Kanna put one bare foot in the sand. Somehow, she had awakened with every limb intact.
She was standing at the threshold, the door half-open, her body shielded from the wind. She didn’t want to step into the outside world, to feel the sharp sand pelting her body out in the open—but she knew that she couldn’t stand there with indecision forever.
Maybe if I feel too vulnerable, she thought, I can take refuge behind a boulder. But from where she was hiding behind the door, she could no longer see a single rock. Her view was clouded by the sun rays that had lit the dust in front of her and created out of it a swirling mist.
She squeezed the edge of the door with her hand. The rough sides of the metal dug into her palms, and her swollen knuckles pulsed angrily as she flexed them, but she couldn’t help the urge to cling hard onto something. With the last bit of courage that she could muster up, she walked straight into the haze and closed the door behind her.
The finality of it was unnerving. She could hardly believe what she was doing, and some very deep-seated part of her was screeching with terror, writhing with discomfort at her nakedness. As she had feared, the wind huffed gritty sand against her bare skin as reward for her audacity.
Still, she persevered. She took another step forward. Every time the wind paused, she felt a bit of relief even as she shivered. When her eyes finally did land upon that boulder that she had promised to herself, the fear only thickened—but she pushed past this, too.
Kanna stared at Goda. In the morning light, she could see a red, fist-sized bruise that had formed on the back of the woman’s shoulder. Kanna winced with shame, but again, she pushed herself, and her feet scraped against the gravel, and soon enough this made the woman in front of her turn around.
Goda, who was holding a handful of water, tilted her head up and squinted across the space between them. She seemed to have been jolted from some kind of daze.
“I haven’t bathed,” Kanna murmured. “Not since the cleanse the other day. Do you mind if I…?”
Without saying anything, Goda slid over to the side, as if to make room for Kanna to come hover over the bucket. When Kanna crouched beside her, Goda ignored her, and went back to splashing water onto her face.
Right then, Kanna questioned the logic of bathing when the wind-blown sand was merely going to make her dirty again, but she realized that it was more for the ritual. Goda was a very religious person, Priestess Rem had told her—a religious person who believed in no gods and who sinned every day with full intention. Maybe the water was meant to wash those impurities away.
Kanna dipped a hand into the container, jerked back for a moment because the water was cold, but eventually she was able to relax into the discomfort, and she came to mirror Goda’s movements.
Goda did not look at her. Kanna examined her face for some twinge of anything—annoyance, amusement, even rage—but there was nothing. Her eyes carried only the reflected image of Kanna’s stooped form in the bright sunlight.
Kanna pressed her now freezing hand to her own face. “Look,” she said, her voice shaky. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I did to you. It wasn’t right. Even if I say that you deserve it because of what your people did to my people, that would still just be a stupid excuse to hide the real reason.” Her hand brushed against Goda’s as she reached for more water. She fought the urge to pull back. “The real reason I did it…was to provoke you.”
Goda finally lifted her gaze up. Her brow had furrowed; her eyes had narrowed. She was listening. Kanna looked back at her for a long moment, feeling awkward at the confession, but knowing that she couldn’t just leave it at that. There was a question hanging in the air.
“I’m afraid of you,” Kanna finally admitted. Her eyes had grown warm with nervous tears. She swallowed. “I’m terrified of you, okay? Every time you stand next to me, I get this sinking feeling in my stomach. It’s like you dwarf me, like you’re so much bigger, like you fill up all the space around me, like you’re made of this endless emptiness that I get lost in. And it doesn’t make any sense.” Kanna looked down at the sand and shook her head. “You’re tall, but not that tall. It’s not your physical body; it’s something else. I don’t even know what it is, or why it exists, but I feel like I have no choice but to surrender to it, because there’s nothing to fight against. You are made of nothing, and so I’ve already lost to you. There’s nothing I can take away, no dent I can make in you. I’ve never met someone so empty in my life.”
When she glanced at Goda again, she found that the woman was still watching her intently.
