For the third time in as many hours, Storm Stunner found himself turning over his job description and finding it dishearteningly unambiguous.
To Protect and To Serve Equestria. A can of worms that sounded nice on the tin.
The guardspony was positive that he wasn't protecting anypony; if anything, what he was being forced to do would have been considered by most ponies of any aesthetic sensibility no less than a visual form of assault. As far as he was concerned, defacing a wing of Canterlot Castle as he was should have been considered an act of vandalism, even if it was under royal orders. But then, that was the rub, wasn’t it? Words four and five, and the narcissistic brat that was taking advantage of them.
Storm pondered. It might be unprecedented, but perhaps he could arrest himself for the act, lock himself in the brig. He smiled wistfully. It wouldn’t be so bad: upwards of three square meals a day, the robust musk of dungeon air, and most importantly of all, silence, sweet silence. No obnoxious, grating—
Storm was wrenched from his reverie and thrown headfirst into darker thoughts by the clearing of Blueblood's throat. No doubt dynasticide would earn him time in that jail cell.
Or maybe a medal.
“Although I'm sure seizing into a rigor is a matter of practice given the typical duties of you and your lot, I shouldn't need remind you that you have other tasks at hoof. Namely, the preparation of my exhibit, preferably some time this decade?” The prince raised his snout in the air, if only to better look down it at the pegasus guard.
Storm pushed his grim musings to a black corner of his mind for future perusal and turned to face Blueblood, replying, “Pardon me... sir.” The 'sir' managed to scramble from Storm's lips just letters ahead of racier locution. “But unless I'm mistaken, your pictures have all been hung. Multiple times, in fact, in multiple locations. So with all due respect,” and there’s not much of that, he thought to himself, “I ask that you allow me to take my leave.”
Storm glared at Blueblood and Blueblood stared back, an eyebrow arched in impassive expectation. The guardspony's lips trembled and his jaw clenched.
“...Sir.” The word, exhausted, collapsed into little more than a hiss with an ‘r’ tacked on the end.
Blueblood at that moment noticed the frustration evident on the guardspony’s face and, taking pity on the poor buffoon, decided to offer some words of encouragement. He couldn’t have the help sulking when things needed to be done.
“Come now, come now, just giving up won't do at all!” the prince said with a sort of supercilious smile that, while not infectious, made Storm feel ill. “I understand that the subtle nuances of artistic presentation might be difficult to grasp when confronted with perfection, but you should view this task for what it is: I am gracing you with a learning opportunity. I imagine most ponies would leap at such a chance.”
Off of a bell tower, Storm left unsaid. He had left a lot unsaid.
When the guardspony had been unwittingly corralled into assembling Prince Blueblood's exhibit, one with the uninspired title “The Beauty in Nature,” he had immediately formed certain expectations about the subject matter: washed-out sunsets, oversaturated flower petal close-ups, plenty of sepia and black and white, and other amateurish, photographic faux pas. This was due to a mistaken presumption about what the prince considered beautiful, and that it might be plural.
So it was that Storm found himself hanging blown-up images of unicorn-shaped shadows, along with shots of still pools of water and other reflective surfaces, each and every one framed in ornate and, more importantly to the pegasus, heavy gold trimmings which outvalued their contents in artistic merit by far. It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words; a second look convinced Storm that the bulk of them should be prefaced by a parental advisory. Returning his attention to the prince, he was met by a slight frown.
“You know, at the receipt of an auspice, it is recognized as proper etiquette to express one's gratitude,” Blueblood spoke in proud, even, officious tones, which just happened to be at the resonant frequency of Storm’s temper. It cracked like an egg.
“You want me to thank you?!” Storm had had it; apprehension, decorum, and consequences be damned, maybe he’d get a dungeon cell with a view. Blueblood was going to bloody well get a piece of his mind; specifically, the one with all the blacked over sections. “You–“
But then… judgment never really stays clouded for long, no matter how dark the thunderheads. Storm recognized the consequences of loosing the verbal vanguard at the tip of his tongue, and grudgingly decided against it. It was a rational decision, and it was that rationality that then made him feel like a coward. However, before Storm could lament his discretion, salvation chose that moment to swagger through the gallery doors, clad in gilded plate.
Corporal Kickstart gave an affable salute.
“Sup, buddy, been lookin' all over for—” Kickstart paused at his sudden surroundings, an eyebrow making a slow climb as he scanned from one end of Blueblood's exhibition to the other. After a pregnant silence, he managed to vocalize his impression.
“Huh. That’s uh… it’s… Whoa.”
It was the nicest thing he could have said.
Recovering, he waved over Storm, who moved to join him perhaps a bit too eagerly. “Come on, the Staff Sarge wants to run everypony through a training sesh. We probably oughta get over there before she decides to use us for target practice.”
“Anything beats the alternative.” Storm grimaced.
As the two pegasi made their way towards the doors, they were stopped by the sound of Blueblood clearing his throat. Storm twitched.
“Now hold on just one moment!” Blueblood demanded, stepping towards the two guards, a cool glint in ice colored eyes. “This soldier is currently assisting me in the preparation of my grand showing, and I will brook no interruption!”
Kickstart looked back over a shoulder and took the exhibit in once more. “I really wouldn’t sweat it, dude. I really don't, uh, see much room for improvement. Maybe Celly will put one of your pictures up on the fridge or somethin'?”
“Dude?! Celly?! How dare you! Do you not realize whom you are addressing?!”
