A low, collective vibration hummed through the room. Kanna did not hear it in her ears, but she felt it beating against the bones of her skull like the wings of a thousand little insects. It made the chamber feel full, and as Kanna followed the lines of those seemingly infinite grids of jagged metal, she realized that the sound was coming from the swarm of cuffs. They were all emitting an energy, and so were the endless tangles of wires that coiled around each stake that they hung onto.
She did not want to go in. The buzzing of the cuffs was the loudest noise she had ever been deaf to, and the smirk of the huge woman standing in the midst of them did not fill her with any shred of comfort, either.
But she saw that Goda had already stopped just inside the room, so she followed. She stood by the giant’s side; she took Goda’s hand between both of hers. She felt the rapid pounding of a heart like a drum, and at first she thought it was her own, but she realized quickly that her thumb had come to press against the pulse point in Goda’s wrist.
Confused at what it meant, she looked up. Goda stared straight ahead, jaw clenched, eyes wide open. Kanna’s astonishment quickly colored itself with the giant’s anxiety, which had begun to flow from that pulse point into Kanna’s own body. Much more clearly than before, along with Goda’s short breaths, she could feel the shuddering of the giant’s snake.
“Engineer Mah?” It was Lila’s voice. She had come in shortly after them, but she hurried far past the threshold, and she approached the tall woman who was already sliding towards a steel table with the open cuff. “What are you doing here? This isn’t a training day.”
The woman’s grin did not diminish. “Oh, so now I need a special occasion to stop by my old chambers, Hadd? You know this place is a cathedral to me, the source of my deepest religion. I just can’t stay away, no matter how high in this tower they put me.” She lowered the cuff onto the table, and though she laid it down as carefully as if it were an infant, it somehow still gave a loud, ringing thunk that made Kanna start. “Besides, I heard that Brahm was coming. How could I resist seeing such a long-time friend?”
Kanna couldn’t tell if it was sarcasm or what; she still hadn’t mastered the various tones and euphemisms that the Middlelanders used to color their words with a million meanings. At any rate, even without glancing again at Goda’s face, she could feel the giant’s reaction to the woman, and it was hardly anything friendly.
That tall, smiling engineer, as Lila had called her, was snapping on a pair of leather gloves, but even then her eyes did not fall away from Goda’s face. “How’s the grind, Brahm? Any close calls yet? Have any of the road blocks this week slowed you down, made your empty little heart just the least bit nervous of the time?” She had a look of pleasure, of laughing with no sound, and for a brief moment it triggered an unbidden memory, because Kanna knew what that emotion was.
She had felt it herself days before, rolling up the hillside on the way to Karo when Goda had decided to push the truck. The instant Kanna had jerked the truck in the wrong direction, the instant she had turned around and had seen Goda’s reaction to near death, Kanna had felt a burst of twisted pleasure in her bones. She was ashamed of it now, but she couldn’t deny what it had been.
She couldn’t deny that she had seen it in everyone else who hated Goda Brahm, too.
The engineer pulled a bright red rag from a pocket deep in her robes and she let it billow onto the cuff like a tiny blanket, and next to it she lay a corked bottle filled with some clear liquid. Once she had lovingly arranged her tools, she gestured with an open palm to one of the torture chairs at the center of the room.
“All right, Brahm,” she said. “You know what to do. Have a seat so we can tie you down. Make it easy on yourself this time and give in before we have to force you. If you fight, it pleases me entirely too much and I won’t be able to concentrate on work for the rest of the day. I’ll be replaying the scene again and again in my mind.”
“Engineer!” Lila shouted. Her tone was one of complete outrage, but the Engineer ignored her and no one else in the room seemed awakened to the absurdity of what the woman had said.
Instead, the small pack of workers who surrounded the engineer began stirring. Some of them held similar smiles of twisted excitement, but others had come to stare directly at Kanna with the sort of interest and curiosity she had noticed a few times before from the soldiers.
A foreigner and a giant. They were two outsiders facing a crowd that seemed so interconnected that their breaths flowed as a single organism. Kanna had already noticed the Middlelanders’ talent for fusing together and acting as one, and that in and of itself made her nervous, but the collective vibration of the cuffs and of the people had a predatory air on top of that.
