Princess Luna had some wonderfully comfortable furniture and I was relaxing on her sofa. The original one had died honorably at my hooves in the daring liberation of Miley. This one was a suitable replacement, though.
From all the proper eating and exercising, I had started turning into a well-built stallion again. Despite that, both the princess and Winterspear insisted that I rest twice a day. So I was resting, on duty, on a couch. Not that I had any official duties currently, but it still bothered me some.
My nerves had also improved considerably. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having lost ponies but, more or less, I’d accepted the notion that just because they died, I didn’t have to as well. I was still muddled on the fact of responsibility and how to resolve the issue. I needed to sort that out, too, because I was going to be an officer and that could potentially mean sending more ponies to their deaths.
That was part of the job my father had never prepared me for. All of the training had been about being an enlisted guard. About giving your life. I guess he never expected me to become a sergeant and he certainly didn’t expect me to become an officer. That, he had said in a letter, was a shameful waste of my talents. He’d recommended I decline. I’d wrote back that I’d consider it and I did for all of two seconds.
There was a knock at the chamber door and Shadestar opened it. “Princess, courier here for you.”
I poked my head up over the back of the couch. Shadestar had a small pile of scrolls trapped in her magic as she closed the door. Princess Luna levitated them up and towards where she sat opposite from me.
The princess sorted through the pile and dropped them all when she reached one in particular. She quickly broke the seal and pulled the scroll open. Her eyes moved along the lines as she read excitedly… at least until a frown darkened her expression.
“Bad news?” I asked.
“It is a letter from Duke Cassius, our usual correspondence until the very end. He states that Captain Alastair and his band of rogue soldiers continue to elude authorities in Nordanver. He goes on to say that they seem to be backed by a wealthy benefactor. It is turning quite political.”
Slowly, I sat up. “Who would back a murderous brigand like that?”
The princess shook her head. “I don’t know, but we should trust in Duke Cassius. He will make good on his promise to find justice for all those slain.”
“Of course he will,” I replied absently as I slipped off the couch. “If you’ll excuse me, Princess. I think I’m done resting for now.”
“Yes, by all means. I know that you are feeling much better. Winterspear has informed me that soon you’ll not only be completely well but in better shape than before.”
I wasn’t fully paying attention. My mind was focused on reaching out to some sources at command intelligence. We had operatives everywhere, especially in the gryphon lands. Perhaps it was time to aid the duke in finding his rogue captain.
“Yes, Princess. I’m feeling rather motivated at the moment. Have a lovely afternoon.”
She stared at me but nodded. “Yes… and to you as well, Silent Knight.”
“I’m sorry, First Sergeant, you don’t have the clearance for that sort of thing, regardless of who you work for.”
Slowly, I nodded at the pony behind the desk. He was a guard first class and I couldn’t hold it against him that he wouldn’t share classified information.
“Agreed,” I replied and then changed tactics. “Listen, I don’t want to go about this the wrong way. Could you give me the paperwork for the request? I’m not asking who or where the ponies are in Nordanver.”
“Allegedly are,” he corrected.
“Allegedly,” I quickly amended. “All I’m saying is this is a diplomatic matter between Princess Luna and Duke Cassius. If we can help him find his rogue officer, it will be great for the bonds between our kingdoms. You don’t have to give me any information and I won’t pass anything on to him that compromises the alleged ponies’ covers. May I please have the paperwork to request access to those intelligence reports?”
The pony sighed. “If I give you paperwork to request access to the alleged reports, it would be like admitting that such reports exist. The only way to get access to such reports, if they exist at all, is to have somepony vet you and assign it from the top down.”
Beaurocracy was fun. He had a point, though. Finally, I replied, “I’m tracking now. Is there any possible chance you could tell me which pony to talk to?”
“Classified,” he replied.
I took a deep breath and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Okay. I appreciate that you take your job seriously. It is commendable. I also take mine seriously. Dead seriously. I’ll level with you.
"The bastard murdered ten ponies and a gryphon. One friend, three squad members, and some poor ponies that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. If I do anything… anything with the rest of my life, it is going to be to find him and kill him.
"I don’t care what is in my way. I’ll go over it, through it, or around it. So let me ask you something. Am I going over you, through you, or around you?”
The pony swallowed nervously and leaned back a bit.
“Now, is there anything… anything that you can do to help me that wouldn’t violate your position or the regulations? Anything you’re not mentioning that isn’t classified that if I knew to ask about that you could help me with?” I stared at him, my eyes locked on his. He was sweating.
After an intense amount of eye contact, he finally blinked. “You should talk to the sergeant major. I think you two would get along. He is a blue earth pony and usually has lunch at the Spearhead Tavern on Wednesdays alone.”
“Thank you. Truly,” I said and meant every word.
I had a lead.
“Well, hello, Silent Knight! You’re looking healthy,” Velvet Step called from behind the counter at Sunridge Sweets.
I smiled and replied, “Hi, Velvet. Thank you. Helping out today?”
She nodded. “Yeah. Mom is busy with the baby so I’m helping Dad while she’s at home with little Red.”
“The baby?” I blinked, then it clicked. “Oh, that is right! Your mother was pregnant when I left. Is it a boy or a girl?”
“A boy!” Velvet beamed. “I’ve got a little baby brother. His name’s Red Velvet, which was a little weird at first, so I just call him Red.” She waved a hoof. “Anyway, what can I do for you?”
“Two things,” I said. “First, since I have you here, I would very much be honored if you would grace us with your presence at the surprise birthday party for Runic Phial. Second, if your father is up to the challenge, I need a caterer that can handle rock candy and rock-themed treats.”
