In the morning, an uncomfortable beam of light found its way into the room, and it struck Kanna right in the face. She opened her eyes. When she looked around, she realized that the sun had come up, and that white light was leaking in through the cracks in the threshold.
The door was unblocked. The crate that had sat in front of it was gone, and as Kanna turned over, she noticed that Goda was also missing. She felt relief at first, as if she had awoken into a different world, as if the past day had merely been some kind of bizarre dream.
But the bed was not empty, and there was evidence of Goda’s presence still: Her outer robes—along with the rest of her clothes—were strewn about on the mat. As Kanna hovered over them, she could still pick up traces of Goda’s smell.
A gleam of metal in the folds of the robes caught her eye. Curiously, she leaned closer. It was an eight-sided symbol etched in bronze, the face of a pendant that was buried in the rolling hills of the fabric. It seemed that it might have fallen out of a pocket, but it looked more like something that belonged strung on a neck chain. A religious emblem? Kanna wondered.
She reached out to touch it, and some of the cloth around it parted in her fingers. The pendant was attached to an iron loop. On that same rusty keyring, a set of keys were also strung.
Kanna’s breath cut out. Her eyes darted momentarily to the cuff on the wrist of her hand, to the small, oval-shaped opening that made up the keyhole of the cuff lock.
She did not hesitate for long. She grabbed the keyring, and with shaky fingers she shoved the first of the keys into the hole. It was far too big, so she tried the next, and then the next. She looked furtively over her shoulder and towards the door every time she tried and failed. Her heart was pounding in her throat; her hands were fumbling; she dropped the set of keys more than once and the jangling sound sent her into a panic.
When she reached the last of the keys, she had grown so frustrated that she tried to force the piece inside. It resisted her. It went in, but it wouldn’t turn. She jiggled it futilely, an unexpected well of tears coming up into her eyes. The instant she pulled it out with an angry jerk—the instant she was about to try every single key again—she was surprised by the sound of some shuffling beyond the door.
Kanna quickly dropped the keys, as if the metal had been heated red-hot in a fire. She froze in place, but when the door did not open, she crept over to the tiny window on the wall. Kanna was barely tall enough to stretch up on her toes and peer through the hazy glass, but even still the scene beyond it made her chest seize up again.
It was Goda. She was crouched not far away, over a bucket of water, bathing herself next to a boulder. Just as she had been the morning before, she was completely naked, only this time she was slathering herself with clean water instead of the contents of a murky rain puddle.
Kanna noticed her legs. From that angle, they struck her more than any other feature. They were flexed hard into the crouch, as if Goda were hovering mid-motion, as if the woman were about to snap into an explosive leap any second. Kanna found it so disturbing that she couldn’t help but stare.
She was distracted enough that it took her a moment to parse the creaking sound that was suddenly filling her ears. She whipped her head to the left, to face the door. Kanna nearly cried out when she saw it opening. She pulled back and put a hand over her eyes as the bright light of the morning expanded in the threshold of the door and overwhelmed her.
When the door closed again, there were spots in her vision. Still, she could tell that it was the innkeeper who was standing in front of her. She held a familiar tray in her hands.
“What? You’re recoiling like I’m some kind of intruder,” Innkeeper Jaya said. “Or perhaps…like you’ve been caught doing something questionable.” She responded to Kanna’s look of surprise with a teasing smile. “What are you up to?”
Before Kanna could make something up, the innkeeper had already surmised from Kanna’s posture, and she stepped over to the window. She didn’t need to stretch. In fact, she hunched down slightly to look out of it. Her eyebrows flicked up when she seemed to catch sight of Goda.
“Ahhh,” she said, pulling back and nodding her head. “I see, I see.” She had a tone that held a complete lack of surprise. “Well, I wouldn’t even give that a try if I were you. Indeed, she’s as ferocious as she looks, and she’ll utterly undo you if it comes to that—but it won’t come to that. She’s far too stoic and hard to provoke.”