“I thought that maybe it bothered me because I couldn’t stand to see any shred of peace in anyone else when I have to suffer in this chaos,” Kanna continued, “but it’s more than that. It’s you. It’s personal. I want something from you, and it infuriates me because I know that you could never want anything from me. My resistance means nothing. You don’t want me to be any different, so nothing I do could possibly be a rebellion. You don’t care if I resist; you don’t care if I surrender; you hardly offer a reaction, even when I try to hurt you. Do you know how terrible it is to push with all your strength against something, but to see no result at all, not even something you feared? Maybe I do have a death wish. Maybe last night, I just wanted you to kill me already so that I wouldn’t have to look at your blank, unfeeling face all the way to the Middleland—but even when I hit you, you didn’t hit me back. You barely flinched, and I nearly broke my fingers trying to get a rise out of you. It was like punching a rock. All I have to be proud of and ashamed of is that bruise on your shoulder.”
Goda stood. Her body stretched up into the sky that hovered above them. Kanna squinted to gaze up at her, and in that second she became transfixed with the water droplets that etched Goda’s skin; each one of them held a tiny image of the sun.
The woman started to leave without a word. The wind blew against her as she trudged her way back, but her legs seemed to make no extra effort at all. Kanna sat alone staring into the bucket of water. She could see a dim version of herself staring back.
She spun around. “Wait!” she called. At once, she bolted across the space between them.
Goda turned with surprise and Kanna charged at her, a burning energy not unlike rage filling her bones. Before Kanna could falter to the cowardice that was also growing in her second by second, before she could snuff out her irrational impulse with fear and logic, before she could even feel sorry for Goda—for what she was about to do—she rushed against her.
She threw her arms around Goda’s torso; she pressed her face to her chest; she squeezed her eyes shut because she could not bear to see Goda’s naked body so close, but even still she felt a warmth of embarrassment rising up her neck. The louder portions of her mind were screaming at her to let go, to run away.
But through it all, she stayed put. She clung to Goda in the middle of the sandy yard, and she breathed in the woman’s scent, and she tried not to be alarmed when she felt the woman stiffen in her arms. The swell of Goda’s small breast next to her face contrasted strangely with the tenseness of the muscles of that same chest. This softness was Kanna’s only source of comfort; the rest of the woman felt hard.
Goda didn’t push her away. Instead, she waited. After the initial surprise, her body seemed to relax, and her breathing fell back into a steady rhythm, though Kanna could hear that her heart hadn’t quite slowed to a normal pace. Goda placed a hand on Kanna’s shoulder, but otherwise she offered no sign of encouragement or rejection or acknowledgement.
“I don’t want to be afraid of you,” Kanna murmured against Goda’s skin. But she was still afraid; she could feel that automatic repulsion in her gut even then, and a voice in her head that was calling for her to break away.
When the fear reached its crescendo, and she couldn’t ignore that expansion of panic anymore, she pulled back. She turned to the side and crossed her arms over her chest. She looked down at the sand instead of up at Goda’s face.
All in all, the contact had lasted seconds—but her body felt it still, as if the touch had been permanently pressed to her skin, and she wanted to go run to the bucket of water to wash the feeling off.
There was another sensation, too. Kanna saw it clearly now.
There was yet another reason that she had tried to provoke Goda, a reason that was even more deep-seated and vulgar, a reason that was nonetheless intimately intertwined with her fear—but she found that she couldn’t voice it even then. She only hoped that Goda genuinely hadn’t realized what it was. Out of everything that hovered unspoken between them, Kanna couldn’t stand the thought that Goda knew, and that she was quietly standing there, pretending to have missed it out of a sense of pity.
Everyone else had pitied Kanna, and she accepted it—sometimes gladly, because it served to vindicate her feelings—but it wasn’t something she would ever accept from Goda Brahm.
“Kanna,” Goda began to say. It was the first time she had called her by her bare first name, and so on reflex Kanna glanced up at her in surprise.
