The muted click of booted heels on stone was the only sound as Graves ascended the tallest tower of the palace’s East Wing, central command to the Equestrian Royal Army. Unlike the rest of the richly decorated and elegantly designed castle, these corridors were made of polished but unadorned stone, their solemn purpose reflected in their simple design. It was a place of order, of duty and service, and the place where the young marshal felt most at home.
Arriving at the top of the tower, the grey-eyed soldier entered a short hallway where two stern-faced sentries stood watch over a massive, bronze door.
“Halt, who goes there?” the senior guard called out, his voice level, but with an underlying firmness that made clear he would be answered. Reaching into his long, brown coat, the marshal pulled out his silver badge and held it forth.
“It’s Graves. I’m expected.”
The sentry’s eyebrow rose almost imperceptibly, just the slightest arch of surprise at hearing the name. Nodding to his junior, the two soldiers took hold of the door’s solid handles and pulled it open.
“After you, sir,” the soldier said with a small, but respectful inclination of the head. “The general’s inside.” Graves tipped his hat in turn as he stepped through, and the heavy metal door softly slid shut behind him.
The room he stood in was as spacious as it was spartan. Like the rest of the East Wing, the chamber was made of white marble, undressed and unadorned as if any decoration would distract from the work at hand. Beyond several volume and folder lined shelves, the only other furnishing in the room was a single, heavy wooden desk, just as plain and simple as the room itself. It was to this table – or more importantly, the imposing figure behind it – that the young man turned his attention.
“Sir,” Graves called, placing a fist to his heart and bowing in the most formal greeting he knew, “I’ve arrived.”
The call brought the seated man to a pause, his hand frozen above the report that lay spread out before him. He set down the quill and stood up.
The only way to describe this individual was gigantic. And hard. Standing easily a head taller than the marshal, the older man made the stone walls around him seem soft in comparison. Everything, from his steely, grey beard to ice-blue eyes spoke of a man toughened and weathered till all superfluous matter had been stripped away. He bore no adornments on his simple uniform, but there was no mistaking the aura of strength and command that he wore like a cloak. This was General Ironside, the most decorated soldier ever to serve in the Royal Guard, and supreme commander of Equestria’s armed forces.
“You’re late,” he boomed, his voice roaring like thunder as his eyes flashed with the fierceness of azure lightning. “I don’t like to be kept waiting.”
“Apologies for the delay, General,” Graves replied as he straightened into a salute, “I was momentarily detained at the station.”
“Detained?” the general growled, somehow managing to sound more grizzly-like than any bear ever could. “How exactly was the marshal I personally summoned ‘detained'?”
“Captain Shining Armor decided I required an escort to the palace,” the marshal answered in a formal, if flat, tone. “He was… rather insistent.”
The stone-faced commander gave the younger man a gaze that could have frightened off a gorgon, his eyes widening and glinting dangerously…
… before he burst out into peals of booming laughter.
“Ho ho, he did, did he?” Ironside hooted as his hands went to the table to support himself from his violent guffawing. “Oh boy. I swear, the two of you never grow up.”
“With all due respect, I’ve grown up just fine. He’s the one who insists on remaining a child.” Despite the severity of his words, a small smile still tugged at the corner of the marshal’s mouth.
“Is that so?” the general smirked, now raising an eye questioningly at Graves. “Then refresh my memory. Who was it that dragged his fellow first year into the mountains on a troll hunt, only to get lost for the next three days?”
“That was a perfectly legitimate training exercise that just… happened to not go as planned.” The stoic soldier’s stiff reply couldn’t stop the flush of crimson from spreading through his cheeks.
“Of course, of course,” Ironside chuckled. “But why are we both just standing around? Come over here and join me for a drink!” As Graves approached the desk and settled down, the general reached behind and pulled out a small, crystal bottle filled with a deep, red liquid and two matching glasses. Pouring a small measure into each cup, Ironside handed the young man one while taking the other for himself.
