It took a few moments for Twilight to loosen her shock-stunned jaw up to the point where she could once again speak.
“General Ironside,” she smiled, doing her best to sound nonchalant and failing like a badly prepped midterm. “What are you doing here?”
“This is my office. I work here,” he replied in a thunderous rumble, his face impassive behind his granite-colored beard. “What brings you two all the way up here?”
“Oh!” Twilight started. “We were um… just, uh… taking a look around?” The smile on her face slipped another notch as the burly commander’s scrutinized the pair of them with ice blue eyes.
“Just looking around, eh?” he intoned, his chin resting on the back of his folded hands, his gaze as sharp as permafrost icicles. “In a place that happens to be locked and beyond a door where two armed guards are blocking the way? You just… happened to stumble upon this room, where some of Equestria’s most confidential secrets are locked away? Is that what just... happened?”
“Um… well, when you put it that way…” Twilight gulped. This was bad, bad as in worse than being sent back to magic kindergarten bad, which was really, really bad. The princess had always given her some leeway as a student, but that probably wouldn’t protect her from the ramifications of breaking into highly classified areas of the palace. If Celestia found out about what she’d done today, if she heard about the nigh treasonous activities her “most faithful” student had pulled, then…
It was only at this point she realized Ironside was smiling.
"In that case, I’ll ring us up some tea.”
In a state of understandable bewilderment, the two young ladies soon found themselves seated before the general’s desk, two cups of steaming Earl Grey before them and some very confused looks between them.
“Most people prefer coffee in the afternoon,” Ironside intoned as he stirred a couple of sugar cubes into his cup, “but I find it gets me too wired up. A man ought to keep a level head during the day, make sure his wits are about, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I guess so,” Twilight smiled nervously as she sipped her own drink. “I just stick with tea myself because I like the taste.”
“There’s that too,” Ironside nodded. “But I guess taste is a matter of, well, taste. Some people would prefer a cup of tar black coffee to even the finest tea. Some people, like, say… a certain marshal?”
Two cups froze in midair.
“… So, I take it you know the real purpose of our visit?” Rarity delicately proffered, a reserved smile on her otherwise immaculately composed face.
“Wasn’t really hard to figure out,” the general shrugged. “Library automatically notifies us whenever extra attention gets paid to one of our own. That, plus that outrageous, if highly entertaining stunt you all pulled in the courtyard, and I figured you’d be stopping by sooner or later. That’s why I told the guards not to give you two a hard time if you came by.”
Twilight took a long drink, if only to shield her burning cheeks from view. To have her carefully laid out plans dissected so casually made her feel uncommonly silly.
“I see,” Rarity nodded as she consolingly patted her flushed friend’s leg. “Well then, it seems we've reached a rather sticky situation, haven’t we?” Ironside glanced at her with casual aplomb.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Frankly,” she began, “the reason we tried to enter so… clandestinely, was because we aren't exactly permitted to see the information we seek. And while you’ve been most accommodating of our efforts, I doubt that you’d be willing to let us, say, sneak a peek at the records anyway?” The final words were painted with just a touch of a suggestive smile and the big soldier couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind at all,” he grinned as he reached behind his desk and pulled out a thick, cord bound folder with the word “Graves” stamped across the top in blocky, black letters. “But it’s not going to do you any good.”
Setting down the folder before the two poleaxed girls, Ironside slid the heavy packet towards them. Twilight looked to the folder, and then at Rarity, then back to the general, who merely settled back in his seat and sipped his tea.
Could it really be this easy? After all their interviews and research, their fruitless hunting and scrambling around, could it really be as simple as opening the folder before them? Had they actually done it?
Reaching out a tentative hand, as if afraid the clandestine file would disappear into thin air, Twilight undid the cord and pulled back the cover to reveal–
–a blank page.
Flipping it aside, she found the next page was blank as well. And the next. And the next. And the next one as well. Picking up the folder, the puzzled mage flipped through the entire binder only to find that each and every single page was as white as a pre-dinner tablecloth.
“… Is this some kind of prank?” Twilight asked, doing her best to be polite, but unable to keep a slight tint of indignation from her voice.
“Not in the slightest,” Ironside replied calmly. “I was completely serious when I said it wouldn’t do you any good.”
“Well what good does it do at all?” Rarity interjected? “I can hardly expect a packet of blank parchment to be of service to anyone.”
“… But they’re not blank,” Twilight intoned as her amethyst eyes sparked to life with understanding. “It’s a Single-Eye Spell, isn’t it?”
“Celestia certainly picked herself a smart one,” Ironside chuckled in approval. “That’s exactly the case. I usually keep copies of the more commonly referenced ones up here, enchanted for my eyes only and set to go up in smoke the second the spell's broken. The actual files - the ones you're looking for - are stored in a much safer vault, the location of which not even Professor Dewey knows about.”
