“Get up, girl,” Pong Nei sneered. “I’m not done with you yet!”
Omi gritted her teeth. She would show this arrogant upstart what she was made of.
She lunged upright, spinning and launching herself at Pong Nei, her foot sweeping out in a roundhouse kick designed to knock his block off.
She hissed as she missed and landed with a stumble. Before she could regain her balance, Pong Nei’s hand slipped through her guard to chop her in the midriff, hard. She wheezed and bent double as the wind whooshed out of her. Gasping, she fell to her knees.
Pong Nei’s laughter rang out above her, abrading her ears. “Aw, you had enough, buttercup? Want to run home to mummy and cry?”
Their tutor, Tangtsang, called, “Tense your muscles in readiness for a blow, Omi. And do not reveal your intentions before you strike. Pong Nei could see your kick coming from a league away. Deception is a warrior’s ally, young lady. Again.”
Omi forced herself back to her feet, face strained and red, trying hard not to cry. Her belly ached, and she felt like she could only take half-breaths at best. Nevertheless, she adopted one of the familiar fighting stances they had been taught over the years, the form fitting her like a glove. Front leg straight in front of her, back leg bent behind her, one arm arcing up over her head like a scorpion’s stinger and the other beckoning her opponent in front of her, she took up the scorpion’s stance; a favourite of hers since it allowed for fluidity, speed and precision to overcome brute force.
Pong Nei grinned and took up a crane stance, balanced on one leg, both arms spread either side of him for balance. His kick from that position – either with the front or back leg, and she never knew which it would be – was notoriously vicious among the students at Shri-Gwafa Monastery, where they trained to be fully fledged warrior monks one day. One boy was still confined to the infirmary with broken ribs. Omi felt a snarl tugging at her face.
This time, however, she forced herself to wait for Pong to attack, putting him at a disadvantage. She planned on using the time while she was waiting to regain her breath, but Pong gave her little chance. Coming at her fast, he let loose a flurry of kicks and punches designed to fool her more than anything else; a series of feints that did not allow him to be drawn in for any sort of retaliation. The feints hid his true attack, and Omi did not see it coming in time.
Pong crowed at the sky as Omi crumpled to the ground once more, clutching her bleeding nose. Pong leaned in close to whisper in her ear. “Girls should never have been allowed to train with men! You’ll never be a monk, little Omi! You’re pathetic!”
Omi’s eyes welled with tears and she choked back a sob. Tangtsang wandered over, his abstemious golden face cold and detached. Sunlight glistened on his pate.
“Let me see,” he commanded coolly, and Omi allowed him to inspect her nose. “It is broken. Hold still while I reset it.”
When he touched her nose, she flinched back, but he seized a handful of her hair. “Pain is in the mind, child. Blot it out. I am trying to help you. Now hold still.”
“I can hold her if you want, master?” offered Pong Nei eagerly.
“No,” said Tangtsang without looking at him. “She needs to do this by herself. One day, she may need to reset her own nose and she needs to know that she can handle it. It is only pain, Omi. It is only a construct that we have devised in our minds to keep us safe. It is a warning system to keep us away from danger. But sometimes we must put ourselves in danger to protect our country or our way of life. These are the times when pain, and the fear of it, must be overcome. Are you ready?”
Omi nodded and held still while Tangtsang snapped her crooked nose back into place and blood gushed from her nostrils. Her scream made the nearby ibises and eagles scatter from the tiled rooftops of the small shrines surrounding the students on the fourth level of Shri-Gwafa Monastery. Miniature basalt pagodas, the shrines housed altars dedicated to all of the different Gods venerated by the Tzunese, from the deities representing physical elements of nature, such as Merejulanna, Goddess of the Sea, to deities representing ideals important to Tzunese culture, such as Vagada, God of Honour.
Seeing that she was weeping, Tangtsang offered Omi the afternoon off from training and she gratefully accepted. Washing her bloody face in a bucket of water, she moped back to her spartan dormitory and flounced onto her straw pallet. With only a thin pillow and a threadbare blanket, it made for a meagre bed, but it was the best and only bed she had ever known. Like most of the students and monks at the monastery, she had been an orphan abandoned at the monastery either by her parents or by an orphanage that did not want to deal with her anymore. Despite this, she had always been happy at Shri-Gwafa growing up – until the training had begun. When she and the other students had turned twelve, the monks had seen fit to begin their formal martial arts training. Though trained to a lesser extent in the years before, this was the first time the monks had taken her training seriously and begun to test her abilities. She knew that if she was found wanting, she could potentially be thrown out of the monastery.
