Two days went by rather fast, even to Chanda. Part of that speediness was because of Rami, and the other part due to the constant buzz of hospital staff in and out of their room. They appreciated being prioritized, but it only heightened the subconscious awareness that with each hour passed, Chanda was that much closer to meeting the ‘local flora’.
Chanda wondered what that encounter would be like. Would this person be like Abbán, or not at all? Where would they take them, or tell them? Most worrisome, though, was the dark, fledgling idea that Chanda’s ‘selection’ for a higher purpose involved foul play. After all, those trees were strong and young, still healthy. The strongest of storms in the past hadn’t managed to make either tree even creak, so why would a mediocre one take not one, but both of them? It had to be more than a freak accident. Chanda shuddered, horrified to be making so much sense.
A knock on the door brought their attention to a woman of absolute beauty. She had hair down to her chin, a mass of waves so black it had a blue tint to it in the stark hospital lighting. She was rather short, with a square face but a jawline chiseled by Lakshmi herself. Her skin was dark, smooth, and glowing, freckled by pale spots in an intriguing pigment reversal, just a sprinkle across her cheekbones and nose. She stood with a natural air of authority, her dark doe eyes regarding him flatly. She was unreadable but daunting, exuding a natural confidence that Chanda instinctually envied. Chanda swallowed slowly, held captive in the intensity of her presence. Her size and beauty were useless in trying to judge her character, and it made Chanda nervous.
They sat up as straight as they could without pain, rousing Rami for a moment. He made a soft squeak of protest before adjusting and dozing off. His noise was the cue.
“Chanda Singh Banyan, I am the Lotus, Kamala. I’m here to collect you and mentor you through your training.” Her voice was steel wrapped in silk: smooth and flawless but strong and cold.
Chanda was floored, staring dumbly at her. “U-um...ok? Nice to meet you, Kamala,” they offered, receiving a sharp eyebrow lift from Kamala.
“My title is Lotus, use it. Prepare yourself, you’ll be checked out soon.” She did a military-esque about face and left Chanda alone. ‘Preparing yourself’ didn’t mean much for them except coaxing Rami into his pet carrier. That seemed to be all the time they had, as Kamala returned shortly with two nurses. She offered the first smile of the day, small and tight-lipped.
Chanda returned it, but their nervousness bled through every pore. The nurses were efficient and quiet, disconnecting them from the heart monitor and vitamin slush IV. One of them handed Chanda a set of clothes and then helped them up. Chanda found it was much easier to stand and walk around than they’d thought. The worst of the pain was just extreme soreness.
Kamala looked pleased, her hands clasped behind her back. “Good, you’re strong. Shows promise, young man,” she said as the nurses left, tipping her head to them.
Chanda looked instantly uncomfortable, shaking their head. “I’m completely agender, so I don’t respond to male pronouns. My pronouns are they/them, so please use them, Lotus.” They had a firm, but polite sternness that came with extended use.
Kamala blinked, then kept talking as if it were nothing. “Fair enough. Your clothes are on the bed, dress and meet me outside,” she instructed, leaving again almost silently.
The nurses helped them dress and gave them instructions on how to continue healing. They would scar in some places and was coming off of a small concussion, so caution was of the utmost importance. Chanda could only nod and go along with it, almost completely distracted by the new clothes.
The outfit alluded to a lotus with its colors of deep green, soft pink, yellow, and white. The fabric was cotton, but tight and thin even for them. The top was mostly white, tinting to pink and yellow towards the hem. It had full-length sleeves that cinched tight around the wrists, embroidered with pastel pink curling designs. The bottoms were a pair of vivid green cotton faux jeans. Simple black flats finished it off. The outfit was flattering, working well with Chanda’s androgynous shape. It took a lot of trial and error for Chanda to co-ordinate outfits that well. Any other time Chanda would preen, twirl in a mirror, that sort of thing to boost self-confidence, but not now. Chanda could barely keep up.
Kamala tapped the glass pane with a look of clear impatience. Chanda sighed, picking up Rami in the carrier and taking slow, uncertain steps out of the room. This would be easier with Abbán, who Chanda somehow missed already despite barely knowing him. Kamala cleared her throat softly, automatically starting to walk ahead of Chanda, albeit at a noticeably slower pace so they could keep up.
“I’m sure you’re wondering about the clothes,” she began, staring straight ahead while she talked, “They’re your new uniform. You’re an initiate of the Lotus flora sub-group, which serves under the Banyan Tree clan, which you will eventually lead,” she finished so softly that Chanda had to strain to hear. They felt even more lost, more uncomfortable, as though being led away from safety and security. The single-minded certainty with which Kamala spoke unsettled them, being robbed completely of choice.