“Oh most def, PBB, you're the prince. The prince of—” Kickstart tried to think of what it was that the prince involved himself in. “—diamonds?”
“BB?!” The white prince was quickly turning into a red one, which only made Kickstart think that he had gotten it right. “You will address me as Sir, or as Prince Blueblood, and by no other simple-minded sobriquet. You would do well to remember who I am, and what my ire would mean for you.”
“Huh, I’ll keep that in mind. But fair’s fair, so I gotta ask: what about us, do you know who we are? Particularly, do you know who my buddy here is, and what he pulled off a couple of months back?”
“I, in fact, do not, and I don't see why it is of any particular importance; I don’t see how one could be expected to keep track of the doings of each of you doppelgangers. Your little friend did no less than his job, I should hope, as he was doing before your interruption.”
“Heh, oh yeah, he did it in spades; guy’s got the heart of a lion.” Kickstart grinned. “Anyways, that was more or less the answer I was countin’ on. Catch ya later, BB,” he finished with a wink.
In the moment it took for Prince Blueblood to overcome his apoplexy at the guard’s audacity, the two pegasi had already exited the gallery. That didn’t stop him from rushing into the exterior hall, screaming into the empty space, “Return here at once and give me your names, so that I can have you jailed!”
“How do you do it?” Storm asked, peering back in the direction of the affronted prince's caterwauling.
“Hmm?” Kickstart gave the other pegasus a sidelong glance as the pair trotted towards the castle courtyard. “Do what now?”
“Behave without fear of consequences or comeuppance.”
“Oh, hah, that's easy! Trial and error. You get a knack for what buttons you can push.”
“Fair enough, I guess,” Storm conceded. Deciding to change the subject, he asked, “So, what does the Staff Sergeant have in mind for today?”
“Well to start, apparently she's giving Cacopony the chance to run everypony through some emergency drill he dreamed up. Couldn't tell you much more than that.”
Storm sighed. “I’m sure I’ll hear plenty once we get there...”
After the interdimensional incident that had threatened Canterlot earlier in the year, the Equestrian Royal Guard had been forced to reevaluate its efficacy during moments of crisis.
It was true that one of their own had saved the day; many of Canterlot’s papers had written all about Storm Stagger’s act of heroism (in its rush to cover the story, the first paper to report it had gotten his name wrong, and it had spread like spilled ink across the other news agencies).
Yet, although the Guard had been instrumental in quickly resolving the emergency, they had to admit that it was luck that had put Storm in the right place at the right time, rather than any adroitness in planning. The fact of the matter was, when a problem arose outside of their daily, ceremonial duties, the Royal Guard tended to fall back on a singular, atavistic response.
They jumped at it.
Furthermore, these charges were often performed with a skewed sense of discretion. How a possessed moon goddess ranked as a more viable target than some wayward cloud at a young fliers’ competition had often come up as a subject of discussion over many a late night donut. Upon reflecting on their course of action on that day those months back, nopony could claim that the act of sending each guardspony to random sections of the city was anything other than another uncoordinated leap. They would have just as well each put on blindfolds and thrown darts at a map of the city.
So the Guard, a vestige of perhaps a more tumultuous time in history, had concluded that they needed to increase their crisis readiness.
Of course, everypony had their own ideas about the best way to go about doing so.
Corporal Kickstart and Storm Stunner stepped into the fresh air of the castle courtyard to find a crowd of guardsponies gathered around a wide, slate chalkboard that was under attack. With a mad glint in his eye and gypsum coating his lips, Sergeant Cacopony gouged the black slab with a stick of chalk clenched between his teeth, leaving thick, white scars that no eraser could ever hope to remove.
Catching movement at the edge of the spectacle, Storm spotted a familiar unicorn mare approaching the tardy duo, amber death peeking out between two narrowed lids. Storm kept his cool; the glare on the Staff Sergeant's face was an affection reserved for the Corporal. She may as well have waved.
That’d be 'I’m glad you could finally make it.' in the language shared between the two.
“I gave you two hours to retrieve the Sergeant, and you still managed to arrive forty-five minutes late.”
“Hey, cut me some slack.” Kickstart held two hooves in the air in placation, balancing himself in place with a flapping of his wings. “I thought I made pretty good time, actually. You know, relatively speaking.”
Placing his hooves back down, a winsome look crossed his face. “In fact… you know, if you take Daylight Savings into account, I think we're actually fifteen minutes early.” The pegasus punctuated this argument with a wink and a grin: two easy strikes when addressing the Staff Sergeant.
“Daylight Savings isn't for a month,” she growled.
“Hmm, well that just means we're even earlier than I thought, doesn't it?” Kickstart waggled his eyebrows, earning strike three.
The Staff Sergeant said no more, electing actions over words. She took hold of the Corporal's ear in a dull glow and proceeded to drag him bodily towards the rest of the guardsponies. This caused Kickstart to say plenty of things, though very few of them were intelligible, and most of them high-pitched. Storm wisely said nothing at all, and followed a few yards behind the two, though he wondered if, among the buttons the Corporal opted to push, the off-switch ever received any consideration.
Near the center of the group, Storm spotted Crack Shot and Check Mate, two ponies he had grown quite close to in the Guard, and took a spot between them. Check Mate smiled in greeting before returning his attention to Sergeant Cacopony, the unicorn being ever mindful of decorum. Crack Shot of course had no qualms with making conversation.
“Heya dude, glad to see you could make it!” The pegasus bumped Storm on the shoulder. “You’ve missed one heck of a show so far.”
