Tiny whirlwinds blew dust across the plain and into Kanna’s eyes. It muddied her view of the women, but as she blinked through the haze, Goda grabbed her arm and led her out of the truck. This time, she did not flinch against the touch, because she had already come to expect it.
Goda brought her towards a tall threshold made of stone. It was the only break in a waist-high fence that encased the small mob of people, who were all closely huddled in the spreading courtyard until Kanna’s presence seemed to energize them. Black robes whipped and billowed with movement as the group split apart, each of the women producing a large clay vase from under their respective folds, each of the jars ornate with swirling designs.
Kanna could not see what was hidden inside the vessels—only the beginnings of a dark pit visible under the rims—but for whatever reason, in a flash of morbid fantasy she imagined a pair of coiled snakes in each one, ready to dance at the call of a piper.
Boldly breaking through the sea of black, a pair of empty-handed women in white robes had come to flank the edges of the gateway, too. They were so close to Kanna, just on the other side, that their mere presence made her nervous, and she jumped a little when a darker figure emerged suddenly between them. This time, Kanna recognized the face: It was the stranger from before, the one with the frozen smile who had watched Kanna arrive in the truck, though her stare was no less unnerving up close.
At the sight of this woman, Goda dropped to her knees, sending up a burst of sand.
Kanna glanced around with confusion. “What’s going on?” she whispered. She wasn’t sure why she felt compelled to keep her voice low, but something in the energy of the air did not feel friendly at all.
“Give her this.” Goda reached into her robes and produced a small pouch, which she offered to Kanna with no further explanation—but even through the velvet, Kanna could feel the texture of metal coins clinking and settling when she grasped it. “Just put it on the ground in front of her. Don’t hand it to her directly. Don’t talk to her. Absolutely do not touch her or any of the other people in black.”
Perplexed—and wanting to rid herself of this unexpected tribute—Kanna did not argue. At the line of the threshold in front of her, the loose sand ended and became a hard path, so she placed the pouch gingerly on the stone, right near the robed woman’s bare feet. Just as Goda had told her, she was careful not to graze the woman’s skin, but more out of a sense of avoidance than a respect for Goda’s word.
When Kanna made safe enough room between them again, the woman picked up the bag and met Kanna’s eyes with no sign of the polite caution that a stranger usually offered.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Kanna Rava,” she said—then she turned around and disappeared back into the mob.
Hearing her own name had never made Kanna feel so uncomfortable before. “How do they know me?”
She inspected the small crowd that had formed in front of her and her eyes fell again on one of the clay vases. It had two handles that flared out from the sides like wings, and the woman who held it kept a tense grip, knuckles turned white.
There was most definitely something inside—something that was about to spill over.
Kanna shuffled back.
“Stop,” Goda said. “Go through the gateway now.”
“What?” Kanna stared at the strangers, and every single one gazed back with frozen tension, as if poised to act. A wave of impatience permeated the air, but she wasn’t sure if it belonged to the group beyond the threshold or to the woman who knelt beside her.
“Go. Cross into the sanctuary and meet them. I can’t go in with you. I have to stay outside.”
Thoughts of escape had already flooded Kanna’s mind, but she knew better than to take off running. Even though Goda had cut the rope not long before, they were still tied together by an invisible electric thread, and seeing that she had little choice, Kanna took her first hesitant step through the gate.
The group waited. Their collective posture seemed to adjust as she grew closer. It looked as if a tight coil was being slowly wound up in each of their spines.
Kanna took another step, then another. When she was a few paces beyond the threshold and both her feet were firmly on the cobblestone path of the courtyard, she threw Goda another glance of confusion over her shoulder—but she did not turn very far before she caught some movement at the corner of her eye. Kanna cried out in surprise.
They were rushing her.
As if a clock had struck the time, they had all pushed forward together. Before she could even consider fleeing, four cold hands had seized her. The two women in white yanked at her robes and wrestled her off her feet, forcing her to kneel into the ground.
“Goda!” Kanna shouted, trying with all her strength to twist out of their grips. “Goda, what’s happening?”
But her master was silent.
