“Let her in. She’s his daughter.”
Kanna did not understand the look of confusion on the first soldier’s face when Lila said this, nor did she understand the hesitation of the other women who flanked her father inside the room—but Kanna did not ask, did not speak, added nothing.
She turned her gaze instead to the floor as she pressed herself to the inside of the threshold, her mouth tightening, her teeth chattering. The moment she had seen his face, she had wanted to cover her eyes and cry out. At first, she did not know why his features were so abhorrent to her, but when she finally did realize, she found herself frozen in horror, unable to take another step.
It was because he looked exactly like her.
She had not peered into a mirror for a long time, but glancing across the divide between them, she had found that old self from weeks before staring back. Worse still, the man had grown so skinny that she could see the edges of his skull along his brow and jaw, and it reminded her of how her own flesh was similarly just a living coffin for her bones.
She pressed her hands to her face. Her fingers dug into each bend and crevice, like she was molding it with her nails, like she wanted to tear the skin away.
She heard her name echoing from in the room. It sounded even less familiar to her than it had before, shaped in that deep voice that she barely remembered. It felt like the first time he had named her.
But then a softer whisper landed in her ear from behind, a faint breath that warmed her neck. “You’re free to turn around if you’d like. As I said, no one will force you.” Kanna felt a hand pressing lightly against her back—a nudge, a caress. “But I urge you not to run away. If you do, you might regret it for the rest of your life.”
“I…can’t. I….” Kanna let her fingers drop slowly from her face. As the air cooled the water that had drained from her nose and from her eyes, she looked over at Lila. Her lip curled up into a grimace. “No. I don’t want to see him. I hate him.”
Lila stared at her for a long time, but there was no pity on her face. “Then hate him,” she said. “Never resist hatred. Only remember to hate up close, with open eyes, with loving care—so that you know exactly what you’ve come to hate about yourself in him.” She tipped her head up past Kanna, towards the soldiers who stood at the back of the room. “Come out. She wants to see the man alone. Don’t worry, she won’t harm him…physically.”
In spite of their confusion, Lila’s status seemed enough to jostle them. When they shuffled out of the room, they bumped against Kanna in the gateway—hard enough that she wondered if it was deliberate—and one of them muttered, “Have it your way, Hadd, but we’re keeping the door open. I don’t care what strange ideas you foreigners have about family.”
It was then that Kanna remembered: the engineer had mentioned her brother, but all of Kanna’s half-siblings had escaped towards the mountains before her uncles and cousins were captured. As far as she knew, she had been the only one to stay behind, to follow her father onto the train.
Of course, there were no fathers in the Middleland. There wasn’t even a native word for father, so the engineer probably hadn’t known what to call him. Kanna, too, no longer knew.
With a final harsh breath, she forced her neck to twist up. She stared hard across the long floorboards that stretched between her and the man; it felt somehow like she was gazing across a canyon at a lone figure in the distance. He was looking straight at her, bending forward with direct focus, casting shadows onto the white table in front of him.
For once in her entire life, she felt overwhelmed by his attention. It made her want to cower again, but she did not give into the urge. Instead, she remembered what Goda had shown her, and she watched her own breath for a few languid seconds to calm the screams of the snakes—and then she leaned away from Lila’s comforting hand.
The moment she took her first step inside, her father’s chair scraped against the floor. He stood. His sallow face erupted in a mix of a thousand emotions. His small, sharp eyes glimmered in the light of the room, trembled ever so slightly as they followed her movements.
She could already sense his grasping. It was like an invisible hand shooting across the room towards her, an invisible hand clawing desperately at the last remnants of stable ground, the last familiar pebble on a continent that had broken to pieces.
But she was no longer what he thought she was. This alone turned her stomach.
“Kanna!” Though at first it seemed that he was poised to move again, that he might have come around the table to meet her, he stopped when he seemed to finally notice the look on her face.
She could not make herself walk any faster or slower. She could not make herself stare at him directly for longer than a few seconds, either, so she took to shifting her gaze to the sides of the bland room. When she finally bumped up against the table, she felt the man’s stare like a force pulling for her attention, and it took all her strength to reach for the chair at her side and make herself sit down in front of him.
He followed suit. Once he sat, he waited for her to look up; she could feel his patient expectation. Instead of meeting him halfway, she gazed down into her lap, grateful there was that wooden shield between them to hide how she wrung her hands.
