Kanna didn’t have time to react. A hand had already seized her, and without any will of her own, it dragged her deeper into the pitch black. When she fell down onto the ground with her back against stone, a pair of quiet breaths huffed away on either side of her—one rapid, one slower.
She had landed inside an alcove just at the bend of the wall, where the path seemed to fork into another tunnel. Kanna could no longer see the mouth of the cave from where she sat, though as her eyes adjusted to the dark, she could see Goda glancing around the corner. The woman muttered one of the few vulgarities that Kanna happened to know in the Middlelander tongue. This made Kanna curious, so she followed suit and peeked around the wall as well.
Instead of just one figure, this time a small gathering had accumulated at the entrance of the cave. A group of women surrounded 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. “Have some sense.”
“Who are they?”
As it usually happened, everyone seemed to ignore her, and instead Parama whispered, “Do you think they saw us?”
“Can’t be certain. The light was already dimming, and I turned it off before the rest of them came, but the first one was facing our direction. She looked like the head temple assistant.”
“Oh! If that was Head Temple Assistant Finn, she definitely didn’t notice us, then. She would have been shouting and pulling me by the ear, trust me. She never lets anything slide. Luckily, she’s pretty nearsighted, so 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 echoed through the cavern again. Kanna could hear a rush of footsteps along with them.
“Sounds like they’re coming this way,” Goda said. She pushed Kanna flat against the wall. “Be still. 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, but Kanna could see shadows advancing along the cave wall. The vague edges of those white robes came 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. A huge metal canister clunked and splashed and sent a spray of water against Kanna’s face. When it rolled not far from Kanna’s feet, she stared with wide eyes and tried not to breathe. She swallowed her gasp because one of the assistants was leaning closer—and because the fumes had overwhelmed her senses.
It had not been water.
Her throat spasmed. As the smell of the harsh spill 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 sound of her reaction. She inhaled sharply, shakily. She sucked in the smell of the fabric—along with a musk that was unfamiliar, that must have been Goda’s particular scent—and she was just barely able to stifle the cough.
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 had been more like a taste that filled the back of her mouth—strong initially, then dissolving before she could make sense of it. There was also an edge of familiarity. The strange water triggered some distant memory, but she couldn’t attach any image to it.
“What on earth was that?” she whispered, once 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 peeked around the corner one last time. “There’s two of them at the entrance still, probably waiting for the others.” She took Kanna by the arm and pulled her to her feet, and Parama stood up along with them, as if he were also obeying some unspoken command.
“Do we wait here until they’re all gone, then?” he asked.
“No. We can’t risk being so close to the entrance when they come back around, especially since there are others who might wander in. If they switch to a brighter light, they could easily see us.”
“What do we do, then?”
Goda appeared to contemplate this. She turned to 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.” Without turning on the lamp, Goda stepped into the pitch darkness, until all but her voice had dissolved into shadows. “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 so much as see her own hands in front of her face, so she followed the sounds of Goda’s leading footsteps entirely on faith.
Every tiny noise—every faraway drip, or even the vague echo of her own movement against the walls—put her on edge. She jumped a little when Parama began whispering again:
“Do you think it’s safe to turn on the light now? They probably can’t see it from here.” He sounded nervous.
“There’s not much juice left in it, but it can last if we keep it low.” 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 the etchings continued so far into the cavern, on every surface. The deeper they went, the more faint the echoes of the ghost-women’s wheels became, until Kanna could no longer hear them at all—though, seemingly, Goda had not forgotten them so easily.
“Where were the assistants taking all of that cargo?” Goda asked without turning around.
There was a strange edge to Parama’s voice when he replied, “How am I supposed to know that? I’m just a silly temple hand, Porter Goda. Nobody ever tells me anything. I don’t even know what they were up to.”
“They were hoarding fuel, clearly. Where did they take it?”
“Fuel? My goodness! How dare you accuse us of that, Porter Goda!” He smacked her arm, but she did not seem touched by either his outrage or his hand. “You know fuel is too impure for the temple to store on sacred ground. What if a priestess were to touch one of the containers by mistake? It must have been something else, maybe blessed water. We should just get out of here as soon as they leave, don’t you think?”
