“Very good, Silent Knight,” Tranquil Dusk said as I walked silently across a balance beam. With my leg in a cast, it was a lot harder than normal.
Being sneaky was not as easy as I hoped, but I was making good progress at it. The theories were sound enough: use your wings for balance, flap slowly to take the weight off your hooves, and try not to shift the wind too much. I’d also been shown several ways to fly with less wind resistance and sound.
Crimson Dawn looked over his shoulder at me before continuing to pummel the heavy bag with his forehooves. He was learning how to box. It was a little more aggressive than what we usually did, but there was no doubt it was good exercise, and it sated his desire for combat training.
“Thanks,” I said as I awkwardly turned around and walked back across the beam. A few more times up and down were in order today. Tomorrow, it might be tiphooving across rooftops.
“You seem to be healing well. Perhaps in the future, you and Steel Wings will be more careful?”
I sighed and shook my head. “You’ve been spying again.”
“Training,” she corrected cheerfully. “It would be easier if you’d just introduce us.”
“As a matter of fact, I will be. He is going to take over your training while I’m gone on vacation.”
The thumps against the heavy bag stopped and Crimson asked, “Really?”
Tranquil tilted her head. “He is a soldier. Are you not concerned he’ll train us in things you do not wish us to know?”
“I’ve asked him not to, but at this point, both he and you are going to do what you want to do,” I replied with a grunt as my hind leg hit the beam. “Maybe that means I’m a failure as a guardian but, young or not, you two are smart enough to make up your mind. You also seem to know what you want even if I think it is a mistake. Ponies learn best by making their own mistakes.”
Crimson turned and made his way over. “So you’ll train us to fight like you fight, then?”
I shook my head. “No, I promised I wouldn’t, but I won’t stop you from learning from others. If you and Steel Wings come to an arrangement I’ll accept it. I should warn you, though, he is rough and I don’t agree with his methods.”
Tranquil hopped up onto the beam. “Did you promise you would not involve us with your mission against the gryphon?”
Always the clever one. I shook my head. “No, I did not.”
“Then I choose to help and fight at your side,” Tranquil said proudly.
“As do I,” Crimson put in.
“You’re making a mistake.” Bringing two young civilian ponies into a fight like this was a horrible idea.
The mare took two graceful steps towards me like a predator approaching her prey. “It is ours to make. You said that.”
“So it is, but my mistake to make is allowing you to follow me.” I motioned her off my beam so I could continue to practice. “If you two are committed, you better start working harder. If you think the level of fitness necessary for the Guard is going to cut it for what we have to do, you’d better think again.”
“Will it really be so different?” Crimson asked.
“Yes, yes it will. Facing a gryphon is not like facing a pony. They have sharp claws that can easily grasp and hold. Their beaks can exert enough pressure to snap bone. Most important of all, they can fly better than you or me.”
I hopped off the beam and started to approach the younger stallion as I continued, “This won’t be some fairy tale like those books you read. They’ll cut you up and tear out your eyes. They’ll break your bones and leave you bleeding.”
When I reached Crimson, I poked him hard in the chest with a hoof while looming over him. “When you meet these gryphons in battle, it’s likely that only one of the two of you is coming back alive. So yes, it really will be different. Get that in your mind and really think about it. I’m not going to bring you along to have you get in my way.”
The nox pony blinked as he stared up at me. He had no response, nor did his sister.
“Show up and meet with Steel Wings to keep up your normal training. If you make some other deal with him, that is your decision. If not, you can keep doing what you’re doing now. You’ll live a lot longer.”
I left the room with that lingering in both their minds… and mine. Even though I hoped that speech would frighten them off, I knew in my heart that it wouldn’t. They were going to follow me down this path into darkness no matter what I said.
And the worst part was that there was a voice in my head that told me I should be glad for it. Tranquil’s stealth was unrivaled and Crimson had raw potential to be more than a guard, but a soldier like me. Their youth would make them quicker and faster. They would be great assets.
I didn’t want to fail my promise to Moonlit Star, though. This was going to result in somepony getting hurt. I couldn’t imagine having to go to the matriarch and tell her that I’d let her grandfoals come to harm, or worse.
The decision was now in their hooves, and whichever direction they went, I had to believe that I tried.
“I can’t believe you arranged all of this,” Winterspear said as we walked to the train station.
