It was finally over. The last day of Academy began with a rather underwhelming and bleak summer morning.
After spending four long years at the Military Academy of the capital city Concordam, cadets were anxiously shivering with expectations for the Commander’s arrival; it was his decision that would sort them into specialized military branches and launch them into their new lives and careers.
While Eugenie sluggishly approached the classroom through a dim academy hallway, she couldn’t help but overhear the excited chatter of her classmates.
“Oh, I hope I go to the Navy! I submitted my preference form a day after the deadline.
Do you think they’ll still accept it?”
“I applied for covert ops!” exclaimed an annoying voice of an annoying classmate.
“You just proved that you’re too dumb for that,” someone reacted, and a burst of clamorous laughter followed.
Eugenie rested her back against the wall outside the classroom door. Waiting quietly all by herself for the chime to announce the beginning of the end. When it finally rang, she slung her bag, packed in accordance with the protocol for immediate transfer, over her shoulder and then headed into the classroom. It was easy to notice that the second she entered, the joyous murmur of the class notably faded.
Eugenie was odd.
She used to strike everyone’s attention by being decisively the tallest girl in the class with a wordless greeting of an unimpressed stare– eyes cold and grey like a stone. Her chestnut hair, slovenly laid to her shoulders, naturally rebellious fresh face and slender stature were still making people turn around, but it had been a long time since boys had dropped the attempts to impress her, and girls gave up on involving her in recess chat. Eugenie did not seem bothered. By nothing and no one. She could return compliments, but that idea never crossed her mind.
Days passed by without her saying a full sentence. Her whole image and emotionless behaviour that she had displayed steered her classmates to the conclusion that she was an incorrigible, arrogant bitch.
She waddled to her desk at the back of the room and collapsed unglamorously into the seat. Before classmates managed to revive the flow of the chat that Eugenie disrupted, the Commander of the Academy walked in. In a blink of an eye, the class stood in a rigid salute, greeting. Commander Vance Ewin, who had constantly smelled like an ashtray, was a remarkably vital man in his early seventies. Or unusually worn out in his mid-fifties. No one knew for sure. His age was the first military secret cadets came across.
“At ease, sit down,” he answered and casually slid his hands into pockets of his heavily decorated olive-green uniform.
“The time has come for cadets to follow their own paths to carry out the will of the motherland. As we all did. In the past years, while ya’ll have been training on the grounds of our Academy, your performances and physical and mental strengths were up for some evaluations.
Last month you were ordered to submit your preference forms! If there is a match between your skills and the General’s demand, your wish is likely to be granted. If the demand can’t accommodate you and your preference, don’t think we’ll send you home. You’ll be sorted into a branch that will utilize your existing skillset the best… Well, I bet ya’ll know the drill by now pretty well, so let’s move on to what everybody is waiting for.
I’m now going to hand out envelopes. Each envelope has a number inside. A respective military branch officer will come later, call a number, and if they call yours, you’ll follow, no questions asked. Until then, you’ll be quiet like a mouse. Instructions couldn’t be clearer.”
He didn’t wait for any response and barked the name of the first cadet in the alphabet:
Trissy Aikman was briskly on her feet and paced to the Commander confidently. There was no need to hesitate; they all had been through something similar before. She saluted. The Commander then shook her hand formally and passed the envelope to her. After that, she skittered to her desk to find her result. She raised four fingers in the direction of her besties, sitting across the aisle, to indicate which group she landed in.
Ingo Broft repeated the same protocol precisely.
“Dean!” Eugenie got minor heart failure when she heard her name. She stood up so rapidly that her chair tumbled on the floor with an ear-splitting clatter. Her face flushed red from embarrassment. Eugenie staggered as if she instinctively wanted to put it upright again, but she froze in motion. Fixing mess was not part of the envelope protocol. She overstepped the disaster on the floor and headed towards the Commander. The Commander rolled his eyes and nodded, albeit begrudgingly.
