Kanna decided that she hated Goda after all. She had been sitting in the passenger seat in total silence, ignoring the giant, and the giant had the nerve to ignore her ignoring, so eventually she whipped around and crawled into the bed of the truck to be with the Bou twins.
Passing over the divide and into that alternate dimension wasn’t much better, though. They seemed happy that she had joined them, but they had been chain smoking so much that the floor of the truck was littered with cigar butts and ash, and it took Kanna a few seconds to find a clean spot to sit down.
“…and it’s so strange how the human mind works. Every time these crazy customers tell me a story, they get weirder and weirder,” Noa was saying; Kanna had been too distracted to overhear the source of the conversation from the front seat, but she tried to pick up the thread where it was. “Like the last time I had to do a delivery by myself, remember how I took so long? It’s because this lady had to tell me all about the tiny bit of Flower she had swallowed. She said she had seen a million snakes all over her house, and she was trying to tell me about each one.”
“Oh yeah,” Leina said. “I’ve heard that one, too. The Maharans always see snakes, because that’s what we’re taught at the temple, so it’s no wonder that was locked in her subconscious. Makes me not want to touch the stuff, to be honest. I’d rather live in the real world than deal with creepy delusions and hallucinations.”
Smoke wafted in Kanna’s direction, so she ducked her head to avoid the haze. “How about lung cancer?” Kanna said crossly. “Is that a hallucination?”
Dirty air shot out of Leina’s nostrils as she laughed and coughed. “What do you mean?” she asked.
Kanna didn’t answer, though. She took a deep breath of what little clean air she could manage and she tried to adjust her mood, because she figured the twins didn’t deserve her ire. She glanced at the two leather rucksacks that sat tucked in the corner of the truck bed, and she asked, “What kind of…product do you two deliver to people, anyway?”
“We told you: drugs!” Noa said, grinning with pride. “We deal illegal drugs. Our plan if we ever get caught is to each say that the other one did it, and then they won’t be able to tell who is guilty, so they’ll have to let us both go. Even if a witness saw me, I could just say it was my sister, and she could accuse me of the same.”
“Oh.” Kanna scratched the back of her head, unsure if this was a common occupation or if Noa was simply too shameless to be anything but casual about it. “Well, that’s unfortunate that you have to go to such lengths just to do your job, I guess.” She settled on this neutral response.
“Not really! You can make a lot more money selling stuff that’s illegal. That’s why we do it. With legal stuff, you have too much competition, so I hope they don’t relax the law.”
Kanna huffed in disbelief, but her eyes traced the sealed edges of the bags with curiosity. “What kind of drugs are they, anyway?” She couldn’t imagine that it was Flower. Even the Bou twins didn’t seem stupid enough to openly carry two large bags filled with such dangerous contraband.
Noa smirked. She reached over and undid the latch on one of the sacks, and she opened it up a crack. It was just enough that Kanna could peer inside, but not enough that the wind could slide in and blow any of the dry petals out into the open.
Kanna shook her head and shut her eyes on reflex. “Close it,” she said. “For the love of God, just close it and never show it to me again.” She rubbed her face with her hands. “We’re going to get caught. Some soldiers are going to stop us at some crossing, and they’re going to jump in the back, and they’re going to look at your stuff, and they’re going to arrest all four of us and execute Goda and add twenty years to my sentence.”
“Well, you’re certainly the optimist, aren’t you?” Leina said, laughing some more. “I mean, we don’t usually sell Flower, because it’s a little risky, but we got such a great deal on it this time, we couldn’t pass it up!”
“Yeah, guess how much we paid!” Noa added with excitement. “Guess! Guess!”
The truck rumbled along quietly for a moment as Kanna stared at the two of them with incredulity. “Um, I don’t know.” Now that she thought about it, she still wasn’t entirely sure how money worked in the Middleland. She had had such a narrow experience of the culture so far, and her tutors had been so vague about everything besides the language itself, that she couldn’t even remember the name of their currency.
But Noa leaned closer, her grin stretching wider. She put her hand to the side of her mouth, as if she were about to whisper, but instead she shouted, “Nothing! We got it for free! Can you believe that?”
Leina nodded her head in time with the bobbing of the truck over a few potholes. “That’s right! We got really lucky. In the middle of the night, we were trying to steal some supplies from the train, so we busted one of the locks open and we happened upon a whole car filled with Flower! It was crates and crates of the stuff. We had never seen so much. Of course, there was no way to haul that all back to our room, so we loaded what we could in our bags and decided that we’d get the hell out of Karo in the morning. You can get a much higher price for it in the capital.”
