Kanna could no longer fully recognize her own name. The shape of it had morphed, though she couldn’t tell how because all the glyphs were the same as before. She had read them over and over on that crumpled sheet in her hand, but on every pass, they seemed to lose more of their meaning until all she could see were crisscrossing lines of ink that carried no shred of information.
One of her tears had fallen on the edge of the page, and it had made some of the ink of her name run out of the box that had contained it, but otherwise everything looked as crisp as before in the light of the hallway. It wasn’t the paper that had lost some quality; it was she who had lost something in herself.
More resistance had broken within her. Through that crack, she felt the hollowness returning, filling her up, making her gut twist and turn with fear—but she faced that, too. Her hands trembling, she lifted her head up to look at the giant.
Goda was watching her. The giant’s mouth held a faint smile, but her eyes were empty, seeking nothing. The corridor was dead silent, so all Kanna could hear was that roaring emptiness echoing in her own ears.
Kanna ran to her. The bones in her bare feet slammed painfully into the floor, but she didn’t care. Her lungs were heaving faster and faster; her throat felt raw; the tears had started to come again. She whipped past the woman who stood between them, and when she was close enough to the giant, she reached high over her head and took Goda’s collar in her hands and yanked it down with all her strength.
The giant’s shoulders flexed in surprise, but she stooped down to accommodate the momentum of Kanna’s desperate pulling, to answer Kanna’s furious cries, to lean into all the blasphemous names that Kanna was calling her.
Once Goda had leaned far enough, Kanna stretched up and kissed Goda on the mouth with the force of every shred of anger that flowed through her. To Kanna’s surprise, the giant kissed her back, with the same shameless passion that she had offered in the woods, with the same fullness of lips and tongue and teeth that she had drowned Kanna in every time they clasped to each other.
It overwhelmed Kanna and robbed her of air, so she pulled back from the giant. She pressed her hand to her mouth because she had started bleeding after colliding with Goda’s teeth. She stared up at the giant, but everything was smeared with the warmth in her own eyes, so she knew that there was no way she was seeing things as they truly were.
“I never asked for this,” Kanna said. She still held Goda’s collar in her hands because she could not let the giant escape her again. “I never asked to be saved, you arrogant bastard. You have no right. Have you ever considered that I don’t want to live? If you think you’ve done well, and you’re standing there proud of yourself, then you’re wrong. I didn’t tell you to do any of this, so don’t expect my gratitude.”
“You do this to yourself. I am you.”
“Shut up.” Kanna pressed her face against Goda’s chest. Even more of her resistance had started to dissolve in her bones, and this scared her, but she leaned further into the body of the giant to keep herself standing. She felt Goda straightening up, becoming that thick boulder that Kanna had first noticed in the desert, but it didn’t stop her from feeling like she was melting into it, like her body was pulsing with the beat of the giant’s heart. “What good does it do me if I’m not with you?”
It was then that Kanna felt a presence hovering behind her, one that was smaller and less overwhelming than Goda’s, but nonetheless one that held some power that Kanna could not ignore. When she felt a hand reaching out from that presence to land on her shoulder, it made her lose the sensation that she was dissolving into Goda, and it jerked her back into reality at once, and it made her stiffen with discomfort.
But she made herself turn around, and she saw that it was Lila who had touched her. The woman was smiling at her, eyes attentive and radiating with emptiness, an expression not dissimilar to that of Goda Brahm. Kanna did not turn way, even though she knew that the woman was staring at her with love, even though she found this more uncomfortable and bewildering than the touch itself.
“Why is it that suddenly, I’m free from my punishment? Just like that?” Kanna found herself whispering to the woman, her voice pleading. Something in her was asking for the bureaucrat to give the resistance back, so that she could fill up the emptiness again; something in her felt that this woman had ripped the sweet torture from her grasp.
“Oh,” Lila said, her eyes wide with sadistic delight, “but this is your punishment.”
Kanna’s breath hitched. “I’m being sent to die after all?”
