And when Satyavan’s life had thus been taken out, the body, deprived of breath, and shorn of lustre, and destitute of motion, became unsightly to behold. And binding Satyavan’s vital essence, Yama proceeded in a southerly direction.
– The Mahabharata
There is fear in me as I move through the dance floor, sticky with a mix of spilled drinks and glitter and blood. I’m not drunk, I’m not even close to drunk, but the beat of the music slides between my ribs and pulls everything I feel right to the surface, just under the skin.
Three nagas with jewel-scaled arms hiss urgently to each other as I pass, black eyes cataloguing the lines on my face, the grey at my temples, the heaviness of my step. I’m hardly old, but age is something unknown to this ancient place, full of monsters in the full flush of youth.
I manage to angle my foot just enough to step down heavily on one of their tails – she rears up and expands her hood, split tongue flickering out of her mouth as she looks at me in what is clearly reproach. “Sorry,” I say insincerely, ignoring the flex of muscle underneath her violet-black scales, the coils and coils of her glistening like oily rope.
“You always were.” She shoots me another glare but tucks her hood back and turns away with her friends, and I’m wrongfooted.
Do I know them? Did I once? Maybe I mistook their recognition for revulsion. Maybe.
Someone’s arm tumbles the plastic cup of water out of my fingers, and I watch it fall in a spray before the liquid is arrested in mid-air by a man wearing fairy lights round his horns and the lamellar armour of a Byzantine soldier. A bright-haired woman wearing a thin chiffon sari laughs delightedly and leaps into the glittering spray, but the droplets stay as fixed as stone, sharp as shards of diamond as they rip open her flesh in long jagged weals.
She is blinking calmly at the coin-sized hole in her palm displaying edges of delicate bones when the water goes abruptly liquid again, spattering me with slivers of skin and pale diluted blood.
The horned man takes the woman’s unmaimed hand and appears to be mouthing apologies but as I watch her face flares bright with power and the flesh reknits itself around her injuries. The streaks of dark arterial blood left on her now-whole skin give her the aspect of a warrior fresh from the battlefield. The man gives her a respectful half-bow before whirling her into a dance.
That was impressive, even by the very warped standards of this place. She gives me a friendly sort of wave which makes me feel somehow complicit before slipping away into the crowd; an involuntary shudder passes through me.
I try not to think about death, and fail. There are many ways to die here, and it appears they keep inventing new ones.
The bartender looks irritated when I tell him I want a glass of water, but it comes chilled and clinking with ice in perfect spheres and hexagons, carved with arcane symbols that melt into different ones as I try to decipher them. I sip, and ignore the infinitesimal tugs of power that accompany each mouthful. Every moment here erodes away my independence into a thousand tiny debts and fealties, and these are just a few more. Besides, I’m thirsty.
I lean over the bar as the barman serves another customer – six and a half feet tall, bronze muscled, wearing the face of Mahatma Gandhi, bloody hell, – and he rolls his eyes in annoyance. Maybe that’s what makes me announce, rather pompously, “I’m here to see the Lord of Time and Justice.”
I smile like I’ve practised, like I’ve got too many teeth jostling for place, but he doesn’t look impressed. He’s probably poured tequila into the mouths of creatures with the heads of sharks and handed glasses to dancers whose palms are ringed with sharp yellow teeth – my human mandible just can’t compare.
He ignores me until I pull Yama’s amulet from under my shirt and hold it up in the strobing lights: knucklebones discoloured with cobra venom, wound with peacock feathers. His eyes widen a bit, and I feel a thrill of dark satisfaction. He’s clearly new flushed with the burning, beautiful madness of this place. Like part of me still wants to be, even after all this time away.
I let it hang in the air until he reaches for a rune-scratched glass bottle on a high shelf behind the bar. A droplet of his blood uncorks it with a shuddering hiss, and he reaches in and hands me one of the lotus blossoms within. He watches it darken from grey to a pale pink as it leeches the warmth from my hand.
“But you’re not even his type,” he blurts, face flushing with embarrassment.
“I know,” I tell him, “He’s mine.”
