If there was one thing Citra hated more than anything else it would be losing. Losing a game, losing a battle, losing her brother...
When she loses, she is wrong and weak. A pathetic version of herself, something she wants to bury deep in the sands.
A swift kick to her stomach made her double over in pain. Tears sprung to her eyes but she held them back.
Show no pain. Show no weakness.
Gritting her teeth, Citra ignored the aching in her stomach and charged at her opponent only to get knocked down on the hard stone floor. Her head bounced against it like a toy doll, bright stars bursting behind closed eyelids. A wave of dizzying nausea washed over her, drenching her body in a cold sweat. She didn't want to move, couldn't, and by the gods she felt like she was going to throw up.
"Up! Get up and fight!" Tane's harsh voice barked at her through the ringing in her ears.
She wanted to, gods she wanted to but everything hurt and the dizziness wasn't going away.
Focus, you have to focus.
Liquid fire fueled her soul, giving her the strength to breath in and out deeply to clear her head. Blinking away the darkness creeping around the edges of her vision, Citra slowly picked herself off the floor. She felt something unpleasant in her mouth and she spat whatever it was out instinctively. Blood stained the stone floors. She glared at it and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
Readying herself physically and mentally, she spun around and landed a blow on her opponents face. It hurt him but it hurt her knuckles a lot worse. She dodged his counter strike then another aimed for her ribs. She threw a jab but it wasn't as satisfying painful as she wanted it to be.
Her head was already swimming, exhaustion catching up to her. She blinked away the blurriness from her eyes furiously. Focus. Focus.
A familiar laughter caught her attention. She glanced towards the far right side of the training ground to see Vaas sparring with Kalai, grins on both their faces as they fought each other with long bamboo staffs.
Pain exploded underneath her jaw, snapping her head back. She didn't register falling but when she managed to pry open her eyes she was staring at the sky. Then, she was staring at her uncle's face.
"Get up," He said, nudging her with his foot.
"Get up, child. Or have you admitted defeat?"
Her face twisted in anger. How could he expect her to keep fighting? How could he embarrass her like this? She got up alright, but it wasn't to continue fighting. Instead she stood up, swayed in place and then stormed off the platform, ignoring the snickering coming from the other students as she passed them. She cursed them in her head.
"Citra," She heard Vaas call, already jogging to her but a stern look from Tane halted him.
"Go back to your training." Their uncle ordered with a tone that left no room for argument. Citra, despite herself, chanced a look at Vaas. He didn't look too happy at their uncle's order, twirling the staff in annoyance. For a second he looked as if he wanted to hit Tane with it. Vaas looked from Tane to her and kept her gaze away until she exited the training ground and the walls built around the grounds blocked him from sight.
"Where are you going?" Tane demanded behind her.
"Away from here." She growled, spitting more blood on the floor.
"So you're quitting then." He said. Citra stopped in her tracks and turned to face him.
"No, I'm not." She said lowly, "I never quit."
He crossed his arms over his chest, "Then what are you doing right now?"
She felt her face grow hot and a burning desire to hit something overcame her. "It's not fair!" She cried out in frustration, "He's bigger and stronger than I am. How am I supposed to defeat him? Father was right, I am not meant to become a warrior."
"If you think that way then your Father is right." Tane said. Hearing that come from her uncle shocked Citra, and she couldn't hide the hurt that passed over face. She bowed her head, unwilling to let the older man see her tears. She didn't look up when she heard him approach her, nor when he bent down and grasped her shoulder. "Citra," He began, "Don't flee from a deer when you are already a tiger. There will be many things that may seem impossible to defeat. There will be challenges in your life that will test you and try to break you. There will be people who will tell you, you cannot but you can. You can, Citra."
She peered up at him, "How do you know that?"
"Because I believe in you," he replied, "And when you start believing in yourself, you will see; nothing can ever stand in your path."
Citra took his words and played them over and over again in her head. Like the sun rising on a new day, new sense of understanding dawned on her.
Tane straightened, "Are you ready to continue your battle?"