“Like it?” the burly officer smiled as he took a moment to savor the aroma. “Genuine Salamander fire-whiskey. Distilled with their flames and aged in raw dragon skin, the only way to get it is directly from the tribes who make it.”
“Still the connoisseur, I see.” Graves smiled before taking a sip. The liquor was strong enough to strip paint and burned like brimstone going down, but the rich finish of desert fruit and honey made it well worth the pain. “Though I have to ask, isn’t drinking at a ‘formal performance review’ against the rules?”
“Bah, forget the rules!” Ironside snorted as he drained his glass in one giant gulp. “Lousy rules are just the way stuffy bureaucrats meddle in your business. You know that I can’t review a man unless I know him, and how can you really know a man without sharing a drink with him?”
“How indeed,” the marshal agreed through a very neutral face.
“Exactly,” Ironside nodded as he poured himself another glass. “So let’s get right down to it, Graves. You’ve been spending the last few months stationed in… Ponyville, am I correct?”
“You should know,” the grey-eyed soldier countered with a slight smirk. “You were the one who stationed me there.”
“Me?” big man asked with wide-eyed innocence. “From what I hear, it was Princess Celestia who sent you a fancy letter telling you to stay.”
“Which she would never have done without consulting you, isn’t that right, General?” Graves finished with a knowing smile.
“Perhaps...” Ironside nodded as he stroked his beard in what he must have thought was a sagely manner. It sort of looked like a bear with an itch. “But let’s not get bogged down in the details. Since it happened, I’d like you to fill me in on how it was. What were the last six months like?”
“Well, sir,” Graves began, “despite the presence of unusual creatures and an elevated number of local threats, the town was well-defended. None of the citizens suffered casualties, and the continued efforts should–”
“No, no, no,” the big man called out as he irritably waved his hand. “I’m going to be reading all that in the reports, and I know it’ll be boring enough without having to hear it twice. Tell me how it was. What did you do? Who did you meet? What stuck out to you? Don't go giving me a laundry list, boy; give me a story.”
The grey-eyed marshal paused for a moment, rather unsure of how to respond to such an odd array of questions. Granted, he’d grown accustomed to a degree of unconventionality from the general, but this was weird, even by Ironside’s standards. Still, a commanding officer had asked the questions, so...
Graves began to talk, starting on the very first day when he’d met the girls in Ponyville on his original assignment to clear out the rogue soldiers. He continued on with the other stories, the troll hunt with Sweetie Belle, the chimera and skullpions with Rarity, and even some of the other non-battle related tales. It was clear that the young soldier wasn’t the most eloquent of storytellers and pithy as he was with his words, the whole affair probably took less than ten minutes. But, considering the way Ironside chuckled at the antics of the Cutie Mark Crusaders and outright roared with laughter as Graves stumbled his way through an explanation of his and Rarity’s disastrous mutual misunderstanding, the young man seemed to have done a decent enough job, all things considered.
“So,” Ironside boomed, leaning forward and pressing his fingers together in consideration as the recollections drew to a close. “How do you feel your time in Ponyville went?”
"How do I feel?" Graves wondered to himself. What in Luna’s name did feelings have to do with anything? Work was work; he had a job and he did it, so who cared how he felt during the process?
“I take it you don’t mean how effective my actions were,” the grey-eyed marshal replied, cautiously using to question to probe out his commanding officer's intentions. Ironside merely chuckled, the sound highly reminiscent of distant thunder.
“Why don’t you decide?”
Graves sat still for a moment, his slate-hued eyes gone cloudy as he considered the questions. He opened his mouth to speak but closed it again, as if unsure that the words about to come out were what he really meant. He began again, almost as if reluctant to speak his mind.
“I… enjoyed myself,” he finally admitted. “It’s a nice town. The people are open and warm, and I think I’ve made some… friends there. That may be an overstatement,” he added in quick rectification, “but it was pretty... nice. I think.”
For a minute, the general said nothing at all, seemingly content to settle back and sip at his drink as he idly stroked his beard in thought. Eventually, he did break the silence, though in the last way that Graves would ever have guessed.
