Canterlot Castle, Canterlot
Luna stifled a yawn as she shifted through the mountain of paperwork that had accumulated on her desk. Even though Celestia had canceled the Day Court during her absence, as well as most of her appointments, there were some things that simply couldn’t be put off. Meetings with certain dignitaries, the review of a new budget proposal that was making its rounds in the House of Lords, and reports from officers stationed on or over Equestria’s borders did not simply vanish when Celestia was away. It had taken most of the day for Luna to work through the essentials and, much to her chagrin, more of it had involved the budget than her much-preferred task of familiarizing herself with the modern EUP Guard. As such, she was not in the most pleasant of moods.
Be honest, Luna, she rebuked herself. You’re more irritable from the lack of sleep and the frankly perplexing encounter with that odd biped in the Dreamstride than with budgets.
In truth, the dream had unsettled her. She was centuries old, and instances wherein she came across something that was utterly beyond her understanding, especially within the Dreamstride, were vanishing rare.
Still, she reasoned, there’s nothing else to be done until Celestia returns with news, or at least until I can probe that creature’s dreams again.
Stifling another yawn, she returned to her paperwork. In a short while it would be time to raise the moon and set it on its journey, and not long after that she could resume her usual nightly duties as Dreamwarden and Watcher of the Night, the latter of which had taken on a rather pressing importance after the attack by the so-called ‘Shade.’ What the poor lost soul’s motivations and origins had been remained a mystery, and as of yet her investigators had revealed nothing.
All things in their due time, she reasoned as she signed off on another requisition form for explosive quarrels from the 101st Rangers. Nothing that lurks in the dark remains there long before it is thrust into the light.
There came a knock at the door of her study. “Who is it?” she called out.
“Mr. Grey is here to see you, Your Highness,” replied the guard.
Luna felt a smile come to her lips. “Excellent. Send him in, if you please.”
The door opened to admit a middle-aged earth pony stallion. True to his name, he was grey-coated, with a distinguished white mane, dapper blue jacket, rose tie, and gold cufflinks and pocket watch of the highest quality. His cutie mark was a stone smith’s compass and stylus. Grey’s face had begun to show wrinkles with age, but there was nothing aged about the cheeky grin he shot her as he burst into the room with the confidence of a Royal. “Luna!” he cried out cheerily. “How’s my favorite princess?”
Through the still open door Luna saw her guards stiffen, but they didn’t react. They knew Mr. Grey and, even if they didn’t approve of his familiarity with the princess, they would tolerate him as long as she did.
And tolerate him she did. More than that, she rather enjoyed his frankness, which was why he was one of the only ponies in Canterlot besides her sister that she was comfortable being on a casual first-name basis with. “Hello, Mason. I’m doing quite well, thank you. Please, have a seat.” She shut the door behind him with her magic while pulling out a pair of cups. “Tea?” she offered. Mason scoffed. Relenting, she pulled out a pair of glasses instead. “Wine?” she corrected.
“Now you’re speaking my language,” he grinned, rubbing his hooves in anticipation as she pulled out a bottle from the sisters’ private vintage and poured them each a generous amount. Taking it in his hoof, he sniffed the liquid appreciatively, allowing its aroma to wash over him. “Mmmm,” he hummed appreciatively. “You know, Luna, I’m really more of a scotch or bourbon stallion myself, but I must say that I have a hard time turning down one of your vintages.”
Luna smirked. “Not that you’ve ever tried to, of course.”
“Why would I deny myself anything? Life’s short, and a stallion’s gotta live, eh?”
The princess chuckled. “You are incorrigible, Mason.”
“I try my best, your princessliness.” He held up his glass for a toast. “To friends!”
She clinked her glass against his. “To friends indeed.”
They both drank in silence for a few moments, allowing the magnificent flavors to massage their palettes. Luna rather enjoyed the break from the monotony of the day’s labors. Sadly, the moment was not to last. With a grimace, Grey sat back in his chair. “Much as I hate to be ‘that stallion,’ I did come here on business, so what’s say we get that out of the way first so that we can talk about all the juicy gossip around the palace.”
Luna rolled her eyes. “You know I don’t enjoy the ‘juicy gossip’ nearly as much as you do, Mason.”
Grey shrugged. “Well, alright. If you don’t want to hear about Blueblood’s latest fiasco…”
“What are we waiting for? Let’s talk business.”
As well as being her friend, Mason happened to be one of the most successful industrialists in Equestria. His family had had a hoof in the construction business since their earliest days as stone cutters in the era before Luna’s banishment. In fact, Luna recalled that his ancestor, an engineer named Grey Stone, had helped in the construction of the Castle of the Two Sisters. Thus, she cherished her friendship with the present Grey not only for his wit, but also as a reminder of happier days and simpler times.
And, for all his distaste for ‘talking shop,’ Grey was a shrewd businesspony, and his insights into the various industries, combined with his personal connections in the professional community, made him a wealth of information. He’d done more to bring Luna up to date on the present economics of Equestria than a dozen other tutors combined. It didn’t hurt that he had an acerbic, even acidic sense of humor, which made even the driest of topics interesting in Luna’s mind.
