Chapter 6: The Tangled Webs We Weave
I confess, I was perplexed to discover a piece of vegetation chattier than your average begonia. “I say! Did you speak?”
The shrubbery remained mute, though it rustled a bit. I gave it a tentative poke, but it was one of those nasty, scratchy junipers that get plunked into the earth when the gardener has run out of ideas. Such shrubs are apt to poke back.
I learned this the hard way as a little nipper when I leapt into one such bush to avoid Uncle Pom, who had just chased me a country mile uttering dire threats. (An innocent misunderstanding, certainly with minimal wrongdoing on my part. I knew silver was meant to be polished with something from a tin and I happened upon a tin of bootblack. Gave the silver armour quite a patina and also left my hooves stained for over a fortnight.)
Thinking along those lines, I concluded somepony was imitating my childhood subterfuge and hiding in the mess of branches. My thoughts immediately sprang to Ma Heartsong—she who so enjoyed peeking around trees with opera glasses—but I couldn’t see what motive she would have, being so solidly in the pro-Rooster camp at the moment. All was oojah-cum-spiff between Plinker’s parents and myself—despite the fact that a little animosity between us would have made my life easier.
Bon Bon, it suddenly occurred to me, was a much more likely candidate. I wasn’t sure how she could’ve headed me off (I’d been heading back towards the castle at a healthy clip), but then again I wasn’t sure how she’d been able to make miniature lightning bolts shoot across her eyes either. The thought of her suddenly leaping out with eyes blazing and teeth bared was enough to make me shy back from the vegetation with considerable vigor.
Unfortunately I shied right into a passerby.
“Ow!” came a familiar cry as we collided, crashing to the cobblestones. With a certain sense of resignation, I discovered Duke Sun Shimmer was once again the other party in the pile-up.
“You again!” he cried, coming to the same conclusion as he untangled his legs from mine. “Can’t a pony walk anywhere without you barging into them like an equine cannonball?!”
There are times for haughty dignity and there are times to put as much distance as possible between self and a homicidal filly theoretically secreted in the scenery. I hardly spared the time to toss out a “Sorry, old chap” before setting a north-nor’westerly bearing away from the bush and the downed duke.
Something like a mountain abruptly swung into my path. “HEY YOU! Stop right there!”
I reeled. I’m one of those leggy chaps, used to getting a good view of the top of ponies’ scalps unless they happen to be standing on a chair, but in this case I had to tilt my head back—and keep tilting it—to get a look at this newcomer’s map. He was a sort of light yellow colour—fawn, I think it’s called—with a sweep of reddish-brown hair hanging over a very noticeable scowl.
“Ah, now, look—” I backed up a few steps, allowing me to get a better view of my current obstacle. In short, he was an earth pony built along the lines of those burly ponies you see on the covers of magazines lifting barbells with their hooves or ripping books in half with their teeth.
“No, you look,” he growled, looming like an expert and eyeing me as though I were a particularly recalcitrant book just begging to be split from its binding. “You’ve got thirty seconds to give back my pal’s money before I pound you into the cobblestones.”
“Money? But I don’t... Look here, I don’t know anything about any money!” I protested, backpedaling right into Sun Shimmer. The blazingly yellow unicorn let out an irritable hiss—rather like a tea kettle just before it reaches the whistling stage—and pushed my hindquarters out of his way.
“He’s not a pickpocket, Bench,” he said. “Just an idiot.”
“He’s not? Are you sure?” The newly identified Bench sounded disappointed, although I cannot truthfully say my heart bled for him. “Check your saddlebags at least,” he urged, clinging to a faint glimmer of hope. “Some of these lowlifes are quick as snakes.”
The Duke shrugged and levitated a money pouch out of his saddlebags before letting it drop back in with a clink. “Like I said, just a damn nuisance. Keeps springing out of nowhere and knocking me down.”
Bench gave me a dark look, perhaps mentally berating me for not being embroiled in a life of crime. “I keep telling you that you need to work out more, Sun.” He looked me up and down with a critical eye. “Look at those toothpick legs. He’d never knock me off my hooves.”
Well, frankly I felt this was an unfair way to assess physical prowess; probably the only thing that could’ve levered Bench off his feet was a bad batch of protein drinks. But I refrained from airing this opinion, ignored the utterly uncalled for personal remarks, and took a reasonable tone.
“Now look, do you think I’m happy about smacking into you right and left, Duke Shimmer? It takes two to collide, you know. And in this case I was busy trying to reconnoiter—if reconnoiter is the word I want—this bush.”