I lick the firm petals of the flower one by one – a tedious task, but Yama likes his elaborate rituals. Everywhere my tongue touches the pink flushes a deep bruise-bright purple, and I pluck the petals off one by one and toss them in my wake, walking with a measured step. Soon enough, the ground begins to shift under my feet and the dance-floor fades away in shuddering slices of light and distorted music.
I make an effort not to look to either side, but I catch glimpses anyway: canopies of roses twisted with jewel-bright snakes, palaces carved out of sand flash-burned to black glass, blood-spattered marble hallways draped in velvet, weightless paradises of wheeling stars, autumn orchards laden down with gold-sheened fruit, orchestras playing instruments made of living human hearts and stripped bones.
I pull the last petal from the lotus and the ground evens. It’s my stop: a vast candlelit glass-and-metal stair that grows thick with flowering vines as it plunges deep into the earth.
I pass one of my clones sitting in a rock-cavern carved into a filigreed gazebo near the entrance. A woman with black-veined wings is lapping blood from her neck like an incredibly elegant tick. The clone’s eyes catch mine and slide professionally away, playing by the rules, though I can see the curiosity settle into her features like they’re my own. They are. Or were. Let’s be clear: they’re not mine any more.
I don’t like my clones. It’s not a psychological thing, some self-hatred thing. I don’t like them because they know all about me, and I know very little about them, about who they’ve grown into. They’ve got a built-in advantage. It makes them unpredictable. Dangerous. Especially if you’re unpredictable and dangerous to begin with – and I’ve been called both many times.
There’s a deep pool in the centre of this underground realm, and that’s where people tend to congregate, dipping their legs and arms and tails and wings and antlers and whatever the hell else into the navy blue water that’s always the perfect temperature. Picking marigolds and lounging in the shade of silver-leafed trees as the filtered sunlight plays through them. Drinking long drinks chased with poppy seeds and sweet wine and palm liquor.
A swirl of neon pink and white leaves brush past me in a rush of cold laughter, singing a song from my childhood against the nape of my neck. A woman’s high voice sliding over words of love in a language I barely speak any more. I reach out and pinch one of the leaves into powder and the swirl retreats, their song breaking into sharp shrieks.
He is – of course – sitting by the edge of the pool with his long brown limbs trailing in the water, watching the mermaids with their tails sharp as knives. Their fish-scales are glittering metal coins like armour in copper and gold. They’re bloodthirsty, like all the beasts of this realm, but he splashes water at them and laughs when they flash their fins in contempt. He has nothing to fear from them, and they have nothing to gain from him. He doesn’t bleed. His fine bones aren’t full of rich sweet marrow; they’d probably break the mermaids’ ragged teeth if they tried to take a bite. The mermaids all still as the wind carries my scent to them. Nictating membranes turn their hungry gazes blessedly opalescent as they watch me and chitter to each other.
That’s when he turns his fire-red eyes towards me, ringed with kohl and the smoky glittering paste of crushed jewels.
“Oh my dear,” he says, with a brightness that makes me want to turn back around and leave, “Oh my dear. How long has it been?”
I try not to look directly at the attendants and lovers and servants clustered around him, sipping wine and playing musical instruments and dancing. One of them offers me a plate of ripe-fleshed mangoes which turn into pomegranates as I watch. As if I needed more symbolism in my life. He picks up one of the pomegranates and crushes away the skin. Glowing red juice that’s nothing like blood drips all over his fingers. I wonder whether he’s the one playing the party tricks or whether it’s just this place, picking up on all the emotions pressing against the backs of my teeth. He licks his fingers in between his words as I watch, half-revolted and half something else altogether.
“My dear. You’re not paying attention to a word I’m saying,” he complains, with a quick amused glance at his companions. “Not at all the proper aspect to present to the Lord of Time and Justice.”
He punctuates his title with a grandiose bow to scattered applause from his retinue, and catches my eye to let me know he heard me announce myself to the barman upstairs. I had always derided those vainglorious affectations. Once upon a time, I had mocked them fondly. And he had let me.
“I asked how long it’s been since you left,” he prompts, making a face of exaggerated patience into the silence. “You know how terrible I am at keeping track of time.”
He is no such thing as his title suggests. I unclench my jaw, careful not to let any unconsidered words slip out. “Ten years. Give or take.”
