The next seven cycles went by faster than I could have ever anticipated. I became engrossed in my training and focused on nothing else. Brindel felt as though I had pulled away from him, but every time he brought it up I just explained to him that my training and preparation was the only thing that could guarantee us a future. If I died on the battlefield, we wouldn’t have much of a life together after all. He thought this to be callous but didn’t argue because he knew deep down that I was right.
Vea’ayr and I got along surprisingly well during our technical training and as that fifth cycle pressed on I regrettably realized that she was right: not only about the necessity of her action, but about us being more alike than I had originally realized. Jushara and I grew almost inseparable outside of training hours. If she was not at my penthouse, I was at hers discussing strategy, sparring, telling stories about Fortitude or listening to her stories of her pre-thorns life. She became my closest friend second only to Brindel.
During my seventh cycle of training I, much to my surprise, became rather close with Cesylla as well. I had become skilled enough in combat to where even Jushara could no longer best me, so I would fight her and Deran simultaneously, or her and Brindel, or her and Cesylla. It helped me to develop a very well-rounded fighting style and to be able to combat against anything.
I trained with my respective trainers during the light and sparred with my comrades every night. I barely slept, though at first it was not from lack of trying. Every time I would fall asleep, dreams of Vea’ayr would creep into my head and I would become a vessel for actions which were not my own. Not all were bad. In fact, most weren’t, but I felt more unrest when I had these dreams than when I did not sleep at all. I tried to talk to Jushara about it, but she seemed more disturbed than concerned. Eventually I spoke to Brindel about the depth of these dreams, but he of course wanted to discuss the scientific implications of a shared memory rather than actually discussing anything substantial with me. Maybe he was right… Maybe I had pushed him away too much in this turn. I even mentioned it to Aurilianni once, but soon realized that she was far too close to Vea’ayr to be trusted with sensitive information.
I eventually found some peace of mind when I was trying to discuss my issues one night with Brindel and Cesylla came in. “Perhaps your being upset is a good thing.” She spoke with that voice of hers, that powerful yet soft tone that commands all other sounds cease as her voice is now all that matters. Mid conversation, Brindel and I fell completely silent and focused our gazes, our ears, and our hearts toward her. “Pardon the intrusion, but I thought maybe you being upset is really what defines you. You and Vea’ayr share so many similarities, even down to the way you think. I have spent enough time around you both to know that you are almost one in the same. The keyword here though is not same but rather almost. You care Sha’ayr. You care above all else. You care about what is right, not just what is objectively beneficial. You care about your comrades and not just about how they can help you achieve your goals. You even care about Vea’ayr and you care about the idea that she could possibly be using you.”
My uneasiness must have begun to show because she stopped and apologized. “Sorry if I am overstepping my bounds Zetha.” I shook my head vigorously and pled. “Not at all Cesylla, you are a friend and a respected comrade. Your opinion is not only heard, but valued. Please, I insist you continue.”
She went on for some time recollecting times where I had proven my distinctness and where Vea’ayr would have or did fail to be equally compassionate. As she ended her monologue, I embraced her with tears on my cheeks. “Thank you so much Cesylla. You have no idea how much it means to me to hear you say all this. I have felt distressed about this for so long.” As I turned my head to rest against the side of her neck, I caught Brindel’s eye and he lowered his head, seemingly ashamed that he was not the one to be my emotional crutch in this time of weakness.
The final cycle of my training proved to be the most difficult by far. It was my endurance training and it was with Brindel. I still loved Brindel with all my heart, but my heart had become a low priority for me and it showed. To make matters worse, Brindel realized that this was the most time we had gotten to spend together over the course of the turn, but he also knew that he had to shut off any feelings toward me or the training could not be successful. I soon learned why he was feared in battle and why my father had been so fond of him as a soldier. For this training, I was not allowed to fight back, only to defend myself until I was too exhausted, then to defend myself more and more. Brindel changed from the compassionate, sensitive companion I had come to know him as into a sadistic, ruthless tormentor. My hands became calloused and I developed scars from unblocked whips which turned into stronger tissue. Every one of my muscles ached at the end of each rote, and each night he would tend to my wounds and rub my sore legs. Then, once lightbreak came, he would become that beast of a warrior again. I knew it was necessary to strengthen me and to test my willpower, but it was so hard to see someone I loved so much present themselves with so much hatred toward me. I couldn’t help but question: was this all just an act for the training or did he secretly resent me for pushing him away? I began to regret my focus on my development, but then I thought about all that was at stake. I thought about all the Wilvaroks and Tilverhans who were going to suffer if we didn’t fix the Council. I knew it was all worth it, but it didn’t make it hurt any less.
