The chamber was, of course, palatial—if rather cold-seeming with its shiny-polished floor, ceiling, and walls interrupted only by tall peaked windows and tall peaked doorway. On a crimson rug at the room’s center stood a sizable round table of dark wood, simple and oddly modernist in its double-tiered design. The lieutenant ushered them in and said firmly, “Wait here, please,” then departed and closed the double doors behind him.
Cook glanced sidelong at the tall leaves and opened his mouth. Sunset cut him off. “Don’t even start.” Both of the other mares gave her surprised looks; Cook’s manner was overtly ironic, but he held his tongue.
“Yes, he’s that Flash Sentry—or, well, his counterpart.” Sunset’s tone was tart. “What am I supposed to say, Cook? ‘Hi. You don’t know me, but you’re my ex-coltfriend, except he isn’t really you, he’s just like you, only in another dimension.’ I kinda went through that already with Sci-Twi. This is even more weird and creepy and I’m not supposed to talk about it, right? Aren’t you the one who’s always gassing on about ‘need to know’?”
“Fair enough,” Cook half-apologized with a shrug, though he didn’t seem abashed by Sunset’s aggrieved rant. Rose rolled her eye. Galea wore the blank look of an officer who knows she’s hearing things beyond her pay grade. Instead of pursuing his teasing, Cook asked curiously, “Have you met before, then?”
“Yeah.” Sunset accepted the partial deflection with ill grace. “I ran into him in Canterlot—he was part of the escort for Celestia, Luna, Twi, and me, when we went to the library during that whole thing with the Memory Stone. But he’s been up here before too, from what Twi’s mentioned in the journal, so I guess he gets shuffled around a lot.”
“Royal Guard uniform, not EUPG,” Galea put in. “I’d say he’s on the fast track as a promising young officer. Prob’ly was transferred here to give him more seasoning with different assignments, like heading up a platoon.”
It was Sunset’s turn to shrug. “Uh, okay. Good for him, I guess.” She eyed Cook again. “Hush, you.”
Cook’s brows went up. “I didn’t say anything,” he protested virtuously.
“No, but you were thinking it really loudly. I don’t need my pendant to figure that out,” she replied, trying to maintain her severe expression. A moment later the doors reopened, and the moment of levity passed.
As befitted the crystal realm’s small size, its regency council was not overlarge, able to sit around half the broad low table’s circumference. All but two of its members glittered with distinctive, if illusory, faceting that shifted with their movements; the pair of unicorns who did not made up for it with their splendid garments.
His Highness Prince Consort Shining Armor, in the immaculate scarlet dress tunic of a major general, sat stone-faced, military discipline warring with grief and rage. His Excellency Court Wizard and Royal Crystaller Sunburst, in fine robes of office likely maintained by palace staff rather than his own absent-minded self, made no effort to hide his horror and fear for the court and populace he served. The ministers seated with them ran the gamut from grim to verging on panic, though at least their shock had held their tongues.
The quartet facing them from the table’s far side stood mum in the moments after finishing what, through sheer training and habit, the diplomat and pair of officers had turned into a briefing. Sunset hung back a little, once again a bit out of place in such a formalized and rarefied environment, biting her lip and darting glances around the small crowd.
“Are there any questions?” Cook asked quietly.
The babel that broke out in response was cut short in seconds by a parade-ground shout of “Silence!” and the thump of a hoof on the tabletop. Shining Armor glared impartially around the table. “We don’t have time for that. Rules of order.” His voice was crisp, exhibiting little of his usual laid-back demeanor. Sunburst blinked and adjusted his steel-rimmed eyeglasses, but nodded quickly, endorsing the imposition of parliamentary procedure on the gathering.
Shining Armor chaired with stiff precision. If many of the questions thrown across the table were inane or even a little hysterical, causing his lips to thin with impatience, others were focused and to the point. Cook’s courteous calm dealt with them all, answering or directing them to one of his companions as needed. Galea and Rose bore much of the brunt, but even Sunset came in for her share of the spotlight, to her discomfort.
When at last the council ran down to uneasy mutters, the prince consort drew in a breath. “Okay. We’ll have to talk this over. Thanks, all of you.” As the visitors drew themselves up, he added, “Just one more thing before you go. Colonel Dame Galea, Captain Brass, on my authority, both of you are recalled to service and attached to my staff.”