The look on Goda’s face was one of simple acceptance. It was that vast emptiness again, that face that wanted nothing, that face that somehow left Kanna feeling completely alone and stripped of everything she used to cover herself.
And so Kanna ran away. She ran naked across the yard and into the innkeeper’s garden, where she found a small, bushy tree that Goda must have planted years before. It was there that she hid. She crouched in the shadow of the tree and hid from the woman who would not chase her.
* * *
It was the innkeeper who found her. She seemed to have been hauling a bucket of greywater to throw onto the few living plants in the garden, when she had noticed that Kanna was ducked in the corner.
“What the hell happened to you?” she asked. She glanced over her shoulder towards the storage shed. Her eyes were wide. “I never thought I’d ask this, but did Goda try something?” Kanna shook her head and the innkeeper responded with a face of relief. “Okay, good. I wouldn’t want to have to alter my entire opinion of that brute—it would be too much mental work.” She poured the water on some shrubs near Kanna, then stared with expectation.
At first, it seemed to Kanna that the innkeeper was waiting for the plants to unshrivel, but then she quickly realized that the woman was expecting an explanation instead.
“Uh, we got into a fight,” Kanna told her, “so I didn’t want to go back into the shed.”
The innkeeper pursed her lips with suspicion. “You took your clothes off…to get into a fight? Was it a wrestling match or something?” This time, because Kanna merely offered a blank stare, the innkeeper shrugged with casual acceptance. “All right, whatever. If you need something to wear and you really don’t want to face her—which I can’t blame you for, to be honest—then go ahead and come inside. We can’t have you running around naked with all these soldiers milling about; they’ll give you a hard time.”
The innkeeper handed her the bucket, and after a moment Kanna realized what it was for. She pressed it against the front of her body and furtively trailed behind the woman as they made their way to the door of the inn.
It felt strange to step inside, after it had been forbidden to her for three days. She felt like a dog who had finally been let into the house and offered some semblance of human comfort. While the innkeeper crouched down to take off her own shoes, Kanna looked up to survey the room.
It was little more than a small den attached to a hallway that was lined with many doors. There was a long dining table to the right and a stove to the left, with a tall pipe that led up to the ceiling and broke through the roof. The smell of old wood permeated the space. She could tell that the house had been standing at least for decades.
Without wasting any time, the innkeeper led her to one of the first rooms. “We don’t want any of the guests to see you,” she muttered, “especially in that state. We’re a little less uptight about nudity than you Upperlanders, but we still have some standards. You don’t want to attract any unwanted interest, anyway.”
Kanna gave the woman a confused look.
The innkeeper sighed as she ushered her further into the room and closed the door behind them. “These are soldiers staying here. They’re supposed to remain celibate while on the job, but they don’t do a very good job of it, and their isolation makes them desperate at times. Besides, you’re small and cute—like a man—so they would find you particularly interesting, I imagine.”
Kanna’s eyes widened, but she said nothing. She looked around the room, still holding the bucket tightly against her, and her gaze first fell on a side-table that held a tiny replica of the idol she had seen in the sanctuary the night before. There was a small altar in front of it, where some sticks of incense had been burned.
In addition to the table, there was also a bed, a couple of chairs, a wardrobe—but little else in the room. The innkeeper had ripped the doors of the wardrobe open and was diving into the drawers, clawing at stacks of messily-folded clothes. When she finally picked something out, she held it up against Kanna’s body and tilted her head in thought.
“Hmm,” she said, “your shoulders are a little narrower and you’re a little shorter, but the length of the arms looks just about perfect.” She took the bucket from Kanna and handed her the robes instead. “These actually belong to…someone else. He left them here a few weeks ago when I bought him a new set, and I forgot about them until now, but I don’t think he’ll mind. Lucky for you that you’re both about the same size.”
Kanna gratefully accepted the clothes and threw them on over her head. She felt a little bad because Goda had already stolen from Parama the night before, and now here she was stealing yet something else that was probably his, but her desire to cover herself up quickly overrode any hesitation.
