across the room. She threw her onto the mattress. She took hold of the bottom of Kanna’s robes and jerked the fabric up to uncover Kanna’s legs, and the sudden rush of air made Kanna shudder. She felt the confines of her clothes peeling wetly off her skin, until she was left with nothing, until there was no longer a barrier between her and Goda’s body.
Goda replaced the barrier with her mouth. She pressed it to Kanna’s neck, to her chest. She straddled Kanna’s hips to keep her still, though Kanna didn’t struggle anymore. Instead, she reached up and took Goda’s head in her hands and forced the woman’s face back up to hers. They kissed, and Goda’s breath flowed lightly into her. Kanna felt the edges of her eyes watering, but she didn’t know why.
The energy of her body was floating up again underneath her skin, but this time she didn’t resist it. She let that feeling melt into the spaces between her and Goda. She let her hand slip down along the front of the woman’s body, and she took a handful of what she found between Goda’s legs.
Goda huffed against Kanna’s lips in surprise, and this made Kanna smile.
She squeezed—not hard, just hard enough that she guessed it would make the giant writhe with discomfort, but Goda only pressed further against her. Instead, Kanna found that it was she who was taking in a nervous breath all of a sudden. She had never touched anyone like that before, and the sensation was as jarring as it was arousing.
It was warm. It was already slick with something, and that pleased her. Like the rest of Goda, it was hard and soft at the same time, which made it…different from what Kanna had there herself.
That was not completely surprising. She remembered when she had stolen a few glances during Goda’s shameless baths, that it had looked a little different, but she hadn’t thought much of it because everything about the Middlelanders was different. But touching it now, it felt different, too, much more than it had merely looked, especially now that Goda was….
Kanna shook her head. It was no time to bother with thoughts. Regardless of the shape of the skin there between them, its growing warmth aroused her just the same, and it sent the pulse of her heart throbbing down to the place that mirrored it on her own body. She reached up with her other hand and pulled at Goda’s hair, urged her into another kiss, felt their ragged breaths mingling together in the otherwise silent room.
Goda seized her roughly. It knocked the air out of Kanna’s lungs; it sent that energy beneath her skin up and out of her body, where she felt it fuse with Goda. Her nerves were racked with shock, with the beginnings of a sensation that seemed like it would either transmute into a tantalizing fire or else force her into stiff resistance again.
But she didn’t have the time to find out. With a loud crack, the door to the room flung open and rammed against the wall. Kanna felt herself collapse back into the shell of her skin. She turned her head on reflex, and she sensed the woman on top of her convulse similarly with surprise.
In the middle of the threshold, eyes opened wide with panic, hands digging hard into the frame of the door, stood the boy who had been on his deathbed. He was no longer shuddering; his face had regained its color. Kanna had barely recognized him.
He didn’t seem disturbed by what he saw in front of him. Something else was fueling his urgency. Kanna thought she could hear the sound of pounding boots in the distance along with some voices, but the thumping that boomed from the front of the house quickly overwhelmed it all. It sounded like a huge fist slamming against a door.
The boy glanced over his shoulder once, then turned again to scream at them, “Soldiers!”