“Yeah, well maybe if somepony hadn't left me alone to foalsit His Royal Highness,” Storm said under his breath.
“Pssh, you shoulda just followed my lead, dude.”
When Prince Blueblood had happened across Storm Stunner and Crack Shot on patrol and demanded that the two assist him in a matter of national interest, the latter's response had been immediate. He didn't falter, balk, or utter a word of complaint.
He had simply turned in the opposite direction and flown away.
“Well, I couldn't just turn down a royal order, even if it did come from a royal pain,” Storm said, causing Crack Shot to wince at this mistreatment of humor.
“That’s probably not a good way of thinkin’ for this line of work.”
Cacopony's violence against the chalkboard was stalled when he accidentally bit through his piece of chalk, adding to a small pile accumulating around his hooves, and causing him to gag on a piece that lodged itself in his throat.
“FUBAR PIECE OF HORSE APPLES!” he spat, filling the air in front of him with a thin cloud of pale dust. As it cleared, carried away on a tranquil breeze that was dreadfully out of place before him, he had the opportunity to assess the carnage he had wrought. Scrutinizing his work and apparently satisfied by the damage, he gave a curt nod of approval. “WELL THIS OUGHTA BE ENOUGH TO AT LEAST GET US STARTED.”
Among the other guardsponies, Cacopony noticed Corporal Kickstart and the Staff Sergeant, the former wincing as he rubbed a reddened ear. The latter nodded towards the burly pegasus, who gave a sharp salute in response.
“EVERYPONY PRESENT AND ACCOUNTED FOR, MA'AM?”
“Yes, Sergeant. You may continue your instruction.”
“ALRIGHT, LOOK ALIVE AND PAY ATTENTION, BECAUSE WHAT WE PRACTICE TODAY MAY VERY WELL SAVE YOUR LIVES, YOU TOADS!” Cacopony slammed a hoof against the chalkboard, sending a fracture running down its center.
Storm briefly noted the batrachian promotion and quickly studied the Sergeant's scrawlings. Random geometric shapes, symbols, swirls, and sigils populated the dusty board with no pretense of order. Arrows twisted and turned between each other, terminating only when they ran out of slate. Sections were crossed out, written over, and then struck through once more.
Eyebrows came alive in fits and furrows in the courtyard as the guardsponies tried to decipher the cryptic jumble. The ponies assumed they themselves had some representation on the board, but couldn’t tell if they were the ‘X’s, the ‘O’s, or any of the letters in between.
“Yo, Check, translation?” Crack Shot asked.
With eyes fixed forward, Check Mate slowly shook his head.
“NOW THE CANTERLOT METROPOLITAN ZOO APPARENTLY DOESN’T KEEP COCKATRICES ON THE PREMISES. SOMETHING ABOUT KEEPING TOO MANY PATRONS AWAY; OR KEEPING TOO MANY AROUND, I DIDN’T QUITE CATCH WHICH—”
As he spoke, the Sergeant tapped a crudely drawn ‘S’ terminating in what must have been a triangular beak. A small scratch was made into the surface of the puzzle, revealing a layer of bedrock underneath.
“SO WE’RE GONNA HAVE TO IMPROVISE. FEATHERSTEP—”
The pegasus named Featherstep started upon being named. “S-Sir?”
“—YOU’RE OUR COCKATRICE. BLINKER—” Cacopony thrust a hoof towards a unicorn who reacted as if it were the tip of a dagger. “—YOU’RE THE MANTICORE.”
“Err, alright, sir…” Blinker paused. “Um, which one’s the manticore, sir?”
“IS YOUR HELMET TOO TIGHT, SOLDIER?! USE YOUR EYES!” Cacopony jabbed a character in the middle of the board. “‘M’ FOR MANTICORE. NOTE THE POINTY SCORPION JABBER ON THE END.”
“Er, about that, sir. I do believe that’s Scorpio, sir,” Blinker pressed with a courageous, if ill-advised honesty.
“THEN WHY IS IT AN ‘M’, YOU ROACH?!”
With a demotion back down to the arthropods and hoping to remain a eukaryote, Blinker attempted to nudge the conversation in a new direction. “Sorry, sir. It’s just that there’s another ‘M’ near one end of the board, sir. The one without the tail, sir?”
“AH,” Cacopony barked, squinting viciously at the character in question. “THAT ONE STANDS FOR ‘ME’, GETTING THE JUMP ON THE ENEMY!”
The world tilted for the guardsponies as they cocked their heads from one side to the other, allowing the Sergeant’s words to filter into the logic centers of their brains and contentedly drop out the other side. It wasn’t that they pictured the Sergeant incapable of stealth, they just couldn’t imagine him doing so for any meaningful length of time. The moment he opened his mouth, the element of surprise would oxidize.
“Thank you, Sergeant, but I think it would best if I took it from here.” The Staff Sergeant stepped forward, and the guardsponies sighed in relief, thankful to have avoided addition to Cacopony’s bestiary.
“WAS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE REGIMEN, MA’AM?” Cacopony, ever the consummate soldier, maintained a neutral countenance. However, a pony would have to have been wearing blinders to miss the blow to his pride.
“Hmm…” The Staff Sergeant weighed her words, feeling out ones light enough as to not leave too large a bruise on Cacopony’s ego. “It is… too ambitious, Sergeant. Although there are many situations that may occur and thus warrant preparation, for effective training it would be best to assume they won’t all occur at once. Revise your program so that we aren’t left with more than half our ponies as anything other than ponies, and we may attempt it again.”