She looked at her bloody and bruised hands and nodded with determination. They walked side by side back to the training grounds and when she was facing her opponent again, she was ready this time. Clearing her head from all thoughts, Citra settled into a fighting stance, her opponent doing the same. They circled each other, waiting for the other to make the first move, all the while Citra began analyzing her opponent.
He was bigger than her and stronger. It just meant she had to be faster than him and hit ten times stronger. He made the first move, dashing at her with the intent to swing a punch. She dodged it easily and surprised even herself when she kneed him in the ribs and hit him with the her elbow, making him stumble backwards, more out of balance than from pure physical force.
She went in to hit him more but he recovered faster than she thought. She was struck across the face but the pain didn't deter her. Instead it cleared her mind more, woken her up like a bucket of cold water. She rolled diagonally past him and shot her leg out to kick the back of his knee, making him tumble to the ground. She was on him in an instant, digging her knee into his neck hard enough to cut off his airway as she raised her fist to hit him.
"Kekalahan! Kekalahan!" The boy choked, his hands slapping uselessly at her thigh. She didn't get off though but looked at Vaas to see if he was witnessing her victory. She heard Tane say something but it was background noise for her. Once she made sure Vaas was indeed looking she slowly eased the pressure from the boy's neck, savoring how pathetic he was.
"Help him." Tane ordered when the boy didn't seem to be getting up anytime soon. Two kids got up and assisted him off the platform.
Citra stood, exhaustion crashing down on her as the adrenaline high wore off from her system. She felt good; powerful. Just like Vaas. That is until Tane snuck up behind her and swatted the back of her head in disapproval. "It is not honorable for a warrior to gloat over their enemies. A good warrior practices restraint."
Citra tried to look guilty, she really tried but she was practically beaming with unbridled pride. Her opponent was weak and pathetic. It only further proves she and Vaas were better than everyone else. They were born to be better. Greater.
The next day, Citra woke up to her bed sheets stained red.
"You are no longer innocent," Anaru declared, "It is time for you to begin training with our elder priestess."
Citra shot her head up, "No! I can't go."
"And why is that?"
"Because I'll miss Tane's classes!" It was the most obvious thing in the entire island. How was she supposed to become a warrior if she's stuck all day with an old woman playing with dirt and leaves. And most importantly, she wasn't going to be with Vaas everyday now. Won't see him fight and win. Won't be able to bask in his glory.
How dare her father try to take that away from her! Doesn't he love her?
Anaru chuckled and to her it sounded like the harshest thing in the world. He was so cruel as to laugh at her? But he looked at her with gentle eyes and said, "Citra, it's been good for you to go learn how to fight but your purpose isn't to become a warrior. It has always been to follow in your Mother's footsteps and become a great priestess as she was in her time."
Citra stepped back, glowering at him, "But I don't want to become a priestess. I want to be with Vaas and learn how to be a warrior of the Rakyat."
Anaru sighed heavily, "Is that what this is about, Vaas? Stop with your childish ways. Vaas is a man now, he should not be distracted by your childish wants."
They're not childish, she wanted to say but she could only scrunch her face up and try to stop crying. She can't show how easily it was to affect her. She hated showing any weakness.
"It won't be so bad, " Her father tried to reassure her, "You will become the greatest priestess of the Rakyat, like your mother before you. It's what she would have wanted."
What about what I want?
"Go get ready," He patted her arm, "Monatula has been expecting you for a while now and she will help you with your bleeding."
"She's been expecting me?" Citra asked.
"Of course, the elders have chosen you since birth. It is one of the highest honor in our tribe." He smiled at her, "I've been awaiting this day for a long time and I cannot be more proud of you. You have an honorable duty to this tribe and I know you will be perfect. You're similar with your Mother in that way. She gave up everything for her duty. I know you will do the same." He shook her shoulder and left.
Her father's words were meant to soothe her but they only made her feel worse. She looked at the red stain on her sheets and anger sparked inside her. Why did she have to bleed? Why did she have to be girl? Why couldn't she be just like Vaas? He was so perfect and she was... not.