A long silence spread, wider than the canyon Kanna had seen as she stood in the threshold. Her thoughts were racing, her snakes were writhing, but not a single one of them gave her a clue as to what she could possibly say to him.
He broke the stillness first.
“You look different,” he said.
She was frightened to find that the sound of the Upperland tongue spoken with a native accent gave her no comfort. In fact, it had lost its familiarity, and where there was once a piece of her that sprung to life in response to it, there was instead an echoing hollow.
Those snakes had already dissolved. Everything in the world had taken on an unfamiliar taste, as if she had only just been born that day, as if the life she had lived before had been an elaborate dream that she had only just awakened from.
When he offered an apologetic smile to pair with his words, she realized that his tone had been one of lament—but Kanna had lamentations of her own.
“Father looks the same,” she said. With some effort, she lifted her hands, placed them atop the white table with her fingers interlocked. Even still, she could not stop from fidgeting her thumbs against the wood.
He huffed with sad amusement, and the expression on his face made it clear that he was oblivious to the insult she had just offered him.
He was oblivious to everything.
He smoothed his hair down in one sweeping motion that looked like self-comfort, and she noticed then that the edges of his hairline had already been graying for a long time. “Oh, Kanna. My dear daughter, you are too kind. I look awful. I’ve fallen apart. Everything has fallen apart.”
“Everything,” Kanna agreed.
“But you, more than anyone else, are already well familiar with the fate I’ve suffered, the injustice of it.” He looked up at the walls around them with helpless reverence, as if these were the barriers that had imprisoned him—and as if they made up the shell that held him together, too. “They’re keeping me here in the Middleland forever. There’s no hope for me anymore. There’s nowhere to escape because these animals are everywhere, like a virus that has infected the whole continent. Unless the political situation changes—which it probably won’t, in all honesty—I can’t even entertain the fantasy that I’ll see a morsel of mok ever again, let alone the wealth that I worked for all my life. I’m sorry, Kanna, but there’s nothing I can offer you anymore. I wish I could.”
Kanna stared at him, tilted her head. The words sounded strange to her. They made no sense. “But I don’t want anything from you,” she said. She couldn’t imagine what she would even ask for.
He mirrored her expression, his brow furrowing in confusion. “Ah…well, that’s a beautiful sentiment, my dear. As I told you, you are too kind to your old father. Even when I can’t fulfill my duties to you the way I always did before this whole mess, you are more forgiving than your brothers and sisters, who cursed me with all kinds of blasphemies when I told them to abandon the breweries and run to the mountains.”
“Oh, yes, as far as I know they all managed to disappear in time. That’s the one comfort that soothes me in all this chaos. Your uncles and cousins suffered a different fate, but I’m glad at least my children didn’t fall into the slimy hands of these Middlelanders. Maybe in some way, in the distant future, in some corner of this world that the Middlelanders have not yet smeared with their filth, my children can pick up the thread of my legacy and continue it without me.”
“If the Goddess allows them.”
His eyes, which had fallen into the trance of some faraway fantasy, suddenly twitched with realization at her voice. Because he seemed to misunderstand the meaning of her tone, his smile turned apologetic again. “Not all of my children,” he said quickly. “Not all of them escaped, of course. You’re here, after all, my dear. You’re the only one who disobeyed me, who followed me onto that train. You’ve always been strong-willed like me, but of course that can get you into trouble, can’t it? Of all the times to rebel!” He had a look of soft amusement that Kanna did not like.
“My mother is dead. My brothers and sisters don’t like me, and in the mountains they would have abandoned me in the cold because I walk too slow. I was alone. Where else would I have gone if not to my father?”
Bruno Rava swallowed. He smoothed his hair again, offered her a nervous smile. “Well, yes, yes, of course. True enough. You did what you could to try to save yourself. We all did.”
Kanna glanced away, peered deep into the swirling white brush strokes on the painted table. She could see the ridges of the wood knots underneath. “I didn’t care about that,” she said.