“What you are about to enter is the most covert global project in history. It’s existed since World War 2 and is so classified that only a handful of outsiders are aware, and they seldom live long. No government knows we exist. With our diverse global groups, we’ve shaped the 21st century and still are.” The way she talked about the project with a reverence, seriousness, and pride usually found in government officials or military leaders did little to ease Chanda.
“I don’t...I don’t understand, Lotus. Why me? What do I have to offer that a group like that would want? I’m just a sophomore in uni,” they asked, keeping with the sudden trend of speaking quietly.
Kamala didn’t answer them or otherwise acknowledge them until after Chanda had filled out their check-out paperwork, and they were walking outside the hospital. “You’re a Banyan. belong to the World Tree Project; the Banyan clan specifically is your birthright to take and lead,” she explained with that same unbreakable certainty.
Chanda stared at her back with wide eyes. They had a terrible urge to run back into the hospital, away from the veil of mystery that Kamala was leading them to. “You’re only adding to my list of questions...” they tried to go the casual, small-dabs-of-humor way of conversing, to try and ease the tension in their gut, but Kamala ignored them again.
Chanda felt small and awkward, a sure-fire way to shut them up. The pair walked to an inconspicuous black sports car, low to the ground and sleek. Chanda was stuck staring in awe, so out-of-touch with cars the model escaped them.
“When you graduate from basic physical and mental training, you’ll get one, too,” Kamala added, eyeing Chanda from the side. She fished out her keys and started the car, the doors opening with a small click.
Chanda stood in front of the open door, gulping audibly. “I’m, ah, a little nervous. Where are we going?”
Again, Kamala didn’t decide to answer them. Chanda frowned now, still standing. “Lotus, I think I deserve some answers here. Can I at least know where you’re taking me?” they had a demanding tone in their question that was just enough to set Kamala off.
“You aren’t entitled to know anything besides what I deem appropriate. You will hush and get in, with or without force,” she hissed, turning around to glare at them. Her nose flared out just slightly, and the ice in her glare was enough to make Chanda shiver and clutch the handle of the carrier tighter. Even though they were the taller of the pair, they felt no power from it.
“I have no choice in any of this, really. Why?” They did get in the car, not willing to test Kamala. She grumbled something under her breath, a curse if Chanda had to guess, then got in on the driver’s side. The car started with a low purr and drove smooth and fast.
“No, the power of choice is reserved for higher-ups. The last chance for choice was taken the moment your mother tried to shirk her duty.”
Chanda frowned deeply at the mention of their mother, staring Kamala down. She didn’t meet their eyes.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Chanda was never a hard person, never had to put extra bass in their voice or use fists to solve problems, but now there was a dangerous rumble in their voice and a glint in their eyes that demanded an answer no matter the authority.
Kamala clenched the steering wheel, setting her jaw. “Initiates are carefully pre-selected. Tree Clan initiates are twice as special to the project. You are meant for the Banyan Tree Clan, your mother knew and accepted that when she married your father. However, she foolishly tried to keep you away, so we gave her seven years to correct her mistake. She didn’t, and we had to use force.” Kamala sounded hateful. It rose Chanda’s hackles.
“What if she had given me up at the right time?” they asked.
“Then you would have been picked up when you were 13, and your family spared for a time,” Kamala answered flatly. Chanda inhaled sharply as if hurt. They were so encased in anger and horror they didn’t know how to handle it. Tears, hot and salty, bubbled up and fell.
“That night wasn’t an accident, not even a little bit,” they choked out. The damning silence was answer enough. Chanda couldn’t hold it in, putting shaky hands over their face and heaving out sobbing breaths.
“Lemme out! I won’t do it, I won’t be a part of this ‘murder Project’!” they swore harshly over and over, almost having a tantrum. Finally, Kamala pulled over at a secluded spot and slapped a hand over their mouth. Just as Chanda began to struggle, the cold edge of a blade met their pulsing jugular. Chanda never went so still so fast in their life, staring at Kamala in true fear.
She stared right through them, eyes narrowed into near slits, mouth in a tight line, showing nothing. “You have no choice. You belong to the Project, it is your place in the world. You would’ve killed your mother and sister by now if not sooner anyway, be glad we did instead. Most of us didn’t have that luxury, so shut the hell up and stop being a cowardly bitch.
“You will learn to bear hardship with dignity, starting now. I don’t want to hear another sound, another question, until we are at the training grounds, understand?” She lectured them in a sharp pattern of hiss and growl, teeth bared. Chanda was highly aware of the press of the blade against their skin, afraid to even gulp. Rami meowed curiously, the only break in the deadly silence. Chanda took a shaky breath and made a tiny jerk of a nod.
Kamala eased away from them and resumed driving, as cool and collected as ever, ignoring Chanda. They slouched heavily in their seat, numbly staring out the window and wondering just how could life go so terribly wrong so fast.