A forked tongue made of stone brushed the side of her face and her gaze spilled into the spiral below her, which turned like a drill digging endlessly into the ground. The whining in her ears evolved into grinding, and she felt the vibration of that drill shaking through the very core of her bones.
But then three hands came upon her at the same time. One shot in from the side and collided with her breast bone and shoved her away from the void below her. The other two came from behind, a pair of arms that wrapped around her middle and yanked her back.
It all happened so fast that Kanna could barely keep her footing, and she found that she had to surrender to the movement and slide backwards with whatever force was pulling her just so that she could keep from falling. In front of her, the wrathful face of Goda Brahm filled up her view, and the giant was now pressing both palms to Kanna’s shoulders and rushing forward against her. The giant’s robes waved around in all directions with the speed of her motions, like an undulating ocean.
Kanna saw the snake shrinking away behind Goda’s shoulder. She felt herself pass through a doorway, the pair of arms still tugging her from behind with a gentleness that did not match the giant’s shoves in the least.
When Kanna realized she was being pulled into a dim hallway, being swallowed by a space where none of the sunlight fell, she let out a screech. “No!” Her force of will had finally returned and overwhelmed her surprise, but the flow did not stop. Instead, she felt one of the hands that was pulling her rise up to cover her mouth instead.
“Shhh!” A breath came from behind her and fell warmly on her neck and made Kanna break into a fit of shudders. The fingers against her lips were small, much more delicate than the giant’s monstrous hands, so it made Kanna think twice about biting them.
The door slammed closed on its own, and with it, the red light of the sun disappeared. That rattling thud of finality seemed to break up the motion of Kanna’s captors, and they slid across the floor and came to a stop in the middle of a corridor. The walls were lined up and down with dozens of doors. Electric lamps flickered from above.
Those thin arms were still wrapped around her, even though the hand had fallen from her mouth, so Kanna twisted her head to offer their owner an angry look. Instead of screaming obscenities, however, Kanna found herself frozen yet again. A pair of wide awake eyes gazed down upon her, and they carried the light of that same smile Kanna had seen in the doorway. They were contrasted by the severity of the woman’s hair, which was pulled back in a tight bun, with only a few stray strands swirling rebelliously along her wide forehead.
She was so beautiful that Kanna was momentarily dumbfounded. The annoyance dissipated. Kanna stared at the woman and the woman stared back.
“We could hear you all the way down the hall, silly,” the stranger told her. “You’ve made your point already.”
The woman spoke in the Middlelander tongue, but her accent was not native at all. Her features seemed foreign, too, and though the yellow light of the overhead lamps framed her face as she looked down at Kanna, she was not very high up, only half a head taller.
“Who…?” Kanna mumbled when her mouth finally worked again.
“Indeed, who?” the woman asked with a grin. “What’s all this I see here?”
“All of this is Kanna Rava.” Goda’s voice came from a pace or two away. It sounded suddenly jarring to Kanna, overwhelming in how it filled the space compared to the soft tone and the feminine pitch of the woman who was holding her. On top of that, the phrase itself seemed accusatory, but Kanna was too confused to be offended.
The stranger looked up towards the giant. “I wondered when you two would turn up. I thought it would be soon, but you know how the Mother never tells you exactly when. What’s the story this time? Do you have one ready or do I need to make it up?”
“I’m not good at stories.” Goda untied the lip of the satchel and offered a rumpled piece of paper to the woman, who accepted it with the same hand that had shuttered Kanna’s mouth. Because she held the page up over Kanna’s head, Kanna could not clearly see what was on it, but the light that flowed through the paper showed some vague scribbles from below.
“How’s this supposed to help? It’s nonsense.”
Kanna turned to find that Goda was smirking. “Isn’t it your job to turn my nonsense into sense, Lila?” the giant said.
“Hm. You bring me a lot of trouble—but it’s interesting trouble.” She handed the sheet back to Goda. “I’ll figure it out along the way, and then after you see what I’ve done with it, you can tell me if I should try something else.”
Kanna glanced between the both of them, so perplexed that even her snakes appeared to be speechless.
“This one doesn’t like to play much,” Goda said, leading them down the corridor until it broke into two other hallways. Both sides looked identical to Kanna, with all the doors painted white, all the walls painted white, all the ceiling and floor tiles blank of any features. “Remember that she takes everything seriously, so avoid offending her if you can, because she will quickly turn loud and self-righteous, and it will make our job much harder.”
