Manechester, the Mug Club coffee house, two weeks later…
“Thank you for taking the time to have coffee with me, Turner,” said Close Watch, injecting a careful dose of post-grad exhaustion into her tone as she sat down at the café table across from Dr. Page Turner. “I just feel so blessed to be able to learn from an expert like you.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble, Scarlet,” the professor assured her. “I’m just happy to make myself available to ponies who need me.”
It was early morning between classes. Page Turner and Close Watch were seated in one of the many coffee houses that had sprung up around the Manechester College of Arts and Science. The Mug Club wouldn’t have been Close Watch’s first pick (she much preferred the Bent Barista, which sold Black Crossbow coffee), but it was exactly the sort of place that ‘Scarlet Rose’ would frequent.
Or, as my brother would put it, a place where the ponies who ‘don’t follow trends’ and ‘don’t let other ponies tell them how to think’ can wear the same clothes, get the same manecuts, have the same peer-approved opinions, and engage in the same socially acceptable conversations.
Close took a deliberate sip of her latte and willed the deplorable mixture of pumpkin spice and coffee to smother the thought before it could affect ‘Scarlet’s’ demeanor.
“So,” said Turner, bringing her back to the present, “what can I help you with today?”
“I’d like some insight into the Vox Mannorum,” the mare replied. “As you know, I’m writing my thesis on the rise of the Populist party, and, well,” she chuckled, “you can’t very well talk about the Populists without the popular activists who support them.” Popular agitators more like, corrected her inner voice. She took another sip to shut the voice up. “I’m especially interested in their founder, Dr. Ardor.”
“Ah, Errant Ardor,” said Turner fondly. “Now there was a pony with a grand vision! He was my mentor, you know.”
It’d be hard not to know with all the photos on your desk and the way you name-drop him in half your lectures. Close Watch resorted to biting her tongue to shut up the distracting thoughts and resolved to tell her brother that his sarcasm had infected one of her cover identities the next time they spoke.
“Errant Ardor had a brilliant mind,” praised Turner as Close took notes. “He saw the corruption of the system and resolved to bring ponies together against the forces keeping them down. And not just ponies, either. If his vision had taken root the way he’d hoped, the whole world would be one step closer to collective harmony! I remember reading his Activists’ Almanac when I was still an undergrad…”
What followed was the fairly standard white-washed version of Errant Ardor’s life that Close had heard more than once from followers of the deceased pony’s vision. It painted a rosy picture of a utopian future for Equestria and, eventually, the world. Though she took notes as Scarlet was expected to, she wasn’t hearing anything she hadn’t really heard before about Ardor. Nor was that her primary objective. Rather, she hoped to glean context from the personal anecdotes that Turner supplied, and from them to paint a better picture of the lives of Page Turner and his associates. It was her experience that such discrete fishing expeditions tended to trick ponies into revealing more than they realized. Of almost equal importance, it helped maintain her cover.
By the time Turner was reaching the end of his story, Close hadn’t heard anything fresh about Ardor (other than the fact that he had a prosthetic hip), but she had taken note of two classmates of Turner’s who had gone on to pursue parliamentary careers.
The intelligence officer was just finishing her notes and preparing to wrap up the conversation when things took an unexpected turn.
“Yes, he truly was a visionary,” sighed Turner. “A tragedy he was ‘lost at sea’ before he could spread the ideals of collective harmony to the four corners of the world.”
Close’s pen paused mid-word. Technically, nothing Turner said was beyond the scope of public knowledge and personal opinion, but the way he said ‘lost at sea’ stuck out to her like a horn on a pegasus. “Sorry, Turner, maybe I’m just imagining things,” began the agent carefully, “but it almost sounded like you put ‘lost at sea’ in air quotes.”
Turner appeared mystified. “Did I? Well, I assure you it was unintentional. True, there were always rumors that ponies who feared his radical ideas might have silenced him, but who can really take such conspiracy theories seriously.” He chuckled to himself. “Ridiculous!”
His tone was convincing. Close wasn’t convinced. She smiled as though she was. “Yeah, ridiculous,” she agreed. “Ponies believe all kinds of crazy things, don’t they?”
The pair parted ways not long after that. Close took a circuitous route back to her apartment, nominally to run errands, practically to ensure that she wasn’t being followed. The university knew where she lived, of course, but it paid to take precautions in case the threat came from a different angle. It didn’t hurt that she genuinely did need to run by the library, which happened have plenty of convenient spots along the route to ditch a tail. Once she’d picked up the books she needed and determined that nopony was dogging her shadow, she returned to her apartment.
Close entered the second story three-room flat and checked that the security measures she had in place, both magical and mundane, were undisturbed. Satisfied that nopony, or any other creature for that matter, had breached her perimeter, she hung her hat and scarf, drew the window shades, and trotted over to her dining room table.
It appeared to be an ordinary oaken affair of no particular note, if a little overlarge for a single occupant, until she lit her horn and touched it to the table’s surface. Recognizing her magic signature, a previously invisible seam appeared down the middle of the table and it opened like a triptych, revealing a complex tac-board connecting pictures, scribbled notes, locations, dates, newsclippings, and the like. Applying her magic to her ottoman in the sitting room gave access to personnel files, while the back of her well-stocked larder held a stack of analytical reports. Additional files and a signal flare (the latter of which stayed put) lurked in a concealed compartment in the liquor cabinet behind the vodka.
More important than any of that, however, were the books she’d picked up from the library – compendiums of news reports from papers that covered Errant Ardor’s life and, more importantly, his death.
‘Lost at sea’ she repeated to herself. Whatever Turner says, he doesn’t think it was just a boating accident. But what does he really think happened? And is he right?
In all probability, it didn’t matter one way or the other. Errant Ardor had died over fifteen years ago when he’d been swept overboard by a wild storm that battered his yacht. The body was never recovered, but the investigation found, among other things, a snapped safety line and blood in the splinters of a smashed railing. It was concluded that he’d hit the railing as he went overboard. Any missing ponies case like this held plenty of unknowns, but this one was broadly considered open-and-shut.
Moreover, there was no evidence tying Ardor to the Shades, other than that he was a mentor to many ponies, one of whom happened to be Turner, who happened to be a mentor to Bound Glyph, who might be a traitor.
It was tangential at best, and conventional wisdom dictated that Close Watch spend her efforts pursuing other leads. Previous conversations with Turner and other faculty and staff had yielded the names of three current or former members of the EUP Guard besides Bound Glyph that Turner closely mentored, as well as more than a dozen who went into government employment and other lofty positions. One had even gone for a master’s degree at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.
Then there was Glyph himself, a stallion who was loved by professors who shared his worldview and who most other professors politely refrained from commenting on. Everything she discovered about him seemed to confirm what little she knew for certain, but nothing was enough to make it clear if he simply had radical views or if he’d been radicalized. Turner, for his part, was equally ambiguous. Both parties bore deeper investigation.
Even with Close Watch sending reports on all ponies of interest to Earnest Query at EMI headquarters, she was still better placed to gather intel from the source. Other agents likely would have focused on doing just that and dismissed Turner’s remark as irrelevant opinion.
Close Watch was not those agents. Her gut told her Ardor’s death mattered. She wasn’t sure why, but she was sure it did. So she opened the first book and began to skim for relevant data.
Page after page of old news reports proved useless, running the gamut from sanctifying the deceased pony to practically breaking out into song and dance over his death. The latter gave Close a bad taste in her mouth. His views were deplorable, but death isn’t something we should regard cheaply.
As time wore on and the stack of publications dwindled, Close began to despair of finding anything useful in the papers. Then a single sentence from the Haystings Chronicle made her sit bolt upright in shock. Well now, she thought, smiling slowly, isn’t that an unexpected wrinkle. She lit her horn and jotted down a coded message while simultaneously packing away the tools of her trade in a burst of telekinetic power. As soon as she was done, she grabbed her work-out bag and headed to the gym, apparently to exercise. In reality, it was to use the dead drop in the mares’ locker room.
