Luna lightly swatted Amora’s flank, causing the mare to jump back from the crack in Tail’s ajar door. The doctor quietly swore through her clenched muzzle, and she jerked her head around to find the Princess of the Night staring down at her with a jovial expression that might as well have bled amusement.
“Peeping, Major?” Luna’s teasing voice kissed Amora’s ears as the alicorn moved to peek through the crack as well. “I knew Captain Barrier was eye candy, but I never thought he would be your type—”
“Oh, not like that!” Amora hissed, brushing the diarch with a dismissive wave. “I got curious. Barrier was all weird and junk when he returned, mumbling some shit about things not being the same. They’ve just been talking about tactics though, and occasionally, they flip through that book you gave her. Some of the stuff they’re talking about is marginally unsettling. Starting to make me wonder where you dug this guy up, Princess.”
When Luna didn’t respond right away, Amora leaned until she caught sight of the barest hints of a smile. The unicorn was met by an ensnaring teal iris that sparkled with mischief. “Tail’s real training begins today, and it appears that she accepted her captain’s proposal.” Luna pivoted away from the door frame and let out a giddy giggle.
Amora pursed her lips to the melody, and confusion crafted a firm grip upon her features. “Care to explain that one, Princess? Am I going to need to pick out a dress? I mean—they didn’t elope in Las Pegasus, but—”
Luna’s giggle fanned into a round of boisterous laughter that sent a ripple of dread through Amora’s coat. She scrunched up, much in the manner a cat would if utterly terrified. There is no way they hadn’t been heard—
“Would you two shut the Tartarus up out there?” Barrier’s shout poured through the doorway. “We’re trying to study in here! Go find some other patients to spy on. I got this one back into bed all by myself. She’s in good hooves, and she’s busy.”
“Ams!” Tail’s bubbly cheer followed suit. “I’m learning things—in bed! Don’t worry about me. I’m sure Captain Barrier will come get you if I need anything.” She slammed her forehoof against a page in one of the books. “And doesn’t this principle only work on a macro scale? If Cantersville had been a single front assault, couldn’t the flanking forces just have coordinated some kind of pinching maneuver?”
“Mhm, things worked at Cantersville because the lines of communication between the flanking forces ran slower than the centrally located ones. Here, the flanks didn’t really know they were flanks, and they absolutely have to be in the know for a pinch to be effective. Even on a smaller scale, that’s hard shit to do. Take the pincer movement. It’s not just about the edges. You have to have the numbers to risk baiting with a weak center, and the timing has to be just right. The battlefield is a dynamic place. There are always multiple answers in play. Runners and scouts are key for obtaining information and coordinating an appropriate response. It’s one of the many reasons why lieutenants are told not to fuck over their sergeants, ever.”
Tail’s uninjured wing fluttered as he spoke. There was something about his cadence, in this setting, that was remarkably different and yet strikingly familiar. He was responding to her questions, and he grew his enthusiasm to emphasize those extra little tidbits of knowledge. He was teaching her—and not in the we’re-on-the-field way. He was teaching her in a way that honestly made her feel at home, and as her sights wandered over his charcoal-colored contours, she couldn’t help but think, It’s actually pretty cute.
“Awareness is pretty much what it boils down to. If you’re blind, then you’re going to get yourself killed. If you’re blind and in charge, you’re going to get everypony else killed along with you. The Battle of Greifen is a damn good example of the intelligence extremes. One side thought its forces were too great in number and that its flanks were covered, and the other had complete command of the terrain. The numbers got bucked, hard.”
The pegasus maintained her silence, listening as she fell into a patent-pending, academic stare. It was impossible for her to turn away from him. It was impossible for her not to get lost in the lecture—until she realized that he had stopped talking and was flashing her a cocky grin that screamed, ‘Caught red-hoofed!’
“Something on your mind there, Cadet?” Barrier said with a gritty tenor that made the mare stutter.
“N-no—Well, yes actually. I mean—mm—how do I say this? I think…” Tail’s voice drifted away as her cognitions took a brief, tangential stroll. “I think I’ve been carrying the same type of prejudice that others have carried for me, and I think I owe you an apology, Captain.”
Barrier’s head listed, and he inhaled sharply as though he had intended to deliver some sort of rebuttal. Tail beat him to the punch.
