In one rushing movement, in one blur of shoulders and arms and fingers, Kanna found herself being pulled up. The hand that had grasped her wrist held on like a vice, but the nails did not scratch her skin this time, and when she and Goda stumbled onto their feet, the motion flowed somehow better than it ever had, more gracefully in spite of the staggering—because not an ounce of Kanna had resisted.
Kanna felt herself being carried along through the door. She was too distracted to be embarrassed when she brushed her naked body against the boy who had called out to them. She didn’t know how he had transformed so quickly or how he had known to warn them or why she and Goda needed to run from the soldiers in the first place, but she followed the giant.
She matched Goda’s stride as they sprinted through the main room. The tips of her feet grazed the back of Goda’s heels once or twice. They collided with the altar on the way out the door and the Goddess teetered and smiled and seemed to instantly forgive them.
Goda led her out of the gateway of the fence and up the hill that they had rolled down the morning before. The trip up towards the sky was harder than the trip down had been; the gravel was loose. Kanna stumbled a few times in her haste and struggled to catch herself on more stable rocks, but she wasn’t afraid because when she looked up, she could see that Goda was throwing backwards glances her way every few steps.
They ended up near a thicket of small trees on the hillside. It wasn’t completely hidden from the valley below, but was discreet enough that they could sit behind some bushes, and the faint pinks and blues of the early sun did not stop them yet from blending in.
“What do you think they want?” Kanna asked, collapsing into the mess of wild grass and leaves. She was still huffing with excitement, and it made the litter beneath her scrape and itch as it passed across her skin—but she liked the discomfort of it.
Goda was peering through the branches in front of them, shaking her head, looking down at what they could see of the house. “I don’t know,” she said. “It could be anything. Maybe someone’s bothered that I stole their fuel. Maybe someone called about a foreigner dashing through the streets, and they somehow manage to trace it back to this house. Regardless, it would be smart to hide here until they’ve left.”
Then Goda lay down next to Kanna and let out a long breath, looking up at the rustling leaves of the canopy above them, at the sky that was turning gold with the first bits of dawn. Kanna closed her eyes and felt the presence of the giant beside her; she could feel her without touching her. This had been true since the beginning, but it was only after pulling away that last barrier between them that she had finally become fully conscious of it. The barrier had never existed.
Kanna remembered what had happened in the room. Now that the heat of the moment had lulled a bit—though not entirely—her mind had started to piece the experience together. It was telling her “stories,” as Goda had put it, which made her a bit wary of herself, but the story wasn’t a bad one this time. She was only curious.
Kanna opened her eyes and looked at Goda’s body stretched out along the grass. The woman’s arms were folded behind her head; her eyes were shut; she had become as much a part of the hillside as the trees and the rocks were.
And so, without thinking, Kanna reached over and grabbed the inside of Goda’s thigh. She tugged it open. Goda didn’t resist and didn’t act offended and didn’t even open her eyes. There was only one second of hesitation, and then in the growing light of the early morning, Kanna looked.
Just as it had always been, it was only a little different from what she was used to, but she wasn’t sure what she was looking at yet, or what to call it. She reached her hand down. When she touched it, and Goda reacted slightly, the difference grew a bit more obvious again.
Kanna pulled her hand back and blushed. “Why…?” She paused, not knowing how to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t sound wildly offensive. Then again, it seemed that a lot of things that would have sounded offensive in the Upperland tongue where not at all offensive in the Middleland tongue. She gave it a try: “Why is it like that?” Kanna asked.
Goda shrugged without opening her eyes, but she suddenly had an amused smirk on her face. “That’s just how it is.”
“I mean,” Kanna continued hesitantly, her thoughts inching not quite as slowly as her words, “it looks like mine, mostly. It’s just that it has…that, too. I did kind of notice it before—since you’re not exactly strict about covering yourself up—but I just assumed it was like what I have on the outside there, only bigger than normal. Everything about you is bigger, after all. But now, I have to wonder if instead, it’s what…a man has, only smaller.” Kanna paused, a bit uncomfortable; but again, she was learning to lean into the discomfort. “So, which is it?”