It would take time for the message to reach Canterlot. The dead drop wouldn’t be checked for another hour, and the system of couriers it would take to transport the message, though well-hidden, still took the better part of a day to make the trip. By the time Colonel Query and the Royals got the message, Celestia would have set the sun.
But we finally have something fresh to pursue, Close thought with satisfaction as she trotted to the gym. She wasn’t sure what that something was yet, but she was certain it was important.
For it just so happened that the Detective Chief Superintendent who’d investigated Errant Ardor’s presumed accident at sea had been an EUP Guard veteran. Not long after Ardor’s disappearance, this investigator had returned to the EUP and served for several years before retiring, moving back to Haystings, and suffering a fatal ‘accident’ of his own not long after the Shade attack on Canterlot.
His name was Captain Well Met, and he’d been the one to assign Bound Glyph to the Solar Guard.
Canterlot Castle, late that night…
Argent bit the inside of her cheek. She was backed into a corner and she knew it; outmaneuvered, outfought, and out of time. Her enemy smirked at her from across the table. The square-jawed stallion didn’t even bother to hide his smugness. She longed to wipe that smirk off his face, but knew that she was powerless to stop him. The only way I’m getting out of this alive is if he lets me, and I very much doubt that is what he intends. She had only one play left – a desperate bid to save herself. It wouldn’t work. But she had no other options.
“What if I traded you three wheat and two wood for that brick?”
First Sergeant Brick shook his head. “Sorry, Cap. Brick needs his brick. And you’ve got nothing I want.”
The unicorn mare slapped her cards down on the table in impotent rage. “Miserable plebian,” she hissed.
Laughter rippled through the other five ponies seated around the table. “Ooh, Sarge, she called you a plebian,” tutted Corporal Thresher with a cheeky grin on his face. “Could it be that our beloved captain is secretly a Primarchist sympathizer?”
Argent’s blood boiled at the mention of Lord Highcastle’s cabal, and she shot a baleful glare at the NCO. “You’re already on thin ice for bringing up the matter of the hydra in front of the Bearers when we were in Ponyville, Thresher. Don’t push what little luck you have left.”
First Lieutenant Snapshot examined his own cards with a dissatisfied frown, adding to the conversation without glancing up. “He brought up the hyrda in public and still has luck left? My, you’re feeling generous, Captain. What are the odds of my getting leave?”
“About the same odds as one of us stealing this game from Brick,” replied Argent bluntly.
“Thought I’d ask.”
Sergeant Miru sagged back in her chair with a groan, her wings flaring out. The diminutive brown pegasus addressed the ceiling with her thick Austailian accent. “What drongo ’ad the stupid idea ta play Cartaan anyway?”
Brick smiled at the junior sergeant. “I think Settlers of Cartaan is a great game, Ru.”
“Rack off, Sarge.”
“Now, now,” chided Chaplain Trench, the kindly earth pony’s Connemaras lilt rising as he adjusted his glasses with a peach-cream hoof. “There’s no need ta get testy o’er a friendly game.”
Miru sat up and raised an eyebrow at Trench. “Rev, you honestly gonna tell me ’is winning streak don’t bug ya?”
“Well, I didn’t say that,” admitted the stallion. His gaze shifted to glare at Thresher. “O’ course, Brick might not ’ave such a lead if somepony had been willing ta trade me tha wood I needed ta cut off ’is roads.”
“Hey, I offered you all the sheep you could ever want,” protested Thresher.
Miru practically lunged over the table. “For the last time, Thresher, nopony wants your stupid sheep!”
Brick chuckled throatily. “Ponies, ponies, if you really think it’s such a forgone conclusion you could always just forfeit—”
“NO!” chorused the other players.
“I just don’t understand it,” said Snapshot, glowering at the board as he ran a hoof over his receding maneline. “The rest of us all have settlements and cities on brick hexes with better odds than his. Eights, sixes, fives… and none of them get rolled! Only his stupid four ever gets rolled!”
“It must be his cutie mark,” said Argent dryly as she ended her turn passed the dice to the next player. “His special talent nets him all the brick he’ll ever need. We’ve been playing at a disadvantage since we started.”
“Next week we’re going back to Appaloosan Hold ‘Em,” declared Miru. “At least I’ll have a chance at winning with Morning Song stuck in Ponyville.”
“Or maybe bridge,” suggested Brick with a sly glance at Thresher. “We could finally have a run at the captain when her favorite partner is absent.”
“Fine,” Argent replied, unfazed. “Instead of Song, the reverend will be my partner.” Trench smiled wickedly.
“Hm,” grimaced Brick. “Maybe not then.”
“Ugh!” moaned Miru, gazing at the board in despair. “Even watching you four dags play bridge all night would be better than this slaughter.”
“You know what would make this better, Miru?” challenged Thresher. “If you rolled the dice.”
“A’right, don’t get yer knickers in a twist, Thresh, I’m rolling the bloody— OH BUCKING TARTARUS!”
Similar cries of dismay echoed around the table, supplemented by Brick’s roaring laughter. “Another four?!” Thresher’s voice was practically a shriek. “How?! How the buck is that possible?!”
“Fate must hate us,” sighed Argent.
Miru pushed the dice away as though she were afraid they might bite her. “Rev, you want to adjure these dice? Make sure they aren’t cursed?”
“I’m beginnin’ ta consider it,” admitted Trench.
Further banter was cut short by a knock at the door. “Captain Argent?” called a voice of the company clerk.
“Come in, Booker.” The door opened to admit a thin, bespectacled unicorn. Booker’s uniform was immaculate, with not a strand of clothe out of place – a sharp contrast to the opened coats, missing ties, and rumpled appearance of every other pony in the room except for Argent. Even the chaplain had loosened his collar and rolled up his sleeves for the weekly game night. Next to their motley assembly, Booker looked downright starched.
Not that he seemed to mind. The stoic clerk was long-accustomed to the informality displayed by much of the REF. Especially since my command seems to have attracted a disproportionate number of reprobates. Excepting the chaplain, of course. “What’s the word, Booker?” she asked.
“Sorry to disturb your game, ma’am, but Princess Celestia has requested that you and Chaplain Trench meet her in her study immediately.”
Argent glanced at the clock in surprise. It was well past ten o’clock, and the Princess seldom conducted formal business so late. And why the both of us? She gave a mental shrug. Ours not to reason why. Standing up from the table and giving her uniform a fastidious (and unnecessary) once-over, she started for the door. “Well, you heard the stallion. Let’s be about it.”
“O’ course,” said Trench, a slight waver in his voice at the prospect of an audience with the princess. The humble stallion had met her before on a number of occasions, but it remained something of a daunting experience for him all the same. Then, with a rueful smile, he observed, “I can’t really complain about bowing out o’ this banjaxed game. Brick’s got us beat.”
At the mention of the game, Argent turned a quizzical gaze to Booker. “Corporal, have you ever played Cartaan before?”
“And you were supposed to stop working hours ago, were you not?” she added a touch more censoriously.
Booker was silent for a barely perceptible second. Caught red-hooved. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Then you’re taking over for me,” she declared with a smirk. “It’ll do you good.”
“But ma’am, I don’t know how to play!” he protested.
She patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Booker. You can’t possibly do any worse than I did. And, besides,” she flicked an ear in Trench’s direction, “you’ll get his assets as well.”
“How come he gets the chaplain’s stuff?” groused Brick.
Argent rolled her eyes. “Because even with our assets combined, you’re still ahead, Sergeant. So keep a stiff upper lip and dry your tears. There’s a good lad.” The other players chuckled at Brick’s expense. “Have fun, Booker. That’s an order. And, gentleponies,” she said, glancing back at the others. “Go easy on the poor boy.”
The captain and the chaplain set out for Celestia’s chambers, acknowledging passing Lunar Guards as they made their way through the darkened castle. Trench fumbled to get his uniform presentable as they walked. Taking pity on him, Argent lent him magical assistance. “No need to worry, Trench,” she said as she straightened his lieutenant’s bars and the heart-and-sword badge of a combat chaplain. “You’ve met Celestia before. She’s hardly a sphinx waiting to slay you for a mistaken answer.”