In a moment of defiance, Citra changed clothes, stuffed cloth in her panties, and sneaked out of the house. It felt uncomfortable walking, something that has never bothered her in the past and it only served to sour her mood more. She's never felt so relieved to see the training grounds before.
It was still early in the morning and none of the other kids had arrived yet. She didn't expect anyone to be there anyways, but she was pleasantly surprised to find her uncle there. Staying a ways away so as not to alert him of her presence just yet, she observed him train. He moved slowly, a long blade in his hand that he would swipe. He looked like he was fighting someone in slow motion. He performed each step with precise accuracy, letting out harsh exhales when he would thrust the blade forward in the motion of stabbing.
"Do you plan on standing there all day?" He said out loud.
Citra didn't know who he was talking to. With a jolt, she realized he was talking to her. How did he know she was there? Defeated, she wandered closer while he hasn't stopped his practice. He didn't say anything, just glanced at her and jerked his head for her to come to him. Citra eagerly did, snatching up a smaller blade laid out on the ground. She took her place next to him and began copying his movements.
It was harder than she expected. It looked so easy and graceful when he did it, so when she stumbled and jerked around she huffed in annoyance and wanted to cast the blade away.
"Patience Citra," Tane said, sensing her anger, "It takes time to refine a warrior's skill. Do not fight against the current. Follow its flow, let it lead you."
She didn't want to go with the flow. She wanted to yell and scream and stomp her feet. But she also didn't want to appear childish to him. She wanted to show him, no, prove to him she can do it. Prove to herself she can do it.
Bottling up her anger, Citra began again. It felt good when she did it right this time.
"Why do you always look so surprised," Tane asked, sitting down. Citra followed him, shrugging her shoulders.
"What do you mean?"
Tane raised a thick eyebrow, eyeing her up, "When you find out that you can do it. It is like you expect to fail and you're always surprised when you don't." She bit her lip, looking away. He frowned, "You learn quick, faster than many of my other students. But you are also quick to anger and you give up so easily because of it. Why?"
Her chest tightened and she felt the sudden urge to run away. "I don't know," She mumbled, refusing to say anymore.
Because I can't do it. I wasn't made for this. I'll just be a failure.
She was quietly grateful that Tane didn't push her to open up. She already felt so shameful admitting those thoughts in her head she couldn't possibly bear say them out loud.
"You look troubled," He said, changing the topic, "and you came early today. Did something happen at home?"
Now that was something she could talk about. She took a tiny rock, rolled it between her thumb and index finger and threw it with more force than necessary. "It's my Father. He wants me to stop coming to practice because I got my paheke. He says I should go practice magic with the elder priestess but I don't want to. I want to stay here, with you and Vaas and learn how to fight."
Tane leaned back, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I know you do," He said and paused to collect his thoughts, "But you should also respect your Father's wishes and the tribes."
Citra scowled at him, "You are saying I have to go?"
"I'm not saying you have to go but it is your duty to do so." He clarified, "You are getting older Citra and that means you will have more responsibilities put on you. You cannot always put your needs first above the tribe's. There is a role for everyone to fill, and sooner or later you will come to understand that."
She could feel her face growing hot. "I don't want to understand." She got up and so did he. "I thought you were on my side!" She exploded, tears springing to her eyes.
Tane kept his composure, always the level-headed one. "I am on your side but you cannot keep acting like this. You're acting like a child."
Something snapped inside Citra. "I hate you!" She screamed and dashed off, ignoring her uncle's calls to come back. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks as she ran through the jungle. She didn't slow down until she broke through the foliage and onto the sandy beach. She grabbed fistfuls of hair and pulled, ignoring the burning sensation on her scalp. As quickly as it started, the anger inside her dissipated, leaving her hurt inside.
Her uncle betrayed her. She thought she could trust him but she was wrong. Tane doesn't care about her. He's never liked her. He hates her. Just like everyone else.
There was a collection of large rocks clustered together filled with small puddles and dried corals. Citra made her way across it, holding her arms out to balance herself. She reached the biggest one and climbed on top and settled down. She didn't know for how long she sat there dwelling on her thoughts.
No one loved her. Tane betrayed her, hurt her. She'll never trust him again.