Kanna jerked with surprise. “The midnight train? The one that goes to the Upperland?”
“Yeah, that’s right! You went around there, too, didn’t you? We were hidden in an alley, about to try our hand at making some brew with our find, when we saw you running past and we thought we’d whack that giant with our brass pot. Looking back, it was probably a stupid idea. We were drunk.”
“But why were they sending Flower to the Upperland? Do you know?”
Noa’s smile turned mysterious. “You mean you don’t know? You’re an Upperlander, after all.”
“No,” Kanna said, pursing her lips and letting out a frustrated huff. “I don’t know anything. The more I know, the less I know. So if you’re not going to tell me, then don’t tell me, but I’m sick of all of this cryptic nonsense.”
“Fine, sheesh.” Noa was looking at her warily again. “Well, it’s like this: You’ve heard of the Rava family, right? I’m sure you have. They basically monopolized your entire economy and almost ran it into the ground.”
“They did not!” Kanna snapped immediately. “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t have the right to say things like that if you’ve never even lived—” She stopped when she noticed that they were both staring at her, completely confused, partly recoiled, as if a sharp gust of wind had unexpectedly hit them in the face.
It had been the breath of a snake, of course. Kanna sighed and felt the serpent grow a little weaker once she had acknowledged it—but it scurried away because it was afraid of being seen directly. The tail had slipped between her fingers. She knew she would see it again some other time.
“What…does Flower have to do with the Rava family?” she mumbled, regaining some of her composure. It was difficult to ask. It felt like she was asking about herself. A part of her didn’t want to hear the Bou twins unknowingly gossiping about who she was—or who she used to be. She didn’t really know anymore.
Leina shrugged with a bit of caution, after exchanging a glance with Noa. “We don’t know for sure,” she said, “but the story is that our Middleland government made a deal with your royalty to be able to invade and take over the mok fields from the Rava clan. We heard rumors that they paid your king off with Flower. It’s illegal here, of course, but that’s exactly why the Middleland government has the market cornered. What do you think the government does with all the confiscated Flower? What do you think they do with the dead bodies, whose fluids carry the Flower in a safer form? It’s a huge source of income for them, along with the criminal slaves it creates. They secretly sell Flower and ground up bodies on the black market, then they arrest people for buying it on the other end.”
Kanna winced with some disgust. Goda had explained before that people ate from the bodies of those who had overdosed and died on Flower, but imagining it as some kind of commercial enterprise made it ten times worse. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Why would the Upperland monarchy want Flower from your government, anyway?”
“It’s valuable—certainly the most expensive plant on the continent. It’s the most potent medicine as well as the most powerful poison by far, and it’s rare because it was eradicated from Samma Valley, so now it only grows in the savage-infested Lowerland. Use your imagination. I’m sure you can figure it out.” Noa seemed to relax a little, and she let out a smooth puff of the noxious smoke. “Besides, your monarchy was aching to get rid of the Ravas, anyway. That family had almost entirely taken over the government, and by then your king was a hair away from being overthrown. He was scared for his neck.” She made a rude gesture, slid her finger across her throat. “Without outside help, what was he going to do? Better to be able to sit on the throne as a puppet for the Middlelanders than to have no ass to sit with at all, don’t you think? The payment of Flower was probably more of an afterthought—a gift of goodwill.”
“Yep,” Leina added, with a similarly casual look on her face that Kanna could hardly stand. “So the Ravas got charged with some made-up claim that the Middlelanders had owned their land all along and that they owed exorbitant back-taxes on it for the past one hundred years. They’re all paying for it now with their slavery—the ones who weren’t smart enough to escape, anyway. I hear the older ones are clever, but the younger ones that grew up in privilege are dumb as rocks.”
Kanna had clenched her hands into fists while she listened. Her nails were digging into her palms. She bit her own tongue.
Noa seemed to notice the tension and tilted her head. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
Before she could stop herself, Kanna’s body shook with fury and she cried out, “I am Kanna Rava!”
An extended pause fell over the back of the truck, and the twins both stared at her. Their expressions were unreadable, but Kanna figured that they must have been shocked at the revelation. She could sense a smile coming from Goda’s direction, though, and she turned to find that the giant indeed looked amused at the outburst.
When she turned back, she was met with a pair of full grins.
“Sure you are!” Leina said, smacking Kanna on the shoulder. “So am I! Call me Leina Rava!”
“Oh, wait, can I join the clan, too?” Noa asked. “Do I have to learn how to brew spirits, or can I just be one of the kept daughters in Rava’s mansion?” She batted her eyes and fluffed her own hair.