“No, that would be too kind. To them, you are still a slave and they are forcing you to work. Worse, you’re being sent to a place where no one wants to go and being made to do a job that no one knows how to do.” Lila’s hand came to press against the side of Kanna’s face; it was warm, soft. It was the uncalloused hand of someone who had never worked in a field and had rarely lifted anything heavier than a pen, but somehow it did not feel at all weak. “They’ve been trying to fill this position for three years. Tell me, what kind of person would be educated enough to know Upperlander, as well as both modern and ancient Middlelander, but still be willing to brave the wilderness of Samma? Don’t worry. They won’t know your secret. They don’t realize that it’s not a wilderness to you, but rather a garden. They can’t fathom that you could ever be happy with anything they offer you, that you could be free in your slavery.”
“But I don’t understand ancient Middlelander. All I know is what I copied from a book.” Kanna was shaking her head. “And the scroll, surely that was filled with blasphemous words that could have gotten me….”
“Those bureaucrats can’t read Old Middlelander any better than you can—the difference is that you’re willing to admit it, while they’re only too happy to save face by never asking what it says.” Lila’s smile grew ever more playful. “I even added things myself just for fun. ‘Oh, isn’t it interesting how the Upperlander girl was translating this devotional scroll to the Goddess? I wonder when she converted to the Cult of Mahara.’ They nodded and looked at the scroll with the severity of priestesses. They’ve grown so adept at aping religious reverence that the only things giving them away are their furtive glances to see if I buy it. Vanity may seem to have no purpose or to even be evil, but today vanity saved your life. So you see, all of the Goddess’s creations are good, even human weakness.”
Kanna stared at her, astonished. “Who are you?”
She knew that the woman was a bureaucrat who had the features of an Outerlander, and at first that had been enough, but clearly something else was happening beneath the surface, something Kanna had missed.
Lila’s expression turned coy, mysterious. “Me? Oh, I’m nobody. Nobody at all. I’ve just learned how to play the Middlelander game very well, so today I’ve been useful to you.” She tipped her head up then, seemed to gesture towards the giant behind Kanna. “And as a more experienced player, I’ll advise you to be a bit less…dramatic in how you show your affection. It appears that you like Goda Brahm, which is fine, but no one else should know about it from now on.”
Kanna felt a blush creeping up her neck—but even with that small bit of shame to distract her, she was unsatisfied with the woman’s response. Before she could ask anything more, though, she felt the giant’s arm wrapping around her, diving into one of her pockets.
Goda pulled out the bag of sweets that Kanna had hidden away, and she offered it to Lila.
“But those are for…,” Kanna began to say—then she stopped almost as soon as the thought had entered her head.
Jaya Hadd’s wife.
She looked at the Outerlander’s face, took in all the details of her features, but she found that the woman was peering into the pouch of sweets, too distracted to meet her gaze. “Hard on the outside, soft on the inside. How do you know exactly what I like?”
“They’re from Jaya,” Goda said. “A token of her deepest apologies. She says that you were right about everything and that she was wrong. Please return to the desert to see her. Every night I was there, she cried in my arms and told me how sorry she was.”
Kanna couldn’t fathom how the woman was supposed to swallow such a blatant lie, even told in Goda’s flat voice—which only seemed to make it sound more like a joke, really.
Sure enough, a grin broke out on Lila’s face. “Yes, yes, of course she did. Next you’re going to tell me that she actually let you inside the house. Tell me better stories, Goda Brahm. Make them believable and I might pretend that they’re true.”
“You already know I’m not good at stories.” Goda’s smile came to mirror that of Jaya’s wife, then the giant’s hand fell softly at the top of Kanna’s head. “This one lies better than I do, anyway. She’s working on her imagination and she’s eager to practice.”
“Good.” Lila Hadd fished one of the sweets from the bag and popped it into her mouth. She mashed away at it, the shell cracking loudly against her teeth, before she hid the pouch in her robes and started walking down the hall. “Kanna Rava will be exercising that talent a lot today, especially if they try to test her on any of her claims. I admit I went a little overboard when I was presenting her case. I told them she speaks Outerlander, too.”