“What you’re saying is that you don’t think I’m a capable enough officer to schedule two spots in a Royal Guard school?” I asked with a slight grin.
Iridescence bumped me. “That isn’t what she meant!”
“You don’t think I’m a thoughtful enough brother and friend to schedule it so you two could advance your careers and be together?” I asked, still grinning.
Winterspear groaned. “When did you become such a smart mouth? I liked you better when you didn’t talk.”
“Me, too,” Iridescence said.
My right wing flicked forwards to lightly rest over my heart. “I’m deeply hurt.”
With a snort, Winterspear said, “Oh, I’m so sure. Although, speaking of hurt, I don’t like the idea of leaving you while you’re injured.”
“Crystal and Runic are looking after me,” I replied.
Iridescence chuckled. “The Runic part is why she is worried.”
“I’m pretty sure if I was going to burst into flames or turn into a dragon, I’d have done so by now.”
Winterspear rolled her eyes and swatted at me. “Dragon may be an improvement.”
That was a point I couldn’t argue with. I could do a serious amount of good if I were a dragon.
“Seriously, though, thank you for this,” my sister continued. “Things have just been so crazy lately. First you, then Dad. Plus, and I should make it clear I’m not complaining, having Dot. Work, fire, and, you know.”
“What are you going to do while we’re gone?” Iridescence asked.
“I’m taking leave, you know that.”
Winterspear’s eyes flicked over at me. “She does know. So do I. We want to know what you’re going to do.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It isn’t that we think you’ll get into trouble… but I’m not sure I approve of your new friend. He seems rough,” Winterspear explained.
“Well, he is an armsmaster. You think he and I are going to spend my entire leave training?”
Iridescence put in, “I could see you doing that, yes.”
“Well, we’re not. You both know that I’m going to go see Shining Armor,” I groused.
“Oh yeah, do we? You’re going to the Crystal Empire for sure?” Winterspear asked, her ears wiggling happily. Evidently, that was what she wanted.
“We are, yes.”
“Oh, I see,” Iridescence said with a throaty tone. She looked over knowingly at Winterspear. “He’s taking Crystal, so now they’re we.”
“Yes, we. You know, he doesn’t come home at night anymore,” Winterspear shot back.
“No, I didn’t know.” Iridescence smirked. “Well, how about that?”
“Still here,” I put in, feeling my face flush. “And that is none of your business. Neither of yours.”
“So you’re not taking Crystal?” Iridescence asked, knowing full well I was.
“Of course I am.”
Winterspear pointed a wing. “He said of course. Not yes.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Nothing,” they replied.
When we got to the train station, I said, “Gee, it’s a shame you have to go so soon. I’ll really miss you both. Bye bye!”
Winterspear laughed and looped me in a hug. “Don’t be cross. We mean well. It is nice to see young love.”
“As opposed to the dried-up, old-mare love you two share?” I countered.
“Ouch!” Iridescence frowned. “See if I bring you anything back.”
“You’d best bring me back a certificate of successful completion so I can promote you.”
Winterspear squeezed me tighter and shook her head. “No, no. No mixing work and home here. You were saying how old we were?”
“No, you were making light of my relationship.” I nuzzled her cheek and hugged her. “You started it.”
My sister let me go with a nod. “Fair enough. New love, then. Have fun, okay?”
“Yeah, you, too. Both of you.”
“Oh, we will!” Iridescence said pointedly before hugging me.
“Alright, go… but seriously, if you two don’t both pass, Silent Knight the Officer is going to kick your flanks all the way across the palace grounds and back.”
“Yes, sir, understood, sir!” Iridescence replied before heading off into the station with Winterspear.
It was a pleasure to be rid of the meddling mares, but I’d absolutely miss them. I loved them both and, even though they were both pests, they meant well. A pony could have a worse sister and friend.
I limped my way back across town until I got to the Hay Café. The host recognized me and sat me at my usual table. It wasn’t long before the server came over and recognition dawned on his face, too.
“Pardon me, sir. May I ask you a question?” the serverpony asked me. His nametag read Silber. It never failed: if I was at the Hay Café, he was the pony that ended up waiting on me. It was uncanny enough that I started to wonder if he was Maya.
“Sure, go ahead.”