Kanna raised an eyebrow. She had no idea to whom Goda was talking to or to whom Goda was referring; but then the strange woman—who was ushering Kanna forward now—replied with an amused tone of voice:
“I’ve seen worse.”
“True. At least this one is not always controlled by her snakes. There are moments of lucidity where she wakes up from the dream; there were many cracks already in her that let in the light. If that had not been the case, this would have been near impossible.”
The three of them slid towards the hallway on the right, as if they were a single unit, and Kanna could not tell anymore which of her captors had moved in that direction first.
“Your hollering put my direct superior on alert,” the woman named Lila murmured in a hushed voice. “She sent me to find out what all the ruckus was, so I suppose I’ll have to come up with some excuse for it. She already has a prejudice against foreigners and slaves, as so many in her position typically do, and it won’t help if the girl just reinforces them. We’ll have to smooth it over with something.”
“You’re the one with the stories. Just play your game and I’ll give you the fuel for it.”
Every door looked the same. There were no labels in Middlelander, no difference in the size of their frames or in the color of the brass that made up the doorknobs. The only tiny variation that Kanna could tell were some markings in the upper right corner near each one. It looked like some sort of tally system, but Kanna could not read it and she wondered if they were purposefully encoded to be obscure to her. They seemed to have significance to the woman named Lila, though, who had let go of Kanna to move closer to the doors and scan the marks as they walked.
The monotony had not served to calm her and Kanna felt that strange feeling from before returning, the feeling she had sensed in the caverns and in the spiral at the core of the staircase. The emptiness was spreading, and along with it, her snakes were growing agitated. The whining sound filled her ears again and rattled her bones, but she tried her best to ignore it. Kanna’s rope trailed along the floor behind her since none of the four hands nearby seemed keen on holding it anymore.
When they finally stopped by one of the cloned doors, Kanna noticed for the first time the sharp angles of the strange woman’s clothes. The fabric spread all the way down to the woman’s feet, a bit too long to match her short stature, so that the edges dragged on the floor.
They were the robes of a bureaucrat—tailored to suit the frame of a foreigner. Kanna raised her eyebrows, astonished at the contradiction, and a bit wary because every bureaucrat she had ever met had always dripped with slime, had always written stories about her and forced her to sign them.
The woman named Lila glanced towards her just before she turned the doorknob. “Everything I’m about to say in this room will be a lie, an illusion,” she whispered to Kanna, “but that’s no different from everything you’ve ever said about yourself. It’s just that my lies are more fun. I suggest you stick with mine over yours.”
When Lila opened the door, and when Kanna’s eyes adjusted to the brighter lamps inside, she could see a dozen human faces turning towards her all at once, and this sent another rush of fear through her. Her snakes all vibrated with sickly energy. The lamps pulsed above her.
Just as something in the pit of Kanna’s stomach cracked open, the light split up into hundreds of separate colors and rained all over the windowless room, all over the faces in front of her. And then these faces transformed into all manner of strange animal: lions, bears, birds, amphibian beasts—all the creatures she had seen lining the walls of the spiral. They frightened her enough that she resisted stumbling through the door, even though she felt Goda pushing from behind, even though most of them gave her a curious gaze with no overt malice.
At the very back of the room, however, beside a spreading desk, stood the most frightening of them all. It was a woman with her arms crossed and her weight shifting impatiently from leg to leg as if the ground on either side of her were hot with magma. She was wearing a worker’s uniform, overalls that covered her from neck to ankle—but her face was naked with a seething anger and her head had the shape of a dragon.
In the woman’s eyes, Kanna could see thousands of dancing snakes, each breathing fire, each with even more serpents writhing in each of their own eyes, and with more snakes in each of those, endlessly. The image seemed to swirl on and on, pushing deeper and deeper the more Kanna stared with horror, and Kanna could feel the mess of twisting scales as if they were rasping against her own skin.
Kanna fell to the floor in tears because something in her mind had flickered with understanding, something inside of her had immediately known.
She had recognized her new master.
* * *
The colors and shapes of the monsters dissolved moments later, so that every face became human again, and the room turned white and sterile, but the cruel gaze of the Middlelander who stood in the front had not wavered. She had not noticed Kanna at first. She seemed preoccupied with the rest of the prisoners instead, her discontented gaze floating from slave to slave.