“Easy for you to say,” replied Trench with a nervous chuckle. “She may be princess and commander-in-chief ta the both of us, but she’s my spiritual superior!”
Argent was forced to agree. Trench was a chaplain of the Solarian Order, one of the ministerial communities dedicated to spreading Harmony throughout Equestria and beyond. They were tasked with caring for the spiritual and temporal health of any creature found under their care, whether that meant teaching the Way of Harmony, officiating marriages, performing funerals, counseling the wayward, or simply being guides on the oft confusing journey of life.
The Solarians were one of the oldest orders, founded by Celestia herself. As such, they answered directly to her. And, while Argent and Trench both knew the princess to be among the most forgiving of taskmistresses, the captain could appreciate that reporting to one’s Princess on matters of the flesh was doubtless a different sort of anxiety than reporting to one’s Mother Superior on matters of the soul.
“Deep breaths, Trench,” said Argent with a gentle smile. “You’ll get on just fine.”
They came to Celestia’s chambers and were greeted by the veteran Lunar Guards on duty. Once they’d answered the challenge, one of the Lunars knocked on the door to announce their arrival. “Enter,” ordered the princess from within. Argent shot the nervous Trench one last reassuring glance before entering.
Celestia’s sitting room was surprisingly small for a royal chamber. Its only furniture consisted of a pair of sideboards for drinks and writing materials, an overstuffed divan, and several plush chairs. The rug looked comfortable enough to sleep on, and a truly impressive fireplace dominated the right wall. Several tapestries of thick weave depicting various elements of the cosmos hung upon the walls. Every stitch of cloth was masterfully embroidered, and every stick of furniture ornately wrought, yet the room had the close, intimate feel of a cozy reading nook. And, while the intricate décor was quite beautiful, it was entirely too richly colored and the sitting area entirely too comfortable to adhere to the current High Society’s definition of ‘proper.’ Without effort Argent could have listed a few dozen faded lords and ladies who would have called the princess’s sitting room ‘plebian;’ the attempt of a ‘New Money’ pony to emulate the ‘true’ High Class. Which is a not inconsiderable part of why I like this room so much.
Celestia herself was laying on the divan, and looked to have been reading a letter before their arrival. Argent gave a slight start when she saw the princess, as the alicorn had dispensed with all her royal regalia. Not that she looked any less regal – the lack of adornment did nothing to undercut the effortless power, grace, and beauty that radiated from her with an almost visible intensity – but Argent had always felt that seeing the princess without her crown was akin to seeing General Red ‘Blood Red’ Rampart in his bathrobe. It made her uncomfortable to see Celestia lounging on a couch like a common mortal, ethereal mane and alicorn physiology notwithstanding.
The princess smiled as they entered. “Ah, my friends. Please, sit.” The two bowed and did as they were bade. “I am truly sorry for taking you from your weekly game. I trust you were enjoying yourselves?”
“As much as any officer enjoys losing to her rapscallion first sergeant,” replied Argent. “I probably ought to discuss the uncharitable thoughts I was harboring with the good reverend here.”
Trench raised an eyebrow. “I have a feeling I’ll be hearing from all tha other players before tha week is out.”
Celestia’s laughter was musical. “Well, I think it is wonderful that you all take the time to maintain such a tradition.” She looked to the side to watch the fire for a time. “It is all too easy for such things to be lost in the chaos, especially in harsh times. But I believe that those are the times when such simple, honest joys become most vital.”
She was silent for a time after that. Argent glanced at Trench, who gave her a confused shrug. Once the quiet had stretched on for what Argent judged to be intolerably long, she cleared her throat. “Begging your pardon, Princess, but why did you summon us?”
The alicorn did not reply immediately, but instead watched the fire as though seeing something that only she was privy to. Argent was half-tempted to cast a detection spell on the blaze to see if there was something that only she was seeing and went as far as to start running through the spell formula in her head when Celestia finally spoke. “Trench, you served for many years in foreign missions before becoming a Guard Chaplain, yes?”
The stallion was startled by the sudden question. “That I did, Your Highness.”
“You also served as an Adjurist in those times, a task which I understand came to include some… intermittent witch-hunting.”
Trench’s face sobered. “Yes.”
“How did you feel about that?” she asked. Trench hemmed and hawed over his words and the princess turned to face him with a gentle smile. “I know that’s a rather broad question, Trench, but you should feel free to answer it however you see fit.”
The chaplain chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment before answering, “The foreign missions were grand, Princess. Ya find good sorts all over the world, an’ there’s a lot o’ places I woulda been happy ta put down roots. As for the other work, well…” he glanced at the fireplace, then back at the princess, “I’m proud o’ the work I did. It was bone deep satisfyin’ and I’d do it again if needs be. And,” he interjected with a slight chuckle, “from what the captain tells me that’s not much of an ‘if.’ But I won’t lie an’ pretend it didn’t wear on me.”
“I’d be surprised if it didn’t,” replied Celestia. “If any pony suggested that such work was easy, I’d have to guess he was, how do you Connemaras put it, ‘not the full shilling.’”
Trench smirked. “That or drunk off ’is tail, but yeah.”
“But, as you say, you’d do it again if needed.”
The stallion shrugged. “O’ course, Your Highness. I may not be a warrior like the captain here, but I came up boxing. I know how ta take a punch.”
Argent raised an eyebrow at Trench. ‘Not a warrior,’ eh? Tell that to the Bronze Star you got for rescuing those troopers in Yprance.
Judging by the smile on Celestia’s face, she didn’t believe Trench’s assertion any more than Argent did. “Whatever the case, Trench, I’m glad I saw fit to assign a scrapper like you to Argent’s command. Whether at home or abroad, you have a lot to offer the unit and those they protect. I had a feeling they’d need a chaplain of your moral fiber.”
Argent smiled. “We’ll have to get you a thank-you card, Princess.”
The blushed and looked at the floor. “You’re too kind, Your Highness.”
Celestia’s face darkened and she glared with mock severity at the chaplain. “Too kind, you say? So, are you accusing me of poor judgment or deceit?” Trench stammered, tripping over his tongue as he tried to backpedal from his accidental ‘offense’ to the sovereign, but Celestia didn’t let him suffer for long. “Forgive me, Trench,” she said with a reassuring grin, “but I am a bit of a tease.”
Trench sagged with relief while Argent shot her diarch an arch look. “Couldn’t help yourself, could you?” the captain asked.
“I must find humor where I can, Argent. Surely you know the feeling, being that you suggested colt bands to my sister as the subject of my dreams.”
Argent blanched. Celestia’s pleasant demeanor hadn’t shifted, but suddenly Argent felt like she was sharing a room with a cobra. “In my defense, Your Highness…” She stopped herself from saying ‘I didn’t count on your sister having an evil streak as long as yours’ and settled on, “…Krucjata is a terrible influence on me.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” granted Celestia. “Returning to the matter at hoof, however, I would like to borrow your chaplain tomorrow and likely the day after for Friar Jacques’ Canterlot visit.”
It’ll be good to see the friar again, thought Argent. Even if it’ll play havoc with my schedule for the next few days. Ah well, at least he’s coming in on the 1100 train tomorrow and not the 0500.
Celestia held up the letter she’d been reading. “In preparation for his arrival, Twilight wrote to me today with an in-depth report on Jacques, both the progress and the difficulties.”
Argent’s eyebrows shot up. “Has little Twilight truly reached the point where such a report would only fill a single page?” she asked in astonishment.
The captain had heard Celestia laugh many times, but it was always a dainty, ladylike laugh – the sort of polite, regal thing that would be expected of the unflappable Ruler of the Day. What she had not heard was Celestia descend into gales of laughter that rocked the princess on her divan, brought tears to her eyes, and almost caused her to fall out of her seat.
That is, until now.
Celestia laughed like Argent had trotted in Don Ponette to do his Chineighs Buffet routine after the princess had taken one too many drinks. The volume of the laughter was such that Argent bacame half-convinced that there was a ‘Royal Canterlot Guffaw.’ Had Argent been less surprised, she likely would have joined in the laughter. As it was, she (and Trench, for that matter) were too stunned to do more than stare.