She lay on her pallet and stared up at the black stone ceiling until her eyes stung, then she closed them. She hated herself for giving in today and running away, but she knew she would have hated herself if she had continued the training too. She would only have continued to fare badly and caused herself more pain. Despite knowing that, she still hated herself for running away. She cursed her brain aloud softly; there was no pleasing it. Since this phase of her training had begun, almost a year ago now, her life had been miserable. All the friends she had ever known, boys and girls that she had grown up with her entire life, had seemingly turned on her overnight. Provoked by competitiveness to view her as weak, they dissociated from the slight young girl and she was left awfully alone. She felt a pain in her left forearm and smiled before returning her sharp little rock to its place hidden between the straw pallet and the wall.
When the gong signalling the evening meal rang throughout the monastery, she was still lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. She debated not going down to the mess hall, not eating, just remaining alone. The monks worked them hard every day, however, and she knew she would suffer from light-headedness and hunger pangs the next day if she did not eat. So, she rose reluctantly and spirited her way through basalt corridors to the mess hall, there to find scores of other students already sitting at tables and benches. Filling a bowl with rice and vegetables, she took a seat with those her own age as was expected. She tried to sit as far away from Pong Nei as she could, but he moved to be nearer to her.
“Couldn’t even manage a full day of training, eh?” he drawled loudly, his wide flat face drawn in a mocking grin.
She did not answer, only stuffed food in her mouth and chewed rapidly, planning to eat and leave as fast as possible.
“That crack as Tangtsang reset your nose was gross,” Delun, Pong Nei’s sycophant, chipped in, eyes gleaming. “D’you think you’ll even manage to show up for training tomorrow? I doubt it.”
“Regardless, you’ll definitely be tossed out on your ear before long,” Pong Nei assured her. “You won’t even make it a single year. Little girls have no place here. This is a place for men. Warriors. Wizards in training. Not useless little whelps with less skill in martial arts than a crippled crab.”
Swallowing anger like bile, Omi decided that if she was going to stay here – which she wanted – then perhaps she ought to be friends with her fellows. Speaking as calmly as she could, she asked the two boys, “How was the lesson after I left?”
“Much better after you left,” sneered Delun, his pinched face reminding her of a rat’s as it so often did.
“Yes, much better,” Pong Nei agreed. “There was no one to hold us back, you see.”
Omi took a deep breath, feeling anger heat her from the inside. “If we are to be students here together, I think we should find a way to be friends. I’m sure you don’t want to continue this hostility forever.”
Pong Nei looked taken aback for a second, then his mocking grin returned. “Actually, I think I do. Or for as long as you’re here and you’re a whiney little runt anyway. Which won’t be long. You’ll never pass the year-end test.”
Omi fled the mess hall as soon as she had eaten, thanking the Gods as she quickstepped back to her dormitory that she did not share the space with Pong Nei. If she had not been able to get away from him and Delun in the evenings at least, she suspected she would have gone crazy by now. She threw herself on her pallet face-down. A girl her age called Mingxia, the closest thing she had to a friend, found her there and patted her self-consciously on the back.
“There, there,” she cooed, “don’t let them get to you, Omi. Maybe a better life awaits you out there somewhere.”
Omi cried herself to sleep that night, knowing even Mingxia did not believe in her ability to stay at the monastery. It was the only home she had ever known, and though the monks could be cold, the students cruel, she did not want to leave. She knew nothing else but what she had learned at the monastery.
When a cockerel crowed the next morning at dawn, she made her way to the fourth level of the stepped monastery in time for her morning stretching and exercise; a gruelling regime enforced by the monks. She kept her eyes fixed on the deities’ altars as she broke a sweat, refusing to meet Pong’s baiting gaze. The altars were basalt representations of the Gods, half-man or –woman and half-element, like fire or water or earth or wind. She managed to attain a vague semblance of calm as she studied the statues, whether from the love she felt or received, she did not know. It did not matter, she supposed; she was simply grateful for a moment’s respite from the hornet’s nest of her own brain.
After the briefest of breakfasts, the students were expected to practise their martial arts for several hours before noon. Her nose still throbbing, Omi nevertheless took up a position opposite Mingxia in readiness.
“You have all heard of the force known as Chi by now,” Tangtsang began with his usual lack of preamble, moving with painstaking slowness through a well-known attack pattern. “You know this is what we are trying to achieve here; the manipulation of spiritual chi through the manipulation of our physical frames. It may sound impossible, like a dream or fool’s babble. You should know by now, however, that it is anything but the ravings of a lunatic. Almost impossible to put into words, the flow of Chi through your body is something you will eventually feel with enough practice and meditation. You will feel it as naturally as you feel the breath in your lungs or the sunlight on your skin. And one day, you may even be able to direct those energies.”
The attack pattern came to a head as he slowly extended his arm toward a mantra tree that had been encouraged to grow up between the flagstones. The tree shook as if buffeted some of its orange leaves coming loose and drifting slowly down to the ground.
“Whoah,” the entire class murmured in awe.
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