They looked hungry. Their smiles showed off their teeth.
And when Goda didn’t move, they descended upon her.
Kanna cried out, but they had not come for her, so the collective merely pushed her away until she nearly stumbled over her own feet, until the only thing keeping her standing were the arms of Lila Hadd that had come up from behind. Her vision grew distorted with the tangle of limbs that all twisted together, that began wrapping around Goda’s body like constrictors.
They forced the giant into one of the seats. They used ropes and belts and spare cables to tie the monster down, but still Goda writhed and struggled because the chair was too small, and the edge of the wooden arms dug hard into her sides, and her knees bent up at what looked like an uncomfortable angle.
Kanna winced at the sight. She launched forward towards the chaos, but the strong hands of Lila held her back. “Don’t get in the midst of it,” Lila said to her in Upperlander. “This is not your fight.”
“What are they doing to her? What are they doing?” Kanna screamed. She reached out into thin air with her joined hands, but as always she could grasp at nothing. She had been separated from Goda before she had even had the chance to react.
“They’re strapping her down. Ever since she first started this job as a youth, she always tries to run away the moment the cuff comes off. It’s futile, but she’s seduced by freedom, so it’s a compulsion. And no one wants to chase a huge criminal barreling down a hallway, especially one who ripped open someone’s throat with her bare hands.”
“She’s not like that! She’s not like that!” Kanna tried to tear away from Lila when she saw that the engineer was approaching the chair, that the woman was brandishing a thick steel baton in her hand—but Lila held fast. “They don’t have to treat her like this! What did she ever do to them?”
“Nothing. These workers are just doing their jobs, following the orders of the Mother. It’s only the engineer who has a more personal vendetta. She was an apprentice when Goda was first sentenced. For years her master forced her to fight and wrestle Goda into the chair, since she was the only one in this tower who was even close to her size. Early on, she was injured during one of their scuffles and she never quite recovered, so she’s held a grudge all this time.”
“How is it Goda’s fault that this woman was forced to fight her? How is it her fault that she doesn’t fit in the—”
But a sharp buzz broke Kanna away from her thoughts. The engineer’s steel rod was much more than it had first seemed, and she had pressed two probes at the end of it into the giant’s ribs. The electric buzz sounded again, cracked against the side of Goda’s chest. The giant cried out; her forearms stiffened against the chair and her hands became fists; her teeth gritted with pain.
Kanna’s eyes grew wide at the familiar pulse of energy that sounded through the room. Tears burst from her eyes.
“Please!” she shouted—to Lila, to anyone, “Please, make it stop! Make it stop! They can’t do this to her!”
No one heard her. Goda kept writhing, lifting her hips up as if to rise from the chair, and the collective kept pushing her down.
“Stop resisting!” the engineer shouted, brows furrowed, jaw tense, the veins of her neck throbbing with thick blood—but still, there was an edge of glee in her voice as she electrocuted the giant yet again. “Sit down, sit down! Stop resisting!”
Goda groaned so deeply that the sound moved through the wood of the chair and rumbled the floor. She managed to work one of her boots free from the binds. Without seemingly any conscious intention, as if it were simply a reflex, she kicked the engineer in the leg and nearly toppled the woman with the blow.
The engineer echoed Goda’s cry, but she did not fall. She leaned harder into the giant. Her grimace seemed to morph into a grin. She straddled Goda’s thigh to keep the giant’s knee from moving again, and the swarm of workers came down to retie the freed leg, to tighten the bonds even harder, to add more twisting loops.
As she held the side of the electric bat to Goda’s face, the engineer stared into her eyes. A fire was smoldering in their shared gaze; there was a passion between them that Kanna had thought was reserved only for lovers until that very moment.
“You’re an ugly creature, Brahm. So very ugly,” she murmured. The force of her breath puffed against some hair that had fallen over Goda’s face and it made the strands dance. “But that’s what makes you worthy of my beautiful cuff. You’re such a monstrosity, you’re like a work of art. I’ve missed seeing that face of yours ever since my promotion.”
