The Descent of the Drowned – Ana Lal Din

ROMA WALKED THROUGH a sea of slaughtered serpents. A malevolent wind pulled at her hair and yanked at her skirts. It hissed out consonants and vowels, every sound so coarse, so rancorous that she wanted to shield her ears from their perpetual whiplash. The cold pierced her skin, sinking obstinate claws deep into her bones, and the skies carried a sinister resemblance to a yawning chasm that descended upon the world to swallow it whole. Treading on bloodstained sloughs, she approached the immense shape of a blackened banyan tree standing upon a hill. Naked boughs strained toward her with a soundless hunger, snatching at the air, sensing her presence. She felt their baleful yearning to drape around her shell. Blood seeped from the banyan’s roots, trickling toward her feet, and the taste of the banyan’s victims stained her tongue. CHAPTER 1 GRİPPİNG ANOTHER BOUGH, Roma climbed higher into the banyan from her dream with familiar ease. A crooked web of long-necked trunks encased the core, crawling over each other in a devoted attempt to touch the skies. Drooping strands suspended from the branches and entangled like lovers. Brushing her fingertips over the crevices, she tipped back her head, but she still couldn’t see the end of the aged banyan for the intricate canopy above. There should have been the sound of birds and apes, yet it was silent as if even the spirits roaming the aerial roots drowsed. She shivered despite the dry heat. If not for the tingling sense of a timeless presence withdrawn deep into the heart of the tree, she might have thought it was deceased.

The sole indication of life was an ivory-skinned cobra napping in the cradle of a limb. She skimmed her fingers over the cobra’s smooth head. Stirring from the slumber, the cobra unfurled its long body with languid grace, the thin membrane clearing over its glossy black eyes. “We’re not so different, are we?” she asked softly. “We’re both at home here in the banyan.” It hissed in consent. She peered past it into the courtyard below. The stretch of land enclosed by sandstone walls served as a burial ground where those of a higher caste—the higher zaat—cremated their people. Thick, black smoke rose from a sacred altar, swirling upward in sensual patterns. The soot clung to her tongue, itching in her throat as the wild fire danced upon the motionless bones below.

She chewed on her bottom lip. Death had an awful taste that reminded her of oppressive darkness and inescapable rot. The High Priest of Biranpur stepped forward. Sādin Saheb was an overweight man with a double chin that slouched over the rigid collar of his royal blue robe. The fabric was unembellished as a silent statement of his dedication to an unmaterialistic existence. Sweat glistened on the black symbols of Lord Biran, God of Creation, drawn on his shaved head, and large beads coursed down his forehead into his caterpillar eyebrows. “Death shall pass,” he chanted. “Life shall remain.” Even from the distance, each syllable sounded as clear as if he spoke into Roma’s ear. Her skin prickled in unease.

She had known him for her entire life and never once had he shown compassion, so it didn’t astound her that his eyes remained devoid of sympathy for the dead woman in the bed of fire. The tales circulating on the demise of Gabrielle Saheba were ominous. People said she had been possessed and driven to the brink of madness. Roma couldn’t imagine her so. She had seen Gabrielle Saheba carrying the street orphans and feeding them smoked corncobs from the Grand Market many times. The higher zaat woman had appeared sound. And beautiful as well. With skin that shimmered like gold in the sun, hair like polished wood, and almond-shaped eyes the colour of spring leaves. She should have been a Khanum—a queen—in a faraway summer kingdom, not the Second Wife of the Firawn of the West and the East Strip. “It’s the will of the High Lord,” Sādin Saheb professed.

“And so shall it be.” “So shall it be,” the crowd repeated. Resting her chin on the bough, Roma watched the assembly in their lavish silk and velvet fashions. Humans believed they were artful at deception, but their expressions, voices, and movements exposed their innermost condition—the restless glances toward the skies, the impatient sighs, and the hushed chatter revealed their apathy for the tragedy they pretended to mourn. It was a play. Amma said Roma chose to see the abjection of human nature. That she always searched for a lie to bare, an illusion to shatter, and she would never find happiness because lies and illusions were how humans survived. Amma told her that she observed excessive details about the world and lacked a sense of self-preservation, but Roma thought the teacher of their temple lacked perspective, yet she had enough sense of self-preservation not to speak her mind in Amma’s presence. The desiccated breeze caught Roma’s veil, but she was all too absorbed in the cremation ritual to care when the sheer fabric slipped from her head. The cobra slithered closer along the branch, tasting the air with a forked tongue, and her fingers trailed over its sleek scales.

“I don’t like fires,” she whispered. The First Wife of the Firawn stepped to the altar. People called her Mā Saheb because she oversaw Durra, the northern province of the West Strip, in the Firawn’s absence. She was the embodiment of elegance in a fitted, black silk blouse with a plunging neckline and an ankle-length, black silk skirt—the garments named a choli and lehenga among the lower zaat. Gold rings and bracelets adorned her pale limbs. An organza veil descended from the crown of her head down to her hips. The crest of her zaat was inked in gold around her bare navel in the regal contour of a hooded cobra. Mā Saheb was stunning in an untouchable and delicate manner. Perhaps it was why she had a slave with an umbrella by her side to shield her fair skin from the sun. Roma tipped her head to the side.

