Diplomacy by Other Means
Test of Honor
“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.”
— N. Marechiavelli, The Princess
The beginnings of moonlight illuminating the Royal Guard training facility triggered the transition of colors as the golden armor of the Day shift began to give way to the deep purples of the Night shift in the pells and sparring areas that scattered over the silvery landscape. Incoming guards for both Day and Night busied themselves in various tasks of directed violence against each other and their trainers, with one new pegasus trainee walking nervously through the busy grounds between a fiercely mustachioed older Nocturne and a rather administrative appearing green unicorn mare with her red mane tied up in a matronly bun.
Trainee ‘Blade’ was just a little on edge being in the ‘real’ Royal Guard training grounds in close proximity of the Commander of the entire Night Guard after having spent such a long time with the regular Academy trainers. As a trainee, he had been exemplary in his discipline and scores, soon to graduate near the top of his class. It would have been at the top of his class, if his previous life had actually been a law-abiding citizen of Manehattan attending school instead of the mutual protection society he had joined with other young ponies studying non-scholastic activities such as extortion, theft, graffiti, and ‘hanging out.’ Every time an officer talked with him in the Academy, it brought a tense bolt of nerves into his gut as he expected to be unmasked as the fraudulent street hoodlum he was and cast into jail, or worse, sent back to Manehattan.
That life was dead to him now, just as dead as he would be if he were to return to his old stomping grounds. An earth pony named Breaker had made certain of that, declaring that a pegasus named Shiv was to blame for a particular activity that had come to the Manehattan Municipal Guard’s attention, and making it quite clear that the certain pegasus would be discovered one morning in a pulverized pile of bone fragments and blood.
Shiv had decided that travel was good for his health. As well as a name change.
How he ever wound up in the Canterlot Royal Guard Academy was still a little fuzzy, involving an epic drinking contest, six mares, and an Academy chariot that had been left unattended, just begging to be flown, but when he had sobered up, he decided a career of violence where you could not only hit ponies and not go to jail, but you could wear armor too was not a bad deal. It actually was less frightening than his previous life, except for the rare occasions where he had to deal with officers.
The elderly Night Guard officer at his side was nearly his mirror opposite. Where he was a young trainee, only a week from graduation, Commander Buttercup was old, his grey coat frosted in white hair across his entire body excluding the tip of one ear that had been lopped off rather raggedly and including a magnificent snowy mustache. Soon Shiv’s dark blue coat would match his superior’s, once the traditional post-graduation bleaching was complete, but his powerful feathered wings would never match the Nocturne’s dark membranous wings, legacy of an ancient ancestor who had supported Princess Luna in her rebellion. The Commander of the Night Guard position was not always filled by a Nocturne, but they had always been a major portion of the Royal Guard’s Night Division, and had an unbroken record of loyalty to the Crown, in addition to scaring the horseshoes off many of Equestria’s enemies. Their reputation certainly was doing a good job on Shiv at the moment.
Commander Buttercup kept up his brisk pace as they strode through the guard training grounds and talked. “Trainee, I’ve brought you here for one decision. From this point in your career, there are three roads you can take. First, you can stand in front of a door in your nice, shiny gold armor and try not to blink for the rest of your life. Sucks, doesn’t it?”
‘Blade’ nodded. Although he initially had grown quite excited about becoming a Royal Guard in his first few months of the Academy, the idea of being a shiny doorstop had rapidly faded as his training progressed.
“Second, you could join the Night Guard upon graduation. Not every task the Diarchy presses upon the Royal Guard take place in the light of day. Some take a certain class of pony. Unpleasant ponies.” Commander Buttercup did not look at the trainee, but was focused on the sparring ring they were approaching.
“What about the third road?” he asked, suddenly nervous.
The middle-aged mare trotting to his other side flipped over a page on the clipboard that was levitated in front of her. “The third option was, until a few minutes ago, where a certain pony named Shiv, also known as Slash, also known as—” The mare stopped with a blush starting to raise on her cheeks, adjusting her glasses while staring at the sheet for a moment before turning the page “—nevermind. This certain pony would have been returned to the custody of the Manehattan police department under an arrest warrant issued on charges including Assault, Criminal Damage to Property, Misdemeanor Theft, Arson, Robbery and Public Urination on a Police Officer.” She flipped several pages with a tiny twitch that might have been a smirk. “Remarkable aim, for that altitude. Anyway, it seems that a certain well-intentioned citizen named Breaker has even arranged bail in the event his ‘good friend’ were to be returned to Manehattan. What a nice young stallion.”