Goda’s mouth tightened, as if she were about to spit in the woman’s face, but the engineer was faster. She pressed the probe end of the baton to Goda’s jaw and fired.
Kanna felt the shock in her own skin. “Stop!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, until her voice overwhelmed even the cries of the hundreds of cuffs around them. “Leave her alone! For the love of God, stop torturing her!”
She had said this all in the Middlelander tongue, so the eyes of the bureaucrats all turned to her. The engineer had also twisted her gaze around and regarded Kanna with a raised eyebrow, as if it were the first time she had even noticed that Kanna existed.
“Was that the Upperlander just now?” she asked, her rage still evident, but a bit corrupted by curiosity nonetheless. “Huh. She talks, does she?”
“I’ve been talking the whole time I’ve been here,” Kanna blurted out before she could consider her tone. “I’ve been talking my whole life, actually.”
The engineer stared at her as the room stretched into an odd silence—then she burst out laughing. “You’re funny, Upperlander. You sound more fluent than your brother, too. How interesting.”
Kanna furrowed her brow. “My…brother?”
“Anyway, anyway!” The engineer, with some tension seemingly diffused from her bones, turned back towards the giant. “We’re a bit preoccupied to be amusing ourselves with these sorts of novelties. If you’d like, you can entertain us with your funny accent after the re-cuffing, once the porter is gone.”
“Well sure, kid.” The woman tipped her chin towards the cuff that sat on the table. “What do you think that’s for? She’s ready for her next job, so we’re fitting her with a fully-charged cuff. She only has ten days for this one, and the timer is already set. I won’t delay her; if she kills herself from her own meandering, that’s one thing, but I’m not going to be responsible for any prisoner’s death. It’s against my religion.”
Kanna fought the reflex to open her mouth in awe. She had already seen the complex mental gymnastics that these people used to wash their hands of guilt, but she could not fathom that the engineer could be so ignorant to her own role in Goda’s torture. Kanna shook her head, looked sideways in Lila’s direction.
“I can’t believe it,” she murmured in her native tongue. “I just can’t believe what they’re capable of pretending. How do these people even have any capital punishment, if they all refuse to be the ones to pull the trigger out of some sense of purity?”
Lila was quiet for a long, spreading moment. They both watched the engineer busying herself, fiddling with Goda’s clenched arm.“Honestly, child, you don’t want to know how they do it.”
Kanna turned to her fully, her eyes welling up, her face twisting. She waited.
“It’s against the Maharan religion to kill another Maharan for any reason. No individual Middlelander ever wants to perform the execution—or wants to be held responsible for it, at least—so they force people convicted of capital crimes to drown themselves. They put the prisoner in a cage half-suspended in a pool of water and they leave her within reach of a lever that will cut the rope. The prisoner can choose to cut the ties and drown, or choose to slowly starve to death in the cage. It’s a superstition in the Middleland that if a person is righteous, they should cut the rope, because the Goddess won’t allow an innocent to drown in cold water. In this way, no one bears the blame for the person’s death…and the prisoner is never righteous, as you might imagine.”
Kanna could feel her nausea returning. The cry of the cuffs ebbed and flowed in her ears. The walls around her had started to wobble back and forth. She swallowed through it. “That’s horrific,” she said.
Lila nodded, though she was still facing towards the giant, preoccupied with the motions of the engineer. “And this is only what they do to their own. Imagine how they handle foreigners who have offended the Mother deeply enough to deserve capital punishment. The soldiers don’t bother with any semblance of justice for an outsider. Often, they will just beat them to death right then and there.”
“If anything, that’s kinder.”
Lila huffed. “You say this because you’re an Upperlander, so you have a preference for upfront violence—but your countrymen are violent, too, just with a different style. And so are we Outerlanders. All human beings are bloodthirsty, child, it’s just that the Middlelanders are expert organizers. They have industrialized death, so it looks more soulless to you, more lacking in passion—but it’s all the same, it’s all the same. You only need to adapt yourself to it.”
The engineer had knelt down in front of the giant’s throne to better examine the cuff. She had a look of utter concentration and Kanna couldn’t help but stare into her face with fascination. “That woman,” Kanna said, “she doesn’t lack any passion from what I see.”