Kanna felt a blush creeping up into her face. She tried to fight it; the embarrassment felt unjustified. She looked down towards the floor. “I have no idea what you mean.”
The innkeeper seemed to dismiss her comment and instead offered her the tray, which held much the same contents as the night before. She smirked. “So you’d rather play like you haven’t looked at her like that?” she said after Kanna had gratefully accepted the food. “You may be an Upperlander, but you’re not blind, are you?”
Kanna’s fingers tightened around the tray. “I don’t understand.”
“Goda is a very handsome woman. Surely that hasn’t escaped your notice, even if she does have a dreadful personality.”
“I find her face unpleasant to look at.”
The innkeeper seemed amused. “And the rest of her?”
Jaya’s smile was still laced with much skepticism, but she shrugged in superficial acceptance as she reached for the doorknob beside her. “Very well,” she said. “Goda could be hideous by Upperland standards, for all I know. We all differ in our tastes.”
“I have no taste for her.”
The woman laughed. “So you’ve already said. No need to repeat yourself.” As the innkeeper slipped out the door, the light from outside bothered Kanna a little less. The woman had left the entrance open a crack, and the wind was pushing some sand in from the plain, so Kanna balanced the tray on one arm and reached out to close it.
But a hand appeared out of nowhere and pushed the door back open. Kanna nearly dropped her plate.
“Hey, watch it!” she said without thinking.
When she saw that it was Goda who had appeared in the threshold, she took an automatic step back. When she noticed that the woman was still completely naked, she averted her gaze and tried instead to train her attention on the cracks of the floor.
“What are you doing running around without any clothes on?” Kanna grumbled. “Are all Middlelanders this shameless, or is it just you?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Kanna saw Goda shrug. “It’s not just me. We have to wash ourselves every morning. It’s a religious thing.”
She stepped inside and began rummaging through her strewn clothes. Kanna held her breath and watched, remembering the ordeal from just moments before, nervous that Goda might notice that the keys had been moved.
When Goda said nothing and merely began toweling herself off before throwing on her clothes, Kanna let out a sigh and tried to relax. The woman reached over and plucked the yaw root from the tray that Kanna held in her hands. She smiled before taking a bite.
“Don’t waste your time,” Goda said. “You’re not going to find it.”
Kanna stared at the newly-created space on the plate below. “Find what?”
* * *
Outside, Goda used the greywater from her bath to drench some of the shrubs in the innkeeper’s yard. The plants were leafless, though, and their tangled branches looked so dry that Kanna privately thought to herself that it was a lost cause.
“I wasn’t trying to escape, you know,” Kanna said quickly as she followed Goda into the shriveled garden.
Goda didn’t look at her. “You’re lying.” Still, she didn’t seem at all angered. She had stooped down; she was prodding at the roots of the shrub with her fingers.
Kanna sighed. “Fine, I was,” she admitted. “But what else was I supposed to do? The keys were just sitting there. Am I supposed to ignore a glimmer of hope like that?”
“Hope is for the weak.” Goda dug her hands into the sand and started dislodging some thorny vines that had taken root nearby. “Hope keeps your focus trained on some fantasy, so that you miss what’s right in front of you.”
“Well, I had hoped that the key would be right in front of me.”
“It was,” Goda said, finally looking up at her with a cryptic smile. “That’s why you’ll never find it.”
Kanna crossed her arms. “Your riddles are tiresome.”
But Goda didn’t reply right away. Instead, she knelt down further into the dirt and stared at the bushes in front of her. “I planted these for the innkeeper awhile back,” she murmured, shaking her head, “but since I only come here every few months at the most, no one has been looking after them.”
“What are they?”
“Medicinal plants. These are native to the desert, so I thought they would be harder for Jaya to kill, but she’s a relentless murderer when it comes to this sort of thing. Even just her presence seems to weaken them.” Goda smirked and dumped some more of the water on them. As the drops rained down onto the thirsty sand, a piece of what looked like dried up fruit seemed to catch Goda’s interest. She picked it up and pushed some seeds out of the flesh.
