Kanna didn’t have time to react with fear. Though they were suddenly swallowed in darkness, a hand reached through the void and pulled her deeper into the cavern.
Within seconds, she found herself inside an alcove just at the bend of the wall. She couldn’t see very far, but since she could hear the echoes of their shared movements ringing for a long distance behind them, she sensed that someone had dragged her into an empty tunnel. When she fell down onto the ground with her back against the stone, a pair of quiet breaths huffed away on either side of her—one rapid, one slower.
Her eyes adjusted only enough for her to see the outline of Goda’s face. Though the woman kept her body hidden behind the wall, she was leaning over, looking towards the outside entrance. She muttered one of the few vulgarities that Kanna happened to know in Middlelander, and this made Kanna grow curious, so she followed suit and glanced around the corner as well.
Instead of just one figure, this time a small gathering had accumulated at the mouth of the cave. The women were surrounding a small cart, forcefully maneuvering it through a patch of rocks and into the dark. Their pale robes made them look like ghosts in the moonlight, and the solid sound of that metallic clacking did not match their billowing presence at all.
A hand tightened at Kanna’s collar and jerked her back behind the wall.
“Hide,” Goda warned her. “Use some sense.”
“Who are they?”
As it usually happened, everyone seemed to ignore her, and instead Parama whispered, “Do you think she saw us?”
“We can’t be certain. The light was already dimming, and I turned it off before the rest of them came, but she was facing our direction.”
“I think it might have been Temple Assistant Finn who was standing there first. She looked preoccupied with something. Maybe she didn’t notice us, or maybe she mistook us for another group of assistants.”
“What now? They can’t find out that I showed you this place. It’s not open to the public, and to be honest I don’t think it ever will be after what we found in it a few days ago.”
The crunching squeak of rusted wheels began to echo through the cavern again. Kanna could hear a rush of footsteps along with them.
“Sounds like they’re coming this way,” Goda said. She reached over and pushed Kanna flat against the wall. “Try to be invisible. They’re probably carrying a light.”
Kanna gave her a dumbfounded expression—because she certainly couldn’t just make herself disappear—but the woman didn’t seem to catch her look. At first, Kanna felt the urge to push back, but the sound of the wheels advancing in the void spooked her more, and she pressed herself hard against the stone as Goda had told her.
Where they all sat, the moonlight did not reach. Kanna could see the vague edges of those white robes coming around the bend, and slowly, amidst a noise of great effort, the first of the caravan appeared before them. Nervously, Kanna slid further back, but the ghosts did not seem to notice her in the dark, and the tiny parade began passing along without so much as a pause.
One of them carried an electric lantern that bathed the path in an eerie glow, but the light didn’t spread very far. They walked two abreast, in consistent rhythm, all six of them with their hands pressed firmly on the sides of the cart.
When one of the wheels hit another snag, the entire group of temple assistants jerked along with it, and some heavy piece of cargo landed hard onto the ground. Whatever it was clunked and splashed and sent the very lightest sprinkle of water spraying against Kanna’s face. When the canister rolled not far from Kanna’s feet, she stared with wide eyes and tried not to breathe.
It had not been water.
She swallowed her gasp because one of the assistants was leaning closer. She felt her lungs begin to spasm as if on the verge of an uncontrollable cough, and as the smell burned the inside of her nose, all she could do was turn around and bury her face hard into Goda’s chest to suppress the noise.
She inhaled sharply, shakily. She sucked in the smell of the fabric—and a musk that was unfamiliar, that must have been Goda’s particular scent—and she was just barely able to stifle the fit that had seized her chest.
Luckily, in all the commotion, the ghosts hadn’t heard her. With one side of her face still pressed to Goda, she watched the temple assistants grope around in the dark for the canister that had fallen. They pulled it out into the light, where they reunited it with the rest of the cargo and dragged on.
But the smell of whatever had been on the cart permeated the air and still had not left her. No, she thought, it wasn’t even a smell. It was so strong that she couldn’t smell it; it had been more like a sensation that tickled the back of her throat. There was also an edge of familiarity. The strange water triggered some distant recognition in her brain, but she couldn’t attach any concrete memory to it.