“Of course. This is her life’s work. You could say that she came of age with Goda, and she even helped design Goda’s custom-made master-slave cuff while she was still an apprentice. She’s always refining it every year to make it more secure, quicker to charge and discharge, more certain to kill when the time comes. She built your lightweight slave cuff, and Parama’s, too, and hundreds of others. She’s obsessed with her work, loves it more than any woman or man. Trust me, I’m friends with her wife and I hear constant complaints about it.”
Kanna made a face of disbelief. “Someone married that woman?”
“A high-ranking engineer is a desirable spouse, even a robust woman like her who can’t share in the childbirth. She’s one of only half a dozen people who knows how the paired cuffing system works on a deep level—and she’s the only person still living who knows how to maintain Goda’s cuff because it relies on a rare and powerful battery that is no longer produced—so to say that she has job security is an understatement.”
“Is that why she acts that way, like she can just do whatever she wants?” The energy of Kanna’s rage had already allowed her to jerk out of Lila’s grasp, but as before, the woman was vigilant and snatched her wrists with both hands.
“The fact of the matter is that she can. This is how things work here. These are the methods they will use to control you—the shock of an electric prod to deter you, the reward of freedom to seduce you—and this woman is a master of the most coveted techniques. A throb of pain, a throb of pleasure. It is the heartbeat of the Middleland. Accept it and move on.”
Kanna looked down at the floor because she could not stand to see Goda’s wincing face anymore. “I can’t accept it,” she said. Then what the engineer had told her earlier fully resonated in her mind. “That woman…she said that Goda is leaving, that in only moments we’ll be separated. I know it’s foolish to fight it, just as Goda is foolish to resist so many restraints, but I swear to you now that I won’t let the giant leave without me. If I have to tangle myself in her robes and let her drag me as she walks, then I’ll do it. We won’t be separated. I’ll die before we’re separated.”
“You won’t die. Goda might kick you away and the engineer might prod you with her baton, but you won’t die. You have much power, though you’re blind to it still and most of the people here can’t see it anyway, so for now you will play the part of a helpless victim in this room.”
“What are you talking about?” Kanna tipped her head up to look into Lila’s eyes again, but the mystery on the woman’s face still remained.
“Why do you think Goda plotted to send you into the wilderness of Samma? It’s no accident. Goda recognizes your power very well and seeks to unleash it on the world. The beast in Goda sees the beast in you, but a beast doesn’t thrive in a factory or in the labyrinths of a tower. You need to grow up in the forest, and then you can come wreak havoc on the rest of us.”
“How do you know this? How can you claim to know so much about Goda’s intentions when we haven’t even talked before today? For that matter, how did you even know I was arriving this morning? I’ve never seen Goda send off so much as a letter with any of the trains.”
Lila was smiling a faint smile, not unlike the one that the giant often wore. “You’re not the only one who hears messages from the shrines, my child.”
“What?” Kanna’s eyebrows shot up. She stammered, “How do you…? How on Earth do you know about that?”
“We’re all so different, and yet when the Goddess pulls us into a shrine, we all see the same thing. This is the blessing of oneness. I am you, you are me. Of course I knew you were coming when I woke up this morning. How would I not know where I am and when I would arrive to greet myself?”
Kanna tried to jerk away from her, a churning dread returning to her gut, but Lila still would not let go.
“You know this already, don’t you? Even if you’re afraid of looking directly, you’ve seen bits and pieces of the truth of who you are. It is the root of your power, it’s what draws Goda to you and what made that factory manager cower upon seeing your face with absolute clarity. The people in this room may come together in a collective, and they may ape this power by acting as a single force that enslaves countless victims—but they don’t know the real power, the real oneness. They fear it. They’re afraid of giants like you, who can channel this magic.”
“So says a woman to a trail of ants on the ground. So says the Goddess with infinite powers of creation when faced with people who only know pain and pleasure and manipulation. So says Kanna Rava, who has forgotten who she is.”
Kanna stared at her with absolute astonishment. The woman had grown quiet as she stared back, watching, waiting. The most bewildering thing was the air of playfulness in her manner, which had not faded at all with the gravity of her words.