Eventually, though, they had wound their way to more frivolous matters. Luna felt more than a little guilty to be engaging in gossip of any sort, but she rationalized that it helped keep her informed. Moreover, she had not taken kindly to her nephew Blueblood, especially after his less-than-genteel treatment of Rarity, and as such she took a perhaps unjust amount of delight in hearing about his missteps.
“He didn’t!” she exclaimed as Mason finished his story.
“He did,” smiled Grey. “Right in front of the Duke of Shetland, too. I imagine it will take them weeks to get it out of the carpet, and even longer before Old Mane Ironshod lets the ponce back into his castle.” Luna dissolved into giggles of mirth, and Grey chuckled along with her. Taking another sip of wine, he settled back in his chair and adopted and inquisitive air. “So tell me, Luna. Word on the grapevine is your sister took off in quite a hurry this morning with a bunch of her War Dogs in tow. Nothing catastrophically wrong, I trust?”
Much as Luna liked Grey, she wasn’t about to reveal what was at this moment considered a state secret. For his own safety as much as anything. “I’m afraid I have no interesting news for you, Mason. There are twenty new candidates for the REF who are completing their assessments. And, well, you know my sister. She likes to handle things personally from time to time.” She gestured to the paperwork. “Or, more likely, she just wanted a break.”
Mason gave a throaty chuckle. “Oh, so that’s how it is, eh?” His gaze darkened, though his smile remained. “Tell me, Luna. Do you think me a stupid stallion?”
“Of course not,” replied Luna, recoiling slightly at the suggestion.
“Then don’t talk to me like I’m stupid.”
Luna gave him an arch look. “I’m afraid I don’t take your meaning, Mason. Perhaps we would both be better served by you clarifying instead of expecting me to guess.”
“Then I’ll be blunt. I’m one of the wealthiest industrialists in all of Equestria, right?”
“You don’t say,” Luna deadpanned.
“Don’t get snippy, Princess. You’ll ruin those pretty features of yours with frowning.” He scratched the back of his head. “Where was I?”
He winked and gave a toothy smile. “Always am. Anyway, my point is that many of my mines and factories are close to the borders or to dangerous zones within Equestria; the kinds of places where the military’s work isn’t exactly public knowledge, know what I mean? Point is, if I had a bit for every time I’d been fed the whole ‘it’s just a training mission’ line I’d be even more fabulously wealthy than I already am.” A look of inspiration struck his face and he pulled out a notepad and pencil to jot something down. “Note to self: have Sandy peruse obscure Equestrian law for me,” he muttered. “Anyway, the bottom line is, I know Sun Flank isn’t off for a walk in the park with her Dogs. And everypony knows Ponyville is where the skat hits the fan more than anywhere else in the heartland.” His eyes narrowed. “So if you can’t tell me what she’s up to, fine, but don’t insult my intelligence by pretending nothing’s up.”
Most ponies would have found themselves forcibly propelled through the door for such brazen conduct towards her, but Grey was hardly most ponies. Luna blushed, chastened, feeling unaccountably guilty for having been deceptive. “I suppose that is valid,” she admitted. “Though technically it really is a training operation. But you are correct in supposing that I can’t tell you the full story.”
Grey gave a sunny grin. “Hey, no worries, Luna. I just wanted us both to know where we stand.”
Luna smiled, grateful that he was not offended. “Care for another drink by way of recompense.”
The stallion stood, straightening his jacket. “You know I’d love to, but I’ve got another meeting to trot off to.” He pulled out his gold watch and glanced at the time. His eyebrows rose. “Check that, I’m late for another meeting that I’ve got to gallop off to.” He rolled his eyes. “No rest for the wicked, eh, Luna? Sometimes I feel like I’m running a frigging country.”
She gestured to her paperwork. “Care to trade?” she asked with a coy smile.
“Don’t tempt me,” he chuckled. “You might not come out as far ahead as you think with that deal.” He trotted over to the door and threw it open with a careless kick. “Ta-ta, Lulu! See you next week!” Then, with exaggerated loudness that was obviously directed at her two guards, he added, “You’ll have to spill all your state secrets to me then!” and with that he galloped off, cackling.
One of the stallions on guard cast a bemused glance at the princess, who simply shook her head with a dry smile by way of answer. Satisfied that this was simply a normal visit from Grey, the guard nodded and shut the door.
With the click of the latch, Luna was once more alone in her study with a mound of paperwork, like a prisoner under elegant house arrest. Glancing at the clock and realizing that she would have to double her efforts in order to get done before it was time to raise the moon, she heaved a deep sigh before setting her nose back to the grindstone, Grey’s words still lingering in her ears. No rest for the wicked indeed.
Ponyville General, Ponyville
Redheart and Medevac reentered Jacques’ room pushing a cart bearing a tray laden with food items that probably rated a description more generous than merely ‘edible,’ but did not yet meet the criteria for ‘good to eat.’ At least, as far as flavor was concerned. Nutritionally it was a different matter; the collection of plain applesauce, bland rice cereal, and protein slurry were calculated to provide the nutrients that a recovering body needed without being too hard to digest. They just don’t taste like much.
“Dinnertime, Friar,” she announced as she entered. “I hope your near-death experience was enough to work up an appetite.” Because you may have a hard time eating this if it wasn’t.
Jacques looked up from one of his books as they entered and greeted them warmly. “Ah, Bonne Sœur Redheart, Monsieur Medevac. Welcome. Tell me, how fares the mother and child?”