The Staff Sergeant turned towards the main body of guardsponies. “Alright, listen up. We may not be following our original course of action, but do not for a second think that I am going to let an opportunity for training go to waste. Is that clear, soldiers?!”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” answered the singular voice of the guardsponies. Although the Staff Sergeant could be a slave driver, she always drove them towards some purpose, some tenable goal, rather than just spinning their wheels. They would follow her to the Gates of Hell.
“I received an excellent suggestion from Sergeant Check Mate regarding the utilization of each of our number, and now appears to be a good time to attempt it. To be truly efficient as a unit, we must be aware of just what we have to offer. Sergeant Cacopony has successfully demonstrated this.”
Cacopony, who had no problem with a criticism if it was shaped like a compliment, nodded brusquely.
“Sergeant Check Mate.” The Staff Sergeant fixed the unicorn with a level stare, a leveling stare. “As it was your suggestion, I will ask you to take the reins in this exercise. Not only will doing so allow for us to participate according to its original conception, it will give me an opportunity to assess your ability as a leader. Are you comfortable with this assignment?”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” Check Mate’s voice was calm and unwavering as he answered, but Storm Stunner could have sworn he saw his throat bob.
“Excellent. You may begin your instruction as you see fit, Sergeant.” The Staff Sergeant joined the rest of the guardsponies, most of whom were watching Check Mate with interest. Taking a spot beside Corporal Kickstart, she effectively signaled for him to begin.
Storm Stunner was surprised to receive a pat on the shoulder from Crack Shot, who simply requested that he 'Pass it on.' With a chuckle, Storm Stunner relayed the gesture along with his own whisper of encouragement to his friend. Check Mate mouthed his thanks to the two of them, took a deep breath, and moved towards the center of the bow of ponies.
“Thank you for this opportunity, Staff Sergeant; I shall endeavor not to disappoint,” Check Mate began. He took a good look at his cohort, all of whom were of course looking at him, and tried to keep his nerves down. It was as effective as trying to submerge a blimp.
“I shall try to be as succinct as possible; as the Staff Sergeant has noted, I hypothesize that a means of increasing our efficacy lies within our individuality.” The words began pouring out, conscious of the fact that there were quite a lot of them and they only had a single breath to share between them.
“It is paramount to bear in mind that despite the homogeneity of our appearances, appearance is only coat-deep, and we are, each and every one of us, ultimately sui generis, protean in terms of skill and ability. Through careful consideration and unification of our respective aptitudes, I believe that we may produce a gestalt, one capable of handling any asperity. ArethereanyquestionsaboutwhatI’veproposedasitstands?”
The only sound to be heard at that moment would have been Check Mate failing not to hyperventilate, and the metaphorical pinging as mental gears spun and, subsequently, overheated as the guardsponies attempted the daunting task of parsing speech that would have stumped many of them at a normal cadence.
“…Sooo what you’re saying is that we need to be more charitable?” hazarded one of the pegasi.
One of the unicorns hopped aboard this train of thought as it barreled off the tracks. “That’s a nice idea, but it seems kinda unrelated to the topic at hoof. Also, what’s that about protein?“
As a murmur built among the guardsponies, Crack Shot and Storm Stunner made a show of mouthing, ‘CALM. DOWN. RE-LAX.’ Check Mate took another deep breath, keeping an eye on his two closest friends in the group; the blimp leadened just a bit.
“Er, in other words,” Check Mate interjected, much more paced on the second attempt, “each of us has a special talent, but I do not believe we’ve made much effort to address them. If we were to do so, it is my belief that we would have a better idea of which pony or ponies would be best for a given task.”
“Ohhhh,” said the guardsponies.
“Since I make this request of you all, it would only be fair for me to begin. For those of you unfamiliar with me, mine is a perspicacity of sorts; it is my hope and my belief that it will prove useful in this exercise.
“So shall we start at one end and continue down our number?” Crack Shot nodded to the unicorn at the east edge of the group. “Sender, correct? Would you be so kind as to share your talent?”
“Oh wicked! I’ll bet he can summon flames or something sick like that!” was heard from within the ranks.
“Um, sorry, no actually,” Sender said. “That’s ‘Sender’ with an ‘S-e’.” He rolled his eyes at the disappointed grunt that got in response. “I guess you could say I’m pretty good at moving things. If I’ve got an item and a familiar destination in mind, I can zap it over with pretty reliable accuracy.”
“A talent like that would be invaluable for the movement of supplies,” noted Check Mate. He nodded to the pegasus next to Sender. “Featherstep?”
“Hm, you could say furtiveness. I can be a pretty stealthy guy.”
“Surreption may prevail where force would fail,” Check Mate added, feeling more and more of his nervousness disappear. Looking at the next pony, he wondered if it hadn’t just switched places. The unicorn was shuffling his hooves and staring at the ground so fiercely the grass might have withered. “Ikebana, is something troubling you?” Check Mate asked.
“No—err, well, kinda. Can I pass?” Ikebana did not look up when he answered, and Sender and Featherstep looked a bit uneasy. The pegasus whispered something, too quiet for Check Mate to hear, but he didn’t need sound to guess the gist of what was said. Ikebana shook his head quickly in response.
“Well… possibly. But first may I ask if there is a particular reason why?” Check Mate spoke softly, slowly. When Ikebana didn’t answer, he continued. “I shall begin with some other questions then; they may seem tangential, but I feel they will prove relevant. First, I’d like to ask if you are free of regrets, having become a member of the Royal Guard.”
