“Miley Hooves, you are not a black cat,” I said as the two of us walked through town. “You’re a good guard.”
Miley’s head hung a bit. She’d had another accident that morning and was feeling low. Somehow, she had managed to turn the filly’s locker room into a lake deep enough to sail on. “You say that, Sergeant, but sooner or later I’m going to do something really bad.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. All of your… accidents are minor or somehow have a positive spin. That couch had it coming, anyway.”
The little earth mare finally laughed. “Thanks, Sergeant. Still, I’d like to at least try this. Are you alright, by the way? You’ve been quiet all day.”
“I’m fine. I’ve just had a lot on my mind. As far as trying, it is totally up to you. I don’t think it is necessary, but if you’re sure, I’ll support it,” I said as we reached Runic’s shop. “If anypony can help you, it is probably Runic. When he isn’t blowing something up, he is quite capable.”
That didn’t really give Miley a lot of confidence but we went in regardless.
“Hey, Runic,” I called.
“In the back!” he shouted and we started that way when I noticed there was a somewhat familiar sage-coated pegasus stallion behind the counter.
“Rossby Waves?” I asked.
He nodded. “In the feathers.”
I blinked in surprise. “Aren’t you a specialist weatherpony?”
“Yes,” he said flatly. “So specialist that I don’t have a lot of work to do so, I take odd jobs now and then for bits.”
That was odd, but what did I know about weather? With a shrug, I walked past him with Miley in tow. The workshop in the back was dark, illuminated only by glowing green coils of wire. “Runic?” I called out.
“Don’t move!” he replied.
Out of immediate fear, I took Miley’s hoof in my own and we braced ourselves.
The coils faded out and then the regular lights came on. Runic was standing in the center of the room behind a big green box. He had on his goggles and a vinyl lab coat. “Hello!”
I relaxed and let Miley go. Suddenly the box in the middle of the room burst open, sending pink, yellow, blue, and green confetti plus balloons everywhere. Miley screamed and fell over backwards. I just stood there, covered in confetti.
“Party in a box,” Runic explained. “I met a pony with a party cannon. This seemed less violent. I finally got it to work!”
“Of course. Listen, would you be willing to help Miley—”
“Yes,” he interrupted, paused, and then asked, “With what?”
Miley got up, a hoof on her heart. “With my bad luck. I go places and things seem to happen, kind of like that box. That is my luck.”
Runic and I said at the same time, “That was supposed to happen.”
Miley just stared.
Runic stroked his chin. “Bad luck, huh? Maybe I can help! We’ll need to do some research and investigation, though. Are you willing to do that?”
Miley steeled herself and nodded. “Yes.”
“Then let’s get to work,” Runic said before throwing a switch. All the lights went out.
“Yes, Silent Knight?”
“Wrong switch?” I asked.
After leaving Miley Hooves in the capable care of Runic Phial, I took to the sky and flew towards the Royal Equestrian Officer’s Academy. I was meeting Shining Armor there to take a look at the officer candidate he had found.
The captain was early, which was no surprise. I landed next to him, saluted, and then we started towards the entrance.
“His name is Russet Rook. On the surface he is average in about every way. Ranking wise, he is in the middle of the pack. No family history of service and he doesn’t come from a well-connected family.”
“What set him out in your mind, sir?” I asked.
“I think it is a ploy. The way he solves problems is ingenious but it seems his solutions work exactly half of the time. It is as if he doesn’t want to stand out. Nopony can be exactly average. Cadet Rook has no extremes,” Shining Armor explained.
That was indeed odd. I had been near the top of my class but even I wasn’t always consistent with my scores. We’re all good at some things and weak at others. “Why would a pony not want to stick out?”
“Great question, Sergeant. That is precisely what we’re going to find out.”
Russet Rook was an earth pony with a caramel-colored coat. His mane and tail were predominantly orange with a bit of white. Both were perfectly groomed to regulation standards. He stood at a disciplined attention across the room from us. Shining Armor had the cadet’s files spread out on the instructor’s desk.
“You’re right in the middle of the pack, Cadet. If you don’t make any mistakes you’re sure to graduate and find a decent command,” the captain started.
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Cadet Rook responded.
I stroked my chin a bit. Why was Rook so mundane? By all accounts he was just an average stallion. My suspicion was that the captain had figured it out in part and that I was playing catch up.
“A decent command would likely land you in a city guard. You wouldn’t have much chance at some of the more desirable units,” I said.