“What I mean to say is that I don’t think anyone in the guard expected much from me. What could a physicist possibly do, right? Now, you’re going over all of this historical material with me, and I would never have expected it from you.” She scooted towards the edge of the mattress, plucked her glasses from her muzzle, and set them directly in front of Barrier’s icy eyes. “You’re pretty brilliant, Barrier.”
The unicorn caught his breath. “Well,” he began while one of his forehooves ventured to play with the spectacles, “protecting others takes more than a sound body. It requires a sound mind.” He carefully removed the glasses and placed them back atop Tail’s muzzle. “Though, your compliment is appreciated.”
A budding smile fought against some resistance as it gradually spread across Barrier’s countenance. Its appearance made the mare’s heart beat just a little bit harder, and her own giddy smile abruptly formed.
“Do I need to be concerned?” Barrier spotted the exuberant expression. “Take me to dinner first—once you become a colonel—Cadet. Regulations prohibit such a joyous exchange between a D.I. and his trainee.” He tapped one of the books. “Any other questions you’d like to get out of your system before we move on to my part of the plan?”
Tail laughed, and a portion of her mind pondered the potential reaction if Amora had still been shamelessly stalking. “Maybe I’ll hold you to that, Sweety,” she chirped before reaching to grab her book on the discourse of war. “But for now, I actually do have another question. The Tartarus was up with the Battle of Agincolt?”
Barrier’s coat bristled at the name and his ears shot upright. “Ah, Faust! Agincolt! What a buckin’ disgrace that was. That, my cadet, is what happens when you let pompous, useless nobles dictate what war with griffons should be about. Knights fight knights! For honor and dignity!” He scowled and threw a leg into the air. “Griffons don’t know anything about honor or dignity! Well—they didn’t then. Archers raked the flanks. Agincolt was a massacre. It was after that that the executors took a more active role in managing things, so I guess it led to some progress. Just a damn shame it cost so many lives.”
The pegasus gave a curt nod. “Loss of life, especially when it’s pointless, is something that is really difficult for me to grasp.” She lifted her head as one of her cognitive gears lurched forward. “Given that you’re from that time, you experienced it, right? Death—” Tail shuddered before she took a deep, stilling breath. “It’s something that no training can prepare for, isn’t it?”
“It’s…” Barrier chewed on it for a few seconds. He looked away from his cadet, though his thoughts could not keep his body from instinctively shifting closer to his underling. “No, it’s not, but I’ll do my best to give you all the training I can. It will never prepare you for the first time, or whenever you face it after that. History doesn’t often give second chances, Tail. It normally just repeats the same garbage over and over. With you, I feel like I have a chance to make sure the shadows stay away.”
“I’ll do my best, sir. I had no intention of turning back when we started. I have no intention of turning back now that you’ve offered more help.”
Barrier scratched along his jawline and snorted. “Well, that’s good because I have plans for you.” He plucked three smaller books from the pile and magically pressed the literature into Tail’s fluff. “Read these and memorize everything in them. Summer Sun is in under one month, and I plan to use it as an opportunity to insert a major evaluation into your record. Those materials cover urban guard details, command structure, and procedures. You’ll be taking control of the squad for the day, which means you’ll be giving the orders to Indar and Bonecrusher while the three of you serve protection duties.”
Tail’s pupils dilated, her ears splayed, and her mouth hung open in disbelief. “You’re putting me in charge of the squad for the Summer Sun Celebration?”
“Yup.” Barrier flicked his blue tail in time with the single-word delivery. He smirked and shot a sidelong glance at the shocked pegasus.
“You do realize that Bonecrusher is going to eat me alive, right?” A wave of shivers rolled beneath Tail’s lavender fur, and her forelegs flinched at the thought.
The captain chuckled. “I don’t think she’ll be eating you alive after you bucked her jaw. Besides, I had my words with Crusher. She won’t be a problem. You just need to focus on getting better and making the most of your time. According to that pancake-thieving doctor of yours, you won’t be cleared for combat for two weeks. That’s not really a problem so long as we can get you exercising again sooner. No hesitation on those manuals. Jump in and go to town. If you have any questions, ask me.
“I’m not going to put it any simpler. Show that you can responsibly and effectively command a small unit, and those accomplishments will become the keystone of my final B.C.T. report. You’ve told me before you couldn’t quit. Let’s see if you can sprint towards the finish line.”
