by Dave Bryant

Epilogue • The major

“Major Brass, Ma’am.” Raven Inkwell’s deferential announcement followed her brief knock on the doorjamb.
“Send her in, please, Raven.” The voice floating out through the open doorway was gentle and courteous.
The white-coated unicorn turned and nodded to the taller pegasus who’d followed her. “You can go right in, Major.” Her tone was perfectly serious, though a slight twinkle suggested she knew full well how unnecessary the instruction was.
The mares edged around each other, then Raven headed back down the dim, narrow corridor while Rose stepped forward. She blinked at the comparative brightness of the small, cozy study as she entered. To one side of the opposite corner, a fire crackled in a curvilinear fireplace; to the other, open curtains framed a set of tall windows looking out on midday snowfall partially obscuring the visible parts of Canterlot Palace.
Behind a low and very old-looking writing table piled high with paperwork, Princess Celestia, diarch and commander-in-chief of the Principality of Equestria, lay on the sort of brightly embroidered body cushion that often served the equine population in place of a desk chair. The major stamped her forehooves and braced with crisp precision. “Major Rose Brass, reporting as ordered, Your Royal Highness.”
The even larger mare looked her over, not at all discomfited by the officer’s ravaged face, fully exposed without a patch to cover any of the scars or the glass eye. “So I see, Major. Would you present those orders, please?”
Rose obediently moved closer and proffered a dispatch bag with her good wing. The bag itself, fine though it was, looked rather different than it had before transit through the portal. Despite Cook’s assurances legal instruments passed from one world to the other without alteration, she had double-checked to make sure, and was gratified to discover how correct the diplomat had been—right down to the exceedingly laconic and cryptic nature of the orders she carried with her. Indeed, the requirement to wear undress service uniform and not to wear her eyepatch for the meeting had stood out as one of the few specific points, and she’d wondered about it.
Celestia levitated the bag over and withdrew the sheaf from it; the brilliant white of the ink-jet paper contrasted sharply against the duller industrial-age sheets and the fine stationery already stacked on the tabletop. Somewhat absently she bade her guest, “Please make yourself comfortable, Major. Almost certainly we shall be here for some time.”
“Ma’am,” Rose acknowledged. She picked her way to the most generously proportioned of the pillow-like seats arranged in an arc before the princess’s table and settled on it with an uneasy mantling of wings. Indoors, and in the presence of a head of state, her headgear was held under her metal wing; it nearly fell before she belatedly clamped a better grip on it.
The portal had done its best with her brand-new uniform, but the result still came out decidedly odd. Rose felt dubious about the complete disappearance of the goldenrod-piped blue trousers, but the bright white blouse, dark necktie, and midnight tunic remained. The gold-edged passants bearing major’s tabs at the points of the shoulders suffered somewhat, equine shoulders having no points. Her ribbon rack, with its small, brightly colored rectangles symbolizing awards and achievements, perforce sat higher on her chest, but showed proudly.
Celestia looked up from the papers with another faint smile and nodded toward a corner supporting a slightly less towering stack of papers. “If you’d like, Major, you can put your cap on the desk.” Rose accepted the offer with some relief, extending her prosthetic wing to place her cover, as her military habit insisted on calling it, where indicated. The princess went on, “Would you care for some tea? Or perhaps coffee, since that seems to be the lifeblood of every military service.”
Rose nodded politely at the amused observation but didn’t dare refuse royal hospitality. “Thank you, Ma’am. A small cup of coffee wouldn’t go amiss.” Cook’s more poetic, and deliberately archaic, turn of phrase had rubbed off a little, she was bemused to note.
With the air of much practice, and without calling for a minion to do the work, her hostess promptly levitated a small urn and handleless mug of a style Rose associated with the navy, simultaneously placing cruets of cream and sugar before the guest. “I’m pleased to see the matter of your induction settled—even if you can’t wear it or talk about it anywhere but here.”
Involuntarily Rose glanced down at the ribbons marching in rows. There, among the more familiar patterns, nestled an ivory-white bar, at its middle a tiny golden sun with eight curly rays, and at each end a pair of matching vertical gold stripes. “Yes, Ma’am. It took . . . a lot of discussion. Foreign awards can be touchy in any service, and a foreign order of chivalry more so, even if it’s just honorary—but there is some precedent for it, so they were able to fall back on that.” Her attention remained determinedly on the cruets and mug rather than looking up. “The badge is restricted to dress uniform. For undress it’s ribbon only, and since the orders specified undress service uniform . . .” She trailed off and, rather than attempt to finish the sentence, took a sip of the quite excellent coffee.
“I was intrigued by the notion of simple, but practical, ribbons,” Celestia commented idly and perhaps mercifully as she returned to looking over the documents Rose had brought. “Here, of course, the Guard still issues only full medals and badges, and I suspect attempting to introduce ribbons at this time would be met with, shall we say, reluctance.”
“I don’t doubt it, Ma’am.” Rose essayed a hesitant smile. “Tradition is very important to the military mind.”
“So it is, and understandably,” the princess agreed as she put down the papers with an air of satisfied finality and peered more closely at the ribbon. “I presume the pair of stripes represents your honorary rank in the order, on both ends for symmetry?”
“That’s correct, Ma’am.”