Silber was a pegasus like me. He had a grey coat, a dark blue mane, and his cutie mark was a scimitar. It seemed out of place for a server. “You come here periodically. Always alone, but you seem to be waiting for somepony. Occasionally you mumble to yourself. I don’t get it. Is this some sort of royal guard thing?”
I chuckled softly and smiled. “It probably looks pretty odd right?”
“With no hint of disrespect… yes, it kind of does.”
I took my helmet off and set it on the table. “I’ll be honest with you. Most ponies can’t tell royal guards apart, but I have a stressful job at the palace. I’m a—”
“Princess Luna House Guard, yes. I know that armor. I know all of the armors, to be honest. It is kind of a hobby,” he interrupted.
“Right. I’m actually the commander of Princess Luna’s Guard. Ponies are coming to my office all day long for various things. So, every now and then, I just need a few minutes to myself. This restaurant isn’t near the palace, it isn’t a Royal Guard hangout, and I can just sit outside and mumble to myself. Do you understand?”
Silber nodded. “I do, actually. That is one of the reasons I work here. It gets busy sometimes, but it is still pretty private. I take it that is also why you don’t rush to eat and leave?”
I pointed a hoof at him and nodded. “Exactly.”
“Alright, well, I won’t encroach on your time, then. I’ll go get your usual put in with the kitchen.” He bowed his head and turned to walk off.
As soon as he was out of range, Maya’s voice hit my ear. “That was smooth. You’re getting pretty good at misleading ponies.”
I fought the urge to visibly frown. “I’m not sure I’m going to take that as a compliment. Once we’re done with this, I’m going to have to reevaluate my behavior.”
“Perhaps. On the other hoof, if you’d like a job, I could probably see to that, too. You’ve picked up a lot of valuable skills and your diligence is extremely admirable.”
“Thank you, but no. This is a one-time deal. Not that I don’t enjoy our little visits where I look like a crazy pony, it just isn’t the sort of life I want long term.” I shifted to rest my chin on my hoof. “Now, I assume there is big news since you wanted a meeting instead of a drop?”
“Yes, and you’ll like this. You may like it a lot. The Pony Express ran into a local carrier from Sudramoar. It seems he was looking for a lost package. Not just any lost package, mind you, but the same one we’re after. And he was carrying a coded message.”
“Coded? Was that a problem?”
“To be frank, gryphon codes are rubbish at best, childish at worst. We’ve had the ability to decipher them a while.”
That was interesting. “So what was it, then?”
“That is the best part. It was a location for a pick-up and a promise of safety from that kingdom’s postmaster general himself.”
My ears twitched. “He honestly addressed it himself?”
There was a pause. Too long of a pause. “We can’t say it was for sure, but it seemed earnest enough. It was heavily insinuated.”
“Alright, so what is next?” I asked.
Maya didn’t reply immediately so I waited patiently. As patiently as I could, at least.
Finally, my patience wore out. “What is next?”
“It gets a little complicated, Silent Knight.”
“Try me,” I replied.
“Don’t get too upset, but this information is a little dated. The Pony Express on the ground made some judgment calls based on a short timeline and limited opportunity. I didn’t bring this to you until I had the outcome.”
I took a soft breath and just sipped from my water.
“The Pony Express substituted the letter for a forgery, telling the package that the postmaster general was no longer willing to accept it back. With no right of return, the package was limited when it came to options.”
“Did it pay off?” I asked.
“It seems to have, yes. The deadline was missed. It was extremely risky for the Sudramoar postmaster to extend so far in into Nordanver to retrieve the package. It is unlikely he’ll try again, especially since he has no idea what happened with the package.”
Something crossed my mind. “How did you convince the carrier to deliver the fake letter?”
“We didn’t. We made a substitution,” she said coolly.
I frowned and idly tapped my water glass. “I take it the carrier didn’t make it back to the south?”
“He retired. Don’t go soft on me, Silent Knight. You could take a lesson from your armsmaster friend.”
Did everypony know about that? “He was just doing his duty.”
Maya made a sound of discontent. “Others have retired for less, and his boss wouldn’t think twice about you. Is this going to be a problem?”
I sat in silence for a moment and thought that over. Before, in one of the skirmishes, some of Alastair’s brigands had been killed. That hadn’t fazed me. They were murderers. This was different. He was just some poor courier sent from the king.
“Silent Knight, is this going to be a problem?” she repeated.