Redheart paused, caught off-guard by the inquiry. New foal. We mentioned it to explain why the doctor was absent. Right. “They’re doing well. The foal was born without any serious complications and she’s feeding normally.”
“And the happy mother managed to not strangle the unicorn father during the labor,” added Medevac with a smirk.
“Truly, a joyous day for all,” laughed Jacques.
Redheart wheeled the cart over to his bedside and pointed out the different foodstuffs. Jacques thanked her and began eating. Rapidly.
“Woah, slow down there, Friar,” chided Medevac. “You’re gonna make yourself sick eating that fast.”
“My apologies,” replied the old man, slowing his pace. “Old habit from the campaign trail that I never really lost. We always ate swiftly when in an unfamiliar place because we were worried about ambushes.”
Medevac gave a humorless chuckle. “Believe me, I get that.”
A period of silence followed as the two nurses watched the friar eat. Clearing her throat, Redheart asked a question that had been bothering her since she came in. “Friar, when we came in you called Medevac ‘Monsieur’ and me ‘Bonne Sœur.’”
He tilted his head. “I did? Hmph. Andrew would have been huffy with me for slipping into French like that in front of English speakers.”
English? “I don’t speak Prench, or ‘French’ as you say, but I do know that ‘monsieur’ basically means ‘mister.’ But I don’t recognize the other, and it’s the second time you’ve called me it.”
“Wait, the second?” asked Medevac. “When was the first?”
“When he was, well, passed out and delirious,” she admitted.
Jacques set aside his empty tray. “Well, I must confess that it may well be an inaccurate term, but one that I fall into by long habit.” He pointed to her hat. “It is on account of your cap.”
“Indeed. Am I correct in guessing that you are a civilian physician rather than a member of an order of some sort?”
“Yes,” she replied slowly.
“Well, where I come from, the cross is a holy symbol, often worn by members of Holy Orders. Some, like my own Hospitaller Order, are martial in nature, though we also provide medical care as that was our original mission. Other orders teach, or preach, or give alms as their primary focus. The red cross in the white field is familiar to me because that was the symbol of my first order, the Knights Templar.”
“Huh,” remarked Redheart. “So, when you saw me, did you call me a knight? Is that what bonne sœur means?”
“Not exactly,” smiled Jacques. “You see, members of such orders live in community together as brothers and sisters. So when I called you bonne sœur…” he spread his palms wide.
“You called me ‘sister,’” she finished.
Redheart turned the thought over in her head. He called me ‘sister.’ For some reason it gave her a warm feeling inside. “That’s… that’s kind of flattering, actually,” she said with a smile. “No stranger has every called me ‘sister’ right out of the gate before. I like it.”
Medevac snickered. “Well, good. The Friar’s from outta town and could use some family. You can be his little sister.”
The mare nudged him sharply. “It’s less endearing when you say it.”
Jacques held up a placating hand. “If it makes you uncomfortable—
Redheart cut him off with a wave of her hoof. “Nonsense. Like I said; I’m flattered.” She glanced up at the clock and noticed that it was getting rather late. Celestia’s probably getting ready to set the sun soon. “We still have to make our rounds this evening, though we’ll be back in to check on you throughout the night.” Given the unusual nature of the human, she and Medevac had elected to crash at the hospital and alternate waking up to check on him. “Before we go, is there anything else we can help you with?”
The friar looked like he was about to shake his head in the negative, but stopped short, seeming to have a sudden realization. “Well, yes there is,” he replied. “But it would probably be for the best if Medevac were the one to assist me while you made your rounds.”
She gave a teasing smile. “What’s the matter, Friar? You just made me your sister and now you’re trying to get rid of me?”
Jacques cocked an eyebrow. “I simply assumed that a lady wouldn’t want to be present while I relieved myself.”
Oh. Redheart blushed. “Well, no. I suppose I wouldn’t want to be,” she said, struggling to keep her voice even. Medevac cackled and she jabbed him sharply. “Quiet, you! Or I’ll make you pull double shifts this week.”
“Is that a fact?” he asked mockingly.
Redheart made her way towards the door. “I outrank you, soldier! I’m the senior nurse, and I’m not afraid to abuse it!”
“You don’t scare me, Little Sister!” came Medevac’s jovial reply. “I have survived Marine E-rats! I fear nothing!”
Pausing at the door, Redheart shot a malicious smile back at her friend. “Call me ‘Little Sister’ again and Marine Emergency Rations will be the second most unpleasant thing that’s been forced down your throat,” she raised her hoof menacingly. Then she waved cheerily to Jacques, who looked rather bemused by the whole affair. “Have a good evening, Friar!” With that she left.
Medevac was still chuckling as Redheart left. Jacques shot him a cautioning glance. “I wouldn’t antagonize her if I were you.”
The former medic shrugged and began unhooking the friar from the machine. “Naw, she’s cool with it. Red’s got a good sense of humor.”
Jacques shook his head. “Young man, I’ve known many women with good senses of humor in my time. It was still a poor idea to antagonize them.”
“Mares, in your case.”
“Ah.” He finished removing the wires, sensors, and other medical instruments. “Now, how stable are your legs feeling?”
“How far are we going?”
Medevac pointed to a side door. “Latrine’s right through there.”