“What?” Kanna shouted. But even as she recoiled in panic, Goda pushed her forward, and all three of them began to walk the path together.
“Calm yourself, child. There’s really no reason to fret. Hardly anyone here speaks any Outerlander, so if they’re suspicious, they’ll just try to get you to speak with me. If that happens, babble at me in an Outerlander accent and I’ll nod and pretend that it means something flattering to my superiors.”
Kanna’s eyes widened, the pounding in her heart reaching the inside of her ears. “How am I supposed to do that? I can’t just make up words out of nowhere!”
“Then we’ll speak in Upperlander,” Lila Hadd said in Kanna’s native tongue. She had switched over so suddenly, that it took a second for Kanna’s brain to adjust from the surprise, and because Kanna had been listening in Middlelander, at first all she heard were a smattering of incoherent syllables. “It’s not like they’ll know the difference if you just fake an Outerlander accent. As I already said, most of these bureaucrats love to brag about how educated they are, but the truth is that their schools hardly teach them anything about the other cultures, even when they’re on track to work with foreigners. Most of them are only here because they have status and it’s an easy job that lots of people want. Even I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, to be perfectly honest. I’ve learned a few things over the years, but I would have never been able to reach the top of this tower without family connections. What I don’t know how to do, I just fake, the same way you will be fake if anyone probes too deeply into who you actually are. Everything you see here are lies, delusions, and role plays. The bureaucracy is simply a labyrinth built to hide these lies behind complicated rules. Play along and never let them suspect that you realize this, that you don’t worship the same Goddess they do, which is not Holy Mahara at all, but rather an idol made entirely of their own self-delusion. That is their true religion. Delude yourself like they do, and the doors of paradise will open for you, child.”
Even with the woman’s poor pronunciation—which made Kanna have to strain to make sense of each phrase—the bluntness of the entire rant, the crude language that had flowed out of the woman’s mouth so casually, made Kanna stiffen with shock. Still, the sound of the Upperlander tongue was sweet to Kanna’s ears, like an old friend she hadn’t heard speak in a long time. She followed Lila Hadd down the path and she sighed before answering back in the same tongue, “But what does any of this matter anyway? Why should I even make the effort to lie to them if I’m going to be separated from Goda? I don’t care where I go if it’s not with her.”
Lila huffed, but Kanna wasn’t sure if it was out of amusement or some kind of pity. “Samma Valley is no utopia, that’s true. It’s where most of the Lowerland savages turn up, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, so it’s far from any civilized resources like health centers—but it’s much better than what you would have been subjected to otherwise, trust me. You saw that factory supervisor yourself. That woman would have worked you to death and no one would have defended you because you’re not a Middlelander and your so-called rights mean nothing. Lean into Samma. Your master set you up with this for a reason. He used to work there himself, so he knows you’ll be better off in the wilderness than in a society full of prejudice.”
Kanna raised an eyebrow. The sudden presence of gendered pronouns that only existed in the Upperlander tongue gave her pause, but she decided not to mention it. Perhaps the woman had merely misspoken because she wasn’t entirely fluent. “If I go to Samma Valley, will I be closer to Goda at least?”
“No. We usually send Goda East towards the Outerland desert. The Samma Valley monastery is on the far Western side of the continent, so if anything you’ll be further away. It’s isolated, accessible only by train. Even the gravel roads don’t go that far.”
Kanna shook her head, gritted her teeth. “Then I’m not going unless she can come with me. What can we do to free her or to transfer her? Don’t you have that power?”
“I don’t. Goda has a complicated situation mired in politics that neither of us could begin to unravel. I’m sorry that you’ve grown so attached to your master—and I can sympathize—but don’t let your emotions cloud your perspective. You have an opportunity here to escape hard labor. I strongly advise that you surrender to it. You can spend ten years in a forest on a mountainside and then seek citizenship and move on with your life.”