His fingers dart forward too quickly for me to react, plucking a grey hair from my temple. “It has certainly taken.” He looks at my hair glinting in the cool light, expression at once fascinated and revolted.
“That was not freely given.” I think my voice is shaking, but it clearly works well enough because my hair disintegrates to grey ash in his grip. I feel an infinitesimal relief, which is foolish; I’m about to put myself much more firmly in his power.
He dusts off his fingers and makes a face. “So paranoid,” he laughs.
“I know you.”
He considers for a moment, then gives me an approving smile. “Ten years is an excellent duration. It’s the perfect moment for a comeback. Suitably dramatic.”
“I’m not staying,” I say flatly.
“Oh, but ten years ago you said you’d never, ever, not in a million years, cross-your-heart never come back. And here we are.”
I try to shrug. “Things change.”
“Not here. Not unless I want them to,” he corrects, with offhand confidence. “I thought you wanted all that. Change and growth and alteration. All those messy things that happen outside this realm.”
“I need a favour,” I say, and I think it sounds normal, but something must give away how much I hate to be saying the words because he smiles: his mouth has so many teeth that they seem to spill off his face, fractalling out into a wide grin that seems to stretch for bone-edged miles and hours.
He snaps his fingers and one of his servants totters over and kneels before him. Her body is painted all in green with vines of flashing silver across the bridge of her nose, her collarbones, her thighs. Her head is completely, baldly smooth, and I feel an absurd urge to put a scarf around the slim bones of her neck as she bends her head. He reaches out for her chin and tips her head up, and says, “Open your eyes, darling,” just loudly enough for me to hear, and the girl does, and I realise with a sick jolt that it’s me. Her eyes cut towards mine, and back away again, but in them isn’t the calm nonchalance that I expect from a clone; it’s a burning barely contained hatred.
I sit down, and it’s just luck that one of the embroidered cushions happens to be under me. I force myself to look again at his retinue, his strange band of serfs and exquisite horrors and pick myself out of the crowd twice more. One of my clones is wearing the skin of a tiger, hands ending in long crystalline claws, and the other is dressed like a Victorian gentleman and clutching a bone-topped walking cane, complete with muttonchops and cravat resting over a tightly waistcoated chest.
“You kept them, then,” I say, and even in my ears my voice sounds thin, almost plaintive. What did I think – that he’d have killed all the remnants of me in a fit of anger when I walked out? No – he wouldn’t be so human, but maybe I’d just hoped. “That’s sweet.”
“Why would I do you a favour after all this time?” He asks quite seriously as he strokes my painted clone on the nose like a fucking animal.
I tear my eyes away from her, from his hands on her, from the tiny bitter flare of jealousy that I still feel under all the horror. “Because I’m willing to pay.”
His hands still as his low laugh rings out over the water. “Now I’m so very curious. What is it that you need from me so badly?” He makes the last part of the sentence an insinuation that shivers over my skin and I look up – at least looking into his eyes means I’m not looking into my own.
“I want you to give me one of them,” I tell Yama, and entirely fail to hide my guilty wince when my tiger-clone’s head twists up.
I have to rush to clarify before I lose my carefully hoarded courage. No, I don’t want one of my clones back. I don’t need another me looking at me every day, knowing me, understanding me. I don’t want to be known. That’s the last thing I want.
“I want Satyavan.”
“Your boyfriend? But why would you need his tribute? You left with him – unless, oh!” He clutches his hands together, enjoying his performance too much to notice my stuttering breath. “Did your mortal boy leave you, my poor girl?”
I shake my head too sharply and feel that strange giddying fear again, or maybe it’s just the perfume of this place, of Yama, after so long outside. “He’s dead,” I tell him, and pretend not to see the glee hidden under his so-careful expression of sorrow undercut with polite disbelief. He doesn’t believe my story. I am a good liar, after all. “He died.”
“And I have his tribute,” he adds softly, and hope tastes almost painful on my tongue – I hadn’t let myself think about the possibility that Satyavan’s clone was dead, or given to another, or turned into a scattering of stars. In this place, any of those outcomes was far too possible. “His only tribute.”