“I didn’t care about saving myself, Father.” She took a breath and pushed herself to meet his gaze again, but this time she did not let her focus waver; this time she silenced the fidgeting of her hands. “I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t want to live. The night before, I had tried to kill myself with the old rope my mother had used to tie her dogs to the tree outside. But I didn’t have the courage. I hesitated, because I lived alone in that house and I knew that the rats would have picked me to the bone before anyone would have found me. Even just that mental image was enough to make me vomit—and then I was too busy vomiting to tie a rope around my neck.”
His mouth dropped open. More than the shock at what she had just confessed, his expression was colored with helplessness, like that of a cornered mouse. He began shaking his head, leaning back. “You…what? What are you saying, child?” His nervous smile evolved into an even more agitated laugh, as if she had just accused him of a crime too perverse to admit. “Don’t be silly. You’re a Rava! What did you have to kill yourself over? It’s not like you had a terrible life in the Upperland. Every single one of your needs were met, were they not? You were part of the greatest family that ever lived. You were spilling over with wealth. Even after your mother died, I didn’t abandon you. You never went hungry. You had shelter. You had the best education—better than I ever had.” He waved his hand. “No, no, don’t be ridiculous, Kanna. You had nothing to complain about. All that time in the confinement center has left you making up stories to fill in the dead space.”
“It’s not a story.” She paused. “Well, it’s a story now, but at the time it wasn’t. I wanted to die the day before we were invaded by the Middlelanders—and the day before that, too. It’s only now that I want to live all of a sudden. I don’t know why, but it’s only on this side of the continent that I’ve been able to sense the barest taste of happiness, to even know what that means.”
His brow furrowed some more. She could witness the thinking, the grasping, the desperate attempt to piece what she said together in a way that made sense to him. “The…the Middlelanders!” he finally stuttered. “Those monsters! I knew it. I knew this would happen.”
Kanna gave him a look of utter confusion.
“I’ve always known that they were master manipulators, experts at twisting the truth—I had to deal with their social sorcery in my business all the time, after all—but I didn’t expect that their lies would corrupt your mind so quickly. My own daughter, my poor daughter! What has become of her?” He pressed his hands to his face, but his pity did not seem genuine. It seemed constructed only to deflect Kanna’s increasingly bewildered expression. “I thought you were stronger. I didn’t take you for someone who would so easily fall prey to a cult, but it’s not your fault—it’s mine. Maybe those tutors I hired years ago to teach you their tongue implanted a seed of nonsense in your head and it’s only now that this evil has sprouted in you. I should have known better, but my intentions were pure at the time, I promise. I only wanted you to learn the common language the way your brothers and sisters had.”
“Father, I don’t understand.”
He sighed loudly. “Of course, my dear, of course you don’t. You’re still young and naive. You don’t even realize that you’ve developed sympathies for the enemy.”
“I—” Kanna pulled back. “I’ve…what?”
“Did you not hear yourself just now? You claim that you were suicidal in the Upperland—even though you were nothing of the sort; that’s just ridiculous—and now in the Middleland, you’re suddenly happy and your life is perfect. These are the rantings and ravings of someone indoctrinated by the Maharan cult.”
A pulse of confused anger shot through her. She nearly stood up. “I didn’t say my life was perfect! Did Father even hear what I said?”
“I heard you quite clearly, my dear. You prefer this life to the one you lived. Isn’t that what you’re saying? Only someone brainwashed by these savages would ever develop such a twisted view of reality. Use your head, Kanna. What kind of pleasure could a person glean from being stuffed into that confinement center and then dragged across the continent by a hideous woman? How would you not find that unfathomably painful compared to the beautiful life I gave you in the Upperland?”
“It has nothing to do with pleasure or pain!” she shouted, rising from the table. She couldn’t understand how the man had been so saturated in ignorance, so oblivious to her suffering for all the years she had lived. “Don’t you see that it goes beyond all that? It’s not about the outer circumstances at all! It’s about this inner world that I’m too broken to live with because you abandoned me before I was even old enough to speak! You ignored me all my life! No matter how many times I searched for you in the fields, no matter how many times I grasped and clawed for a shred of your attention, the most I could catch of you was a silhouette in the evening sun! You never tried to see me—and when I needed you the most, you told me I was better off without you and you disappeared onto a train.” She pressed both fists to her chest. “You say you’ve fallen apart, but you haven’t. It is I who has shattered into pieces, and you’ve barely noticed because you’re exactly the same! I am not Kanna Rava—I never was—and that terrifies me more than any superficial fear about losing my wealth, my family name, my way of life. Who cares about all of that in the face of this emptiness? Who cares when every particle in this world is hollow of meaning? Can’t you see that? Why can’t you see it? Why am I the only one who is burdened with this awful truth?”
