Shining Armor, Russet Rook, and I stood around the table, looking at piles of paperwork.
“This is going to take a lot of planning,” I said.
Lieutenant Rook nodded. “Yes, and perfect execution. Help won’t be within hooves’ reach.”
“If any two ponies can figure it out, it will be you two,” Shining Armor said.
I tapped the large roster sheet with a hoof. “Twenty total ponies in the House Guard plus twenty palace guards. That is pretty slim should anything go wrong.”
“True, but moving with too many more will become a liability as well. I’d rather not have to figure out the logistics for that. Princess Luna is also pretty formidable on her own. Plus, every one of our ponies is worth at least two regular guards,” the lieutenant said.
I shifted a document to the captain. “How about we drop four palace guards for these ponies? The gryphons wouldn’t be able to tell the difference and in a fight, their protection magic would give us a huge advantage.”
Shining Armor’s brow lifted and he asked, “Unicorn Temple guards?”
“Unicorn Temple guards,” I confirmed.
The lieutenant tapped the paper. “I love that idea. They may not be good fighters but if we can defend them they can shield us and maybe even tend our wounds. If we employ them the way the sergeant is suggesting, they’re a real force multiplier.”
Shining Armor nodded. “Unicorn Temple guards it is.”
Princess Luna cleared her throat and the three of us turned to face her. “Ye three realize this is a diplomatic meeting, not an attack, yes?”
“Of course, Princess,” Shining Armor said and then hedged. “But with you being in their kingdom and across the waters, we just want to be sure we could protect you. Consider us being foolishly overcautious.”
The alicorn rose from her seat and approached. “Thou mayest be as cautious as thou likest, as long as everypony remembers this is a peaceful mission. We will not have the gryphons misunderstanding our security precautions as a sign of distrust.”
Lieutenant Rook looked at me. “I want you to spend extra time with the unit to make sure they understand Princess Luna’s wishes. I’ve heard the stories about the gryphons trying to provoke a fight when they were here. That same behavior won’t be tolerated when we are their guests. We should be the bigger ponies.”
“Aye, sir,” I replied and made a note to discuss that very thing with my ponies. Especially Thunder Tumble.
“We’re going where, Sergeant?” Miley Hooves asked me.
“Princess Luna has been dispatched to conduct diplomacy with the ruler of Nordanver, the northern gryphon kingdom,” I replied, keeping my tone even. “We, of course, will be accompanying her. That is no small task. In fact, it is the largest challenge for us yet. That is a huge vote of confidence for this unit and we now have the opportunity to truly prove we are peers to Princess Celestia’s House Guard.
“Our journey will begin with a train ride to Baltimare. From there, we’ll set sail and cross the sea to the capital city of Margull. We’ll establish a safe dwelling for the princess and see that she can go to and from her meetings without incident. This isn’t going to be easy. A lot of the resources we take for granted won’t be available to us. There is little room for error, but I have every confidence in you.” I paused and looked at all of my ponies as they were mustered. I wasn’t just paying them lip service. I trusted them.
“The lieutenant and I do not expect any hostility, but that is no reason to be unprepared. We need to treat this situation as if it were the most danger Princess Luna has ever been in. At the same time, we do not want our hosts to feel as if they are not trusted. It will be a delicate balance.
“Finally, and most important of all, there can be no incidents created by us. No fights with the gryphons. No violations of their laws. No name calling. We are the bigger ponies and I expect you all to remember that. Do not start a fight. Do not let them goad you into one.”
I stamped a hoof. “But by Celestia, if some feathered troublemaker takes a swing at you, put him down and out cold. Don’t overdo it, but make it clear we won’t tolerate such immaturity. Have I made myself clear?”
The group shouted in unison, “Yes, Sergeant!”
“Good,” I said before starting to pass out rosters, schedules, and travel plans. “Memorize these. Do not take them outside of the palace. Once you know them by heart, destroy them. We leave in two weeks. If there is anything you need to do here, be sure you get it done soon. I’m counting on everypony to be ready. Do not disappointment me. Dismissed.”
I stood on my hindhooves and used my wings to keep me upright. It was a skill I was getting quite good at. My forehooves peppered the heavy bag with blows, working on my boxing skills and getting my workout in.
“That was one heck of a speech. If I didn’t know any better I’d think you were sending us off to war,” Iridescence said as she approached. It was the first time we’d spoken outside of work in a while. She reared up and held onto the other side of the bag so that it wouldn’t sway so much. I continued to pummel it.
“Maybe I am,” I grunted as I threw another jab. “I don’t trust gryphons and we’re walking right into their roost. If something goes wrong, we’ll be right in the middle of it.”
I hit the bag hard and Iridescence slid back with it. Her head poked around the side and she asked, “Are you angry? You’re never angry. What is going on?”
I eased up a bit to ensure she wouldn’t go flying while I thumped the bag with my hooves. “No.” Thump. “Maybe.” Thump, thump. “I don’t know.” I huffed. I dropped and walked over to the bucking targets and started in on them without further explanation.
Iridescence came over to watch me. “Are you mad at me? You’ve been almost all business since… well, since we broke up. Even more since you found out about Winterspear and—” Her eyes went wide as I bucked one of the targets so hard I broke it in half. “Alright then.”