With a shock, Shiv realized the mare was actually wearing a modified version of a municipal guard uniform, altered to be in Night Guard colors. The sideways look she was giving him was more evaluating than the normal expression of cold disgust that he had seen far too often from the police, and even seemed to show a tiny amount of respect, which sparked a warm glow inside his chest that he had never felt before.
“Thank you, Miss Grace.” Commander Buttercup gestured to a sparring ring which had just opened up, a battered earth pony trainee staggering out to be attended by the a rather rough looking medic, while a unicorn trotted into the ring to look over one of the largest Night Pegasus that Shiv had ever seen. The battered training pads that laid over his purple armor looked as if they had been passed down for years, with little split seams and tufts of stuffing peeking out between the stitches. The commander raised a hoof in the direction of the ring trainer, getting a nod in return and an evaluating glance cast in Shiv’s direction.
“Normally recruits who lie on their entry forms are discovered fairly quickly and sent packing,” said the mare with an undertone of disgust. “Certain reprobates who seem to have distinguishing characteristics are retained for further study. You may not have seen it, but your progress through the Academy has been very closely monitored at the highest level. One single mistake, and the previous third option would have been your only option. Now Commander Buttercup has made another option available for you should you fail or decide to drop out.” She flipped another page, and scanned down the page. “In that most probable event, a certain pegasus named ‘Clean Cut’ will depart from Canterlot for an employment opportunity at the Cloudsdale Arena security department. Identification, background, and certain testimonials will be available, making it highly improbable that a certain ‘Breaker’ will ever determine your location in order to visit with malicious intent. The Royal Guard looks after its own, Trainee ‘Blade.’”
“If you want to go to the next level of training, all you have to do is spar with Pumpernickel,” said Buttercup, indicating the bulky Night Guard in question still standing in the ring. “Unarmed combat. Three falls.”
“So all I have to do is spar with that lunk?” asked Shiv, nonchalantly indicating the large Night Guard with a nod of his head while flicking his own feathered wings out in a limbering exercise. “What will that prove?”
“Character,” said the elderly Nocturne with a flick of his own membraneous wings.
“What’s the catch?” asked ‘Blade’, trying to look at both the commander and the unicorn mare at the same time while trying to figure out who was the most dangerous.
“No catch,” said Buttercup with a shrug. “He has the worst sparring record for all of our guards. Sparred over three years now, and although he has won a few rounds, he has no winning sets. But if you want to back out…”
“No, I’ve got this.” Shiv let the safety ponies examine his pads before entering the sparring ring, allowing the commander and the mare to speak privately before the combat started.
“Optio Pumpernickel looks like heck warmed over,” said Miss Grace, pulling up her clipboard and flipping through a few pages. “According to the schedule, he’s been here a few hours already.”
“And he’ll be here a few more tonight,” added Buttercup with a scowl. “I’m going to get that obstinate bastard to unwind and stop holding back if it kills him. This obnoxious little twerp may just be able to do it. Stars, over the last few weeks it’s been all I could do to keep from pasteing him in the face too.”
The rustle of paper continued as Miss Grace asked, “Like Guard Commander Twigs did to you during your memorable run through the Academy? It’s in your file,” she added as the commander gave her a questioning look. “And your criminal background was significantly more impressive. I believe there are still a few outstanding warrants on you that have not been cancelled yet.”
“Yeah,” he said with a smile indicative of pleasant memories as the two combatants squared off. “Good times.”
* * *
There was one pad over Shiv’s right shoulder that had never fit just right over his trainee armor, rubbing minutely against the bottom of his wing joint. The armorer at the sparring ring tightened up a strap to get it out of the way, but within a few minutes it was probably just going to start bugging him again. The ceramic ‘plate’ that would signify a point scored took only a few minutes to get strapped onto his chest on top of the training pads, and from the look of the sparing circle floor, it was going to have a lot of company when it broke. The lunkish guard Pumpernickel had an actual dent in the chest padding behind his plate, and the vast majority of shattered pebbly fragments of broken plates scattered within a pace or two of his position indicated his reluctance to actually move during combat as well as the rationale for his low ranking in combat sparring. The ring was over forty yards across, and one of the basics they had drilled into his head was to use every inch of that space and more. When fighting in the streets of Manehattan with his gang, he had obstacles to deal with and witnesses to avoid; here there were only four minor obstacles scattered around the sandy floor and a few observers leaning over the wall to look down into the ring. Even the lighting was unreal, with dozens of lanterns casting a shadowless light that filled the entire ring and reflected on his glum Night Guard opponent in a way that washed out his colors and left him looking somewhat pathetic.