Her father blinked, stunned at her response, a blank look of complete non-understanding coming over him. “If you’re not Kanna Rava,” he finally said, throwing his hands up, “then who the hell are you?”
She stared at him. She stared at her own face. She broke out into a laugh and the face that gazed back at her looked even more bewildered. “No one,” she said, shaking her head. “I am no one.” Kanna fell back into her chair and pressed a hand to the side of her cheek. “And I am you, Father. As much as this is all your fault, as much as you destroyed the Upperland and brought suffering to me and everyone around you through your ignorance, you are me, and so I have to take responsibility, too. To have any hope of piecing together what you’ve shattered in this world, I’ll have to find some way to forgive you, to forgive myself. Maybe not today. I don’t know if I have the strength right now after everything that’s happened, but maybe in ten years I’ll have learned how to find it.”
Her father winced. He could not hide the fear on his face.“I…don’t understand.”
“No, you don’t. And that’s all right. Thank you, in spite of everything wrong between us that can never be undone. If it wasn’t for you, I would have never been born. I would have never seen the beauty of this imperfect world; I would have never gazed upon Goda Brahm’s hideous, imperfect, perfect face; I would have never experienced the drama of Lila’s games in this labyrinth; I would have never learned the ugly truth of who I really am and what I might become. So you see, it’s bittersweet. All of life is bittersweet. I won’t lie, I’m afraid of what comes next, and I wish I had a father to guide me through it—but I’m only afraid now because I’m free for the first time.”
“What are you saying, child?” But then his fear evolved into anger. “Make some sense, Kanna! You’re speaking in riddles!”
She stood—this time with deliberate intention instead of knee-jerk reaction—and she stepped away from her chair because she realized in that moment that there was nothing else she could possibly say to herself. There had never been anything to say.
But her father darted across the table and grasped for her arm before she could turn. His fingers came to wrap around that pale band of skin that encircle her wrist. She did not fight him. She felt a serene, empty smile spreading across her face entirely without conscious will—and for the first time, she knew what it meant. She felt something crack open in her heart.
“I love you,” Kanna said.
He let go, retreated immediately. He looked up at her as if she had just struck him in the face. “Girl, what are you…? What are you raving about now?” His tone was one of being saddled with an unexpected imposition.
She didn’t care.
“I love you, Father. This is why I followed you onto the train, if you want to know the whole truth. Maybe my brothers and sisters cursed you and ran to the mountains because they were actually grateful for the wealth you had given them—but I’m an ungrateful, petulant child. I didn’t want your money. I was too greedy for that. What I wanted was a father. It’s fine that you’ve never felt the same, that you didn’t want a daughter. It doesn’t matter now because we’re in the Middleland, and since there are no fathers in the Middleland, you are not my father anymore.”
Because he had let her go, Kanna turned back to lean in the direction of the threshold she had come from. She could see the face of Lila Hadd, but the woman and the soldiers seemed preoccupied, sealed in their own bubble of conversation, oblivious to anything that had just happened at the table.
Kanna thought she heard her father muttering as she shuffled towards the exit, which now seemed less far away than it had before. She could not parse what he said, even as he grew a little louder, though she stopped near the doorway to glance over her shoulder, and she found that his eyes were pleading.
He had been calling her name.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “When my sentence is over, I will come back. I will visit you if they’ll let me. As long as I live, I won’t abandon you. I will do everything in my power to free you from your prison, the way Goda Brahm freed me from mine.”
She had no interest in judging the reaction on his face, so she turned without looking and headed through the threshold once more. But she could hear his ragged breath, could sense the confusion in the air.
“Who…is Goda Brahm?” he rasped.
Though the soldiers had not asked her to do so, Kanna slammed the door behind her the second she made it to the other side. She pressed her back to the old wood. Her heart raced. Her eyes oozed with tears she had been too enraged to spend before.
“That question has no answer,” Kanna said, though she knew he could not hear her.
