Chanda was getting tired of waking up in a hospital bed. It couldn’t be a good omen for their future if this was one of the few places they felt relatively safe in. They felt a telltale throb and groaned, unwilling to try and relive what had happened. “Why can’t this be a dream?” They whispered brokenly.
“Dreams don’t have much use in our destiny,” Kamala answered from across the small room.
Chanda just about shrieked. “Dammit—” A choked shout cut off their would-be rant. Kamala grinned, just barely pressing her thumb into the hole in Chanda’s wrapped hand.
“Keep quiet, sapling. Mustn’t show pain where no one can see. That’s stealing pride from us, and I won’t allow it.” Her voice was disturbingly chipper, watching Chanda wheeze and grit their teeth. They didn’t want to find out what she’d do if they disobeyed her. After ten agonizing seconds, she let go, watching the bandages bleed red from lack of pressure. Chanda breathed harshly through their nose, muscles tense as a bowstring.
“What are you on about now, Lotus?” Kamala leaned in close, her dark skin cool to the touch, breath even icier.
“You are undergoing a process called Lost Pride. It combines punishment and conditioning by forcing you to meet your fellow assassins through painful means. You will fight as many as you can stay awake for until we feel you have no ounce of pride. You will know only fear and respect for us.” She leaned back when she was done, eyes narrow and bloodthirsty. At this moment, Chanda imagined she was more dangerous than any jungle tiger, more savage.
“What happens after that, after you sick bastards think you’ve broken me?” Kamala didn’t answer, settling into the rickety woven chair in her corner. Chanda glared at her. They would have some answers, repercussions or pain be damned. It’s not like she could kill them now since that would probably skew up the ‘Lost Pride’ process.
“Answer me this, Kamala,” they bit out, taking small pleasure in the way she curled her lip from the offense that came with hearing her name. “Was it you who killed my family?”
She blinked slowly, leaned back. “You won’t know until after you’ve finished throwing away your pride. However, it wasn’t me. The killing style requested was too impersonal for my tastes.”
Chanda ran their good hand over their face, using the pull of skin on skin to try and keep them grounded. “I hate you all. I hate you all so much,” they hissed, eyes burning several holes into the blanket over their legs.
Kamala took it in stride, rising fluidly. “Heal that hand quickly, sapling. The longer you take, the longer you have to wait until you find those assassins.” With a wave, she left the room, disappearing down the hall. Chanda curled away from the door, blinking away fast-forming tears. Becoming an orphan so suddenly left a deep, jagged hole in their chest, and to be denied the simple dignity of knowing those who killed Chanda’s family widened that hole.
Chanda’d certainly like to leave some jagged holes in somebody else’s chest, just to see how they’d handle trying live without a heart. With the blossoming of murderous anger came shame, and Chanda curled in on themselves even tighter. They didn’t want to have similar thinking patterns as this palace teeming with killers. They didn’t want to consider what’d it be like to stand over a dead body, much less a body that they put to death. Yet, those intrusive thoughts had taken root and spread quickly in their mind, with no intentions to leave peacefully. A nurse came in and gave them sleep-heavy painkillers, and any further thoughts of murder or of the future quickly ceased.
Chanda floated between worrisome thinking and deep sleep for a few months, half-present through their hand healing and the physical therapy that put them in a clean bill of health. The threat of coming brutally had faded to an afterthought, until Chanda could lay in bed, idly stroking Rami’s back, ruminating and lethargic. The door to their room slid open and in came a giant of a man, muscles bulging under his clothes.
Rami hopped off Chanda and out of the room, the small bell around his neck chiming with his nervous sprint. Chanda sighed, already missing the warm spot on their lap, and looked up to meet the plain brown eyes of their visitor. “Who are you?”
He didn’t answer them, instead, he paced about quietly shutting everything down in the room, freeing Chanda from every tube and wire, plunging them into quiet. Anxiety dropped like a stone into their stomach, their hands gripped the sheets tightly.
“What are you doing?” The stranger came uncomfortably close to their bedside, enough so that they could count the major veins and arteries that lined down his arms, and with little fanfare, picked Chanda up from the bed. They panicked, beating their fists on the guy’s back, not keen on being carried around like a sack of potatoes to what was undoubtedly going to be another torture session.
“If you keep hitting me before the ceremony, you will suffer for it tenfold,” was the only warning Chanda got. It was more than enough to put them into uneasy complacency, nausea tainted with utter terror churning in their stomach. They had no idea where they were headed, being carried like this cut off a proper sense of direction, and none of the buildings were familiar enough to help. The feeling of sunlight came as a surprise, a rush of warm tingles on the backs of their legs and feet. Chanda found no comfort in being outside.
They entered another building some ways off from the main complex. This was much older, slowly decaying statues of warriors and their champion gods framing the walls in various poses of majesty and combat. The soft plodding of the earth changed for the crunch of gravel mixed with sand. This was a training arena, most likely, but modified.