Kanna’s tears kept falling; her heart was racing; every shred of life in her—the snakes and everything else—was shuddering with horror. She felt her body heaving, and she could barely suppress the purging sensation that powered through her.
I’m leaving with that woman!
I’m leaving with that woman!
She’s the one! I know it!
Her muscles locked and she squeezed her eyes shut. She felt like she had been led to the edge of a gallows, that she was staring finally into the loop of a noose.
Goda had picked Kanna up. She had carried her into one of the few empty chairs in the corner of the room, and she had sat Kanna upright in her lap, wrapped her in a tight embrace, pressed her mouth against a spot behind one of Kanna’s ears.
At first, Kanna could not tell where the humming was coming from. It sounded far away, like it had in the cavern that night that she had faced the snakes outside of Karo. As she felt Goda’s hand pressing gently against her spine, straightening her posture so that her tailbone pushed back between Goda’s legs, she realized that the giant was chanting something against the bones of her skull.
Kanna could not make sense of the words.
Sammaaaaa aahn maharaaaa…
Sammmaaaa aahann maharaaaa…
Her brain tried to hear it in Middlelander, but the hum was very quiet and the din in the room almost drowned it out even though Goda’s breath was falling directly on the back of her ear. The giant loosened her grip a little, though she still held Kanna against her chest, and she began to rock forward and back, chanting, her voice deep and slow and sending sparks down the skin of Kanna’s neck.
Kanna opened her eyes. She had jammed them shut at some point, but as Goda rocked together with her, she felt them slide open on their own, and a watery image of the room came rushing to her.
The foreign bureaucrat—the one named Lila—was standing nearby with a face of concern. Beyond her, the room was crowded with several rows of chairs, most of them filled with bodies uncomfortably twisting against each other, lined up in series of four or five or six, bound together with chains or cuffs. Apart from the three porters, who were busy filling out paperwork and had typically Middlelander looks, all of the people in the room had foreign faces. They appeared to be Outerlanders like the Lila woman was, and the wave of despair that collectively oozed from them was like a living entity on its own. It made the tears in Kanna’s eyes swell even more, made everyone’s faces even more distorted.
“What is that? What’s going on back there in the corner?” A voice rose up over the din. It came from a Middlelander woman in bureaucratic robes who sat behind the front desk. Her pen had paused over a stack of papers—one of the many hundreds of pages smeared all over the desk—and she was tilting her head to catch sight of Kanna over the crowd. “Junior Administrator Hadd, who did you just bring in here?”
This seemed to catch the interest of the dragon woman as well. “Is that the Upperlander they told me they were giving me? What the hell’s wrong with her?”
“She’s prone to fainting spells,” Goda said, loudly enough that it rumbled over the din. Her husky voice had transitioned from the hums to a normal cadence in Middlelander, and Kanna could now parse what she was saying.
“Indeed, it seems that she started fainting while climbing the steps and she nearly fell down the stairs,” Lila added. “It was a struggle to get her back onto her feet.”
Kanna’s new master huffed, and her jaw tightened with impatience. “Great, that’s exactly what I need right now, a worker who keels over from the effort of putting one foot over another! Why are they sending me all these weaklings lately? How am I supposed to get anything done when so many of them just roll over and die with hardly any provocation?”
“Quiet!” This time, it was the woman behind the desk who piped up again. Her face was not very friendly, either, but at least her ire seemed directed towards the other Middlelander at the front of the room. “We’re doing the best we can here with what we’ve got. We’re already swamped as it is trying to figure out where to put all these new slaves. She’s an Upperlander. It’s not like she can go anywhere else besides your factory. It’s not like she knows how to do anything more useful.”
“Well, then she can go back to wherever the hell she came from with those tiny little hands and that pale little face. I’m sick of all these foreigners. They’re more trouble than they’re worth. It’s not free labor if they’re constantly holding up production.” The woman glanced up at the clock on the wall. “How much longer until we can take them to get de-cuffed? I don’t have all day here. Every moment I’m at this place is a moment I’m leaving my factory in the hands of the junior supervisors, and that’s already making me nervous.”
The Middlelander bureaucrat narrowed her eyes. “You’re complaining that I’m wasting your time, and yet here you are wasting mine. Just take the girl. I’ll sign her off right now. Put her in your lightest position with the easiest work. If she can’t handle it, she’ll collapse eventually and you can send her to Suda’s confinement center to recover and she’ll be out of your hair.”