Goda’s smirk had spread into a grin. She opened her eyes and looked at Kanna with amusement.
“I’m serious,” Kanna said. “It doesn’t bother me or anything. It’s just that it’s only natural that I would want to know what you are, don’t you think?”
“What I am?”
Since Goda had started meeting her gaze, she couldn’t help but turn away with increasing embarrassment. She rubbed her arm and fidgeted a little against the bed of wet grass. Looking up at the sky through the treetops, she finally asked, “Are you a man or a woman?”
“Yes,” Goda replied.
Lightly irritated, Kanna found it in her to shoot Goda a wry glance. “Why do you always give me those kinds of non-answers? It’s really a simple question, you know. Clearly, you have the body of a woman…mostly, and you have the social role of a woman, as far as I can tell, and everyone else around here seems to know that you’re a woman; but now I can’t help but feel like there’s something else going on. It’s not like I ever gave the issue much attention, but maybe I should have. In Middlelander, pronouns and titles and stuff like that don’t have a gender like they do in Upperlander, so actually you could have been a man and I may have never known, if it wasn’t for the fact that Middlelander men look totally different from you.”
Goda had started chuckling, but she hadn’t moved from her spot, and she took a deep sigh of apparent enjoyment. Her breath puffed out visibly, tinted slightly by the purple light falling down upon them.
“So…,” Kanna began again. It was less uncomfortable than before, but she still felt her courage stretching slightly, and she had the feeling that she was lifting up the cover of some mysterious box to peer inside. “Are you a man or a woman?” she insisted.
“No,” Goda replied. Her expression was as impish as before.
Kanna let out a long sigh that mirrored Goda’s own and she let the back of her head fall back down into the grass. She couldn’t help but smile, even if her curiosity was only burning more than before. “I wish you would just tell me. I ask you who you are over and over, and you evade me—and fine, maybe there are things about your past that you’d rather not talk about, things you’d rather let go of—but this is different, isn’t it? Everyone has a gender. You can’t let go of that. It’s just who you are.”
“Oh, for God’s sake. Now you’re going to tell me that you can just not have a gender? That you can just be nothing?”
Goda stretched her arms over her head, then propped herself up on her elbows. “Everyone is nothing. Not just about this, but about everything. Don’t take it too seriously. Woman, man—these are just words, just sounds that come out of your mouth. In fact, the words and sounds are totally different in Upperlander, I’m sure. You may not even have a word for what I am at all.”
“That’s exactly it,” Kanna said, rolling over to face Goda completely. “What are you, then?”
“I told you: nothing.”
“Fine, fine! But what is that nothing called? It’s a new thing that I don’t know about, so I need to learn the name for it.”
“It doesn’t need a name. If it had a name, it wouldn’t be nothing, would it? It just is what it is.”
Kanna shot across the small space between them. She was feeling abusive, like Goda deserved some smack on the face, but instead she dropped herself on top of Goda and pressed her face hard against the giant’s neck.
She had nearly given up, but after a moment, she sat up and straddled Goda’s hips and looked down at her with a steady glance. “You’re a mystery, Goda,” she murmured. She watched the sun that filtered down from the trees making spots that danced on Goda’s face. “You’ve blurred every line I can think of. No, you don’t blur lines, you brush them away with a sweep of your hand and make it look like they never existed in the first place. You make me extremely uncomfortable.”
“Good.” Goda had met her gaze again. The golds and purples and blues of the sky danced in the void of those dark eyes.
Goda was beautiful, Kanna thought. It was the first time that notion had shown up as simply and nakedly as that. It was the first time Kanna hadn’t resisted it. Even days before, when Goda had been ugly, she had been beautiful.
The giant was full of contradictions.
Kanna reached down and took one of the giant’s hands. She lost herself in running her fingertips along the chaos of scars and cuts that were now much more apparent in the light. She took a breath, because the first thoughts of the outside world had begun to trickle in.