Eventually, when Celestia could breath again, she managed to answer the question. “You… you think this is it?” she gasped, her voice still tremulous with mirth. “N-no, Argent. This… *snort* … this is just the endnote page. This…” her horn lit and a scroll with the approximate girth of an apple tree’s trunk levitated from the floor behind her divan, “… is the report.”
“Ye-es,” replied Argent, drawing the word into two beats. “That’s a touch more believable.”
“In any case,” continued Celestia, wiping tears from her eyes, “it seems that Jacques would benefit from talking cleric-to-cleric with one of ours, especially one with your experience both in dealing with other cultures and in dealing with the darker realities of the world.”
Trench nodded. “O’ course, Princess. I’m ever at your disposal.”
“Thank you, Trench,” she said warmly. “You may return to your game night if you wish; no doubt you will need to quell any violence that has broken out in your absence. I’m going to keep Argent a moment longer so that you have time to settle things without getting the commanding officer involved.”
She said it casually, jokingly even, but Argent knew that she wouldn’t have been pulled from her game at this hour over something minor; seeing Trench at the same time had likely been a matter of convenience as much as anything. Trench graciously took his leave, apparently guileless of the subterfuge. Or perhaps he knows exactly what’s happening and simply recognizes a hint to bow out. He has a great deal of depth behind that humble exterior, and innocence is not the same as naivete.
Once he’d gone, the captain raised an eyebrow at the princess. “Am I correct in supposing that you didn’t ask the rev to trot off so that you could show me the latest budget cuts inflicted upon the Guard by our civilian overlords?”
Celestia shot Argent a look that was half-censorious, half-amused. “I believe you do the sitting Government a disservice, Argent. They’ve fought very hard to keep you supplied in peacetime.”
“And, despite repeated recent threats to upset that peacetime, Their Majesties’ Most Loyal Opposition has fought even harder to defang us, if you’ll pardon my saying so, Your Highness,” replied Argent coolly.
The diarch’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “All the more reason to be appreciative of the efforts of the Prime Minister and the Tri-Party Alliance against them.”
Argent’s ears folded. The statement had been a rebuke, however politely stated. “I’ll be sure to send Fancy a fruit basket then,” she said with a meek smile.
Celestia gave a slight smile, accepting the unspoken apology. “You are correct. I did not ask you here to discuss budgets, however entertaining it may be to watch you gnash your teeth.” She levitated a field report into view. “How familiar are you with Errant Ardor?”
The captain’s lip curled at the name. “The chap who thought the best way to advance the cause of activists was to vilify one group and pit everypony else against them? Founder of those rabble-rousing Vox Mannorum and all their distasteful knee-jerk anti-anything-they-see-as-the-establishment drivel? I’m familiar. Can’t say I shed any tears when he shuffled off this mortal coil.”
“Yes, well,” Celestia passed her the report, “Close Watch says there are those who think he may have received some help on that shuffle.” Argent frowned and read through Watch’s detailed analysis of the professor’s words, as well as the contextual revelations of her investigation. When she finished, Celestia asked, “Well, what do you think?”
Argent rolled her tongue along her teeth as she pondered how to answer. “It’d seem like quite a leap to make, if not for all the sobering connections between Ardor, Well Met, Page Turner, and our suspected mole. But, even if Page Turner’s right and somepony did give ole Ardor the heave ho, who offed him?”
“A good question,” said Celestia. “There was certainly no love lost between Ardor and ponies like you or I but, whatever my detractors may think, I am not in the habit of having political enemies assassinated.” Dryly, she murmured, “Not that it’s never crossed my mind.” Argent snorted as the princess resumed her normal tone. “I suppose it’s possible that one of my agents went rogue, but neither Ernie nor I think that’s likely. Far more likely is that one of Ardor’s other enemies killed him and made it look like an accident.”
The captain grimaced. Now I wish I’d been paying more attention to the political situation at the time. “And who might those enemies be, Princess?” she asked aloud.
“The Primarchists, obviously,” answered Celestia, “Ardor threatened their wealth, power, and isolationism, so they had plenty of incentive to silence him. Then there are the radical nativists who hated him for his globalist dreams. He received more than one death threat from ponies who later became part of the Equestria First Party. There are other individual enemies he made, but those are the two biggest cabals of powerful ponies who had known reasons to kill him.”
“I suppose they’re as good a place to start looking as any,” admitted Argent. “Only… what does this all have to do with the Shades?”
“Ah,” smiled Celestia, “now that is the real question. To be quite frank, this could all be purely coincidental. Well Met was the Haystings DCS at the time, and Ardor’s yacht went missing in his jurisdiction. Even if Captain Met was dirty, that doesn’t mean that every case he ever worked on is suspect. But…”
“…but then there’s the matter of Ardor’s connection to the professor who, in turn, is connected to Glyph, who is connected back to Well Met.”
Celestia passed over another pair of files for soldiers named Goldenrod and Blue Blade. “There’s more. Ernie ran the names Close Watch sent back. He discovered that Well Met handled the background checks for two other students who were also mentored by Turner.”
Argent huffed. “This is a real shambles, then, isn’t it? Of course, there’s not much ponies like you and I can do about it directly without attracting attention. Which leaves us stuck keeping an ear to the ground in the hopes of getting lucky while the spooks work their magic.”
“I’m afraid so,” said Celestia.
“Typical,” sighed Argent. “Well, best to just carry on if there’s naught else to say.” She passed back the files. “Can I assume fact that we’re having this conversation without my senior staff present implies that I won’t be sharing this little tidbit with them quite yet?”
“Correct. While I respect the REF’s capacity for discretion, I’d feel more comfortable playing this close to the chest for the time being. Ernie and I felt it best that the entire inner circle be briefed, however.”
Argent quirked a smile, amused despite the gravity of the situation. “Ah, so I’m part of the ‘inner circle,’ then? Well, if the tabloids have taught me anything, I’ve moved from being a humble War Dog to one of the secret masters holding the leash of our subjugated nation. When do I get initiated into the secret rituals to dominate the minds of the populace and bend them to our Marechiavellian machinations?”
“Tuesday,” replied Celestia with an impressive deadpan. “We always perform our unspeakable rituals on Tuesday.”
“Hm. I would have thought Monday more appropriate.” The princess tilted her head in mute query. “Well, everypony hates Mondays, after all,” explained Argent obligingly.
“True,” nodded Celestia, a thoughtful expression her face. “True indeed. We ought to raise that at the next staff meeting.” Her horn lit and she levitated over a battle of brandy and two snifters. “A toast to our underhooved schemes?”
“A most excellent proposal, Your Highness.”
The next morning, Outskirts of Ponyville, near Sweet Apple Acres…
Nurse Redheart picked her way along the path towards the sound of the voices. The speakers were obscured by trees, but easy enough to pick out – a deep-voiced country drawl, and an even deeper-voiced French accent.
“Ah can have the basic structure up by the time you get back,” the first voice was saying, his smooth tone rolling over the words. “That ain’t no trouble. Started work on them carvings ya wanted for the inside a few days ago. Should be done about the time Gold Leaf finishes that taberwhatsit for ya.”
“Tabernacle,” clarified the second voice. “And I must once again commend you for your speed, my friend. T’would take far longer for any human artisan to craft both the carvings and their chapel, especially working alone.” His tone dipped. “I feel I am cheating you of your due offering so little in payment. I wish you would accept more.”
The first speaker snorted. “Now Ah already told ya, Friar, any friend o’ the Apple family’s is a friend o’ mine. Besides, ya saved the fillies. What kind o’ stallion would Ah be chargin’ ya full price after that, ’specially since ya wouldn’ta gotten so banged up in the first place if’n Ah’d cleared out that neck o’ Everfree a day sooner. Way Ah see it, Ah owe ya some cheap labor in return.”
I wonder how many times he’s had basically this same ‘you don’t have to thank me – I’m thanking you anyway’ conversation since he showed up, Redheart thought with a chuckle as she drew closer to the clearing where the two chatted.
“You blame yourself unnecessarily, my friend. Even with all the work you do to keep the timber wolves in check, you cannot be everywhere at once.”