I counted down the rotations for that last cycle, anxiously waiting for that rote to come when I could finally see Brindel again and not Alpha General Brindel. Finally the rotation arrived: the end of my training. Though my actual training was complete, one more cycle remained until my rank was officially decided. The first half of the cycle was spent recovering, resting, and spending time with my friends. Oddly enough, that torment of a cycle spent training with Brindel had helped to strengthen us not only in battle, but as a couple. It proved to me that he was just as serious about this movement as I was and that he was willing to do whatever it took to succeed. More importantly, it showed me how much I needed the sensitive, compassionate, goofy Brindel to come home to and helped to solidify my respect in him as a warrior. We had become a truly formidable team and had even started developing a cooperative fighting style. Though I know those fifteen rotations were supposed to be rest and recovery, I honestly feel most at ease in the heat of a spar… and to think just over a turn ago I had never even been in a fight.
The last fifteen cycles were spent in the simulator, trying to beat my previous scores for each of the previous attempts. After all the training I had endured, beating each and every one of my own bests was not at all difficult. However, the overall ranking scores were determined by the speed and rate of success in these trials and I would not know until the pruning ceremony.
The pruning ceremony normally took place when one was initiated into the officer rankings, but my case was a special exception given my instant initiation. I woke at lightbreak that rotation to a strangely silent penthouse. Usually Deran and Brindel were in the kitchen arguing about the superiority of Tilverhan or Wilvarok cuisine or Jushara and Brindel would be playing Thrones in the living area, a game that focused on the strategy of battle in different terrains and unpredictable scenarios. This rotation though, the only sound was my own breath against the thin air.
I pulled myself out of bed, still sore from the strenuous fifteen rotes of pushing myself beyond my limits in every aspect to prove my worth. I felt confident, anxious, proud, and nervous all at once. I went to the closet and pulled out my armor, put it on, and put on the prism silk robe that Vea’ayr had given me what felt like so long ago now. With a deep breath and a final curl of my toes against the cold floor, I put on my boots and left the penthouse.
The streets of Shellentar were unnervingly silent. The ceremony was still half an hour away so I had plenty of time to walk to the HUB building without any concern of being late. I had initially wanted to walk with Brindel, Jushara, Deran, and Cesylla but they must have already gone without me. I took advantage of the rare moment of silence and thought about everything which had transpired over the past turn and got so lost in thought I found myself standing in front of the HUB doors before I even realized I had taken a step.
As I boarded the GMFE, I called out to take me to the banquet hall. The banquet hall took up an entire level on the HUB and could easily house thousands of people, given that they were at least half Wilvaroks. The GMFE jolted up and I walked through two large pitrinium doors and into a banquet hall. The sight that awaited was more than I could have ever prepared for.
The entire hall was adorned in beautiful cloth roses and tightly braided “vines” made of silk and Tilverhan hair woven together. There was an entire buffet of food for Tilverhans and Wilvaroks alike and everyone had decorated their armor with jewels, silk garments, and paints. Even considering the extravagance of my robe, I still felt under dressed for the occasion. Every person from Shellentar was there. I saw people I had yet to even meet. There were hundreds, even thousands of supporters. It was hard not to get emotional at the sight of the revolution before me.
As I stepped forward, the doors shut behind me and every eye turned its gaze upon me. A roar of conversation instantly muted to nothing and the sound of every knee simultaneously echoing as it touched the ground filled the air. From the crowd, two very familiar Wilvaroks and Tilverhans rose: Brindel, Cesylla, Jushara, and Deran. They all walked through the crowd and embraced me. “Welcome to your ceremony my love.” Brindel’s words had the familiar and missed feeling to them that had been vacant for the past turn… or perhaps I was just not listening. My lips quivered as I smiled and nodded in acknowledgment and appreciation. “Well, now what?” I thought I had spoken quietly enough for just us to hear, but had misjudged both the intensity of the silence surrounding us and the dynamic of my voice. “Now,” Vea’ayr boomed from a large throne-like chair at the end of the banquet hall with an identical chair beside it, “you take your rightful seat at my side and this ceremony can begin.”
With that, all the people in the hall rose to their feet and cleared a path to the other end of the banquet hall. Some clapped, some cheered, some shouted their battle cries and some recited the words of our oath. The roar was chaotic, bordering on overwhelming.
I approached Vea’ayr and she stood and hugged me. This was the first time she had hugged me since our disagreement during my training. Many cycles have passed since then and I have forgiven and even thanked her since. I still didn’t trust her completely, but I did feel at least vaguely positive about our relationship.
