“You cannot join the Royal Guard, are you insane?!”
I was beginning to grow weary of Topaz repeating this opinion. “I did not ask to join. They told me to.”
“They can’t just ask you to- Celestia’s beard Idol!” I mouthed the idiom to myself as she continued, trying to comprehend it as she continued. “-can’t just walk up to a recruiting station and… and… and just sign up, it’s not that simple, they look into ponies who are willing to join, it’s more of a… a… a… um…”
“Formality?” I offered, hoping to be helpful. “That was the argument being offered before I was enlisted, that nopony signs up during a celebration. But I did, so that proves them wrong, does it not?”
Topaz’s eye twitched. I had begun wondering if this was a reaction to something. I never have understood how ponies manage with their soft eyes. “Yes. Formality. You can’t go.”
“I… was under the impression that I must?”
“But you can’t!” She flung her hooves up, as if trying to throw something into the air. “You can’t join the Guard, you haven’t even… existed as a pony for a whole year!”
I hedged, believing I understood her concerns. “Perhaps this will assist me in fitting in.”
“Or you’ll get found out!”
That… I had not been considering. “But… it sounds very suitable for me. And… it seems that it would be exactly what I’m looking for.” I looked at her, hoping she could instruct me in a better course of action. “What am I to do?”
She relaxed a bit, shaking her head, then flopped over onto her sofa, to spread her wings over the furnishing. “I… I don’t know, Idol. This probably wasn’t a good idea, but… you just went ahead and did it. We could have talked about it, you know.” She sounded disconsolate. “I didn’t even know you were thinking about the military.”
“I was not, actually. As I said, I walked in and was...er… informed that it was what I wanted.” I rubbed at my neck. “It was rather sudden, and I was caught up in the moment.”
Topaz gave a heavy sigh, flapped once, and drew herself off the couch and back onto her hooves. “So I could tell.” She shook her head. “...Do you really want to do this?”
“It holds a certain attraction, I admit. And it will provide me something to do whilst I try to determine another means of achieving the bits to pay you back and my meals will no longer be at your cost!” I confirmed, pleased at this last part.
Topaz stared, her jaw hanging open just slightly. Then she put a hoof to her temple, took a deep breath, let it out, and drew in another. “Idol, they’ll pay you to do this.”
“Guards get paid?!”
That delightful discovery only bolstered my interest in the guard, and Monday seemed to arrive with cheerful speed. Topaz was happy to see me off, wishing me well even as she complained that in a perfect world she’d be able to document my integration into the guard more thoroughly. Unfortunately, as it was, she had a lecture to attend and pestpony to harangue for ‘excessive use of force in the Princess’s Garden’.
To my understanding a tree had been infested, and the solution was to make the tree cease existing. Pestponies are apparently a force to be reckoned with.
I entered the Castle for the first time hesitantly, but the guard at the door dourly informed me that I was to report to the gardens. I barely had time to take in the lush greenery and the many statues before I was quite suddenly deterred by a familiar pair of guards, the two from the Summer Sun Celebration. I had barely seen more than a glimpse of them in the confusion, but now I saw them to be a grey mare with a shaggy blonde mane and a white pegasus stallion with a mane cut short enough that it was little more than a sky-blue dome to his head and a streak on his neck.
“There you are-”
“-worried you wouldn’t come!”
“Quite worried! Very nearly-
“-just an absolute catastrophe of paperwork that we can resolve right here-”
“-and right now. Now, I’m sure you were quite startled-”
“-Absolutely irregular, not how a good recruiter does business-”
“-Technically not a valid enlistment at all, the Princess would have our heads-”
“-figuratively speaking of course, she’d really be very displeased, in fact, that we’d allowed such a mishap.”
“And so, we can just tear up these enlistment papers and you can go on your way.”
I looked from one to the other, as impressed as I was dismayed. I had not been aware that the Royal Guard was possessed of such wordless communication, that was very reassuring. I would doubtlessly be quickly educated. On the other hoof, it seemed that I was… if not unwelcome, not needed. “But… I wished to join. It sounds entirely acceptable to me.”
“What, the hard sell actually worked? Huh, most ponies don’t really go for that. But look, it’s nothing personal, Mr. Hooves.” The pegasus continued, looking to his comrade for support.
The mare nodded, tapping a hoof on the stone with a hint of impatience. “Just so, just so! There’s a fair amount of pre-checking, and references, and a number of other matters to attend to before we contact you, and it will be… well, perhaps half a year before the next session starts, we really can’t simply throw you in without any warning. We’ll look into it and let you know by… oh, start of winter at the very latest. It’s going to be a nightmare fixing this paperwork-”
“An absolute Ursa Major, really-”
“Ursa Minor, maybe, with a stomach ache and a sore tooth.”
I had no idea what they were talking about. “References? Pre-checks?” My spirit sank. “Winter…?”