“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 slowed 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 sorry, but 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 was smiling at her. He adjusted his pace until he could 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, like I said. It’s Innkeeper Jaya’s fuel, and she’s just letting us…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.” Goda’s strange tone burst Kanna from her thoughts.
“Don’t insult me,” Parama said, but he was still smiling. “That was…something else. She’s been in a bad mood ever since her wife was promoted to that fancy position in the capital. Quite prestigious for a foreigner, you know? I guess it makes her feel a little inadequate.”
“So, I went in to cheer her up.” Parama shrugged. “Also, she’s kind of desperate to assert her status now, so she wants to hurry up and have the first child. I might have helped a bit 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.
“Aren’t you a little too young to be a father?” Kanna blurted out before she could stop herself. In truth, she was not sure how old this boy actually was. By Upperland standards, he was a man of normal size, but considering how huge the Middlelanders were, surely his growth had been stunted somehow at least. Perhaps he had been starved. At any rate, he did not seem at all fit to be a parent with the ditsy air about him.
Parama laughed. He looked up at Goda with confusion. “What is 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 are 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 exactly 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 visiting the same 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 gave her a disapproving glance. “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: 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 lot more.” The cavern became quiet for awhile as they trudged along, and Kanna thought it a little strange that the young man 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 ruins around here. There’s this obscure dialect of Southern Outerlander that I picked up a long time ago, and they needed it to decipher the more recent carvings, so I got lucky. Most male slaves get sent to the textile mills.”
“Ah, so the script in these caves can be fully deciphered,” Goda said. 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 glowed in response to the light. “This shrine must be more recent than the ones in the open desert, then.”
“Yes. We can read the script…kind of. It’s still much older than any modern language, and to make things more complicated, it’s most closely related to an Outerlander dialect that doesn’t even have a written language anymore. Thankfully, there are plenty of drawings to help, and Head Priestess Rem is able to understand some of it, too. She’s quite a genius with that sort of thing, I must say!”
“Couldn’t they have just hired an Outerlander to translate it?” Kanna asked.
Goda huffed. “Most foreigners—Outerlanders and Upperlanders alike—can’t read and write, and they certainly don’t know the Middlelander tongue well enough to be able to translate to it. Educated foreigners like 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 an 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 lands?”
Newly offended, Kanna didn’t know what to say at first. After a few false starts, she finally 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.”
“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.”
“Keep it. We don’t need your Middleland language, or your education, or your resources.”
Goda smirked. “That’s easy to say for someone who has been privileged enough to have all three.” Again, her tone was frustratingly neutral, as it usually was, with no trace of accusation.
Kanna said nothing, too angry to reply, and too fearful of the dark to turn around and start walking in the opposite direction. Still, she crossed her arms and remained rebellious: Goda and Parama’s footfalls crunched against the floor and fell into sync, but Kanna kept her feet pounding stubbornly off-rhythm.
In a short while, they reached a dead end, a small, round chamber where the geometric scripts and the serpentine ribbons 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 in explosive spirals of color.
Goda dropped the lantern at the center of the space. Its waning light shined a dim 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 nectar mixed in. Along the edges of the circle, long white petals flowed out in eight directions, each touching the boundaries of the walls, overwhelming the serpents that seemed to twist beneath them.
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.
“Yes,” Goda said. She was looking down at the 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 a Samma Flower painted on the floor of an early Maharan site. This brings the Goddess’s will into question, doesn’t it?”
Kanna turned to Parama with confusion. “Samma Flower?”
“Death Flower,” Goda answered for him. “‘Samma Flower’ is its actual name.”
“Yes, it’s named after Samma Valley,” Parama explained, “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.” He gazed down at the flower with a complicated expression. “I remember when I was young, 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 lowered himself to the floor, just at the edge of the flower, but he seemed cautious not to kneel upon the image itself–out of reverence or fearful superstition, Kanna did not know. “There’s a death cult that uses it,” he said. “Some kind of mystery religion popped up in recent years, here in the Outerland, and somehow people are bribing savages to bring them 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 in her spine, a fullness in her throat. “Why would someone want to kill themselves?” she found herself helplessly asking for the second time that day–and once again, she repressed a faint memory of her own morbid desires.
