Twilight Sparkle got off the train in Canterlot and headed up to the castle. She had left Spike in charge of the library while she went to see Princess Celestia. Twilight wanted to ask her mentor for her thoughts regarding the princess in the origin story for Hearts and Hooves Day. In part, this was because Twilight still felt partly responsible for what the Crusaders had done to Big McIntosh and Cheerilee the previous Hearts and Hooves Day. Twilight felt that if she had more information, she could do more to prevent such incidents in the future.
Also, she had ripped up and burned the page containing the recipe for the love poison.
The castle guards recognized Twilight instantly, some of them nodding in acknowledgement as she went inside. For many years before coming to Ponyville, Twilight had lived and studied here under Princess Celestia. Each time she returned, she felt a surge of nostalgia for those times, especially her private study sessions with the princess. Usually, though, Twilight did not have the time to relax and enjoy the familiar ambiance, since they was usually some crisis to be resolved when she came back here. Coming back on her own like this was the only way Twilight seemed to see Canterlot in his calm, everyday glory these days.
Most of the ponies Twilight saw were out and about in pairs -- mostly stallions and mares, but there were also a few fillies and colts, and even groups who were hanging out as friends, the way Twilight usually did with the others. The Unicorn paused, reflecting on how she would not even have those friends if Princess Celestia had not insisted she go to Ponyville in time to stop Nightmare Moon. It was an odd thing for which to be grateful.
Twilight shook herself out of her reverie, and continued to look for Princess Celestia. When Twilight did not find her mentor in the throne room, she went up to the balcony from which Princess Celestia often overlooked the city. She was not there either, though. Next, Twilight used the secret back-passages to get to the circular room where Princess Celestia and Luna practiced their magic, and taught there one-on-one magic lessons. Just to be sure, she used the Shift Focus technique that Gearhead had taught her, and saw the golden and silvery-blue magic auras that floated thickly in the air all around the room. There were, she saw, some specks of magenta and some of turquoise mixed in with them now, from herself, Cadence, and Gearhead. But no sign that any of the princess had been here all that recently. Twilight blinked to relax her eyes, and returned to the main hallway network to continue her search.
As she walked, Twilight nearly bumped into a young stallion in unmarked chainmail. The Pegasus had an orange coat and blue eyes and a matching mane. With all the guards that were around elsewhere, Twilight was surprised to see anyone so ill-equipped in the palace. Obviously, though, this one was not a member of the guard, or at least not yet. Perhaps Twilight would ask Shining about that when they saw each other next: Twilight realized she did not know anything about the recruitment process for the city and royal guard.
"Excuse me," Twilight said, moving to go around the Pegasus.
"Wait, what're you doing back here?" The Pegasus extended a wing to the side to try to block her path. Twilight could have tried to dodge around, but more to the point she was not in the wrong being here.
"If you must know, I'm here to see Princess Celestia."
"Really? I'm surprised you got passed the guards," Twilight could see that he wanted to snicker at her, but was holding back, probably to try to appear courteous. Only the way he had expressed his doubts had been very rude, in Twilight's opinion.
"If you knew who I am, you wouldn't be surprised at all, but I'll chalk it up to you being new here. I know I've never seen you here before, and I've spoken with the Princess plenty of times."
"Who are... wait a minute, you're one of the mares in the stained-glass windows."
"The princess has a lot of stained-glass windows," Twilight said, teasing the poor stallion just a little more.
"The ones about the defeats of Nightmare Moon and Discord," he said. "So you're... oh, I'm so sorry!"
"Well, now that you know--"
"It's just that I'm a little lost. I came to interview for a position in the Canterlot Royal Guards, but I took a wrong turn somewhere, and now I don't know where I am."
"That's definitely be embarrassing. Almost as much as enchanting an object to create a problem to solve."
"Almost," the stallion chuckled, relaxing.
Good, Twilight thought. "I'm Twilight Sparkle. I used to study here with the princess, but now I live in Ponyville."
"I'm Flash Sentry. I'm from a small town near Cloudsdale."
"Nice to meet you, Flash. If you want, you can come with me while I keep looking for the princess."
"Only as far as a hall or room I can recognize: I don't want to be a bother."
"That's okay, I've developed some patience for new company."
"Wait, why are you looking for the princess?"
Twilight sighed. "I can't seem to find her, but don't worry: I'm sure she's around somewhere. In the meantime, would you like some help preparing for your interview?"
"I don't know if I even have it anymore, considering how late I am by now!"
"Don't worry: I'm sure Kibitz will be able to fit you in somewhere."
"Kibitz is Princess Celestia's right-hand stallion. He's a sort of personal assistant or secretary who takes care of whatever she needs done. In fact, maybe he even knows where the princess is. Come on!"
Princess Celestia was not in her office when Twilight and Flash arrived, but Kibitz was. He looked up after granting them entry, and smiled wanly. "I'm afraid Their Highnesses have both decided to give themselves a little time off, which means I am left taking care of all of this." He waved a hoof, indicating the scrolls piled up on the desk. "It is not the first time this has happened, and it probably will not be the last, but there you are. Now, what can I do for the two of you?"
"Mine is more of a personal request, unless you know something about the ponies in the Hearts and Hooves story.
"Sorry, but that was before even my time," Kibitz smiled sardonically: It was a standing joke that he had served the crown since Princess Celestia's and Luna's coronation -- which should not have been possible. Twilight matched Kibitz's smile with one of her own, to show she understood, but Flash just stood there, wide-eyed. "And what can I do for you, young stallion?" Kibitz asked, bringing Flash out of his stunned state. Twilight suppressed a giggle.