* * *
Lila greeted her like they had known each other for years and had been separated for weeks. The embrace still gave Kanna discomfort because she was not used to anyone noticing either her presence or her absence, but she leaned into it and tried to accept the wave of attention that she hadn’t earned.
One of the soldiers, tilting her head at the scene, shrugged to the others. “Foreigners are weird,” she said, but she reached over and patted Kanna’s head anyway, because it seemed that she was also carried away in the emotion of the moment.
When they broke apart, Kanna’s shoulders slumped. She looked into Lila’s face and shook her head. “I’m done. I can’t do it anymore. I know there are a lot of things like this that I’ll have to go through—either here in Suda or out West in Samma Valley—but too much has happened all at once. It’s like a gauntlet, and I can’t stay conscious of the snakes for much longer like this. I’m tired, Lila.” The woman’s name flowed out of her mouth without effort, too quickly for her to question if it was the correct way to address someone of her standing.
But Lila did not seem to be bothered by it. Instead, she took Kanna’s hand. “Let’s go home, then.”
Before Kanna could react to such an alien concept, the woman had whisked her through the open threshold and back into the labyrinths they had earlier emerged from—but they walked in a new direction this time.
Lila seemed in a hurry.
“From what those three guards gossiped to me while you were away,” she said, “it appears that someone committed a major crime at a lower level of the tower, and so most of soldiers are preoccupied with cleaning up the mess. It certainly explains why we didn’t run into any guards in the hallway near the priestess’s room. They were missing from the cuffing chamber, too, where there are usually two or three slithering around.”
Kanna raised an eyebrow. Though the memory was vague, she could recall that Assistant Finn had mentioned something about an incident. It had been such an offhand remark that Kanna hadn’t given it much attention at the time.
“We were lucky today. Very lucky. Goda just about got away with murder in here because someone was stupid enough to leave contraband downstairs where the soldiers could easily find it.”
“Don’t worry about it. Let’s just get out of here before they start swarming in again and asking everyone questions so they can fill out their little investigation sheets. They love playing detective.”
As the path twisted more and more, Kanna finally started to let go of the idea that she would ever have a sense of where she was again. This gave her some relief. She allowed herself to be tugged along by Lila’s hand, as if she were floating downstream on the river Samma.
But then she noticed some faint rays of natural light spotting the wall, and when Lila pulled her around a corner, she could see a series of tall windows at the end of the passageway. She could see the reflection of the sun on the tree leaves outside, and so she knew they were facing West.
Kanna was grateful that a world beyond the tower did exist after all. She was so distracted by the scenery, that she didn’t notice the flock of black robes coming up behind her until Lila pushed her against the wall. Kanna had nearly bumped into them.
When Lila bowed, she pressed a hand to the back of Kanna’s neck and forced her to dip her head, too. “Good afternoon, Priestesses. Your presence today will bring us many blessings.”
“Oh, an Upperlander! How cute!” One of the women lowered her head to catch a better look at Kanna’s face, though she was carried along with the movement of her sisters and disappeared after a flash.
Kanna gave Lila a wry look. “‘Cute?’”
“It won’t earn you respect around here, that’s true,” she said, “but it could get you a wife, which is more important.” Once the priestesses had passed, the woman led Kanna down the corridor again with renewed urgency.
“The only person I would ever want to marry is Goda Brahm,” Kanna muttered.
“Again with that nonsense.” Because they had caught up to the priestesses, Lila switched back over to the Upperlander tongue, though her pronunciation sounded less sharp than before. Perhaps she had grown tired like Kanna. “Forget about Goda. And I’m saying this as someone who cares for her and has known her for years. Don’t waste your life chasing someone like that.”
“Because she doesn’t feel the same way I do? Look, I know it’s not the same kind of love as mine. It know it’s an impersonal love, something with no attachment, something that would never satisfy me completely because I could never be someone special to her. But I would accept that if I could be with her for the rest of my life.”
“That’s only because you don’t know the first thing about her. You’re swimming in ignorance, up to your neck in delusions about that woman,” Lila said bluntly. She glanced over her shoulder and Kanna responded with narrowed eyes. “As gifted as you are at seeing the perspectives of others, you’ve missed one important complication in the story of Goda Brahm.”
Lila’s smirk didn’t fade. “You, of course.”
Kanna stared at her blankly, but this only seemed to frustrate her further.