“So you’re saying that we made this whole trip for nothing?” Twilight gaped in disbelief.
“If it’s any consolation, the file probably wouldn’t have done you any good even if you’d read it,” the general added with a bracing smile. “They’re mostly just technical reports on all the missions he’s been on. Lots of record keeping and tabulations, hardly anything of interest to a couple of ladies, such as yourselves.”
“He certainly has been keeping busy then,” Rarity remarked as she hefted the folder in one manicured hand. “This is almost a novel in itself. There must be, what… two, maybe three hundred pages here at least.”
“Something like that,” Ironside grinned. “That boy’s got more missions under his belt than porcupine’s got quills.”
“So you’re familiar with his history?” the pretty dressmaker asked, a spark of interest coming into her sapphire eyes.
“I should hope so,” the general replied. “I knew him before he even joined the marshals, and that’s a long time, all things considered.”
“In that case,” Rarity said, pausing to bite her lower lip in pensive hesitation. “Do you think that you could perhaps be so kind as to… tell us about him?”
Ironside gave her a very pointed look.
“You do realize that by telling you anything about those missions would be tantamount to treason, don’t you?”
“Oh, I’m certainly not asking for that,” Rarity airily laughed. “But you said yourself, the classified portions are only the technical matters, which wouldn’t interest us anyway. That means if you were to talk about anything but those subject, then everything should be fine, no?”
“…. You sure are a clever one,” Ironside chuckled richly, sounding like the rumblings of a tropical thunderstorm. “And pretty as a summer sunset to boot. I can see why the boy’s so head over heels for you.”
Twilight watched in fascination as Rarity’s cheeks heated to match the color of a ripe cherry.
“Well! I… um… wouldn't go that far,” Rarity stammered, fumbling with her cup as she desperately tried to compose herself. “I mean, I would never think to say that he’s 'head over heels', for me, per se, considering how level-headed he is and what not, but… is it possible that he said something to you? Mentioned me, perhaps?” This, the young lady asked with hope ringing in her voice and anticipation shining in her eyes, but all Ironside could return was an apologetic grimace.
“Sorry, not to me. He hasn't been in a really chatty mood recently, not ever since that fiasco on Gala night.”
“Why? What happened on… oh, right. Missions classified. Sorry,” Twilight sheepishly grinned in response to the general’s level look.
“Like I said, missions and the others are off limits. But pretty much everything else is free game. Course, that’s a lot of material to cover, so why don’t you tell me what you know so far?”
“Honestly, we haven’t learned that much,” Rarity reluctantly admitted. “The people we talked to gave us more hearsay and gossip than a week spent at the salon. I mean honestly, some of the outlandish things people will say."
“And what kind of outlandish things are these?"
"Beyond the normal myths and legends about his battle prowess, that he's become such a soldier because he's actually some sort of robot. Maybe a zombie. Possibly both.”
The general’s booming laughter echoed through the room like dropping shells on an artillery range.
“Well, he certainly fits the bill on those, I’ll give you that,” he chuckled as he wiped a mirthful tear from his eye. “Graves smiles almost as much as a turnip and speaks as if every word cost him a bit. Given that, and the fact that he's put in more shop time than the average three marshals combined, I'd say those rumors were less outlandish than you'd think."
"But, he's not really a revenant, is he?" Twilight chuckled half from the amusing description and half to assure herself it was only amusement she felt. "I mean, there's no way that Equestria would actually authorize the unholiest of dark magics to reanimate an undead warrior to serve the nation from beyond the grave. Right?"
"Stranger things have happened," Ironside replied as he sipped his tea. It wasn't until the purple-haired scholar had openly gaped for a good five seconds that his impassive facade cracked into a smile.
"No, he's not a revenant," the general finally replied. "At least not from what I know, which is a lot, let me tell you. That boy entered the academy just like any other man. With a whole lotta blood, sweat and grit, he made his way through and began his days as a marshal. Everything he's done till now has been a choice of his own free will, or at least as close as any of use ever gets to a free choice. No, that boy may be a lot of things, but a soulless puppet is definitely not one of them."
It wasn't until the tense knots of apprehension faded from her back that Twilight realized they'd been there at all. The answer hadn't been perfect, but it was enough to dispel the single, greatest fear they'd been dealing with ever since his departure: whether everything they'd known up till then had been nothing more than a farce. A man makes his own choices, and the fact that he chose what he did meant everything was blessedly, mercifully real. Even if that was all they'd learn today, that piece of news alone had made the whole trip worth it.
"Whew. That certainly put's my mind at ease," Twilight sighed with the same, genuinely relieved smile she usually reserved for post-finals unwinding. "For a second there, I was starting to think that there was nothing more to him than being a really good soldier."
"Come on, just a 'really good' one?" Ironside chuckled. "I'd have thought a scholar like you would be able to come up with a better description than that."