Velvet Step eagerly clapped her hooves. “Of course I’ll come! That sounds like a lot of fun and Dad will take on any challenge!”
Pepper Ridge stuck his head out from the back of the bakery. “I’ll do what now?”
“Don’t worry about it, Dad, I’ll tell you later,” the mare called. “Are you going to ask Crystal Wishes?” She looked back at me.
I thought that was a strange question. Of course I was going to invite her. What sort of pony would invite one half of a couple and not the other?
I nodded. “You bet. Do you know if she is home? I need to discuss the music with her.”
Velvet quickly nodded back. “She is. She has a deadline to meet.”
“I wouldn’t want to disturb her-”
“You won’t!” Velvet chimed. “Trust me. She wouldn’t want to miss out on an invitation and a chance to help. Why don’t you go see her?”
“I’ll go right now, then,” I said as I headed for the door. “Thanks, Velvet! You’re the best.”
Velvet laughed and waved me out. “You have no idea!”
I was a little nervous going to Crystal and Velvet’s condo. Crystal Wishes had spent a lot of time taking care of me while I was injured and I had not been able to see her much afterwards. There was a lot of work to catch up on and I hoped she understood that. Crystal Wishes was always so selfless and I felt like I may have taken advantage of that.
Lightly, I knocked on the door. There was also the slightly awkward fact that I found her very attractive. I already had a thing for unicorns and she was quite a unicorn. She was a petite and proper lady.
That was very different than the mares around me at work, but I tried not to stare when we were together. After all, she and Velvet were an item and I would never, ever, want to hurt Velvet. She was the sweetest pony alive. Plus, the whole barn door swinging thing.
The door opened and Crystal Wishes smiled. “Sergeant, what a pleasant surprise. Won’t you come in?”
“Thank you, please,” I said as I walked into the condo. I took my helmet off and set it by the door. “I apologize for coming unannounced. Velvet said I would not be intruding.”
“And Velvet was right,” Crystal Wishes replied before heading over to her seating area and settling there. She offered me a pillow across from her and I accepted it. “What is the occasion?”
“Runic Phial’s surprise birthday party. I would very much be honored if you would attend and I know he’ll be delighted to see you,” I started and then added, “I also need your advice.”
Crystal Wishes smiled brightly and nodded. “Of course. You can consider me RSVPing a yes. Now, what sort of advice do you need?”
“The party will be held in the palace gardens so we want to maintain a certain level of decorum. Runic is really into rock music right now, though. We were hoping we could find some classical musicians that play rock songs. Can you help with that?”
The unicorn paused and seemed to be deep in thought. “Tough, but I think I can do it. I certainly know whom to ask. Leave that with me.”
“Great! Thank you, Crystal. I knew I could count on you,” I said and started to rise.
“Are you in a hurry?” she asked and I immediately sat back down.
I shook my head. “No. I’m done for the day. I wouldn’t want to impose, though.”
“Sergeant, you’re never an imposition. Besides, it is about time we discussed the tutoring you asked for, is it not?”
She had a great point. “I think you’re right. I’ll be starting at the academy soon and I’d hate to squander any time before then. Did you have the chance to look over the materials?”
“I have indeed,” she said. “I believe you are well spoken and polite enough to skip most of the etiquette items. To be fair, proper Canterlot etiquette isn’t that different from how you treat your officers. Just treat all other ponies the same way. Where I imagine you’re weak, and no offense is meant, is polite conversation, fine dining, dancing, and lying about insignificant things.”
The list seemed a bit longer than I had hoped and I was positive there was nothing about lying on the documents I sent. “No offense taken,” I said. “But I’m not really comfortable with the lying part.”
Crystal crossed her forehooves and said, “We’ll call it a creative interpretation of the truth, then. No outright lying. Now, as I see it, we’ll need to work on these things together. Since I’ve had time to fully study what all is required, I think initially you should come to see me twice a week after hours. Is that acceptable?”
It was to me but I hedged, “That sounds like an awful lot of your time being invested in me. I really don’t want to be an imposition… and I certainly don’t have any way to pay you back. It would just be me taking advantage of you.”
“As I said, Sergeant, you’re not an imposition.” She then laughed, “And you are not taking advantage of me. I want to help you with this. Helping ponies fit in in this awfully fickle city has been a labor of love for me since I was a filly. Consider it my second calling in life. I have no idea what that cutie mark would look like, but I’d have it if I weren't a writer.”
“Then I accept,” I replied. “I’m yours two nights a week.”
Crystal Wishes’s eyes glimmered and she replied, “Excellent. Would you care for some tea before you left?”
I started to rise. “I should really be going.”
The mare shook her head. “First rule of polite company: you cannot go until you’ve politely said no. You should allow your host to offer something twice. Refuse it both times if you don’t want it and once if you do.”
The look on my face probably displayed my confusion because she explained, “You refuse once to show your host that you don’t want to be a burden to them. They will then insist and you may accept. If you truly don’t want what they’re offering, refuse a second time.”
I slowly sank back down to the pillow. “Thank you for the offer of tea but not this late in the evening.”
She nodded and offered, “Are you certain? Perhaps just a half cup to warm you for the road?”
This was going to be challenging. Not to learn but to execute. If I had to do it too often, I might be spending a lot of time in the gym punching the heavy bag.
I smiled and shook my head. “I really shouldn’t. I need to get home to Winterspear. She’ll have my special dinner waiting.” I then slowly started to rise again. Halfway up, I paused and looked at her. She nodded and I got all the way up.
“Thank you,” I said.
She just giggled.
Mares. My whole life was ruled by mares. Crystal Wishes saw me out and I headed home. In all fairness, I felt like mares ruling the world wasn’t that bad. Especially when they were cute unicorn mares.