“That don’t change the fact you got banged up.”
Redheart emerged from the woods to see Friar Jacques speaking to a dark-coated stallion sporting a brown stetson, a blue bandana, and a bristling grey mustache. The pair were conferring over the wooden frame of a small timber structure that had begun to take shape in the small clearing they now occupied. A blueprint was propped up on a makeshift drawing table detailing plans for a personal project of the Friar’s.
Jacques looked up at Redheart’s approach and smiled as he replied to the stallion’s statement. “Pray, don’t fret on it any longer, Monsieur Oak. I think it all worked out the way it was meant to.” He gestured to Redheart. “After all, had I not been so injured I would not have made such wonderful friends as the good nurse here. Bonjour, Redheart.”
“Bonjour, Friar,” she answered. Turning to the stallion, she added, “Burnt Oak, good to see you again.”
The lumberjack tipped his hat politely. “Miss Redheart. Always a pleasure.”
“Likewise. So, how’s the chapel coming along?”
“Quite well,” said Jacques. “It should be ready to use in a couple days, and the décor completed in a week or two.” He shook his head in wonderment. “You ponies never cease to amaze me.”
“Oh, it ain’t much,” said Burnt Oak modestly. “Ah happen ta be a fair hoof with the plane and lathe. Knockin’ together somethin’ smaller than most Ponyville houses is a vacation for me.”
Jacques folded his arms. “And making the wood carvings for the interior?”
“Icing on the cake,” smiled the stallion as he folded up his blueprint. “Ah gotta head back into town ta pick up supplies.” He tipped his hat to each of them. “Friar. Miss Redheart.” With that, he departed.
After bidding farewell to the lumberjack, she turned to Jacques and asked, “He undercharging you that much?”
Jacques rolled his eyes. “Oh, it’s not just him. It’s Gold Leaf for the tabernacle, Silver Inlay for the crucifix, Iron Fittings for the iron fittings…” he threw up his arms in frustration. “It’s as though everypony in this town has a vested interest in not allowing me to pay out my substantial largesse.” Redheart smiled at the man’s ire as he continued, “I enlisted Big MacIntosh’s aid in distributing my money to charities, instructing him to leave some aside for a simple chapel and my armor, thinking that would be the end of it. Then he went and grew my account by investing it in something he called ‘mutual funds’ – the ones he picked apparently donate to various charities while also accruing interest for me, which then leaves more money to invest in more such sem-charities…” he waved a dismissive hand, “or something to that effect. Heaven’s sakes, we Templars were bankers for a time and I don’t understand half of what he’s doing! Honestly, I think I might have more money now than when I started giving it away! Never before have I had such difficulty living a vow of poverty!” Redheart tittered into her hoof, earning her a long-suffering look from the man. “Et tu, little sister?”
“I’m sorry, Friar, I just find it ironic that you’re trying so hard not to be wealthy. You better be careful who you tell about this – you might give some ponies whiplash.”
The friar grunted. “Yes, well, as amusing as my unintentional affluence is, that’s not why I asked you to come find me before I left for the weekend.” He reached into his satchel and pulled out a sheaf of handwritten notes. “Meditations and spiritual exercises,” said the friar, handing her the bundle. “Compilations of various musings I’ve had that helped me understand my healing magic, as well as things I felt would be particularly helpful to you.”
Redheart took the notes and flipped through them. For the past two weeks, she’d been trying to learn the old earth pony healing magic whenever she had a spare minute. It had proved… difficult to say the least. Earth ponies, regrettably, were not known for documenting their techniques with the same rigor as the unicorns or pegasi. Even their mages seldom wrote much. This was in part because most of their methods were more intuitive than analytical. Getting them to work was more a matter of mindset than formula, something which annoyed Twilight to no end.
And it doesn’t exactly lower my blood pressure either, admitted Redheart ruefully.
Furthermore, healing magic of the sort that Jacques was using was heavily tied to the tenets of the Way of Harmony. It wasn’t enough to simply know the mechanics, the old texts insisted. One had to have one’s soul ordered to righteous purpose.
Fortunately, Jacques was a man of science and spirituality. Leading souls to righteousness was his chief vocation. His solution to Redheart’s limited progress had been to introduce her to meditation and spiritual exercises. The purpose was not to empty her mind of thought, he told her, but to elevate those thoughts – to contemplate with wonderment the higher calling of her life and let loose her imagination to ponder the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of her existence.
“I believe these will be of some help to you,” Jacques told her, tapping the packet he’d given her with a gnarled finger. “Your calling is that of a healer. Pondering the deeper mysteries of life will show you the way forward. I included principles taken from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of my world, mystics like Saints Basil and Syncletica, as well as the great minds of Aquinas, Augustine, and a few others.” Reaching down, he flipped ahead a few pages. “I also took the liberty of including the words of various spiritual masters of your own land.” He tapped one passage with a finger. “This one I found especially illuminating.”
‘When a pony needs to start a fire, at first she gets choked by smoke, and she tears up,’ the text read, ‘but her perseverance rewards her with flame and warmth. It’s the same with a pony who wants the Fire to light in her heart – she’s gotta be willing to put in the tears and hard work.’ Redheart checked the citation and saw that the original quote had been penned by a healer mage named Meadowbrook. Smiling at Jacques, she said, “Thank you, Friar. I’m sure this will be a big help.”
“I’m glad,” he said warmly. The priest reached into his pocket and pulled out a stopwatch, a gift from Twilight. “And I’m afraid that’s all we have time to discuss. I need to get to the train station and you need to get to work.”
Redheart’s face fell. “Do you really have to go to Canterlot?”
He waved his hand. “It’s only for a couple days. I’ll be back before you know it, never fear.”
The nurse raised an eyebrow. “Friar, whenever somepony around her says something like ‘never fear,’ something bad always happens.”
Laughing the man tapped her nose gently with a finger. “Lucky for us, I’m no pony.”
Redheart snorted in irritation. “Please don’t give me reason to worry.”
“When have I ever done that?”
“Do you want that list in alphabetical or categorical order?”
“Bah! You exaggerate.” He checked his watch again. “And we really must be going or else we’ll both be late.” The old man gave a slight bow and a jaunty wave. “Au revoir, Nurse Redheart. I shall see you upon my return.”
She trotted up and gave him a quick hug. “Take care of yourself, old man.”
“Go with God, bonne sœur.”
They parted ways after that, Jacques walking to the station and Redheart to Ponyville General. As she walked, she couldn’t help but feel uneasy. It wasn’t a sensation that she was certain she could put into words, but somehow she just knew that something was going to go wrong. Even when she reached town, the feeling wouldn’t leave.
In part to distract herself, in part from curiosity to see what else the friar had prepared for her, she flipped to a random page of the notes. A moment later, townsponies were staring as Nurse Redheart laughed hysterically in the middle of the street, the notes open to a passage from some human named Matthew. It read, ‘Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?’
Ponyville Train Station
“Oh, I do wish the passengers would finish disembarking so we could board and be on our way,” lamented Rarity. “I cannot wait to show you around Canterlot!”
Jacques suppressed a chuckle as he watched the fashionista’s prancing. “I am looking forward to it myself, madam, though it is plain your excitement outweighs my own.”
“I wish I was going with you,” pouted Sweetie Belle. “Can’t I please come, sis? I promise not to get in the way.”
“Can’t we please come?” corrected Scootaloo.
“We’ve been on our best behavior,” added Applebloom.
Jacques bent down to pat them each on the head. “Sorry, little ones, but your sisters tell me you are all still serving out your sentences.”
“It’s been weeks!” protested Scootaloo. “Weeks with no crusading! Weeks where Sweetie and I haven’t even gotten to hang out with the cool new alien!”
The ‘alien’ in question folded his arms. “While I sympathize with your lamentable lack of crusading, perhaps now you will think better of disobeying your elders and risking your lives in the woods.”
Dejected, the three fillies wandered to the side, muttering. Twilight, giggling at their antics, trotted up to bid Jacques farewell. “I wish I was going too,” she said. “It would have been nice to show you around my hometown. The museums, the research centers, the library…”
“Next time, young scholar,” he assured her. “I very much doubt this will be my last journey to the capital. In the meantime you have your studies to attend to.”
