The wind was blowing dust across the plain, and for a moment Kanna’s view of the group of women was muddied by the dirt in her eyes. She hesitated, blinked through the haze. Soon enough, she felt Goda’s presence beside her, but this time she didn’t flinch when Goda grabbed her arm, because she had already come to expect it.
Goda led her out of the truck and towards a tall threshold made of stone, which was the only break in a waist-high fence that encased a wide courtyard. The small mob shifted and reconfigured behind it, as if Kanna’s presence had energized them; and as Kanna watched those black robes whipping and billowing with movement, she noticed that most of the women were carrying large clay jars. Though she could see the ornate details of the vessels as she drew closer, she could not see what was inside them; she could only see the beginnings of a dark pit underneath each rim.
A pair of empty-handed women in white had come to flank the edges of the gateway, and their presence made her even more nervous somehow. Between them, one of the darker figures had emerged, and when Kanna noticed her face, she realized it was the same frozen smile, the same neutral stare that had met her before she stepped out of the truck.
Goda dropped to her knees in the sand. The settling dust pelted the bottom of Kanna’s legs as she started down at the porter with surprise.
“What’s going on?” Kanna whispered, leaning towards Goda. 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 see the outline of coins that had accumulated at the bottom. The metal clinked, broke the tense silence as Kanna reluctantly took it into her hand. “Put it on the ground in front of her. Don’t touch her and don’t touch any of the other ones in black. Just put it on the ground so they can get started.”
Still perplexed by the situation, Kanna stooped down in front of the stranger, but she was wary not to kneel all the way. At the line of the threshold in front of her, the loose sand ended and became the 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.
When Kanna had stepped back and made safe enough room, the woman picked up the bag, nodded her head in acknowledgement. She met Kanna’s eyes without the polite caution that a stranger usually allowed.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Kanna Rava,” she said—then she turned around and walked back towards her comrades.
Kanna raised her eyebrows. Hearing her own name had never made her 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. Those knuckles were already turning white.
Kanna shuffled back.
“Stop. Go through the gateway now.”
“What?” Kanna stared at the strangers who stared right back at her, every single one of them with a smile that seemed to have been carved out of the same stone as everything else. A wave of impatience permeated the air, but she wasn’t sure if it belonged to the group before her or to the woman who knelt beside her.
“Go. Go through the threshold now 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 disobey. 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 stone path of the courtyard, she began to turn towards Goda to throw her another glance of confusion—but she did not turn very far. She had caught some movement at the corner of her eye. She snapped her head back towards the strangers and cried out in surprise.
They were rushing her.
As if some timer had gone off, they had all simultaneously pushed forward, and before she could even consider fleeing, she felt four cold hands grasping at her arms. The two women in white had seized her.
“Goda!” she shouted. “Goda, what’s happening?”
She could no longer see her temporary master; the mob closed in and blocked the gateway to freedom behind her. In seconds, those women in white were clawing at her clothes with hungry expressions, yanking her shirt open, tossing it to the side, making quick work of the rest of her uniform—all while Kanna screeched and shuffled and fought and tried to run away.
But they were stronger. Together, the two women easily overwhelmed her, and once the layers beyond Kanna’s skin had been ripped away, her assailants let her go, and she stumbled onto the hard floor with the force of her resistance. She looked up at the crowd that surrounded her. Something in their eyes made her feel that they were aching to descend upon her and tear her apart limb by limb like a pack of cannibals.
She tried to hobble onto her feet, but before she could even straighten her knees, a freezing wave poured over the back of her body. It shocked her almost as badly as the cuff had the night before, and her muscles locked so tightly that she fell back onto the ground.
She heard a loud, heaving gasp that echoed through the courtyard. It took her a moment to realize that it had been her own. There were words, too—many voices—but she could not parse what they were because the water still flowed down her hair and rushed over her ears.
Before she had even recovered from the first freezing blow, another one came. An ice cold waterfall splashed over her head, overwhelming her body with a shudder that reached into her bones.
This time, she understood what they were shouting to her. “Awaken! Be cleansed by the Goddess!” a woman above her declared.
Then another one 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 for the Goddess Mahara! Be cleansed!”
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? Goda! Make them stop!”
But her voice cut out when she was drowned again by a vase full of water.
“Awaken!” her assailant declared.
“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 chilled to their core 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 moment passed where Kanna did not realize that she was bracing 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 bit of outside warmth came in the form of 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 noticed the path that spread between the two towers and led 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 turned to glance beyond the stone threshold, she found that Goda was still kneeling in the same place as before. A wide grin had spread on her 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. Because her stare was 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 forward. She did not stop even when she heard Goda’s smooth movements behind her, even when she heard the rustle of heavy fabric.
The weight of a new burden fell on Kanna’s shoulders, but it was warm and it had a pleasantly strong smell that she couldn’t place. A brown, rumpled mess had suddenly become her casing; she realized that Goda had taken off her own outer robes and wrapped her in them.
“Cold?” Goda said with a faint smile.
A shudder rattled through Kanna, as if in response to what Goda had asked, but she knew that this time it had nothing to do with the cold. She jerked her head away again; she trained her eyes on the expanse of the desert.
“What have you done to me?” she said. It was the first phrase that rose to the top of her mind, and she hadn’t entirely expected to say it out loud. 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 proper. Every foreigner does.”
“Yes, of course. Otherwise, how else do you expect that the temple will stamp your papers for you to cross? 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 in the wind, 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.”
Goda shook her head, something that Kanna had already started to resent. “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 anyway using various 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, our 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. Why on Earth would someone want to die?” She asked this, but a part of her regretted it because she had already learned the answer for herself in the weeks just before her arrest, and it was something she would have 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 well 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 it 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 leaned forward nonetheless, stepping up onto the unstable ground with little hesitation. 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 turned back around and 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 reached to help 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. You told me that you couldn’t go in—but why is it that I could go in, but you couldn’t?”
Goda pressed a hand into the dirt and climbed onward. “Let’s just say that I’m also unclean,” she told Kanna with a smirk, “but it’s the kind of uncleanliness that can’t be resolved with a splash of cold water.”
Before long, they had reached the top of the hill and 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 accumulating on her skin.
Her shoulders flexed tightly as she pulled the lever up, and when the handle would reach its peak, she’d drive 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. For some reason, she felt like she was watching something very private, something she shouldn’t have been seeing at all. She thought about slithering 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.
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 let the robe drop. 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 mild, the first warmth of spring still waiting to arrive. 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 when she took on the burden and she had to grip the rope handle with both hands to keep from dropping it.
“Don’t worry.” Goda said, picking her outer robes off the ground as she passed, 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 turned and began trudging back down the hill, the overfull bucket in her left hand putting her slightly off balance. “To offer you some work. You’re a slave after all.”
* * *
Goda knocked the door hard with the side of her fist, 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 shake the dirt off 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 stand up as straight as she could when the door finally creaked open, but the weight of the full bucket made it hard.
Her efforts seemed to make no difference either way. As soon as the door had cracked slightly, it had 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 was growing 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, 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 seemed to peer through the door, past the woman and into the house. “Ah, there’s someone in there with you. Is it your wife?”
“No. She’s in the Middleland, so don’t get too excited. 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, yes, she will be soon enough.” 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 you 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 had turned and begun 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 pale little outsider with you.”
Goda stopped. She did it so abruptly that Kanna nearly ran into her, nearly spilled the contents of the bucket she was still holding.
“Oh, don’t worry, Jaya,” Goda said, glancing over her shoulder with a neutral expression. “I would never mention anything to the priestesses about who I saw in your cabin. That would just be idle gossip.”
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.