Cadet Rook nodded. “I try hard, Sergeant, but I think those units are for other ponies.”
Shining Armor finally showed his cards. “I don’t think you do, Cadet. In fact my belief is that you try just enough to ensure that you’re exactly average and we’re here to find out why.”
It was subtle but Russet Rook’s tail twitched. It was probably his tell. “I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” he responded.
I came out from behind the desk and approached him. “Oh, I think you do, Cadet,” I said while slowly circling him. “You’re very good… but please don’t assume that we’re as easy to fool as your instructors. The captain is a proper officer, you know.”
Russet’s tail twitched again. He otherwise looked quite cool and confident.
Shining Armor caught on. “The first sergeant is right. He knows when ponies are lying. He can smell it and if I can give you any advice, Cadet Rook, you never want to lie to a first sergeant. Especially not one as hard as Silent Knight.”
I stood directly perpendicular to Russet Rook, put on my scariest sergeant’s face, and raised my voice. “What is the big secret, Cadet? Do you think this is some kind of game?”
Russet Rook stiffened and said loudly, “No, Sergeant! This isn’t a game but that is what I want to avoid!”
“What does that mean?” the captain asked.
Cadet Rook looked resigned. “Sir, you’re a unicorn and a Canterlot elite. The first sergeant is a pegasus with a warrior tradition. I’m an earth pony from a rock farm in the middle of nowhere. I am not equipped for the political games that accompany being outstanding. If I dared to challenge the others, they’d see to it that I ended up below average. Average suits me fine.”
The captain briefly looked in my direction. It was subtle and I doubted Russet Rook would catch it. I moved in front of the cadet and went nose to nose with him, staring. “Cadet, are you saying good marks aren’t enough to get a good command? Are you saying you also have to play the political game here in Canterlot to succeed? Do I understand you right?”
“Yes, Sergeant!” he said loudly.
“What do you think, Sergeant?” the captain asked from over my shoulder.
This was going to be one of those quick gut decisions. Sure, we could sit back and think it over, but Russet Rook might change his behavior. We might even scare him off. Here was a pony that was performing below his skill just to avoid dealing with the elite like Obsidian Haze.
It was clear he wanted a career but also he wasn't foolish enough to try and fight the powers that be to soar higher. Being an officer was a lot harder in some ways than being enlisted. Tough call, but I imagined he would be moldable. The sort of pony that could learn. He certainly couldn't be any worse than the last lieutenant.
Plus, if he was, the captain wouldn't be on a honeymoon. This could work out great.
“He’s our pony,” I replied, stepping back and returning to my place beside the captain. “He’ll care more about his duties than trying to impress somepony. That is the kind of officer we need.”
Russet Rook look confused. “Sir?”
Shining Armor said, “Welcome to your new command, Lieutenant Rook. You just became commanding officer of Princess Luna’s House Guard. This is a huge opportunity for anypony. Doubly so for one that is just coming out of the academy. If you mess this up, you’ll make a fool out of me and the first sergeant here. You won’t mess up, though, will you?”
Lieutenant Rook looked surprised but he pulled it together and shook his head. “No, sir. I won’t.”
The captain said, “This is your first sergeant. He’s been with the unit since day one. He has also been acting commander more times than I can even count. A little career advice for you: lieutenants that learn from their first sergeants tend to make it.
“Lieutenants that have the roughest time are the ones that assume they learned everything they needed to know here. Trust me, you didn't. You didn't at all.
"More importantly, I trust the first sergeant more than most ponies. If he says you’re a screw up, the rank won’t save you. Not for an instant. Am I being crystal clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Rook said.
“Sergeant, see that the lieutenant-to-be is briefed. I’ll do the paperwork to make his commission official. He can march with his class later. For now, we have more important work to do. Make sure he doesn’t pick up any bad ideas in the brief time he has left at this academy,” Shining Armor said.
“Yes, sir!” I said firmly.
Shining Armor left and I stood there with the newly minted lieutenant.
“Some more career advice, Lieutenant?” I offered into the momentary silence.
“Of course, Sergeant.”
“Don’t worry about what the officers from the good families do. I’ve been through two already. A coward and an idiot. You’re your own pony… but, if you want to emulate somepony, emulate that stallion."
I pointed in the direction Shining Armor went. “He’s the best officer I’ve ever seen and it has nothing to do with being a unicorn or a Canterlot elite. His wealthy family hasn't served him one bit in his career. It's all him and his desire to serve.”
“That is good advice. I’ll take it,” he replied.