“Well,” Ironside chuckled, "it looks like your trip was a complete waste of time.”
“… I’m sorry, but what?!” Graves blurted out in disbelief. “A waste of time?”
“Exactly!” his commander boomed with laughter. “Playing around with kids, going to tea parties, getting quite cozy with the ladies–”
“They’re just friends,” the marshal interrupted instinctively, but the big man barreled on.
“You’ve been having so much fun, I’m surprised you managed to fit in any work edgewise.” Ironside finished off with another hooting burst of laughter, one that clearly did nothing to improve the young man’s mood.
“Sir,” Graves began in a politely neutral tone that practically bristled with indignation, “I have always done my duty. If there was a threat, I dealt with it. If there was trouble, I snuffed it out. I can’t help it if there wasn't anything for me to do, but you know very well that I do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
“Well, of course I do,” the general smiled. “Why do you think I sent you there in the first place?”
The young soldier blinked.
Well, he certainly hadn’t been expecting that.
Chuckling once more, Ironside stood up and walked over to the nearest bookcase and pulled out a thick, well-worn folder. “You do good work, boy,” he said as he returned and began idly flipping through the documents. “Really good work. Been flying solo for four years, and you still manage to pull in a steady stream of big missions. Goblin raiders in the Crystal Mountains, bandits in the Dry Dry Desert, a particularly ornery kraken in the ports of Mareyland, hoowhee, it’s got me sweating just reading about them.”
“So, how does this relate to my post in Ponyville?” the marshal asked, his head cooler, though his tone still contained a healthy dose of skepticism. His commander just grinned.
“Consider it the missing half of your file.”
“I’ve looked through your records before,” Ironside continued. “Lots of missions and exploits, but very few mentions of downtime or leave requests. In fact, aside from hospital time and mandatory evals, I don’t think you’ve taken a single day off since you set off on your own. That's why I figured I’d send you on a cushy stint in the heartlands, let you get some of that R&R you’ve been missing out on.”
“Wait,” Graves intoned, raising a hand to cut in as a very odd sort of realization began to dawn. “Are you saying that my time in Ponyville was just an excuse to make me... take a vacation?”
The general’s triumphant grin was all the answer the marshal required.
“I can see you’re still a bit lost,” Ironside replied as he chuckled at the marshal's puzzled expression. “You’re probably wondering why I’d force my best soldier to take shore leave when he’s clearly been doing so well.”
“Not in so many words,” Graves nodded reluctantly, “but yeah. Why?”
“It's actually pretty simple, really,” the general smiled, though not quite so brightly as before. “I'm just afraid you're gonna burn out. I’ll admit it Graves, you’re good, maybe even the best I've ever seen. But you're still just one man, and keep burning the candle at both ends like you have, well... even you’ll break eventually. Nobody can keep up the pace you’re going for long, and frankly, I’m surprised you’ve lasted as long as you have.”
Graves was more than a little surprised. From the way the general addressed him, a wry twist to his smile and an odd hesitance in his otherwise thundering voice, one would almost have thought that Ironside was... worried. But that was impossible. Nothing worried the general, not even facing a tribe of rampaging ogres in his skivvies.
“I appreciate the concern,” the marshal said, still somewhat taken aback by his commander’s tone, “but I don’t think you need to worry.”
“Oh?” Ironside asked, eyebrow arched. “And why not?” Graves shrugged.
“Because, sir, I don't intend break.”
The general broke out into fresh peals of laughter, an odd mix of mirth and dryness ringing out in the booming tones.
“So, the little whippersnapper thinks he’s too tough to snap, eh?” he asked with a toothy grin. “Well, boy, you may be right, and you may be wrong. I’ll say this though; I’ve heard men say those words before, and the only ones who got away with it were the ones who quit while they were ahead. So tell me, Graves. What makes you different?”