The Duke blinked. “What bush?”
I looked behind me and found I was gesturing at empty space. “Good heavens! It’s gone!”
“Gone?” Bench stared at where the bush wasn’t.
“It must have vacated while I was distracted,” I said, tapping my chin thoughtfully.
“You’re out of your mind, aren’t you?” The Duke looked mildly impressed. “Come on, Bench, let’s get out of here before he starts frothing at the mouth.”
“I assure you I’m not—oh fine, be that way!” I snorted haughtily as they retreated down the street. As for the Duke’s slurs, I modeled my response on the deaf adder which—and mark this well, for such knowledge landed me the Mythological Knowledge prize at school—refused to heed the snake charmer, “charm he never so wisely.” Though in Sun Shimmer’s case there was a distinct lack of charm and a surplus of crassness. As for wisdom, I will remain tactfully silent on the subj., an adder that is not only deaf but mute besides.
Turning back to the spot that the bush had lately occupied, I saw it had left naught but a few evergreen needles. On the one hoof, the shrub’s absence lessened the chance that Bon Bon would be targeting me with Whinneydian blow darts dipped in rare and undetectable poisons. On the other hoof, it was disturbing to think the flora in question had slyly slipped away without me noticing. That being the case, couldn’t it conceivably sneak up on me with equal ease? That was what I asked myself.
I was just about to shake the dust of the marketplace off my hooves and point myself castleward once more when I caught a bit of movement out of the corner of my eye. There was a small park on my left, littered with the usual kind of things—a small fountain, park benches, and a minor pond replete with ducks. It was the ducks that had actually caught my attention, as they were massing at one end of the pond, quacking irritably as their tails waggled in an altogether indignant manner.
My gaze travelled to the other end of the pond—the duck-free zone, as it were—where a large bush was shoved right up to the water’s edge. In fact, one might say it was more in the water than out. As I saw it shudder and try to regain the shore, I realized this was in fact the unusually mobile specimen I had encountered in the street.
Well, my first inclination was to leg it out of there before it attacked. But as the bush surged miserably about the edge of the pond—there was a little drop-off of a few feet and it couldn’t quite make its way out—I noticed that the hooves scrabbling at the grass were a shade of dark grey. This put both Bon Bon and Ma Heartsong out of the running, their coats being cream and green respectively. Feeling curious and not a little relieved at this revelation, I trotted over to investigate.
“You look like you could use a helping hoof,” I said, lighting up the old unicorn magic. I don’t say it was an elegant operation; levitating large objects isn’t my forte. But between my efforts and the scrambling of the pony in the vegetation, the juniper bush and its passenger reached dry land.
“Gee, thanks.” With an audible sigh of relief, the juniper began disassembling itself, starting by uncapping what appeared to be a helmet with branches thickly bunched around it. This revealed the head of a dark grey unicorn, his white and grey mane standing in that gravity-defying style known as a mohawk. I had seen both the hair style and the colour combination many times before; without a doubt this was one of the Royal Guards.
I took a few steps back. While I wasn’t (much as Bench might have wished it) a hardened criminal, nevertheless I did not fancy having a gendarme hanging about at a time when Aunt Dahlia was haranguing me to pocket priceless artifacts as though I was Raffles the gentlecolt thief or Professor Snortiarty. Though my conduct up to this point had been law-abiding and blameless, it was unnerving having a guard-pony popping up like the demon king in a pantomime.
“I say! Were you following me?” I blurted out, agitation getting the better of me.
“What? N-no! I wasn’t... that is... Duke Shimmer!” the Guard said in a babble.
“Oh, was he your target?” Not only did this information soothe and relax me, but so did the grey unicorn’s guilty conscience, evident in the way he pawed the ground and let his eyes roll to and fro—all the hallmarks of a pony caught doing something he should not. “And what has the miscreant duke been up to?” I continued in a cheerier tone. “Tying maidens to train tracks? Cheating on his tax forms?”
The Guard drew himself up, which left him shorter than me by, if not a half a head, then at least four-tenths of one. “Excuse me—”
“—but Duke Shimmer would never do such a thing!”
“Which thing, the taxes or the—?”
“Either of them!” He went so far as to stomp a hoof. “He’s an absolute paragon of virtue!”
“Is he?” I said, surprised.
“He’s intelligent, good-natured, and noble!”