With a nod to the referee, they both took their spots and waited for the signal.
“Gentlecolts. Best of three. Fight.”
Both of the combatants crouched, eyeing each other suspiciously for an extended period of time until Commander Buttercup’s dry voice sounded above him and triggered a wave of chortles from the onlookers.
“Blade, he’s not going to die of old age. You gotta go hit him.”
With a scowl, Shiv launched himself up, taking one quick circle around the cloud markers that indicated the top of the ring. The Night Guard never even opened his wings, in fact, the only sign that Pumpernickel was even paying him attention was a shift in his positioning, looking up at Shiv instead of across the ring. “Buck this,” he muttered, snapping his wings together and darting down almost vertically out of the sky only to meet a strong armored forehoof that batted his strike to one side, causing Shiv to roll across the sandy floor and skid to a halt several yards away. Springing to his hooves to avoid the inevitable counterattack, Shiv spun around, bringing one hoof up to block — nothing. Pumpernickel remained standing just as placidly as before, as if Shiv was not worth the few steps it would take to hit him.
“Woot! Hey, sexy stallion! Do that again!” The feminine voice that called out behind him triggered a number of catcalls and creative comments from the rest of the observers, and his cheeks burned red with embarrassment. Flinging himself forward, Shiv launched into a series of hoof-strikes and spin-kicks that he had learned on the streets and honed to a fine edge during training, but every single strike and kick was met by a solid armored parry on the shinguards of the placid stallion. It was like facing a wall of cold steel wrapped in padding. Little flecks of white flew in all directions as he struck, left, right, combination blows, all stopped cold in a defense that had no holes. Finally the brute blinked, raising one hoof to brush a fleck of white padding out of his eye and exposing his chest for the tiniest fraction of a second, which was all it took for Shiv to strike. The shattering of Pumpernickel’s plate and the delayed block that made Shiv’s entire foreleg numb happened so close together they sounded like one noise, but as he darted back out of range of a possible counterblow, Shiv could not help but grin under his faceguard.
As the medics made a quick dash out into the ring to replace Pumpernickel's plate and tape up one piece of padding that had ruptured a seam, Shiv drifted backwards in a few slow strokes of his wings to check out his admirer.
He had met a few of the rare Imperial Griffon Guards who were on detached training duty, and was still getting used to the bat-winged Nocturne stallions in the guard, but the female Nocturne who leaned up against the fence and watched his approach with lidded eyes and a coy expression was something entirely different. “Hello, beautiful,” he said with a smile, wishing that he was not in armor and pads so he could show off for the mare. There was a faint thread of blue that wisped its way through her dark mane, an indicator he had slowly been picking up in order to differentiate the nearly identical dark ponies, but those big golden eyes and half-spread membranous wings were what he paid the most attention. “What brings a gorgeous thing like you to see a bunch of sweaty stallions beat each other up?”
“Maybe I like seeing a bunch of big, sweaty stallions beat each other up?” she suggested cooly with a flick of her tail and a glance past him. “It’s exciting.”
“Well, if it’s excitement you want, how about after training tonight we go out and get a drink?”
“Blade.” The voice of the referee behind him was flat and contained just a little concern. “You’re up.”
“Be right back,” he whispered. “Save a kiss for the winner.”
It only took a second for Shiv to return to his spot, his opponent remaining exactly where he had been left with only a few wraps of tape around a ragged pad to show he had even moved. However, there was something different. All of the observers had an intense look, except for Commander Buttercup who was slowly shaking his head, and Miss Grace who seemed to be stifling a facehoof.
And then there was Pumpernickel.
Gone completely was the relaxed laconic brute who stood at the other mark. Instead, the dark pegasus crouched, tense as a spring and with an aura of dangerous lethality around him, golden eyes focused on his opponent and with a look in them that chilled Shiv to the core. He had only seen eyes like that one other time, from an earth pony named Breaker, but even that glare was as soft as a newborn foal compared to the limitless cold fury he could see now.
The voice of the referee had not even reached the end of the word when the Night Guard launched himself forward, giving Shiv time for only one thought.
He’s too big to move that fa—
A few years ago when he had been attempting to do something spectacularly stupid, Shiv had been hit by lightning. He still could not remember just exactly what he was doing under the thundercloud that had been so darned important, but for one timeless moment, he had actually seen the crackling bolt descending on him, and the stunned realization he was still alive when he had woken up in the dumpster later felt strangely familiar now.