“I have been studying!”
“Yes, and your proficiency with those spells the princess sent you is most impressive, but,” the friar smirked and bopped her on the nose with a finger, “your martial technique could always use honing.”
Twilight sneezed at the bop of her snout and rubbed a hoof across her muzzle. “Then could you at least take Fritters with you instead of Oaken?” she grumbled. “He’s smacked me around so much in training I’ve got bruises on my bruises.”
Fritters, who had been close by chatting to Applejack, immediately butted in with a drill sergeant’s ire. “What was that, newbie? I hear you questionin’ my training methods?”
The young mare eeped. “No, Colour Sergeant! Your training methodology is impeccable and I consider it an honor and a privilege to be thumped silly by your training spear, Colour Sergeant!”
“Mm,” grunted Fritters. “That’s better, newbie. Now drop and gimme thirty.”
Muttering adorable pony explitives under her breath, Twilight did as she was bade. Rainbow and Pinkie Pie made the mistake of snickering, which led to them each getting forty. Pinkie complied with her customary smile, but Rainbow decided to dig a deeper hole. “We’re not even training right now!” she protested. “And they’re not even Guard!”
Fritters turned to her with a dangerous glint in his eyes. “Cadet, did I give you permission to bellyache about doing fifty pushups?”
Rainbow gulped, barked, “No, Colour Sergeant,” and started, apparently forgetting that she was no longer a cadet and, in fact, outranked him. Technically.
Morning Song shook her head, a resigned expression on her features. “Marble, if I end up needing to step away for any reason, I’m charging you with ensuring the Konik Plague doesn’t break the saviors of Equestria while I’m out.”
The diminutive pegasus nodded gravely. “I will do my best, ma’am.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Jacques declared, pitching his voice loud enough for all the Bearers (and Big Mac, who stood silently to one side) to hear. “After all, they are coming along magnificently in their martial studies.” The mares and stallion beamed at the praise, save for Fluttershy, who blushed and hid behind her mane.
“Mighty kind o’ ya ta say, Friar,” said Applejack, tipping her hat.
He waved her praise off. “I only speak the truth.”
And he did. The trainees, both old and knew, had impressed him with their progress. True, their propensity for making great strides in capability through impromptu musical numbers was… frankly unsettling at first, but he could not deny the results.
Applejack was a natural fighter with good instincts. Her technique was solid and improving with time. If she had one weakness, it was that she could be over cautious in her attacks, likely because she feared injuring ponies with her impressive strength. The friar got the distinct impression that, in a real fight, her instincts would take over.
Big MacIntosh progressed similarly though, interestingly, the thoughtful stallion’s restraint manifested more as control than as undue caution. The gentle stallion was careful not to bowl his opponents over, but Jacques knew he would be a fearsome fighter if roused.
Rainbow Dash was similar to the Apple siblings in her natural ability and was perhaps an even more gifted fighter than they. Yet she tended to be reckless. She was dangerous, but flawed. Properly tempered, she’ll be truly formidable.
Twilight Sparkle was a technically proficient and versatile fighter, with her great magical power and quick thinking making her a strong combatant. The unicorn’s past training in battle casting and basic melee combat gave her a solid foundation to build on. Her main flaw was that she thought too much, second-guessing herself or over-complicating matters at critical moments. When she managed to find her rhythm, she was one of the most dangerous among them. But, whenever her perfectionism or lack of confidence took hold, she was vulnerable.
Rarity, it happened, had a background in both archery and in the martial art known as Wing Chun. Archery she’d cultivated as a hobby, first to impress the nobility, then simply as a pleasurable exercise in precision and control. Wing Chun, she admitted with a blush, she’d studied as a means of tempering her temper. Jacques understood the value of such a pursuit, having been taught swordplay by his father so that he might appreciate the deadly power of a blade and the fragility of human life. Through these joint truths, I came to know the duty of an honorable man to restrain his violence to grim necessity.
The fashionista’s impressive focus and telekinetic ability meshed well with the many knives she now possessed. However, her focus could be both a blessing and a curse. Whenever she became too focused, she missed obvious threats. This was especially dangerous against ponies like Big Mac or Applejack – Rarity’s light, skirmisher fighting style was not suited to close combat with heavier weapons.
Fluttershy, not surprisingly, was the weakest of the fighters. She tried, bless her heart, but seldom moved from defense into offense. The trainers typically had to begin by helping her get into the proper mindset; the pegasus’ aggression was buried quite deep. It is not absent, however, thought Jacques, recalling an instance where Fluttershy had, quite unexpectedly, gotten into the flow of the sparring match and poleaxed Fritters with her quarterstaff, becoming the first of the new trainees to land a serious blow on the stallion. Her apologies had been profuse, but Fritters had been ecstatic. Once his head stopped spinning, that is.
As for Pinkie Pie…
“Yeah, but when do I throw my shield?” Pinkie asked.
Jacques blinked. “Miss Pie, you do not ‘throw your shield.’ Ideally, it stays firmly attached to your arm— er, foreleg.”
Pinkie tilted her head, perplexed. “But then how do I Captain Equestria somepony?”
By way of answer, Pinkie hefted her round shield like a discuss and flung it at the side of the barn. Jacques watched, expecting the shield to bounce off.
It did… rebounding directly into Pinkie’s waiting grasp.
“See? Like that,” she said cheerily, as though she hadn’t just flagrantly violated every known law of physics.
“<What in the world…?!>” exclaimed Jacques, slipping into French.
“What?” asked Pinkie. “Is that not how you use shields?”
“Celestia’s ethereal mane, Pinkie, no!” he exclaimed. “How did you do that?!” Oh heavens, he thought, realizing how Celestia had slipped into his speech. I’ve been here longer than I realized.
“I just threw it,” she replied. “See?” The pink menace proceeded to replicate the impossibility.
Jacques stared in awe, his mind struggling to comprehend this brave new reality. Mutely, he held out his hand in request for the shield. Pinkie passed it, and he cocked back his arm to throw. “Just throw it?” he asked.
The friar flung the shield at the barn wall. It punched clean through, obliterating boards and embedding itself in the far side. Jacques blanched, but Pinkie seemed relieved. “Well,” she muttered, “at least the barn didn’t come down this time.”
Jacques hunched his shoulders like a guilty youngster. “Applejack!” he called. “I have a confession to make…”
Pinkie Pie’s training was coming along, and the less Jacques thought about it the saner he felt.
Jacques’ own progress had been considerable. He’d learned much of the nuances of fighting quadrupeds and, of even greater significance, made great strides in the mastery of his magic. True, much of that involved reading Argent Martel’s grim account of the War of the Shades, which left him dreading the day he’d have to share the book with Twilight, but he was making progress all the same. His endurance and power had markedly increased since that fateful walk through the Everfree, as had his fine control and flexibility. He’d added new abilities to his repertoire and honed those he already possessed. To test them all, the friar threw himself into repeated no-holds-barred fights with the others.
His first such match with Fritters (wisely undertaken while Redheart was at work) left both wrapped in ice packs and wolfing down food to replace lost calories. The unicorn’s appetite was so frightful on that day that Jacques likened him unto the Biblical plague of locusts and bequeathed unto him the moniker ‘the Konik Plague.’ They had also learned that Jacques’ healing was more effective in repairing damage done by dark magic than in repairing that inflicted by conventional means.
Thankfully, it was still enough to hide the bruises and lacerations from Redheart later that day. As for the nurse, her progress is slow, but steady. We shall make it work.
The training had been equal parts rewarding and exhausting, but now it was time for Jacques to take a short trip. His restlessness had gotten the better of him, along with a desire to commission a proper suit of armor. When he mentioned this to the others two days ago, Rarity, who had business in Canterlot, offered to take him to an armorer and weaponsmith she knew.
Her offer sparked some… reactions.
“Woah, woah, woah!” exclaimed Rainbow, waving her forelegs in a halting motion. “Why the hay do you know a weaponsmith?”