Check Mate nodded.
“And you joined with the aim of serving Equestria, correct?”
“Why else would I?”
Check Mate appeared to ponder on this.
“So it wasn’t out of a base desire for some glittering raiment and vain entitlement to glory?”
“What?! Of course not!” Ikebana’s eyes snapped forward; his reticence was gone, replaced by a defiant crease in his brow.
“You’ve proven your ability and resolve, not only in the gauntlet preceding your induction, but through punctiliousness in the days beyond,” Check Mate stated, abandoning the pretense of inquiry.
“You’re damn right!” Ikebana paused to decompose Check Mate's statement. “Uh, I think.”
Check Mate pushed on. “Well then. What we have done is establish your validity as a Royal Guardspony, in nobility of character and strength of will and body.” He smiled.
“Now then, will you share with us your special, but by no means your only talent?”
The crease in Ikebana’s brow didn’t soften, but the corners of his lips bent upward. “Heh, alright… I give. It’s floral arrangement.”
A cough came from the ranks and Ikebana’s head whipped around like a pit viper’s.
“Somepony got a problem with that?!”
“And about floral arrangement,” Check Mate said, retaking Ikebana’s attention. “That requires an intimate knowledge of all manner of plant species, does it not?”
“Yeah… I suppose it does,” Ikebana answered, waiting to see where Check Mate was going.
“Would that knowledge include edibility? Medicinal effects? Toxicity?”
“Oh definitely! For example, there are some awesome looking species of belladonna, but you wouldn’t want to take a bite out of one.” Ikebana’s expression brightened as the conversation moved into familiar and verdant territory.
“Such acumen would undoubtedly be invaluable in the field. Thank you for your candor, Ikebana. I am glad that we have you.”
Beneath his dark pelt, Ikebana’s cheeks reddened lightly, imperceptibly, but they reddened nevertheless. “Heh, uh, sure thing,” he said.
For the hour or so to follow, Check Mate worked through the ranks, having the guardsponies explain their abilities in turn. The activity proved to be informative for those ponies who gave it their full attention. Those ponies could be counted on one’s front hooves. The Staff Sergeant and Check Mate made their own mental lists of each pony's talents, categorizing each and considering potential combinations. Almost all of the other guardsponies noted those that preceded, but only briefly. There was the more pressing task at hoof of avoiding the stammers, sputters, slips, and slobbers concomitant with speaking when all other eyes were watching. Ponies like Crack Shot watched the clouds scudding across the sky and mused on how something as simple as a cough could set a pony off like a Roman candle. Still, this inattention was expected and of little concern to Check Mate; the ponies would be building familiarity with each other soon enough.
Eventually there were only three ponies left.
Most of the ponies didn’t think it would be necessary for Sergeant Cacopony to share his talent. They felt they had heard it all before, in a manner of speaking.
Nevertheless, Check Mate insisted.
“THROWING MY VOICE.”
“What, you mean like a javel— mmph?!” Corporal Kickstart was cut off, finding himself struggling against the tight coil of magic sealing his mouth shut. The Staff Sergeant nodded to Check Mate to continue.
“Er, um, yes,” Check Mate said, trying to ignore the sight of the flailing Kickstart and failing miserably. “So yours is a talent for ventriloquism?” he asked of Cacopony.
“NEGATIVE. NEVER REALLY WAS INTO PLAYING WITH DOLLS.”
“Hmm… well then, would you care to demonstrate?”
Sergeant Cacopony took a deep breath in and the rest of the guardsponies braced themselves.
The bark sounded like Cacopony’s; that much was unmistakable. But it didn’t sound like it came from his mouth. It thundered in from the periphery of the courtyard, like an echo that had decided to skip a step.
“Well, that’s… that’s actually rather remarkable,” said Check Mate, considering what he had just witnessed. “Such a feat is usually nothing more than a clever manipulation of the audience’s sensory perception, a modulation in intonation if you will. But there was something more than just a ruse in the case of your voice though, wasn’t there?”
“YEAH. I THREW IT.” Sergeant Cacopony didn’t get what had been wrong with his explanation the first time around. He took a moment to think about it.
“I MAKE SURE TO EXERCISE MY VOCAL CORDS,” he added helpfully.
Check Mate became keenly aware of the time sink this circuitous line of discussion threatened to funnel into, and chose to step away from the edge.
“Thank you, Sergeant, you’ve given us much to consider. That will be all for now.”
Cacopony gave a hard salute, and Check Mate turned to the penultimate pony of his survey. The Staff Sergeant released her magical grip on Corporal Kickstart’s snout.
“Ahh, jeez.” He massaged his jaw with a hoof. “Are you trying to choke a guy out or something?”
The Staff Sergeant’s horn flickered menacingly, and Kickstart’s mouth snapped shut of its own accord.
“Corporal Kickstart,” Check Mate began after the two had had their moment, “what ability of yours would you say distinguishes you?”
“Hmm, you mean besides my roguish charm…?”
Kickstart placed a hoof to his chin and gave the appearance of contemplation, before speaking once more and killing the illusion.
“I can fly.”
The pegasi of the Royal Guard gave the Corporal’s wings a good look. They looked over their shoulders and made a comparison. They waited for him to continue.
“Is… there more to it than that?” Check Mate asked.
“Hm. I can fly good. Well. I can fly well.”
“Err, right. Well then, as with Sergeant Cacopony, may I trouble you for a display?”