“Yes, yes, we need to get some ponies willing to vouch for your character, it’s really a formality, and of course you need time to make sure you truly wish to join, you can’t just walk away, after all!”
“Or teleport, no. We might be able to hurry things along if you wouldn’t mind giving us a few references, we could have you in by… oh, harvest-time?”
I balked, distressed. “I… truly have none.” I admitted, feeling a hint of shame. “Rough Shod told me I was only half-useless.”
“That’s not very good-”
“Bucking Tartarus, High Drill Rough Shod said you were half-useless?!”
“The old training commander for Canterlot! Miserable stallion, you’ll hear some of the older ones telling nightmare tales of him. Told me I was about as useful as a pig’s tail and half again as likely to be covered in- nevermind. From him, that’s high praise. Where the hell did you see him?”
“Ah… on a caravan from Saddle Arabia? We traveled together.” I was pleased that this pony knew Rough Shod. The old teamster had apparently been well respected.
“And he said you were only half-useless?” The pegasus had me confirm, the pen gripped in his mouth only muffling his words slightly.
“Surely you aren’t writing that down!” His companion sputtered, clearly horrified.
“Well… he… said I was ‘less bucking worthless than his own bucking sons’.” I clarified, unsure if I was actually improving or worsening my situation, but it was the truth.
His pen paused, and he hesitated. “...I probably shouldn’t put that on paper. Does sound like Rough Shod. But…” He looked to his companion. “...Teeth of Tartarus, Marigold, maybe he should go in?”
“But… but the paperwork!” She cried, stunned and, I thought, quite reasonably upset. I realized my enlistment had apparently interfered with her own duties, and wondered if I could assist in remedying it.
“I’m not telling anypony that Rough Shod sent someone to join the guard and we botched the paperwork. He wants to join anyways, don’t you?”
I almost didn’t realize he was speaking to me. “Oh, quite.”
Her face puckered interestingly, and I took the expression for one of concerned indecision. “...Well… he did join of his own volition, technically…”
“And we tried to warn him off!”
Her expression softened and she nodded slowly, thinking it through. “We did, we did.”
“Precisely that!” She agreed, more cheerfully. “Well! If that’ll be all, Brassica, I say we’re done here.”
“A good outing!”
“Worked well for everyone.”
“Good show, Mr. Hooves. Wrapped this all quite neatly. You’ll make a fine soldier.”
“Very fine!” Marigold cried, slapping me cheerfully on the shoulder with an armored hoof.
The stallion looked hurt. “Not too fine, I hope.”
“Ohhhh, hush Brassy you know what I mean. Off you go, Mr. Hooves, Celestia help you if you’re late, you’re already pushing it.” She gave me a playful shove in the same direction I’d already been moving, and I found myself trotting into the muddled confusion of several dozen ponies milling about in a rough squares. One such square seemed to have less than the rest, and I cautiously joined into it, milling about aimlessly as the others were.
A younger unicorn stallion seemed to have found a decent place to stand, frowning at me, finally offering “Are you lost? We were told to form up evenly.”
I sighed, recognizing that I was, in fact, late. “Yes, I think I am. I was detained.” His displeasure was apparent, but as of yet I had no idea what to do. A few of the other ponies had started standing in the same fashion as the guards I had seen in the days prior, and I decided to imitate them.
The stallion continued to stare, but now he looked baffled. “...Uh. Wrong way.” He motioned me to stand beside him, and I did so, wondering what the point of this was. As the others made their way around, I began to see the charm of the straight lines as opposed to the haphazard mess I’d wandered in to. Why ponies would not normally stand about like this I could hardly fathom. It made it far easier to see all of them, and…
“ATTENTION!!!” The others all froze in place, some still in mid-step and eyes rolling wildly as they tried to determine what was going on. “Sweet mother of magic, this is the sorriest formation I’ve seen in fifteen years. Not one of you thought to go to a pre-training session?” I felt a faint wave of annoyance from the stallion beside me, but ignored it. Oddly, for all the anger in the voice of the pony before us, I sensed… little actual emotion. He bellowed at the square to the right of us, ordering them to take a step backwards, which completely destroyed the cohesiveness of the group, but at least put the front line of them somewhat closer to falling in with our own sorry string.
“AND WHY ARE YOU EYEBALLING THEM, RECRUIT!?” Another pony I’d not noticed roared into my face. I blinked, tilting my head down as I looked forward.
“Because I want to know what I am doing wrong?” I offered hesitantly. The pony beside me winced, but if anything, actual anger came from the short, stocky earth pony before me.
“YOU BETTER NOT WORRY ABOUT WHAT THEY’RE DOING WRONG, WORRY ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE DONE WRONG, YOU SORRY SACK-”
“Sir, he said he wanted to know what he had done wrong, not what they-”
The stallion snarled at the unicorn to my side. “DID I GIVE YOU MY OPINION, RECRUIT?!”