“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—worse than touching the bare skin of a priestess, worse than stealing temple property, even worse than possessing Samma Flower. Nothing will send you to hell faster, except maybe harming a clergy member.”
Adding nothing, 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,” she said.
At first, Kanna didn’t know what Goda had meant, but once she quieted her thoughts, she could sense the subtle vibrations along the walls. It was the sound of a rolling cart. If she concentrated, she could even hear the temple assistants’ footfalls echoing. This made her instantly anxious, but then she saw Goda sit on the ground, back pressed to the freezing stone, with no shred of urgency.
“We’ll wait until we hear them rolling in the direction of the exit,” Goda said, “and then we’ll give them a quarter hour to make sure the coast is clear. That should be enough.”
Kanna let loose a sigh of both relief and irritation. She muttered, “Why does the temple even need assistants?” It wasn’t so much a real question as a complaint, though Goda answered anyway:
“You’ve seen for yourself that there are 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 their 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. “Who in their right mind would drink such a thing?” She plopped herself down on the ground a few paces from Goda—but not too close. Parama, however, seemed to have no reservations, and he slid along the floor until he was pressed against Goda’s side. He lay his head heavily on her shoulder, grasping her hand once again, relaxing into the folds of the huge woman’s outer robes.
Kanna winced. There was something about Parama’s posture, about the way he had thrown himself on Goda—as if he were aching to be picked up—that she instantly hated. It was unbecoming, she thought, unmasculine.
“What do the priestesses even do here, then?” Kanna asked, trying not to look at them. “When I was getting inspected, the assistant prodded me left and right, but that head priestess just lurked over her shoulder and watched. Is that all she does, then? Just stand there while other people work?”
“Well, of course not,” Parama answered. “Head Priestess Rem can’t touch any visitors, but she still does most of the clerical and translation work here. She’s very educated in ancient languages, you see, since it’s a specialty at 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 Akkaya…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 one cloudy morning she went to meditate in the woods. When the mist cleared in the afternoon, no one could find her. They looked for weeks, but there was no trace. It was like she had just…vanished in the fog. After a few months, they sent Priestess Rem to fill her spot. We get along all right, but if I’m honest, I do miss Priestess Akkaya. I miss the freedom she used to give me, too. She never really cared what I was up to outside work hours, but now the new priestess watches me like a hawk.” Parama glanced at Goda. “Ah, that’s right, you haven’t been here in more than half a year. You haven’t met the new priestess yet, have you? She transferred from Samma Valley Monastery, that temple complex that’s out in the western hills, in the middle of nowhere.”
“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, scratching his chin. “Actually, Porter Goda, didn’t you tell me once that you used to work at that same monastery? 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.
Kanna felt awkward. If Parama had wandered near some kind of minefield, she couldn’t completely tell, but the air had changed all of a sudden. It was also the first time she had heard any personal information about this Goda woman.
“You used to be a porter at a monastery?” Kanna asked, trying to fill in the painful silence.
“No, no, she had a different job back then. Isn’t that right, Porter Goda?” Parama replied, because Goda had not answered. “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 lower mother was a gardener, so when I went to work 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 three years.”
“Maybe it’s better if you don’t.”
“Oh, come on now,” Parama said, his soft voice growing more cajoling, “don’t you think I deserve to know about the past after putting up with you so much in the present?”
Kanna stared at them, not quite sure of the undertone that she had detected in Parama’s words or what it might have suggested. It was then that she realized that she had been sliding 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, then finally asked the obvious question: “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.
Kanna stayed close to Goda as they advanced through the hollows of the caverns, traveling directly in the wake of her flowing robes. She was irritated to find that Parama walked beside her, clinging to the back of Goda’s sleeve, smiling lightly at Kanna with too much trust—but again Kanna made no comment.
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 ghostly 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 started their way down the crag, but even without its dim shine, Kanna could see everything in the moonlight.
In particular, she could see that a woman was waiting for them when they reached the bottom.
The stranger’s robes were jet black instead of white, which served to soothe Kanna’s nerves at first, but then she recognized the face. Kanna’s stomach dropped. She didn’t know why she felt so nervous, 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?”