This was it. All the way in or lose my nerve.
I knew I couldn’t walk away. Alastair, or Garrard, or whoever he really was had to answer for what he’d done. The ends would justify the means. If the king was behind this, that made all of his agents enemy combatants.
“Get him on the ship,” I said, the darkness I felt clinging to my tone.
“It will be done. He is running out of options. We’ve got some assets that may provide some influence. I’m working on setting up a less-than-reputable sea captain to be in the area. One that transports goods to Equestria without asking questions.”
In the middle of Maya’s reply, I saw Silber walking towards me with my lunch. He set it down and said, “Here you are, sir.”
I tried not to look like a pony who had just accepted the death of an unwitting courier. “Thank you. It looks good.”
Once he was gone and out of earshot, I made a sound of acknowledgement.
“Anything else?” Maya asked.
“I’ll be traveling soon. A few days away from here. If you require my attention, can you get word to the Crystal Empire?”
“I can get word anywhere. Leave your travel plans at the drop. If I need you, I’ll be able to get you.”
“Alright,” I replied before settling in on my lunch.
The rest of the day went, more or less, about the same as any other. I got through my duty and put everything that happened recently behind me so I could enjoy a date with Crystal Wishes.
With Winterspear and Iridescence out of town, we had made plans to spend the night at my place. It would be easier on my morning commute, which meant I could sleep in a little. It also meant I wouldn’t have to face Velvet and her judgmental grin or embarrassing questions.
Unfortunately, there was a weight in my chest that made it hard to enjoy Crystal’s company. We ate dinner and were going to have a cuddle on the couch, but my mind was full of anxiety.
I excused myself to get some fresh air on the balcony. I could feel her worried eyes on me as I stepped outside, but once I saw the moon hanging in the night sky, I felt at ease.
The nox pony twins were old enough to understand consequences. I was more than old enough to do the same. I wanted Alastair to pay for his crimes, and that meant there would be casualties along the way.
I just hoped there would be more on their side than mine.
The balcony door slid open and Crystal asked in a tentative voice, “Sweetie?”
“Are you alright?”
I turned to face her. “Sure, why?”
She shrugged, avoiding my eyes. “You’ve been out here a while with… Well, sometimes you get this look. You had it a lot right after the… the… After you were hurt. Then it kind of stopped some. You’ve had it a lot lately.” She swallowed. “You had it just now.”
“A look?” I asked.
Crystal just nodded softly.
I looped a wing over her back and softly tugged her closer to me. “Yeah, I think about it a lot. About Lavender, Risky, and Starry. I’m happy with life, but sometimes I feel like there is a shadow over me. Business left unfinished.”
The mare nuzzled up against me. “I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
“Just be understanding. Mom once told me that when Stratus came home from Sudramoar, he was never the same. I never understood what she meant before. Now… I guess I do. I don’t want to turn out like him.”
“You won’t,” Crystal said emphatically. “You won’t, Silent Knight. You mustn't think that way. You’ve been through it and you’re still the same pony you were. You went there, it happened, and now you’re home. That is it.”
Softly, I replied, “If only it was.”
“What?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Nothing, I’m sorry. This is a pretty poor excuse for a date. Anyway, are you excited about the trip?”
Crystal stared at me a moment. She just shook her head and rubbed her cheek up against mine. “I won’t pretend like I understand, but I hope you know I’m here for you. As for this date, any date with you is fine. I am very excited, though. I want to get away for a bit and enjoy it. I can’t believe the package you put together.”
Package? What an interesting choice of words. I reassured myself that Crystal didn’t know anything. It was a coincidence. “I really wanted it to be special.”
“It will be. Now the hard part is just waiting. I’m counting the days, the hours, and the minutes until we step onto that train and leave for the beautiful Crystal Empire.”
My lips curled into a smile. “I hear they named it after you.”
She giggled. “I think it has been around longer than me.”
“Technically, no. It was out of reality for a while. You never know. They might have called it the Gem Empire before.”
“Well, you’re wrong, but the sentiment is lovely. Now, if you want, you can sit out here, stare at the moon and brood, or…”
“Or?” I asked.
She slipped out from under my wing, her side sliding along mine. “You’ll have to come inside to find out.” As she turned to head back inside, she swatted me softly with her tail.
Find out wh—Oh.
Brooding could wait. It could absolutely wait.