Candlelight danced over the glossy surfaces of smoothed stone. Archways, long forgotten by the outside world, circumscribed a room just big enough to fit a round table for seven. Like the space in which it sat, the wooden planks seemed worn with age, but the carvings of equine heroes that adorned its edges and legs commanded respect.
“Proud,” Shining Armor sighed as he sat upon one of the similarly themed chairs, “shouldn’t one of the princesses be here for this impromptu meeting?”
A purple unicorn scoffed in retort as a hoof sculpted his jet black mane. In a gaudy tone that trumpeted from the stallion’s lungs, he spoke, “No, we have to consider that the princesses have been compromised in their decision making through some sort of manipulated allegiance. My requests for a discharge of Ms. Tail and a reassignment of her injured squadmate were hastily denied by a captain whose contrived file reads like a foals’ tale. Magic Barrier is a fraud—”
“Enough, Proud,” Shining snapped. He glared through the pony’s sandy gold irides, and his teeth ground the bits of devoured anger. “Magic Barrier’s credentials are solid. Stop wasting this council’s time with your game of tangentials. What is it that you want?”
“Special treatment, unorthodox training, assaulted an actual soldier, incapacitated through her own act of violence… Tail is simply unfit to have her commission combat certified. I want the current training invalidated. I want her discharged. I—”
“You want her program,” the raspy voice of Spitfire ascended to grasp the reins of the conversation. “I don’t know much about Captain Barrier, but if Shining, Celestia, and Luna say he’s qualified to do the job, then I’m not going to question that job. I think the Equestrian Army is getting antsy. Luna’s going to throw a fit in your face when she hears about this. You know that, right?”
“I’m merely performing my duty within the confines of the law, Captain Spitfire. Princess Luna can say whatever she pleases, but that mare is the perfect example of what happens when our creeds are tossed aside.” Seriousness wiped the subtle curvatures from Proud’s lips, and his gilded gaze held firm against the suddenly risen frame of Captain Armor. “I want a vote, here and now, as to whether Ms. Tail should be stripped of her assignment and discharged.”
“I support her,” Shining angrily sneered. The royal guard replanted his armored forehooves atop the table. “Now speak your votes!”
“The Air Force stands with Shining,” Spitfire chimed immediately. “Colonel Tail has been a valuable asset to our group. Half the damn guard has been in a scuffle. I’m not going to turn her away for showing some spine, and I’m certainly not going to support this ridiculous attempt at a power grab.”
“There is no power grab here, Spitfire. I just strongly believe Ms. Tail does not belong amongst our family,” Proud answered rather calmly before he glanced to his left. “What is the position of the Equestrian Navy, Aph?”
A pink earth pony mare leaned over the table. She sighed, brought her muzzle to rest atop the wood, and scanned the group with green sights that navigated interfering bangs of the deepest blue. “We don’t condone acts of aggression against our own.”
Proud’s golden eyes snatched the light of the flickering flames and shared the stallion’s budding excitement.
“Personally,” Aph continued, “I think both aggressors should be discharged, but that’s not up for vote right now. Perhaps we can get to the other one next.”
Shining let out a disgruntled breath. “Looks like it falls on you to put an end to this travesty, Colonel.” The eyes of the room followed the stallion’s voice to a chair seemingly shrouded in darkness.
“Indeed,” Proud interjected, “let Equestrian Intelligence put an end to this charade with knowledge and fact.”
“Hmm,” a stallion hummed from the shadows before the light from the candles reflected off his opened, amber-kissed eyes. “Captain Armor, you have the most direct line of contact with Ms. Tail out of everypony here. Please wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors.” The officer paused when Proud Valiance gleefully clapped his forehooves together, a glee which terminated the instant a lavender foreleg tossed a manila folder in Shining’s direction. “Right, because we’ll be approaching her once she finishes her training with Captain Barrier. I think she might be the perfect candidate to head the creation of our new division.”
Spitfire’s snickering at Proud’s abrupt defeat barely made it to Shining’s senses while the Captain of the Royal Guard curiously stared at the folded cardstock. All that was written upon it were the words Mavericks’ Wild. For several seconds, Armor stood in silence, his head occasionally flicking to some internal beat of cognition. His breath hitched when he remembered exactly which colt he was dealing with, and he dropped down into his seat before a hearty laugh echoed through the chamber. “Thank you, Colonel Wing. I’ll be sure to pass on your terribly vague, yet unvague message.”