Kanna stared at the priestess, completely taken aback. “You can speak Upperland tongue?” she stammered in amazement, though even still she tried to keep her voice quiet.
“I can speak many tongues. That’s why they sent me here,” the priestess said. “But more importantly, no one else here can speak Upperlander—and certainly not Goda Brahm, so there’s no chance that she can overhear.”
“I understand, but isn’t Porter Goda near the threshold? She does remind me of an animal sometimes, but I can’t imagine that she has the ears of a wildcat.”
“She’s not at the threshold. She’s standing on the other side of the far wall of the garden, just beyond the fence. She moved. You sensed it, didn’t you?”
“How did you know that?” Kanna asked, newly perplexed.
The priestess gave her an enigmatic look. “I saw you twitch—but also, I can tell where she is most of the time if she’s close enough. Call it a sixth sense.”
“Because you’re a priestess?”
“No.” She looked away from the Goddess. “Goda and I are bound together by fate in a manner that I cannot freely explain to you, because it’s in a manner that the Holy Mother disapproves of, a manner ill-suited for a priestess. Though I had hoped that through years of prayer, I would have been able to cut this thread that held us hostage to each other, I realize now that it isn’t true. The moment that I saw Goda’s face yesterday, every old emotion erupted in me. I had ungodly thoughts. We never know what we can tolerate until we’re tested, I suppose.”
Kanna hesitated, not sure how much was appropriate to ask. “Were the two of you…married or something like that?” she guessed.
Priestess Rem gave her a crooked smile. “Priestesses cannot marry or even leave the clergy, except under very limited circumstances. Goda also cannot marry, for different reasons—and to be frank, I would not…encourage any person to view her as a suitable partner.” She seemed to have chosen her words carefully. She was cringing. “But I didn’t ask you here to burden you with our tedious history, which is none of your business. I took you alone to ask about Goda and your present situation.”
“What do you need to know?”
“Tell me…,” the priestess began. She had a strange tone of voice; she was staring at Kanna with absolute attention. “Has Porter Goda abused you in any way?”
“Has she beaten you? Denied you food as punishment? Has she…forced herself on you when you were alone? If she has,” the priestess said quickly, “you should accuse her now, so that we can free you from her and seek a different porter.”
Kanna pulled back in surprise. A barrage of confused thoughts filled her head, and at first she really did consider the possibility of implicating her temporary master. Still, Goda had not yet laid a finger on her except to restrain her, and she wasn’t entirely sure that a new master wouldn’t end up being someone much crueler—or worse, someone so delicate that they wouldn’t be able to safely see her to her destination.
That was the paradox of Goda Brahm: Kanna was afraid of her because she was huge and brutish, but it was precisely the woman’s ferocity that left her with little worry that anyone else would attack her.
More importantly, the Goddess was still watching Kanna from above. Kanna found herself shaking her head, deciding on the truth by default. “She’s tied me up and she’s offered empty threats, but she hasn’t beaten me. She hasn’t denied me any essentials, either, to be perfectly honest. At first I was angry with the situation, but then I saw another slave here and his circumstances weren’t much better than mine.”
The priestess seemed to deflate a little. It was only then that Kanna realized the woman had been carrying an anticipatory tension. “I see,” she said, and Kanna wasn’t sure if the woman sounded disappointed, or if it was simply her own imagination. “Well, if she hasn’t acted illegally and you won’t accuse her, then there’s little we can do for you—but I will warn you to be very cautious of this woman. She’s dangerous for many reasons. She must follow general orders from the government, but she will do her job at all costs, even if it means committing a crime.”
“What kinds of crimes?” Kanna found herself asking. She wondered now all of a sudden if she should change her answer.
“Any kind. Just about the only thing she won’t do is commit a crime against the temple, and she considers her orders to transport you to be the unquestionable commandment of the Goddess herself. She’s extremely religious, but she only fully converted to the Cult of Mahara as a teenager, so she’s obsessed with making up for her past sins and torturing herself through her work.”
Kanna stared at her with astonishment. “Past sins?” This didn’t make any sense to her, especially considering that Goda had claimed that she didn’t even believe in the Goddess.