When the mob closed in around her, their rising shadows blocked both the sun and the open desert. They looked upon her with hunger. It was as if they were aching to tear her limb from limb. Terrified, Kanna thrashed harder, until she managed to rip herself away and hobble onto her feet—but before she could even straighten her knees, an icy punch crashed hard into her back.
It sent her straight to the ground.
Kanna gasped. Freezing water crashed into her face, into her mouth. It flowed down her hair and rushed over her ears. It muffled every sound and chilled every piece of her.
Before she could understand what was happening, or even recover from the first freezing blow, another one came. Ice cold water splashed over her head, roaring like a waterfall, distorting the voice of a woman who cried from above:
“Awaken! Be cleansed by the Goddess!”
Then another woman came to take her place. Kanna braced herself when the stranger began to tip her vessel, but it made no difference. The water was so cold that she couldn’t fathom how it wasn’t solid ice.
“Awaken to the Goddess Mahara! Be cleansed!” the woman declared, drenching her thoroughly.
Then another came, then another. And they all were saying the same things.
“Goda!” Kanna cried out towards the sky, hoping that somehow her voice would carry over the tall strangers, over the rising threshold, over to where her master knelt in the sand. “Goda! What is this? Make them stop!”
Her voice cut out when she was drowned again by a vase full of water.
“Awaken!” her assailant demanded.
“I’m awake, I’m awake!” Kanna screamed, coughing into the ground. “Can’t you see that I’m awake?”
Another rush of cold smacked the top of her head, like a watery fist had come down from the heavens. The freezing sting seeped into her nose. She spat onto the floor and noticed that some of the women near her had moved back—but otherwise, the torrent continued.
One after another, they poured the contents of their vessels upon her until her vision had grown watery and unclear, until her muscles were so shocked that she couldn’t move.
“Goda!” she cried one last time in desperation.
She heard no words in reply. Instead, above the sound of the splashing water and the shuffling feet and the twisted blessings, a laugh sounded through the clearing. The voice was husky and full of life.
She didn’t want to believe that it was Goda.
A long time passed while Kanna braced herself against nothing. The assault had stopped. The rows of feet that had surrounded her dissipated just as suddenly as they had appeared.
She stayed there on her hands and knees, the wind blowing against that slick layer of cold water on her skin. She stared at the ground, her mind free of thoughts, her heart pulsing so hard she could hear its roar in her ears. Tears fell hotly against the ground beneath her, to join the cold water that dribbled from her soaked hair. She hid her sob well, as it folded naturally into her shudders, and she didn’t want anyone to hear her.
The first sign of warmth came as a towel that fell over her shoulders. She flinched at the touch, but when she looked up, she saw that one of the women in black had stayed behind. It was the same woman who had accepted her payment for all the torture.
“Dry yourself up, child,” the woman said. “And put these on.” Though she kept her distance and seemed to avoid leaning too closely, she dropped a neatly creased set of white clothes in front of Kanna’s hands.
Kanna looked past her and towards the path that led through the courtyard, between the two towers and up to a building carved into the nearby cliffs. The other women in black were filing inside the structure with their empty clay jars, though they did not murmur to each other, and they did not seem exhausted from their effort. It was as if nothing had happened at all.
When Kanna finally glanced over her shoulder, through the stone threshold she had left behind, she found Goda still kneeling in the same place as before—but bathed in dust instead of water.
A grin had spread on her master’s face.
“Are you sure you’re awake now, Kanna Rava?”
* * *
When Kanna stepped back out through the gate, fully dressed in white, she refused to look at Goda. Her stare fixed at the ground, she sensed Goda’s movements only by watching the tall shadow on the sand as it stretched out in front of them.
In a daze, Kanna had no idea what had just happened and she didn’t know where she could go—but she decided that she was leaving anyway, so she set her jaw and shuffled faster, pushing through the shudders that came with every gust of wind.
She did not stop even when the weight of a new burden fell on her shoulders, wrapping her in a loose cocoon. It was Goda’s outer robe, rumpled and messy over her much smaller frame, but warm enough to be an improvement as it overwhelmed her with the woman’s scent. She did not find this unpleasant in itself, but the closeness made her feel awkward. She shuddered again—this time, not for the wind.
“Cold?” Goda said, her smile faint.