Jacques bushy eyebrows shot up. “You have indoor toilets?”
The medic chuckled. “Yeah, and we’ve got running water too. We might be a hick town, but we’ve still got indoor plumbing.” Medevac meant it teasingly, but frowned when he saw that Jacques was genuinely shocked. “Do you… not have indoor plumbing?”
“Ouah! No!” exclaimed Jacques. “Most just dump buckets outside! Only cities where the old aqueducts still work is there even safe drinking water to be had!”
Medevac blanched at the unsanitary conditions. Still, I’ve seen it over the borders. He probably shouldn’t tell Rarity, though. “So, if the drinking water’s unsafe, what do you drink?”
“Wine and ale, mostly,” responded Jacques, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Hm. Sounds like a party,” grunted Medevac. “Well, here we’re a little bit luckier than that. Our water is safe to drink, and our plumbing takes the sewage away so that it doesn’t contaminate anything. Only downside is we don’t have an excuse to start drinking booze first thing in the morning.” He pointed to the bathroom. “Now, the head ain’t that far, and I can take your weight if you want to walk, but if you’re afraid you won’t be able to stand I can fetch a wheelchair.” Or, more likely, an orderly to help me carry you because somehow I doubt we have a chair in your size; it’s a miracle we had a minotaur-sized bed.
Jacques gave him a skeptical look. “I believe I can walk, but are you certain you can help support my weight?”
Medevac chuckled. “Don’t let my size fool you. To be a medic I had to be able to fly carrying a full-sized earth pony stallion in assault rig and his weapons. And, lemme tell you, even without their armor those guys are dense. If two mares managed to drag you clear outta the Everfree Forest, I’m confident I can get you to the crapper in one piece.”
Jacques assented, and Medevac helped him to his feet. The human was too tall for the medic to walk beside, unless he felt like being used as a cane, so instead he took to the air and let Jacques loop a gnarled arm over his neck. The human hesitated, but once they actually started moving and it became clear that Medevac’s assurances had not been empty boasting, he calmed down. “So you were a soldier, then?” asked the friar as they slowly walked.
“Medical Officer Second Class Medevac, Royal Marine Corps, at your service,” replied the medic. “And there’s no ‘were’ about it. Once a Marine, always a Marine. I may be retired, but there’s no expiration date on being a warrior.”
Jacques chuckled. “I can certainly relate to that.”
Medevac glanced at the friar’s many scars. Too right you can, old man. He considered asking about them, but thought better of it. No telling whether it’s a painful memory for him. Maybe I’ll ask about the combat scars, but the lashes, the burns… I’ll let him bring those up.
“How did you lose your leg?” asked Jacques, his tone conversational.
Ah, the smalltalk of soldiers, thought Medevac as he pushed the door to the latrine open with his snout. “Nothing much to it. Just a spot of bad luck,” he answered. They entered the bathroom and managed to maneuver over to the toilet. There was some difficulty, considering how low the toilet was and the more confined space, but between Medevac’s support, the grab bars on the wall, and Jacques’ frankly impressive grip strength, they managed to get him sat down. Medevac was thankful that Jacques managed to pull down his shorts himself; as a medic, he dealt with far worse, but he still didn’t like having his muzzle or wings that near somecreature’s nether regions. “I was out on mission with my platoon, that’s a unit of about sixty ponies by the way, trying to clear out a bunch of slavers who’d set up shop in a town way south of the border. Intelligence said they didn’t have any artillery, but, as the saying goes, there are three things you never trust in the Marines: green officers, the chow, and the intel. One minute we were advancing down the street when our point pony shouts ‘cannon!’ Next thing I know I’m sailing through the air towards a wall.” He parted the silver hair of his close-cut mane to reveal a deep scar on his scalp. “Hit the wall hard enough to tear the flesh open. Helmet saved me from getting my brains sprayed everywhere, but I was out cold. When I came to, my leg was just gone. I didn’t even hear the shot that took it.”
Jacques said nothing, but nodded his head in sympathy.
Medevac continued. “I was lucky, you know? Same canister shot that took my leg killed four other Marines and crippled six.” He tapped his prosthetic against the floor. “I get by pretty well, all things considered. Better than some can say. And I’m a pegasus, so it doesn’t really slow me down much.” He shook his head and chuckled. “You know what the weirdest part of it is, though? It still itches. Darndest thing. I mean, the leg is gone. How the heck does it still itch?”
The friar gave a small smile. “A few of my brethren lost limbs over the years. They said the same thing. I confess that I don’t understand it personally, but I’m told it’s infuriating.”
“All the same, you seem to be handling it well.”
Medevac shrugged. “That’s war. Like I said, I was lucky. I came home on my own three legs while my brothers came home in boxes. I have a lot to be grateful for.”
“That I can relate to.”
The medic gave the man’s scars a long look. “I imagine you can.”
Jacques appeared to notice the scrutiny. “You’re a seasoned veteran, Medevac. And a physician at that. I assume you’ve guessed that most of my scars are not born of combat?”
You’re sharp, old-timer. “Yeah,” he admitted.
“Who else knows?” Jacques’ tone wasn’t accusing. More sad than anything.