“What on earth was that?” she huffed in a low voice, when she felt certain that the assistant women had gone far enough down a different tunnel of the cavern.
“What do you think it was?” Goda said, as if it were obvious. “You should already know.”
I don’t know anything, Kanna thought, although she was too proud to voice this. Goda had been right; she was completely ignorant, and every single turn of events seemed to show her yet something else that she had missed.
Goda took her by the arm and pulled her to her feet, and Kanna could hear Parama standing up beside them as well. She glanced briefly around the corner one last time.
“There’s two of them at the entrance still. I suppose they’re waiting for the others.”
“So do we stand here until they’re all gone?” Parama asked.
“We can’t risk being so close to the entrance when they come back around again, especially since there are others who might wander in as well. If they switch to a brighter light, they could easily see us.”
“What do we do, then?”
Goda paused. She seemed to look at the main hall of the cavern, and then down the tunnel they had just ducked into. “Do you think they’ll come down this path?”
“Probably not. This is where the serpents lead, to a belly in the cavern. No one has any reason to come down this tunnel except for me and Priestess Rem. Even the assistants aren’t allowed there.”
“Then that’s where we’ll go,” Goda said. She had let go of Kanna and had already started heading deeper into the tunnel. “Hopefully, when it’s time to come back out, we won’t have those two patient midwives waiting for us.”
* * *
It wasn’t until they had rounded a corner, and even the little bit of light that had filtered in from the entrance disappeared, that Kanna realized she was afraid of the dark. She couldn’t even see her hands in front of her face. She shuffled forward and followed the sounds of Goda’s leading footsteps entirely on faith.
Every tiny noise—every faraway drip, or even the vague echo of movement against the walls—put her on edge. She jumped a little when she heard Parama whispering again:
“Do you think it’s safe to turn on the light now? They probably can’t see it from here,” he said. His voice sounded nervous.
“There’s not much juice left in it, but we’ll give it a try.” Kanna heard Goda flip the switch. A soft halo of light rained over the ground, but it was so dim that they couldn’t see more than a few paces in either direction.
Kanna could barely make out the designs on the walls anymore. Instead, she reached out and felt the intricate indentations with her hands as they walked, surprised that they continued so far into the cavern, that every surface seemed etched with them.
“Where were the assistants taking all of that cargo?” Goda asked.
“I don’t know. I have no idea what they were even up to.”
“They were hoarding fuel, clearly. Where did they take it?”
“Hoarding fuel? Of course not, it’s against the temple doctrine to hoard something so profane,” Parama rambled. “No monastery can hoard fuel. It must have been something else.”
Goda huffed. “If you’re going to lie, then look me straight in the face while you do it. They even spilled one of the canisters. The smell was unmistakable.” Goda’s steps seemed to slow a little, but she didn’t stop. “You know where they took it, don’t you?”
“Look,” Parama said with a sigh, “I didn’t expect them to be here tonight. You didn’t need to find out about this, and I’m definitely not telling you where they store it so that you can go steal it.”
“Who said I was planning on stealing anything?”
“Now who is the liar?” But Parama had turned to smile at her. He let himself fall behind until he was able to press his shoulder against Goda’s side as they walked. “If you want to get technical, the fuel doesn’t belong to the temple, anyway. The temple can’t hoard fuel. It’s Innkeeper Jaya’s fuel, and she’s just letting them…borrow it.”
“Is that some kind of loophole in the rules?”
“What do you expect during a shortage? The generator that powers the well pump inside the temple needs to run somehow.”
Kanna stared ahead at the both of them. That smell, she thought. So the smell had been spilled fuel. Why had it seemed vaguely familiar to her then, even when the fumes had made her eyes water? She had never driven a truck before, and since the entire Rava family complex used a central generator that stood far from her mother’s house, she had never clearly understood what magic they used to make the electric lights turn on.
“So that’s what you were doing at Jaya’s house. Buying favors for the temple, I see.” Goda’s sour tone burst Kanna from her thoughts.