How the higher zaat liked to flaunt their wealth even when at a cremation for one of their own. The fire perished with the bones. Sādin Saheb gathered the ashes in an urn. Roma had seen similar urns inside the temple of Lamiapur. They contained the ashes of her kind. Lamiadasis. The slaves of Mother Lamia, one of the Goddess-Wives of Lord Biran and Goddess-Mother to his three hundred and sixty children. Rawiya Mai, their resident storyteller and oldest lamiadasi, claimed the souls of the dead would never find rest if their ashes were confined. Roma wasn’t certain what she believed, but there were times when she wanted to open the urns and throw the contents to the winds. Click.

Her eyes were drawn to a young man leaning on a wall much too close to where she lingered. The consistent clicking came from a lighter in his hand. His skin was neither dark nor light, but an earthy meld of both, and the sharp bones of his face held shadows. Black hair was trimmed close to his head on the sides. His expression betrayed no emotion, yet his shoulders were rigid and a vein pounded in his temple. She inched forward for a better look at him. “Leviathan Saheb,” Sādin Saheb said, beckoning the young man to the altar. Roma might not have seen him before, but none could mistake his name. Leviathan Blackburn. The Firawn’s only son.

The one whom people whispered about and called bezaat—without a caste— because of his alleged blood relation to the casteless clans. When he didn’t move, Mā Saheb turned toward him. “Leviathan,” she called insistently with her lips downturned. The Firawn’s son looked up then. His hooded eyes were a cold, daunting grey. Roma swallowed forcibly. Sensing her sudden discomfort, the cobra glided over her arm and curled protectively around her neck, hissing toward the courtyard. Her eyes followed the Firawn’s son as he sauntered toward the altar. He was tall and broad with the form of a soldier, or perhaps a hunter. His gait had an unpredictable element to it, as if he might slide his hands into his pockets or begin snapping necks.

Her throat tied itself into a knot. He hadn’t done anything to stir her fears, yet she was unnerved. Men of his frame and aura caused a prickle of panic down her back. Dipping her chin, she heaved in a deep breath as Mā Saheb passed him a gold ash capsule. The Firawn’s son took it without a word or a glance, crouching down and lowering it into a hole in the ground hollowed out for the ceremonial burial. Biting her bottom lip, Roma pressed her nails into the bark. She wanted to shout at him to spring the ashes and allow the tempestuous winds to snatch them—anything but the impending doom. Mā Saheb touched her fingertips to his shoulder, and the vein in his temple thumped harder. There was a faint smile on her lips. She was aware of his imperceptible reaction, even though he didn’t move an inch.

He only stared into the hole for the longest moment, and then his eyes lifted, catching Roma’s over the bough. She scrambled down, scraping her bare forearms on the bristly edges of the banyan. Startled by her abrupt drop, the cobra hissed with displeasure around her neck. Slouching behind the trunks, she rubbed a palm over her heart, but it refused to be soothed. The blistering fingers of the wind combed through her hair, making it dance like a black ribbon ensnared by a desert storm. For how long had he known of her presence? How had he known? No one in the courtyard had noticed her. No one but him. Amma would be livid if she found out that not only had Roma intruded on a higher zaat burial, but she had been seen as well. They weren’t to be noticed unless it was to the sound of drums in an ornamented hall and in the ceremonial costume of a lamiadasi. Drawing the cobra over her head, Roma settled it on one of the lower branches before descending the hill and sprinting across the plains, as if she could erase the moment her face had burned into the memory of the Firawn’s son.

She ran along the seam of Kobe Lake. It sparkled beneath the mile-long stone bridge that strained between the enormous black-iron gates of Ferozi, the northern city of the higher zaat, and Sefu, the village of the lower zaat. The lake was receding because of the drought, which now plagued Durra for long stretches of time. Rare cloudbursts provided some relief, but they never lasted more than a day. Dirt and waste contaminated the lake, so the villagers drew water from the stepwell instead. Even so, the water was boiled before consumption to avoid diseases. The Wardens patrolled the high stone walls of Ferozi clad in dark blue uniforms with silver clasps and buckles, their weapons glinting on their waists. They were the protectors of the higher zaat cities, but oftentimes they roamed the village tavern for drinks and women. They weren’t as frightening as the Firawn’s other soldiers, the Rangers, in their head-to-toe steel armour and steel masks shaped like horned demons. Roma had seen them as a child when they were called upon for a public execution of two farmers, who had blended pulverised bricks with flour to cheat the tax collectors.