“I’m not mad at you,” I said, inspecting the broken target.
“You really look mad at me,” she replied.
“I’m not mad at you,” I repeated.
“The target disagrees,” she prodded.
“I’m not mad!” I shouted at her. My ears fell.
“Well… maybe you should be,” Iridescence said flatly. She approached me. “I broke up with you and ran off. As soon as you came to get me, I got cozy with your sister. On top of that, we both hid it from you. If somepony did that to me, I’d be real angry. You haven’t done anything.”
Clenching my teeth, I growled, “What am I supposed to do, then?”
Iridescence poked me with a hoof. “Get angry. Tell me off. Tell Winterspear off.”
I did not like being poked but I kept my cool and replied, “Tell off my best friend and my sister? That doesn’t sound like something a good friend would do. Do you know how heartbroken she was?”
Iridescence poked me with a hoof again. “Oh yeah? And good friends just lie to each other? Huh?” she taunted before punctuating it with another hoof poke.
That was enough of that. She went to poke me again and I stepped in close, letting her hoof go by me. I bumped her with my chest and bowled her over.
“There you go,” she said, looking up at me.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Anything! You just sat there and took it all. You’ve got it all bottled up inside and now you’re telling the section to finish fights. You’re preparing for a war! If you keep this up, you won’t have to worry about us starting a fight with the gryphons. It will be you. So why don’t you just be the bigger stallion and get it out of your system right now?” She reached up to lightly poke me on the cheek with her hoof.
That set me off. The gates flew open and my hoof came down hard beside her. “You never should have left! I could have taken it! You just assumed I couldn’t. You never should have lied, either! Winterspear had her reasons, but what was your excuse? Aren’t we best friends? You sure haven’t acted like it lately. I try to be myself and you say it isn’t enough. I try to meet you halfway and it's too far. I’m tired of being wrong and I’m tired of everypony treating me like a fragile foal.”
My voice dropped to the normal tone. “I’m tired of being a third wheel. I was just starting to feel right again and then there you are in bed with my sister. Now everypony has somepony but me. When I was with you, I got used to the idea that there was more to life than the job. Now that I know that, if I think about it, I get muddled. It is just easier to focus on my work than worry about what I’m missing.”
Iridescence poked me in the cheek with her hoof and said, “Boop.”
I slumped down to rest against her. “I see.” The anger subsided. Now I was just exhausted.
She rolled over and looped her hooves around me in a tight hug. “I’m not going to make any excuses for my behavior. I didn’t treat you like a friend nor did I give you the respect I should have. When you didn’t get angry, I questioned whether or not you even cared but watching you lately had shown me otherwise. I owed it to you to help you express that anger.”
“By picking a fight?” I asked. “That was pretty risky. That target could have been you.”
Iridescence buried her nose into my mane and snuffled. “Honestly, I’d have deserved it. I’ve been a gryphon’s butt. I’ve been acting really selfish. Seeing what it did to you really opened my eyes. I couldn’t let it go on. Especially not with this big mission coming up. Now I don’t want you to just say you forgive me and that we’re fine. You obviously got some of it out there but if you feel a need to yell some more, we can do that.”
I really didn’t feel like yelling. In fact, I was hoping she’d just hug me like that a while longer. It was nice, even if it was just platonic. What was important was that we really hadn’t been close since she got back. We were just pretending and going through the motions. This was an actual love. The love of one friend for another.
“Okay,” I said.
“Uh… should we leave?” one pony in a small group asked from the other side of the room. How long had they been there?
“Yes!” we shouted in unison.
“Hey, Sergeant, did you say something to Runic?” Miley asked pointedly.
I inhaled some of the water I was drinking and started coughing. Lieutenant Rook, the coward, immediately fled my office.
When I started breathing again, I looked at Miley and asked, “Why do you ask?”
“He has been acting a little off lately. At least off for him, anyway. He is paying more attention to me and asking me about things I like instead of just science.”
“And that is a bad thing?” I asked.
Miley Hooves lightly stomped. “No, it isn’t bad. Just weird. You told him, didn’t you?”
I set my hoof on the desk and nodded. “I did. I wanted to see where he was mentally. He thought you were taking him to a show about rocks and I wanted to be certain he didn’t miss an amazing opportunity.
She tilted her head. “Amazing opportunity?”
“To find love. To do something other than invent alone in that back room. You’re an amazing pony, Miley, and if he never saw that, it would have been sad. No, maybe even a tragedy. I know I shouldn’t have meddled but I couldn’t help it. I care about you both, you just seem good together, and you can’t stand there and tell me you weren’t looking at him like that.”
Miley muttered, “Maybe.”
“Okay… yes,” she said but then looked up at me again, fire in her eyes. All mares, including petite ones, can be frightening. “But you still shouldn’t have meddled!”
Holding up my hooves, I quickly agreed, “You’re right and I won’t again. I promise. It is all you two from here on out.”
“Okay then…” she said, eyeing me as she walked out. Once she was beyond the door, she poked her head back in, looking every bit her normal, cute self. “Thanks, boss!”
I just winked and counted my blessings that I had gotten that one right.