“What have you done to me?” Kanna asked. It was the first phrase that rose to the top of her mind, though she did not actually know what Goda’s part was in the whole onslaught. Goda took her by the arm and cut her stride short.
“Earlier today, you said you were thirsty.”
Upon hearing that, Kanna didn’t know how to respond. “Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“No—but you wanted water, so now you’ve had some. The Goddess has blessed you, yet you still complain. Why?”
Kanna ripped her arm away and gave Goda a look of disbelief. The woman’s smile did not fade, but Kanna could not make sense of her intentions.
“I asked for a drink of water, not a freezing tidal wave.”
“I can’t imagine you brought me all the way out here just for that. What an elaborate way to humiliate someone.”
Goda huffed with amusement. “It has nothing to do with your thirst for water or your thirst for humiliation,” she said. “We’re nearly at the border, and naturally you have to face a cleanse before you cross into the Middleland. Every foreigner does.”
“Yes, of course. How else do you expect that the temple will stamp your papers? They won’t allow an unclean person into the Middleland.”
At this, Kanna narrowed her eyes. “You’ve slept on the same filthy ground as I have and been pelted by the same dust while we were in that truck, and yet they didn’t pour ice cold water over your head. It’s discrimination. And anyway, if they wanted me to bathe, they could have just said so and I would have done it myself.”
“But it wasn’t your body that they were cleansing—it was your heart.” Goda’s expression seemed entirely serious at first, so much so that Kanna almost missed the subtle wickedness that had come over the woman’s eyes.
“You must be joking.”
“Not at all. You went through the cleanse, and now you will be quarantined for three nights. We’ll have to wait here while they observe you for signs of Death.”
“Signs of…of what? Well, clearly, I’m not dead,” Kanna protested, a bit offended that Goda seemed to imply that she might have been carrying some disease. “As far as I know, there’s only one sign of that, and if I’m speaking to you, then we can rule it out.”
“No, they can tell you’re alive. They just want to make sure you’re not carrying Death Flower in you.”
“They’re looking for drugs?”
“Oh yes. Death is extremely illegal in the Middleland. People try to smuggle it in using different methods, but we can at least tell if someone has swallowed it recently by putting them through a cleanse. Those under the influence can’t regulate their body temperature very well, and so they become ill from the cold water.”
Kanna wrinkled her brow. “I would never eat Death Flower. What kind of person do you take me for, a Lowerland savage?”
Goda laughed at this. “It’s more than just the savages who eat Flower. Otherwise, the government wouldn’t have bothered to make it illegal.” She had already begun to shuffle away towards the truck, so Kanna picked up her own pace to follow.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Goda responded without turning around, “that the only things that are illegal are things that people would actually want to do.”
“I heard that eating Death Flower is extremely risky, that it can kill you if you have too much, and you can never tell how much is enough. Why on Earth would someone want to die?” She asked this, but a part of her regretted it because she had already flirted with the answer herself in recent weeks, and it was something she preferred to forget.
“You’d be surprised,” Goda said—but she didn’t explain any more, and once they reached the truck, she opened the back tailgate, which creaked and wobbled as much as the passenger door had. She pulled a pair of empty wooden buckets down from the bed and slammed the gate closed with her knee. “Come.” She tipped her head towards a sandy mound in the distance. “There’s a wellspring on that hill. Let’s go fetch some water.”
“Oh, I think I’ve had my fill of water today.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s not for you.”
Kanna stood there for awhile, watching Goda walk off into the dusty clearing. It wasn’t that she was refusing to follow exactly, it was simply that it bothered her that Goda had assumed that she would. But as soon as the woman was far enough away, Kanna felt the early sting of warning radiating from her wrist and she remembered that they were still joined by the cuffs—so she chased after her.
When Kanna caught up, they were only a few seconds’ walk from the foot of the hill.
“Who is the water for, then?” Kanna asked once she had caught her breath.
Goda nodded in the direction of a small cabin that sat opposite the temple. Kanna hadn’t noticed it before—but, then again, she had been too distracted to take a good look at their surroundings.
“For the woman who lives in that house. It’s actually an inn, and it’s our best bet for accommodations. She doesn’t like tending to porters, though, and she hates foreigners—even though she married one—so we’ll have to appease her with something.”