But then the voice of the engineer broke up all the space between them, all the emptiness that had formed. Kanna jerked her head towards the giant, worried that something had happened, but she found only that Goda’s captor was suddenly looking in her direction.
“I said that the cuff is stabilized, so quit hiding in the corner like a pair of skittish mice. Bring the Upperlander over here!” She gestured towards the open seat across from Goda. “The girl is small—looks like a pale-faced little man to me, really—so I don’t think we’ll need to bother with strapping her down. Just tell her to hold still.”
Kanna narrowed her eyes, but as she felt Lila’s grip loosening, she inched a little closer to the giant’s chair. Goda had been subdued; her arm was limp in the engineer’s grasp, and she looked up at Kanna with a soft expression, with exhaustion. When Kanna tried to reach out to the bound giant, Lila gently guided her away.
“Don’t touch Goda. If the engineer decides to botch a de-cuffing for once in her life, then you don’t want to be in the midst of the shock. It is much more powerful than anything you’ve experienced and it can travel across bodies. Come, sit still.”
Seeing no other choice, Kanna sat, though the chair was too big for her and her feet swung uncomfortably ungrounded beneath her. Lila pressed Kanna’s wrist to the arm of the seat, but she did not apply the straps that hung loosely from the wood. Instead, she took the rope that held Kanna’s hands together and began to slowly unravel it, untangling the labyrinth of constrictors much too easily for Kanna’s taste. As the pieces of her leash rained down onto the floor, Kanna couldn’t help but wonder if she might have taken it off herself if she had only struggled harder.
Then Lila dug into her own pocket before pulling out the familiar silver key that had weighed Kanna down since she had left the desert.
“So this is it?” Kanna asked.
“This is it. I know you’re afraid of separation because you’ve forgotten the source of your connection, but separation does not exist. There is nothing to fear, since it’s only a convincing illusion. Everything that the Middlelanders have created is smoke and mirrors, and it is exactly the illusion of this cuff that is between you and Goda now. It does not join you together. It never did.” She jammed the key into the cuff and snapped the lock open. The tumbling of the pins rattled against Kanna’s joint, then Lila shouted in Middlelander, loudly enough that it made Kanna start, “Unlocked!”
The engineer held a steel key that Kanna only noticed just then, one that was much thicker than her own, with many more teeth and a wider head. She pushed it deep into Goda’s cuff and the device let loose a popping sound, like bones crackling. “Unlocked!” the engineer echoed.
Lila slipped her hand beneath the final latch of Kanna’s cuff. She responded to Kanna’s nervous look with a gentle smile, but she did not stop. In the same way that she had disentangled Kanna’s rope, she flipped the latch much too easily. “Unlatched!”
“Unlatched!” The engineer came to grip Goda’s bonds tightly. “All right, opening the cuff in three…two…!”
With two hands on either side of the device, Lila cracked Kanna’s cuff, as if she were breaking open two halves of an eggshell, as if she were breaking open Kanna’s very flesh. With bated breath, Kanna watched a strip of pale skin emerge into the light. It was a band smeared with sweat, with small, translucent hairs that glittered like a white forest of fallen trees, with tiny spots where the skin peeled as if it had been lightly burned—but she recognized it all as part of her body, so she felt some relief.
Kanna lifted her arm. She was free. With a smile that had come over her in spite of it all, she glanced up to see how the giant looked after shedding the burden as well, but the smile faded instantly.
The engineer was still working off the cuff. Though at first Kanna’s heart dropped because she feared for Goda’s life, she realized soon enough that the cuff was fully open—it was just that the inner band was still tethered to Goda’s forearm.
It was just that a pair of sharp wires—like the fangs of a snake—were buried deep inside her skin, and the engineer was slowly peeling them out. One probe broke out of Goda’s flesh with a spurt of blood following, then the other. The engineer pulled the rag down from the nearby table and poured the contents of her now uncorked bottle into it. The smell was entirely familiar as soon as it hit the air. The woman smothered Goda’s blood in Rava Spirits.