“Really?” I mentally replayed my meetings with Sun Shimmer to date. It seemed to me that they all followed a similar pattern... a slight mishap on my part, followed by ranting, raving, and rudeness on the part of the Duke, and the curtain rolling down as he pranced away with his nose tilted firmly towards the firmament. It was hard to see where “good-natured” fit into this. “Are you sure you’re thinking of the right pony?”
“Of course I am!”
“A bit on the short side, rather garish colour scheme?”
The Royal Guard positively bridled. “It’s not garish! It’s beautiful!”
“Like a sunset, aglow with gold and crimson!”
“Blessing all the world with its gilded hue for a brief hour before leaving only the ache of memory!”
He pawed the ground again in a gesture somewhere between embarrassment and irritation. “What d’you mean, ‘ah ha’?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing.”
I was lying through my teeth, of course. The fact was, the gods had not been idle when it came to targeting various friends of mine with the arrows of love—tipped with aphrodisiacs harvested from rare tropical frogs, no doubt—and I recognized the love-light in a pony’s eyes when I saw it.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, the love-light was blazing like billy-o in this instance. This keeper of the peace was clearly as soppy about Duke Sun Shimmer as any pony who ever put quill to parchment and scribbled out a maudlin love poem.
“Well, well, the Duke. Nice fellow,” I said idly, still playing fast and loose with the truth.
“He’s amazing,” the Guard said fervently. “Just... just... just amazing.”
“Yes. I...” I hesitated, searching for a believable compliment. “I quite like his mane.”
“Oh, I know!” He nodded so rapidly his head was a blur. “So shiny, so silky, so vibrant! Isn’t he fantastic? And intellectual, too! He’s got poetry in his soul!”
I gazed pityingly at the poor chump. I should have left it there, really, but morbid curiosity made me inquire, “And his eyes?”
As expected, the Guard had nothing but approval for Sun Shimmer’s eyes. He started off by favorably comparing them to emeralds, then dropped the mineral theme in favor of vegetable as he explained they were also like soft, new spring grass. The duke’s eyes also turned out to be as verdant as deep, still waters, as the forest at night, and, mystifyingly, “as any privet-hedge.” They were as green as quite a lot of other things too, but by that point I realized I had unwittingly sparked off a long soliloquy and let my attention wander.
It struck me how true that wheeze was about not judging a book by its cover. I mean, I had never thought of the Royal Guards having love interests—having had a vague idea that they spent all their free time playing poker and perhaps holding spitting contests—but even if the possibility had crossed my mind, I would not have expected one of them to let loose with this barrage of poetic devices. Clearly he was not only in love, but also a Romantic.
I have a friend who suffers from the same affliction—Bingo, his name is. (Well... his nickname, at any rate. His real name is one of those that makes one shake the head sadly and wonder what grudge his parents could have held against him as an infant.) Whenever Bingo falls in love, which is about twice weekly, I hear all about it. My other pals, when lovestruck, are fairly succinct. A typical dialogue might go something like this:
LILY “LALA” BLOSSOM: What-ho, Birdy!
SELF: What-ho, Lala! You’re gamboling around in a pretty tripsome way today.
LALA: I’m head over heels with the dishiest colt!
SELF: Oh yes? What’s he like?
LALA: He’s an absolute baa-lamb!
SELF: Well, well! Spiffing!
LALA: Thanks! *opens menu* I think I’ll get the oat cakes, what about you?
SELF: The salad special, I think.
Short and sweet, you see? The relevant info is shared and then the conversation moves on. Lala does not feel the need to hawk the qualities of her dishy colt like a travelling sales-pony selling hair tonic, nor do I feel the need to inquire what a baa-lamb might be.
Not so with Bingo. The Romantic spirit burns within him, compelling him to ramble about whatever filly is currently enthroned in his heart. This means whenever I see him he’s either rattling off syrupy phrases in praise of his latest crush or mooning about dreamily.
You may recall that this tale kicked off with none other than Bingo hurtling a cue ball at my skull, mistaking it for an orange. When I tell you that it was his aforementioned dreaminess that was responsible for this dreadful bloomer, I think you will understand why—although I love him like a brother—I consider him a hazard to all and sundry. (And this assault on my cranium occurred, I might add, after I had patiently listened to him extolling the virtues of some filly’s hair being “like filaments of gold” and “like ripe wheat gleaming in the sun” for over an hour! There is no justice in this world.)