“Sir, no sir!”
“THEN WHY DO YOU HAVE ONE?! YOU THINK YOU KNOW EVERYTHING, BECAUSE YOU AND YOUR BEST FRIEND HERE ARE UNICORNS!?”
“Sir, no sir! I’ve never met him before today, sir!”
“And what about you, hmm? You think you’re too good for the Guard? Wander in late, too busy with your books and tea and hoity toity to keep an appointment? Too smart for all this nonsense, huh?” The pony snorted and began to walk off.
I frowned. “No, of course not. I did not know what to do, my paperwork was-”
“Just say ‘sir, no sir’.” The unicorn hissed under his breath, sounding terrified.
“OHHHHHHHH, AND NOW WE’RE SHARING ANSWERS WITH OUR NOT-FRIEND.”
“Sir! He doesn’t know, sir!”
“Ohhhh, and you just know eeeeeverything, don’t you? Why don't you put on some chevrons and come right up here, show the class how it’s done.”
“He knows more than I do, sir.” I admitted, no longer sure of that. We seemed to be the focus of this one’s ire, and each of the squares had their own pony screaming at them.
“WELL THEN, DO YOU KNOW HOW TO DO A PUSH-UP?!”
My companion shouted “Sir, yes sir!” at precisely the same instant I stated “Sir, no sir.”
The armored pony glared at me, and I tamped down the urge to fidget. “Are you an idiot, recruit?”
“That sounds like you aren’t sure. You don’t know what a bucking push-up is, recruit?”
“I have no idea, sir.” I admitted. Was this some pony ritual that I was until now unaware of? Topaz truly should have warned me of this, I decided.
“WELL THEN, IT’S TIME FOR SOME DEMONSTRATIONS!” The joy I felt in that statement concerned me. “EVERYBODY GET DOWN. HOOVES SPREAD.” There were several groans as we did as told, and I could feel several ponies directing a surprising amount of fury my way.
“BACK HOOVES TOGETHER. ANNND UP! Down. UP! Down.” Though I could not quite understand what was going on, the few ponies I could see just seemed to be pushing themselves into an incline with their hooves. The repeated commands were to raise and lower oneself, and there appeared to be a beat to it. On the next command to rise, I joined, marveling at the simplicity of it. One command and we all reacted with mindless obedience.
I already felt like I had come home.
We repeated the gesture perhaps thirty times, and I heard a number of ponies being roared at to ‘get off the ground’ and I realized that touching one’s belly to the dirt was not part of the exercise. I cheerfully continued, the labor not precisely easy but also not as taxing as some of the tasks I had performed back in the hive.
“You picked that up quickly, recruit, I think you were lying to me. What’s your name?”
“Idol Hooves.” I stated, then belatedly remembered during my next rise “Sir.”
“Lazy Hooves. Yeah, I can see it. Well, Lazy, you better smarten up if you want to go anywhere in my Guard. If I think you’re smartmouthing me again, then I think I’ve got just the thing for you.” I was about to correct my name as a puff escaped from the unicorn beside me, and I realized that by this point many of my companions had begun to sweat from exertion. I tried to mimic this, but the change of concentration made me wobble. That seemed to be a sign to this pony, and they nodded firmly. “ON YOUR HOOVES!”
There was a scramble of all present to get back into the standing position. Some sagged, others rolled their shoulders uncomfortably as they stood. A fair number radiated displeasure, and much of it was directed towards me, I realized with chagrin.
“AT EASE. I don’t even know what I can do with you bunch of nothings. Just stand there and for buck’s sake don’t swallow your tongues in the meantime.” The four armored ponies seemed to glare at all of us in disgust that I didn’t feel, then stomped off as if that would express their disdain.
The unicorn gave his head a barely perceptible shake. “Don’t want them learning your name on the first day. That’s what everyone told me.”
“Well, then I am apparently in good shape. He does not know my name.”
The blue-haired pony snickered tiredly. “Funny.” I had not intended it to be so, but accepted his interpretation. “Think you got me lumped in with you.” He grumbled accusingly..
It was hardly arguable. “That seems so. I apologise for that.”
He was silent for a minute, watching the two. “Yeah, well. I probably shouldn’t have spoke up. Wasn’t right, though, you said you wanted to know what we were doing wrong.”
What I had been doing wrong, not ‘we’, but it seemed a little thing. “Thank you. It was appreciated.”
“Kept up pretty quick when we dropped. I think we’d have been pushing until you did.”
“I truly did not know what to do.” I sighed as he nodded.
“Well then, thanks for being a quick study. Don’t let it get you, somepony was going to get us dropped before that formation ended.”
Throwing caution to the winds, I extended a hoof. “Idol Hooves. Idol is fine. Please do not call me Lazy.”
The stallion sighed heavily, but smiled and shook the hoof. “Not supposed to be moving around while at ease, you know. But you can call me Shining.”