“Oh, for the love of God!” Lila cried. She turned back around and shuffled faster down the hallway. “Goda Brahm is in love with you! Hopelessly so, pathetically so. I’ve never seen her so taken with someone before in my life. It’s disgusting.”
Kanna slowed her stride in dumbfounded reaction, but Lila kept dragging her along. “In love with me?”
“Yes! Yes! What did you think, child? Did you think she just does all these things for everybody? Sure, she helps people squeeze themselves out of terrible fates all the time in this tower, but did you think she holds them close and calms them when they’re panicking? Did you think she hums mantras in their ears to lull their snakes? Did you think she kisses them on the mouth, out in the open, in the middle of the hallway, with the passion and desperation of a lovestruck youth? Oh please, Kanna Rava, don’t tell me you’re that naive!”
“I…I…” Kanna was briefly distracted by the sight of the priestesses loading themselves into a tiny room ahead, but before she could collide with them, Lila yanked her to the side. The woman turned a knob on a door just a few paces away. “I didn’t know,” Kanna said. “Honestly, I had given up on the idea. Because of the shrines, she had completely unraveled all of her personal desires, and she never seemed the least bit attached to anything, so eventually I accepted that she just couldn’t feel that way about anyone anymore. That’s what she made it sound like, anyway.”
“Of course she did. She’s a Middlelander, isn’t she? Goda may have moved beyond a lot of the cultural baggage that closes the hearts of her countrymen, but she’s not entirely free from it. These social habits are second nature to her still. A Middlelander would rather die than admit that they’re in love with anyone. In fact, that’s the only time you can ever get them to say it, if you’re lucky: on their death bed.”
“What? But why?”
“You’ve seen for yourself how manipulative this society is. To be in love—to experience any kind of passion towards someone else—is like putting on a slave cuff and handing them the keys. Any strong desire is a vulnerability, and any vulnerability can be exploited and turned into a carrot on a stick that dangles before their eyes. Goda of all people knows this more than anyone because she made that mistake many years ago. She’s still bad at hiding it, don’t get me wrong—because she’s completely enamored of you and you’ve clearly tested her willpower—but she would never tell you up front that her feelings for you are personal. No Middlelander ever will. They consider romantic passions to be childish nonsense.”
As Lila pushed her onto a platform beyond the door—onto a grated floor that looked similar to the one that had lined the utility stairwell—Kanna couldn’t help but scrutinize the woman’s face. She remembered something that Lila’s own wife had told her the week before, in a room inside that cabin in the desert:
“Of course I don’t love her. I’ve barely known her for two years. I heard that you Upperlanders had an overly-romanticized view of marriage, but this is just silly. How can I love someone who doesn’t even share my culture?”
Once Lila had closed the door after them and they were safely alone, Kanna’s tongue fell back into Middlelander, and along with it, she found the audacity to ask, “Why did you marry your wife, then, if she won’t even admit that she loves you?”
Lila raised her eyebrows. The question seemed to take her off guard—but then again, Kanna thought, Lila was the first person she had ever met who seemed to never be on guard in the first place.
“I don’t know if she loves me. I can never know that. But I do know she lied about why she married me, just as I lied about why I married her.”
“How do you mean?”
“She pretended that she was eager to start a family, when really she was just lonely and her parents were always making her feel inadequate for being unmarried at her age. In turn, I made her think that I married her to get citizenship so that I could help my family immigrate to the Middleland, but that wasn’t the reason at all. I was already on track to be a citizen because of my work, and my family would never dream of moving to Suda. I just knew that I needed to invent some complicated excuse because it would have hurt her self-image to realize that I wanted nothing from her. She would have never accepted marriage if I had given her my simple reason.”
Kanna made a face. “What reason, then?”
“I’m attracted to her.” Lila laughed at Kanna’s astonishment. “Yes, yes, I know. I’ll admit that she’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but she has a soft side to her under all the thorny vines. I have a taste for Middlelander women—the same way you do, perhaps—and I like them callous and rough around the edges. It makes it more satisfying when you dig deep enough and find a tender heart.” She grinned this time. “Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.”
Like the sweets we brought her, Kanna thought, pursing her lips. All this time, they were made in the flavor of Jaya Hadd.
“To tell you the truth, though…I proposed on accident.”
Kanna raised an eyebrow. “What? How on Earth does one do that?”