The priestess waved her hand. “That doesn’t matter now. Blessed Mahara forgives all, though I myself falter in that respect. However, even as a priestess, I will tell you that a religious person can be most dangerous of all. Goda may follow religious restrictions, and she may wash herself every morning, and pray every evening, and obey the orders of every priestess, but there is no compassion in her heart, so it all means nothing. If she can use religion to justify hurting you, then she will.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?” Kanna stammered.
“Because you don’t belong here. Only criminals can be slaves in the Middleland, and you’re only a criminal through technicality, so of course I’m sympathetic. It’s my role as a priestess to offer you the infinite acceptance of the Goddess, but I’m limited in what I can do for you legally unless you accuse Goda of a crime. It’s a chore to get the bureaucracy to care about what happens to a foreign slave, but the word of a priestess will help you.”
Kanna glanced up at the Goddess again, and the motherly gaze was unchanged. “If I accuse Porter Goda,” Kanna asked, “will that set me free?”
“No. You would just go with another porter to your assigned factory in the Middleland and complete your ten years of hard labor, and Goda would be confined for investigation. Though I wish I could free you myself, even a priestess cannot free a slave before the sentence is over…generally speaking.”
Kanna gave her a curious look. “Please tell me.”
“It’s not worth worrying about,” the priestess said to her, shaking her head. “The only way to free a slave early is for a priestess to marry the slave. It’s a serious statement that the slave is innocent of the crime, but it requires a huge sacrifice from the priestess, because she has to immediately leave the priesthood and she can never divorce her wife.” She smiled with empathy. “So you see, it would be hard to find a priestess that would choose you over the Holy Mother. It’s like we’re already married to our Goddess.”
Kanna nodded with understanding, a bit disappointed. In truth, she wasn’t sure if she would trade her ten years of servitude for a lifetime of marriage to a strange woman, anyway.
As she glanced again at the altar, her mind swimming with thoughts, she allowed herself to be distracted by the details instead of by the idol’s powerful gaze. She looked at the intricate carvings on the wood below, and the collection of offerings and amulets, and the strange script that was etched in bronze on a pair of vessels near the idol’s feet. Her eyes stopped suddenly at a design that was engraved beneath the writing. She felt her chest tighten uncomfortably, but she didn’t know why.
“That symbol…,” Kanna said. She stared at the eight-sided outline, and the circle that it enclosed, and the lines that passed through the center and shot out across every edge. “It’s the same one that was on a pendant I saw, one that Porter Goda has.”
The priestess followed the direction of Kanna’s gaze and furrowed her brow. “You mean one like this?” She reached into the neck of her robe and produced the same pendant that Kanna had seen on the keyring.
Kanna’s eyes widened. “Yes! Yes, that’s it.”
“Are you sure? It’s usually only priestesses who will carry this.”
A vague thought that had been floating in the back of Kanna’s mind fully connected just then. “Is Porter Goda…?” Kanna stopped, unsure if she should ask. “Was Porter Goda ever a priestess? I know that she used to work at the monastery in…Samma Valley, I think?”
But the priestess seemed amused by the question. “Perhaps that was the intention of her parents when they sent her there, that she might warm up to the priesthood and make them proud; but no, Goda Brahm has never been a priestess. I think if she had ever tried to be initiated, the Goddess herself would have struck her down with a bolt of lightning.”
Kanna would have laughed if the priestess hadn’t said the last part so flatly. Instead, she whispered in confirmation, “That’s the pendant that I saw.” Even still, some part of her regretted mentioning it.
“I think I know from where she might have stolen it, a long time ago—but it’s best if I focus on the present moment, or else even this will bring me towards ungodly thoughts.”
“Why are you so angry with Goda Brahm?” The only reason the words had left her mouth at all was because she was speaking in her native tongue, where she felt more comfortable and familiar.
Priestess Rem regarded her with a sad smile. “Because I am a poor example of a priestess, even if it is only today that I’ve realized it. A priestess isn’t supposed to ever hold a grudge.” She looked up at the Goddess before them. “I thought I was righteous, but I have been humbled. If I had half the honor that I pretend I have, I would defrock myself right now in front of you, and fall on the floor begging the Goddess for forgiveness.”