“Don’t insult me,” Parama said, but again, he was still smirking at the porter. “That was…something else. She’s been in a bad mood lately. Her wife was just promoted to a bureaucratic position in the Middleland—an evaluator for foreign slaves, I think; quite a prestigious position for an Outerlander—and it makes Innkeeper Jaya feel a little inadequate.”
“So, I went in to cheer her up.” Parama shrugged. “Also, she’s kind of desperate to assert her status, so she wants to have the first child in the marriage. I might have helped with that, too.”
Kanna couldn’t see Goda’s face anymore, but she noticed a subtle shift in the way she held her shoulders. They seemed a bit stiffer. “I assumed as much, but she shouldn’t ask for those kinds of things from a slave.”
“Since when are you concerned with the law? Everyone breaks that rule, anyway. You’ve broken that rule yourself, haven’t you?” Parama pressed his face against Goda’s arm.
It took Kanna a moment—but then it all connected. She stared at Parama with a horrified expression.
“What?” he asked as soon as he noticed.
“Aren’t you a little too young to be a father?” Kanna blurted out before she could stop herself.
He laughed. He looked up at Goda. “What’s she going on about?”
“In the Upperland, if you lie down with a woman and it results in a child,” Goda explained, “then you stick around after her baby is born and spend all your money to help raise it to adulthood. If that same woman has more children, then you have to do the same for those other children as well. I imagine it gets expensive if there’s a lot of them, so it helps if you’re older and have some savings.”
“That’s not how it happens!” Kanna protested, though she wasn’t really sure how to correct her. What Goda had said was true on a certain level, but there was so much more to it, that Kanna didn’t know how to explain the misunderstanding.
“Oh, I see,” Parama said, ignoring Kanna’s interjection. “Well, what if there is more than one man who has been spending time with a woman? If she has a child, then how do they decide which man is supposed to spend his money on the baby? Or do they all just pool their resources? Now, that sounds more reasonable.”
“No! We actually—”
“Wait, in that case, wouldn’t the second mother just pick up the slack?” Parama continued over Kanna’s stuttering. “I can’t imagine Upperland children are so needy that they each need three parents.”
“You’re forgetting that Upperlanders only have one mother. They need the man to pretend that he’s the second mother, you see,” Goda told him. “I would think that if a woman is friends with more than one man, then they must just randomly decide. Maybe they take turns.”
Kanna opened her mouth in disbelief. “What? No, that’s completely wrong. We don’t even—”
“Ah, yes, that makes a lot more sense,” Parama said. He paused for a moment in thought. “Wait, if the man has to play the role of one of the mothers, then does that mean Upperlander men can produce milk, or do they borrow it from the real mother?”
“Stop!” Kanna cried out. “For the love of God, now you’re just pulling things out of your imagination!”
Goda turned suddenly to give her a disapproving stare. “Stop getting so excited. Voices can carry far in these caves.”
“Then stop disrespecting my culture!”
“Disrespecting?” Parama asked, genuine bewilderment in his tone. “I’m sorry. Maybe I’m a bit ignorant, but that’s exactly what I’m trying to fix. Porter Goda was just telling me all about it.”
“If you really want to know, I’ll tell you,” Kanna said with a huff. She noticed then that Parama was clinging onto Goda’s hand, and something about that bothered her—it seemed wrong for some reason—but she couldn’t understand why, so she didn’t say anything about it. Instead, she explained, “Upperland men marry women, and then the women have children with their husbands.”
She really couldn’t fathom how this concept was so difficult. If anything, this model of Upperland culture was the simplest of all the cultures: One man marries one woman, and they have children—well, unless the man was rich like Kanna’s father, then he might collect a few wives and a few dozen children. At any rate, it certainly made a lot more sense to her than women marrying other women only to run around with random men.
“Oh.” Parama scratched his chin in what seemed like deep thought. “Oh, all right, that brings it together a bit more. That makes total sense.” The cavern became quiet for a few seconds as they trudged along, and Kanna thought it a little strange that the boy had been so easily satisfied with her short answer. Still, she was pleased with herself, until he glanced at her again and asked, “So what happens if a woman is already married? Does the man have to marry the woman’s wife, too?”