“Red and Doc Stable, because they had to know when we were treating you. Two other nurses saw the scars, but they don’t know how you got ‘em. I told the princess, Captain Argent, and the corporal, which probably means they’ve debriefed the rest of the platoon. The Bearers all know that you were tortured, but only Twilight and Applejack actually heard my speculations as to how badly. The rest took my advice and left the room first.” Jacques’ shoulders slumped and Medevac winced. “Sorry if I violated your privacy or something. We just weren’t sure if you would wake up, and it seemed relevant—"
Jacques waved him to silence. “It’s not that. You were simply doing your duty. And I’m not ashamed of my scars; they were earned with honor.” He sighed. “It’s just that… the Bearers all seem to be such gentle souls. Innocent and kind. I would rather have preserved them from the knowledge.”
Medevac raised an eyebrow. “Take it from somepony who knows, Friar. Nothing stays secret for long around those six. Especially if somecreature’s been hurt. They’ve got a compulsive ‘must-help’ attitude. It’ll come up sooner or later.”
The friar raised an eyebrow. “It’s not exactly something that I want to discuss.”
“Time was I said the same thing about my leg.”
Jacques grunted but didn’t pass comment. A short while later he was finished and Medevac helped him over to the sink. After taking a few moments to be awestruck by the marvel of modern plumbing, a sight that Medevac found oddly touching, the two made their way back over to the bed. As they walked, Jacques sucked a breath in through his teeth, as though steeling himself to ask an unpleasant question. “Tell me, my friend,” he began carefully. “Am I… decent right now?”
The question was so unexpected that Medevac almost halted mid-air. “What?”
“It didn’t occur to me at first because horses and ponies and the like are just unthinking beasts of burden in my world and naturally clothes aren’t an issue,” Jacques hastened to explain, “but humans must wear clothing to protect our modesty. And yet most of you walk around naked.” They reached the bed and Medevac lowered the friar to sit on the edge. “So I ask, am I being immodest by not covering myself more thoroughly?”
“Gotcha,” replied the medic. “Well, as far as ponies go our fur pretty well provides all the covering we need. As far as you though…” Medevac had to think about that one for a moment. Inspiration struck when he remembered his time spent in Minotaur territory. “I think as long as you’ve got pants or shorts or something on you’re fine.”
“So why do you wear clothes, then? Is it because you’re male?”
Once again, Medevac was caught off guard. Then he realized that, of all the ponies Jacques had met, only he and the corporal were male, and both were wearing clothes. “Naw. I just wear this when I’m working.” He shrugged off his lab coat and flapped into the air, clad only in his deep brown fur. “See? Nothing to see here.”
Jacques cocked an eyebrow, then cleared his throat. “Um, not to be indelicate, but where I come from a male pony’s fur was not long enough to cover his, ahem, masculinity.”
Medevac tilted his head, then laughed. “That would be unfortunate, wouldn’t it? No worries, Friar. You have shorts to cover yours; we have foreskins for ours.”
“I see,” replied Jacques. He mulled the thought over for a moment, then gave a dry chuckle. “I suppose the question of circumcision versus uncircumcision would have had a much deeper level of complication for you lot than for us.”
“It would take too long to explain.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “So what about dressing and undressing? Is that a matter of concern?”
Medevac waved his hoof side to side. “Depends on who you ask. It’s generally considered improper to change your clothes in front of members of the opposite sex if it can be avoided. Likewise it’s improper to enter the bedroom of a member of the opposite sex when they’re sleeping or trying to sleep. In both cases it’s because there’s an association of intimacy in that setting that’s inappropriate if you’re not married. But, since nothing is actually uncovered, it’s not really a big deal if that rule gets bent when there's a legitimate reason, like for soldiers out in the field where you don’t have a lot of options.”
“Fascinating,” replied Jacques. “Quite the departure from my own world.” He pointed to Medevac’s flank. “What does that brand signify?”
The medic glanced at his flank, or, more specifically, at the symbol of an upwards pointing silver arrow bracketed by wings. “Brand?” he chuckled. “You mean my cutie mark?”
Jacques blinked. “I’m sorry, English is my second language and I think I misheard you. Your what?”
“My cutie mark,” repeated Medevac.
“Cutie… mark,” echoed Jacques slowly.
“Yes, my cutie mark.”
The corners of Jacques’ mouth twitched. “It’s called a… cutie mark?”
Medevac frowned. “Yes. Why?”
There was a quiver in Jacque’s voice that sounded suspiciously like amusement. “And… is it called a… cutie mark…” he almost choked on the words, “for both stallions and mares?”
Folding his forelegs in annoyance, Medevac answered, “Yes, it is. A cutie mark is a reflection of one’s special talent, and since ‘cutie’ is derivative of ancient terms for ‘endearing’ and ‘attachment,’ it is used to describe the mark that shows one’s connection to one’s special talent.”
“Is that so?” managed Jacques through clenched teeth, his face becoming red with suppressed mirth.
“Yes, it is so,” half-snarled Medevac. “Why? You got a problem with cutie marks?”
It was too much for Jacques. With a snort he burst out into gales of laughter so intense that he had to grip the side of the bed to avoid falling off. Medevac glared. Between bouts of hilarity, Jacques managed to wheeze out an apology. “I’m sorry!” he chuckled. “I really am sorry. I’m sure the name makes perfect sense here and has a proud and noble tradition. It’s just that… where I’m from, ‘cutie’ is a term reserved for babes, puppies, and occasionally pretty young ladies. And the thought of you, a grizzled warrior, having a cutie mark…” he trailed off with renewed mirth.