Satyavan only ever made one bargain in this place, and that bargain had been with Yama. I don’t even remember why he did it any more. He was so young when he found his way here, like so many of us humans do. Barely more than a child, and too trusting. He had trusted me, and I had watched him fall in love with me and found it completely hilarious until one day it suddenly wasn’t.
I’d traded pieces of myself away for youth and life and power and thought myself half a god. Self-made and perfectly monstrous, but he didn’t see any monstrosity in me. I’d taken him away from this place before it could steal too much from him, and tried to fit him back into a human shape in a human place with a human love.
I never asked Satyavan about his trade, but I listened to his childhood stories and wondered if any were missing. I catalogued each expression on his face to find a conspicuous absence, a blank space where a feeling should be. I had looked for cracks and manmade edges to match my own and cursed Yama’s name with every breath and now – now, I am endlessly, pathetically grateful to him.
“I’m willing to pay,” I repeat.
He moves incredibly quickly; between one breath and the next he is leaning over me braced on his fists on either side of the pillow, carefully not touching my skin. One of his hands rises up to brush the bones of my amulet gently, his fingers running over the Sanskrit script which repeats his true name twisting over and over. A mark of ownership that I’d taken willingly once upon a time. A mark that I’d sworn I’d never wear again, but what’s one more broken promise? What I hated most of all was that I’d never thrown the bloody thing away.
I catch myself on his eyes, and they look surprisingly sympathetic – but then, he is a consummate liar. I learned from the best.
“The clone-,” he whispers, and I am actually shocked – I have never heard him use that word to describe his tributes. He likes to think of them as blood sacrifices, fealty offered through flesh in the old style. “The clone is not him. Any more than any of those delightful creatures is you.”
Before I gather up the breath to say something small and childish like, I know, or I don’t care, or Close enough, he is back to lounging on his cushions three feet away. The moment, whatever it was in aid of, has passed.
“How many bargains have you made, my dear? And no fibs.”
“Six,” I whisper, and try not to look at my own clones as their lips curl back in revulsion.
He taps his fingers against his lips thoughtfully. “So once more would be seven. Quite a number. A sacred number even. Mmm,” he licks his lips, predatory in a way that isn’t remotely sexual. “It would be extremely dangerous, of course. You’d most likely die. I’m frankly astounded you’re not dead already.” I say nothing, and he snorts. “Yes, you always were a stubborn girl.”
“Do we have a deal?”
He shrugs and whispers in my painted clone’s ear. She swallows and closes her eyes and throws back her head: flames erupt from her mouth as her lips part, licking into the sky like an unfolding banner edged in yellows and oranges and pale violets. A few of the dancers laugh and start spinning in circles, turning their eyes up to the firelit false sky. The music of the place slithers and shifts, faster into beats that sing of remoteness and joy: dead planets planted with slow seeds, the first harvest of sour green grapes bottled into thick glass and opened in ten, thirty, a hundred years in the light of a distant sun. Across the water, a mirror flashes in response and a coracle slowly rows its way back toward us.
“I changed his body. You know how I get bored,” he tells me conversationally, with a little set to his mouth that worries me even more now that I’m so close. “You know, my dear, traditionally there’s some playing of the lute, various tests of loyalty and courage and all that before the dead lover is returned to life. At the very least, I should be tricked into my boon by your womanly virtue and wit.”
“I never took you for a traditionalist.”
“No,” his right eyebrow raises slightly. “Nor are you exactly a flower of womanhood, if you’ll forgive me.”
I snort with laughter – I think I had forgotten that he could be funny as well as jaggedly cruel – but then my breath catches as the figures in the boat come close enough for me to make them out. I don’t know if I dare to look. I don’t know if I can look away.
“I…I turned Satyavan into a woman, oh, six years ago,” he says, seemingly careless but watching my face for any signs of dismay. He loves his gifts to be sharply barbed, but what the hell do I care? – I can see my love in the planes of her cheekbones, the way she arranges her limbs before stepping out from the boat, the way one of her shoulders is drawn up tense and waiting. “I trust that won’t be a problem for you?”
“No,” I say thickly as my hands knot themselves in my shirt. “That’s not – that’s not a problem.”
My love looks at me and at him, and says nothing at all. I don’t ask her anything either. There’s no permission grand enough for what I am going to ask of her.