Galea blew out a breath, almost a snort, but the much younger general seemed to take no offense at the highly informal acknowledgement from the crusty old veteran. Rose, by contrast, gaped for a moment, then responded, “Sir, I—I’m not under your authority.”
“Sure you are.” Shining Armor’s normally sunny smile was sardonic. “You were from the minute you took command of that infantry company. Or does that only work one way?”
A parade of expressions crossed Rose’s scarred face before she settled on doubtful. She turned to Cook. “He . . . can’t do that, can he?”
Cook’s brow quirked with unwonted consternation. “Normally, no, not without consulting with your nominal chain of command—but like he said, when you took over the company, you established a precedent. This is a friendly power, even if not a full ally, and there’s a long tradition of attaching foreign observers to general staffs. Besides, there’s no way in the current emergency to do any consulting. It’s what we diplomats like to call ‘a gray area’.”
“But—” Rose looked back and forth between the two stallions, then sagged slightly before bracing for the general. “Yes Sir.”
The seneschal, a quietly efficient middle-aged crystal pony who’d begun service during Princess Amore’s reign, accommodated all four with little fuss. Galea and Rose were assigned officers’ quarters adjacent to the palace detachment’s barracks. Cook, as a chargé d’affaires accredited to the crown, merited a formal suite—a pair of bedchambers on opposite sides of a small parlor, neatly sidestepping Sunset’s ambiguous status by making her a guest of Cook’s.
A new routine quickly established itself. Despite what had to be an agonizing uncertainty over the fates of his wife, sister, and beloved adoptive aunts by marriage, Shining Armor did his best to focus on his responsibilities as the head of the regency council, senior military officer, father, and host. In turn, the council and his newest visitors offered what support they could.
Galea split her time between staff duties and, with the general’s blessing, overseeing jury-rigged repairs of Comet. To her own surprise, Rose found her social-worker expertise in greater demand than her officer skills, counseling bewildered or grieving guardsponies—not excepting His Highness—while keeping the discussions private and inside the bounds of military propriety. Within the limits imposed by diplomatic constraints, Cook advised anypony who asked, and struck up a firm friendship with Sunburst. Sunset, however, had no official role to fill. Rather than spend her time stewing or fretting, and at the strong urging of pretty much every adult around her, she explored as the whim took her, both the palace itself and the city-state surrounding it.
Her Highness Princess Flurry Heart, just entering her “terrible twos”, was like any toddler a delight and a terror. Though a bit cranky over her mother’s continued absence, she otherwise remained blissfully unaware of the shadows over her world, and seemed fascinated by Sunset’s fiery colors and magical prowess. Her own fits of precocious power had begun to settle, much to the relief of the nursery staff—and the maintenance ponies who hadn’t been able to keep up completely with the wear and tear. Initially uneasy, Sunset nevertheless found herself charmed and ended up promising the filly, and the filly’s father, she would visit daily.
The townsponies maintained their polite hospitality, though after the proclamation summarizing the news, and the rumors from Comet’s crew, there was a brittle edge to their mood. Not infrequently Sunset found herself accosted by curious or worried ponies and questioned—as if she could provide more details than they already had. She answered as patiently as she could, though her temper occasionally made her responses a bit curt. Apologies, sometimes mutual, often followed.
Still, it was only a few days before Sunset more or less wore out the valley’s novelty. Casting about for further diversion, and the suggestions of several mildly exasperated ponies, brought her early one morning to the edge of the verdant circle and a sizable shingle-clad building, obviously constructed since the valley had returned to the present world. The backwood architecture and simple monument sign by the walkway weren’t the artificially quaint things her eye had become accustomed to on the other side of the portal; here they were the genuine article, what those faux-rustic artifacts sought to evoke.
The Arctic Patrol, she’d been told, acted as a sort of frontier constabulary, solving problems, keeping the peace, and upholding the law among the outlying homesteads up in the snowy foothills. Like many such organizations on either side of the portal, it was small and relatively informal, but took its job seriously. She looked up to the farmer’s porch fronting the headquarters and saw a young unicorn mare, mint green with puffy blue-white mane and decidedly not a crystal pony, waiting with a welcoming smile.