Goda pressed her boot against the sand at the bottom of the hill and some of it crumbled below her feet. It was smooth and flowed almost like water, but she stepped up onto the unstable ground with little hesitation nonetheless. Once she was a few paces up the hill, she glanced briefly over her shoulder and waited for Kanna to find stable footing before she continued the march.
“We’re going to appease her with two buckets of well water?” Kanna asked. She thought this sounded odd, but it was true that they were in a desert. Perhaps water meant more in a desert than it did in the meadows of the Northern Upperlands.
“She’s lazy about climbing the hill and squeezing the pump,” Goda said. “She tends to wait until the last minute, after she’s used up every drop, and then she’s so thirsty that the trip up here is even more unpleasant.”
“It sounds like you know her rather well.”
“We’re loosely acquainted.” Goda reached a steep section and pressed one of the buckets onto the ground to ease her balance. “I’ve stayed on her property many times when I’ve come to this border crossing because I can’t stay in the monastery like many people do.”
Noticing then that Kanna struggled, she dropped one bucket into the other and with her free hand helped Kanna climb up. They stood side by side on a flatter section of the hill, and from this higher vantage point, Kanna could see the building beyond the two towers and the courtyard where she had been assaulted by the women in black.
“A monastery,” Kanna said. “Then there must be a temple here. Those were Maharan priestesses, weren’t they?”
“That they were.”
“That’s right, I remember that you stayed behind when I crossed onto the temple grounds—but why is it that I could go in and you couldn’t?”
Goda pressed a hand into the earth and climbed onward. “Let’s just say that I’m also unclean,” she told Kanna with a pained smile, “but it’s not the kind of dirt that can be cleansed with a splash of cold water.”
Before long, they had reached the top of the hill, and though the ground had turned rockier, Kanna could see a small ring of green at the center of the summit. In the middle of the weeds, there was a rusted well pump and nothing else.
Goda grasped the lever with one hand and pushed her weight into it. It gave an angry creak, but cooperated anyway, and before long Goda’s arm and the handle of the pump seemed to meld into one machine. The tunic that Goda wore beneath her outer robes had no sleeves, and the sun was still bright, so soon enough Kanna could see the sweat of the woman’s effort forming on her skin.
Goda’s shoulders flexed tightly as she pulled the lever up, and when the handle reached its peak, she drove it hard back towards the ground, as if she were about to plunge her body into the earth. She grunted softly with mild effort, a sound that seemed meant to coax the rush of water. She looked completely absorbed, completely blind to Kanna’s presence.
Kanna fought the urge to step back. It made no sense, but it felt like she was watching something private, something she shouldn’t have been seeing at all. Don’t be ridiculous, Kanna thought to herself the moment she became conscious of the images that her mind was conjuring up. She’s just pumping water. And yet Kanna couldn’t understand why something so mundane could also appear so obscene.
She slithered out of the robes that Goda had covered her in, because she had become too warm for them all of a sudden and the way they smelled had grown too distracting. The wind quickly gusted against her and cooled her down. She had averted her eyes at some point, but when she looked back up, the scene appeared to change, and instead of a woman driving her body into the earth, Kanna merely saw a woman pumping water into a bucket.
The desert is making me delirious already, Kanna thought—but it was late wintertime and the weather had been cool, with the first warmth of spring yet to show itself. What bothered Kanna more was that her body seemed unable to make up its mind: Was she cold or was she hot? Maybe I did eat Death Flower and didn’t realize it.
When the buckets were filled, Goda handed one to Kanna. Kanna nearly stumbled as she took on the burden and she had to grip the handle with both hands to keep from dropping it.
“Don’t worry,” Goda said as she passed, picking her outer robes off the ground where Kanna had left them, draping them back over her own shoulders with a sweep of her arm. “It’s a lot easier on the way down.”
“Why are you giving this to me?”
Goda smiled and trudged back down the hill, the overfull bucket in her left hand putting her only slightly off balance. “To give you some work. You’re a slave after all.”
* * *
Goda knocked the door of the cabin with the side of her fist, hard enough that it made the whole thing shake. This seemed extremely rude to Kanna, but she said nothing, and she wondered if it was simply another one of the strange Middleland customs that she didn’t know about.