“Or I can have her hauling heavy canisters of fuel in the sun, and she can burn out on the first day, then I won’t have to deal with her hardly at all. Let me look her over, see how long she might last.” Kanna’s new master took a few steps deeper into the room, and her posture was threatening enough that the bit of tranquility that Goda’s hums had offered were quickly overridden by another wave of fear.
Kanna cried out. She pressed her joined hands to her face and turned away, even as she heard the woman’s stomping footfalls coming closer.
“Not so fast.” Goda’s voice boomed from behind Kanna’s head.
“Who are you to talk to me like that, Porter? She’s not your problem anymore, so mind your own business.” There was a pause, but Kanna could not see the woman’s expression because she had turned around to tuck her face into Goda’s chest. “Why the hell is she clinging to you like that, anyway?”
It was Lila who answered, “It appears that she’s sickly. She’s been unsteady on her feet.”
“I’ll be the judge of that myself, thanks.” Kanna felt a large hand gripping her by the back collar of her robes and she screamed into Goda’s chest, her tears bursting anew. The fingers were cold when they hooked into the fabric and brushed against her neck. Then the hand jerked her back, and although the face of Goda Brahm swam into her vision again, Kanna was filled with terror because that last source of comfort started to pull away quickly.
But the giant held a faint smile on her face. Kanna couldn’t understand it.
“Turn around and look at your master,” Goda murmured to her, as if to point out something that Kanna had been missing. The hum had returned to her voice. It made Kanna’s bones feel like they were vibrating with an external energy that came from somewhere other than herself, other than Goda, even.
And so Kanna turned. She met eyes with the monster who had been accosting her. She recoiled with fear, with the urge to retreat or claw at the woman’s face, but she managed to stay facing her, to take in her features clearly, to notice the lines of her jaw and the pores of her skin the same way she had stared so many times at the giant.
It was unpleasant. It made her stomach drop. It sent a searing shock through her muscles, as if the cuff were giving her a fiery jolt.
But she was able to do it. She widened her eyes at the woman, and to Kanna’s surprise, her new master jerked back with her own swell of discomfort, of astonishment. She dropped her hand from Kanna’s collar; she recovered quickly, but the ferocity on her face was greatly dampened.
The fangs of the snake had grown dull.
“What’s wrong with her face?” the woman spat. “Why do her eyes look like that? Are all the Ravas this ugly?”
Lila chuckled and pressed a hand to the woman’s shoulder, as if to gently push her back some more. “Now you’re the one holding us up with nonsense.”
“I would certainly agree, Junior Hadd,” the other bureaucrat called from the front of the room. She was watching the scene carefully, even while she was squaring a stack of papers with her hands.
Kanna’s new master made a twisted face and reached for Kanna once again.
“Not so fast,” Goda repeated.
“Listen, Porter, I don’t know who you think you are, but—”
“Don’t forget to take her luggage with you.” Goda let go of Kanna and reached towards the floor to grab her satchel by the strap. She offered it over Kanna’s shoulder, towards the monster who stared down at them with another burst of confusion.
Still, the dragon woman took it, because now that her fist was empty, she seemed to need something else to clench with it. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”
Kanna also glanced at Goda with uncertainty, wavering between the immediate urge to disown Goda’s bag—considering its possible contents—and the curiosity surrounding what such a lie might mean.
“Luggage?” The senior bureaucrat who had been watching them broke through their shared silence. She shook her head with a sigh, rustling through some random pages on the desk. “But this is Kanna Rava, isn’t it? None of the paperwork says she carried any possessions with her. We’re going to have to list each of the items before we send her off, then. Bring the baggage to me so that I can catalog it on these forms.”
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Kanna’s master said. “Are we really going to be here all day playing a game of show and tell? Can’t we skip the endless bureaucracy just this once?”
Lila snatched the bag from the woman’s hands, though, and she pushed past the woman to walk up to the front desk. Kanna tried to watch what was spilling onto the tabletop from Goda’s satchel, but her new master blocked the view when she leaned in and started scrutinizing Kanna’s face with renewed effort.
This time, Kanna didn’t hesitate. She glanced directly into the woman’s eyes, and though she felt the waves of fear rising and falling inside her as she did it, she also watched the huge woman shrink some more and become less monstrous in the angles of her face. Even the master’s teeth seemed to be less sharp this time when she grimaced.