“No sweat, bud!” Kickstart grinned, flaring his wings and digging his hooves into the earth. “All you had to do was ask!” followed, but nopony heard it. The words were lost in a thunderclap as the Corporal launched himself skyward with a fierce kick and tremendous downstroke of his wings, trailing bits of courtyard turf from his hooves and leaving a pocket of vacuum for the air to scramble into in his wake. The Corporal darted overhead wildly, rolling into sharp, impossible turns, and tracing a chaotic latticework of gold and white across the sky with a fusillade of cracks.
In the scramble of thoughts struggling for regency at the display, between the big contenders like shock, amusement, and a bit of envy, the pragmatic part of Storm wondered how the Corporal could possibly be so unerringly late to everything. It was the sort of inveterate lateness one could set their watch to.
Finally, Kickstart began his descent, circling downwards in a lazy gyre that looked much more suited to his personality. Landing between the Staff Sergeant and Cacopony, he had to blink away the beads of perspiration rolling out from under his champron.
“Alright, uh… maybe a bit of sweat hehe…” he said after pausing to catch his breath.
“A most impressive display, Corporal,” Check Mate noted. “I’m surprised that with such celerity you hadn’t elected to join the Wonderbolts instead.”
“Those guys? Nah, no way. A group like that is way too disciplined,” Kickstart said without a hint of irony.
“…That’s… a point,” Check Mate conceded. The argument did have all the dimensions of one.
“In any case, let us continue. Staff Sergeant”—Check Mate found her observing him, her eyes impossible even for him to read. He swallowed his nervousness and soldiered on—“You are the last of us. If you would?”
“Thank you, Sergeant.” The Staff Sergeant stepped forward, her voice rising like an empire. “But first: each of you has had a taste of my training methodology on multiple occasions. More than enough to form an opinion of it. There is no doubt in my mind that many, most, if not all of you have found it difficult.”
There were a number of tentative nods.
“I am positive that many of you have come to see me as a slave driver.”
No nods, but plenty of guilty looks which were answer enough. The Staff Sergeant smirked in spite of herself.
“So then, let me ask each of you this: this methodology which has been difficult, exhausting, and aggravating; has it ever been impossible?”
To varying degrees the guardsponies shook their heads.
“And that is it.” The Staff Sergeant’s eyes swept over each soldier. They were strong, able-bodied ponies; she had seen to that. “I’m a perfectionist. I want to see each of you performing at your peak. Now then, Sergeant, please continue your instruction.” The Staff Sergeant returned command as easily as she had taken it.
“Yes, Ma’am. Very well then, everypony, from here we are going to separate into groups of three.”
Starting with the Staff Sergeant, Check Mate had the guardsponies begin counting off into triads; the ponies had lined up with close friends at the start of the day’s training, so unfamiliarity in the groupings was assured. This was where the real exercise would begin. A pastiche of proficiencies and personalities had been laid out: a fulsome heterogeneity hidden under the Guard’s misleading, coat-thin binary of slate and white.
Now it was time to put it all together; or rather, to have them put it all together. Check Mate wouldn’t do much for the groups at this point, and felt rather that it would be best if he allowed them the heuristics. Each pony knew their own abilities, and it would be to their benefit to see how they would work with others.
Check Mate joined the remaining pair, Sender and Peony (a unicorn with an actual talent for pyrotechnics, ironically enough), and began the tricky mathematical magic of trying to sum their talents to something greater than three.
High above the courtyard, Kickstart, Crack Shot, and a newer recruit by the name of Rosetta had spent the better part of the training period warming up by the Corporal’s definition. The Corporal’s definition of warming up was finding a large, downy cushion of cumulus and taking in the sun. The more enterprising soldier could choose to turn over every few minutes. Down below, the rest of the guardsponies were so preoccupied with their own tasks that none of them had noticed when the three of them had disappeared.
Single-minded focus was a wonderful thing when it happened to other ponies.
Crack Shot relished the opportunity to get off of his hooves, and Rosetta was too amused by the situation to comment on it; as the two senior officers chatted, she contented herself to listen. If orders were to kick back, well, she wasn’t about to complain.
“How’d you end up in the Guard, anyways?” Crack Shot asked, watching the ponies from over the edge of the cloud.
“What do ya mean?”
“Eh, I was thinkin’ about it after Check gave that pep talk to that flower power pony; we all got our reasons, so I was wonderin’ what yours were. Like to serve princess and country? Somethin’ to prove? The paycheck?”
“Hmm, I guess ya could say all of the above...” Kickstart rolled onto his back, staring into the blue. Silence filled the void in conversation, punctuated only by the intermittent shouts of Cacopony which seemed to trail ever upward.
“…Yeah, you could say that, though I suppose the biggest reason was because a friend did.”
“…Oh?” Rosetta spoke up. Something about the Corporal’s delivery seemed to ring with a note of wistfulness. “Did… something happen to him?”
“’Something happen’—do you mean like ‘fall on the field of battle’?” Kickstart chuckled and turned on his side to face the other two. “Well, there aren’t many of those, thank Celly and general good will. Nah, the Staff Sergeant as you know her is her same ol’ commandeerin’ self.”
Rosetta’s sense of the dramatic took a hit, and the mental portrait she was painting of the Corporal and his unplumbed depths had a hole kicked through it. However, if hope springs eternal, then imagination quickly bubbles to the surface.
“But to join just because she did… Was it because you hoped to keep her safe, out of harm’s way?” Rosetta asked hopefully.
“Pfft! Her?!” Kickstart lit up. “Ho-hohhh wow… You’ve met her, right? No way does she need somepony protecting her.”