Well, you wouldn’t have thought it to look at them—the Guard being of monochrome hues while Bingo is such a strong red that he routinely stops traffic—but they were clearly brothers in spirit; I stood in the park for a good long stretch, letting the Guard’s similes wash over me, and whenever I checked in on the conversation he was still expounding on Duke Sun Shimmer’s blasted eyes—which were, I gleaned from his enthusiastic monologue, still green.
But at last he began to run out of objects of that shade. There are, after all, only so many green things in this world.
“Emerald like... a rainbow. Like, you know... the green stripe in it.” The Guard hesitated, no doubt feeling (justly) that this was pretty weak stuff, even for the lovesick.
I took advantage of the lull. “I say!”
“Huh?” He jumped a little; I think he’d forgotten he had an audience. Immediately I wished I had slipped away while he was engrossed, but you know what they say about spilt milk.
“I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced,” I said.
“Oh... I guess not! My name’s Seeker.”
“Rooster, Birdsong W.” I shook hooves with him, wondering why his name seemed so dashed familiar. “You’re one of Her Majesty’s Royal Guard, I take it.”
“Their Majesties. That’s right. Thanks again for helping me out of the pond.”
“Think nothing of it,” I said courteously. “Not a bad disguise, by the way.”
“Oh, thanks. It was pretty scratchy, though.” He lifted his helmet and began to pick branches off of it.
“You shouldn’t have used a juniper,” I said, happy to share my expertise on this subject. “Evergreens, in general, should be avoided when picking a hideout. A deciduous shrub is the way to go every time. Except in winter,” I added as an afterthought.
Seeker-the-Guard nodded, but rather absently. He was still gazing at his helmet, plucking twigs out of its plume. “Mr. Rooster—is it 'Mister'?”
I indicated that it was.
“Mr. Rooster, you’ve listened so attentively... I can tell you’re a good pony. You have a kind face.”
Well, this was gratifying and much nicer than some of the things that have been said about my face, I can tell you. Before I could express my appreciation for this sentiment, he went on:
“And that’s why I feel I can trust you with—” he swallowed, “—a most dark and terrible secret.”
My ears pricked up and my whole manner became more animated. The Royal Guards undoubtedly ran into rings of jewel thieves, beautiful but deadly adventuresses, and locked-room murders on a daily basis; anything that could make one of Her Majesty’s Finest shake in his armoured boots was bound to be pretty hot stuff.
“Oh, rather!” I encouraged him. “Do tell! And rest assured, nopony is more trustworthy than a Rooster.”
“Thank you.” The grey unicorn gulped, setting down the helmet. “The fact is, I am...” Another gulp for good measure. “I am in love with Duke Sun Shimmer.”
Well, it was a letdown. I had been expecting a big pay-off involving gangsters or, at the very least, diamonds disguised as rhinestones. That this guard Seeker was dippy about Sun Shimmer should have been obvious to the meanest intelligence, and I found myself worrying for the intellectual capacity of the Canterlot Royal Guards if this was the type of thing that passed for the deepest and darkest of secrets among their ranks.
In short, my disappointment was keen. Several sarcastic phrases came to mind, like ‘No, really?’ and ‘Next you’ll be telling me you’re a unicorn or some rot like that,’ but I bit them back, reminding myself that Romantics have their own burdens to bear and can’t help being melodramatic drips.
“Well, well, you and the Duke. I wouldn’t have thought you’d move in the same circles. Where exactly did you meet him?” I said at last, making a bet with myself.
“We-ell, I’ve never actually met him...”
“Ah.” I mentally collected my winnings. Not only cut from the same cloth as Bingo, but also tailored at the same shop.
“But I first saw him in the museum a month ago,” he continued. “And it was love at first sight. On my end, I mean.”
“Really!” I was surprised—not by the “love at first sight” bit, that was standard fare—but that this unrequited romance had been going strong for a month. Bingo’s usually peter out after three to five days.
“But he doesn’t know I exist,” Seeker continued moodily. “I’m too nervous to talk to him. So I just love him from afar. Very courtly, of course,” he added, brightening. “Nothing is more courtly than loving from afar. I’ve written a ballad about it, would you like to hear it?”
“Ahhhh, hmmm, well, as it happens I have a dashed important appointment that I can't possibly—wait a minute. You saw him at the museum?” In a flash, I realized why his name seemed so familiar. This, according to Greaves, was one of the two guards currently assigned to the night watch at the Royal Museum.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been on museum duty for the past three months,” he said, cinching it. “Not very interesting work.” I must’ve been looking thunderstruck, because he chuckled. “You didn’t recognize me, huh? I was there when you crashed into Vigil. I know he seems kind of rude, but it’s only because that sort of thing happens all the time. Those stairs are a killer.”