“In my heart, I have destroyed Goda Brahm a hundred times,” she said, her smile transforming into a grimace of pain, “and a sin of the heart is just the same as that of the flesh.”
And so it seemed that the priestess did not want to tell her. Kanna trained her gaze on the fiery glow of a torch, though she felt the Goddess watching her from the corner of her eye. When she turned back to look at the priestess, the woman was kneeling in prayer.
Not long after, when they walked outside, the priestess stopped by a pillar near the entrance to the temple sanctuary, and she struck a small bell with a mallet. Right away, the rows of prostrated women dissipated, and the garden became empty.
“If there’s anything else you want to tell me, Slave Rava—anything at all—then tell me soon, before Goda takes you away the morning after tomorrow.” The priestess began walking down the steps of the sanctuary, and she switched back to the Middleland tongue when she said: “Just think about what fate has offered you. Otherwise, you’re dismissed for tonight. You have seen the Goddess for yourself.”
* * *
At the gateway, Kanna found no one except for the assistant, who was still busy with paperwork. Kanna shuffled quickly past her, wary that she might be asked another set of annoying questions, but the woman didn’t even look up.
It was only once she came up to the threshold that she saw Goda coming around the corner of the stone fence. The priestess had been right: Goda had been wandering around—but she wasn’t alone. Walking beside her, clinging to her arm and talking to her animatedly, was Parama Shakka. Goda’s face was serious as usual, but she was nodding her head, glancing down at him with something that bordered on affection. Kanna felt her own face twitch involuntarily. She wasn’t sure why.
When they both reached the gateway, Parama left Goda’s side to hand Assistant Finn a sheet of paper.
“What’s this?” the woman asked with a weary sigh. “Word that the fuel shortage is over, I hope?”
“No, not at all!” Parama said, smiling. “A messenger just came by. She had a letter from the monastery in Samma Valley. I already looked at it. They’re asking if we know any translators who can read or write…any of these languages.” He pointed to the page while the assistant glanced over it with a displeased look. “I don’t even know what half of these are. Do you, Assistant Finn?”
“What happened? Has Priestess Rem’s replacement already quit on them so soon? I can’t imagine they could possibly be struggling to get work done in that empty valley. The assignments aren’t exactly flowing towards them in torrents.”
“Kind of makes you wonder what they’re up to now, hm?” Parama murmured. “Maybe they’ve discovered something new out there.”
The assistant dropped the letter onto her stack of paperwork. “It’s not your place to be speculating about the sacred work of the priestesses,” she chided him.
Kanna found the reprimand to be hypocritical, considering that the woman had just criticized the monastery herself, but Parama didn’t seem to notice and he apologized anyway. Perhaps it’s not so much about what you say, Kanna thought, so much as who says it.
Goda turned to leave and, without exchanging a word between them, both Kanna and Parama began following her at the same time. Kanna looked at him. He was giving her a strange little smile, as if they were co-conspirators sharing some secret, and she didn’t know how to respond to it.
Parama shuffled ahead. He reached Goda’s side again and took a handful of her sleeve. “Porter Goda, why don’t you come by my cabin tonight? I rearranged my room since you were last here. Don’t you want to see what I’ve done with the place?”
Goda glanced down at him with a smirk. “What’s so interesting about the position of your furniture?” she asked, but still she allowed him to pull her in a different direction, until they were headed to the opposite side of the plain.
Kanna reluctantly followed.
“We can have fun, the three of us,” Parama said, giving Kanna a friendly smile. “We can make a fire and eat yaw together.”
“No thank you,” Kanna said. She could still taste the bitter root in her mouth, even a day later.
“That’s fine! We can do something else, then. We can do all sorts of things!”
Goda seemed amused by his enthusiasm, but Kanna was still unsettled by it all. He’s so young, she thought. Certainly she didn’t like the unspoken air that floated between him and Goda. There was a physical tension of some kind there, and Kanna didn’t want to even imagine what it implied.
“The priestess seemed bothered last time she saw the three of us together,” Kanna mumbled.