“I thought it was pretty accurate,” Twilight frowned, not quite understanding. “I mean, what else would you call him?”
“Me?” Ironside replied as he pulled back the file and flipped it open, “Based on his record, I wouldn’t call him anything short of bleeding brilliant. Graves, currently of the special twenty sixth marshal unit, has completed over two hundred and fifty missions during his eight year tenure, a good third of them occurring during the his current three years operating as a solo unit. He’s earned just about every major medal Equestria has to offer, several more than once, and lead to the brass making up more just to keep up. To say that Graves is a really good soldier would be making a house cat out of a mountain lion. That boy’s not just good; he may very well be the best marshal we've ever seen.”
“… Wow,” Twilight blinked as the monologue came to an end. “I knew he was really good, but... yeah, that's way more than just really good. I never thought he was that... that bleeding brilliant.”
“Most people don’t,” Ironside chuckled, his ice blue eyes twinkling upon hearing his words repeated. “I'm guessing everything you’ve heard about are just the tidbits and rumors gathered by the occasional observer. The only one who really knows is Graves himself, and you both know as well as I that he's not one to brag. I mean, could you even imagine Graves giving himself the name ‘The Ghost of Thunder?’”
“Wha?” the purple-haired scholar snorted. “Where did that come from?”
“His funny habit of disappearing. One minute he’s there, and bam. Gone, just like a ghost, invisible till you hear the thundering roar of his rifle. A bit overly dramatic, but you know how people like a good story, right?”
“I certainly do,” Twilight nodded in complete agreement. “What do you think about all this, Rarity? I mean, you’re the only one of use who’s ever really seen Graves in actions. Do you… uh… Rarity?”
The violet haired-beauty blinked like she'd been woken from a nap.
“You sort of blanked out there,” Twilight said. “Is something wrong?”
“No, not wrong,” Rarity replied. “I was just a bit surprised. I never quite imagined that Graves was quite so… old.”
“Old?” Ironside snorted. “Now just what makes you think a whippersnapper like him is old?”
“Well, you just said he’s been a marshal for eight years," she began. "I didn’t find out much about Graves in the library, but I did learn a lot about the marshals and the academies. In the advanced Canterlot branch, the average cadet doesn't enter until he's at least eighteen, usually after establishing some kind of lesser service record elsewhere. It then takes three years to finish the basic curriculum, plus another year for live field training and placement tests into the various branches, if you managed to pass everything the first time around..."
“…. that would mean joining at eighteen at the earliest, plus four plus some extra to get all his crazy skills, plus eight for service makes him … what, over thirty?” Twilight blinked in surprise. “Really?”
“Isn’t it odd?” Rarity frowned with equal perplexity. “The kind of life he lives can’t be good for his complexion, and yet he certainly doesn't look that much older than we do. I’d always thought he’d be around Big Macintosh’s age, but the numbers seem to indicate otherwise.”
“So… you two are saying that you don’t even know how old Graves is?” Ironside interjected, an odd, almost puzzled look on his own face.
“We can both attest to how reticent he is with personal information,” Rarity replied with a grimace. “No, he never actually told us that either.”
“I see,” the general frowned as he scratched his beard in absent minded thought. “Well, I’m not sure how to say this any other way, but… Graves isn’t that old. Not even close.”
“He’s not?” Twilight blinked. “But you just said–“
“–I said he’s been a marshal for eight years. I never said any of the other stuff.”
"Wait a second," Twilight frowned as she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What are you trying to say? Are you saying that's not how it happened?”
"Pretty much," Ironside shrugged. "First off, Graves didn’t spend any extra time at the academy; he graduated in the three year average much like everyone else. The second is… uh, let’s see… how old is that Big Mac fellow you were talking about?”
“Big Macintosh?” Rarity repeated with furrowed brow. “I don’t see how this relates, but…. hmm… He’s seven years older than Applejack, who’s a year younger than me, so that would make him... twenty five, give or take.”
“Alright,” Ironside nodded. “So to put this in the easiest way I know how, Graves is more than a full year younger than this Big Mac. Fact is, it wasn’t but a month before going to Ponyville that he turned twenty four.”
The room slowly fell silent as the mental gears in the young ladies’ minds ground to a nasty, grinding halt.
No. Wait. That couldn’t be right.
Twilight ran through her figures again, then once more, then a few more times to triple and quadruple check , firmly convinced she must have made some mistake in the absurdly simple arithmetic. But no matter how many times she checked her work, no matter how many times she crunched the numbers, the answer came up the same. Eight years of service as a full marshal. Standard four year graduation and placement. If Graves was twenty four now, then that would mean…
“No way,” Twilight gasped, her mind initiating critical meltdown by the absolutely insane conclusion. “Are you… are you saying that Graves enrolled at the Academy when he was twelve?!”