Kanna looked up at the giant, who was glancing back and forth from wall to wall, as if she were searching for the source of a noise that had distracted her. “It’s more than attachment,” Kanna admitted, in part because Goda could not understand. “It’s much more than that. I can’t just forget her. I can’t unsee what I’ve seen in her.”
“Yes, I know. You’ve made that quite obvious. I found your mating display back there to be shocking, in all honesty—but more surprising still was that Goda responded to you. You have both my congratulations and my condolences.” Lila smirked at her. “Loving a Middlelander is hard. Between you and me, they’re actually all quite insane, so it’s best to keep your distance. They are cold creatures by nature, too. You’ll be better off finding a nice foreign wife after your sentence is up rather than agonizing over someone barely capable of returning your affections.”
“You’re trying to discourage me. Why? What does this all mean to you one way or another?” Even after all of the morning’s events, she couldn’t make sense of the woman’s motivations, and so she couldn’t decide what to trust.
Lila seemed pensive just then as she stopped in front of an unmarked metal door. “Hm, perhaps it’s because I see a bit of my past self in your stubbornness, Kanna Rava,” she said, turning the knob. “You’re resisting the master plan of the Goddess, even if She’s actually giving you what you need. Is it really that important to assert your own choice, when submitting to Her would give you everything you could have asked for?”
“All I want is to be free. All I want is to be with Goda.”
“Again, I say the same thing: Why resist Her when She’s giving you what you asked? Is it because it came in an unexpected way? Is it because you can’t take any credit for the gifts that destiny bestows upon you, and this hurts your pride?”
Kanna tilted her head, unsure of what it all meant, but she didn’t have time to think about it before she found that Lila had opened the door completely, that the woman was nudging Kanna onto the platform of a stairwell on the other side. The stairs were different from the spiral Kanna had experienced before; the chamber was not ornate at all, simply a metal staircase with flight after angular flight bending beneath her feet. Kanna had no idea where it led, but she felt herself resigning to it as yet another feature of the senseless labyrinth.
Goda was slow to follow.
“What’s the matter, Porter Brahm?” Lila asked in the Middlelander tongue before passing through the door.
The giant’s hands had come to grip the frame of the doorway, but her head was still tilted back, as if she were trying to make out a faint voice in the distance, as if she were sensing a subtle vibration. “Rem Murau,” Goda finally said. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know.” Lila’s face was so neutral that Kanna didn’t understand the skeptical expression that Goda replied with.
“You’re lying. She’s in this tower and I’m sure you know exactly where. If you tell me now, then I can go straight to her, and I don’t have to wander around and risk getting caught, and you don’t have to risk losing face because of something I did on your watch.”
Lila narrowed her eyes. For the first time, Kanna saw a twinge of discernible anger. “If I let you do something as utterly stupid as what I think you’re trying to do, Goda, then what was the point of helping this girl today, if she might get tangled up in yet another mess? And what was the point of playing this game as carefully as I have if I’m just going to throw it away on your whim? And what was the point of everything else I’ve done to keep you on this side of death?”
Goda stared down at Lila Hadd for a long moment, her hands squeezing the edges of the threshold, her jaw tightening with what seemed to be annoyance. But Lila did not budge and she offered nothing more, so Goda ducked through the doorway and joined them without another word of protest.
Three footfalls sent metallic echoes through the chamber. The ones directly behind Kanna fell slowly, and before long Kanna could sense the space that was growing between her and the giant. She turned back to glance at Goda, whose eyes were scanning the doors on every landing, but soon Lila Hadd distracted Kanna with a hand on the shoulder.
“This is one of the inner utility stairwells,” Lila said. “We can take it down to the 21st floor, where they store the cuffs. You’ll be freed from Goda there, and then we can find a place to hold you until you leave for the monastery.”
“My…master will come find me here?” Kanna asked reluctantly. She had fallen behind a little, hovering between Goda above her and Lila slightly below on the steps. She was torn between accepting the gift that Goda had given her, or else insistently—ungratefully—reaching for the one thing she really wanted from the giant.