Both of them laughed as if Kanna had led them on a long-form joke and had finally delivered the punchline. Kanna let out a sigh of disgust, but they didn’t seem to notice, and they didn’t bother her again when she lay down on the bed of the truck from sheer exhaustion.
Maybe it’s true that they’re just as much Kanna Rava as I am at this point.
It was her last thought before Kanna Rava fell asleep.
* * *
Kanna woke up with a startled lurch. She felt like she had been falling, so her limbs flailed around to catch her, but they only smacked against the sides of the truck.
As it turned out, it was merely the feeling of the vehicle coming to an abrupt stop that had disturbed her, but as she sat up and rubbed her eyes, the edges of a nightmare still swam in her vision. She thought she had seen Priestess Rem’s face, and it had looked pale and lifeless—so perhaps it had been Taga Murau instead. She couldn’t tell anymore.
She blinked and gazed across the bed of the truck at the messy mop of Goda’s hair that still waved a bit in the wind. She wondered how much of Kanna’s own nightmares and memories Goda had seen, in the same way that Kanna had seen hers. She felt a twinge of shame then, because now that her fury had worn off some—the snakes always seemed less active when she would first wake up—she could see that her reaction to Goda’s story had been entirely selfish.
Kanna could not fathom what it must have been like to watch someone she loved die before her own eyes, much less by her own hand. She had been in Goda’s body and she had watched it happen as if she had been there, but she imagined that she had access to only a very small piece of the anguish—because she was not Goda Brahm, after all. Kanna had not lived at Taga’s side; she had not known all of the woman’s attributes, both good and evil; she had not fallen in love with a priestess who she could never marry or even touch.
And as soon as the vision of Taga had been over—as vivid as it had seemed at the time—it had begun to fade just like any other dream. Goda probably didn’t have that same luxury.
The Bou twins were already hopping out of the truck, and their shaky movements broke Kanna out of her thoughts. Because they had stopped near a pond, the twins started immediately ripping their clothes off and sprinting towards the water.
“Finally! It’s afternoon already, and I was itching to wash these snakes off before it got too late!” Leina said, even though she didn’t believe in snakes and thought that they were crazed hallucinations.
Noa eagerly agreed while stepping out of her trousers, even though she had told Kanna that snakes were religious nonsense.
Goda shed her robes before dismounting the truck, and she started making her way towards the edge of the pond too, even though the giant knew full well that water did nothing to deter snakes.
After a few moments of watching three naked women trudging through the grass, all three determined to wash off invisible demons, something in Kanna’s brain decided that she also must have had those same demons. She crawled over the side of the truck bed and plopped onto the ground, and she sprinted to catch up with them so that she could also get rid of snakes that didn’t exist.
Once they were all knee-deep in the water, Kanna tried to keep her eyes from drifting towards the Bou twins’ bodies with curiosity—but she didn’t try very hard. Whenever she could sense that they weren’t looking directly at her, her gaze fell heavily below their waistlines against her will, because she could not help but wonder if they were like Goda.
She had a hard time being able to tell the difference between Goda’s weird personal quirks and what was simply part of the Middlelander culture. Do all Middlelander women have…that? Kanna thought. She wasn’t sure what to call it. There were two different names for two different organs that she had thought to use for what Goda had, but if she was honest with herself, it had looked like it could have been either. It had made her consider for a moment that perhaps those two separate things in her mind may have actually been the same thing all along—but she had chastised herself quickly for such a strange thought.
Of course women and men are totally different, she told herself. That’s why they have different names. It would be ridiculous if, this whole time, they were just two versions of the same thing. Then what would that make me?
The Bou twins looked more like her than like Goda, though. Kanna had glanced enough times that she decided they were both normal, and for some reason this gave her some comfort.
Unfortunately, she hadn’t been discreet enough, and though Leina was distracted with a piece of yaw that she had brought with her to rinse in the water, Kanna eventually drew Noa’s attention. The woman grinned at Kanna, and her eyes sparkled with interest.
“What’re you looking at, what’re you looking at?” she asked.
“Nothing!” Kanna couldn’t help one final glance in Goda’s direction, then she turned back to her own body and went through the motions of scrubbing invisible parasites.
Her stupid grin unfaded, Noa turned towards Goda briefly, and seemed to realize Kanna’s thoughts. “Ahhh,” Noa said, in a tone that made Kanna’s neck break into a blush that she couldn’t hide with her clothes. “So this giant is the only one of those that you’ve seen, huh? You’re an Upperlander, so I don’t blame you for being confused. I mean, I’m sure they exist in the Upperland, too, but I heard there’s a lot less of them and they hide themselves.”