“All right, all right,” the innkeeper said, “get on out of here.” She waved her hands at the door.
Kanna gave her a wry look and started to head towards the exit of the room, but she stopped when her hand touched the doorknob. She took in a shaky breath. A mix of relief and dread filled her, enough that she felt a sob building in her chest.
The innkeeper watched her quietly. After a few moments passed, the woman’s body seemed to deflate. “Fine,” she muttered. “Fine, stay here for awhile and avoid Goda if you’d like—just don’t leave the room to go milling around in the common area where people can see you.” She pointed to the chair in the corner. “Have a seat. Stay there.”
And so Kanna sat. She looked over at the woman, and the woman stared right back at her awkwardly.
“So,” the innkeeper said finally. She slumped into a chair that sat tucked against the wall, on the opposite side of the room. “Today is your last day, is it? One more examination and you can leave tomorrow morning. How exciting.” But the woman’s tone didn’t sound particularly excited for her.
Kanna swallowed. “Do you know what’s going to happen to me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…on the other side. When I get to the Middleland, and we reach the city where my assigned master lives, and Porter Goda gives me away to her. What kind of life will that be?”
The innkeeper shrugged. “I can’t really tell you. Every slave’s journey is different. That male scribe who works at the temple, for example, was very lucky. The first few months of his slavery, they had sent him to card wool at a clothes factory. But then someone figured out that his parents had an importing business in the Southern Outerland, and that he had picked up an obscure dialect that could help the government decipher the writing in the caverns, so they sent him to the monastery as a translator. It’s very rare for men to be allowed to live near a temple. The stars just happened to align in this instance.”
“What happens if you’re not so lucky, though?”
“Then you work hard,” the innkeeper said. “It’s a punishment, after all. You’re a woman, too, so they’ll send you to work in a factory or a field that requires heavy lifting. You’re a lot scrawnier than a Middleland woman would be, so I imagine you’ll have a much harder time, but they won’t really care. That’s how the bureaucracy works: It’s not made to be flexible for anyone’s individual situation, and it’s not kind to foreigners at all.”
Kanna noticed a window on the far wall. She could just barely see the edge of the garden through it, but it was empty of anyone’s presence. “Porter Goda told me that you hate foreigners,” Kanna murmured, a bit too dazed to censor herself.
“I don’t hate them.” The innkeeper rolled her eyes and leaned further back into the chair. “I married one, didn’t I? It’s just that I don’t like most of them. No offense, but you carry with you strange customs into the Middleland, and I don’t think it has a positive effect on society.”
Kanna gave her an irritated glance. “Did your wife carry strange customs with her?”
“She did, a little bit—but she’s more educated than most Outerlanders. I won’t lie to you, though. The day I met her, when she showed up at this inn, I was a little wary of her. We may be technically in the Outerland, but I usually don’t like non-Middlelanders staying here. They make a mess of the place.” The innkeeper smiled suddenly, as if a distant memory had popped into her mind. “But my wife, she was different. She was very polite at first. She would sit at that dining room table in the main space, and she would talk to me while I cooked up the meals. She had a bit of an accent, but her grammar in the common language was impeccable, and she accepted every morsel of food I made for her without complaining about how different it was from what she was used to.”
Kanna couldn’t help but soften her expression a bit at the story. “That’s sweet. When did you marry?”
“Oh, some months after that, I think. She showed up a few more times to the inn, and finally I realized that she was going out of her way to stop by before crossing the border—she works in the Middleland, but her family still lives out here in the desert, you see—and so I took her alone and asked her why she had befriended me. She didn’t tell me why. Instead, she just asked me to marry her.” The innkeeper chuckled to herself. “The clock was ticking for me, I’ll admit. Living out here, you don’t meet many prospects, so after considering it at length that evening, I said yes and we went to see a priestess the next day. That was about a year ago. We still haven’t lived in the same place together yet. We’re at a bit of a deadlock on that.”
“What do you mean?”