Kanna stared with her mouth open, all her thoughts silencing at once. The giant watched her with the same smile, the same serene gaze as before, the same surrender. Kanna felt warmth rolling down her face before she fully realized she was crying again.
She looked at Lila. She shook her head in panic. “What was that? What was that inside her?”
“I told you: Goda’s cuff is custom-made, very different from yours. Though your cuff could still fatally injure you under extreme circumstances, its main function is only to deliver pain, which it can easily do over the surface of your skin. But in Goda’s case, the cuff is meant to kill. In order to ensure that the shock is lethal and that it can reach the giant’s heart, the engineer designed it with probes that go deep into the muscle. Goda was the first to wear bonds like these—the first in what you might call a long experiment in passive punishment—but there have been others since, and they’ve all demonstrated the effectiveness of this design. It’s why the engineer is so proud that she’ll come down to see her masterpiece from time to time.”
Kanna grasped her own wrist with her hand, felt the blood gushing back to the spots that had been previously confined. Still, she couldn’t take her eyes off the giant. She followed the lines of the ropes and cables that twisted around Goda even while Kanna was now free. “They’re all dead, all of the ones who wore that cuff besides Goda? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes, all of them are dead. They are waiting for Goda to follow. They have waited a long time.”
Kanna shook her head, huffed hard through her nose until her chest locked up from the emptiness in it. “No!” she cried. “Goda won’t die. She won’t die! I’ll set her free somehow. Even if I have to bite through the cords myself and break my goddamn teeth, I’ll find a way!”
Before Lila could stop her, Kanna leapt from the chair and dashed towards Goda. She threw herself to the ground in front of the giant. Her knees crashed onto the floor; her face came to press hard against Goda’s thigh; she clung to the giant’s binds with her hands, but they had no give no matter how much she pulled.
She sobbed into Goda. She shuddered, half-draped over the legs of the giant, and she did not care even as she felt the shocked stare of the engineer beside her, the gawks of all the women who surrounded Goda’s prison.
“No.” Kanna breathed in the mix of leather, of linen, of Goda’s unnameable scent. “No. How can I be suddenly free when you’re not? Wasn’t it you who said you were a piece of me? That you were me? That we couldn’t be separated?”
She felt something grazing the back of her skull. When she lifted her head, she realized that the giant had pulled her right hand hard against the limits of her binds, and that she had reached with the tips of her fingers to touch Kanna’s hair.
Goda looked down at her. Two wet trails on the giant’s face glimmered warmly in the light, and they had come to spill off the sharp edges of her jaw, had come to drip down against Kanna’s naked wrist. These blows felt nearly painful when they hit, like twin needles, but when they slid against her skin, they soothed Kanna’s discomfort. In this way—in all ways—Goda was both hard and soft.
“You’re just going to leave me here, then? What will I do without you, Master? How can I know what to do with myself? I have nothing left.”
“You’ll know.” The giant spoke for the first time in what felt like forever; the vibrations rumbled through her chest, through the chair. “Because you have nothing left, you will know.”
“Tell me what to do!”
“No one can tell you anymore. Listen to what’s inside. I have taken you as far as I can, but from here onward, only you can go.”
A sharp snap rang through the room. Kanna turned to see that the new cuff had closed around Goda’s wrist, that the old one sat discarded on the table beside the engineer, the blood-smeared fangs on the inner band shining even in the weak light.
“I wish your bloody cuff could eat itself like a snake and dissolve from this world.”
Goda smiled. “Worry for your own serpents now, Kanna Rava. Go on. Find your freedom.”
Kanna felt a fist clenching around the back collar of her robes. “She’s right. It’s probably best if we go now, so you won’t be tempted to chase her.” Lila pulled her up, forced her to stand with dignity, even as Kanna fought to stay kneeling before the giant. The woman’s hands were much stronger than they had looked at first and her insistent will was hard to resist. “Besides, there’s one more stop before you leave this tower, and it’s time-sensitive. You don’t have to agree to it if you don’t want to, but I suggest you take advantage because you may not have the chance again for another ten years.”
Kanna wiped her eyes and glared at Lila. “What do you mean?”
“You’ll see in a few moments, but you have to trust enough to leave the giant behind.”