“Ms. Shimmer?” The tone was brisk but friendly. “I’m Constable Glitter Drops. We got the telegram from the palace saying you were interested in walking a circuit, so you’ll be accompanying me on my rounds today.”
Sunset’s brow furrowed thoughtfully. “Have we met? I get the feeling I’ve seen you before, Ma’am.”
The constable laughed. “I’m too young to be ‘Ma’am’. Just call me Glitter.” She sobered and cocked her head. “Now that you mention it, you seem familiar too. I know I’ve seen those colors and that mane style before. Can I see your mark?” When Sunset obliged, turning to show the red-and-yellow sun on her haunch, Glitter Drops brightened. “Oh yeah! You went to the School for Gifted Unicorns, didn’t you? I think you started a year or so before Spring Rain and I . . . left.” Suddenly her mood, and her gaze, fell.
“You dropped out too, huh?” Sunset’s voice was quiet and sympathetic.
That brought the other’s head up again, eyes wide. “You too? Gosh. It’s a pretty tough place, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but—” Sunset bit her lip. “Yeah. Come to think of it, I know of a lot of unicorns who, uh, didn’t graduate. You, me, your friend Spring Rain, Trixie Lulamoon—”
“Powder-blue coat, silver-white mane, always bragging?” Laughter lurked in Glitter’s tone this time.
“Yeah, that’s the one. I . . . sorta know her a little.” What Sunset didn’t add was she knew the illusionist’s human counterpart rather better, her acquaintance with the mare being mostly through Princess Twi’s journal and acerbic anecdotes related during Starlight Glimmer’s impromptu “vacation” with the Rainbooms after the affair with the enchanted mirror.
“And Sunburst—sorry, His Excellency Sunburst—if the rumors are right.” Glitter Drops paused as if struck by an epiphany. “Maybe he ended up here for the same reason I did.”
“You wanted to find someplace to make a new start, didn’t you?” Sunset’s smile was crooked.
“Pretty much.” Now the slightly older unicorn’s gaze was more pointed. “Sounds like you did the same thing. Where’d you go?”
“I, uh—” Sunset waved a hoof vaguely. “—can’t really talk about it.”
“Oh.” The constable eyed her askance, but after a moment shrugged and dropped it. “Well, we’re burning daylight, and I need to be on the road, so let’s go.”
Most of the house calls proved to be more about checking on the inhabitants of the isolated dwellings than solving puzzles or problems. By temperament the settlers tended to prefer being left alone while scratching modest livings from forest, furs, forage, or even fish. Only their equally modest expectations of life and the minimal cost of rural living gave them any semblance of prosperity, but they had their dignity and a strong sense of hospitality, as do many who live in harsh climes.
Glitter Drops proved a deftly amiable sort, able to draw out even the prickliest hermit. After the first two or three stops, Sunset simply kept her mouth shut and watched, marveling at the other unicorn’s ease with the sometimes fractious personalities. Ruefully she recognized this was how she might have turned out had she not been taken in by the Rainbooms, except bitter and spiteful rather than proud and independent—though with some of the ponies they visited it was hard to tell the difference.
“You’ve been awfully quiet,” the constable observed as they picked their way roughly eastward along a slightly muddy foot trail. Afternoon sunlight glared from snowdrifts and bare rock faces around them, and the day was merely cold, not bone-chilling.
Sunset thought a moment before replying slowly. “The ponies we’ve been seeing . . . they don’t seem to warm up to strangers right away, and I’m not the most, um, easygoing pony myself. I thought it was better to keep my mouth shut and let you deal with them. They know you. They don’t know me. I didn’t want to put my foot in it by saying something they wouldn’t like and making things harder for you.”
The other pony’s brows and ears went up. “That’s mighty thoughtful of you. I think some of them might surprise you, but I don’t blame you for not wanting to find out the hard way.”
The younger mare ducked her head. “Thanks. Um, how many more stops do we have today?”
When no immediate answer was forthcoming, she glanced over at Glitter Drops. The patroller was squinting into the distance. “Huh. We don’t get many airships up here.”
Sunset’s eyes widened and her head whipped around. There, far ahead of them, a small silhouette stood out against the lambent blue sky. She hissed one of Rose’s more sulphurous curses and added with rough haste, “We need to tell the palace about this. Right away.”