“Yeah, I guess she does give that impression,” Crack Shot chimed in. “Is that why she outranks you?”
“Heh, you just put it right out there, don’t ya? Yeah, she’s always been a real take charge kinda pony.”
“Kinda makes you wonder why she’s still a Staff Sergeant though,” Crack Shot said.
“Hmm, you’d have to ask her, but I’ve got my hunches. For one, I think she likes havin’ a hoof in the training of the newbies, doesn’t trust anypony else to get it right. I doubt anypony’d question it though; she’d have that aura of command no matter what title you gave her.
“’Sides, ‘Staff Sergeant’ has just enough syllables in it that you don’t notice that it’s missin’ a name at the end. Plus, kinda like ‘Corporal Kickstart’, it just has somethin’ goin’ for it.”
Crack Shot and Rosetta shared a glance followed by a shrug: an unspoken agreement not to ask. The Staff Sergeant must’ve had her reasons. Instead Crack Shot said, “So now that I’m a Sergeant, does that mean you have to follow my orders?”
“You know, I suppose it does, technically. Good luck with that though, you’ve seen how much success the Staff Sergeant’s had.” Corporal Kickstart winked and rolled onto his back once more, deciding to go beyond the call of duty and attempt a nap.
“So, Rosetta." Crack Shot turned to smile at the mare. “What’s your trick again? Another flower pony?”
“Hehe, no, not at all, unless you count the dandelions that took over the lawn back home. I’m polyglot.”
“Is that contagious?”
Rosetta laughed. “It means I speak multiple languages. I’ve studied them ever since I was a filly.”
“Hey, that’s pretty dang cool! Ancay ouyay eakspay isthay?”
“Onay oblempray, though I’ve never actually seen a pig speak it. Or anything else for that matter.”
“Yeah, and I guess I can’t say I’ve ever actually seen a pig. In Manehattan most ponies didn’t really go for keepin’ pets much bigger than they were.”
Crack Shot looked back over the edge of the cloud and peered down into the courtyard where the rest of the guardsponies appeared to be falling back into formation.
“Heya, looks like they’re wrappin’ things up down there,” he said. Then remembering the third member of the group, he reiterated, “HEYA! LOOKS LIKE THEY’RE WRAPPIN’ THINGS UP DOWN THERE!”
“Huh—wha?” Corporal Kickstart started awake.
“I think everypony is finishing up for the day,” Rosetta explained. “Shall we go and join them?”
“Hmm, yeah… just a sec…“ Kickstart scanned the surface of the cloud in search of something the likes of which the others couldn’t guess. “A-ha!”
Kickstart scooped a thick swatch of nimbus into his hooves, and positioned it over the two other pegasi. Before they could ask what he was doing, he gave it a swift buck, startling them with the sudden downpour.
“Move over a sec.” Kickstart nudged Crack Shot to the side and took a spot under the rapidly dwindling drizzle.
“Aw man!” Crack Shot tried to shake off the excess water. “What gives?!”
“Appearances,” Kickstart explained. “We probably don’t want to fly down there looking like we’ve been sitting around on a cloud all day, eh?”
“That’s—huh. I guess that’s a pretty good point, isn’t it?” Rosetta said.
Perched on the edge of the cloud, Kickstart grinned behind a veneer of faux sweat. “Yeah, you don’t achieve and maintain the rank of Corporal all these years without a certain level of creative thinking.”
After the day’s training had ended, Check Mate, Crack Shot, and Storm Stunner entered a wing of the castle free from princely occupation, although it’d be more precise to say that Storm stumbled. Check Mate moved close to steady Storm when he teetered, and Crack Shot did the same when he tottered.
“Oof, maybe we oughta call you Storm Stagger after all.”
“What, exactly, transpired in the course of your training?” Check Mate spoke into his ear.
“Ugh. Cacopony had the idea of testing his vocal range and figured using me as a sounding board was a good way to do so. I flew up until I couldn’t hear him, and came down to find that I couldn’t hear anything else.”
“I think we should find somewhere for you to recuperate for a period; I doubt these halls will want for our vigil, if only for a spell.”
Crack Shot’s eyes lit up. “Oh snap! I never woulda pegged you as suggesting playing hooky!”
“I’ve merely come to a decision based on a careful measure of risk versus reward,” Check Mate said smoothly. “But back to the point at hoof, we’ve time before this evening’s repast, so let us make the most of it.”
Storm allowed Check Mate and Crack Shot to take the lead, using the two as points of focus as they trotted through the castle halls. The three of them wound a serpentine path composed of marble stairways, corridors painted in cataracts of stained light, and a tortuous network of passages made effortless by familiarity. The three at last came to a stop atop an open-air skyway. The kingdom of Canterlot spread out beneath them, and beyond that the hills and plains stretched and disappeared into the distance. Some would have called it a dizzying sight, but Storm was reinvigorated by it.
The breeze of that afternoon had cooled as the sun began its descent, and the guardsponies relished the refreshment as they watched the day end. In that fleeting moment, as the western light filtered through the magic suffusing the Canterlot skies, the city transformed. The infinite colors that dominated during the day, the whites and violets and greens and blues, were each and all outclassed, homogenized by an albedo of red gold. For half an hour each day, the world caught on fire.
“My sister certainly knows how to put on a show, doesn’t she?”
The guardsponies started at the sound of a voice like nightfall. Observing the setting of the sun beside them, Princess Luna stood like a patch of starry sky. The three quickly knelt before her, to which she only laughed.