She was so lost in thought that she was startled when someone sat down next to her.
"Tane said you were upset and you ran off somewhere." Vaas bumped his shoulder against hers. "What happened?"
"Shouldn't you be at class?" Citra mumbled, pulling her knees to her chest and resting her chin on top.
Vaas laughed in disbelief, "Class? That doesn't matter. You're my little sister. You're way more important to me than going to class."
"But I don't want you to miss it because of me." She replied glumly.
He scrunched his face up, "I'd rather do this than go to class anytime."
She wanted to say more, tell him he should go back and train. Tell him she'll be fine alone by herself and that he needed to focus on himself. In the end, she remained quiet, waiting see what he would do. She watched him poke his fingers inside the tiny holes littered around the rock, flicking water out of them.
"Is it Dad?" He said. He saw her confused face and explained how he overhead some of their conversation and when he went to investigate he saw the bloody sheets and knew something was wrong. "What happened between you and Dad?"
She told him everything. About training with the elder priestess and how she snuck out of the house, then how Tane betrayed her. She had to hold back the tears that threatened to spill again.
"I hate him," She spat, her body thrumming with bottled up energy.
"You don't mean that," Vaas said casually.
She glared at him, "I do."
He simply shrugged and stared out into the sea. "Dad shouldn't force you to do something you don't want to do."
"He says it's for the tribe." Citra added.
Vaas laughed and sat up, shaking his head. "He always says that. Sometimes I think he cares more about what the tribe wants than what his own children want."
"But..." Citra began hesitantly, "Isn't he right, though? Don't we have a duty to fulfill."
"No, no we don't." He said, and there was something about the way he looked that scared Citra and yet at the same time made her heart beat wildly in her chest. He stood up and she had to crane her neck to see him. "Let's get out of here." He said.
"Are we going back?" Citra didn't know how to feel about that. She was still mad at their uncle and she did not want to see him again so soon.
"No. I'm sick of that place. Let's go explore somewhere. C'mon, just you and me, like old times." He held out his hand and she took it with a smile.
They didn't come home until very late. The stars were shining in the sky when they entered their house. Tane and Anaru were waiting for them at the kitchen table and stood up when the two entered.
Citra shrunk in on herself, bowing her head while Vaas puffed his chest out and locked eyes with their father.
"Where have you two been?" Anaru began, keeping his voice leveled. Vaas stubbornly refused to give him an answer. Citra's throat locked up, blocking whatever explanation or apology she wanted to give. Their father looked between the two. "Citra, go to your room." He ordered. Citra didn't move. She looked at Vaas, unsure what to do. "Now!" Anaru yelled, making Citra jump and yet it wasn't until Vaas nudged her ok to go that she left to her room.
She closed the door and sat on her bed, listening to the distorted voices growing louder behind the wall. Curious, she tip-toed to the door and pushed it open slowly, leaving a crack to hear them better.
"You have a responsibility to this family and to the tribe and that is final." She heard her father's voice say and even though it wasn't directed at her it was still scary.
"Yeah well I'm sorry to disappoint you. I'm sorry I always disappoint you." It was her brother's voice this time. She hated hearing him so mad.
"I did not raise my son to abandon his duties. You are not a child anymore. You're a man. Act like one."
"That's funny, because it seems like whatever I do it's always wrong. Whatever I do it's never good enough for you."
There was a pause as silence settled inside the house. Citra bit her lip and peeked through the crack, hoping to catch a glimpse of Vaas but he was out of view.
Vaas spoke again. "You know, I don't care if you treat me this way but I won't let you do the same thing to Citra."
"That's not for you to decide. I know what's good for my daughter and I know what's good for you."
"See! That's the problem; you don't know. You think you do but you don't!" Vaas' voice grew louder, angrier. "You try to control everyone but you can't! You couldn't even stop Mom from killing herself!"
A sharp bang silenced the room. Citra held her breath, straining her ears to hear something, anything. There was nothing for a long while, or to her it felt like forever. Then, somebody's footsteps and the sound of the front door opening and being slammed closed and then back to nothing. Worried about her brother, she slipped through the door and slowly made her way to the kitchen. She clung to the corner of the walls, peering at her father and uncle standing in silence, heads downcast.