Kanna pressed her hands hard against her face and groaned. With gritted teeth, she whispered to Goda, “What does he even do around here?” Hopefully not anything too mentally demanding, she thought.
“You’re a scribe, aren’t you, Parama?”
Kanna tilted her head in mild confusion.
“I’m a translator,” he said, his smile widening. “They brought me in to translate some of the scripts in the caverns around here. They couldn’t find anyone else who knew this one obscure dialect of Southern Outerlander that they needed to decipher it, so I got lucky. Most male slaves get sent to the textile mills.”
“Ah, so the shrines in these caves are more recent than the ones in the open desert?” Goda asked. She brought the lantern a bit closer to the wall, and Kanna could see the etchings with some clarity again. The paint that had survived on them seemed to glow in response to the light.
“Yes. We can read the script…kind of. It’s still much older than modern Southern Outerlander—and to make things more complicated, the modern dialect doesn’t even have a written language anymore. Thankfully, there are plenty of drawings to give us context, and Head Priestess Rem is able to understand some of it, too.”
“Couldn’t they have just hired an Outerlander to translate it?” Kanna asked.
Goda shook her head. “Most foreigners—Outerlanders and Upperlanders alike—can’t read and write, and they certainly don’t know Middlelander well enough to be able to translate to it. Educated foreigners like Innkeeper Jaya’s wife are a rarity.”
Kanna narrowed her eyes. “We learn how to read in the Upperland.”
“You learned how to read in the Upperland—but most Upperlanders are illiterate. I’ve never met another Upperlander besides you who can make sense of any written language, let alone one who can speak Middlelander conversationally. Did you really have no idea what was going on in your own country?”
Kanna was offended enough that at first she didn’t know what to say. She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it several times. Finally, she cried out, “Oh, and you know what’s going on somehow, Porter? That’s a ridiculous thing to say when your kind doesn’t even know the first thing about us! All you’ve ever done is invade and encroach. You have no right to judge us.”
Goda smirked. “It’s not a judgment. Your people are oppressed and starving. We may be invaders—I won’t deny that—but at least now with the Middleland taking over your government, the average Upperlander will have a chance of attaining an education and basic resources.”
“We don’t need your Middleland language, or your education, or your resources,” Kanna muttered.
“That’s easy to say for someone who has been privileged enough to have all three.” Again, Goda’s tone was frustratingly neutral, as it usually was, with no trace of accusation. Goda turned away and faced the void of the cavern in front of them.
Kanna said nothing, too angry to reply, too fearful of the dark to turn around and start running. Goda and Parama’s footfalls crunched against the floor and fell into sync, but Kanna kept her feet pounding loudly off-rhythm.
In a short while, they reached a dead end. Kanna found herself contained in a small, round chamber, and she could see that the geometric scripts and the ribbons of serpents had followed them in. All of that chaos along the walls reached a climax in the room, the etchings growing more elaborate and streaming into the floor beneath them.
Goda dropped the lantern at the center of the space. Its dim light managed to illuminate the perimeter around them, but what caught Kanna’s eye was the spot directly on the ground where the lamp had fallen. It was a circle drawn in the stone, bright like the yellow of the afternoon sun, but with tones of blood red mixed in. Along the edges of the circle, long white ovals flowed out in eight directions, and they reminded Kanna of insect wings.
She was looking at a flower. She felt that she should be perplexed by what she saw, but something deep inside of her knew, even though she had never laid eyes on it before.
“The Death Flower.”
“Yes,” Goda said. She was looking down at the floor mural intently, as if she too was surprised to see it. She turned to Parama, who had wandered near one of the walls. “I can see now why you were told not to show this place to anyone.”
“It was Priestess Rem and I who first discovered this. Imagine our shock to see the Samma Flower painted on the floor of an early Maharan site. This brings the Goddess’s will into question, doesn’t it?”