“I brought her aside to make a request and she misunderstood what I had asked. You see, at the time I didn’t realize that to a Middlelander, if you tell a woman of a certain age that you’d like to get to know her better, it implies that you’re interested in marriage. In the Outerland culture, it means something totally different.”
“So why didn’t you just clear it up when you realized?”
Lila shrugged. “Well, I knew at the time that I would probably have to get married soon, and since the Goddess had thrown the opportunity my way in the guise of a cultural misunderstanding, I decided to just let the flow take me. I also figured I would get what I had actually asked for on our wedding night.”
Kanna glanced away, tried to stifle her blush.
“As it turned out, that isn’t how Middlelander marriages usually work, though. She acted surprised when I showed up in her room that next evening. That’s where a lot of our troubles started, actually.” Lila sighed, though her smile did not fade too much. “Ah, well, that’s a much longer story—and we have more urgent things to focus on now.”
Just as the words came out of her mouth, a rumbling vibration shook the platform and the entire chamber of the stairwell. Kanna’s knees nearly buckled, it was so unexpected. She wondered if the Earth was quaking, if the continent had finally cracked open beneath them.
She glanced at Lila with panic on her face, but seeing no response besides that quiet, annoying smile that signaled a lack of surprise, Kanna finally lifted her head and looked for the ledges of the stairwell above them.
But there were no stairs. There was nothing above them or below them; they were suspended in a void that echoed with sound. Besides the platform, it was a hollow shaft that shot all the way up to a glass dome, and even that skylight was shaking with energy. Sunlight filtered in and bathed half the chamber with white rays. She squinted, followed the light, finally noticed the shining copper all around her.
Brass gears, arranged in infinite complexity, the teeth of each cog mating seamlessly with the next, lined the walls like a giant relief sculpture made of metal. As she leaned further towards an edge of the vibrating platform, the details only grew clearer, and she saw smaller bits and pieces, tiny screws and miniature cogwheels, all fitting together in perfect unity.
But then all of the clockwork jolted at once and Kanna jumped back. The cogwheels moved, the metal slid against metal.
The platform fell into the void below them.
“Lila!” Kanna danced all around, desperate to keep her footing as the floor beneath her began to shift again and again. It gave her the sensation that she was floating without anything to ground her. She grasped for Lila, for some stability, and the woman caught her by the arms.
“This is what it’s like to be with Goda Brahm, isn’t it?” the woman shouted over the noise of the turning gears. “Unpredictable! Endlessly falling into a void with no surface! Even if you find your true self inside that void, what good does it do you if you can never put that self-knowledge to use on stable ground? This is why I say you should forget about her. She is obsessed with death. Death is important, but if you lean into her world too much, then all of your life becomes a moment like this. You can’t fall forever, you can’t die forever! There is a time to die and a time to grow on stable ground!”
“What’s happening? What’s happening?” Kanna craned her neck around to make sense of what she was seeing, and this was when she finally noticed that they weren’t alone. On the other edge of the platform sat a wide metal shell—like a giant sarcophagus made of copper—and it fell along with them. There was a small crack between two of the panels of the cocoon. She saw a mix of black robes through that thin vantage point, and she noticed, too, a single eye that had spotted her first. It gazed out from the tiny opening, and it was wrinkled at the ends in a friendly smile.
Kanna looked away instantly. “This is…?”
“The lift, yes.”
“But won’t we get in trouble? I thought only the priestesses were supposed to use it.”
“True enough, but we’re not in the actual gondola,” she said as the rumbling grew ever louder. “This is a utility platform that the workers use for repairs on the outside of the shell, so you can say we’re just hitching a ride on the sly! Don’t worry, as long as you’re with a bureaucrat and you don’t truly set foot inside the lift, no one will say anything.”
When the floor came to a halt, Kanna found the end of the freefall to be just as abrupt as its start. She nearly stumbled, but again Lila was there to hold her up. Her grin looked brighter because now the light was burning both from above and from a huge gateway that had appeared beside them.
They had almost reached the outside. Kanna could see where the track of the lift continued, where it seemed to lead out the massive threshold and up towards another building nearby. Lila jumped off the ledge of the platform—which was placed much too high for a foreigner—but her legs appeared stable when her sandals touched the natural earth. She reached up and helped Kanna climb down as the floor rumbled with the footfalls of the priestesses and the women emptied into a chamber that Kanna could not see.