Medevac glared for a few more moments, then felt a reluctant grin spread across his features. “Yeah, I guess I can see how that would be funny,” he muttered in agreement. And I suppose it’s good to see a guy who nearly died laughing so hard.
“I really am sorry,” said Jacques, who finally managed to bring his amusement under control. “Words mean different things to different people. I’m just… this is all so new to me, you see? Please forgive me.”
Medevac rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I reckon I can do that,” he smirked.
“Thank you,” replied Jacques with a humble dip of his head. “Now, I believe you mentioned a ‘special talent?’”
“Hm. Yeah, you guys wouldn’t have those with no magic, huh,” said Medevac. “Without getting too technical, when ponies discover what they’re particularly gifted at doing in a ‘life-purpose’ kind of way, they get their mark. It’s magical in nature and very powerful. Even now we don’t fully understand it, but it’s tied to the connection between a pony’s purpose and his or her ability to fulfill it.”
“A physical manifestation of one’s vocation, then?” asked Jacques.
“That’d be one way of putting it, yeah.”
“How marvelous,” remarked Jacques. “That would certainly make the discernment process somewhat clearer. If nothing else you’d know when you got it right.”
“Not necessarily,” corrected Medevac. “Ponies can misinterpret what their mark is supposed to be. And, of course, the mark itself can represent a pretty broad concept. For example, I’m good at physically air-lifting ponies out of dangerous situations. I’m also good at lifting their spirits.”
“So even after you get your mark, the discernment process continues?”
“More or less.”
Jacques nodded. “Well, I may not have a cutie mark,” he gave a small grin, “but my life has not been too different.” He gestured to his robe. “I, too, am marked by my vocation, but it has taken my whole life to bring me to where I am now in the journey.”
Medevac laughed. “You mean half-naked in a hospital surrounded by creatures from your myths?”
The friar smiled. “And there’s your special talent in action.”
“I try.” The medic glanced out the window and noticed that Celestia had already set the sun. “Speaking of trying, you should try to get some sleep. You’ve had a long day.”
Jacques obediently laid down. “You mean the several hours lying unconscious weren’t sufficient?” he quipped.
Medevac wrapped the old man in a blanket. “Hey, tasteless jokes about near-death experiences are the medic’s job, not the patient’s. Stop trying to take my job.”
“As you wish, milord,” said the friar with mock submission.
The medic handed him the call button. “Press this if you need anything during the night. Redheart and I will be in to check on you a few times.” Jacques looked at the button, muttered something in Prench that sounded like ‘marvelous,’ and nodded. Medevac retrieved his jacket and flew to the door. “Sweet dreams, Friar.”
As he turned out the light and left, he could have sworn he heard, “Wouldn’t that be a nice change of pace.”
Knotter’s Knoll, Ponyville
The etymology of the name given to the short hill that lay behind Ponyville General had been lost to time, leading to a great deal of speculation on the part of the local populace as to why anypony in their right mind would name a knoll after a knotter. A goodly number of local legends had sprung up to explain the odd moniker, ranging from humorous to romantic to ghastly. However, none of those reasons were of any concern to Celestia and Argent. They just wanted a secluded place for the princess to lower the sun without fanfare.
It was always something rather awe-inspiring for Argent to see, even after all these years. Perhaps it was because she was so seldom in Canterlot to actually see it. Perhaps it was simply that a magical feat of that magnitude ought to be incredible even after many repetitions. Or perhaps there’s still one little bit of childlike wonder that life over the borders hasn’t killed yet.
The thought of the borders brought Argent’s attention back to her surroundings. Ponyville, she reflected, so close to the capitol, and yet virtually undefended. A handful of reservists from the constabulary pass through from time to time, but that’s it. The DCS isn’t even in Ponyville; he’s a few townships over. Granted, no need for a Detective Chief Superintendent when there’s precious little crime to speak of, and the Bearers tend to get deputized to handle what little there is, but you’d think that a place this close to the capital would at least sport a small garrison of guards and a couple constables. True, they’ve managed thus far, but with evil tidings on the horizon, who’s to say that will last?
“What’s troubling you, Argent?”
Argent jolted at the voice, glancing up at Celestia. “Nothing, Princess,” she replied. Celestia cocked an eyebrow. Bloody Tartarus. Should have known better than to think an immortal wouldn’t pick up on my mood. “I was just thinking about the security in Ponyville, Your Highness.” Or the lack thereof.
“I see,” nodded Celestia. “And you think we should increase it?”
Yes. “Just pondering, Princess.”
Celestia rolled her eyes. “Speak freely, Captain. Sycophancy has never been a family trait of the Argents and I would hate to see that change.”
With a blush, Argent obliged. “Very well, Princess. I must admit that I have often wondered about Ponyville’s relative lack of a permanent Guard or Police presence. For that matter, I often wonder about many towns in Equestria. It’s not uncommon for one DCS and a hoof full of detectives and constables or a sheriff and a few deputies to cover five or six towns in a district. And, away from the borders, the capital, and a few major industrial nodes, EUP Guard presence is negligible.” She sighed and rubbed absently at the dent in her armor. “Perhaps I’ve just spent too long over the border, but I find myself… uncomfortable in any place this open to attack.”