The innkeeper shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She leaned over towards the side-table and opened the drawer, pulling out what looked like a thin cigar, though Kanna couldn’t tell what herb was stuffed in it.
“She had expected to transfer out here to the Outerland once her work contract was done and she had become a full citizen, but after we married, she was promoted. She wants me to come live with her in the Middleland.” She lit the cigar between her lips and a cloud of smoke quickly began to permeate her side of the room. “But my business is here. I left the Middleland to be free, to live a quiet life in the desert. I would have to leave everything and join her in the capital city. And besides, I’m the higher wife. How would that make me look, being the higher wife and living in submission to a foreigner? My mothers would be ashamed.”
Kanna scratched the back of her head. “What does that even mean?” she finally asked. “Why is one person lesser and the other higher?”
The innkeeper waved her hand, as if the question was unimportant—or perhaps too fundamental to be anything less than obvious. “Almost always, marriages happen between people of differing status. I have the higher status between us; I’m a citizen and both my mothers are Middlelanders. Naturally, a nice foreign wife could offer help—labor, looking after children, and so on—and in exchange she could enjoy the privileges of my status. That’s how it works. That’s how it’s always worked, since the beginning of time. This is why I say foreigners don’t understand, and their customs can have a negative effect on the social order.”
“You mean you didn’t marry her because you loved her?” Kanna asked, though she had to actively stop herself from also commenting on the innkeeper’s prejudiced rant. She figured it would be best to hold back the irritation, considering that the woman was allowing her to hide from Goda in her bedroom.
The innkeeper had a bemused look on her face. “Of course I don’t love her,” she said. “I’ve barely known her for two years. I heard that you Upperlanders had an overly-romanticized view of marriage, but this is just silly. How can I love someone who doesn’t even share my culture?”
She reached over to ash her cigar on the side-table. Her hand hovered over the incense tray at first, but she seemed to quickly realize her mistake, and she flicked it instead on a dish that was right beside it. Kanna wondered briefly how sacrilegious it would have been if the innkeeper had accidentally offered the Goddess the waste of her cigar.
“Middlelanders are so cold,” Kanna murmured. Just as she was crossing her arms and adjusting in her seat, she caught some movement coming from the garden. When she turned to look through the hazy glass, she saw the shape of Goda Brahm driving a shovel into the earth. The woman’s outer robes were strewn on the ground; her jaw was set; her body was flexing, and yet the movement flowed into the dirt as if the earth gave her no resistance at all.
Disturbed, Kanna looked away within seconds and found that Jaya had been following her gaze.
“Are you talking about me or Goda?” Jaya asked. Smirking, she took a long drag from her cigar. The smoke had started to seep into Kanna’s side of the room. “She’s not cold. She just likes to keep her mind blank, so she doesn’t really notice people. Does it bother you that much that she pays you no attention?”
“Why would that bother me?” Kanna huffed. “I’m hiding from her in here, aren’t I?” Out of the corner of her eye, Kanna could still sense some of the movement in the garden, but she forced herself to keep her gaze across the room, at the idol on the table.
“Oh come now, even when I’ve seen you just sitting next to her, the tension is so thick I could swim in it. You’re obviously attracted to her.” Jaya chuckled at the annoyed glance that Kanna threw her. She ashed her cigar once again, this time without hesitation. “You really should stop torturing yourself. And you really should stop hiding from her. She’s going to have to come with you to the temple in the evening anyway, isn’t she? You’re cuffed to her. You can’t hide for long.”
“Well, I’m sick of looking at her face. I wish she would just give her cuff to someone else for tonight at least, so that they could take me to the temple instead.”
Jaya gave her a strange look. “But she can’t. You know that, don’t you?”
“She can’t take it off. She doesn’t have the key,” the innkeeper said, as if it were some obvious fact. “She has the key to yours—she brought your paired cuff with her from the Middleland—but she doesn’t have the key to her own, of course.”
Kanna stared at her. “The porter’s cuff is locked?”