Kanna looked at Parama with confusion. “The Samma Flower?”
“The Death Flower,” Goda answered for him. “‘Samma Flower’ is its actual name.”
“Yes, it’s named for the Samma Valley, the only place in the Middleland where it grows, although it’s been nearly eradicated now. It also grows in the Lowerland, but…well, no one goes there,” Parama explained. He stared down at the flower with a complicated expression. “I remember when I was a child, no one ever called it ‘Death Flower.’ It was only once we started having problems with people smuggling them in and using them for ritual suicide that this sort of propaganda stuff spread around.”
Parama was lowering himself to floor, but he looked up at Kanna and nodded. “There’s a death cult that uses it. Some kind of mystery religion popped up in recent years, here in the Outerland, and somehow people are bribing savages to bring them the flower from across the Southern border. No one knows how they do it, but the government has really been cracking down lately.”
Kanna felt an uncomfortable twinge run up her spine. The back of her throat suddenly tasted strange. “Why would someone want to kill themselves?” she whispered. For the second time that day, she found herself helplessly asking. For the second time that day, she repressed a faint memory.
“I wouldn’t know, but it’s against the law in the Middleland. It’s against our religion, too. Killing yourself is high blasphemy against the Goddess—even worse than touching the bare skin of a priestess, worse than defacing temple property, worse than possessing the Samma Flower. Nothing will send you to hell faster, except maybe assaulting a clergy member.”
Kanna saw that Goda had wandered away, towards one of the walls. Perhaps it was the shadows playing against her face, but her expression looked a bit darker, and her stare had grown blank.
“I can hear them,” Goda said.
At first, Kanna didn’t know what she meant, but once she quieted her thoughts, she could sense the subtle vibrations along the walls. It was the sound of a rolling cart.
Goda then sat on the ground, far from the both of them, her back against the stone. “We’ll wait until we hear them rolling in the direction of the exit,” she said, “and then we’ll give them a half hour to make sure the coast is clear. That should be enough.”
Kanna closed her eyes and listened. If she concentrated, she could even hear the assistants’ footfalls echoing. She wondered if this meant that her own party might have just as easily been sensed by them. She sighed.
“Why does the temple even need assistants?” Kanna whispered—but it wasn’t so much a real question as a complaint.
Goda answered anyway, “You’ve seen for yourself that there are certain rules the priestesses must follow. They can’t touch certain kinds of objects—like anything that can make a person drunk—and they can’t have skin-to-skin contact with any non-priestesses. This limits the kind of work they can do, so the assistants must do it for them.”
“I hardly think truck fuel will make them drunk,” Kanna said, remembering the noxious fluid that the assistants had nearly spilled on her. She plopped herself down on the ground a few paces from Goda.
When she heard some shuffling all of a sudden, she turned to see that Parama was sliding closer to them. He pressed himself against Goda’s side and lay his head heavily on the meaty part of her shoulder.
Kanna winced, though again she wasn’t sure where that twinge of discomfort came from. It was something about Parama’s posture, the way he had thrown himself on Goda, as if he were a rag doll aching to be picked up. How unmasculine, Kanna thought.
“Can the head priestess do any work, at least?” she asked, if only to distract herself. She leaned a bit closer to Goda then, so that her two companions could hear her better.
“Well, of course,” Parama replied, “but she’s as limited by the precepts as the other priestesses, for the most part. She does some of the translation work here, though. Priestess Rem is very educated in ancient languages, since it’s a specialty in the monastery she grew up in. In fact, that’s why they placed her here a few months ago when she was up for promotion, after Head Priestess Mekka…disappeared.”
“A disappearance?” Kanna had heard rumors of this before. “Was she taken by savages?”
“Nobody knows. She was visiting a temple near the Southern border and then suddenly no one could find her. After a few weeks, they sent Priestess Rem to fill the spot. She’s a kind master, but I can’t say that I don’t miss Priestess Mekka’s more hands-off approach. I used to get away with everything, but now the new priestess watches me like a hawk.” Parama lifted his limp head and looked up directly at Goda. “Ah, that’s right, you haven’t been here in more than half a year. You haven’t met Priestess Rem yet, have you? She transferred from the Samma Valley Monastery as our new replacement.”