Iridescence and I wandered up and down the game aisle of the hobby shop in Canterlot. It wasn’t nearly as impressive as the store over in Ponyville but it was close and we only had a lunch break to shop.
“What are you looking for?” she asked me.
In truth, I didn’t have a clue and I said as much.
“How about this?” she asked, holding up a box with a bunch of zomponies on it.
“No… I think we have enough games like that already. I’m just hoping for something different to catch my eye. Plus, maybe something that Velvet Step might like. I’m worried she won’t want to come if she doesn’t have fun.”
Iridescence laughed. “Okay, so we’re just trying to find something lighter and happier. Got it. How about for you, though? It has been a while since we got anything for you.”
My shoulders lifted in a shrug. “I guess I’d like one of those empire building games. We don’t play them often but I know Princess Luna likes them. She’ll play with me.”
“Something like…” Iridescence looked around and then selected an extra large box that featured a star flaring and multiple alien races. “This?”
“Yes, exactly like that.” I wandered over to look at the back of the box, my other mission forgotten. There were all sorts of miniatures and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing even though I realize they don’t make for better games. “The princess will love this!”
Iridescence smiled. “You and the princess are so predictable. Come on, then, let’s get this one and get back to work. You can shop for Velvet Step later. Maybe ask Crystal what she thinks she’d like?”
That seemed reasonable and I nodded. “Alright.” When I reached for my bits, Iridescence set a hoof on mine and then pulled her own out.
“This one's on me. It is the least I can do.”
My nose scrunched up and I shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know. I’m your superior now. That might look like currying favor.”
The mare sighed and rolled her eyes. “Alright, then it is a gift for Princess Luna and you can be the custodian of it. Come on, Silent Knight, we both know you’re not going to do me any favors over a board game. I’m paying.”
It crossed my mind to argue and then I just shrugged. “Alright.”
She made her purchase and we left the shop. There was a small crowd of fifteen or so ponies across the street facing one of the buildings and more were wandering up.
“That probably isn’t good,” I said, shifting into royal guard mode and starting to make my way over.
Iridescence nodded and moved to my side as we crossed the street together.
When we reached the outskirts of the crowd, it was clear they were amazed, not angry. From the head of the group I heard a lovely voice. It was clear, bright, and warm.
Slowly, Iridescence and I worked our way to the front where we spotted a crimson mare with a matching mane standing on a box, singing a love song. To her right, there was a petite blue Canterlot guard looking up at her very nervously. She was barely more than a filly in armor and I could see her hooves shaking.
Softly, the guard said, “I’m sorry, miss, but you can’t perform here. Maybe if you could move down the line a bit to a park? Please?” Her eyes were darting around at the crowd.
Iridescence whispered, “Where is her partner? She shouldn’t be here alone.”
A quick glance around didn’t answer that question. The guard was alone and it seemed to be working her up. Guards worked with partners for a reason. You’d always have somepony to watch your back. Thankfully, Iridescence and I had been in the area. We’d be able to help if necessary.
The crimson mare didn’t seem inclined to end her performance in the middle of her song and briefly winked at the blue mare. That only seemed to make the guard more nervous.
“Please?” she asked again.
The other mare finally brought her song to a close and everypony stomped in pleasure. Hopping off the box, she called, “Thank you, everypony! Thank you. Now, unfortunately, we do need to move along. This nice guard is right and I don’t want to be on the wrong side of the law.”
There were some soft awws from the ponies in the crowd, but they got the message and started to disperse. The crimson mare called, “My name is Scarlett Blade in case you want to look me up. Have a nice day, everypony.” She then made her way down the street.
The petite mare, who was a unicorn, sighed in relief and didn’t move. She stood there like a statue, seemingly to make sure that all the ponies were clearing out.
We made our way over to the guard. She was breathing quickly.
“Is everything alright?” I asked.
She blinked and looked up at me as if she hadn’t seen us near the front of the crowd. “What? Oh!” She stiffened. “Yes, Sergeant! The crowd has been dispersed. I should go. I need to go. I'm going to go. Go patrol.”
“Very good, carry on, then,” I replied. Iridescence and I took that as our cue that all was well and headed back to the castle.
“I thought she was a filly dressed up at first,” Iridescence said.
“She was even smaller than Miley. Maybe we’re just getting older and they all look like fillies now?” I mused.
Iridescence laughed. “Speak for yourself. I’m not old or older.”
With a mock glare in her direction, I replied, “I see.”