“What do we do now?” Kanna asked. “I don’t mean about the soldiers in the house. I mean about you. If we don’t go to Suda, you’ll die—but if we go, I’ll have to spend ten years in some hard-labor job that might work me to death, and you’ll have to keep dragging criminals into the Middleland and surviving every day within an inch of your life. We’ll be separated. To be completely honest, I don’t know if I can be separated from you anymore.” Though she had already known, speaking the words aloud so frankly sent another wave of warmth up to her face. She didn’t mind it. “My cuff is unlocked, so in theory I have a choice now, even if I don’t take it. What about you? Is there a way for you to be free, too?”
Goda was quiet for a moment. Her face returned back to its usually stoic look, and she turned her gaze out towards the valley. “Yes,” she said, “but there is only one way. I will be free soon, but the freedom will come at a cost. I will die a slave.”
“How can you say that?” Kanna dropped Goda’s hand and pressed her palms to the woman’s shoulders. She gritted her teeth. “You’re not dying. Stop being so morbid about everything. How can you pretend that you know what will happen even a day from now? The world is senseless and chaotic.”
“You’re not the only one who hears whispers from the shrines,” Goda murmured, her eyes unreadable again. “For a long time now, they’ve been telling me what I have to do, and where I have to go for it to happen, but I’ve evaded them and refused to listen. Pain always follows, of course. You cannot fight destiny. It’s no coincidence that I ended up as your porter. You’ll lead me to my death.”
Kanna’s eyes widened at first at the words, but then she huffed them away. “I don’t believe in prophecies or any of that mystical nonsense. And, anyway, I can’t imagine that some voice from the shrine is telling you to commit suicide.”
“I can’t commit suicide.”
“Why, because it’s against your religion, as Parama told me? You seem to break every other rule, but I guess this one isn’t as stupid as the rest of them.”
Goda shook her head. “It’s not that. I’m afraid of death. I’m afraid of the hell I will see on the other side for what I’ve done. It’s not just petty rules that I’ve broken. You were right when you told me that I’m not a good person. I know that I have to die—everyone does—but I’ve resisted it for years because I know what I have coming to me. I’ve fought for my life, but it won’t last forever.”
“No one wants to die, Goda.”
“Exactly. I am no one, so I should want to die.”
Goda closed her eyes and let her head fall into the grass again. Kanna stared down at her, more bewildered than ever before. In truth, she had never stopped to fully consider that Goda was on her own journey, with her own destiny and her own signposts pointing her along, and that Kanna was merely a secondary character in Goda’s story, the same way Goda had been in her own.
Perhaps she had been so wrapped up in herself and her own perspective, that she had missed something important that was bubbling beneath the surface of their joined path.
It was true that Goda had not yet told Kanna what she had done to become enslaved—but in the Middleland, a “capital crime” could mean practically anything as far as Kanna knew. Considering all that had happened, she strongly suspected that it had to do with using Flower, some victimless offense that the government obsessed about. Goda had known exactly how to brew the potion, and she had immediately recognized the boy’s symptoms. Perhaps she had awakened a vessel years before and had been caught doing it.
It may have been illegal, but it was hardly something that Kanna could judge Goda for. There were worse things in the world, and if the woman had healed people, what did it really matter in the grand scheme of things how she had done it? She certainly didn’t deserve such a draconian punishment for it.
Soon enough, though, as the light grew brighter and the world grew clearer, Kanna became distracted by the present moment. She looked down at Goda’s beautiful face, at the imperfections that lined the skin, at the signs of a bruise that was forming on her jaw, at some fresh cuts that etched the side of her forehead and peaked out from Goda’s rumpled hair. Kanna reached down to touch the wounds lightly, to watch how the giant flinched a little, but didn’t make the effort to complain.
Kanna had no idea what they would do—either a day from then, or even a minute into the future. But Goda was always now.
* * *
When they both noticed that the soldiers had reappeared on the main road and were heading West towards the city, Goda signaled that it was safe to return. They ducked through the trees and took their time shuffling down the steep side of the hill just in case there were some of military women lingering behind.
The boy was waiting for them just outside the fence. To Kanna’s astonishment, he ran to them as soon as he caught sight of them, and he threw his arms around the giant’s waist.
“Goda!” he cried. He pulled away after a quick squeeze, though, seemingly coming to his polite senses. His eyes looked bright in the light of day, joyous, much different than they had looked before. “I don’t know what you’re doing here, but I’m glad you showed up! I was definitely in a bind there.”