“I wouldn't say I'm different, really,” the young man replied, thumbing his nose a bit in embarrassment upon realizing how pretentious he’d just sounded. To an officer, no less. “It's just that as long as I have a job to do, I'll find some way to finish it. I mean, you've seen my record; that's just how it's always been. I don't want to imply I'm anything special, but... as long as it's my duty, I've always found some way of getting it done.”
“Hmph. Maybe you just haven't run into the really hard jobs yet,” Ironside pressed, doubt heavy in his voice, along with a faint trace of something else. "Maybe you've been on an easy stint and you're just getting cocky."
"That's possible. I know I'm still young, and I probably haven't seen half of what you have," Graves admitted with the utmost in sincerity and respect. Then his eyes changed, the soft grey of humility giving way to a steely glint of conviction. "But I've seen enough. If I were going to break, I would already have."
Ironside's face went somber.
"You're talking about Operation Elder, aren't you?"
The silence that followed in the wake of those words was deafening. Graves said nothing, but the slight tension around his mouth, the cold hardness that crept into his eyes, made his answer loud and clear.
"Look, son," the general continued, breaking the quiet with a decidedly awkward segue, "what happened then, it was rough. Celestia knows it's a miracle you've managed to come so far in the last four years, but–"
"Once again, sir, I appreciate the concern," the marshal said softly, his formal tones only slightly marred by a metallic rasp at the edge of his words. "But there's no 'but' to it. What happened was simply the cost of doing our job. We knew what we were getting into.”
"That still doesn't make it any easier to deal with," Ironside added. "Especially for you."
"Maybe not," Graves replied, the finest of fine hairline fractures cracking his otherwise iron-hard equilibrium. "But I'm still here; I haven't broken. And if I didn't break under that, then I'm good to fight on like I always have."
“... And you’re happy like that?” Ironside asked, his voice now little more than a dull rumble. “That’s what you want in life?”
Graves blinked, his tranquil demeanor broken by a shot from the blindside.
Again with the weird questions. Where by the six elements did happiness enter the equation? He was a marshal, one sworn to protect those who couldn't protect themselves. He'd known that since he was a child, lived it ever since he'd taken the oath all those years ago and never once had the issue of what he wanted or what made him happy ever entered the mix.
But if that was the case... then why did he now find that the question stirred up his thoughts like a nest of bees? Why was his mind suddenly filled with thought of lazy afternoons and sunny days, warm conversations, and bright, beaming faces? Why did he find himself thinking of that smile hued in violet and a laugh like silver bells? Why did he think of lavender?
“Sir,” he said, clearing his throat roughly and giving his head a quick shake to clear out the intruding thoughts. “I want to do my duty. Is that a problem?”
“... I suppose not,” the general wearily sighed. "You made that clear enough when you were given the Right of Petition, so who am I to oppose?"
"General," the young man began, now rather concerned by his commander's strangely passive words, "if you have concerns about something, please–" His words were cut off by the sharp crack of a palm slapping wood and a cannon-like blast of gruff laughter.
"Bah, don't worry about it, hatchling!" Ironside boomed, restored to his typical good humors once more. "Guess some things are just too advanced for a spring chick like yourself to understand."
"So you said you want to do your job, eh?" the burly officer continued, ignoring the inquiry with a wicked grin. "Fine, I'll help you do just that. But be warned, you're the one who chose it. Don't blame me if you end up regretting it.” Reaching down to a drawer with an evil cackle, Ironside pulled out a roll of parchment, one sealed with crimson wax and the winged shield emblem of the marshals.
“This request just came in,” he said, setting the roll on the desk and sliding it over. “If you choose to accept it, you’ll need to double time through your evals and go into immediate special training, ‘cause let me tell you, son, this one’s coming up hard and fast, and it’s a doozy.”
“What’s it involve?” Graves asked, doing his best to pay attention despite the very abrupt transition of topic and jarring change of pace. Ironside simply shook his head.
