A Battle Within

With all the grains of salt I’ve collected through the years, I’ll need more than a shot of tequila to take this one down.

The benefit of experience;
Having the right perspective is far better than any fantasy realm. That way you know what is real and what is fiction.

I exposed far much more of my soul to him than I intended, without realizing he had not intended to be the recipient.

Damn. I stand here with a smile before you, but really he has wounded me to the core. If I were to walk away there would be a trail of blood to follow behind me.

~The Waring Robins~

1st Year Finale

The Alpha squad dismissed from class shortly after a quick debriefing. Each team member was sent to the infirmary for observation to ensure no neurological or physical damage had occurred during the experiment. As they were released to lunch, Savoi asked everyone to and share their feelings. Her reluctant comrades caused more tension between them. Farouk continued to sulk silently long after his memory sequence ended. Roudan wanted to say something encouraging, but was dismayed when Shevchenko returned to giving him the cold shoulder. Yoshida dared not speak, in fear that his apathetic nature would only agitate Savoi and result in chastisement.

Before they assembled in the chow hall, Savoi took command of the group. She had always felt it was her duty to assess and rally her team’s spirits for the success of their squad.

“Look everyone, I know things got awkward for us just a little while ago. I think it’s important to remember that even though we didn’t start with common goals, we have them now. The pain and trauma from our pasts were conjured to fuel our desire to end the war once and for all,” she said, then turned to Farouk. “Maaz, there is no shame in your story. You loved a girl who did not feel the same energy towards you. She used and hurt you deeply. Since she isn’t here to apologize, please allow me to do it on her behalf. I’m sorry for your troubles,” she said.

Farouk teared up at being acknowledged, finally.

“I loved Taqdeer since we were tots at the ashram. Every part of her smile, gorgeous hair, and smooth olive skin kept me afloat. I thought we were so similar, she was even shy like me. I was blind, and almost killed my beloved Taha because of it,” he said.

Yoshida fixed his lips to speak, but shrugged at Savoi’s cold glare. Then he pat Farouk on the shoulder to show support. Savoi could see that he really wanted to offer his empathy, so she nodded with a warm smile. Yoshida took the gesture as a sign of good faith.

“I would like to apologize to you as well. I’ve given you grief since we arrived from the MEPS station, without warrant,” he said. Savoi’s smile beamed brighter, which gave him a chill. Though he felt he had given Farouk his just due, her eyes told him she wanted him to continue. “I’m sorry about the girls and everything else,” he shrugged.

Shevchenko took offense to the display of affection Yoshida poured over Farouk, which was not provided after her memory sequence. In fact, he barely spoke a word in her direction. She glanced at Roudan to see if he also had bought into the mushy feelings fest. To no surprise, he had.

Roudan gently nudged Farouk on the chin and said, “You spruce up rather nicely, kid.”

Shevchenko did not want to be left out of the bond her squad had formed. “Come on, let’s get some much-needed chow.” She briskly grabbed Farouk’s hand to pull him through the doors. ‘You have an amazing palace. The textbooks give it no justice,” she said.

For the rest of the 1st term, the Alpha squad trained rigorously to function as a unified team. Countless hours were spent in developmental courses which established the principal foundations of their core studies. Both the midterm and exit exams proved to be a daunting for each member. During this period, intel had discovered at least thirteen separate deadly skirmishes within the kingdom. The dueling houses had increased their manpower significantly. This caused great to the Tribunal Council, who then reached out to General Benavides. He assured them that Calvary Academy hosted several promising cadets that would be vital in leading the demise of those insurgents. One afternoon, he summoned Roudan to his office. Roudan was instructed not to notify his team of the meeting.

When Roudan arrived, General Benavides had prepared a chess game for them to play. Roudan sat stiffly in the plush armchair. The room was thick with tension and the stench of Brandy flavored cigars. A little-known fact was that General Benavides fancied circus clowns. The walls were covered top to bottom with portraits of medieval clowns. Roudan found this twisted sense of humor equally unsettling as the permanent scowl the General donned every day.

The men play for several hours with little talk. Benavides was impressed with Roudan’s level of skill. Roudan won nearly as many matches as the General. Eventually, the tension eased into a mutual respect. Benavides won the final round and celebrated with a cigar. Roudan respectfully declined his offer to join him.

Benavides drew long on his cigar, then sighed heavily.

“I suppose we should get down to the business of why I brought you here,” he said.

Roudan tensed up again, realizing the fun time was over. He leaned in inquisitively to listen.

Benavides took in another drag, then puffed his words out like a steam engine.

“The time will soon come when you will have to lead your squad into the fray to defend our kingdom. It is imperative that you are ready. As it stands, everyone is still very fragile. I imagine the lingering effects of the memory sequence experiment have each member licking their wounds. You must toughen them up and draw them out of themselves. The entire kingdom will not survive through many more outbursts of the rebellions fueling this war.”

Roudan left the General’s office shortly after that warning. It both sobered and tormented his spirit.

~The Waring Robins~

1st Year, P. 9 (fin.)

While Farouk readied himself for dinner, the Alpha squad took liberty to tour the palace. Forty-three enchanted rooms, filled to the brim with gold and silver antiques, fur rugs, and furniture, kept them occupied. The rumors were quite true that the mystical Maharaja and his family lived in extreme extravagance. No expense was spared for their lifestyle of luxuries. It was no wonder that young Taqdeer wanted to allow her inquisitive friends to be privy to such an experience.

Hours later, Farouk emerged from his quarters in rare form. The chandelier lights enhanced the gold trim on his tunic, which also reflected hints of auburn in his eyes. He wore a medium-sized golden turban, bedazzled with a diamond and a single purple feather from a peacock. The Maharaja demanded that his family wear peacock feathers, rather than show allegiance to the dueling houses with feathers of either colored robins. 

A man servant announced to Farouk that his guests had arrived. Though he looked more mature and regal than ever to the Alpha squad, it was the familiar nervous and pain stricken expression on his face that gave his true nature away. He gulped, then nodded for the servant to bring them into the dining hall. When Taqdeer entered the room, everyone’s mouth flew wide open. Not only had she brought her eleven schoolmates, but the number of guests had multiplied.

She explained that each of her friends told other friends about the dinner. She had no way to exclude any of them, especially since her family was deadest about her bringing chaperones.

“The more the merrier,” Farouk said, though his heart sank.

He led the entourage to the dining area. He shrugged his shoulders, as heard whispers and giggles behind him. The dining hall was every bit as magnificent as anyone could imagine. Spreads of succulent meats, countless sides, and endless amounts of desserts surrounded them. Taqdeer granted his wish to sit by her, but to his dismay, her attention was spent on her friends. He sat in silence and watched the lively bunch devour their meals like starved hounds.

At the end of the fifth course, the manservant announced that there would be live musical entertainment on the north side manor in the outer compound. Before anyone could move an inch, thirty more schoolmates entered the palace. Word of the Maharaja’s grandson hosting a soiree reached throughout the ashram in record time.

As the party moved toward the north side, they marveled as they passed by the horse stable. All the horses were descendants of the first six sent by the parents of King Klauvius IV as a gift. The Maharaja remained in good standing with the king, right until both their untimely deaths. Each mare and stallion were of the finest breeds in the entire kingdom of Celeste. Such rare herds would cause even the richest noble to be envious.

Farouk requested musicians to entertain his guests for the rest of the evening. The ensemble came with a wide variety of instruments. An acrobatic troupe was also included with the venue. The manor was filled to max capacity, but nothing hindered the ongoing merrymaking. Farouk hastily sifted through the room to look for Taqdeer. He glimpsed her as she exited the manor. He dashed outside in hopes of finally have a moment alone with her. His spirit was crushed once he found her in the embrace of an older boy.

Farouk did not want them to see him, so he climbed onto the rooftop of the horse stable and watched from above. Taqdeer did not shy away from the boy or seem fretful that they would be discovered alone. Together, the pair walked hand in hand out of his sight. The noise from below drowned out the sounds of Farouk’s uncontrollable sobs. He pulled a rhinestone flask from his trouser pocket and took a long sip. His hand trembled so much that he spilled some of the drink on his tunic.

“I’m such a dope. To think I wore this flashy thing to impress her, and she didn’t even give me a second glance,” he cried.

He removed his turban and tunic, poured the rest of the drink on them, pulled out a match, then set them ablaze. He sat by the fire and watched it burn with a dead look in his eyes. The drink and smoke caused him to fall pass out shortly after. He woke to the sound of horses neighing loudly and a fire alarm. The fire had nearly burned a hole in the roof. Farouk quickly jumped down to free the horses. He ran to the main manor to alert everyone to the fire.

At first, no one paid him any attention. Soon servants rushed in to evacuate the party. The fire force promptly arrived and put out the blaze. Fortunately, no living creature was hurt. No one knew the source of the fire until Farouk admitted to his mother and staff that he was the culprit. He begged her not to send him back to the ashram. He told her he would pay for the property damage himself by enlisting at Calvary Academy. It was the only way he could think of to redeem himself after such dishonorable actions.

The memory sequence faded out to black, and the Alpha squad was back in the lab.

Lt. Co. Adame spoke over the loudspeaker, “That concludes your 1st year exercise. You have completed your mission to learn why each had enrolled themselves at the academy. No reason was nobler or less than the other. Now you see that you all merely were perfectly flawed individuals who tried to navigate your existences to the best of your abilities.” The room was deathly silent.

~The Waring Robins~

1st Year, P. 9 (con)

Shevchenko could not help but feel depreciated because her reasoning for enrollment was nowhere near as wholesome or pressing as the rest of her team. Though they would admit nothing out loud to her face.

She took off behind Farouk and said, “There’s no need for us to lollygag. We have to go with Maaz.”

Everyone caught up to her, and eventually with Farouk. They watched him prepare for the day by washing his face and carefully grooming himself. His servants brought him a light breakfast of cantaloupe and toast before he went on his way from the palace. He merrily skipped rocks in a small pond not too far from his home. Suddenly, he realized he had lost track of time. He made a mad dash towards the ashram where he studied. Once inside, he caught his breath.

A group of twelve girls around his age passed by, which caused him to perk up. He quick stepped behind them, but their infectious laughter from gossiping made him invisible. Suddenly, one girl became distracted and halted the formation. Farouk did not realize the girls had stopped walking, and accidentally stepped on the back of one girl’s heels. The girl wore her long black hair in pigtails braided neatly on each side, with puffs of coils at the tips.

“Ouch!” she cried.

In a panic, Farouk dropped to his knee apologetically.

“My goodness, I did not mean to harm you. Are you alright, Taqdeer?” he asked.

The group of girls rallied around the injured party and insulted Farouk. Taqdeer turned around with tears in her eyes. She was not angry, but startled. She pleaded with her friends to be kinder to Farouk, since it was clearly an accident. Then she graciously helped him to his feet.

“Thank you for showing me such mercy, Taqdeer,” he said.

She gave him a gentle smile, then said, “It is alright, Maaz. Just be certain not to follow so close behind and pay better attention to your surroundings.”

The group of girls seemed content with that being the end of the conversation. As they walked away, Farouk stiffened his body. He inhaled and exhaled sharply.

“Taqdeer,” he called out with a tremble.

The entire group of girls turned around in annoyance at him. Taqdeer hesitantly emerged from her friends. It took Farouk several minutes to recover from being tongue tied. He swayed from side to side, and his eyes were as wide as saucers. His disposition reminded the Alpha squad of how frightened he was during the entrance exam.

“Did you have something to say, Maaz?” she asked.

Farouk shut his eyes to block the view of the other girls whispering and giggling at him.

“Taqdeer,” he opened one eye. “Please have dinner with me?” he blurted out, as if he were suffering from hyperventilation.

A loud burst of laughter came from the group of girls. Other children in the quad had also stopped to gawk at the commotion. Taqdeer blushed from sheer embarrassment, but she did not laugh. In fact, she kept herself composed with an air of dignity.

“Let me think about it,” she answered calmly.

With that, she turned to her friends and walked away. Farouk stood motionless until the giant bell at the watch tower rang. Then he and the other students hastily crammed themselves inside the schoolhouse. 

“let me get this straight; Mousey was all riled up this morning over a girl?” Yoshida cackled.

Shevchenko nodded her head in utter disbelief.

“Here we thought he was about to embark on this life altering mission to enroll at Calvary academy to become great, like his father,” she replied.

“Well, she was a really cute girl,” Savoi stated, hoping to save Farouk’s reputation.

“Yes, she was,” Roudan chimed in.

Yoshida had not completely stopped laughing until he saw the displeasure in Savoi’s scowl.

“Ok, Mousey picked a cutie. Unfortunately, he made a rookie mistake,” he said.

Savoi raised an eyebrow and asked, “What would that be?”

Yoshida sighed. “He should not have let her walk away without giving a proper answer to his request. Now he will spend an eternity in wait for her reply.”

Savoi mulled over Yoshida’s answer. It made sense that Farouk would probably be tormented by wondering if Taqdeer would say yes.

“This Taqdeer seems like a nice girl, certainly nicer than the rest. I hope that she would have at least given him a chance,” Savoi said, and walked with her team inside the school.

The day drifted by seamlessly. Cadet Farouk was an astute scholar in all his subjects, though this did not earn him any popularity points among his peers. During an astronomy lesson, Taqdeer sat at a desk directly in front of Farouk. She quietly turned around to pass him a small folded note. At first he did not catch on because he was so enthralled with the lecture. Taqdeer finally turned to throw the note on his desk. She launched it too hard, and the note hit him in the chest. The other students giggled at the distraction, which caused the professor to stop talking. Without a word, the professor walked up to Farouk to retrieve the note. Taqdeer sunk into her seat, worried that her message would be read aloud. The professor grimaced, then chucked the note into the rubbish bin.

 At the end of class, Taqdeer turned to Farouk once more. He tensed up fretfully, but her smile calmed him.

“Maaz, thank you for your invitation to dinner. I formally accept, and look forward to our time together,” she said.

The other students giggled and laughed, but Taqdeer was sincere. Farouk froze in disbelief for a moment. The bell rang, and all the children headed out for their next class. Farouk walked through the quad in a daze when classes were over. He was so far gone that he did not hear Taqdeer, as she called out to him. His trance was broken when she snatched a piece of paper from her notebook and tossed it at his head.

“Oops! Sorry, Maaz. It was the only way I could get your attention,” she said.

Farouk picked up the wad of paper, which had fallen on the ground by then.

“Nice aim,” he chuckled, then opened the note to see if anything had been written on it.

Taqdeer rushed to retrieve the note from him.

“Oh, there is no message on this one,” she said.

The two stood in silence before she spoke again.

“I just wanted to tell you I am excited to have dinner with you.”

Farouk’s red ears matched her cheeks.

“Oh, I see,” he gushed.

Taqdeer let out a nervous giggle, then continued.

“I should also tell you that a few of my close girlfriends often accompany me on outings. It is the only way my family feels comfortable letting me go out without them.”

Farouk stood grinning, completely clueless about what she had hinted.

Taqdeer fidgeted with the coils at the end of one of her braids.

“I hope you will allow my friends to join us,” she squealed.

Farouk densely nodded yes, which prompted her to give him a quick hug. Her group of friends collected her to head home.

“Well, that turned out rather nicely,” Savoi said with a smug satisfaction aimed at Yoshida.

“Don’t gloat just yet. I have a funny feeling about Taqdeer, or at least her batch of so-called friends,” he replied.

Shevchenko drew in a deep breath and sighed.

“I don’t see what any of this has to do with Maaz’s reasoning to join the academy,” she said.

Roudan nudged her on the shoulder and whispered.

“Let’s keep digging until we find the answer.”

~The Waring Robins~

1st Year, P.9

The Alpha squad landed outside of a majestic pearly-white palace on a brisk morning as the sun rose. Yoshida, Roudan, and Savoi looked at each other, bewildered by their new destination. Shevchenko stood far from them, not willing to make eye contact. Her face was flushed from weeping. Savoi went to embrace her, but she shook her head to decline the invitation. Instead, she hurried by the squad to avoid any conversations regarding her past. The group sullenly followed behind, each prompting the other to engage in any form of consolation for their comrade.

“You guys can stop whispering. I can hear you, and can assure you all that I am well,” Shevchenko sighed aguishly.

Savoi took Shevchenko’s dialogue to mean that she was ready to fully interact, and ran close to hold hands. Shevchenko was in no mood to make nice with her overly affectionate roommate. She shuddered at the feeling of Yoshida’s judgmental eyes piercing the back of her head. Roudan’s perplexed manner made her wish to know Farouk’s whereabouts, so that his awkwardness would diffuse any elements of pity extended towards her.

Once they arrived at the palace gate, no one knew how to enter. The guards could not see them, as they were merely shadows stuck in a memory realm.

Yoshida picked up a small sized pebble to throw at one of the gate attendants.

“Don’t bother. We simply have to wait for Maaz to let us in,” Roudan said as he held Yoshida’s arm.

Yoshida rolled his eyes and muttered, “Where the hell is Maaz? Where the hell are we?”

“South Praiju,” Shevchenko gruffly interjected. “Not that you’d ever paid much attention to him, but he is the grandson of the Maharaja. We are standing in front of the grand palace,” she continued.

“Oh, wow! I read about this place during my tutoring at the Malta estate.” Savoi swooned.

Yoshida scoffed. “Maaz mentioned none of this to me.”

“That’s probably because he didn’t want you to think he entered the academy because of nepotism,” Roudan chuckled. “His father was an Apache pilot who graduated from Calvary.”

“Ah, yes. His father was also inducted into the Alpha squad. Maaz is so proud to have followed on the same path,” Savoi reminiscently chimed in.

Yoshida blinked, confused. He could not remember if Farouk had, in fact, revealed any of this personal information to him.

Suddenly, the gates opened, and cadet Farouk galloped by the group on a bronze mare. They quick-stepped to follow him inside the inner compound of the palace. The far north side housed a stable with over two dozen of the rarest breeds of horses. Shevchenko noticed a calendar pinned to the wall of a stall door.

“Hey guys, look at this. The date is precisely 6 months before the entrance exam,” she said.

Not long after, they heard a familiar voice inside a stall. The group strolled in to see cadet Farouk with a brush in his hands as he spoke to his bronze mare.

“Today is the day, Taha. I am about to embark on a mission that will change my life forever,” he said as he gently brushed Taha’s luscious silver mane. “I can feel the butterflies swelling inside me, but I won’t let that deter me.”

Taha flared his nostrils and bowed into a seated position.

“Don’t you worry, my old friend. Pita-ji is looking down to watch me take this bold endeavor,” Farouk continued.

A beautiful woman dressed in a turquoise and gold saree entered the stall. She glanced at Farouk with a smile as warm as a summer day.

“It is time to go, dear child,” she said.

Farouk looked at the woman, then back at Taha.

“I am almost finished, Janani,” he said with a hint of excitement in his voice.

The woman kissed him on the forehead and blessed him before she departed.

Cadet Farouk dusted off his school uniform, which comprised a black long-sleeved tunic and trouser set made of silk. He walked out of the stall and said to Taha, “Today is my last day to be a boy. After I return from putting in my petition, I will officially have become a man.”

The Alpha squad watched him runoff from the north side of the palace.

Roudan folded his arms and beamed with pride. “I bet this was the day he decided to enlist in the academy.”

The rest of the group nodded in agreement.

~The Waring Robins~

1st Year, P. 8 (fin)

Twenty-five years ago, Dosea became on the brink of economic ruin after the dueling Houses began the war. Through shared seaports with Intagua Island, our entire state had succumbed to impoverishment in a matter of months. During those early years, aristocratic families segregated from the rest of society. We migrated to a mere seventy acres of land, which was enclosed inside a giant bubble encased with a chemical repellent to toxins. It is no secret that funding for this encampment was largely donated by the Great House counsel.  

Your babusya reared me in the old ways, but soon those days died out. When I met your mother, she helped us become accustomed to the new ways. We became immersed in lavishly eccentric cultures. Together, the three of us established the soiree seasons in which matrimonial pairs were matched to ensure wealth would remain within the establishment. Over time, the Tribunal Counsel sanctioned our state for refusal to contribute well-abled men and women to serve in the armed forces to end the war. Lilya, you owe us a debt of gratitude for the easy and comfortable life we gave to you,” he said.

Shevchenko took another gulp, then curtsied.

“Forgive me, bat’ko, if you believe my actions to lack in character,” she replied.

“It is your lack thereof which keeps us concerned,” her grandmother snapped.

“What would you have me do? Mama, your cousin’s sister’s brother, is more than twice my age. We have nothing in common. When I told him, he refused to come to the cotillion. I am at a loss for how to please you. I beg you, have mercy,” Shevchenko pleaded.

The family congregated in a circle, leaving Shevchenko to the side. When they finished their discussion, her mother brought her into the center of the circle.

“Dochka, I have the perfect solution. Last week, I visited my cousin’s family. The nanny recently came to learn that she will inherit some of the late Baron Chernichenko’s fortune. I could send for her to have tea with us to get things in motion,” her mother mused out loud.

Shevchenko gasped. “Mama, that woman is seventy years old.”

“Seventy-nine, to be exact,” her grandmother interjected.

Shevchenko pushed past her sisters to break free from the circle. She made her way towards the top of the ballroom stairs.

“I have an idea of my own, which I will now share with you all. These unattractive marriage proposals are not the route I want to take for myself. I want something different, freedom. Freedom from the stifling lifestyle and this goddamn useless bubble, which is actually killing us all while we wallow in wealth.” She paused for a moment to catch her breath. “Yesterday, I enrolled myself in Calvary Academy!” Her family gasped in shock, but she continued. “There is an amazing linguistics program, which will benefit me. I could be of significant use in helping to end the war. That way, we don’t have to keep up this deadly ruse.”

Her father marched to the bottom of the stairs and raised his fist at her.

“Fool! Do you realize what you have done? If word got back to the associates of the Greater House that a Shevchenko would dare to go against them to stand with Calvary Academy, we would all be beheaded,” he barked.

Her sisters were so aggravated that they took off their shoes to throw at her.

“What an evil bitch you are Lilya,” they screamed.

Her grandmother and mother rushed up the stairs, prepared to lay hands on the girl. Shevchenko wept as she waited for her punishment, but her father called out to them.

“Enough! There is no need to waste precious energy on this one. She is of no use to us, at any rate.” He looked at his daughter with abhorrence. “Go to the Academy. I hope you make use of yourself over there. We no longer have any ties. Never return here, unless you can bring better fortune,” he said.

The memory went black, which left the Alpha squad in the dark to talk amongst each other.

“So, that was it? Her reasoning for enrollment was to avoid marriage to an old geezer and schoolmarm?” Yoshida cackled.

Savoi went to pinch him, but thought better since they had just witness Shevchenko’s grandmother use such brute.

“Her family is awful. I can’t imagine growing up surrounded by enemies. No wonder Lily is so rigid with the rest of us,” she replied.

Roudan chimed in. “This is a true testament of her character, indeed. When we are born, there are two paths. One can land you in the hands of a caring adult and others who choose to breathe positivity into your life. The other path is the opposite. The real kicker is regardless of if you are dealt the harshness of negativity or neglected altogether, the lack of positivity automatically equates to negative.”

Light came into the space they were in, and as the Alpha squad was being transported to another memory, Savoi said, “My goodness, Emmett. That was incredibly insightful of you.”

~The Waring Robins~

1st Year Part 8 (con)

Savoi smiled knowingly at Farouk.

“Maaz is right. Lily has endured nearly all our memories. She witnessed the bad and the ugly. We owe it to her, as fellow squad mates, to regard hers.”

Yoshida took in a deep sigh, then finally turned his attention towards Shevchenko. It occurred to him that whilst he was amid pleading his case to Savoi, Shevchenko’s memory was still in motion… yet she was not.

“How long has she been standing there in the same spot?” he asked.

“For at least nine different dance songs,” Farouk answered.

Yoshida stepped closer to Shevchenko to examine her disposition. With a tilt of his head, he said, “Tulle certainly seems to be her go-to ballroom attire. Didn’t she wear something similar at the induction ball?”

Savoi rashly interjected.

“There’s nothing wrong with tulle. My mum said it was all the rage for debutantes.”

“Yeah, if you were born thirty years ago,” Yoshida cynically replied.

Savoi instantly jabbed him in the side.

“Hush, now. Her dress is perfectly fine and looks nothing like the one she wore at the induction ball. I think the color was maroon,” she said.

“Burgundy,” Roudan cavalierly interrupted.

The rest of the team noticed he appeared smitten, as he stood next to Shevchenko. They were not unfamiliar with that notion, but this time Roudan did not bother to hide his feelings. He had often morphed into a love-struck kitten in her presence, but her cold shoulder snapped him back into the fearless leader he truly was. His gaze was interrupted by a few uncontrollable giggles from Yoshida. Savoi darted a chilling glance that caused both men to regain composure.

Farouk had no choice but to diffuse the tension among them.

“I feel sorry for Lily. Did she really attend these events just to stand in one place all evening?”

Yoshida walked around the room to escape Savoi’s intense glare.

“Certainly not. These preposterous coming-out parties were invented as marriage proposal ceremonies. Vapid men and women attend to be swooped off their feet, or in no uncertain terms, to form valuable financial alliances among each other. The biggest problem is that it may seem like there are a lot of attendees, but the circle is extremely small. Most of everyone here is not-so-distant blood relatives. The practices of the elites are frowned upon throughout the kingdom,” he answered.

Moments later, the conductor of the orchestra turned to address the address. He was a short, bald man, who appeared to have excess skin drooping through his ill-fitting tuxedo. The microphone stand was far taller than him, and it took several orchestra members to put down their instruments and help pull the stand to his mouth level. After several minutes of awful sound feed through the mic, he could speak.

“Honored guest; the Shevchenko family warmly thanks you for attending the season’s final cotillion. We hope this evening was profitable for many of you. Thank you, once again, and good night.”

As the attendees cleared the room, all the chandelier and candelabra lights were switched off to a natural light. The guest appeared to have a sickly, pale-green complexion. Apparently, the former lights were infused with an altering ultraviolet beam to conceal the effects of a population who had blocked off the sunlight for over twenty years.

Once the room had emptied, all that remained were cadet Shevchenko and five others who resembled her enough to conclude that they were her family. The male was attractive and could have been in his late fifties, but his complexion and slumped posture made him seem older. The woman who stood beside him wore enough to make-up to doctor her otherwise sickly appearance. She donned a blonde wig, which had shifted to reveal patchy grey strands of hair. Two other blonde women in matching topaz gowns stood beside them, and they both appeared to keep somewhat of a youthful glow. The elder woman appeared ancient. Though she wore a majestic magenta ballgown with jewels fit for a queen, she did not bother to play along with the hiding her condition. She had patches of silver hair beneath a golden tiara.

“Come hither, Lilya,” her father called sternly to her.

With a loud gulp, Shevchenko finally relieved her position, which is the same spot she stood in for the duration of the ball.

“I take it this evening did not manifest the results we’d all hoped for?” her father asked.

Shevchenko did not respond, but teared up when the other girls giggled loudly. Her father sighed without an ounce of empathy towards her.

“Speak up, daughter!” her mother demanded.

“No need to shout, mother. It’s obvious that our tragically inclined sister did not meet her match,” one of the young women interjected as she fidgeted with a large diamond wedding ring.

“She didn’t even dance all night,” the other blurted with a smirk.

“This is unacceptable! I am Viscount Leopold Shevchenko. My family has been a part of the elite for centuries. We are members of the high-aristocrat society, mainly through our abilities to gain successful marital alliances with other nobles. Your mother, Titania, and I worked tirelessly to ensure your older sisters followed traditions down to the letter. Their marriages have kept a steady stream of revenue for our fortune. It’s time that you followed suit,” her father said.

The elder woman hobbled over to Shevchenko and pinched her on the arm.

“A candle which burns slow causes everything to linger. You mustn’t sit idly while your family clings on for dear life to our livelihood,” she said sharply before she fell into a brief coughing fit.

Shevchenko squealed but withheld her tears.

Her father wasted no time in continuing his tirade.

~The Waring Robins~

1st Year, P. 8

A loud swishing sound sent the Alpha squad through another tunnel of light. They were thrusted onto a marble floor within a golden grand ball room. The walls were decorated with yellow, green, and purple flags to represent the statehood of Dorsea. Through the large windows, the encasing of a giant bubble was visible in the distance. The swishing sounds turned into melodic rhythms from an orchestra. Several hundred men and women dressed in the finest ballroom attire danced about. Not even seven feet away from where the Alpha squad landed, awkwardly stood Lilya Shevchenko.

She wore a fitting tulle yellow gown, with daisies and tulips embroidered within the satin fabric, and hoop skirt. Her fine blonde hair was tucked in a French roll, bedazzled with a gemstone comb. There seemed to be no age gap in this memory, as she appeared roughly the same age of eighteen as when she enrolled at the academy. Noticeably, she had removed her left glove and bit her nails.

Men and women passed by her with scornful glances, but none ever asked her for a dance. Her eyes watered up from time to time, as a new song was played by the orchestra. Though the room was filled with laughter and romance, Shevchenko may as well have been at a funeral. She remained stoic. Once the orchestra took respite, she allowed herself the pleasure of a small sugar biscuit and seltzer wine.

Yoshida stood next to Savoi and attempted to take her hand. After all, they had been so familiar for most of the duration of the class experiment. He was stunned when she denied his unspoken request, and instead walked through the crowd to examine their clothing up close. He broke away from the team to follow her.

“Thomasa, please wait,” he called to her.

She stood on the side of the dancefloor, beside two gentlemen who embraced each other fondly as lovers. A harsh sigh of irritation was the only acknowledgement she offered Yoshida. Still, he insisted on having a conversation with her about his past.

“Are they really going to do this now, during Lily’s backstory?” Farouk scowled.

Roudan chuckled.

“I suppose so. In case you missed the memo, Haru cares nothing for the aristocrats. Right now, his main concern is whether Thomasa hates him for selling all those weapons to the Lesser House,” he answered.

“True. I can see now why he was worried about showing us his past. It really was that bad,” Farouk replied.

Yoshida followed Savoi around the dancefloor, then out on the balcony where she was cornered. She fixed her gaze on the skyline, which was dulled by the film of the encased bubble. She leaned her head forward to look down at the surrounding area.

“I wish there was a breeze. I imagine the magic bubble was meant to keep toxins out, but also nature’s design,” she sighed.

Yoshida shook his head.

“That stupid bubble was built with depravity in mind, and absolutely unnecessary to begin with,” he said.

Savoi looked at him disappointedly and said, “This is war. Elements of depravity are absolutely necessary for survival. You, of all people, should understand that.”

Yoshida was struck by her coldness. Their past fallouts had been overcome with a mutual affection for one another. This time, her usual tenderness was replaced with an icy temperament. He reached for her hand again, but declined in fear that she would recoil from him.

“I’m sure you despise my actions, but no more than I do myself,” he said.

“I certainly do,” she interjected. Her attempt to hide the tremble in her voice was defeated with a single tear down her cheek. She broke into a full onset of grief and cried. “What you did was nothing short of disgraceful. You supplied a massive number of weapons to the Lesser House. I know you were just trying to get back at your father for what happened to Hinna and the Watanabe household, but that was the worst way. To think that my papa would have suffered had he reported to the infantry line, and the thousands of others who actually did. It grieves me deeply.”

Yoshida steadied himself, then grabbed Savoi’s hand. To his relief, she did not turn away. She instead allowed him to hold her. He muttered in her ear.

“There is no excuse for what I did. None of those treacheries would’ve revived Hinna back to life, or restored Jiro’s faith in me as a friend. What you need to know is that the memory I showed to you in my father’s study was to reveal his plans. Those papers he studied were contracts. He planned to trade those weapons with the Greater House in exchange for protection. His armory was always meant for evil. I beat him to the punch. What I did was no better.”

She looked up at him in shock at his confession.

“At least you enrolled in the academy to make amends,” she said.

He sighed and turned her loose.

“Initially, I enrolled because I was being blackmailed by Guitterez. My Gokudō family was at risk of being charged with war crimes. I had to protect them, since I was the one who supplied the catalogue of weapons.”

Once the orchestra resumed, Savoi snapped out of her somber mode and rushed away to return to the squad. Yoshida followed closely, grasping for her arms as much as possible.

“Thomasa, will you please stop! We are not finished,” he demanded.

Savoi shuffled past a couple of dancers, then bumped into Farouk. She curtsied for a quick apology and continued on her way to find Shevchenko. Ironically, the girl had not moved an inch from the time her memory sequence began. Her face expressed a hint of sadness, but the rest of her body language held the same apathetic manner.

Yoshida finally clasped Savoi’s arm and spun her around to face him.

“Do you hate me that much now? Can you not even look me in the eye?” he asked.

Savoi ceased any resistance. She pondered his question. Thoughtfully, she replied, “I don’t hate you. There’s just a lot to unpack with all that you’ve revealed. I’m uncertain of my feelings just now. I will tell you something that I know; it was the last thing my mum told me. She told me not to despise meager beginnings. I imagine in your case, I cannot fault you for your past misdeeds. You will make things right by helping us stop the dueling houses and end this war. I can look at you with a clean slate from here on out.”

Yoshida sighed with relief, but still wanted to be certain she was being truthful.

“Look me in the eye then, if that’s how you truly feel,” he said.

With a still body, Savoi looked at him. Her big brown eyes were clearer than ever. He noticed her pupils were fully dilated, which he remembered a biology professor’s claim that this was a sign of physical attraction. He was familiar with that look. Many girls and women gazed at him with the same attention. This gave him a great sense of satisfaction. However, Savoi seemed to look right through him. He felt the core of his soul being called to become every bit as good as she believed in him. A heavy wave of guilt crashed over him, and he look away from her.

Roudan and Farouk approached them with apprehension. Yoshida stiffened at their presence.

“Have either of you lost faith in me as a teammate?” he asked gruffly.

Farouk nodded his head and smiled. Roudan placed his arm on Yoshida’s shoulder.

“There’s no judgement from me. We all have to make amends here. Some of us just have a further way to go.” He said.

The two men shook hands in agreement. Laughed wildly at Yoshida, Roudan, and Savoi. Then he said, “Now that you three love birds have that settled, can we please pay attention to Lily? We need to see whatever it is she’s trying to tell us about her past and why she enrolled at Calvary Academy.”

~The Waring Robins~

1st Year, P. 7 (fin.)

It only took a few swings before Watanabe grew tired and out of breath. His rage diffused into sobs. Yoshida allowed the boy to rest on his chest, though he dared not to embrace him. The overcast in sky lifted to reveal a golden crescent moon. A moment of relief came when Watanabe’s heavy breathing shifted into snoring. There were no other elements of comfort to cling onto

“Those poor boys. Hinna’s death must have been devastating for them,” Savoi said, as the Alpha squad stood over them.

“Perhaps she went quickly,” Farouk chimed in.

“I doubt it. My mother suffered from the same type of illness. It was long and not pretty,” Roudan replied somberly.

Savoi wiped a few tears away and nestled her face into Roudan’s shoulder. Shevchenko shook her head in disbelief.

“This is truly awful, but Haru’s father was only trying to protect him from all this pain. He tried to do the right thing,” she said.

“You can’t mean that,” Savoi’s voice trembled. “This war has spared no one. The dueling houses fight for power, while innocent lives are constantly thrown in the fray. Haru realized that through his friendship with Jiro. Perhaps Hinna’s death caused him to enroll in the academy.”

“I don’t believe it was that simple,” Farouk said, as he stood between the women. “Haru was in a gang before he came to the academy, and he seemed hesitant to show us his past. We might be on the brink of discovering the real story.”

No sooner than those words were spoken, did Watanabe wake up. He looked up at Yoshida, whose eyes were wide awake. He clumsily rolled himself off to the side, and they both sat up.

“How long was I out?” he asked.

“Not long,” Yoshida sighed, wiping a plug of blood from his nose.

Watanabe stood up and dusted himself off.

“Well, good. I have somewhere to be,” he said.

Before he could walk away, Yoshida grabbed his arm.

“Are you going to get your father?” he asked.

Watanabe snatched his arm away and said,

“Hell no. That sorry sack of bones left us, right around the same time you did. After the blasts, he was summoned to report to the infantry line. We haven’t heard from him since.”

Watanabe walked away without saying another word. Yoshida leapt up and silently followed him. They walked through the village all the way to the Red-Light district. They passed Mr. Watanabe’s old jade shop to an abandoned alley. A gaggle of young men stood in the darkness. Yoshida placed his hand on Watanabe’s shoulder.

“Jiro, what are you about to do?” he asked.

Watanabe sighed, knowing he could not run away from his friend.

“Nothing. Just wait here for me,” he said.

Watanabe joined the men, and they immediately laughed when he arrived. One man, who looked to be only nineteen or twenty, teased him.

“There you are, pudgy. Tell us; how is it you are so fat, when you clearly are so poor?”

Another young man chimed in, as well.

“Perhaps he’s a better thief than you are,” he cackled.

The first young man pulled out a wooden crate from inside a barrel.

“What do you mean? These stolen weapons are going to get us in for certain,” he replied.

Yoshida quietly crept behind them, just before five more men entered the alley. They each were smartly dressed grey business suits, but multicolored tattoos were visible on their necks, arms, and hands. The leader had a small green mamushi snake inked on his left cheek. All the young men hushed in reverence as the meeting began.

The leader glared at the young men with spite, then spoke.

“Tonight will be your final night. If the deal goes well, you will no longer be mutts. You will be invited into the Gokudō family.” He held a dagger to his throat, then continued. “If the deal goes south; you will no longer be mutts, you will be dead.”

His associates cackled, as the young men trembled in fear. The leader snapped his fingers, which was a signal for one of the young men to bring the wooden crate to him. No one was brave enough to do it, so the first young man kicked Watanabe in the shin. When he yelped, the leader called him to bring the crate.

“Hey you, fatso. Bring over the goods,” he said.

Watanabe gulped and looked around to see that Yoshida was nearby. Yoshida nodded for him to proceed. The crate was too heavy for him to lift alone. His bottom lip quivered as he trembled. Yoshida broke through the group to help his friend deliver the crate. The leader looked curiously at Yoshida, not remembering him being a part of the initial group of pledges. His traditional black kimono caused him to stand out from the rest, but he was muddy and looked as if he had been in a fight. The leader shrugged off any suspicion that Yoshida was anything other than a common thief, like the rest of the young men.

The leader opened the crate and pulled out a laser beam rifle. He studied it thoroughly, then tossed it to one of his associates.

“Does something seem amiss to you?” he asked.

His associate playfully tossed the rifle back and forth between his hands, and said, “Seems awfully light to me, boss.”

“I thought so,” the leader chuckled.

He gingerly sifted his hands through the rest of the crate, then looked at Watanabe and Yoshida.

“These are all fake. Do you expect us to take this bullshit merch to the Lesser House and demand our salary?” He slammed the lid over the crate. “They’d kill us on the spot.”

One of the bigger associates cracked his knuckles, then approached. The leader signaled for the other two associates to join in.

“The only way to settle is for us to kill you on the spot,” he said.

Each of the Gokudō associates fought with the young men and beat them mercilessly. The leader took turns fighting Watanabe and Yoshida. Watanabe hid underneath a boy’s body, while Yoshida fended for his life. The leader was shocked at Yoshida’s strength and agility. The boy in the black kimono was a classically trained martial artist who could outmatch him.

“What’s your name?” the leader asked Yoshida.

“What does it matter?” Yoshida answered.

The leader laughed.

“I suppose it doesn’t. Can you at least tell me why you’re here? I know for certain you are not like the rest of these mutts,” he said.

Yoshida signaled for Watanabe to come out of hiding.

“Nothing matters at this moment. All that you need to know is that I can show you where real weapons of value are stored.”

The leader smirked and rolled up his sleeves.

“Keep talking, young Doragon. If I don’t like what I hear, you and your fat ass friend will die.”

The Alpha squad watched on as Yoshida explained to the Gokudō leader where his father held forty-seven different warehouses that stored antique and new weapons. He and Watanabe were formally initiated into the Gokudō family, as they raided the warehouses and sold the goods to the Lesser House. Unfortunately, Watanabe was killed during one raid. This left Yoshida sullener and more depraved than ever before. He became the 3rd lieutenant of the Gokudō, and was feared by his peers.

One night in the Red-Light district, Yoshida laid on his stomach across a table in a tattoo parlor while a prostitute finished the remaining touches of ink for his Komodo dragon. A man in a military uniform entered the establishment. The name Guitterez was seen on his lapel. Yoshida raised his head and smirked at the man.

“Long time no, see Hatsuharu,” Guitterez said.

Yoshida laid his head back down on the table and said, “No one has called me by that name in a lifetime.”

Guitterez chuckled.

“That is who you are, isn’t it?”

Yoshida signaled for the prostitute to leave the room.

“Only God and the devil know who I really am,” he said.

Guitterez leaned over the table to whisper in his ear.

“Well, I am in good company, because I stood next to your father on the day you were born.”

Yoshida raised himself up on the table. Guitterez winced, believing him to be in pain from his tattoo. Yoshida’s ill mood was not tempered by his elaborate tattoo, which covered his entire back. He, instead, was annoyed by Guitterez’s unwelcomed visit.

“I have no dealings with my father. Whatever his sins are with his allegiance to the Greater House, they do not concern me.”

Guitterez sighed.

“I know the Gokudō are not properly aligned with the Lesser House, but you sold them over one hundred thousand weapons. You are no better than your father, who you loathe so much.” He headed to the door. “My offer still stands; enroll in Calvary Academy to atone for your bloody hands, or your beloved Gokudō family will all be brought to the Tribunal Council for war crimes.”

The scene went black as the Alpha squad gasped in horror.

~The Waring Robins~