“Oh, that’s just because she’s old fashioned! Goda won’t do anything to me.” He grinned and looked over his shoulder at Kanna. “Trust me, I’ve tried plenty of times.”
Upon hearing that, Kanna finally couldn’t take it anymore. She pursed her lips and shook her head. “How old are you, anyway?” she blurted out. “Should you really be trying to run around seducing grown women, when you’re, what? Fifteen, sixteen?”
Parama’s eyebrows flicked up. Goda laughed. They had both turned around to look at her, and Kanna didn’t like the amused smirks that they were throwing her way. It made her feel dumb—but she had already grown used to the feeling by then.
“You’re about my age, right?” Goda said, turning to Parama. “Three years younger or something?”
“I just turned twenty-two this past year,” he said.
“Right, three years younger, then.”
They both turned back around and kept walking. Kanna slowed her steps and stared at the both of them. She wasn’t sure which she found more disturbing: the fact that Parama was actually older than she herself was, or the fact that Goda was only twenty-five.
How had the woman been through so much in such a short time? The priestess had held a grudge against Goda for at least nine years, it seemed. What could Goda have possibly done at the age of sixteen that would have warranted such hatred? And how could they have then assigned the dangerous job of a porter to a teenager?
There were so many unanswered questions—but because it was none of her business, she merely trudged on, turning her gaze to the ground, shaking her head.
When they reached Parama’s house, it looked more like a shack than a cabin. The wooden walls shook and groaned as the wind blew, and Parama had to kick the bottom of the front door to get it to slide open all the way.
“Well, here it is!” he said. He hopped onto the bed—a simple mattress on a platform of wooden slats—and patted the space next to him while looking up at Goda.
Instead of sitting down, Goda nudged Kanna to take the spot. Kanna sighed and conceded, if only because she wasn’t in the mood to witness any other advances from the boy towards her master. When she sat, he didn’t seem at all displeased with her, though; in fact, he looked at her with a welcoming curiosity.
“So, Slave Kanna Rava, is it?” he said. “I know you’re not in the Middleland officially yet, but how are you liking it so far outside your native country?”
Kanna stared at him. “Is that a serious question?”
“I kind of get the impression that you’ve never traveled much before. Isn’t the Outerland just beautiful?” He gave her knee a friendly smack. “The sunrise every morning tints the cliffs in such a wonderful purple hue. I could just sit there and bask in it for ages!”
Kanna had absolutely no idea how to respond. She would have lashed out at him perhaps, or called him insensitive to her predicament, had she not known that he was also a slave. She wasn’t sure what to make of someone who seemed so ignorant and oblivious to the injustice of his own situation.
She cleared her throat and looked around the room. She noticed that Goda had wandered into a corner and had begun ignoring the both of them in favor of the contents of a small bookshelf. Kanna sighed.
“How…long have you been a slave, exactly?” she asked. Maybe the boy was still in some kind of denial that he had yet to wake up from, because his trauma might still have been fresh.
“Oh, about three years now, I think. They arrested me when I was nineteen.”
Kanna made a face. Same as me, she thought. She had just turned nineteen the month before, when the Upperland government had officially dissolved and conceded authority to the Middleland, and her family members had split up to avoid their respective punishments for years of resistance.
Besides herself and her father and his fourth wife, she wasn’t sure who else had been caught trying to hide in the desert. Of course, avoiding the Middleland had become nearly impossible at that point, as the culture had spread to nearly every part of the continent. There had been nowhere to hide, really.
But still, Kanna had tried to resist—just as her father had resisted, just as her grandfather had, and his grandfather. For hundreds of years, they had dodged the encroachment of the Middleland. And now that their lands were taken, and their connections had dissolved, and their family name was tarnished, she wasn’t even sure in whose name she was applying her resistance anymore.
Will all the defiance that’s still left in me slowly peter away? Kanna thought to herself. Will I lose my will to fight? In three years, will I be just like this boy? Ditsy and simple-minded and amused by something as mundane as the rising sun?
The boy stared at her with that simple-minded smile, as if he were waiting for some reply. Kanna looked down at her hands and tried to swallow through the empty feeling in her gut.