He could still see the hoof. He was probably going to be able to see and describe that hoof in great detail years from now. There was a tiny gap in his memory at the instant of impact, probably from trauma and the enchantments of the armor activating as to prevent him from becoming a lifeless hunk of meat flying backwards in reaction to that stunning blow. Everything seemed to stream past in slow motion, from the loose blue hairs in his mane fluttering in front of his face, to the droplets of blood he could see suspended in front of his nose, just floating in the little pocket of still air made by his head in the slipstream of his backwards passage.
The expression in the guard’s eyes was the worst. As Shiv flew limply backwards on his way to the back wall of the sparring ring, he could see that soulless expression of death, a face of a killer that was not going to stop after one hit, but only after his lifeless body had been stomped into a fine red paste. The expression barely lasted the flicker of a blink before it was replaced by something much worse.
Those golden eyes looked up, above his head in the direction of the young Nocturne mare he had been speaking with, and that deadly intent went out of them instantly. The rippling chill of the night air froze in Shiv’s chest as his own heart felt torn in half, a pain that exceeded the growing agony in his face. The pain only lasted until he struck the wall, and he felt relief at the sudden blackness of unconsciousness that claimed him.
* * *
“Hey kid. Wake up.” The night air of the sparring ring felt cool on his mane, the sharp smell of disinfectant being swabbed on his battered nose competing with the warm tingle of a spell.
“The enchantments on his helmet held. No brain damage. Well, no more than normal for any stallion,” said a mature voice that he could fuzzily match with the forest-green mare in the modified police uniform. Miss Grace, that was her name.
“Lad, I think introductions are in order.” Shiv managed to open his eyes to look at the circle of concerned ponies surrounding him, one of which was the beautiful Nocturne mare he had been talking to just a few moments ago. Buttercup gestured at her and nodded. “Hoofmaiden Laminia, I would like to introduce and apologize for my newest recruit, Blade. Blade, I would like you to meet Princess Luna’s personal hoofmaiden, and the wife of Optio Pumpernickel, whom you already have met.”
“Charmed,” wheezed Shiv, trying to blink away tears from the odor of the disinfectant. “Sorry about that.”
“Mistress Laminia, I think I can give your husband the rest of the night off. Blade, welcome to the Night Guard.” Commander Buttercup nodded in satisfaction as he extended a hoof to his newest recruit.
“No.” Laminia’s expression of worry had been replaced by a grim frown as she looked back over her shoulder at her husband, who was still being fussed over by a pair of guard medics.
“No?” said Buttercup, his voice beginning to rise as his moustache flared. “I think you misunderstand your position here, young mare. This is my trainee.”
“We are all at the disposition of our Princess of the Night. You may think you have made a recruit for Princess Luna’s forces, when in fact by your actions, you have broken two of them.” The young mare’s voice resonated with authority far greater than her age, and Shiv found the hair on the back of his mane was standing on end. “My special talent is healing broken hearts. This young idiot will never again face mortal danger without seeing the face of my husband, and my husband will never overcome his loss of control unless…”
Laminia stopped talking and looked Shiv in the eyes, cool golden orbs that glittered in the lamplight that filled the sparring ring. Somewhere out in the darkness, he could hear Commander Buttercup’s voice saying something that just did not seem important at the moment. Shiv had always been a sucker for a dame, and realized that what she was saying was true. He may not have been able to do anything about Breaker, but if he fled from here, even as a Night Guard, he could not flee from his own fear.
“Get my helmet, please, sir. And a new plate.” Shiv staggered to his hooves and took a deep breath. “We’re still tied.”
* * *
In the end, their last bout lasted far longer than either of them expected. Guards and other observers from the surrounding training facility gathered quietly and watched the two of them as the fight rolled onward. It was a cautious battle that took up the entire ring at times with swoops and rolls, ending almost comically as a counter-punch from Shiv skidded off an unpadded spot on Pumpernickel’s foreleg and broke his plate. They just stood, panting and dripping with sweat while regarding each other, speechless.
Pumpernickel broke the silence first, nodding and announcing in a deep tenor voice, “Point and Set, Blade. Good fight.”
Shiv nodded back, turning his nod into a sudden bow as the air above the sparring ring filled with strong wingbeats and Princess Luna landed in the sand directly in front of Pumpernickel, wearing her own full set of training pads.
“Commander Buttercup. We have come to train at our facility. Since it has been many years since our last practice session, we shall begin by sparring with your lowest ranked Night Guard and work our way up.”