I want to be with Goda, Kanna thought. That’s all I want. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, all my life, before I even knew that They existed. As long as I’m with Goda, I’m free.
Why did something so simple have to be so complicated? Why did her path to freedom have to twist and turn like the hallways and stairwells of the labyrinth?
Lila was watching her carefully, even as she did nothing to bridge the widening gap. “Your master cannot come for you, so you must go to her instead. She is a novice priestess with a heavy workload, the newly-appointed head of the language department at Samma Valley Monastery, which is also a school. She only just replaced Priestess Rem Murau some months ago, and she cannot abandon her post or her students in this period of transition, so you will be shipped with the rest of the cargo when the train comes in a few days, and you will find her at the top of the mountain.”
Kanna’s eyes had drifted again towards Goda. “At the top of the volcano, you mean,” she murmured, but Goda gave no reaction to the conversation, as if Kanna and Lila had still been speaking in Upperlander. The giant remained entranced by the many doors, which appeared more distracting to Goda than anything else Kanna had seen so far.
“Don’t worry about that. It hasn’t erupted in thousands of years and I doubt you will be so lucky as to see it in all its glory during your lifetime.” Then Lila grabbed Kanna by her wrist cuff, and this wrenched Kanna’s attention back down to the steps below her. Lila relocked the latch, yanked the key from the hole. She shook her head. “I have no idea how you ended up with that key, but we’ll just pretend that you didn’t. It’s a good thing that I caught it before anyone noticed. Be careful, Kanna Rava. Remember that this is a game of appearances, and you should always keep the appearance of a helpless slave.”
Surprised, Kanna opened her mouth to reply, her hand still stretched to meet Lila’s grasp, but then she heard a crazed pounding on the metal above her. It broke through her words, through her thoughts, through her own footfalls. She turned in time to see Goda ripping one of the doors open and sprinting into an empty hallway.
Kanna broke away from Lila. She dashed after her master entirely on instinct—because they were still bound by the cuffs and by something less visible, too—and she was fueled by the thought that she had to keep the giant in her sights no matter what.
In the hall, she followed the shape of Goda Brahm. She felt her legs whipping beneath her effortlessly, on their own, like they had when she had run from Goda that first night, like they had when she had sprinted through the fields in the Upperland. She didn’t scream after her master or ask where Goda was going; she felt herself spreading open again, fusing with the giant again, becoming one body that was bounding down what seemed like an endless corridor.
She could barely hear the footsteps that fell behind her or in front of her. She could barely make out the small figure that stood at the very end of the chamber. It was only once Goda had skidded to a stop where the boy was cowering—near the final door of the twisting hallway—that Kanna recognized those dainty features, those wide, frightened eyes that had startled her in the darkness of the desert once before.
She had finally startled him in return.
She was staring into the face of Parama Shakka.
Again, without fully knowing what force had rushed through her muscles and compelled her to act, Kanna threw her arms around his neck and embraced him, crushed his head against her chest, buried her face in his hair. Something in his eyes had filled her with gratitude, with comfort, with familiarity. He clung to her as well, the edges of his own cuff pressing into Kanna’s back, his tears leaking into her clothes.
When Kanna finally pulled away, she noticed that the giant was looking down at both of them. Goda reached down and pressed her hands to the boy’s face. “Where is she?”
Parama swallowed. “I don’t know where she’s gone, Porter Goda,” he said, wiping his face, “but her body is in there.” He gestured towards the door behind him and the look on Goda’s face made Kanna’s stomach drop.
Kanna could feel Lila running up behind them, but it made no difference, and neither did the woman’s pleas for them to wait. The giant pushed past Kanna and the boy. She leaned into the final door of the hallway, and a bright light rushed into the open space around them, and it made Kanna shield her eyes as she stared into the threshold.
Perched on an altar in the middle of the room, surrounded by a group of astonished women in white robes, lay the ghost of Rem Murau.