“You’re older than I thought you were,” Kanna told him. “I’m sorry I made so many assumptions about you. People look a lot different around here, and I’m only starting to get used to it.”
Parama giggled and waved his hand. “Oh, that’s quite all right! From what I hear, grown Upperland men look beastly and old compared to the women, so I can see why you would make that mistake.”
Kanna raised an eyebrow. She had never heard anything like that before, and all the men she had ever known looked quite normal to her, but she decided not to comment about it, lest they end up in some racist argument.
Instead, she glanced directly at his face and studied his features again. She decided that it wasn’t so much that he looked that young physically—although he did pass for younger than he claimed—it was more that his eyes held a spotless innocence to them. She found this supremely disturbing. It was like a feminine version of Goda’s masculine indifference; she couldn’t fathom the blind acceptance that they both projected.
“Still…,” Kanna found herself saying. “Even if you were arrested at nineteen, what could you possibly have done to warrant slavery?” More importantly, how can you just accept it? she thought—but she didn’t say that part aloud.
Parama made a face. For the first time, he looked slightly troubled, and though Kanna hated herself for it, she actually found herself feeling relieved at the barest sign of his pain. She wanted to see more of it, but the better part of her overrode her morbid feelings.
“I’m sorry,” Kanna said quickly. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. I shouldn’t have asked.”
Goda looked up from a book that she had been perusing, but after she glanced quickly at Parama’s face and seemed to make some kind of snap judgment, she looked back down and continued to ignore them.
“No, no, it’s quite all right,” Parama said, scratching the back of his head. “What happened was…I was arrested for aiding and abetting a criminal. They found my sister to be in possession of a stash of Samma Flower, you see. I don’t know where she got it from, or why she had it, or even how the authorities found out about it, but since I lived with her and I hadn’t turned her in, they claimed that I knew about it and must have been helping her evade the law.”
Kanna took in a sharp breath of indignation. “What? How could they just assume that about you?” she cried, in a voice a bit louder than she had intended. She tried to calm herself down, but she found the whole ordeal so ridiculous, that she couldn’t believe it. “That’s entirely unjust! What kind of country is this?”
She glanced up at Goda again and found that the woman still had her eyes glued to a book—but that there was a tiny smirk growing on her face. Indeed, it had been exactly as Goda had said: Parama’s crime was so minuscule—even nonexistent—that Kanna felt outraged for him.
Parama, for his part, shrugged. His face had returned to its usual base level of nonchalance, except for an edge of empathy—which Kanna realized with some horror was meant for her. “It’s okay,” he said, patting her on the shoulder, as if to comfort her. “Really, it’s okay. It doesn’t bother me that much anymore, to be honest. I may have no free will of my own, but I was able to do many things I had never done before, and I met a lot of great people. If I hadn’t been arrested, I probably wouldn’t have met Porter Goda, either.”
“Why are you so sure that’s a good thing?” Kanna muttered, pressing her fingers hard against her face. She fought the urge to rip herself away from Parama’s consoling hand. When she dared to look between her fingers at Goda once again, she found that the woman was gazing back at her this time with a curious look.
I myself am not even sure, Kanna thought as she stared at her. I can’t really say for sure that it was a good thing that I met Goda Brahm; or that it was a good thing that I didn’t burst her skull open with that steel bat on the first night; or that it was a good thing that I didn’t accuse her of some false crime to Priestess Rem when I had the chance.
She knew nothing about Goda Brahm. That in and of itself didn’t bother her. She knew nothing about most of the people she ran into.
The problem with Goda was that Kanna knew nothing—but she wanted to know everything. And yet there seemed to be no one behind those eyes to get to know. It wasn’t that Goda was hiding anything from her; it was that Goda was almost certainly empty and stupid and shallow, just as the boy was. Otherwise, how could they have survived their respective situations—one, a slave, and the other banished by the clergy of her own religion?
When Goda had turned away again, Kanna felt Parama leaning suddenly close. “Don’t you like Porter Goda?” he whispered, low enough that he seemed to be trying to keep Goda from hearing. His tone was one of genuine curiosity.