“Right. Yes...” Now that I thought about it, I could see the resemblance this pony bore to the more cheerful guard outside the armaments room (understandably, since they were apparently the same pony) although at the time my attention had been focused on his more irritable compatriot. “No, I’m afraid it didn’t strike me until just now. Sorry.”
He shrugged. “Well, we all look pretty similar in the armour. Which is the point, I guess.”
My mind raced down first one path, then another, pondering how this new info might help me snag the blasted Border Blanket. Having raised the wrath of Bon Bon and found Cousin August to be drinking himself into a stupor, I felt it would be nice if at least one of my missions met with success.
“The armour?” I said, to keep the dialogue going.
“Yeah. That’s why we’re all the same colour, you know. Enchanted armour.”
“Ah. Enchanted.” I nodded, still checked out of the conversation.
“Although I’m sort of an anomaly—my natural colours really are grey and white,” he sighed.
“Grey and white.”
“Yeah, but a lighter grey,” he said defensively, drawing himself up. “And my hair’s actually brighter than this.” Then he slumped again. “But even so, the first thought anypony would have about me, even out of uniform, is ‘oh look, it’s a guard.’”
“That,” I said, “is exactly your advantage.” It had taken a while, but the light had dawned. This officer of the law could not be goosestepping around the museum if he were spending the evening elsewhere. Haunting a certain dinner party, for example.
“You think Sun Shimmer will scorn you, but ask yourself, what will make a pony stand out from the brightly coloured popinjays the Duke’s usually surrounded with? A more neutral palette, that’s what. I advise you to introduce yourself to him at the earliest opportunity.”
“Stand up straight and tall-ish and he’ll be sure to notice your military bearing. The Duke is, I should mention, attending a state dinner tonight. And he is sure to be in a mellow and pleasant mood after the meal.”
“But... no, I just couldn’t. He’s a noble. I'm just a guard.”
I waved his objection aside with an airy smile. “If only you knew, my good fellow, how often these little affairs leap the hurdles of class in the steeplechase of love. Why, one of my best friends is engaged to a waitress!”
“Really?” He drunk this in eagerly. “And it’s going okay?”
“Well.” I hesitated. “Okay-ish, I would say. Okay-ish. The course of true love never did run smooth, you know...”
“Oh, of course not,” he agreed. “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May!”
I ignored this bizarre aside about flowers. “My point is,” I said, getting to the point, “that you should certainly pony up and talk to the Duke. At the dinner party,” I emphasized, in case he wasn’t getting the message.
“Oh no, I’m on duty tonight. But maybe you’re right, maybe tomorrow morning I’ll—”
“Tomorrow morning may be too late!” I was beginning to feel exhausted. Bingo would have already been laying out his eveningwear by this point; his grey counterpart was certainly harder to direct. A side effect of having a job, I suppose. What a lesson to avoid such distractions. “Who knows what attractive fillies and/or colts will be flaunting their borrowed plumage, trying to catch his eye!”
“I thought you said he was sick of brightly coloured popinjays.”
“He is, but you know how familiarity breeds whats-it.”
He looked confused. “Contempt?”
I closed my eyes, prayed for strength, and decided to take a different tack. “The reason this particular event is so vital to your debut,” I explained, speaking slowly and clearly, “is that I myself will be in attendance and can introduce you to Duke Sun Shimmer personally. In person.”
“And you think that will help?”
“Naturally! With my letter of recommendation, he will leap at the opportunity to make your acquaintance.”
Seeker paused. “I don’t mean to pry, but... how well do you actually know him?”
“I run into him all the time,” I assured him.
“Because it kind of looked like he was shouting at you, there on the street.”
“Ha ha! Clearly you did not see the twinkle in his eye as he shot forth those bally rude phrases! Just a little friendly ribbing on his part, I can assure you. The Duke is, after all, noble and good-natured.”
“He is, isn’t he? And his mane is like—”
“Yes. Yes, it certainly is. So I can expect to see you there?”
“Well...” Duty might call, but ultimately he was a Romantic. “All right. Sure. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Next chapter: Prince Blueblood returns, and a dinner party with an unexpected guest!
Oh my goodness, these chapters always turn out longer than I expect. (Originally everything from the Chapter 5 to the end of the dinner party was supposed to be one chapter, but it kept growing to monstrous lengths.) The next chapter is almost entirely done, so expect it to appear soon.