“‘One of those’?” Kanna echoed Noa’s words, but she could still find no meaning in them.
“The government calls them ‘robust women.’ They’re bigger than normal—though not usually as huge as your monster over here—and they often get assigned to be in the military and stuff like that, because most of them are stronger than average, and most of them can’t carry any children. You might have noticed that the soldiers are more built than, say, the priestesses, right?”
Kanna paused. She thought back to all the Middlelander women she had seen. In truth, they had all looked so tall and imposing, that she hadn’t yet noticed much of the detailed variations. “So there are others like Goda?”
“Oh yeah. Like I said, she’s unusually big, but robust women make up…maybe one out of ten of us in some places, maybe two out of ten in other places?” She turned towards her sister for some apparent confirmation and Leina nodded, looking up from the dirty yaw that she was scrubbing.
“They’re more common towards the South for some reason,” Leina said. “You can’t always tell, though. It’s kind of a continuum and some are more obvious than others. We still can’t tell if our sister is one, even though she’s tall and her shoulders are kind of wide. She doesn’t have a cycle, but that doesn’t really mean anything, since some of us start really early, but some of us don’t start that until we’re deep into our twenties.”
Kanna’s face twisted against her will, as much as she was trying to be polite about a culture she did not understand at all. “What?” she said. She had never heard something so outlandish about the human body. “Are you all right? Is there a disease or something that plagued your people? Is there a germ that infected the water? Is your food contaminated with some substance?” The words slipped out before she could consider how rude they were.
But Leina laughed. “Not that we know of. It’s just always been normal. Who knows why?” She bit into the yaw and chomped away at it happily, then said with a full mouth, “Don’t worry. We don’t hold it against you. We like the fact that foreigners are so weird.”
* * *
When Kanna had finally mustered up the gall to approach Goda again, she found her standing by the side of the pond with her clothes back on. The giant was reaching up into a tree to pick some green pomes from the branches, and she was dropping them into her robes until her pockets were bulging with fruit. The sun was high overhead and fell through the thicket of leaves in spots, and there was a bird at the edge of one of the high twigs who was calling out either a mating song or an aggressive warning against the two intruders who had appeared in his midst.
Kanna scratched the back of her neck with uncertainty. “I thought you said that you were fasting,” she mumbled.
“I am. These are for you.”
Goda paused her movements. “You don’t want them.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then take them.” Goda reached into her pockets with her huge hands and she pressed the fruit up against Kanna’s chest, so that Kanna had no choice but to carry them to avoid them spilling onto her feet. “I know you don’t like the yaw.”
Kanna sighed. She busied herself stuffing the fruit into her own pockets. “I’m getting used to it, all right? I imagine that it will take some time, that’s all.”
“Don’t eat it,” Goda said.
“I said, don’t eat the yaw. It’s fine if you have a little bit now and then, or if you have no other choice, but once you’re settled into the Middleland, don’t make it a habit. Yaw isn’t meant for you. Middlelanders have been dependent on it for tens of thousands of years—just as the plant is dependent on us and it actually can’t grow anymore unless we manually pollinate it—but the bitterness that you sense in it is more than just a bad taste. It is poison to foreigners. It used to be poison to us, too, but our people adapted and evolved over time to tolerate it. It won’t kill you, but it can make you sick and it can disrupt the natural cycles of your body and it can make it so that you’ll never have any children. Don’t eat yaw.”
Kanna stared at her, completely stunned into silence. When she had recovered her ability to speak, it took her a moment to push the words out, “You’re…you’re telling me this now? I’ve eaten it already!”
“You’ll be fine with what you ate. It’s polite to eat what strangers give to you. But I’m telling you now because we will be separated soon, and most Middlelanders don’t understand that foreigners are different. They will try to make you eat yaw every day, so you will have to find other food to eat instead of what your master provides for you.”
“What? What? How do I even do that?” Kanna took a step towards Goda in panic, and some of the fruit that was still in her hands slipped from her grasp and fell onto the ground. After a tense pause, though, she shook her head, set her jaw. “No,” she said. “We’re not going to be separated, so this won’t even be an issue. We don’t have to plan for a future that won’t come.”
Goda looked at her with those empty eyes, with that typically blank stare, and this only made Kanna’s teeth clench further. “There’s nothing wrong with a creative interpretation of reality,” Goda told her, “but denial is something different. You’re in denial right now. Let it go. We will be going to Suda and we will be separated from each other.”