"Oh, I'm Flash Sentry. I was supposed to come in for an admission interview for the Canterlot Royal Guard, but..." Twilight nodded to Flash, reassuring him that it was okay to tell the truth. "I got completely lost, until Twilight here helped me out."
"The palace can be a bit of a maze for those unfamiliar with the layout of the inner corridors, but then that was the intended design, apparently. Now, as there is presently nopony else here to see me, I can take the interview right now. Normally I would have a little more time to be more thorough, however as you can see, I have a bit more work than usual today. So, unless you would like to reschedule for another day, I will be brief."
"No, it's okay,"
"Well then, Miss Twilight, if you wouldn't mind taking notes..?"
"Not at all," Twilight said, pulling up the extra chair and clearing enough space with which to write at the desk. She nodded to Kibotz, and then turned her attention to Flash.
"Now, Mister Sentry, why do you want to become a member of the Guard?"
"I want to be able to serve Equestria, and protect my family. I think I can do that best here."
"Could you give me an example of a situation where you successfully protected somepony?"
"It was just a small incident, but I protected my younger siblings from a Harpy."
"I got a little scratch, but it was treated for infection right away."
"What are your greatest strengths?"
"To be honest, I practically only have my strength and speed," Flash said. Kibitz looked skeptical, because Flash was not big enough to come across as physically fit. "Pegasi usually need speed more than strength, but I'm also tough in a wiry way. That's why my frame's smaller than some other stallions."
"What is your greatest weakness?"
"I'm not very creative, but on the other hoof, I take orders well -- to a point."
"When would you start questioning orders?"
"There's a certain point when it seems unnecessarily hazardous or, like, maybe 'suicidal' is the better term. If an order's likely to get the unit, or even part of it, killed for little or no gain, I'd be against it. I may not be the smartest flyer around, but I'm not a fool either."
"Prince Blueblood is likely to gain a command of his own when he finishes his military training. How far would you follow him?"
"As long as he makes sense, and makes good use of his training, I'll make good use of mine. But like I said, no intelligent soldier is going to follow a meaningless order or throw his life away for nothing."
"Speaking of life, would you die if it meant protecting other ponies, not limited to the Princesses?"
"Do you mean 'would I take a magic blast or spear for them?"
"Yes, and pretend that the hit would be fatal."
"Of course I would want to keep others, the Princesses especially, from getting harmed, but if I died doing it I wouldn't be of any further use, would I? If I can, I'd much rather continue to protect them as a living guard. Luckily, we're usually in a position to be armed and equipped to take damage from threats without dying, so we can continue our duty of guarding lives without losing our own. I hear Prince Shining Armour even has a magic shield that can adjust its size and shape to whatever he needs. If I had one of those, I could protect the ponies whose safety I was responsible for as long as I had to."
Twilight almost laughed: Flash was talking about one of the gemstone weapons that Gearhead made through his geomancy as though it could be a piece of standard equipment. It was a nice idea, but the amount of jewels it took to create a single gemstone dagger was prohibitive when one thought about equipping the entire Guard, each with his own personalized weapon. But if Flash could prove his worth to the Princessess, or became close friends with Gearhead, he could get a dagger -- and the latter situation did not even require that he be a member of the Guard.
Twilight saw Kibitz check a clock. "Thank you, Mister Sentry, that will be all for now. We will schedule another interview when Princess Celestia or Princess Luna is available to oversee the next stage in the procedure."
"Thank you, Mister Kibitz!" Flash jumped to his hooves, sporting a big smile.
"Don't get too happy yet, Mister Flash: this is just the first level, a preliminary screening. You still have far to go."
"Yes I do!" Flash said, and Twilight realized that he was talking about a larger vision, and not the interview process.
"Thank you, Kibitz," she said, nodding. The elder Unicorn merely nodded back, and returned to the big pile of paperwork.
"Now, wasn't that nice?" Twilight asked, outside the office. "You got your interview after all. Congratulations on passing the first test, Flash Sentry."
"Thanks to you, Twilight Sparkle," he said, shaking her hoof. "Thank you!"
"No, I didn't really do much," she said, blushing.
"No, you really saved me there. I can't believe how lost I was out there."
"We just stumbled across each other. We barely avoided literally bumping into each other, too."
"Well, that too, but if you weren't in that room with me, I wouldn't have been able to think of how to answer the questions."
"How do you mean? The practice we did before?"
"That too, but I kept thinking 'what would Twilight want to hear me say?' Just that question was an amazing guide for me."
"Really?" It was hard for Twilight to believe that such a small thing could give Flash the answers he needed, even for this early stage.
Flash grinned as he nodded. "So thank you, really."
"Okay. You're welcome, I mean."
"So maybe look me up later, when I'm in the Guard."
Twilight laughed. "You sound so sure," she said.
"I feel like it's what I'm meant to do,"
"You mean like 'fate?'" Twilight frowned.
"Don't be ridiculous," Flash said. "It's something more. And you helped me make it happen, Twilight."
"Well, when you're really successful, be sure to keep in mind that you can always ask for additional training and opportunities from my brother, Shining Armour."
"I'll definitely keep him in mind, too: I won't forget what you've done for me today."
"Good, because I think I got a report for the princess out of you too."
"Then I'm glad to help," Flash said, and they parted ways, uncertain whether they would ever meet again, not knowing the future.
But both were certain that they could shine within their own futures.