As I sat beside her the roar slowly settled to a whisper and then to silence as she raised her hand. “Sha’ayr, we are all proud of your growth this past turn. In honor of your hard work and success in your training, we will be announcing your new rankings and your official position in our ranks. You will need to choose a presenter, an announcer, and the ceremonial toaster from our officers. Who do you choose?” Without hesitation or excess thought I blurted out my answer. “Brindel shall be my presenter for he has been by my side since before this even began and no other is as suited as he to do so. My announcer should be someone who truly knows their way around the spoken word and could be none other than the beautiful Cesylla and my toaster will be my closest friend and dearest comrade Jushara.”
Vea’ayr forced a smile upon her face and was quite obviously upset that she was not picked for any of the roles, but I did not let her apparent disapproval spoil the moment for me. My three closest friends stepped forward and the ceremony commenced. Brindel stood on the platform directly to my side, Cesylla stood at the front of the stage on which the chair sat, and Jushara sat at the only empty table with four spots. Tables for mixed company were often set up for Wilvaroks to stand and Tilverhans to lay flat so both can reach the table. Cesylla stepped forward and cleared her throat signaling the silence to continue. “When Sha’ayr came to us a turn ago, many of you doubted her abilities, but she quickly and very sternly showed you her strength and fervor, and most importantly her mercy and compassion. Mercy is a strange thing, isn’t it? Not only is it the most difficult form of forgiveness one can extend, but it also is an acceptance of a difference in opinion and a repression of our base instincts. Wilvaroks and Tilverhans alike are somewhat violent by nature, and when one wrongs us, we seek to make them pay for their mishaps. Mercy is something we all need to extend as one day we may all need it extended to us, especially with the struggles to come. I am honored to call Sha’ayr a comrade and a friend. She has shown her ability to extend that mercy in all her simulations and in her actions. It was the first show of her character she showed us. If I could, could I have Deran step forward?”
Deran stood, shocked by his summons, and stepped onto the platform. “Sergeant Regent Deran, when you first met Sha’ayr you challenged her position, stating you believed Jushara was a more suited candidate for Lieutenant Commander. Today, she stands before you and her position is to be either solidified or contested. Seeing her grow and seeing who she has become I wanted to ask you personally how you now felt.” Tears welled up in Deran’s eyes as he began to speak. “A turn ago I was undeserving of my rank. I was foolish and judgmental and I did not give Sha’ayr a chance to show us who she really was and what she was capable of. It took her only minutes to completely change my mind and since then she has become one of my dearest friends and allies. I would kill for her and I would die for her. She is a true leader and entirely deserving of the rank she has been given. That being said, I do not feel like her position as Leutenant Commander should be solidified today.“ Heads turned so quickly to Deran that I swear you could hear a snap in the air. Everyone was shocked, but none more than I and Jushara. I was hurt, but Jushara was angry. Beyond angry. A roar of commotion sounded through the hall until Cesylla raised her hand, silencing the crowd instantaneously.
“Deran,” Cesylla inquired with a tinge of pain in her voice, “what makes you say this?” Suddeny my pain changed to genuine concern as I saw Deran’s shoulders begin to shake. He looked as he did the first day I arrived, after our battle as we sat and talked of his life before the revolution. He swallowed his fear and uneasiness in one hard gulp and continued with a surprising decisiveness. “I feel as though Sha’ayr is most suited to be our leader.”
As the last word escaped his lips, it swept through the banquet hall and executed any sound left in the room. I could feel the temperature drop as Vea’ayr’s eyes fell upon me. She stood and smiled, an offputting, sinister, jagged curve. “Very well Deran. Are there any others who agree with this change of power?” The calm of her voice was an unwelcome surprise. A less unwelcome surprise was how many people stood. About half of the Tilverhans and a third of the Wilvaroks in the hall stood from their tables and nodded their heads. Vea’ayr’s stoic calm was unbroken. “Very well,” she said unwaivering, “Let us finish this ceremony and firstlight we will have an official duel for command of the Thorns.”
The banquet hall erupted in a roar of cheers. Deran returned to his seat at the table and Jushara hugged him tightly for at least ten seconds then slapped him hard across the face. “Deran, you fool!” Her voice was angry and shaking, but her eyes shone with pride and agreement. “Do you not think about consequence?” Deran, in a rarely profound moment responded softly, “I only think about consequence Jushara.”
After a few moments, once the roar of the hall was at least quiet enough for her to be heard, Cesylla once again silenced the crowd with her serene voice, continuing her speech as if nothing had even happened. “A commander shows bravery and courage on the field of battle. I Councilor should show wisdom and humility in the decisions they make. A friend should show compassion and forgiveness and understanding in times of weakness and show reinforcement, support, and example in times of strength. A true leader—one that captures our very hearts and souls—must captivate and exemplify all of these qualities. I see no other than Sha’ayr who could better fit this definition. None.”