“Then I shall convey my pleasure and thanks to the . . . Institute, is it not? . . . for their respectful and diligent attention to detail.” With another nod, Celestia closed the subject. “To you I convey my regrets you were forced to endure two boards of inquiry, not just one.”
Rose’s brow went up. “Thank you, Ma’am, but I’d have been shocked by any other outcome. The Guard certainly was justified in convening one, and I knew my own service would do so as well. If anything, the only surprise was how quickly both of them acted. I do appreciate the depositions going both ways, though; they were very positive, and I’m sure they were instrumental in the boards’ deliberations.”
“No doubt the report you provided to General Spitfire, and the copy the Guard provided to the Army, weighed in your favor as well. Of course, in the other direction, receiving copies of your recall to duty and promotion, not to mention assignment as attaché to Mister Cook, came as quite a surprise—as much to the both of you, I gather, as to the Guard’s board members.” Very much in evidence was the mischievous humor that inspired said diplomat to murmur very quietly, safely on the other side of the portal and out of Sunset’s hearing, the half-affectionate, half-exasperated nickname “Trollestia”. “I feel certain those orders must have been cut, and backdated, while the three of you were here in Equestria, whatever their actual wording.”
When Rose bit her lip, the princess relented, regarding her with cool approval. “You are an exemplary officer, Major, so I expected nothing less than the glowing findings rendered by both boards. And I am pleased your government acted promptly to protect you, even if it did mean resorting to backdating.”
There was nothing for Rose to do but nod—and swallow a lump in the throat. “Thank you, Ma’am. That truly means a great deal to me.”
“You are welcome,” Celestia answered with a smile of empathy rather than mischief. More briskly, she continued, “Now then. I had been receiving your reports through Princess Twilight, of course, but I wish to be brought up to date about the sirens.” Her tone became dry. “There’s been something of an interruption, after all.”
“They’re not happy,” Rose admitted, not happily. “They expected me to be around a while longer, and I expected to be there. The bureaucracy wasn’t happy either, since there’s no one else with a security clearance available to take over their case. The only way to cut through the thicket was for Mister Logos Rhetor and Ms. Harmonia, their former foster parents, to take the coursework and receive certification from Social Services. That created its own complications, but everything about the case has been outside the lines.” Her wings shrugged. “It’s not ideal, but it should work.”
“And their therapy?”
“That, at least, is progressing as well as can be expected.” Rose sighed through her nose, mouth tight. “I still believe they should, and probably will, elect to live in the other world for the long term, since they lack even the most basic magic now. But the therapist and I also think they eventually may need supplementary treatment here, because we can’t escape the nagging feeling there may be factors relating to this world we simply can’t address. However, that’s for the future, and is not imminent.”
“I shall speak to Twilight about working out a new reporting process with Mister Rhetor and Ms. Harmonia, then,” Celestia thought out loud. “Be that as it may. Major Brass, I apologize for upending your work and your life, but as you discovered during your time up north, your combination of military and counseling backgrounds is unique—at least here, in this world—and as it happens, I have an urgent need for exactly that combination.”
“Ma’am?” Rose’s brow furrowed in puzzled concern.
Celestia’s alicorn lit, and a matching golden glow tugged on a dangling tapestry pull, ringing a bell somewhere in the depths of the palace. “I requested your attachment to the Guard for an unusual duty. You will watch over, in every sense of that phrase, a younger, but senior, retired officer—minder, counselor, and bodyguard, all in one. You are a good match in several respects: you are similarly an outsider, you have the maturity of your greater years, and you are not accepting of obstructionism. In short, as your mark indicates, you are as close to ideal for the task as any individual I know of.”
Rose’s hide twitched in equine reflex at the reference, causing the budding red rose on bronze heater shield that graced each of her haunches to ripple nervously. At her first sight of it in the Everfree, during the flight from Twilight’s tower, the mark had seemed nothing more than a simple rebus. After working to help so many distraught guardsponies—and others—in the wake of the infantry battle at the junction town and while billeted in the crystal tower, it seemed somehow inevitable. “May I ask what task, Ma’am?” A hint of desperation crept into the question. “My orders were . . . unusually unclear about that. Well, about almost everything, including how long the assignment would last.”
“You may ask, and it will become clear shortly.” Celestia’s attention was on the door. “As for duration, I simply don’t know. It depends entirely on how well, or poorly, matters progress.”
Rose opened her mouth again, but before she could speak the door behind her opened. She twisted around to look.
In the doorway stood a unicorn mare every bit as tall and fit, but more heavily built and at least a decade younger. Her claret coat was short and weathered. A tall, stiff reddish ruff ran down the back of her neck, more like a true mane than the head-of-hair most ponies sported. Her aqua eyes were strangely melancholy; a scar ran above and below one of them, though the damage did not seem to extend to the eyeball itself. Most of all, though, it was the alicorn that drew one’s attention: ragged and ugly, more than half its length simply gone, jagged keratin scabbing over what otherwise would be exposed bone and nerve tissue.
Suddenly Rose understood why she had been ordered not to wear her eyepatch. The pegasus scrambled to her feet and faced the newcomer, who looked back with a sort of forlorn pride. Behind her, Celestia said quietly, “Major Rose Brass, this is Colonel Tempest Shadow.”