“Where are the slaves?” Kanna asked, shielding her face a bit with her hand as she turned towards the exit that framed a bright open field. “The ones who power the lift?”
“Oh, they’re in the generator room. That’s always out of sight. The priestesses don’t like to see them.”
When they stepped out into the full light of the day, the sky was so wide and cloudless and blue, that Kanna felt like she was rising up into it. But before she could lose herself in this sense of freedom, the grounding hand of Lila pulled her back closer to the tower, and they tightly followed the turning of its mirrored outside edge, as if they were winding a giant clock.
“Home is this way,” Lila said, “so let’s come around the South side of the tower.”
Kanna’s shoulders slumped. “How many days will I have to stay in the confinement center before I’m sent to Samma Valley?” She looked away to hide her disappointment because she didn’t want to burden the woman even more, but because of the mirrored windows beside them, she couldn’t escape Lila’s friendly glance.
“Well, the train towards Samma is infrequent—it comes once every two weeks—and the next one is in a few days, but we’re not going to the confinement center. I argued with the administrator to release you into different accommodations.”
“Oh?” Kanna hadn’t known of any alternatives, but she figured that anything would be better than solitary confinement. “Where are we going, then?”
Lila’s grin widened. “My house. You’re my prisoner now.”
Kanna nearly let out a laugh at the absurdity of it all—she had been chased out of a rundown shack by Jaya Hadd and now she was being invited into a city home by her wife—but just as she opened her mouth to offer a sentiment of gratitude, she caught a silhouette in the rolling edge of the mirror. Just ahead, she thought she could see the reflection of a tall woman in the glass.
Because she had put the possibility out of her mind before, the sudden pounding in her chest took her off guard. She kicked up sand as she broke into a jog. “Did Goda leave the tower already?” Kanna asked. “Is she outside, do you think?”
“Oh, she’s almost certainly gone from the area altogether by now,” Lila said, picking up the pace as well, but only so that she could scruff the back of Kanna’s robes and pull her back like an unruly cat. “To be honest with you, I saw her briefly passing through the corridor while you were speaking to your father. She was in a terrible rush for some reason. She tends to leave quickly after she’s re-cuffed, but this time she didn’t even nod in my direction when she walked by.”
“That wasn’t so long ago! She could still be here!” Kanna advanced in spite of the dead weight holding her back. The neck of her robes pressed into her throat and she didn’t care. “Sometimes it takes her awhile to get the truck started. She could be in the lot, refueling it. She could be resettling the bags in the back.”
“I admire your vivid imagination, but child, I already told you it’s not a good idea to run into her anyway. You know very well what her plan is when she leaves this tower. You don’t want to get tangled up in that business.”
Kanna groaned and twisted against Lila’s grasp, so much that she thought she might rend her clothes. Before long, though, she finally came far enough around the cylinder that she could hear voices close by, that she could see the figure that had cast the reflection coming into view.
But it was not Goda Brahm. It was the frame of a tall soldier, and she was standing in place, scribbling away on a stack of papers in her hand.
She was not alone. Even though the South lot was billowing with sand gusting around in the afternoon wind, Kanna could see through the haze that a dozen soldiers had swarmed like cockroaches onto a single point in the distance. As she drew closer, she saw the narrow platform, the rusted metal sides, the familiar dent in the outside door.
It was Goda’s truck.
Some of the soldiers stood by with weighing scales and measuring bowls. Others were feverishly tearing through the back of the flatbed with gloved hands. All of them were shouting excitedly. She could see the older ones crouched around a familiar pair of bags, digging deep inside, pulling out handful after handful of dry petals—and as the wind caught a bit of the Flower, some younger soldiers gave chase and grasped for them before they floated too far.
They dumped everything into a container near the scales, though Kanna saw that one of the women discreetly slipped a petal or two into her pocket.
Kanna stared in wide-eyed amazement. She had come to a complete halt, and when Lila stood beside her, it seemed that the woman already understood what was happening from Kanna’s stunned posture alone.
“Oh. Oh wow,” Lila said, admiring the scene, then turning to Kanna with yet another enigmatic smile. “She’s in pretty deep this time, huh?”