With her final word, she turned her gaze from the audience, past me, and to Vea’ayr. The crowd only saw the back of her head for her final statement and thus did not notice the jab toward Vea’ayr, but I did… and more concerning so did she. I could see Vea’ayr’s eyes flaring up and could feel her aura shifting, but she forced a rough smile across her face and joined the rest of the hall in clapping. After a good twenty seconds, she rose her hand and the clapping ceased. Cesylla continued. “Sha’ayr, please stand.” I stood and looked at her for further instruction. “Your rankings are as follows, from weakest to strongest. Your endurance, the raw grit of battle, the will to survive when all will is gone. For Grit you receive five thorns. Your ability to be unseen and to covertly disable and reroute security protocols, the silence which serves the master, for your Subterfuge you receive six thorns. Your composure under pressure and ability to persuade those around you is excellent. You had a wonderful tutor after all.” The crowd laughed as she smiled at me. “For Composure you receive seven thorns. Your intellect is to be envied and your understanding of technology has proven to be more than adept. A savant of seven thorns. Your battle planning and your quick decision making in the face of danger have earned you eight thorns in Strategy. Given your new and never-before-implemented fighting style, your whip weaving and blade bending have been combined into a single category named, appropriately, Sha’barage. For this new fighting style, you receive eight thorns. The magnearch is a powerful weapon which you have made even more powerful by cleverly combining with the tip of your whip. Given this new take on the magnearch and using whips, as well as your natural talent and brilliant ingenuity, both your Magnearch and Ingenuity have been given a rank of nine thorns. My opening statement already highlighted the reasons for your next ranking. You receive ten thorns for your leadership.”
She paused for a moment and looked to Vea’ayr, who nodded in agreement to an unknown wordless conversation they were having. Turning back to the crowd she finished her presentation, everyone’s hearts heavy with anticipation, none more so than my own. “And finally, my friends and comrades, we come to her greatest strength. Our ranking system was not made to measure someone of her abilities in mind flaying and thought blocking. She maxed out the rankings on every simulation and even broke the simulator on more than one occasion. Given her immeasurable abilities in this field and our Officers’ experience in trying to combat her, we present a one-of-a-kind ranking of fifteen thorns to Sha’ayr.”
The crowd exploded into a roar of cheering and clapping and my hands went to cover my mouth in excitement. I couldn’t help but to jump up and down a bit in hearing the results of my training. I had surpassed or met my expectations in every single field and could not believe my final scoring. “Sha’ayr, at a total of 87 thorns, you are now ranked at 9 thorns. Brindel, if you would do the honor.” Brindel grabbed my hands with his lower two hands and his upper two attached a permanent badge to my uniform with an instant-bonding cohesive. He then picked me up and held me close to his chest. His breath brushed my ears as he whispered, “I am so proud of you Sha’ayr. I love you.”
He put me down and I looked deep into his eyes. I could see his pride, but hidden behind it a tinge of worry. “I love you too Brindel.” I smiled, though I knew something was weighing on him. I could only hope he would let me know what was bothering him after the ceremony. For now, it was time to celebrate.
Jushara raised her glass and we joined her at the table. “A toast to our Lieutenant Commander. She is the best person I know and I have no doubt in my mind that she will be a fearless and wondrous leader. May her enemies reconsider their stances, else be knocked off their feet. Thorns of the rose!” Everyone simultaneously chanted, “Thorns of the rose!” and with that took a drink from their glasses.
For the rest of the ceremony, every person must have found their way to our table to individually congratulate me. It made conversation with my table hard, but perhaps that was a good thing. If I am to be a leader, it is important that the people I am leading know that they can approach me after all.
After a few hours, the commotion died down and I was able to focus again on my group. We talked about the training and our favorite and least favorite moments. We made jokes, laughed, and recanted the past turn. I never thought I could meet people like the ones I met here. Aurilianni and Damerion bantered back and forth the way they always did. Finally Brindel had seen enough. “OH by the void, just kiss already and get it over with!” Damerion’s mouth gaped open in surprise, and Aurilianni glared at Brindel. Her glare quickly turned to a smirk as she spun and grabbed Damerion, bringing her head up to his and giving him a deep kiss on his still gaping mouth. At first he seemed horrified, but his eyes closed and he embraced Aurilianni. “That’s more like it!” exclaimed Brindel as he held his glass high. We all cheered and laughed, but I could see through Brindel’s cheery façade. Still, I decided to focus on the celebration at hand and enjoy the night. I am glad I did, because that would be the last night for a long time that any of us have reason to celebrate.