“Almighty Mahara, I don’t think I can stare at this girl’s face all day. She gives me the creeps. I’ll have to make her work outside after all. Maybe I’ll throw her in one of the solitary confinement chambers so she’s not milling around so much on her off time, either.”
Kanna let out a small gasp, more resistance coming into her bones, more tears rising at the images that flowed into her mind from hearing those words, but then she felt Goda’s lips falling behind her ear again. Goda hummed. She hummed until a much louder voice rang across the room and broke through the rumble of the giant’s lungs.
“Kanna Rava!” The call shot across the crowd and even cut between her and her new master, so that the dragon woman stood to the side. Because the tone seemed accusatory, Kanna summoned all of her courage to lift her head up and face its source.
The Middlelander at the front of the room—Lila’s senior—was holding up a crumpled sheet of paper with a look of urgency on her face. “Child, did you write this?” she said. She waved the paper around, and Kanna’s eyes widened when she realized it had been the Old Middlelander script that she had copied from Parama’s textbook. She had no idea what she had written on all those pages—they had just been drills to practice the shapes of the characters—but now that the woman was staring at her with what seemed like anger, she couldn’t help but wonder if it had been something inadvertently offensive. “And this? Is this yours?” The bureaucrat held up Goda’s unfurled scroll with a similarly intense gaze.
The scroll. The scroll with the Flower recipe on it.
Surely, Kanna was about to die. With everything else they had already accused her of, she could only imagine what would happen to her if they also charged her with possessing such contraband. She could only imagine what else was in the bag to go along with it, too—pouches filled with Flower, tools for making brew, suspicious herbs that may have been illegal as well. Even just a handful of those things would probably be enough to extend her sentence indefinitely, if not give them an excuse to execute her altogether.
And it wasn’t like her new master would object. If anything, Kanna’s life seemed inconvenient to her anyway.
In a panic, Kanna opened her mouth to disown the satchel, to distance herself from the scratch paper and the scroll and whatever unknowns lay in that mysterious bag—but then she thought about Goda.
If it wasn’t Kanna Rava’s bag, then surely the bag belonged to Goda Brahm, and if she denied that it was hers, then it meant all the contents—all the Flower—were possessions of the giant.
They would definitely kill Goda for that. There was no question about it. With wide eyes, Kanna turned to look at Goda Brahm in the face, expecting to see some shred of uncertainty or surprise or some clue about what to do, but instead she found that same quiet smile, those same empty eyes.
I’m going to kill you, aren’t I? Kanna remembered herself saying the night before.
But why did it have to be like this? Why had Goda done this to her? Did the giant mean to torture Kanna to the very last moment with such a choice?
Of course, there really was no choice. This time, it was very plain. There was no shred of ambiguity: either she died or Goda did.
“Kanna Rava, Kanna Rava!” The voices behind her wanted an answer, but Kanna kept her stare locked on Goda, kept her teeth gritted. She felt the swells of fear undulating inside of her—but there was something else in there, too, something that dripped into the fear and colored it with conflicting shades until it had started to transform into…nothing.
The fear became nothing. It was the same nothing that always vibrated in Goda’s eyes, the nothing that somehow still had character, the white light that held no color and no features and yet constantly gave birth to every color in every moment.
She could not let that light die out.
She turned around to face the woman who was calling Kanna Rava’s name. The rest of the people in the room disappeared from her vision. She even forgot all about the demon that had been hovering nearby.
Kanna straightened her spine, tipped her chin up so that her head felt like it was floating weightlessly on her neck.
“It’s mine,” Kanna said. “Everything in that bag is mine.”
She would change the course of the future, Kanna thought, whether the giant wanted it or not.
She didn’t realize that the body of the giant had been slightly tense until she felt it relaxing around her. Goda’s lips pressed again to the back of her skull.
“Die, Kanna Rava, die…,” the giant whispered. Even though her voice was a low hum, Kanna could hear that it was gleeful, joyous.
Kanna’s astonishment was matched by the widened eyes of the woman at the front of the room. The bureaucrat was shaking her head, gesturing towards the door.
“Take all of this and get her out of here!” She pushed Goda’s satchel and all its littered contents across the table towards Lila, then began furiously scribbling on a form that she produced from inside a drawer. She dropped the page on top just as Lila started loading up the bag, then threw her palms up. “Show the Senior Administrator in Charge of Foreign Criminals everything we’ve seen and she’ll decide what to do. She can stamp my suggestion on the form, but I obviously can’t make the final decision. This child’s fate is beyond my responsibility and I don’t have time to deal with something like this! Get out, get out!”