“I won’t let that happen,” Kanna insisted, “even if I have to fight you. I know I’ve resisted you in the past when maybe I shouldn’t have, but I don’t know what else to do now, either.”
“Surrender to me.”
“No!” Kanna kicked some of the fallen fruit in Goda’s direction and she crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re insane, Goda. Even now, I don’t know why you have this suicidal ideation, and why you’re so obsessed with just giving in to fate, but I won’t follow you off the edge of that cliff. In fact, I will do what I can to stop you from jumping over. I’ll grab you by the legs and pull as hard as I can.”
“You tried that already.”
“Fine, fine! I don’t care what happened before, but I’m not getting back into that truck no matter what you do to me! And even if you try to drag me, I’ll resist every one of those two million paces to Suda—or however long we have left to reach that hellish place!”
Goda’s expression didn’t change much, but Kanna had grown used to the small variations now, and she sensed an edge of curiosity. “You’re more than stubborn,” Goda said, studying Kanna’s face. “It’s something else. I wish I had time to find out.”
With a billowing of her robes, the giant turned around and headed back towards the road.
* * *
Goda did not answer the Bou twins when they loudly asked why Kanna was still standing by the tree with her heels dug into the ground. Kanna watched them get into the truck, and she watched Goda start it up, and she watched them peel out onto the street, leaving her behind.
Kanna braced herself for the shocks that were sure to come. She would let them happen, she decided. She couldn’t stand it anymore that she was being led around by her own urge to avoid pain. She would feel the pain, she would lean into it, she would let it fry all of her nerves—but she would not give in to Goda.
Sure enough, after what seemed like only a few seconds, the truck had dashed more than forty paces away, and the first wave of pain rushed through Kanna’s arm. It flowed into the rest of her body, popping against every piece of skin and muscle, and vibrating through all of her bones.
Kanna clenched up on reflex. The pain grew worse the more she resisted it. It buzzed through every particle inside her—it rose and fell like a wave of heat—but every time, the peak would grow higher and higher. She had balled her hands into fists and she looked between them onto the road with a tense mouth.
The truck rolled further away; the pain exploded to another level. It was worse than it had ever been. Kanna groaned loudly and felt her voice echo through the clearing and felt the bird above her get spooked and fly away.
The truck grew smaller and smaller in the horizon. She felt the muscles of her knees growing stiff from the shock. Somehow, she could keep standing through it all, even though her body began to clench further. She felt the electricity burning in the roots of her teeth like they had been set on fire. The pain had become so strong and the shock so paralyzing, that she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep going.
She let out a scream with what little control she still had over her lungs. The pain was filling up her awareness, as much as she tried to distract herself from it with her hatred of Goda. All she knew was the sight of the tiny truck in the distance and her hatred of the woman who drove it and the feeling of her body on the verge of giving in.
But just as she felt that she was about to finally collapse because her blood had gone molten inside her, she heard a voice between her ears—a whisper that was somehow louder than her screams.
Listen to your breath, it said.
Just as this happened, her breath hitched and her lungs seized and she couldn’t even cough.
Try again. Listen to your breath. Don’t make yourself breathe. Don’t try to control it. Listen to the breath that happens on its own.
The words sounded familiar.
Listen to your breath…
Listen to your pain…listen to the pain that happens on its own.
Kanna stiffened even more at first when she heard what the voice had said. It made the pain worse. It brought her attention to the pain, and that felt worse at first. She could not remember ever having suffered so much of it before.
But then, strangely, the pain smoothed out into an amorphous buzzing. The more she brought her awareness to it, the more the sensation seemed to change. It was still painful, but her body slowly stopped resisting—and, to her astonishment, she found that she was able to keep standing, if barely so. She was no longer suffering the shock; she was feeling herself feeling the pain, which was different.
She didn’t know how, but it was entirely different, even though the pain was the same.
Good…, the voice said. Good…
Her inner body was dancing loosely in her skin. She felt less attached to her body, so it took a lot of effort to bring her head up. She saw that the truck was still far away, but that it was slowing down. When she clenched her fists tighter in anger, in elation that she might have bested the giant, the suffering suddenly flared again, and so she reminded herself to focus on her breathing, on the pain, on the things that were happening without her control.
She felt the pain flowing through her like an energy. It was like a river of warmth that was reminding her that she was alive. She hated it. She loved it. She hated it. She didn’t resist it.
She surrendered to it.
She surrendered so much that she fell onto the ground and closed her eyes and did not fight the sensation when she realized that she was dying.
Good, the voice said, because she had surrendered.
It was the voice of God.