Sucking in breath she asked in a quiet voice, "Where is Vaas?" She shrunk back when both of them snapped their heads up. The two brothers looked at each other. Then, her father approached her while Tane grabbed a pot and began boiling water.
"He left." Her father said.
"Oh... Will he be back?"
"He will," Anaru kneeled and held her shoulder. "Citra, you know I'm not mad at you, right?" She bit her lip and nodded. His eyes softened and he tucked a stray hair behind her ear. "I'm sorry if I upset you this morning. You see, your Mother was one of the best priestess' in the Rakyat and I wanted the same for your future. But... if you don't want that and you want to continue training with your Uncle then you can. I won't force you to do anything you don't want to do. It is your decision."
A smile grew on her face but it faltered. She glanced at Tane and bit her lip. Anaru was angry at Vaas for not doing his duty. Maybe... maybe if she did hers their father wouldn't be so mad at Vaas anymore. "Thank you Father, but I have decided to learn from elder Monatula and become a priestess. Like Mother." The joy in her father's eyes confirmed to her that she had made the right choice.
"You are growing up Citra." He said, "I'm proud of you."
Tane came and handed them kawakawa tea. He tapped her on the shoulder and jerked his head for her to follow him outside. She looked at her father, uncertain but he just patted her head and went to drain out the pot.
They sat on the edge of the elevated platform, Tane's feet touching the ground while hers were left to dangle. She took a sip of her tea, tasting the spice tickle her throat as it went down. She stared at the sleeping village, wondering where Vaas was and if he was ok. Tane breathed in deeply and she tensed. She didn't know where she stood with him after what happened and it was putting her on edge.
"Tell me Citra, are you leaving practice because of what happened. Because you're mad at me?"
She blinked. She didn't expect that.
"No," she answered honestly, hoping he would see that. She hid her face, ashamed of the way she acted in the past. "I'm sorry Uncle. I didn't mean it. I don't hate you." She waited for a chastising, or some kind of punishment but it never came. She dared to look at him, wondering what was going on. She was surprised to see him smiling.
"I understand, Citra. No need to apologize." He gazed at the starry night sky, "Sometimes I forget you're still just a child. Things were very different when I was your age. Your grandparents are people from another time. Everything was very different from what it is now."
"Is that why they don't live with us? Or come see us?"
"In part, yes." Tane admitted, "After the great war that reunited the Rakyat, most of our elders were opposed to change. Your parents and I, we were younger, part of the new generation. We had bold ideas and we were ready to accept change, even if it meant abandoning some of our old ways but to us it was worth it. Your grandparents and the older generation didn't think so. They labeled us as heretics." He chuckled, remembering memories of time past. "They cast us and anyone who agreed with us out of the temple. But we did not give up. Like our ancestors before us we survived and we thrived. Listen Citra, change can be good or it can be bad, but it is change that helped our people, the Rakyat, survive for this long. Even when mighty foreigners came to take our land and enslave our people we adapted, we changed, and we won because of it."
Citra frowned, "But then why do we keep our old ways. Elder Monatula practices magic but there are needles that can heal wounds of the flesh. And we have weapons that sprout metal pebbles- oh!" She slapped her mouth shut. She wasn't supposed to let anyone know she knew about that.
Tane raised a brow, "How do you know of that?" She kept her mouth shut and shook her head vigorously. Tane gave her a deadpanned look. "You and your brother are going to get into serious trouble one day." She breathed a sigh of relief when he didn't get mad. "We keep some of our old ways because even though we embrace change, it is important to remember where you come from. When you are lost, remember where you came from, and it will help you find yourself."
She scrunched up her face, "I don't understand."
"Someday you will," He said.
They sat there, watching the stars and finishing the rest of their kawakawa teas.
When Tane left sometime later, she offered to wash the cups, telling her father to get some rest. When she made sure he was sleeping, Citra sneaked into Vaas' room and crawled into his bed.
She stayed awake for as long as she could waiting for his return. When she woke up, she woke up alone.