Paying the price is quick but not simple. I give Yama my hand and ignore my traitorous body that wants to turn itself toward him. I force myself to watch as he strokes the tender flesh of my forearm, silvered with six raised scars. Three of them are his mouth; they have a similar pattern, thin and clean but deep. He presses his teeth down below the last mark and bites down sharply and then jerks his head – my flesh tears. I feel lightheaded with the familiar pain.
The blood drips onto the ground, and I spit in it, and he does, and we say some words in Urdu and Aramaic and Sanskrit that feel like they are made of fine steel wire, shredding my lungs and throat and mouth with the glistening tangle of them. He mixes the wet dirt with his hands and rolls it, still gleaming with my blood and spit, into a ball which he swallows. He bends his head closer and his mouth smells of rot and incense as I open my lips and taste my essence on his tongue and feel the sharp tug of something sucking itself out of me as my hands find his belly, already slightly distended with the life there.
I feel red-raw juices from my sinews, sensations from my nerves, memories from the flickering depths of my mind all flowing into Yama’s mouth and down, deeper into the small, terrible creature that thickens and grows more corporeal with my stolen vitality. I try to pull my mouth from Yama’s, but his lips are cold and beautifully yielding and taste of my own death.
He pushes me away. I drop to my knees and retch and try to pretend that I hadn’t given up, just for one long knife-sharp moment, right at the end.
The clones grow quickly. Indecently, horrifyingly quickly. By the time my vision returns to normal, and my blood begins to move sluggishly in my veins Yama is incredibly pregnant, shining and healthy and laughing with the warmth of my life inside him. I start to turn away. He catches my hand and carefully binds my bleeding arm with a handkerchief while he whispers, “Oh, well done, my dear, well done – I think she’s going to be strong as a mule, this one, I can tell.”
I stay long enough to see him slice his own belly open half an hour later, and a full grown me covered in membrane, and pink fluids tumbles out naked and shivering: reincarnation for the godless. I start towards her but my tigress clone hisses long and low while my Victorian gentleman drops her cane and snatches the shaky creature in her arms and begins to soothe her in a voice so gentle I’m not sure I’ve used it before.
I wonder whether gentleness is one of the things I bargained away. If it was, I must have lost it early.
Yama is feeling exhausted and magnanimous and sated and so waves me off with only one amused look. “Thank you for such an entertaining visit, my dear,” he whispers langurously, rough-voiced with exertion. “Do come again in ten years.”
I rub my knuckles against my bruised lips and grab my lover by the wrist and leave.
I pretend not to see all three of my clones crowding around their newest – sister – their eyes soft and fearful and damning. I know I’m damned. Seven times over, and that’s not even counting what I’ve done to other people.
The party is still glittering and sickeningly perfect when we get to the dance floor, always poised at the very edge of crescendo – but this time music slides over my skin like so much water. All I can feel is where we are connected by my hands, the blood rushing up to the surface of my skin like it wants to beat right through it and round in circles round Satyavan’s body.
She looks at me like I am quite possibly insane and most definitely stupid, and I smile back.
“Who the hell do you think I am,” she asks me, when I kiss her collar, her neck, just under her ear where he used to love to be kissed. She gasps a little and I stroke the hair back from her face and pull her towards me with my other arm. “Ah, god. You’re a fool.”
“Yes,” I agree, between breaths, between moments. I am. I’m clever enough to know exactly how foolish I am, but right now it doesn’t matter: everything is clear and beautiful and smells of her. Of my love.
She unknots Yama’s handkerchief, soaked in my red blood. It falls to the floor as she traces my scars angrily with her long fingers. Each one of them is a piece of me sold or bartered or traded away. I can barely remember who I used to be, but I have Satyavan for that. I have her now.
“Who the hell do you think you are,” she asks me with quiet fear, and she sounds so much like my love that I have to kiss her silent.
I have paid for today. And tomorrow – tomorrow there’s time to make another bargain.
Meg Jayanth has a short story coming out in ‘The Lost’ published by Galileo Books, and is currently writing Samsara, an award-winning storygame of dreams and war set in Eighteenth Century Bengal: http://samsara.storynexus.com