“Can't tell you, soldier; that’s on a need to know basis," he beamed with a face as innocent as a newborn kitten. "If you choose to accept, I’ll fill you in afterwards, but for now, all I can say is this: it’ll probably be the hardest mission you’ve ever been on. You take this, and in one week, you’ll be saying goodbye to Ponyville, maybe for good.”
This got the young man’s attention.
“Leave for good?” Graves asked, his eyes narrow and focused like twin rifle barrels. “What, you don’t expect me to make it back?”
“I honestly can’t say,” Ironside shrugged. “This mission’s amorphous, but most likely you'll end up posted there for a two year tour of duty."
"Two years?" the marshal repeated numbly. Two whole years in one place?
“And getting extracted once you're in isn't guaranteed either," Ironside added mournfully. "This is a kind of mission where you get sucked in, you might end up never leaving. Ever."
The young man stood there, staring at his commanding officer with eyes the size of silver dollars.
"You can always say no, of course,” the general added lightly, almost seeming like a casual afterthought. “I mean, I thought you'd be the best candidate for it, but I can find someone else. There's no pressure for you to accept.”
For a moment, Graves paused, eyeing the roll of parchment as he might a sleeping cobra. Maybe it was because of the general's series of strange questions, but right now... he honestly didn't know. He’d never had problems leaving for a new assignment, but Ponyville hadn’t been like other places. The people there hadn’t been like others. It had been special. Was he ready to leave that? To say goodbye to all the friends he’d made? To say goodbye to…
“... No, I'll do it,” Graves finally replied, his voice catching for just a moment before returning to its typical, steady rumble. “I'm a marshal, and I go where I’m needed.”
With this, he stood and bowed, hand to heart in the traditional salute.
Ironside looked down at the marshal, the smile on his face oddly accepting, and rather condescending at the same time. It was the sort of smile that an adult might use on a child who'd lied about eating a cookie with crumbs still on his face and, all in all, one that caused the young man no small amount of suspicious discomfort.
“Very well then," the general nodded. "Report to your barracks, get settled in, and check in with the master sergeant. Pass him this document and let him know you need the crash course. When you finish your testing, you come and see me and we’ll have you ready to go within the week. Dismissed.”
The marshal took the roll and bowed once more before exiting the general’s study.
Outside, the two guards saluted him once more as well, but for once, the grey-eyed soldier hardly noticed. The massive bronze doors slid shut behind him.
"This is it," Graves thought to himself, almost in disbelief as he slowly descended the stone stairwell, the roll of parchment held with as much cheer as he would a sack of sphinx droppings. This was really it. Time for his goodbyes.
In one week he’d be gone, shipped off to another location, another mission. Granted, he'd always known this day would come and in some ways had been looking forward to it. To be back on the front lines where his strength and skill could be utilized to their fullest potential was in some ways a comforting, even fulfilling thought. But the suddenness of it all, the abruptness of his departure left him feeling decidedly... off. I mean, with the rush of preparation, the evaluations and training to get through, he probably wouldn't even get a chance to properly say farewell. After all Ponyville had done for him and how those girls had welcomed him in, it just didn't seem right.
Well, he could at least write them a letter, right? Graves really hated writing, almost as much as he hated giving speeches, but it was the least he could do; his friends – at least, he hoped he could call them that – deserved that much. It'd be as detailed as he could make it. He'd explain how he'd gotten orders that required him to move, an issue of necessity and not one of him willingly leaving. Well, he was technically doing it willingly, but it was because of necessity. Totally different, right? Anyways, he would explain that part, apologize for his rather rude and abrupt departure–
The marshal froze, booted heels falling silent as he stopped in midstep.
It only just occurred to him that he’d told Rarity his absence would be for a couple of weeks at best. Inwardly, he winced; he'd once promised to be back promptly after a two-day excursion into the forest that had extended into six. Considering the lecture he'd gotten about inconsiderate behavior over a delay of a few days, he could only imagined the tongue-lashing she’d give him upon his return after two years.
If he even returned at all.
Now wasn’t that a cheery thought.