“Well, Steel Weave is not just a weaponsmith,” explained the fashionista. “He also happens to be a semi-professional couturier whose rare ventures onto the fashion scene are something of a legend.”
Rainbow gagged. “Great. So he’s gonna gussy up the friar with some pretty patterns instead of platemail.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” interjected Morning Song, who was spinning a knife with one hoof. “The Guards who commission him for special orders always speak quite highly of him.”
“You’d know, wouldn’t you,” muttered Fritters, earning him a sharp glance from his lieutenant, the meaning of which Jacques could only guess at.
With two recommendations to his name, visiting Steel Weave was the logical choice. Oaken volunteered to go along as escort, given his familiarity with the city and his interest in seeing both sides of Weave’s work.
Which led to Jacques, Oaken, and Rarity standing on the platform with the others seeing them off. The call for boarding finally came, and the travelers busied themselves loading their luggage. In practice, this meant that Oaken and Jacques carried their own satchels while also stowing Rarity’s frankly preposterous quantity of baggage. After much heaving and straining they managed to stow her cases and trunks, which left them little time to bid farewell before the train left. Most of their goodbyes were shouted from the windows as the train began to move.
Jacques was so taken with the unusual sensation of the locomotive that he almost forgot to shout, “And be sure to tell Redheart that I promise to be careful!” as they pulled out of the station.
Rarity smirked at that. “Just as well she and Medevac were working at the time of our departure. I take it she did not think highly of you galivanting off to a distant city beyond her care?”
The friar rolled his eyes. “That mare hovers like a guardian angel over a wayward youth. It’s as though she thinks I’ll juggle torches in a room full of black powder if she isn’t around to keep me on the straight and narrow.”
“An amusing image, to be sure,” chortled Rarity.
Oaken shook his head in wonderment. “Given how often disaster strikes Ponyville, I’m a little amazed that she thinks keeping an eye on you will have any effect.”
“Indeed,” agreed Rarity. “Why, I suspect you might be safer leaving Ponyville than staying.”
Jacques snorted. “You ponies make too much of such things. I highly doubt that anything untoward will happen on this trip.”
The Bearers and their families were just turning to leave when they were startled by the sight of Pinkie Pie posing and exclaiming dramatically, “Bum-bum-bah!” She looked pensive for a moment, then giggled.
Bemused, they turned inquisitive gazes upon her. “Miss Pie?” asked Fritters. “Something you’d like to share with the class?”
“Hm? Oh, that.” She waved a hoof dismissively. “That was just my Pinkie Sense telling me something dramatically ironic is going to happen soon.”
The other ponies exchanged glances. “So…” began Twilight, “like, good dramatic irony or bad dramatic irony?”
“Dunno,” shrugged Pinkie. “That’s one of those ‘certain point of view things,’ I think. Anyway, nothing we can do about it. Lah la lah la lah,” she sang as she bounced off.
Watching her go, the remaining ponies shifted uncomfortably.
“Welp,” remarked Applejack. “That ain’t reassuring.”
“Maybe it’s just standard Ponyville shenanigans?” ventured Rainbow. “You know, ‘crisis of the day’ kind of stuff?”
“Oh, I certainly hope so,” quavered Fluttershy.
Ironhide winced. “If you don’t mind my saying, the fact that you have a benchmark for ‘standard shenanigans’ that includes anything called a ‘crisis’ is worrisome.”
Morning Song rapped a hoof on the platform. “Like the mare said, not a lot we can do about it. All the same, I think it best if everypony makes a point of hanging near each other today and keeping our eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary.” The ponies agreed and left to go about their business.
Unbeknownst to them, a blue-coated mare clad in hat and cloak watched from a distant hill. Catching sight of a certain lavender unicorn, Trixie’s lips curled in a cruel grin. Soon, Sparkle, she promised. Soon. The malevolent mare gave a sinister cackle, and her eyes flashed red.
“… and ever since then I’ve been rather taken with the idea of using sashes to tie such ensembles together,” Rarity was saying as she stirred her tea. “Of course, that’s led to a few missteps on my part, but c'est la vie. Art demands experimentation.”
“Agreed,” remarked Oaken, “though with the caveat that an artist should know when to recognize the failure of an experiment. Those tacky red things Fashion Forward submitted to last year’s showing in Canterlot?” he shuddered. “They looked like a foal went crazy with a sewing machine and starch and tried to make a manticore costume, only to fail miserably.”
Rarity tittered into her hoof. “You sound like Applejack. Still, I’m forced to agree. Those garish costumes evoked en garde more than avant-garde.”
The pair laughed. Jacques suppressed a sigh pivoting in his seat to observe the rolling scenery beyond the window. Rarity and Oaken’s conversation had turned swiftly to fashion after their departure, as this was in large part a business trip for her. They hadn’t stopped talking about it for the last two hours, not when they were in the passenger car, and not now when they sat at the bar in the dining car. As a man who cared nothing for fashion in his own world and knew nothing of the fashion in Equestria, Jacques felt rather like an old watchdog trying to sleep while a pair of pups cavorted and played.
He took a sip of his coffee and consoled himself with the thought, At least the scenery is beautiful and the coffee exquisite. One of his favorite things about coming to Equestria was the ease of obtaining the dark drink. He’d come to love it thanks to the influence of the Turkish and Arab auxiliaries the Templars sometimes employed, but it was so hard to obtain in most of Europe that it was a luxury he could ill afford in his monastic frugality. In Equestria, however, the drink was so ubiquitous as to fall within the purview of his vow of poverty, a fact for which he was profoundly grateful.
The monk focused on enjoying his beverage and the magnificence of the passing countryside, letting the drone of conversation fade into the background. Habitually, he watched for threats, but this was more instinct than conscious thought. In any case, there were few passengers in the dining car to be wary of. Most, after initially gawking at him, simply went back to their meals.
Some time later, a new pony entered the dining car. He was a pegasus, thin and pale-coated, with curly black mane and sharp brown eyes. The travel suit he wore was simple, but well-tailored, with dark jacket and blue tie. His mark appeared to be the scales of justice, and, when he spotted Jacques at the bar and nodded with a sort of bemused politeness, Jacques saw a potent intensity in the pony’s gaze.
Yet, he looks drawn, thin. Those clothes are high quality, but they don’t fit him properly, as though he’s lost weight since having them made. And those rings under his eyes suggest he doesn’t sleep well.
Rarity and Oaken both glanced up at the newcomer, then both did a double take. “My word!” exclaimed Rarity sotto voce. “That’s Will Windforce!”
“Who?” asked Jacques in the same muted tone as the tired-looking pony took a seat at one of the window booths and waved the waiter over.
“One of the leading Centrist MPs,” explained Oaken. “Originally, he was from Equestrians United for Emancipation; they were one of the independent parties that folded into the Centrists two elections ago.”
“The core of the EUE’s platform is fighting the trafficking in sentients. That and battling the corruption and abuse enabling the trade in the first place,” elaborated Rarity, admiration evident in her voice. “He’s been a tireless force for sentient rights for over two decades!”
Jacques raised an eyebrow. “He looks quite tired to me,” remarked the old man.
“That’s nothing new,” said Oaken. “I’ve been on shift before when he’s had late-night meetings with the Crown or Cabinet, and I’ve never seen him look rested. But he’s too stubborn to back down. I’ve heard mules say they think he’s one of theirs in disguise.”
The MP sat quietly, making no effort to be recognized or even noticed. He stared out the window with somber expression, as though willing the scenery to soothe him.
“A true warrior,” remarked Jacques, “even if he carries no blade.”
Oaken and Rarity nodded. “He’s probably coming back from the southern border if he’s on this train,” observed the Lunar Guard.
Jacques recalled that Morning Song was from somewhere along the southern border. Then he recalled her sobering tale of why she’d joined the REF. It would seem that there is still trouble in those lands, he mused grimly.
Further speculation was cut short by the arrival of another pony from the rear door, opposite of where Windforce had entered. Because they were discretely watching Windforce, Rarity and Oaken had their backs to the newcomer, but Jacques got a good look at him.