“I don’t know,” she said, because she didn’t.
“Maybe you’re afraid of her, like I was,” he murmured, his voice still soft, “but aren’t you curious about her, too? Sometimes fear and curiosity come from the same place, you know.”
When he said this, Kanna didn’t know how to reply. She sat up a little straighter and gave him a look of uncertainty.
He only responded with a smile. “I hope you get what you want from her.”
A loud thump broke through Kanna’s words and severed the small connection she had made with Parama all at once. Kanna blinked, as if jerked awake from a trance, and she turned to the other side of the room to see that Goda had smacked the book closed in her hand. She was looking at the both of them with amusement.
“I’m taking this,” Goda announced, holding up the small tome.
Parama tilted his head. “But it’s mine.”
Goda opened her robe and glanced inside, as if she were looking for a suitable pocket. “I know. I’m taking it anyway.”
“You can’t just steal that right in front of me!” Parama shot up off the bed and took a few marching steps towards Goda. Kanna stared at him; his anger seemed to have come out of nowhere. Within seconds, he had switched from empathy to rage.
Goda looked unimpressed by the antics. She searched some more through her robes and, having seemingly found a good spot, began to slide the book inside. Kanna’s disapproving look only seemed to buttress Parama’s outrage. He reached out and clasped his small hand around Goda’s wrist before she had fully dropped the loot into a pouch.
“Give it back!” he said.
Goda appeared to be taken by surprise, but her answer was typical: “No.”
“Well…I’ll make you, then!”
“I don’t know!” he shouted. He tugged at her hand futilely. “I’ll try to stop you somehow!”
“Oh, then I’ll hit you.” She didn’t sound very serious, though.
“Fine, hit me then, but I’m not letting you just take what you want from me!” He pushed two open palms against Goda’s torso and glared at her with gritted teeth, until Goda took a step back with a mixture of bewilderment and laughter on her face.
Kanna felt similarly bewildered. Just a moment before, the boy had been so complacent, to the point that it had even disturbed her; now he was trying to pick a fight with a woman who was nearly twice his size, over one tiny book that she had pilfered from his shelf.
He pushed Goda again and tried to reach into her robes, but she grabbed him by the arm and jerked his hand away. He rammed his body into her and she pushed him back. He tried to grab her sleeves and she took him by the wrists instead. After letting out a cry of frustration, he wrestled away from her and started to run away—and to Kanna’s astonishment, Goda actually chased him.
The woman chased him into a corner and seized him and pressed him against the wall. It was only then that Kanna noticed how they grinned at each other.
“What are you even doing, boy?” Goda huffed, seemingly a bit out of breath, pinning his struggling arms to his sides and trying to stifle his half-hearted kicks with her knees.
The boy was squirming, but he had locked his gaze with Goda, and a strange, intense energy had filled the room. Parama’s eyes were no longer empty as they had been before; they were quite full…of something.
Kanna felt her heart beating wildly in her chest. For a split second, she felt the pressure of Goda’s hands on her own arms, as if it were she herself who was pressed against the wall in the boy’s stead. She wanted to tear her eyes away, but she couldn’t. A strange feeling vibrated up her legs.
She had to do something. She didn’t know what, but some force inside of her wanted to act—or to be acted upon. Without thinking, she jumped off the bed and rushed Goda, and she pushed her way between the two of them.
“Stop!” she cried. “Let him go!”
Again, Goda seemed taken by surprise. She shifted her weight to avoid the onslaught, but her arms slipped and she shoved Kanna against a nearby table with the force of her inertia. The contents on top of the pedestal shook; a few wax candles tumbled onto the floor. Kanna winced when she realized that the back of her leg had hit a sharp corner of the wood.
It had clearly been an accident—Kanna’s own fault—but still, some disproportionate fury came over her. She slammed her hands hard against Goda in retaliation, enough that it made the woman’s tall frame jerk in place. Goda took a few steps back, but she didn’t respond. She only stared down with an expression that had grown abruptly serious.
“What?” Kanna snapped. “Are you going to hit me or something?”
