Sitting at a table before the review committee, Ken and Rett exuded quiet, respectful confidence. They had answered all the questions promptly, correctly, and their skills were legendary. Everyone on the committee was familiar with their story: the orphaned boys of extraordinary power who had grown up in Arion Valley. Arete had unofficially started their training shortly after Ken’s fourteenth birthday, and both officially joined Dawn’s Light the day after he turned eighteen. They both sailed through recruit and commander training programs in record time.
The committee members seemed even more impressed with their responses than their progress. The boys were confident by the end of the review session they would be approved for Commander Testing. There was one final formality — a report from their trainer. Arete rose from her seat to address the review panel.
“From the time I brought Everett Sparks to Arion eight years ago, I knew he would be one of the greatest assets Dawn’s Light has ever known,” the paladin began. “Amazingly, not long after, we received reports of another incredibly powerful child and Dawn’s Light was fortunate to bring in Kenneth Gage. In our history we have never seen two such remarkably skilled individuals — creative young men who are fully dedicated to our cause.
“In their years of training they have been dutiful students and have consistently dedicated themselves to meeting every challenge put before them. Together they make a nearly unbeatable team. I can think of no other individuals amongst our ranks whom I would rather have at my back in the field.” She paused and took a breath. “All that said, I cannot recommend they be allowed to take the Commander Test at this time.”
There was an audible intake of breath from the committee. Eyebrows shot for hairlines. Eyes turned to the young men seated at the table next to Arete. They were obviously surprised — wounded — at her assessment, but maintained their respectful demeanor through their disappointment.
“With your glowing report of their abilities, Paladin Arete, why do you believe they are not ready for Commander Testing?” The committee members looked back to Arete.
The paladin refrained from looking at her students as she replied. “While they are exceptional members of Dawn’s Light on their own or together, neither holds the temperament to uphold the command aspect that is inherent to being a Commander. They need more time.”
“Lieutenants Sparks and Gage, do you wish to respond to Paladin Arete’s assessment?”
Ken and Rett exchanged glances. Rett gave Ken a slight nod and they both rose to their feet. “We respect Paladin Arete’s assessment of our abilities.” Ken’s voice was tight with controlled disappointment. “In light of her words, we would like to withdraw our petition to test.”
“Lieutenant Sparks, do you concur?”
Rett nodded. “I do,” he confirmed. “Thank you for your time and consideration.”
◊ ◊ ◊
“Hey guys!” Meli bounded up to Ken and Rett in the garden that had now become their regular hangout. She gave Rett a quick peck on the lips and her cheerful, expectant smile faded. “Uh-oh… Things not go well?” She frowned with concern at their subdued attitudes.
“Arete wouldn’t support our petition,” Ken replied sourly. “She said we were really skilled, great students, would want us with her in the field, but that we aren’t ready to be commanders yet.”
“What I don’t understand,” Rett chimed in, “is why she didn’t say something to us before we petitioned for testing? Why let us go through the process if she wasn’t going to support us?”
Meli pursed her lips. “If she’d told you ahead of time that she didn’t think you were ready, what would you have done? I mean, I love you, Rett — and Ken, you know I think you’re wonderful — but neither of you are the kind to take no for an answer.”
Ken frowned in confusion. “Isn’t that usually a good thing?”
Meli flashed him a gentle smile. “Usually. But when you two are promoted you’re going to responsible for others who won’t be able to do the things you two can do. And being younger than most of them, you’re going to have to prove you are worthy of respect not for your magic, but for how to handle your team. Sometimes you have to accept no when it’s for the good of others.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Arete had been dreading this day from the moment Ken and Rett told her they wanted to petition for Commander Testing. She knew what she had to do, and she knew the boys would be crushed. But so too, she knew there was more at stake than their feelings. They didn’t say anything to her after the review meeting was adjourned — they just gave her slight nods of acknowledgment before exiting the room. She knew they needed time to get over it. She needed time as well, and so she made her way to the Sanctuary to meditate and regain her focus.
Her meditations complete, she stepped through the Sanctuary doors to find Ken and Rett still in their uniforms and waiting for her in the hallway. She didn’t try to hide her surprise. “My keen powers of deduction tell me you wish to speak with me.”
Both chuckled, and Ken spoke up. “We wanted to talk with you about the hearing.” Arete nodded and the young man continued. “It was hard for us to hear your assessment, but we realize that it couldn’t have been easy for you, either.”
“Neither of us would be here if not for you,” Rett said. “You stuck by both of us the entire time. I know I didn’t make things easy on you but you’ve never let either of us down. So if you don’t think we’re ready, we aren’t ready.”
Arete studied them both, her expression inscrutable. She nodded slightly, a hint of pride in her eyes. Then corner of her lips ticked up slightly. “You talked with Meli, didn’t you?”
The young men both laughed. “Yes,” Rett admitted. “She pointed out that if you had warned us ahead that you wouldn’t support our petition, then we would have found some way around it anyways.”
“We know you wouldn’t hold us back without reason.” Ken chimed in. “But she was right that our pride would have viewed it as a challenge to conquer instead of really considering your reasons.”
Arete laughed. “I like that girl. Speaking of… I imagine her work day has ended. You two go on, give her my thanks, and enjoy your evening. Training resumes tomorrow and I promise I won’t go easy on you.”
The lift doors opened and Ken stepped inside, but Rett hesitated. He turned back to Arete and gave her a big hug. “I love you, Mom. I promise, we’ll make you proud.” He stepped back and joined Ken in the lift.
“You already do,” she replied as the doors closed.