The unicorn was tall, young, and fit. He wore the loose-fitting uniform of a crewmember, but even with the loose clothing his muscle tone was evident.
Train crew like him had been coming and going all day, but this one gave Jacques pause. He couldn’t quite put his finger on why, but something was definitely off. Taking care to be discrete in his observations, he watched the stallion out of the corner of his eye while he sipped his coffee.
Unaware of the scrutiny, the stallion called out, “Mr. Windforce?” The MP looked up. “Some of your luggage has come loose in the baggage car. We’d like you to inspect it with us to verify the condition of the items inside.”
Nothing was wrong about what the stallion said, but alarm bells rang in Jacques’ head.
Windforce sighed and got up, paying for the meal he hadn’t even received yet before following the unicorn. “Let’s see what the damage is,” he said fatalistically.
The crewmember moved aside to let the MP pass, and as he did Jacques caught sight of a bulge beneath his jacket – an angular shape that tapered to a point. This is an assassination! he thought. But there are too many innocents in this car to risk starting a fight here! We’ll have to follow.
Dropping his voice to the point where it was barely audible over the train, he leaned towards his companions. “What have you for weapons?” he asked quietly.
Both ponies were startled by the question, but Oaken’s training strangled whatever questions he might have had in favor of taking action. “A short sword and dagger in my kit bag,” he said, kicking the duffel at his hooves. “My spear is under lock and key.”
Windforce and the crewpony passed from the car.
“Jacques, darling,” interjected Rarity, “what is—”
“That crewmember had a weapon under his jacket and a pony like Windforce doubtless has enemies,” answered Jacques, rising from his chair and tossing a few coins on the counter to avoid suspicion. “Arm yourselves and stay behind me.”
He hitched up his sword belt and followed the MP and the crewmember as casually as he could. Rarity and Oaken followed, the latter carrying his duffel.
They reached the exit door and stepped out onto the small platform between the cars. Oaken opened the duffel and drew his sword, passing the dagger to Rarity. Jacques, remembering the tight confines of the baggage car, opted to draw his own dagger rather than his longsword. They crossed to the other car and Jacques gripped the door handle. He glanced back at the two ponies. “Ready?” he asked. Oaken nodded, his face an impassive mask. Rarity looked frightened, but she nodded too. “God be with us,” said Jacques, and he twisted the handle.
Jacques pushed the door open quietly and crept into the room, his sandaled feet light on the floorboards. The other two slunk in after. Oaken had the presence of mind to close the door softly behind them. Stacks of bags created something of a maze, but there was really only one path. As they traveled it, two voices could be heard, one strained, one mocking.
“Ready to die, Windforce?” asked the assassin, his voice airy and casual.
“You dastard!” snarled the MP, who was struggling to speak. “Why are you doing this?!”
The other stallion must have something braced across his throat, thought Jacques as they wove closer.
“Simple, Windforce,” replied the assassin. “You stuck your muzzle where it wasn’t wanted. Woulda been fine if you’d just stayed in Equestria.”
Jacques reversed grip on his dagger as they rounded the last stack.
Windforce was pinned to the ground by the big crewmember. The MP had put up a fight, knocking over several cases and giving the assassin a black eye, but he was plainly outmatched. Now, the unicorn crewmember straddled him, a knife upraised in his telekinetic grasp.
“Your misplaced care for lesser creatures got you killed, Mr. Windforce,” mocked the assassin. “Pity. Goodbye—”
There was a clash of steel-on-steel as Jacques flung his dagger and struck the knife out of the stallion’s grip, sending both blades ricocheting into the hold. The assassin looked up in shock, but Jacques had already cleared the distance between them with his long stride. He punched the stallion square in the jaw and sent him spinning across the compartment to smash into another stack of luggage.
The pony recovered more quickly than he should have, leaping to his hooves and snarling. “You should have aimed to kill me, freak!” he spat.
Jacques stood defensively over the shocked Windforce. “But then I wouldn’t get to ask you any questions,” he replied mildly.
The stallion scowled and his horn pulsed with magic. But it wasn’t his natural blue aura – it a black, bubbling anti-aura that seemed to suck out the light. A dozen sickly black darts, double-edged and a foot in length, formed in the air.
Jacques felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Dark magic! He crouched in front of Windforce and snapped his left arm up to conjure a white shield, making it as broad as he could. “Take cover!” he ordered.
No sooner had he thrown up the shield than the darts were flung. Most exploded against his shield. The others impaled themselves into the baggage behind, narrowly missing Oaken and Rarity, who had to dive behind the shield to avoid them.
Snarling, the assassin charged another attack, but had to divert power to throw up a hasty shield when Rarity snapped off a magic missile at him. “Fiend! Brute!” she shouted.
Jacques took advantage of their assailant’s distraction to spring forward, punching at the stallion’s head. His target ducked at the last second, and Jacques buried his fist in the wooden trunk behind. The stallion conjured a new blade and stabbed at Jacques, but the friar deflected the dark weapon with his free hand and swung the other, still stuck in the trunk, down at the smaller creature. Leaping back, the assassin narrowly avoided behind crushed beneath the hammer blow. The trunk exploded against the floorboards, spraying wood and metal fragments in all directions. Jacques felt several of the shards cut his face, and the fake crewmember had to throw up his hooves to protect his eyes.
Taking advantage of the assassin’s temporary distraction, Jacques bellowed to his comrades, “Get Windforce out of here!”
The pair hauled the dazed MP to his hooves and ran for the exit. Rarity half-dragged Windforce while Oaken pushed from the other side, keeping himself between the assassin and his charges.
With a hiss, the dark unicorn created another swarm of darts. Jacques tried to throw out his shield to dispel them, and he was close enough that he almost succeeded. Of the dozen darts, ten shattered. Two zipped past, aimed straight for Windforce.
But Oaken was ready. The guard used his foreleg like a shield. Both spikes sank deep into his flesh, and he howled in pain, but he and his charges managed to duck behind the stacks of baggage.
The assassin made to follow, but had to roll to avoid another shattering punch from Jacques. Coming up out of the roll by one of the fallen knives, he grabbed the blade and thrust it for the friar’s vitals. Jacques managed parry with one hand and divert the strike from a fatal wounding, but he still took the knife in the side. Triumphant, the stallion tried to pull it out and strike again. Then Jacques connected with one of his punches and smashed the pony into the far wall.
This time, the stallion did not spring so readily to his hooves. He had only just managed to rise when Jacques delivered a punishing kick to his ribs. Blood sprayed from the assassin’s lips as he was booted up into the air—
Straight into the downward double blow of Jacques’ upraised fists. The stallion crashed to the floor, splintering the wood. This time, he did not rise.
Jacques sagged against the wall, panting. He fingered the knife in his side, then left it, deciding not to pull it out until he was ready to deal with it. Well, that was bracing. The friar nudged the stallion with his foot. To his shock, the bloodied assassin looked up. “Still conscious after all that?” remarked the friar admiringly. “I’ll give you this much, backstabber. You have grit.”
The assassin cackled weakly and spat out a glob of blood. “So do you, freak.”
“Why did you attempt to kill Windforce?” demanded Jacques.
“Why does it matter?” smirked the assassin through bloodied and missing teeth.
Jacques frowned. “Do not test my patience, backstabber. I know the Equestrians have kinder laws than my countrymen do, but you’ll be lucky to cheat the noose if you remain silent.”
“I’m dead either way,” replied the stallion, pushing himself up enough to raise his head. “I failed.” He leered. “Better to die on my own terms.”
The unicorn’s horn lit with black magic, and Jacques tensed to defend himself from a desperation attack. I’ll have to subdue him further— he saw the dart, conjured such that it protruded from the floor, point towards the stallion’s head.
“NO!” Jacques roared, lunging to stop the foolish final act.
He was too late. The stallion threw his throat onto the point, jamming the dart up through his brain.
Jacques fell to his knees beside his enemy, helpless horror gripping him. “<Oh, you fool!>” he exclaimed in French. “<You pitiful, misguided fool!>”
Bowing his head, he prayed. The train surged uncaringly forward, now carrying one less soul than when it started.