Celestia nodded. “I understand, Captain. And, I admit, there are times when I feel the same way myself.” She gave a dry chuckle. “Equestria was not always this peaceful, after all.” She sat on the soft grass of the knoll and bade Argent do the same. “But there is method to my madness, I assure you.”
Argent took her seat slowly, having a hard time relaxing from her rigidity in the presence of royalty, whatever Celestia directed. “I have no doubt of that, Princess.”
“I’m sure,” smiled the alicorn. She looked up at the rising moon, deep in thought, and for a moment Argent thought the two of them would be sitting in silence. Then Celestia spoke. “The State has no authority by its own right, but only that which is granted unto it. This is the First Rule of Governance. The Second is that the State exists to serve the populace by protecting and promoting their Intrinsic Rights. The Third is that a State which infringes upon that which is Intrinsic is no longer a valid State, but is rather Tyranny, and must be opposed. These Rules are fundamental to the very nature of the world, and I have always striven to live by them throughout the evolution of Equestria’s government from a feudal realm to a constitutional diarchy.”
The soldier nodded, not knowing what to say. What Celestia was speaking of was Augusteed’s Three Rules of Governance, which predated Equestria and were themselves informed by the works of the ancient philosophers Ploto and Aristotail. Every Guard in Equestria was required to memorize the Three Rules, and to swear to uphold them even in the eventuality that the State did not. Which is why our oaths are taken to the authority of the throne, rather than to the pony who sits on it. Before Nightmare Moon’s return, Argent had never fully appreciated why the distinction existed, but she certainly appreciated it now. Imagine if Celestia had decided to follow the same path. She shuddered. It didn’t bear considering.
What did bear considering was why Celestia was bringing it up now. Rather than asking, Argent decided to let the diarch talk.
“In order to protect the populace, the State must be willing to fight and have military and police forces on hoof to counter threats to their rights. However,” she cautioned, “great care must be taken to avoid creating a system in which the State and its extensions remove the rights of the populace through their own actions. Thus, the State must exercise power as far as it is needed to promote Justice. No more, and no less. Law; military; police; government; all are ultimately responsible to the higher cause of Justice, and from this they derive their authority. If they are not needed to protect Justice, then they are not to be employed in that capacity.” The diarch shut her eyes. “In the old days, threats to Equestria were many, and I often had cause to fly out with my sister and call for the ponies of the realm to lend their armies to the cause of Justice. There were times when no town in Equestria was without warriors.” She opened her eyes. “But, when the era of peace came, there was no need for armies in every corner of the land. Most towns are perfectly capable of policing themselves; so they are allowed to.”
Argent nodded. “I understand, Your Highness.”
Celestia glanced at her captain, and for a brief flash Argent saw fire in her eyes. “Make no mistake, Captain; if a horde of griffons or an army of dragons were descending on Ponyville, I would ride out with every spear I could muster and pave a bloody road to the Abyss.” The fire dimmed. “But until then, I stay out of my little ponies’ lives as much as possible.” She chuckled and shook her head. “A true ruler is not a tyrant, even if many have called me one of late, and I would rather my head be mounted on a spike than that I become one.”
Argent blanched at the thought of her beloved ruler’s head on a spike. “Perish the thought, Princess! Who has been saying such things?”
The alicorn chuckled. “I take it you haven’t been keeping up with politics in Canterlot?” Argent shook her head. “Well, let’s just say that there are some rather vocal ponies who consider any sort of uneven distribution of power, magical or otherwise, to be tyranny, and seek to establish a new system wherein the power is held equally amongst the masses.”
“And just how do they plan to accomplish such a feat?” asked Argent with raised eyebrow.
Celestia gave a sly smile. “Why, by the actions of a select few who distribute it, of course.”
Argent snorted. “Yes, because they can surely be trusted not to hold the power for themselves. I swear, this rot gets stupider every year.”
“I don’t know. It might be an improvement over the hide-bound reactionaries in the House of Lords who would prefer to establish serfdom.”
“Truly, a higher bar has never been set,” deadpanned Argent. Celestia gave a rather unladylike snicker. Argent removed her helmet and regarded the polished surface with a frown. Talking about this year’s flavor of anti-diarchy numbskulls is not exactly calculated to improve my mood. These fools never understand how good they have it; they don’t know what it’s like over the borders. We might not be perfect, but we’re a darn sight better than half the countries I’ve been to. And we have heroes who are always striving to make us better. We’re lucky to have…
“What about the Bearers, Your Highness?” she asked abruptly.
Argent turned to face her. “What about the Bearers? After all the threats they’ve faced… I suppose I’m surprised you don’t have half a regiment stationed here to serve and protect them.”
Celestia smiled. “You know, Luna proposed almost exactly the same thing. Except, well louder.” She ran a hoof through the grass. “Fame is a two-edged sword, Argent. On one hoof, a land needs heroes; honor ought to mark virtue. On the other hoof, fame can attract bad elements. And not just physical threats either. A hero becomes the target of every sycophant, politico, and self-serving con artist looking to get ahead in the world.”
Finding a flower with her hoof, she began to toy with it.