Chanda was dropped without care onto the ground, only quick reflex prevented them from spitting out gravel. Scrambling to stand, Chanda saw that the arena had indeed been heavily modified inside. Rows upon rows of stone benches had been carved to allow for spectators, currently empty. There were no weapon racks or dummies staked in place, no other escape routes.
In fact, the set up vaguely felt Roman, out of place in a palace most definitely not built by them. Why go so far as to build a place like this, why bring them here? The stranger loudly cleared his throat, startling Chanda’s attention back to the present. He had moved a handful of feet away, had taken off his shirt, and was wrapping his hands with boxing bandages. A spare roll was tucked under his arm. Apprehensive, Chanda waited for him to speak, to move, do anything except stand there and wrap.
The methodical, slow process the stranger used in wrapping his hands felt more threatening than the implication of why. Each length that revolved around his palm, weaving between fingers, back and forth, up, and down. Left hand, right hand, flexing to test the tightness and flexibility. This man was well prepared to deal out the pain.
Chanda flexed their own, defenseless hands, one stiffer than the other. They hadn’t gone through much physical therapy in the healing process, just enough to keep the hand useful. It was a purposeful neglect, they suspected. They would have to make do somehow, work more on evasion than striking.
Chanda almost didn’t notice the electric hum of a speaker turning on and was consequently startled by the mocking voice of Bhima echoing through the grounds. “Sapling! Welcome to our disciplining grounds. Here, my son, you will shed your foolish tether to the world you grew up in.” His voice boomed out of the speaker, full of pomp and grandeur.
The overconfidence was what irritated them most, along with the continued misgendering. They were their own person, neither male nor female, just them. In silent, seething protest Chanda raised their newly dominant hand and flipped the bird, moving the sign in large arcs to follow the boom of the speaker. Fuck Bhima and fuck this place.
The speaker crackled to life again. “If you’d like to keep that finger with the rest, you’d do well to pay attention to your fast-approaching discipline, sapling. Don’t think that you are not watched because you don’t see the faces.”
Chanda stubbornly wasn’t cowed by the threat, and they could imagine that Bhima was leaning into the microphone on his end, lips strained into a smile. Or maybe not, perhaps the ‘infallible’ Bhima, when he was alone and not playing up a persona, felt base enough let his savagery show.
A new voice, one definitely recorded, replaced Bhima’s voice. “You will be beaten with little chance to defend yourself. You will be denied mercy until you show respect and repentance. We will show you no honor, as you have shown us none.” It was toneless with its threats, but it was enough to unsettle Chanda. All their bravado had gone.
The stranger finished wrapping his hands, rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck casually. Then, they got into a charging stance, eying Chanda up and down. When the recorded voice spoke again, apparently on a loop, he charged, moving with an astonishing speed for his size. Chanda only barely dodged, throwing themselves to the side and rolling. They stood up quickly, already feeling as if they’d run a marathon. Their pulse was thudding in their ears, heart almost popping right out their chest.
In keeping their focus on the stranger, Chanda had forgotten Bhima’s threat of more than one presence in the arena. Strong arms grabbed their shoulders from behind, yanking Chanda backward back into the gravel. They were immediately covered by the new stranger: a woman wearing a sort of cloaked armor Chanda had no idea existed. She had nothing but disgust in her eyes as if being a part of this ‘disciplinary tradition’ was beneath her. That didn’t stop her from pulling any punches, delivering several ringers to Chanda’s face.
The first punch already had them spitting blood, so by punch eight, they could barely remember what having an empty mouth felt like. They had bitten their tongue, the insides of their cheeks, even had a few chipped teeth. She jumped off and kicked them onto their side, letting blood leak onto the gravel from their nose and mouth. When Chanda weakly managed to rise to their knees, they saw at least five more strangers, all wearing the same cloaked armor.
They allowed Chanda just enough time to get on their feet, then the original stranger charged again, thick arm sending them right back down with a clothesline. Chanda’s breaths were ragged and wheezing, just barely heard over the continued monologue of the recording.
“When you bow, you will be deemed broken,” Bhima’s voice rang out again, but without the help of the speaker system. This had to have meant he was present, somewhere in the bleachers. Chanda’s eyes were too swollen to figure out where exactly. It didn’t matter, Chanda was determined to die before bowing to the likes of him or this place.
They stood again, only to be knocked down by the next stranger. This pattern kept repeating for as long as Chanda could stand, but even then, they made the effort. The original stranger looked almost bored, easily knocking Chanda over with an easy kick to the chest. “Let’s get this over with, the idiot is more likely to die at this rate.”
The other strangers were inclined to agree, silently flicking bits of gravel at Chanda when they took too long to move. Chanda protested with weak squirming and making a mess of their blood on the arms of the stranger that had grabbed them. Half-dragged through the gravel, Chanda was forced into a kneeling position and then bent over into a bow. There was a pause to see if they would fall out of it, but Chanda knew they couldn’t take any more punishment, and so stayed in place.
Bhima’s pleased clapping was a bitter relief. “We have broken the proud child! Now we can make him stronger! Back to the med bay for now, when you are in full health, the real training will begin.”