The energy dissipated when Goda turned away. The woman trudged back over to the other side of the room, and it was suddenly like nothing had even happened. Internally, though, Kanna still could not completely let go of the feeling. A ghost of that strange electric buzzing still rushed through her bones.
Parama had not moved from his place against the wall. Kanna’s first instinct was to charge at Goda again, but when Parama grabbed at Kanna’s sleeve, she came to her senses soon enough.
“Stop,” he pleaded, his voice emerging as a whisper.
Kanna let out a loud huff. “I’m sorry,” she said to him.
Because the scuffle had soured the mood, it wasn’t long before Parama had explained that he was getting tired and Goda had quickly accepted his excuse. She ushered Kanna out the door and they made their way through the open plain in silence.
Kanna seethed as she shuffled through the sand, kicking up dirt that danced around in clouds before landing on the back of Goda’s robes. She was still angry, but she didn’t know why. Some deep frustration had been slowly overcoming her, and watching the struggle between Goda and the boy had triggered her into action.
She came up closer behind Goda, her hands clenched at her sides. “Why won’t you fight me?” she finally shouted. “Why will you fight him, but not me? Why will you push him, and chase him, and hit him, but you won’t even react to me?”
Goda spun to face her, the gravel billowing up all around her feet. She stopped so suddenly that Kanna nearly ran into her. “Because he’s just playing with me,” Goda said, her voice deep and severe. “You’re actually serious.”
When Goda turned and began walking again, Kanna only sped up her own furious steps to keep up with the woman’s long strides. “You’re damn right I’m serious! How can I not be? Every second with you is like a threat that never sees fruition! Every time I look at those looming shoulders of yours and that unfeeling, insolent face, I feel like I’m on the verge of being attacked. It makes me sick! It makes me wish that you would just tear me limb from limb already, so that I can finally rid myself of this constant fear!”
“Are you insane?” Goda called out without looking at her. Hearing Goda raise her voice gave Kanna an odd satisfaction, and she still wasn’t sure why. “You actually want me to beat you?”
“No! I want you to—”
And then Kanna stopped dead in her tracks. She knew exactly what she wanted.
But she erased it from her mind before she could become fully conscious of it. It felt dangerous. Her chest tightened from sensing even just the surface of it. The echoes of her throbbing heart were growing ever more distracting inside her.
There were other parts of her that were throbbing, too. She couldn’t understand it. She wanted something—but she didn’t dare picture what it was, even though it was too late to deny it; she already knew. She was anxious that Goda had also figured it out.
Goda didn’t ask anything. She only kept walking, and so with some relief, Kanna followed from a few paces behind until that intense, unnameable feeling began to fade. Still, some edges of it remained that were hard to shake off.
Once they wandered close to the inn, that low rumbling inside of her blended with a louder rumbling outside. The ground was moving beneath her feet. She lifted her eyes from the sand to find the source of the sound, and the hot, noxious breath of a monster struck her in the face.
It was the tailpipe of a truck that coughed out smoke. Many times larger than Goda’s rig, a searing heat emanated from every corner of the beast, as if the whole thing was bursting with some internal fire.
From the side of the truck that hovered over the both of them like a building, a woman with bulky shoulders emerged. She was wearing the uniform of a soldier and she looked down at them from the open door of the truck.
“Are the two of you temple assistants or some’in?” the woman asked. Kanna had trouble understanding her specific Middlelander accent at first, and it didn’t help that the woman was chewing on a cigar.
“Nope,” Goda answered, much too casually. “Try someone else, buddy.”
The soldier scratched her head and looked across the plain. “Well, someone’s gotta bring us dinner, nah?”
Kanna followed the soldier’s gaze and she saw an expanse of dozens of trucks, all just as huge as the first, some filled with cargo, and others heavily armored. All of them rumbled with life, as if they had only just pulled into the compound. She gaped at the scene, but because Goda had ignored them and kept walking, she could not stare for long.
As they cut across the yard to reach their quarters, Goda muttered with irritation, “Behold, your father’s poison in action.”
Again, Kanna had no idea what she meant, but she was too exhausted to inquire any further. For all she knew, it was just another one of Goda’s riddles.