“Commander! An amazon is attempting to destroy the Academy properties!” Broft, now a successful navy candidate from Panumbreno, caused a boom of boisterous laughter.
“Broft! You think I can’t hear that damn racket? Well, I did, but did you hear my order to shut the hell up and wait? Maybe you want to run laps till your hearing gets better?” Commander Ewin growled back at him.
“No sir,” the classmate peeped, humbled.
Eugenie made it to the Commander and saluted with apologetic eyes, but the Commander’s capacity seemed to be completely spent by the correctness of the envelope ritual while simultaneously emitting his don’t-fuck-with-me vibes in Broft’s general direction. After Eugenie returned to her desk, she got her chair upright and hid her face away from the judging looks of her fellow classmates.
The Commander took only minutes to serve all the envelopes he had at hand.
“Respective officers will be in here shortly. Make us proud. Make yourselves count,” were the last words of advice they heard from the Commander before he left the religiously quiet classroom.
Eugenie opened the packet slightly. But she saw nothing. She pulled the paper out to see the other side. Empty. She flipped the page frantically and then inspected the inside of the envelope, utterly dumbfounded.
Eugenie was given a blank paper.
Every time a group of classmates left, her stomach clenched tighter and tighter. It did not take long for the classroom to get deserted. The thick aura of frustration, condensing slowly around Eugenie, became the only other entity to keep her company.
The blank paper’s gotta mean something. The Commander gave the order to shut up and sit. That means I can’t just leave yet, Eugenie assessed.
She did not know how to execute the white paper protocol, but she was as sure as sun that no cadet in the Academy of Concordam was meant to take any action against orders.
I’m getting kicked out of the Army, she concluded, breaking out into a cold sweat.
The dreary tension was making every tick of the clock drag like years. Eugenie was in quiet panic mode, mentally preparing for the possible outcomes of expulsion from the Army. The regime was not leaving many options to anyone, but Eugenie did not fear the prospects that unsuccessful cadets and students were haunted by.
It was the terrifying uncertainty of what would happen next that was curdling her blood.
On top of that, she was not even permitted to leave; an officer had to allow that first.
The Academy had emptied. Eugenie did not hear a single squeak in the hallway for a long while. Suddenly, the silence was shattered by an ear-splitting tire screech from outside. Her desk by the window allowed a little peek into the Academy’s backyard; Eugenie leaned in to quench her curiosity, fuelled by the boredom. She witnessed how an executive limo had parked in the middle of the backyard with almost dastardly disrespect to any kind of order. A distinct shape of an officer emerged from the driver seat and scooted across in an agitated rush.
Oh no, Eugenie thought. Nope. It’s not him. It’s NEVER him. He never visits the Academy. I wish that maybe someday, SOMEDAY, I’d get to meet General Everian. He’s a rockstar just by the rank, an Imperial… and his looks on top of that! She had been lost on a train of her gushing fangirl fantasies until steps in the hallway grew louder and disturbed Eugenie from her convenient daydreaming.
Gingerly, she glanced through the open door in the direction of the incoming noise and in that second, her heart stopped beating.
A man in his late twenties, of a tall, athletic stature, with a decorated army hat pressed against black hair, brushed into a fringe, was rushing through the corridor like a merciless tempest. Even if this was Eugenie’s first time to see a general in person, she could clearly recognize the sign of the Imperial family; a coral-red sash was peeking through his loosely unbuttoned, anthracite officer trench coat. And yes, he was carrying a long-hilted sword clipped to his belt.
There was no doubt left. General Alistar Everian was coming at her. A reflex immediately kicked Eugenie into a frenzied attention stance.
The handsome machine of authority charged into the empty classroom but quickly lost his momentum in front of the blackboard. Perhaps, he came to a shocking realization that it would be easier for him to navigate without his hat. The annoying visor of his General headpiece kept invading his line of sight constantly. He took it off, furrowed his thick eyebrows and pierced Eugenie with a fiercely stern gaze. Even across the classroom, Eugenie was snared by his frosty blue eyes.