* * *
This time, it was Lila who took Kanna by the arm and began leading her through the labyrinth of hallways. Kanna didn’t fight it anymore; she had made her decision and surrendered to her fate; she stared down at the ground, not caring where they were going, the doors rushing past the corners of her eyes on either side of her. The bordering cracks of some of them were lit from behind, and others were dim, so the constant flashing made her blink with discomfort.
She had not looked at Goda since they left the office. She may have loved the giant, but it tore her to pieces inside to know that the love was not returned, and that Goda had orchestrated some bizarre plan to do her in. She couldn’t understand why—except that maybe the giant was obsessed with death the way Priestess Rem had warned her, and that the giant had sought to push Kanna closer to her own demise as some kind of perverse favor—but everything else had been so meaningless, that the reason why seemed to hardly matter anymore.
Kanna’s tears still came, fat drops that smashed onto the floor with every step. The giant had won after all. Her sadism had surpassed Kanna’s masochism by far; she had induced Kanna to surrender, to accept her own death, even when Kanna had resisted and sworn to the heavens that she would never give in.
Kanna did not look up until they came upon the end of a corridor and stood in front of a wide door. For once, it was different from all the rest, and it was bordered with thin wood carvings, with the tiny shapes of animals that Kanna could just barely make out in the dim shine of a nearby lamp.
The glow that came out from between the cracks was brighter, too. When they opened the door and Lila ushered her in, she found that the room had three spreading windows—walls made of glass that allowed her to see the outside—and that the floor was lined with polished wood that felt soft against her feet.
“The two of you can stay here, in the outer waiting room. I’ll go into the administrator’s office and see if she can decide your fate straight away. I think we’ve caught her at a good time, so it shouldn’t take long.”
She left Goda and Kanna at the threshold and headed straight forward for yet another door, and before Kanna could think of anything to ask, the Outerlander had slipped behind it and disappeared.
At first, when Goda led Kanna deeper inside and towards a chair propped up against one of the glass walls, Kanna jerked away because it offered too clear a picture of the landscape, and she felt like she would fall through it and crash dozens of stories below. Goda pushed her, though, forced her into the seat, then dropped down next to her with a thud.
Once Kanna was stable enough, she felt braver, so she turned around and gazed at the hills in the distance to avoid the giant’s face. It offered her an unexpected swell of peace. The more she grew used to it, the more it felt like she was floating in the sky.
When she finally built up the courage to look at Goda directly, the giant had a serene expression on her face, had pressed her cheek against the glass, her angular features contrasting with the fluffy white clouds that peppered the heavens.
Kanna felt a gush of raw emotion filling her chest. There were many things there, and some of them conflicted with each other, but none of them were hatred.
“I love you for no reason,” Kanna said finally. “You don’t deserve it.”
Goda’s gaze flickered away from the lands that spread out in the West, and instead she met Kanna’s eyes with that same unreadable look, that same faint smile of always. “You’re right. I don’t. I’ve done an awful thing to you.”
“You gave me no choice but to implicate myself.”
“Yes. I exploited your emotions to get you to take ownership of my baggage and everything inside of it. I’m a terrible person—but I told you this not long after you met me, and so this should come as no surprise.”
“Everything you do is surprising to me.” Kanna wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She had stopped sobbing, but the heat hadn’t left her face. “The question, though, is always why. What do you even get out of this, Goda? What’s the point?”
Goda shrugged. “There is none. I exist to torture you, to bite the back of your neck and push your face into the dirt. That’s what you wanted from me, right? The morning after we met, you were thirsty, so I gave you torrents of water. Later, you were hungry, so I shoved handfuls of fruit into your mouth. Today, you wanted punishment, and so I made everything even harder for you than it already was. And yet you still complain. What do you want, Kanna Rava? What do you want from me after all?”
Kanna took in a shaky breath. She turned away from those empty eyes, stared out the glass once again. From where they were, she could see some of the forest towards the South, though she could not see the Samma River through the trees.
“I wish I could have lived a different life,” Kanna said, “but I guess wishing for that is stupid considering what I just did. Even when I knew what would happen, I still chose the wrong thing, and I stepped over that precipice with full intention, so I shouldn’t act surprised. I’ve had many chances to kill you, and I’ve made the wrong choice again and again, entirely on purpose. Maybe now I understand why you did what you did nine years ago, why you threw away your whole life and that cushy job as a gardener on a picturesque mountainside so that you could end the suffering that followed you everywhere you went. You couldn’t watch her in pain, just as I could never watch you suffer, either.”