“She is manipulated; harassed; every facet of her private life becomes public knowledge.”
With a tug of her magic, she plucked the flower and regarded its figure with a frown.
“In a sense it has always been this way. Even in bygone eras heroes have been subject to this. But it was different in those days. News travelled far slower; active threats kept the heroes busy; statecraft was less corrupted by personal intrigues; and, to be quite frank, many heroes died in battle before they could be dragged into the soft war of politics and drama.”
The flower began to wilt.
“Then there’s the small matter of the Bearers’ services to the crown that are best kept quiet,” murmured Celestia. “The dangerous little artifacts that have resurfaced here and there. Talks with dragons that are better served by avoiding our official channels entirely. The stealth mission to the Crystal Empire. The full details behind the how the Elements function. Even that business with Discord was theoretically to remain out of the public eye, though that didn’t exactly go according to plan. Time and time again we’ve needed a rapid response team that is tailored to a unique threat, and in those times we have been served neither by overt military force nor the red tape of bureaucracy, but by a collection of small-town heroes.”
She reattached the flower to its stem with her magic.
“And so I am placed in an awkward position. The Bearers deserve their due as heroes, and the land needs heroes to emulate. Yet if they are not shielded from court intrigues, their lives will become embroiled in the morass of petty power plays and underhooved machinations and, worse yet, they won’t have the freedom to be the heroes we need them to be. Heroes must be honored, yes. But they must have their autonomy, as there can be no playing favorites. And, of course, I have an obligation to protect the freedoms of my ponies without interfering with them. Quite a conundrum, yes?”
Argent was afraid to speak, lest she interrupt this unguarded revelation from her diarch, and simply nodded.
Celestia gave a sly smile. “Fortunately, I am quite old. And in my time I have learned many lessons about statecraft, among them the fact that misdirection is often a better weapon than outright deceit or bull-headed displays of power. For instance, do you know why it isn’t common knowledge what exactly the Elements of Harmony are or how they work?” Argent shook her head. Celestia flicked an invisible speck of dust from her coat. “I didn’t lie or deceive. I simply told the press that the six mares who defeated Nightmare Moon and Discord were the Bearers of the Elements, and nothing more. Rumor and speculation took care of the rest. Every newspaper, every journalist, every private citizen has his or her own version of what they think happened. Some are spot on, where others get more… esoteric.” She lowered her voice and whispered, “My personal favorite is that Starswirl shaped the six Bearers out of clay and that Luna and I breathed life into them at the direct prompting of the Source after falling into a trance when we first dawned the Mantles of the Sun and Moon.”
Argent gaped. What?
Before she could ask, Celestia continued, “The conflicting theories act as a smokescreen to reality. Misinformation spreads with depressing virulence. Add to this the fact that the public has a short attention span and doesn’t care nearly as much about heroes as they ought to…” Reflecting on the poor reception that she and many soldiers received in some towns, Argent couldn’t help but grunt in agreement, “…and the end result is that the Bearers are largely left to their own devices. You’d be surprised to know how few ponies even know where they all live or what they look like.”
“I see,” murmured Argent, who regarded her ruler in a new light. Note to self, never play poker with Celestia.
“It is better this way,” said Celestia. “The Bearers do not wish for favoritism or special privileges. They have never demanded nor expected rewards for what they’ve done. Each desires success from merit rather than fame. Dash would hardly want to be let into the Wonderbolts for her status rather than her talent, and Applejack would rather have lost the Apple Farm to a pair of swindlers than call down the wrath of the Royals upon them.”
What an oddly specific example, thought Argent.
“They are content to live their lives as they have, and I am loath to be so ungrateful to them as to upset that. Though, I admit,” she added a touch wistfully, “a part of me yearns for the days where I could have just named them Peers of the Realm, made them all Countesses, and given them a cross-section of the kingdom as payment.”
Argent couldn’t suppress a laugh at that. “Wouldn’t that be a sight! Still, I imagine they’d do a finer job than most of the nobles do these days.”
“Now don’t be bitter, Argent,” chided Celestia. “There are still some other nobles who remember their duties.”
“Precious few,” grumbled the captain.
“Well, this friar is a knight and seems quite worthy of the rank. Perhaps the two of you can commiserate together on the sad state of the Canterlot nobility.”
“I would like that, Your Highness.”
The two mares shared a chuckle.
By this time the moon had risen steadily into the sky. Soon, both would be departing for their temporary lodgings at the Mayor’s residence, where it was customary for visiting royalty to be billeted. Before they departed, however, Argent had one final question. “Your Highness…”
The captain bit her lip. “Forgive my forwardness, Princess, but you said that you did not interfere unless it was necessary. And I understand that stationing a garrison here prematurely would undermine the discretion you’ve held up to this point. But, with all these ominous happenings lately…” she faced her ruler steadily, “may I ask what you plan to do when it becomes necessary?”
Celestia returned her gaze levelly, and for a moment Argent wondered if she’d overstepped. Then Celestia cracked a smile. “Well, that’s what you’re for, Captain. Which is why tomorrow morning we will be discussing the best means of rapidly deploying your entire platoon to Ponyville from a discreet encampment that you will just so happen to have set up between here and Canterlot. In a purely hypothetical scenario, of course.”
Argent allowed herself a toothy grin. “Of course, Your Highness.”