“It is alright, Cadet. At ease,” he uttered coldly. A displeased grimace on the General’s face curved his lips and revealed his perfect, glistening teeth.
Eugenie felt like all her blood had decided to go on a strike, despite her heart’s insane efforts. She tumbled down to the seat like a pine tree defeated by a hurricane. General Everian paced to her, and with a swift move, he snatched a chair belonging to another desk and descended on it, right in front of Eugenie, with grace that would make a swan jealous. Eugenie panted for a breath and leaned away in a desperate attempt to increase the distance between them.
“Cadet, none of this is in my job description, and I have no time for this. Are you even at least aware of what could possibly bring me here?” He was not smiling. Nor graceful. His voice was so neutral that Eugenie could not tell if he was trying to comfort or intimidate her. She shook her head and turned her eyes down in a negative response. The General softly exhaled, and from his exasperated hand gesture, it was clear he was searching for words.
“Alright. Let me tell you the story from my end. On one fine evening, I am sitting in my Commanding centre, minding my own business. Nothing too important. As a Cordam General, I am only responsible for supplying military personnel into seven provinces.” Even though he was ranting, Eugenie could not help herself; all she could think of was how glorious General looked when he was doing that.
“That’s the core responsibility of Cordam. We produce soldiers, officers, clerks, lawyers, doctors, teachers and all this—” he waved his hand impatiently, “—to maintain public order in the Unity lands.” Eugenie nodded vigorously. The word he was missing was infrastructure, but she did not find the courage to suggest it.
“Then this fat piece of – Commander– waltzes in my Commanding centre and tells me: look, Alistar, I have one excellent cadet with a unique psychological profile, and I don’t know how to sort her after she graduates, which is roughly in 14 hours. Now you see, cadet, I got played like a banjo by that stinker because you can already deduce, he got me to visit the hellhole he runs to check on your sorting process,” he fired off his version so casually as if they were drinking buds. Eugenie pulled another weak apologetic face. When General noticed her reaction, his murderous drive faltered. He looked around erratically as if he was supposed to search for some hidden clue.
“Looking at you, I assume that you’re already guessing the cause of my presence. Can I see your envelope, please?” By the end of the sentence, he posed his hand in a demanding gesture to Eugenie. Even though he sounded calmer, saying no was not an option. Eugenie was shaking when she passed the envelope to the General. He pinched it with two fingers and inspected it against the light without any due. He scoffed at his findings.
“Cadet Dean, why did you not fill out your preference form? You would get sorted by your choice, I can guarantee that,” there was a negligible hint of curiosity in his tone.
“I didn’t like any of the options, sir,” she replied bluntly. Immediately, she regretted not thinking her answer through.
“And what would be to your liking then?” he fired back at her. This time she was ready with an answer. She had spent years waiting for someone to ask her this question.
“I’d like to be Emperor’s personal guard, sir!” Eugenie spouted proudly.
Although General Everian was a seasoned professional in his trade, he lost his face in front of her again. This time, he was genuinely baffled.
“Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? Imagine as if I, when sitting here ten years ago, said: I wanna be a General, but there is no box to tick in your form, so piss off.”
Eugenie just kept her eyes low; no military officer was ever in the mood for delusions of grandeur.
“No wonder you couldn’t find a match in the preference form. Are you even aware that the Emperor has no dedicated military personnel?”
“Yes, I know, sir. That is why I submitted an incomplete preference form. No matter what I’ll get sorted into, it will be a disappointing result.” The General could no longer maintain his ironclad composure, and his face got tainted with an amused grin.
“Why the Emperor? Why not… me, for example?” he acted frisky.
“Ignore that question, Cadet,” he waved it away the second he noticed that Eugenie was violently blushing.