“Why yes. They lock it before she leaves. The administrators who sent her to get you are the ones who hold her key, and they’ll only unlock her cuff once she gives you over to them. They take it off at the same time as yours. That’s how it’s done.”
Jaya was quiet for a long moment. “If no one else has yet explained the situation to you,” she said finally, “and you don’t already realize, then maybe it’s better that you don’t know. If I tell you now, then you might just become even more afraid of Goda, and then you’ll never leave my room.” She was smiling, but the expression held a touch of ill humor.
Kanna uncrossed her arms and placed her hands on her thighs. She gripped her own knees with frustration. “Can’t I know anything around here?” she asked, but she wasn’t looking directly at Jaya. “Why does everything have to be a mystery?”
“Maybe you should stop worrying about everyone else’s business, and then nothing will seem mysterious.” Jaya stabbed the ash tray with the butt of her cigar. Her chair squeaked across the floor as she stood up. “How long do you plan on cowering in here, anyway? It’s late and I haven’t even started on lunch. I have so much to do.”
Kanna looked down at her own feet. “What if…I help you?”
“Help me with what?”
“What if I help you with your chores? Will you let me stay then?”
“I already told you that I can’t have people like you milling around in here so openly.”
“The guests don’t have to know.” Kanna glanced at Jaya with a pleading expression just as the woman was heading towards the door. “I’ll do something productive in your room.”
“You’re really hellbent on avoiding the porter, aren’t you? You’re even willing to play the part of a slave before your sentence has started. How ironic.”
“I know I can’t avoid her forever, but right now I can’t bring myself to face her after what I did to her, either. She can’t come in here, so at least I’ll feel safe until you make me leave.”
Jaya raised an eyebrow. “What did you do to her?”
Kanna opened her mouth, then stopped. She felt warmth returning to her face. “I guess it’s my turn to be mysterious,” she mumbled.
The innkeeper laughed. “All right, fine. Somehow I feel like you’ll be more trouble than you’re worth, but you can fold that laundry over there in the corner. I’m going to go serve the guests lunch, and then I’ll have to go up to the hill to fetch water. You have until then. I don’t want you to be here when I return.” She began to step out the door, and before she slammed it closed, she added, “Once you hear everyone leaving, wait until it’s clear, and then sneak out. Don’t linger, or you’ll be testing my generous patience.”
And then Kanna was alone. She knelt down on the floor in front of the pile of laundry and did her best to remember how her mother had folded her clothes. Her work looked a little sloppy as she stacked it next to the laundry basket, but she carried on anyway, and even when she came across a pair of underwear that clearly belonged to a boy, she didn’t recoil. Parama must come here a lot, she thought to herself.
She found the monotony of the work soothing. It helped draw her attention away from the burning desire she had to look out the window. In time, she even started to yawn. She hadn’t slept very well the night before, and the drowsiness was catching up to her.
Her eyes wandered over to the bed. The quilt and pillows on top of it looked a lot more inviting than her thin sleeping mat in the storage room. There’s still some time before I have to go, Kanna thought. She could hear the guests talking on the other side of the wall. But I shouldn’t even consider a nap. If the innkeeper came in here to find me sprawled on her bed, I might end up never waking up ever again.
She dismissed the idea and went back to work. At around the same time that she had finished, she heard a swarm of boots pounding along the floor in the common room, amidst the sounds of laughter and complaining. The front door squeaked, then rammed shut.
It was quiet suddenly. The voices came muffled from outside; she could barely hear them anymore.
Kanna glanced around the room. Against her will, her eyes fell again towards the window, and she saw that Goda was kneeling in the dirt, still working in the garden. Kanna sucked in a frustrated breath.
I can’t go out there now.
But how long could she really keep hiding? Like the innkeeper had said, she would have to face Goda eventually. Was all the waiting really making it any easier? What was she going to realistically do, stay in that bedroom until she wasted away from old age?
Maybe in a hundred years, I’ll be able to look at Goda without flinching, Kanna thought. Even just the idea of having the woman gaze upon her with that blank expression felt more humiliating than kneeling on the floor and folding a stranger’s clothes in a room that smelled like incense and foul cigar smoke.