Goda shushed him, though she matched his smile. “Keep your voice down.” She tilted her head a little to glance through the hole in the fence. “Your parents think I’m an ex-priestess and that this is my wife. It’s probably best if they keep that impression, even if they might not fully believe it.”
“Ah, that’s the story, huh?” He looked over at Kanna with curiosity. “That’s a good one. Who came up with that?”
Goda didn’t answer him. Instead, she looked down the main street at the faint shapes of the military trucks in the distance. “What did they want?” she asked.
“Oh, the soldiers? Well, turns out that somebody died after swallowing Flower last night. They keeled over right in the middle of the street! What are the chances, right?” The boy nodded at Kanna, as if expecting her to agree, but when she only stared at him with confusion, he turned back to Goda. “So the soldiers started running around, knocking on doors, trying to figure out where the Flower came from. Some busybody a few houses down told them that they had smelled Death brewing earlier in the night, and that it seemed to waft from this here yard, so those bastards came storming in. Luckily, I was out here so I saw them coming from far away. Man, you should have seen it! My mothers had to hide me in the broom closet because my eyes were still the size of saucers. It was really obvious I was on something. Never would have been able to fake that I was normal.”
He spoke so quickly that Kanna had to concentrate to understand the more colloquial phrases in Middlelander. Afterwards, a long moment of quiet passed. He seemed to be waiting for some response, but none came. Kanna was at a loss for words, completely thrown off by the story, still trying to parse the words, still trying to figure how the boy could possibly know who Goda was. Goda merely stood there in silence and watched the two of them watching each other.
Finally, a more obvious fact seemed to dawn on the boy, and this broke through the lull. “Damn, both of you are totally naked, though, aren’t you?” he cried. “I guess you didn’t have time to put any clothes on, huh? You probably should get dressed before you see my mothers again, though, or they’re going to think you’re a bunch of weirdos running around outside like Lowerland savages. They’ll notice the cuffs, too. I’ll go see if I can find something inside that you can throw on real quick.” He turned and began passing through the fence, but he paused to shoot them another glance over his shoulder. “Hey, so were the two of you about to do it in the guest room earlier? Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt. Just put like a sock or something on the doorknob next time and I’ll know to knock first.”
He disappeared, but Kanna still felt all her blood rushing to her face. She wanted to hide under something—a boulder perhaps—but instead, she settled for fixing her gaze on the ground and pretending that the boy hadn’t said anything outrageous at all.
She recovered in time for the boy to return with Goda’s robes and a new set of clothes that Kanna hadn’t seen before. They looked similar to Parama’s hand-me-down that Jaya had given her, but the fabric was a little darker in color, nearly matching the tint of Goda’s clothes.
“I found your stuff drying above the bath,” he said, handing Goda her belongings. He smiled warmly at Kanna, the way that a friend smiled at someone they hadn’t seen in a long time, which made Kanna fidget a little with discomfort. The boy hadn’t even bothered to introduce himself. “Your garments are all muddy and gross,” he said, “so you can just have one of mine. Seems that you like wearing men’s clothes, anyway.”
Kanna raised an eyebrow. It had never occurred to her that there was a difference between men’s and women’s clothes in the Middleland. It was true that there were a few odd features on her robes, such as the fact that they did not open in the front, but she hadn’t really been one to dwell on the details.
And so she had been unknowingly crossdressing the whole time, it seemed.
In light of the conversation she had just had with Goda on the hillside, she found it ironic enough that she nearly broke out in a laugh. Instead, not wanting to offend the stranger who was acting so familiar with her, she suppressed the reaction and merely smiled while accepting his gift.
“Thank you, but you really didn’t have to do this,” she said politely. Nonetheless, she wasted no time in throwing it over her head and slipping it on.
“No, seriously, I did,” he said. He was looking her up and down with a twisted smirk all of a sudden. “Nothing good comes from a naked foreigner. Believe me.” He started walking back towards the house and gestured for them to follow.
Kanna jerked her head towards Goda and looked up at her with irritation. “Who the hell is this kid?” she muttered.
“No one,” Goda answered.