“I had heard.”
“Samma Valley?” Kanna asked. “Where the flower comes from?”
“That’s right. Kind of a coincidence, isn’t it?” He paused in thought again, scratched his chin. “Actually, didn’t you tell me once that you used to work at that same monastery, Porter Goda? Now there’s the real coincidence.”
Goda was staring blankly at the opposite wall, even as Parama was trying to catch her gaze insistently. “It was a long time ago.”
“So then maybe you do know Priestess Rem, after all.”
“Maybe I do.” But her tone was flat and her expression offered no trace of recognition. If anything, her eyes had tightened and her expression had become more closed off.
Kanna cleared her throat, feeling suddenly a bit awkward, though she didn’t know exactly why. If Parama had wandered near some kind of minefield, Kanna couldn’t completely tell; it was the first time she had heard any personal information about this Goda woman. “You used to be a porter at a monastery?” Kanna asked, pivoting the subject to something more neutral.
“No, no, she had a different job back then. Isn’t that right, Porter Goda?” Parama replied, because Goda had grown oddly silent. “What was it that you were involved in? Farming or something like that?”
“Right, right. Because both your mothers did the same, right?”
“My higher mother was a botanist and my lesser mother was a gardener, so when I arrived at the monastery, that’s where they placed me.”
Parama smiled and laid his head back down, this time against Goda’s chest. The corpse of the dead snake—the one that was still draped around Goda’s shoulders—dangled near his face. For a split second, Kanna had a strange mental image of the thing coming back to life and lashing out at him.
“You act so stiff when we talk about the past. I feel like I don’t know anything about you, even after all this time.”
“Maybe it’s better if you don’t. The past doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, come on now,” Parama said, his soft, effete voice growing more cajoling, “if we don’t become better friends, then I’ll feel like you’ve taken advantage of me.”
Kanna stared at them. It was then that she realized that she had slid herself progressively closer to them without being entirely conscious of it. It must be because it’s cold in here, she thought. Her arm was brushing against Goda’s robe, and she looked over at Parama who was joining her in flanking the woman’s other side.
Kanna hesitated for a moment, but after the silence continued for a few more seconds and her curiosity had reached a crescendo, she decided to break the lull: “Is this scribe your lover or something?”
Goda turned to her slowly. To Kanna’s surprise, a strange little smirk had come over her face, but in her eyes there was an edge of confusion, too. “You Upperlanders and your romantic notions,” she said dismissively—but she said nothing else after that.
* * *
When the caverns had fallen into complete silence, and they had waited in the belly for what felt like too long to Kanna, Goda finally gave them the signal to get up. By the time she picked up the lantern again, the filament had become a dull spot of light, and it did little to illuminate their way back out of the tunnel. Kanna could only make out the vague outline of the Samma Flower on the ground as they passed.
The caverns ahead sounded hollow. Kanna stayed close to Goda, traveling directly in the wake of her flowing robes, but when she looked to her side, she saw that she had nearly bumped into Parama. He was clinging to the back of Goda’s sleeve.
Once they emerged into the main path, which was touched by the moonlight, Kanna let out a sigh of relief because the assistants were indeed gone. She wasn’t sure what would have happened if the three of them had been caught, or even what kind of punishment she would have faced, but something about the prospect of seeing those stone faces and pale rags unnerved her more than any months added to her sentence.
Goda had turned out the light after they had left the cavern and began making their way down the crag—but even without its dim shine, Kanna could see everything in the moonlight.
She could see the woman who was waiting for them when they reached the bottom.
The robes were jet black instead of white, which served to soothe Kanna’s nerves at first, but then she recognized the face. Her stomach dropped; she didn’t even fully know why, but it may have been because of the way both Goda and the boy stiffened beside her.
“Parama,” the woman in black said, smiling pleasantly, “how is it that you’ve escaped me, only to fall into the hands of Goda Brahm?”