It had reminded all the villagers one couldn’t deceive the Firawn and what happened if one still attempted it. When she thought of the Firawn now, the eyes of his son perturbed her, and her throat felt full of cotton. He couldn’t have caught more than a glimpse of her face. With an unreliable sense of calm, Roma reached the village and drew the veil over her face. Sefu rested in the heart of the steppe. It was a serpentine labyrinth of sloping stairs, crisscrossing alleys, and cockeyed clusters of sandstone houses with colourful latticework windows. The rooftops revealed a netting of washing lines with bright garments drying in the late evening heat. Some houses had red ribbons placed by the tenants. Those belonged to the Women of the Flags. Women whom no one would hire for labour, disreputable for servicing men in trade for food, medicine, and coin.

They were considered lesser than the clans, but the village men still knocked on their doors in the cover of night. The Horn of the Gods sounded once over Sefu, announcing the arrival of dusk as the last trace of light dwindled from the skies. Roma ascended the fractured steps into an alley and stepped around the open sewers that gaped in the ground. The sour smell of waste permeated the air. Cats and hounds with flea-infested pelts pawed through the garbage for scraps of food beside sleeping orphans. Shouts spilled out from the windows, families arguing and children wailing. Darkness blanketed the village when Roma climbed the sandstone wall that encompassed Lamiapur. The gate was locked at sundown. She couldn’t hear the drums or the lutes. Her sisters must have ended dance practice to attend prayers in the temple.

She hesitated. Amma would have noticed her absence by now. Roma wasn’t her favourite lamiadasi, but she was her most skilled performer when it came to the sacred dance of their goddess. It wouldn’t shelter her fromAmma’s punishments, though. Leaping down into the courtyard, Roma shook the dust from the folds of her lehenga. She might still be able to sneak inside the temple and— “Roma?” Roma winced. Pressing her lips together, she turned as Sunbel stepped under the spectral light of the moon. She was in their practice attire; a yellow backless choli with green patch-border work and an ankle-length lehenga. It was custom for the slaves of the gods—dēvadasis—to be inked with their zaat. Small, mythological patterns and symbols decorated the corners of Sunbel’s blue eyes, her chin, and the length of her throat, mirroring the symbols that adorned Roma.

Sunbel’s fair skin and golden hair made her a favoured lamiadasi among the patrons. Ever since her auction seven years in the past, Sunbel had served a multitude of patrons, but recently, she was pardoned from her service because she was with child again. “You weren’t at practice and prayers,” Sunbel said, caressing her growing bump. She hadn’t told her patron about her pregnancy. It wouldn’t matter. The patrons never claimed their children. If she birthed a boy, he would become a birandasi, a slave of Lord Biran, and serve in Biranpur like her three other sons. If she birthed a girl, she would become a lamiadasi, and serve Mother Lamia in Lamiapur like the rest of them. Sunbel glanced down at Roma’s slippers. Mud stained the synthetic fabric and encrusted the flat, stiff bottoms.

“You were with Khiraa and Sara again, weren’t you?” Her eyebrows drew together. “You shouldn’t visit the camp so often. Amma hasn’t said anything yet, but if you miss prayers—” “Khiraa’s brother is gone,” Roma interrupted. Sunbel blinked. “Did the Wardens take him?” she asked out of courtesy more than interest. “There was no raid. He left on his own.” “Why would he do that?” Roma didn’t answer. The condemnatory tone in Sunbel’s voice made her feel like she was the one to abandon her family. “What’re you two whispering about?” Glancing over Sunbel’s shoulder, Roma met Yoshi’s eyes.

She was swinging her long braid with an ill-boding smile. The light of the moon illuminated the freckles on her angular face. She placed a hand on her voluptuous hip at their silence. “Amma sent me to see if you’d returned. I’ve never seen her so furious. But then, no one ever missed practice and prayers before. I can’t decide if you’re brave or stupid, Roma.” “Yoshi,” Sunbel chided. Her eyes widened. “What did I say now?” she asked, touching her collarbone.

“I was only worried about her like you.” She looked at Roma. “At least tell me you skipped duties over something important, like a higher zaat patron?” Ignoring her comment, Roma slipped past her, but Yoshi’s derisive laughter pursued her across the courtyard. There were four sandstone sheds in Lamiapur shared by all eleven lamiadasis. Each consisted of handwoven sleeping mats and mirrors in single chambers. Roma shared hers with Sunbel, Nilo, and Yoshi, but Nilo lived with her current patron. They hadn’t heard from her for over a moon now. The previous time Caliana was the one sent to live with her patron. His jealous wife had forcefully poured the Witch’s Shade potion down her throat so she would never bear children. Caliana was taken to the Kāhinah, their village soothsayer, whom people believed possessed hidden knowledge.

She told Caliana to perform a ritual under the full moon in the Sacred Month of Uzzā, but it didn’t heal Caliana. Amma was furious. She said it was the sacred obligation of a lamiadasi to birth children. Caliana had failed her service and it mattered not that she was abused. Lamiadasis were forever to take the blame. If there was a drought, the lamiadasis must have failed to appease the gods. If a village woman was barren, the lamiadasi who blessed her must have had a spoiled fortune. Fearing Amma wouldn’t be in a benevolent mood now that Roma had failed as well, she stalled outside Amma’s shed, bracing herself for the punishment.

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