“Always remove your shoes before you go into any Middlelander’s house,” Goda had instructed her when they had been making their way back down the hill. “Don’t point to any of her possessions directly with your finger. Don’t call her by her given name unless she tells you to. Most of all, don’t ask about her wife or her family—you probably don’t know how to ask correctly and you’ll end up offending her.”
The way Goda had made it sound, they were already teetering on the edge of being rejected for a place to spend the night. All these extra rules had made Kanna feel a bit uneasy. She wasn’t looking forward to searching for another cave and waking up again with sand in her nostrils, so she tried to look dignified by standing up as straight as she could, even with the full bucket weighing her down.
Still, her efforts made no difference. As soon as the door finally cracked open, it slammed shut again in Goda’s face, as if it were attached to a counterweight. The breeze that rushed out made Goda’s hair fly.
Goda showed no sign of frustration—or even of surprise. She merely pounded on the wood exactly as she had before, with the same unfazed expression. After another series of insistent knocks, the door opened, but the crack was even smaller this time. Kanna could see a single eye peaking out at them. “Go away, Goda,” said a voice that seemed attached to the eye.
Then the door slammed closed.
Once again, Goda knocked as if it had been the first time she had come up on the door, as if it hadn’t been shut twice in her face already. Kanna grew frustrated herself, shifting her weight from leg to leg.
“Don’t you think we should just leave her alone, then?” she whispered to Goda. “Obviously, she hates you.”
“Don’t be silly. She just needs to make a token effort to turn me away, so that then she can tell people that I wore her down and forced her to let me in.”
The door opened yet again, enough that Kanna could see half of a woman with tan skin and a middle-aged face. Her hair was curled and it fell over her eyes and hid some of the details of her features. She looked impatient. Kanna had the distinct impression that they had interrupted something.
“Didn’t you hear me, Goda? Go away. I can’t have any more criminals staying at my inn, and that’s all you ever bring here—thieves and drug dealers and blasphemers. It’s bad for business! What are people going to think when they see that you’re always loitering at my cabin?”
Goda lifted her bucket of water. “I’ve brought you a gift.”
“As if I couldn’t go up that hill and fetch it myself anytime I want. You haven’t saved me any trouble.”
“You seem a bit more disagreeable than usual,” Goda said with a touch of curiosity. She had the tone of someone trying to diagnose a mechanical failure. She tilted her head and peered through the door, past the woman and into the house. “Ah, there’s someone in there with you. Is it your wife?”
“No. My wife is in the Middleland. She had to go across the border to fulfill her residency requirements and she can’t come back yet.”
Goda craned her neck a little more, and the woman shuffled to step in her way and block her view.
“Then she’s a citizen now, is she?”
“Well, almost. She’ll have her papers in less than a month.” Though the woman had responded, she sounded aggravated with all the small talk. “Why should you care anyway, Goda? Are you going to send her a letter of congratulations and a bouquet of flowers?”
Goda smirked and glanced down at an empty basin that was near the door. “I see that you’re out of water, so I’ll leave this here.” She dropped the bucket. “We’re not trying to cause any trouble. If you’re too embarrassed to accommodate us, then I can just take my slave out to the back, and we can spend the night in the storage room. I remember the combination on the lock.”
Before the woman could even reply, Goda began walking. Kanna glanced back and forth between Goda and the angry woman behind the door, and not knowing what else to do, she followed her master’s stride. Before she left, she tipped her head in a slight bow, but the response from the woman was simply a glare.
“I don’t owe you any favors, Goda,” the woman called after them. “Go find some hole in the desert to sleep in, and take that little outsider with you.”
Goda stopped. She did it so abruptly that Kanna nearly ran into her, nearly spilled the contents of the bucket that she was still holding.
“Don’t worry, Jaya,” Goda said, glancing over her shoulder with a neutral expression. “I won’t mention anything to the priestesses about who I saw in your cabin. The Goddess frowns upon gossip, after all.”
The woman in the crack of the door said nothing for a long moment. Her face had turned a bit pale. “Go to hell,” she said finally—then she added, “I’ll bring you the towels and linens in the evening, so don’t come looking for them inside. And don’t make a mess of the place, for God’s sake.”
With that, she slammed the door a final time, and the force sent a rush of sand skidding across Kanna’s feet.