* * *
That night, Goda was even more stoic and quiet than usual. While Kanna ate her dinner, Goda ignored her and washed her tunic in a bucket of cold water. They said absolutely nothing to each other for the rest of the evening. After Goda hung her clothes up in the storage room to dry, she crawled into bed naked and huffed out the light in silence.
For awhile, Kanna couldn’t sleep because the sounds of the soldiers making merry with Innkeeper Jaya were disturbing her. Goda appeared to not even notice them, her body growing still, her breaths turning steady in no time at all.
Kanna could see the entire spread of the woman’s nude back in the moonlight. She had seen it before, but never so closely, and never for so long. Even when the voices next door finally died down and the whole of the compound seemed to go to sleep, Kanna found it hard to close her eyes. Instead, she watched Goda’s body—the back of her shoulders, the sides of her torso, the edges of her hips—rising and falling with each breath.
Kanna couldn’t fathom how, in spite of it all, Goda could be so serene. Even in that moment, in the dead of night, all that Kanna could feel simmering in her own body was some rush of tight frustration. It had never left her since their fight. It had kept her awake. She tossed and turned in bed, and even as the moon moved in the sky framed by the window, she still could not overcome the feeling.
So she watched Goda calmly sleeping, and she felt the frustration grow. But something in the energy of that frustration moved through her more and more. She found herself reaching across the small distance between them.
Her fingers lightly grazed Goda’s back. It was warm. She pressed her hand fully against the muscles of those shoulders and slid her fingers along the flesh. The skin itself was surprisingly soft to the touch—young, flexible—but the meat underneath was hard and overworked.
That strange sensation was creeping back up Kanna’s legs. It spooked her enough that when Goda stirred a little, she snapped her hand back.
Goda didn’t wake up. She slept, her body still relaxed, unaware, unconcerned with what was going on beside her. A mix of emotions fluttered in Kanna’s chest—but one of them rose to the surface.
The frustration had reached a climax. She made a fist. She pulled her arm back and slammed it with every ounce of her strength against Goda’s body. Her knuckles cracked loudly on impact. The force of the pain woke Kanna up from her own stupor that very second.
What the hell did I just do?
Before the sound of the punch had even echoed through the room, Goda flipped around in bed. Kanna was pinned to the ground, a hand tightly wrapped around her neck, a warm breath bathing her face as hotly as the trucks outside had. Terrified, Kanna stared up at her bedmate, frozen in place.
“Are you some kind of masochist?” Goda growled through gnashing teeth, her eyes locked with Kanna’s. “Do you have a death wish? If so, then maybe it would be less painful for you to just find a patch of Samma Flower and swallow it.”
“What are you going to do, push it down my throat? Make me swallow it?” Kanna asked insolently as soon as she had found her voice; but as she forced the words out, her throat began to hurt against Goda’s grip, and she actually began to panic. “You’re not going to do anything,” she stammered. “You won’t even fight me! You won’t even—”
Kanna couldn’t finish. There was a naked woman on top of her, she thought. Goda had pounced as soon as Kanna had hit her, but the feeling of the woman’s heavy body pressed to hers had taken awhile to register. Maybe that had been because she had resisted the sensation at first—but after the shock wore off, she found herself wanting to relax into it instead. The throbbing had returned to her bones, to her chest, to her belly. Along with it, a warm sensation oozed somewhere further below, at the place were Goda’s leg had fallen between both her own.
She could no longer ignore what it all meant. Her eyes widened with fear.
“Get off me! Get off me!” she cried.
But Goda had already retreated. She stared at Kanna across the small space, her eyes shining in the moonlight, her claws digging hard into the fabric of the mattress.
“Sleep,” she commanded. Kanna saw that Goda was wincing. The woman was gripping the back of her own shoulder with her hand.
I’ve hurt her, Kanna thought. She didn’t know whether she felt ashamed, or whether she thought Goda deserved it, or whether she thought the woman was going to kill her in the next five seconds.
Regardless, all the energy had drained from her in the midst of her terror. She closed her eyes and the image of Goda Brahm crouching beside her dissolved into nothing.