Kanna watched her silently, a new feeling coming over her that she couldn’t quite name. She looked around the garden, at the rows of dead little trees, at the thriving cactus blooms that represented the last bits of greenery that had survived.
Then the obvious finally struck her.
“You built this garden, didn’t you?” Kanna asked.
“It was a long time ago. It was back when I used to visit more frequently.”
Kanna walked to Goda and came to stoop down next to her. She stared at the shrub before them, but she couldn’t recognize what it was, or any of the other plants around them. “Did you avoid coming when you heard that Priestess Rem came to live here?”
It was just a guess, but by Goda’s silence, Kanna wondered if she might have hit an unexpected nerve.
“It was only a matter of time until I would have to come back,” Goda mumbled, entranced by the seeds in her hand. “The prisoners that they assign me—most of them are Middlelanders, so I can take them to any border crossing. But you’re a foreigner. You need to be cleansed or else they won’t let you through. This is the only monastery in the Outerland that will perform it.”
Kanna rolled her eyes. “You Middlelanders and your obsession with Death Flower. You’re wasting your time with these cleanses. Just let people risk their lives if they want. What does it affect anyone if people want to get drunk on the flower, or kill themselves, or whatever it is that they do?”
Goda shook her head. Her eyes were squinting in the light, and her pupils had grown small, but Kanna could see the ring of the sun reflected in them. “Samma Flower doesn’t make people drunk. It’s nothing like that. And in spite of the name and all the rumors, it doesn’t actually kill most people if it’s processed carefully before it’s taken.”
“Well, if it’s possible to take the poison out of it and it doesn’t make you drunk, what’s the problem? Or the point, even?”
“In small doses, Samma Flower is a powerful medicine, which is why so many people covertly seek it out in spite of the law. It also has a much more dangerous function beyond that, one that’s unknown to most: If someone eats enough of it, they can see the Goddess for themselves. It makes the person unruly, because they’re surprised by what they see, and She’s nothing like what the priestesses tell them. So they stop believing.”
Kanna made a face. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why does the government say that it kills you, then?”
Goda stared out over the fence, into the plain. “Most people can’t tolerate enough of the raw flower to get into that altered state safely. They get sick and purge the flower before it affects them, and those who don’t purge can indeed die. Death is always a risk,” she said, “but there are some people who have a tolerance to Samma Flower—the government calls them vessels—and those are the people who take huge amounts and then try to come over the border. When they excrete the flower’s essence from their bodies, a lot of the toxins are neutralized, but the magic still remains. This makes it safe to consume, so people drink these excretions and have otherworldly experiences.”
“‘Excretions’?” Kanna asked, though she already had an inkling; she just didn’t want to picture it.
“Their body fluids—blood, saliva, urine. It all remains potent for several days after the vessel has eaten Samma Flower. That’s why they’re keeping us here for three days. Most vessels are foreigners, so they’re making sure you’re not one of them, and that no one will drink Death from you.”
Kanna shook her head with disbelief. “That’s disgusting. I could never imagine what would drive someone to drink another’s body fluids, for goodness’ sake.”
At that, Goda smirked. “You drank from your mother’s teat, did you not?”
“That’s different, clearly.”
“Is it?” Goda’s expression was cryptic, and Kanna wasn’t sure if she was teasing her yet again.
But Kanna stared right back at her without flinching. She didn’t allow herself to grow irritated this time. “You seem to know a lot about Death,” Kanna said finally. “If I didn’t know better, I would say that you had experienced the flower yourself.”
“I have.” Goda’s smile had grown wider, though she gave a curt nod. “I hardly remember any of it, though, because I nearly died. The first time was when I was a child.”
Kanna’s eyes widened. “What kind of child takes illegal drugs?”
Goda huffed with amusement. “It was on accident. My mothers had gotten hold of some soil imported from Samma Valley—the soil is volcanic, so it’s very fertile, you see—and they were using it to grow some herbs in the garden. A patch of Samma Flowers sprouted up without their noticing at first. The seed must have traveled with the dirt. I was milling around in the yard, back when I was stupid and wanted to eat everything, and I happened to pluck a flower and put it straight into my mouth.”
“You what?” Kanna asked, already horrified by the story. She added quickly, “Then what happened?”
“I’m not sure,” Goda said, her gaze growing a bit unfocused as she seemed to piece the memory together. “I was young—maybe five or six—so it’s hazy now. I remember that the ground started to move, like it was breathing or something, like my breath had become the Earth’s breath. Then I passed out.” She shrugged. “When I came to, one of my mothers was holding me down and the other was trying to make me vomit. I did, and so I survived.”
Kanna leaned back on her heels until she was sitting in the dirt. She stared up at Goda. “You had such a close brush with death, and yet you act so casual about it.” She paused then; she remembered Goda’s exact words. “‘The first time….’ You said the first time you ate Samma Flower, you were a child. There were other times?”
Goda said nothing for a long moment. Her eyes had flicked away again and her face had taken on an expression of disinterest. Eventually, she began to stretch her long body until she was fully on her feet.
“I never saw the Goddess, if that’s why you’re asking.” Her face was framed by the blue sky as Kanna looked up at her in return. “I tried, but I never saw Her. I never swallowed enough.”
“You were willing to risk your life over and over, just to see some spirit that you don’t even believe in?”
“It was only one other time that I did it,” Goda said, “and I didn’t care if I died then.”
Kanna looked closely at Goda’s dark eyes, and for the first time she thought she saw an edge of sadness in them. She turned her gaze back towards the ground and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter now.” Goda began walking towards the opening of the fence, the loose sand billowing up with each of her steps. “It was a long time ago, and after that I vowed to never blaspheme the Goddess again with my actions.”
Kanna stood and dusted herself off. When she looked up, Goda had stepped outside the barrier and was seemingly waiting for her to follow. There was a thoughtful look on her face; she silently regarded Kanna with an unusual focus of attention. Kanna felt awkward under the stare.
“What?” Kanna asked.
Goda said nothing for a long moment. She turned. With her back to Kanna, she said, “Come. We’re going to fetch some more water.”
* * *
In the evening, Kanna found herself once again kneeling in front of a temple assistant. This time, there was a low table between them, and a smattering of papers covering nearly every edge of the surface. Kanna sighed with boredom as the assistant explained the meaning of every paragraph on every page, and so occasionally she would turn slightly and try to meet eyes with Goda.
As before, Goda had stopped just before the gateway. Because Priestess Rem was not there, however, she had sat unceremoniously on the ground, with her side pressed to the stone fence. They were close enough to each other that Kanna caught Goda glancing over her shoulder a few times.
“…And on this one,” the assistant said, passing her a sheet, knocking Kanna a bit out of her daze, “you need to fill in your full name, the name of your mother, and the exact location of your birth.”
The assistant looked at her with irritation. “Exact. The province in the Upperland, the city, the farm, the exact address of the house if it has one.” Her tone made it sound as if it had all been obvious somehow.
“Do I need to mention which room in the house, or that it was on my mother’s kitchen table?” Kanna was being facetious, but the assistant merely shook her head and started sifting through another stack of paperwork.
As Kanna’s pen hovered over the sheet, though, the assistant’s twitchy hand stopped her.
“Oh, that’s right,” she said, “you can’t write in Middlelander script, can you?”
“Excuse me?” Kanna huffed and pulled her hand back. “I know how to write.”
“You can’t use Upperland script on a government form. It has to be written in native Middlelander.”
“I know how to write both scripts just fine, thank you. What do you think I am, some kind of ignorant peasant? You know who my father is, don’t you?” Kanna blurted out. She could hear Goda laughing behind her.
“Well, excuse me, then,” the assistant muttered. “You’re the first Upperlander I’ve met who knows both.”
Kanna rolled her eyes and confidently pressed her pen to the paper. In truth, her skills in written Middlelander actually were a bit rusty, and she found the language nonsensical half the time, but it was the principle of the thing. She was well-educated, and she wasn’t about to tolerate any further insults towards her upbringing.
Kanna slowly carved the words, biting her lip with concentration. She tried to remember how her name was transliterated into Middlelander. When she had been arrested, the guards back at the detainment center had filled out most of the forms for her and had only asked for her signature, but now she regretted not looking at the script more closely.
Still, she persevered. After methodically etching what felt like her entire life story, she handed the page to the assistant, who appeared rather impatient.
“What’s this?” she asked, tilting the page sideways. “Everything looks fancy and hard to read.”
“Oh, I learned the Middlelander script in a calligraphy class. I write Upperlander the same way. My tutor always said that beauty is never frivolous when you’re—”
“Fine, then,” the assistant interrupted her. She pressed the paper to the table. “I can read it—barely—but please print the words next time using the plain block style.”
Kanna gave her a wry look. The assistant handed her another sheet, and Kanna racked her brain to try to remember any alternative styles of the Middlelander script—but before she had set her pen to the paper again, the woman’s hand whacked the table with exasperation.
“What are all the names here on the first line? I don’t understand. Which one is yours?”
Kanna leaned over to look. “Oh, they’re all mine,” she explained. “It’s my full name.”
“Kanna…Leda…Raba, er, Rava…Havma…of the North-Facing Mount of Kehn?”
“Yes, that’s right. There’s more, though. I wrote the rest underneath because I ran out of space.”
The assistant rubbed her face. “All right, which ones are your real names?”
Kanna narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about? They’re all real. Kanna is my given name. Leda was my mother’s name, which is a first daughter’s sacred name in the Upperland. Rava is my family name. Havma was my mother’s father’s—”
But before Kanna could finish, the assistant had taken a pen and struck through every name except for “Kanna” and “Rava.” The woman ignored Kanna’s shocked expression and said brusquely, “Middlelanders only have two names.”
“I’m not a Middlelander.” Kanna leaned across the table and pressed a fist to the wood beneath her.
The assistant seemed to meet her challenge. She leaned closer as well, enough that Kanna could smell her breath when she insisted, “You’ll be living in the Middleland, and all the forms have only space for two names: your given name and your family name.”
“But I’m not a Middlelander,” Kanna repeated. “You can’t just erase my identity with the stroke of a pen!”
“Fine, then,” the woman said, gesturing towards the page, re-reading the scrawl conspicuously, “you can tell me which names you want out of all of these—but it can only be two of them. Who do you want to be? ‘Kanna Rava’? Or perhaps you’d rather be ‘North-Facing Mount’? Does that suit you more?”
Kanna’s anger boiled into the back of her eyes, where it had started to transform into tears against her will. She slammed her hands on the table. She was opening her mouth again, to shout at the woman, but then a voice came trickling smoothly from behind her shoulder.
“She’s right, you know,” Goda said. “People only have two names in this culture. They really have no other way to parse your paperwork. If they don’t shorten your name now, then they certainly will at some office in the Middleland, and in that case you may have no choice in what they decide to call you.”
Kanna let out a breath and retreated, until she was sitting flatly on the ground again. She felt just a pair of tears spill over. They left a trail of heat on her face.
“‘Kanna Rava’ is fine,” she said finally, her tension deflating.
“Listen, I…I didn’t mean to be….” The assistant looked alarmed by Kanna’s emotions. “There’s no reason to cry, all right? I’m not trying to insult you or be insensitive to your culture. It’s just that this is the way things are.”
Kanna nodded in acceptance. She was staring at the table with unfocused eyes, so at first she didn’t notice the presence that had fluttered into their midst.
“What’s all the ruckus about, hm?” The tall figure of Priestess Rem loomed over the assistant. She was smiling the same as always, not a hint of trouble on her face. “I’m sure you don’t mean to disturb the silence of the monastery, but we are about to sound the chime to end the prayers, and the priestesses need to be able to hear it.”
Kanna’s face grew warm with embarrassment. Out of the corner of her eye, she sensed her master glancing up at the woman in black—though Goda quickly turned away again.
“We were just wrapping up the paperwork, Priestess,” the assistant mumbled, her expression similarly laced with shame.
Priestess Rem regarded Kanna for a long moment. “Does she appear free of Death?”
“Yes. I examined her myself before we started.”
“Good. I trust your judgment, Assistant Finn. Her cleanliness is far more important than this bureaucracy.” She waved a hand. “Look, the sun is already waning. We can finish all of this tomorrow.”
“Oh?” The woman’s tone was measured in her superior’s presence, but she was clearly suppressing her annoyance. “We’re almost finished. I only need a bit more information, and then I can fill these out myself.”
The Priestess made a gesture of acceptance and waited.
“I have your mother’s name, but I need to know how many siblings you have, and all of their names as well,” the assistant said, looking over at Kanna again.
Kanna opened her mouth at first to name every one of her father’s children—but then she thought about it and asked instead, “Do my half-siblings count?”
“My father had four households with four different wives. Do the children from my father’s other wives count as siblings?”
The assistant threw a confused look at Priestess Rem, but the priestess did not return it. She was observing Kanna with that same fixed smile.
“Eh, well, did either of your mothers—I mean, did your one mother,” Assistant Finn corrected herself, “have any children besides you? We consider any children from the same mother to be siblings. Men can’t have children, after all.” She had mumbled the last part.
Kanna didn’t answer right away, but when the tension of expectation became too much, she finally said, “I…was an only child, then.”
The assistant seemed to have sensed her hesitation. “Are you sure?”
“Well….” Kanna’s shoulders slumped and she leaned her weight against the table. She looked off towards the side, at the slice of dim desert that hovered over the fence. “I had a twin, but she died during childbirth and so she never used her name. Does she have to be listed as well?”
“No,” Finn said in a quiet voice, her expression awkward, if lightly sympathetic. Before long, she had gathered the pages that were strewn across the table and began to make notes on them. Kanna could hear the vague scratching of the pen, a sound that made her wonder what other lies of omission those papers were telling about her.
Thinking that she was being dismissed, Kanna stood, but before she could turn around to the gateway, the priestess waved her over.
“Come.” Her face looked friendly. “Let us go into the sanctuary of the temple for a minute, so that you may get to know the Goddess.”
This seemed to finally stir Goda. Kanna could hear her getting up from the sands beyond the threshold.
“My priestess,” Goda said, her tone respectful, but nonetheless laced with an edge of displeasure. “Kanna Rava is an Upperlander, and she doesn’t share our faith. You may be able to compel her because she’s a slave, but don’t you think this interferes with the religious freedoms that she has under the law?”
“Isn’t it said that in every word a priestess speaks, there is a seed of the law that should be obeyed?” the woman openly chided her. Even still, the priestess’s expression hadn’t changed. “And I am telling you right now, Goda, to be still and shut your mouth. Kanna Rava can come inside and see the Goddess Mahara for herself, and then Kanna Rava can decide for herself if she loves the Goddess the way you and I do.”
Goda’s jaw tightened, but she said nothing more and she took a step back. Her posture seemed to say that she had given in.
“Tell me, Goda,” the Priestess said, after glancing at the cuff on Kanna’s wrist, “how far of a space do we have to wander? Can we make it to the sanctuary without incident?”
“Probably—though I may have to walk along the outside of the fence to accommodate my priestess.”
“Then please do so, if the cuff begins to alert you. We don’t need a foreigner screaming and twitching all over the floor of the temple. It would interrupt the evening prayers.”
With that, the Priestess turned and began walking further into the grounds, as if she were expecting Kanna to follow. Kanna glanced back at Goda one last time, but the woman’s face was mostly blank. Only her eyes held a sign of resentment.
Kanna sighed and shuffled after the figure in black.
“It pains me to hear about your sister,” the priestess said without looking at her. “I am also a twin myself.”
Kanna tilted her head, not sure what to say in response to that. “What an odd coincidence,” she murmured softly after some silence had passed.
“Not really. Twins and triplets are very common in the Middleland. Most of them are fraternal, but many are born identical as well. You may have noticed that a few of the assistants look alike, have you?”
Kanna reflected on this. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “They all look very much alike to me.” At least after this revelation, Kanna had a better idea of how the Middlelanders might have populated the continent so thoroughly.
The priestess chuckled into the back of her hand, but she didn’t reply.
Kanna’s bare feet scraped against the stone as they followed the path between the towers. She looked up at the structures, and now that she saw them up close, they seemed to change shape yet again. They were less like the cylinders she had originally perceived, and more like tall, rounded humps that jutted out of the earth.
Tucked behind one of the towers, the walkway turned into a clearing surrounded by looming stone walls, and Kanna let out a breath of surprise when they entered. It was a garden, lush with greenery that didn’t match the desert in the least.
Water flowed nearby into what looked like a small human-made pond. Bushes and vines grew up to adorn the barriers that encased the yard. Different plants that Kanna did not recognize lay all throughout the space, and electric lights sprouted out from the ground to light them in a beautiful, violet-tinted glow. At the center, there was a fountain. It sputtered with the energy of a geyser and Kanna felt the mist of its waters as she walked past.
“What is this place?” she whispered. Then she saw that in a corner of the garden, there were a few rows of priestesses kneeling in prayer, and she suddenly regretted speaking.
“It’s the temple garden,” Priestess Rem told her. “In most monasteries, it lies close to the sanctuary. It’s where we grow all the herbs, and flowers, and fruits that please the Goddess.”
As she walked through the oasis, Kanna felt a faint twinge of pain radiating from her forearm, but it faded in a matter of seconds. She pressed her hand to the cuff on her wrist. Goda must have moved, she thought.
The priestess led her up a stone staircase. It was only half a dozen steps high, and when they reached the top there were no doors. The sanctuary lay open. As soon as Kanna had stepped onto the final ledge, she could peer down the hallway and see the form of the Goddess gazing back at her.
Her breath hitched. The idol was made entirely of gold. It shimmered in the warm lamp light of the sanctuary, and its eyes regarded Kanna with love, one hand stretched out in what seemed like a gesture of welcome. The Goddess’s other hand was pressed against her own chest, holding up her breast as if in offering.
Kanna met the statue’s gaze directly, and they stared at each other for a long time. She had never seen anything like it in her life.
“Come deeper inside,” Priestess Rem whispered. The woman advanced down the open corridor, but even without the encouragement, Kanna would have felt compelled to come closer. She felt herself drawn in, as if some invisible force were trying to join her with the Goddess.
As she walked further into the sanctuary, the air grew warmer, and she realized that the lights inside were from torches with searing fires. She and the priestess were the only mortals in the otherwise empty room, but Kanna didn’t find the privacy uncomfortable with the Goddess watching over them.
When they reached the foot of the altar, the priestess told her to kneel. Without a second thought, she did, and she stared in awe up at the idol. It didn’t even seem like a statue, Kanna thought. The Goddess felt fully alive. Up close, Kanna could almost sense the heat of that golden skin.
Her concentration broke only when she heard strange words hissing softly through the chamber. She thought at first that it had been the Goddess speaking to her in some incantation, so she lifted her head to gaze at the idol’s lips.
But then she realized that the voice was merely human. She hadn’t caught the words at first, but she found it strange that the accent sounded like….
“As beautiful as it is to see another soul connect with the Blessed Mother,” Priestess Rem said in Kanna’s native language, “I didn’t actually bring you here to convert you. I hope the Goddess can forgive me for using this sanctuary as a pretense for a private conversation.”