Kanna noticed Goda’s stare in the faint reflection of the glass, and it made the giant’s features appear as if they were projected onto the sky.
“Looks can be deceiving. That picturesque mountainside is not at all what it seemed, even in your visions. It had something else bubbling beneath the surface; you just never realized it.”
And so Kanna tilted her gaze towards the giant squarely once again. She pressed her head to the glass. “What does that mean?”
“You were on a volcano.” Goda’s smirk grew more obvious when Kanna reacted with surprise. “The monastery at Samma Valley is built on the side of it, not far from its ancient crater. The temple, the mountain passes, the quaint little cabins you must have seen—they are all perched above an earth swelling with magma. That energy is what warms the hot springs that the priestesses bathe in.”
Kanna raised her eyebrows, confused again with Goda’s intentions. It did color her memories of the visions with a slightly more frightening edge, but it hardly mattered anymore, especially since they had only been dreams and she had never really set foot there. “Why are you bothering to tell me this now?”
“Because, you should know the truth. People talk about her even though they’ve never met her. They underestimate her because she looks small compared to other mountains, but of course this doesn’t matter because she has access to the core of the earth all the same. They say she’s dormant, but she’s not completely. She burps up steam every once in awhile and she rumbles sometimes, too. She’s alive—and she’s pregnant with thousands of children. Those rivers of molten rock twist and writhe within her like white-hot snakes. But snakes are not all bad. They’re nothing to be ashamed of. They’re only bad when she can’t see them and they burst out of her uncontrollably. When they flow smoothly through her veins, though, they warm the baths for the priestesses, and their energy soothes the life in the forest, helps create more of it.”
Kanna stared at Goda’s lips as the giant told her all this. And when the silence fell over them again, she heard the words echoing in her mind. She took a breath, and let the rest of her body lean hard against the glass, as if she had given into the urge to fall through it.
“You’re not talking about a mountain at all, are you, Goda?”
The grin that came over the giant’s face served as confirmation. “Maybe not.”
It was then that a creaking sound broke through the empty space they were holding together, and they both turned their gazes towards the back of the room. In the threshold that led to the inner office stood Lila, still holding Goda’s satchel in her hand. Beside her was a Middlelander whose gaze seemed to push everything aside and land exactly where Kanna was hiding. The woman was tall, towering over Lila and seemingly taking up most of the space in the doorway—and she was big, not only because her shoulders were thick and her hips were wide, but because she was also extremely pregnant. Kanna had never seen such a massive belly in her life.
The surprise wore off within seconds, though, and Kanna felt her heart pounding in her throat, because she knew that her life was about to come crashing down around her. She stared back as bravely as she could. Not matter what her punishment would be, she knew that she could no longer resist it, that she would accept it with dignity.
Goda had seduced her and she had surrendered.
She had surrendered to the flow of life, even if it would lead to her death.
“So that’s Kanna Rava,” the Middlelander woman said. Her face held a mild edge of curiosity, but little else. “Odd face she has there. I imagined her differently.” Then she handed Lila a single sheet, seemingly the form that they had carried in with them from the other office. “Well, I trust you know what happens now, Junior Hadd. Bring her downstairs and they’ll take it from there. May the Goddess have mercy on her in the trying times she will face.”
Kanna swallowed past the tears when Lila walked across the room and gripped her arm to guide her up from her seat. The door shut behind them as they stepped out of the room, leaving all three of them once again in the dim, artificial light of the hallway that seemed to stretch on forever.
Even just looking at the path in front of her made her feel sick, so Kanna turned her face down to stare at the floor as she had earlier, but when she bowed her head, she was bewildered to find that Lila was slipping a sheet of paper into her joined hands.
“That’s yours to hold, Rava,” Lila told her. “You’ll have to hand it in after you get de-cuffed downstairs.”
Kanna glanced up at her with confusion, but when the woman began walking ahead with Goda, and Kanna found that they had left her with a limp rope, she finally thought to turn the page over and read what was on it.
It was a form with many boxes inked onto it, with many spaces to fill with many stories, but the lines at the bottom immediately caught her eye. Beside a fresh stamp that did not seem quite dry yet, she read:
Kanna Rava – Scribe
Samma Valley Monastery