The engineer had come to stand, too, and she was staring at the both of them with an uneasy expression, with utter confusion. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but who is this kid leaving with? I’m handing Brahm a paired cuff and sending her on her way, but if I’m not re-cuffing the Upperlander, then who do I sign her off to? She obviously can’t leave this building by herself.”
Lila nodded. “She’s coming with me. I’ll be escorting her to her quarters after she’s done in the tower.”
“Don’t we need to shackle her at least?” The engineer was already shuffling papers, pulling out a pen.
“She has no Flower in her, she’s the size of a man, and her crime is a joke. You would know better than me the price of steel. Let’s not waste it on this child.” She took the signed sheet that the engineer handed her and she began to pull Kanna by the arm towards the door. “Besides, we all know the cuff was not meant for Kanna Rava. It only allowed her to enslave the giant for us.”
* * *
Kanna pressed her hand to her mouth and tried to silence the sobs. They echoed through the empty corridor and rang in her ears with every effortful trudge of her legs, but she was too ashamed to let them out freely. She clenched and shivered against the image that swam in her mind, the image of Goda Brahm’s face as the door to the chamber had closed, the image of those black eyes, infinitely deep and with no surface—and the smile that matched them.
It had been filled with the surrender that Kanna had wished she could offer in return. But she couldn’t. She wanted to be with Goda. She closed her eyes and watched the image of the giant pulse in her mind, but it was already beginning to fade, and her eyelids fluttered open when she felt Lila suddenly pulling her into a room, pressing a sheet of paper into her hand.
Kanna looked down. It was her assignment form, the one that she could have sworn she had dropped on the ground outside the pregnant administrator’s office. The smudge from her tears was still evident on the page, but she could read her name and occupation all the same:
Kanna Rava – Scribe
Samma Valley Monastery
She read it again and again. She read it until it had lost its meaning.
“You’ll want to hold onto that while you’re in here in case anyone asks for it. It’s your identity for now.” Lila rummaged around in Goda’s satchel, which was still hanging around the woman’s shoulder, but as soon as she had settled a few things, she unslung it and held it out to Kanna. “Take this, too. It’s yours after all.”
Kanna leaned away from it awkwardly, put her hands up as politely as she could. “To be honest, I’d rather not keep pretending that I’m the owner of a bag full of Death Flower. I’m fine without it.”
“Death Flower?” Lila raised an eyebrow. “I’ve looked all through this bag. I even dumped its contents onto the administrator’s desk. There is no Flower in here.”
Kanna let out a crazed laugh, which seemed to startle Lila just a little. She pressed her hand to her face with gritted teeth. “Of course. Of course there isn’t any Flower in there. Why would there be? Sure, she didn’t lie to me about it exactly, but she let me think that it was in there so that I would follow her up the stairs. That bastard. I hate her. I hate everything about her. I hope she lives forever so that I can seek her out and punch her in the face when my sentence is over.” Kanna shuddered, stifled a sob. “But I hope she finds me first. I hope she looks for me. I’ll kill her if she doesn’t look for me.”
When she broke down again, Lila embraced her, but Kanna could not bear to allow herself any semblance of comfort, so she quickly pulled away.
“What do I have to do to be at her side again?”
“I can’t tell you if that’s possible yet.” Lila held her by the shoulders, looked directly in her eyes. “But all you can do now is move forward. All you can do in this moment is face what’s in that room behind you, on the other side of the threshold. You’ll have to face it alone.”
With curiosity, Kanna turned to find that they had entered a chamber and that an open gateway sat carved into the far wall. A military woman in uniform stood just outside of it, as if she were guarding the space, but she appeared bored, playing with the dirt in her fingernails. Inside the next room, beyond that doorway, there was a long wooden table that had been painted white like the floor, like the walls. Flanking either side of it were two more soldiers who looked just as bored as the first, but who stood up straight with their hands gripping the holsters of their batons nonetheless.
A man sat between them.
He looked up, and when he met Kanna’s eyes, his own widened with recognition. It took Kanna much too long of a moment to reciprocate, to realize who he was. Even though he was too far to hear her rasping, she called out to him: