2nd Year, P. 6

Yoshida allowed Savoi to remain rested on his chest long after Lt. Co. Adame had swept the Charlies away. He stroked her bare back until she stopped trebling. Silently, she eased herself up to clasp her bra. He lingered for a few moments to allow his body time to settle, then sat upright on the table with his back turned away from her for more privacy.

The lecture hall was dimly lit, with only the stars and moon to offer light through the bay windows. Savoi slightly panicked as she searched her area in silence. Yoshida hopped off the worktable and knelt to retrieve her blouse. He handed it to her with his face turned away. Once she was fully dressed, she nudged him to get up and their eyes met. He could not read her disposition to determine if she was ashamed, remorseful, or resentful. An onset of steady rain interrupted their awkward gaze.

“We should get going,” she said, then darted towards the exit.

Yoshida followed Savoi through the rainstorm behind the planetarium building, beneath a large overpass. He had never been to this location, and did not know it existed. The space was decorated with a semblance of furniture. There were two metal stools, a makeshift metal table, and a worn-out mattress. He watched Savoi as she sat on a stool and pulled a tin box from under the mattress. She opened the box to retrieve a match and an unusual-looking cigarette. When she lit it, the smell of cotton candy and a hint of marijuana filled the air.

She took a long drag, then offered the joint to him. Yoshida was stunned to see Savoi smoking, but her behavior earlier made this event par for the course. He took a long drag as well to calm his nerves. The initial pull was smooth and sweet, but soon after, he felt as if flames scorched the back of his throat. He felt an instant rush to his core and was dizzied.

“This is some potent stuff! What’s in it?” he choked.

Savoi cackled, as she did not imagine he would have such a reaction.

“Oh, just a little of this and a little of that. I designed it myself. Do you like it?” she asked, still amused by his astonishment.

He held out his index finger to signal his coughing fit was nearly over. Then, with a single tear that clung to an eyelash, he smirked.

“Now I know the real reason Lt. Co. Adame orders you at the lab all the time.”

With a devilish grin, she said, “If you only knew the half of it.”

Yoshida’s second pull on the cigarette was deliberately slower. Though the flames still burned his throat, he handled the discomfort better and eased into a mellow buzz. As the steady stream of rain lulled them, the pair took turns to puff out pink clouds of smoke. Yoshida made impressive donut holes, while Savoi made hearts. She fell into a fit of laughter when Yoshida puffed an unfamiliar-looking object.

“What’s that supposed to be?” she giggled.

Yoshida took another hit, then replied, “It was supposed to be a dragon.”

They both laughed at the preposterous notion.

Savoi took the cigarette from him and peered hard at the image before it evaporated.

“Looked more like an elephant to me,” she said.

Yoshida knelt to her and looked crossly into her now bloodshot eyes.

“Speaking of elephants in this room; perhaps we should discuss what happened between us on the balcony and in the lecture hall,” he said.

Savoi had been slumped over the table, but sat straight as possible on the stool.

“Do we really need to revisit that right now?” she asked.

“Hell yes,” Yoshida cackled. “That was intense and insane!”

Savoi grinned briefly, then pouted her lips.

“I was only trying to help, and didn’t mean for things to go that far. For that, I apologize. If you’re pissed at me, I understand,” she said.

Yoshida was too high to read her body language. The prior scenario was already strenuous because of his encounter with the Charlie squad. He knew he wasn’t angry, but surprised by her course of actions. If nothing, he was relieved that violence was unnecessary to end the situation.

He playfully bopped her on the nose with his index finger, then said, “I’m not pissed at you. I just need to know what you were thinking? Where did all of that come from?”

She returned the gesture to him and smiled.

He crossed his arms as he stood to tower over her.

“What would’ve happened if Lt. Co. Adame hadn’t come around?”

Savoi sat quietly for a moment, then blurted,

“I’m not sure. I didn’t have a plan. I made it all up as we went along.” Then she stood up to look him in the eyes. “I’ve never been with anyone like that before.”

Yoshida was taken aback by her confession. He licked his lips and reminisced about their make-out sessions on the balcony and the lab.

“Wait, you mean to tell me you’ve never kissed a boy or anything?”

Savoi shook her head.

“Nope. I often rely on my imagination for the things I’ve never experienced.”

Yoshida chuckled nervously.

“You could’ve fooled me. Hell, you fooled those Charlie dopes for sure.”

Savoi handed him the cigarette, then staggered over to the mattress and plopped down. She savored the satisfaction of his answer.

“Well, with your infinite number of intimate partners, I will have to take your word for it,” she replied.

Yoshida took offense at her dig.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked.

Savoi reclined on her elbows and hummed whimsically.

“Oh, nothing. Just that you have a mob of fangirls madly in love with you,” she replied.

Yoshida took another long drag and held in the smoke for a few seconds. As he exhaled, he asked, “Are you one of them?”

Savoi snickered and struggled to sit up.

 “Yes, I am,” she proudly proclaimed.

Yoshida blinked repeatedly. There was no way he could have misinterpreted what she said. He had known for some time that they shared a mutual attraction, but nothing was set in motion.

Her temperament has been off for a while now,” he thought. “Perhaps she’s just acting out to blow off steam.”

He kneeled in front of her on the mattress. There was a certain sincerity in her eyes that he could not shake.

“Are we to become a couple now?” he asked jokingly.

Savoi frowned and ran her hand through his hair.

“That wouldn’t be a good idea,” she whispered. When he tensed up, she continued.

“It’s not because of your past, but rather your future. You will do amazing things for our kingdom. I don’t want to hold you back.”

Yoshida was moved by her words. Just as he leaned in to kiss her, Roudan sprinted under the overpass.

“Whew, it’s raining cats and dogs and cows out here tonight,” he belted.

When he removed the hood from his fleece jacket, he saw Yoshida and Savoi. She quickly retrieved the cigarette and took a drag.

Roudan grinned.

“You started without me, Thomasa,” he said, then looked at Yoshida.

“Haru, I didn’t know you’d be here.”

Yoshida stood up to greet him with their usual fist bump.

“I followed Thomasa here. I didn’t realize this was a hang-out spot for you guys,” he replied.

Roudan pulled a copper flask from his pants pocket and took a swig. He offered a drink to both Yoshida and Savoi, but they both declined.

“Oh, yeah. Thomasa and I have been coming here once a week since the end of the first term,” he said.

Savoi perched herself up from the mattress, then gave the rest of the cigarette to Roudan.

“There’s another one in the box,” she said, and looked at Yoshida playfully. “It was nice kicking it with you. I hate to go, but I’ve got to get back to the lab.”

As she departed, Yoshida and Roudan sat on the stools. They lit the second cigarette and smoked it together in silence.

“Is there something on your mind, senpai?” Roudan asked.

Yoshida did not hesitate to answer.

“She’s changed, a lot. How did I miss it?”

Roudan folded his arms on the table and rested his head.

“It’s the lab. Whatever demands they’ve made from her have produced the woman you now see. She isn’t a little girl anymore,” he sighed.

Yoshida knew Roudan was right. Whatever business she had going on at the lab had major adverse effects. Although Savoi had always been feisty, her new demeanor had taken on an aggressive tone. Out of all the women he came across, none were ever so brazen enough to come on to him in the manner she did. Most of them were timid and waited for him to make the first moves. A year ago, Savoi would not have done such things. Yoshida realized Roudan had become her confidant. He couldn’t begrudge such a noble gesture, considering Roudan had also become a like-minded dark soul. The two of them were carriers of secret burdens brought on by the war, and spent time together commiserating with drugs and alcohol.  

~The Waring Robins~

2nd Year, P. 4

Savoi was promptly admitted to the infirmary and treated for dehydration. A solution of saline and other fluids was injected into her arm. She laid on a cot in a small room and waited for the drip tube to be fully drained. Farouk patiently sat next to her.

“How are you feeling, Thomasa?” he asked.

She looked at him and responded slowly.

“Right now, I’m in a world of hurt.”

Her words frightened him. He stood and leaned over to observe her vitals on the EKG monitor.

“Everything looks fine. Your levels are almost back to normal. Are you in any pain?” he asked.

Silence engulfed the room. Savoi searched her mind to find the best description for what she felt. Everything was foggy. She had been this way for weeks, but managed to successfully accomplish all her tasks. She became unraveled at the battalion run because this was a mission that she could not position herself to prevail in.

Farouk gently stroked her forehead.

“Don’t worry about the battalion run. It was supposed to be meant as a morale booster, but the news of what happened to the deployed 3rd year class has cast a dark shadow over all of us.”

Savoi did not stir at his comment.

Farouk became anxious, so he continued to speak.

“Emmett feels bad about the way he yelled at you.”

Savoi hoisted herself up on the cot.

“You saw that?” she asked fretfully.

“No. I only heard about it from the other cadets who ran in the rear. Everyone was surprised that you couldn’t keep up. Haru took over for calling cadence so that Emmett could fall back with you,” he solemnly confessed.

Savoi slowly slumped back down with a stream of tears. A deep sense of dread came over her.

“I’ve never been fast,” she murmured.

Farouk pulled his stool closer to the cot and sat down.

“What do you mean? This was a distance run, which you only needed to keep up with the formation. Speed was not a factor,” he said.

Savoi glared at him in total despair, which moved him to tears.

“Thomasa, if you’re not feeling well, you need to say something. This is not like you at all. Please tell me what’s the matter. Maybe I can help you,” he pleaded.

Savoi sat up again and mustered as much energy as possible to share her feelings. She choked up as she spoke.

“I thought I could handle all of this. For a moment, I did my very best. Now, I don’t know if I can hang in there,” she wept.

Farouk was confused, as he could not imagine what was the source of her troubles.

“Thomasa, I don’t understand. You’ve done amazing work this term. The grade grid has shown that your lowest exam score was 97%. Your grasp of the coursework is phenomenal. Is it the lab? Is the course load too much for you?” he asked.

Savoi stiffened, as if she had seen a ghost. Suddenly, a male nurse entered the room. He checked the EKG monitor, then looked at Savoi.

“The fluid bag is almost empty, but you look as pale as you did when you were admitted an hour ago. Perhaps I will add vitamin D3 to the solution,” he said, then called for another nurse to bring a syringe.

Once the solution was added, both nurses exited the room. Savoi asked them to shut the door on the way out. She leaned over to Farouk and took his hand.

“Maaz, what I’m about to tell you needs to stay between us in this room,” she said.

He warily nodded for her to proceed.

She spoke in a hushed whisper.

“As you know, Lt. Co. Adame selected me to work with the remaining 3rd years in the laboratory. At first, my assignment was to inventory and catalog chemical agents that were sent from the field. He took a special interest in me when I could identify specific properties within the chemicals.” She leaned in closer and spoke lower. “This is classified information, but I came across some hazardous properties that would blow your mind if you knew what they could do. This war is unfair, because someone has cheated the system with harmful germs that can do long-term damage within the kingdom.”

Farouk was shaken to his core. He did not know what to do with the information Savoi had revealed to him. The blank stare in his eyes let her know she should refrain from divulging anything else. The burden of this information was hers alone to carry. She pretended to be tired and laid down to rest. Farouk did not want to press the situation, so he let her sleep.

A week went by before Savoi was cleared to return to duty. She assured her teammates that she was well enough to train harder than ever. Roudan led the Alpha squad to the beachside nightly. He fashioned fitness drills to maximize their workout sessions. This was the best measure of action to prepare for the tactical exam. Every night, they began with the same dialogue. Roudan would stand in front of the team to say,

“You guys know why we’re here. I won’t waste time with a long drawn out speech. I will just say this much; You will have to pay me what you owe.”

Savoi always asked. “How much do we owe?”

He would grin, and reply, “All of it. Give me all of yourselves, and I promise you won’t regret it.”

~The Waring Robins~

2nd Year, P. 3

Shevchenko sat in a cozy wing chair beside the library’s roaring fire place to study the night before the Morphology exam. The entire chamber bustled with dozens of cadets amid study sessions. She anxiously flipped through her flashcards, disgruntled by the noise and the fact that she had been waiting for Savoi to join her for well over an hour. To drown out the chatter, she closed her eyes and whispered recited words to herself.

“Morphology. The study of the form of words.”

“That would be linguistics. Morphology is the study of the form of things,” a familiar voice whispered in her ear.

Shevchenko peered through one eye to see Savoi standing next to her. She pulled away and said with a grimace,

“I know that.”

Savoi frowned at her.

Shevchenko stiffened in her seat.

“That’s what I meant,” she said.

Savoi hurriedly sat in an empty chair and sifted through her satchel. Shevchenko sighed incredulously.

“Nice of you to grace me with your presence, oh gifted one.”

Savoi held her tongue and continued to rummage through her bag. She plucked out a binder at least three volumes thick with some highlighter markers. This infuriated Shevchenko, so she pressed further.

“Punctuality is of the utmost importance. How do you expect to effectively support your team in the field if you’re late in their hour of need?”

Savoi pretended to ignore her comment and quietly marked through the pages in her binder. After several minutes of silence, she stood up and shoved the binder in Shevchenko’s lap.

“Here are my notes for the exam. Be sure to focus on the areas that are highlighted. The last four pages are specifically for Haru,” she said.

Shevchenko raised her brow.

“Why does he need specific notes?” she asked.

Savoi stuffed her markers into her bag. Before she marched away, she said,

“He asked for a private study session. I didn’t have time to meet with him, because of my work at the lab. I don’t want him to feel like I brushed him off.”

Shevchenko grabbed her by the arm with a pleading look in her eyes.

“Why would Haru ask you for a private study session when I’m the linguistics specialists in our squad?” she asked.

Savoi slung her satchel onto her left shoulder. Her patience disappeared as she eyed Shevchenko.

“He nearly failed the Semantics exam under your watch. Punctuality is important, but practicality is pertinent as well,” she replied and stormed off.

Ten minutes later, the rest of the squad joined Shevchenko in the library. She presented the binder, but did not divulge that it came from Savoi. She did not have time to hide the notes meant for Yoshida. He found them in the back of the book and was elated.

“So, Thomasa didn’t blow me off after all,” he beamed.

Shevchenko snatched the binder from him.

“Let me see that,” she said.

There were four very detailed notes with color-coded annotations. A small sticky note was attached on the bottom of the first page. Farouk read the note aloud.

“Haru, please don’t be sore with me. Everything you need to know is listed in alpha-numeric order. I know you will fare well on this exam.”

“Looks like your girl came through for you after all,” Roudan chuckled.

Yoshida held the documents as if they were sacred and grinned.

“Your girl?” Shevchenko scoffed. “She only helped in the eleventh hour. We could have used these notes twelve days ago.”

Farouk frowned at Shevchenko, while the others glared in silence. She knew they would not allow her to berate Savoi without biting back. Reluctantly, she settled down. Time was of the essence, and the binder would be their saving grace. Everyone agreed to table any sidebar conversations so they could dedicatedly study. The team did not want to squander any of Savoi’s efforts in vain, and their work paid off with high marks on the exam.

Climate changes from the effects of chemical warfare caused the snow to abruptly melt, and a heatwave took its place. General Benavides announced a battalion run would be performed for the tactical pretest. The 1st, 2nd, and remaining 3rd year cadets from every squad, (Alpha thru Delta), would take part in a 5K run. Late in the evening, just before midnight, all of Calvary academy stood together in formation on the beachside of campus.

News of the ill-fated fleets of 3rd year cadets deployed to Nerou spread quickly. The senior staff gave several renditions of motivational speeches to raise morale. Roudan ran beside the Alpha squad and called out a cadence as they took off. The unit moved in unison during a third of the run. Eventually, the slower runners broke rank. They were guided to the rear of the formation.

Savoi shut her eyes and sighed. Her stomach cramped and throat tightened. She paced herself as best as she could, though she found she could not keep up. Roudan fell back to run alongside her.

“Cadet Savoi, do you want to fail?” he snarled sharply.

During her time on the vast Malta estate, Savoi never had been much of a fast runner. In fact, General Malta encouraged her to pursue other athletic goals. Which is why she did not respond to him. Through teary eyes, she looked ahead to see the far distant formation disappear as she trailed behind. Roudan realized harsh words would not suffice. His affection for Savoi would take a nasty turn if he continued to dig. Silently, he took off to reassemble back with his squad. 

Savoi was last at the finish line. Her heart sank, and for the first time, she walked with her eyes glued to the ground. Thick beads of sweat dripped and labored breathing overwhelmed her entire body. The humiliation of being the weakest link stung her pride like an angry wasp. The battalion remain at attention, as General Benavides gave another speech. Every head restrained from turning to gawk in astonishment. Shevchenko stood in formation, completely satisfied that she had finally bested Savoi in a task, and refused to conceal the smugness of her victory from anyone.

After the formation was officially dismissed, Roudan walked alone and contemplated how to strengthen his squad. “As long as we don’t give up, we can find our footing.” He thought. “We shouldn’t waste valuable time undermining each other’s skills. We were put together as the Alpha squad because our strengths complement each other, and our weaknesses are will be sharpened like a hot blade.”

Savoi was sent to the infirmary, as her breathing pattern had not returned to normal. She requested Farouk to escort her. Roudan felt a tinge of guilt for his actions during the run.

“Maaz, please take care of Thomasa,” he said.

Farouk nodded and departed

“I was hard on her when she fell back to the rear,” Roudan said, as he kicked a mound of sand.

Yoshida placed his arm on Roudan’s shoulder.

“Thomasa is tough. She will be alright. Perhaps she’s fatigued from being overworked at the lab,” he said.

Shevchenko scoffed.

“Do you hear yourselves right now? Thomasa isn’t the goddess you all think she is. Just because she became Lt. Co. Adame’s lab rat doesn’t mean that she should fall behind in the standards of being a soldier.”

Roudan furiously shrugged and walked away.

“I can’t get into this with you right now, Lily. I’m going to see if I can get an update on her condition,” he said.

Shevchenko blinked, astounded by the manner of his tone.

“Why is everyone so pissed at me? We knew from the entrance exam that Thomasa sucked at running. This just goes to show; she isn’t great at everything,” she stammered.

Yoshida lowered his voice so that he would not be heard scolding his squad mate.

 “Your visible animosity towards Thomasa in inexcusable, and is surely the cause of discord among the team,” he growled.

Shevchenko stood, shocked at his accusation.

“in order for there to be discord, there would need to be an active dispute between us. Thomasa regularly disregards most of my opinions,” she replied.

“That’s because she’s rather introspective and cautious about speaking carelessly when it concerns others,” he said.

“Are you trying to say she’s been sparing my feelings?” Shevchenko gasped.

“Very much so,” he answered.

“How can you be for certain? Are you a mind reader?” she asked and watched him unreservedly muse over the idea of knowing Savoi’s thoughts.

“There it is, again,” she said.

Yoshida grinned. “What?”

“The look you get whenever you think of her.”

“What look? This is just my regular face,” he said.

Shevchenko sighed grievously.

“No, it isn’t. You don’t look that way for anyone but her. Just now, it was as if you’re dying to be privy to the conversations that go on in her head.”

Yoshida leaned in to whisper in her ear.

“Actually, I live for it. Thomasa is a genius. She just might be the salvation of this kingdom if she can figure out a way to end the war. I don’t want to miss any of it, and will do everything possible to help achieve that goal.”

Shevchenko pursed her lips.

Yoshida swiftly patted her on the back and said, “Don’t be so uptight. It might do you some good to channel that version of yourself who stood frozen on the ballroom steps waiting for your life to change in a positive direction.”

His words struck her to the core. She never imagined that he paid any attention to the inner details of her memory sequence. It was true that she felt stuck in a hopeless situation that was not of her own doing, and would have given anything to change the tide.

With a stiff jaw, Shevchenko reluctantly agreed to participate in helping Savoi become a faster runner.

~The Waring Robins~

2nd Year, P. 2

There was little time for celebratory merits from the land navigation exam. Rigorous core training continued seamlessly. One of the training exercises comprised service on the Arms Guard in the artillery room. General Benavides took it upon himself to approach Roudan during his service. The cadets had been on duty for nearly 24 hours. Roudan was exhausted, and his uniform was disheveled. He perked up and stood at attention once he saw the senior officer come down the corridor.

Benavides smirked at the gesture. Without hesitation, he commanded, “At ease, soldier.” He pulled out a cigar. Roudan once again declined his offer to take one. The General quickly lit the cigar and took a long drag. After he exhaled, he continued to speak. “As you are aware, the kingdom remains in turmoil at this very hour. The war is far from over. Over half the 3rd year cadets have been deployed to stop the damage. Even with our best intelligence unit at the fold, there is little grasp of what the future holds as far as the war is concerned.”

Roudan’s eye twitched with discontent as he tucked the back of his dress shirt further inside his trousers. He was unsure how to respond, so he remained silent. Benavides nodded through a spaced-out gaze. “I haven’t forgotten how skilled you are at tactical reasoning. You will serve the academy and kingdom well when you whip your squad into shape. Everyone is counting on your success,” he said.

Roudan dimly smiled. He wondered if the same pressure had been placed on his uncle and brother during their enrollment at Calvary academy. He also wondered if General Benavides had forgiven their trespasses, since he had not mentioned it at all. One thing he knew for certain; all eyes would be watching his every maneuver as Skull Leader and captain of the coveted Alpha squad. It was imperative that he help them shine to become the best defense against the dueling houses.

An hour later, the night watch completed their shift. Roudan returned to the barracks just before sunrise. Farouk was still asleep, while Yoshida slumped in the lounge chair.

“What’s got you beat?” Roudan asked as he unbuttoned his dress shirt.

Yoshida let out a long sign, which turned into a yawn.

“Thomasa stood me up,” he answered.

Roudan sifted through his laundry bag to find a fresh pair of shorts, but turned intuitively and chuckled.

“I didn’t know you guys had a date. Is she finally ready to give you some play?”

Yoshida promptly flung a pillow back at him, which woke Farouk.

“Thomasa isn’t that kind of girl,” Farouk whined.

Yoshida leapt up and belted, “It wasn’t an actual date, you dolts!”

Roudan held his arms out in surrender.

“I was just kidding. We know she is a good girl. Which is why I wondered what she would be doing with the likes of you?” he said.

Yoshida walked over to his clothes hamper and found a clean pair of shorts, which he loaned to Roudan.

“Morphology. I figured since Thomasa aced the Land Navigation exam so easily, she’d give me a few pointers,” he said.

Roudan and Farouk looked crossly at each other.

“Why didn’t you just ask Lily?” Roudan asked.

Farouk crawled out of bed and pulled some clean socks from his dresser draw for Roudan.

“Yeah, linguistics is her field specialty,” he interjected.

Yoshida paused for a moment, then scoffed.

“True, but Lily is often monotonous with her delivery. The last time she took point on our study sessions, I nearly failed the Semantics exam because she bored me to sleep.”

Roudan shook his head to keep from cracking up.

“She’s not that dry.”

The trio briefly looked at each other in silence, then burst into an eruption of laughter.

Roudan collected the articles of borrowed clothing and paced about the room to look for his shower shoes.

“Well, where was Thomasa? Why didn’t she meet you to study?” he asked.

Farouk reached inside the lounge chair cushion and pulled out one of Roudan’s shoes.

“I saw her head to the lab with that Molvik fellow,” he said.

Yoshida lifted a pillow from Roudan’s cot to retrieve the other shoe.

“That knucklehead Molvik demands her time often. It’s like she’s at his beckoning call or something.”

“Molvik. Molvik. Why does that name ring a bell?” Roudan asked.

Yoshida handed him a clean towel and replied, “That’s because you beat up his younger brother the night of the Entrance ball.”

Roudan gathered his belongings and headed for the door.

“Oh yeah, that Delta dog! He sure was an ugly mutt. I wonder whatever became of him and his flea-bitten crew?”

“Most of the Delta squad bottomed out and were recycled. His older brother is a 3rd year in the Bravo squad,” Farouk answered as he handed Roudan a bar of soap. With his hands already full, there was no place for the soap to go.

Yoshida mindlessly stuffed the soap in Roudan’s pants pocket.

“Well, the older brother can’t be all that great. Especially since he wasn’t selected to deploy with his class of 3rd year cadets. I can’t imagine what Thomasa sees in him,” he scowled.

Roudan departed for the shower rack. The topic of Molvik, the 3rd year Bravo who hadn’t deployed with his class, weighed on him heavily. He was reminded of General Benavides’s demand that the Alpha squad rise above their current standing. This would be no easy feat.

~The Waring Robins~

2nd Year, P. 1

The beginning of the 2nd year’s term boomed in with an intense wintery blast. Calvary academy appeared like an enchanted snow fortress from a dark fairytale. The premise of a new looming war cast a menacing shadow over the delicate mounds of snow. Training was no longer a simple, competitive wager between the squads. Every merit point would bring each cadet closer to realizing their duty stations. All hearts geared toward the most prominent state of Nerou, where the battle between the dueling houses was born.

Early one frosty morning, Shevchenko laid in her cot with her eyes wide open. She had tossed and turned so fretfully through the night that her legs were tangled in the linen. The cold air seeped through a cracked window, which combatively chilled the beads of sweat over her body. She concluded sleep would not prevail, then made a mad dash to the shower cabin to beat others with the same desire for a scalding hot bath.

After a quick wash up, she returned to her barracks room and finished getting ready for the day. Savoi had just stirred in her bed as she headed out for breakfast. Roudan, Yoshida, and Farouk were already in the chow hall line when she arrived. The four sat silently in their booth and slowly ate. Nothing could rouse them from the dreary mood that lingered among them.

Forty-five minutes after they sat down to eat, Shevchenko noticed Yoshida’s gaze from across the room. Savoi stood in the chow line, seemingly forlorn and spaced out. The buttons on her blue wool overcoat were mismatched and looked a size larger than her actual frame. She was less than her usual cheery self. Farouk stuffed the last bite of toast in his mouth, then waved for her to join their booth. She nodded with a yawn.

“Boy, aren’t we a sorry lot,” Roudan sighed. “Even Thomasa has taken to brooding.”

Yoshida stiffen his jaw as he continued to study her demeanor. It was undeniable that she appeared to be in a funk, which had never been her normal state of mind.

“Maybe this cold winter doesn’t agree with her so much,” he said.

Farouk swigged his orange juice quickly, then chimed in with his theory.

“Your assertion might be correct, Haru. Islanders aren’t familiar with snow or cold temperatures. I believe the lowest temperature off the coast is no less than 65 degrees.”

Roudan poured more black coffee into his mug, then agreed.

“I bet you’re right, Maaz. Thomasa may be having trouble adjusting to the climate, and that’s probably what has got her so down,” he said.

The men shook their heads in agreement as they watched Savoi collect her food tray and proceed over to their booth.

Shevchenko stayed in a continued state of annoyance with the way everyone often fawned over Savoi. She erratically mashed her eggs onto her plate, but no one noticed she was bothered.

“Thomasa spent most of the night in the laboratory. Apparently, Lt. Co. Adame has deemed her fit to work with the 3rd year cadets on some special projects,” she said.

The men looked in astonishment at Shevchenko’s confession. It was unheard of for a 2nd year cadet to advance to any dealings with their seniors. Though Savoi had received no formal education, she possessed superior knowledge and skills as a chemist. This set her apart from the rest of the Alpha squad. Her brilliance was one of many thorns in Shevchenko’s flesh, aside from Yoshida’s obvious infatuation. Savoi seemed none the wiser, no less.

The men perked up when Savoi finally came to sit with them. Yoshida stood to allow her a spot between himself and Roudan, but she pivoted and squeezed herself next to Shevchenko instead. Farouk’s tiny body was mushed up against the wall at Shevchenko’s silent protest. Yoshida disappointedly kept his thoughts to himself as he sat down. An invisible blanket of tension descended on them.

Farouk broke the air when he sifted through his backpack to pull out a bronze binder. The rest of the table rolled their eyes and sighed in contempt. He continued.

“I know no one wants to discuss this, but we really need to focus on the upcoming land navigation exam. I surmise the best way to study is to select the team member with the most accurate notes to take lead,” he said and feverously tore several pages of notes. “Through process of elimination; we’ve determined that Emmett’s handwriting is worse than chicken scratch.”

Roudan stood with a bow as Yoshida cackled and clapped. 

Farouk gruffly cleared his throat and continued.

“We can clearly see precisely when Haru fell asleep.” He held up a page and pointed to all the zigzagged lines.

Yoshida snatched the page from him and crumbled it up. He tossed the crumbled paper at Roudan, who cackled louder than him.

Farouk huffed at his teammate’s insolence, which made Savoi sigh impatiently. Roudan and Yoshida stopped laughing just enough for Farouk to continue. 

“Lily has the best handwriting, and it would be easiest to allow her to take point in this study session,” he said.

Shevchenko smirked indignantly behind her coffee mug. Her victory was short-lived when Farouk continued to speak.

“Both Thomasa and I have the most detailed notes,” he finished, and waited for the debate to ensue.

Yoshida mused over the information briefly, then said,

“This is a no-brainer. I propose Thomasa take point on this study session.”

Roudan nodded in agreement, but timidly looked at Shevchenko, who was obviously annoyed.

“Why should Thomasa take lead?” Shevchenko scoffed. “Clearly, this is an opportunity for someone else to shine in this squad. I propose Maaz should be the point, especially since his own father was an Apache pilot. Navigation is in the boy’s blood.”

Farouk squirmed in his seat with such pressure being dropped in his lap. He agonized over whether he would be the best team member to lead the study sessions, knowing full well that Savoi was better suited to take command. Roudan and Yoshida murmured to each other, as they completely ignored Shevchenko. 

Suddenly, a 3rd year cadet named Molvik entered the chow hall. His olive skin was a stark contrast to his almost clear-blue eyes. He carefully surveyed the room until he found Savoi. Their eyes met with a knowing understanding. With a smile, he departed. Savoi shrugged her shoulders and said,

“Lily is right. Maaz is perfect to take point for the study sessions.” She hurriedly gathered her belongings and uneaten food. “However, go ahead without me. Duty calls. Best of luck to you all!”

Fortunately for the Alpha squad, Farouk turned out to be a good fit to lead the study sessions. The group received the highest marks, which ranged from 92% to 97% between them. Savoi could attend none of the six study sessions, and her team worried how she would fare. Notably, Savoi earned the highest mark of 100%. 

~The Waring Robins~

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, 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~