So she got onto her hands and knees and slid down to hide under the bed, where she quickly fell asleep.
* * *
Kanna awoke with a painful jolt. She hit her head against the bottom of the bed frame when she tried to immediately sit up. Her brain was swimming in grogginess, so at first she didn’t realize what had jerked her awake in the first place.
And then she felt the pulse radiating from her wrist. It stung her with a searing pop of electricity and it heightened her awareness at the same time. It was growing in intensity by the second. Without thinking, she let out a choked cry.
“Goda,” she coughed as she felt the waves of pain flowing through her body. She flailed her arms around in a panic, clawing at the wooden floor, until she had managed to pull herself out from under the bed. “Goda!”
The room was dim because the light outside had waned, but she hardly noticed it. Pink rays from the setting sun danced annoyingly against her face as she stood. The pain shot through every limb and it took all her strength to shuffle across the room.
“Ah!” She stumbled against the wall and leaned on it for a moment, her jaw clenching, her eyes screwing shut. She grabbed the cuff hard with her hand and jostled it, though of course it did not come loose.
When her eyes opened again, they landed towards the window. Across the expanse of the yard, standing in the plain beyond the garden, was Goda. Even in the growing darkness, she could see that the woman was staring in her direction. There was a faint smile on her face.
In desperation, Kanna took a shaky step towards the window. Maybe, she thought, she could get close enough to ease the pain.
Goda took a step back.
The next wave hit Kanna so intensely, she nearly collapsed. “Goda!” she shouted at the window. “Goda! Stop!”
She had no choice. She rushed through the bedroom door, gritting her teeth as her cuff pulsed its angry beat against her. When she stumbled into the outer room, a dozen eyes turned in her direction, but she was barely aware of them.
“Goda, you bastard!” She pressed herself against the wall to keep standing, and she slid as quickly as she could towards the front door. “A plague on you Goda! A goddamn plague on you and your mother and your mother’s mother and your—”
“Where the hell did you come from, Rava?” a familiar voice screeched. “I thought you were gone!” Kanna looked over to find that Jaya was staring at her in disbelief—and so were a crowd of guests at the long kitchen table—but she also found that she couldn’t summon any embarrassment in the midst of her pain.
“Rava?” one of the guests asked. “The arsonist fuel gouger?”
Kanna didn’t respond. Her feet felt like they had turned into stones, but she had finally managed to drag herself to the door. She heard Jaya yelling something behind her, but the woman was speaking too quickly and she was using expletives that Kanna had not yet learned in Middlelander.
When Kanna finally burst through the door, it seemed like less than a second before it had slammed closed behind her.
She ran. With the last bit of strength she had left in her, she ran in the direction of the plain, towards where she had seen Goda standing. She fell once or twice from the shocks, but she forced herself to stand again, because each step closer to Goda’s presence made the next step easier. The pain began to drain out of her, as if a valve had started to twist closed.
By the time she had rounded the cabin and could see the woman’s face again, the pulses had stopped. Only a light buzzing remained, and Kanna wondered if that was simply her nerves adjusting to the sudden loss of stimulation.
The plain was strangely quiet. At some point, she had stopped screaming. Besides the low rumble of some of the trucks in the distance and the wind puffing intermittently, the world felt empty.
But she didn’t stop. She passed the garden and kept running with all her strength. The air whistled against her until she found herself facing that giant from only paces away. Goda stared back at her with the same faint smile, with eyes that gleamed like mirrors.
“Are you afraid of me now?” Goda asked.
Kanna’s breaths were coming raggedly. As usual, her mind was at war: She wanted to stare back into those insolent eyes with defiance, and at the same time she was disgusted by them enough to feel the urge to pull away.
She stood tall. She clenched her fists. She insulted Goda’s ancestors in the Upperlander tongue because she didn’t know how to say it any other way.
Nonetheless, the woman seemed to understand the sentiment. She laughed.