“There is no need for that. Come and watch my sister’s work; the sunset is one of her greatest masterpieces.”
“Are no soldiers accompanying you, Your Highness?” Check Mate saw no trace of a guard retinue on the skyway.
“Well, how fortunate then that I’ve found three here!” Luna smiled. “And what brings each of you up here?”
“Storm here got a heavy dose of Cacopony, boss,” Crack Shot explained. “We figured a bit of fresh air and what not would fix him up.”
Luna nodded. “Ah yes, that one is a boisterous fellow, isn’t he? It is no mean feat to get a full morning’s rest when he has something to say.”
“Did he wake you? If so, I apologize for the disturbance, Your Highness,” Check Mate said.
“Just Luna is fine, Check Mate, and it was neither a great vexation nor any fault of your own. Besides, it seemed that your friend Storm here got the worst of it.”
“You… saw all of that, Your—uh, Luna?” Storm asked.
“Well, once I was awakened I couldn’t help but investigate the source of the disturbances. You did well leading for being put on the spot, Check Mate.”
The unicorn rouged like a strawberry from behind his helmet.
“Although… some of you could have deigned to make more of the day,” Luna added coyly, watching Crack Shot out of the corner of her eye as he desperately tried to turn invisible. “Did you learn anything of interest during your exercise, Crack Shot?”
“Err, uh, that pigs can’t talk…?” he said, rubbing a hoof against his head guiltily. The princess only laughed once more.
“Do not worry; I’m only having a bit of sport with you. In fact, I find it auspicious that I’ve run across the three of you. There is a request I’ve been considering making.”
“No problem!” Crack Shot said quickly, ready to appear responsible after getting called out. “You name it, we’re up for it!”
“Umm… ‘up’ for it?” Luna cocked her head. “You must forgive me if I’m unfamiliar with this expression. Is it a new pegasus parlance, perhaps?”
“It means we’re down,” Crack Shot said matter-of-factly. Luna looked at Check Mate.
“What he means to say is that we would accede,” Check Mate explained.
“Oh! Well you should have just said so. Saying that, I am happy that you are all so willing, but perhaps I should explain what it is that I’d have you do before you decide.”
The guardsponies nodded.
“Well, since my return, I have had ample opportunity to take note of how much the world has changed in my thousand year absence. In trends, in idioms”—Luna gave Crack Shot a sidelong glance—“and even in the shape of the land itself, there is much that is unfamiliar to me, even this very castle. I cannot help but wonder what else has changed in lands beyond these; however, royal duty requires my presence here.
“This is where I would hope to request your aid.”
“…So, you want us to visit these areas instead?” Storm said.
“That is correct, and to perhaps make note of what you see, or even capture it using one of those newer styles of daguerreotype that seems to be so popular these days.”
“Alright, so we’re to visit new locales, write about them, maybe take a picture or two…” As Storm listed their duties, he admitted to himself that it sounded a lot like—
“A vacation?” Crack Shot put the pieces of the puzzle into place.
“Well, if you would think of it as such.” Luna smiled in a surreptitious way. “Consider my selection of you three for this task as my recognition of what you’ve done for this city. I can make no predictions of what you would encounter and what you would experience, but it may be just as well that I cannot; there is a joy to be found in exploration and discovery.
“Take some time in the next few days to come to a decision, and do not feel coerced if you find that you have no interest in the task. Understood?”
“Yes, Luna,” the three replied.
“Wonderful! Now, if you’ll pardon me, I must prepare for nightbreak; there is a new constellation that I hope to unveil, and I wish to make sure the details are just right. Oh, and Check Mate?”
“Perhaps afterwards you’d indulge me in another game of chess?”
Check Mate smiled. “It would be my honor, Luna.”
“And mine as well. I wish each of you a pleasant evening.”
With that, Luna turned towards the main castle, moving across the skyway like a trail of stars.
“Man, I dunno what we need a few days for; this whole deal sounds wicked tight,” said Crack Shot. “How long did she say we’d be gone?”
“I do not believe she did, but an excursion of the sort that she is suggesting would no doubt be on the order weeks.”
“Right on, so a few weeks’ vacation, what are we waitin’ for?”
Storm thought about this but said nothing. As an offer it had a clear appeal: a chance to travel, to see new lands, and to put as much distance between himself and ponies like Blueblood and Cacopony as possible. Plus, the way it was pitched seemed to lend it a hint of danger. However, Check Mate had said weeks; weeks had a tricky habit of turning into months. Storm was glad to have a weekend to come to a decision, because there was a pony he wanted to talk to about it.
“Yeah, it sounds alright, guys. But I think I should ask Nomde about it first.”
“Ah, the old ball and chain.”
Storm gave Crack Shot the sort of glare that would make a windigo button up its sweater.
“Aww, relax, I’m just messin’ with you, dude; girl’s aces in my book.”
“Anyways,” Check Mate interjected, “the evening grows late, and we would best avail ourselves to our dinner before somepony else does.”
“I feel you there, Check. Feels like I’m walkin’ on four hollow legs.”
As his two friends moved towards the mess hall, Storm Stunner stayed behind a moment to watch the evening transition into night over Canterlot. He watched the tangerines of the sky darken into deep purples, and the long shadows and shades of the city join together to blanket everything in dusk. He watched the first firefly lamp light up, the second, and then quickly lost count. He watched the city bloom into its own imitation of the star-speckled sky above, and he tried to take it all in, to commit it to memory.
It was possible he wouldn’t have many other chances to do so for quite a while.