Winterspear and I sat quietly on a bench watching Dot run around the park with some of her friends… or random fillies she’d just met. I wasn’t sure. Either way, they were having a lot of fun.
Winterspear glanced at me. “So… you went to propose and you thought you’d just do that without telling your dear, sweet, beloved sister in advance?”
“I wanted it to be a complete surprise and I didn’t want everypony to be in a position where they had to sit around, lie to her, and grin secretly.”
My sister’s nose wiggled and she frowned. “That almost sounds like a good excuse.”
“It is how I wanted it. It’s just an engagement. You’re going to be completely involved with the wedding when we get there.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m not sure I like the idea of this mare taking you away from me,” Winterspear said absently.
“You know Crystal. She isn’t just some mare,” I replied.
Winterspear grinned. “I know. I’m just being contrary. It would have been nice to know but I understand completely. It isn’t like I told you before…” She frowned.
“You dated Iridescence?” I asked.
She shook her head. “That, too, but I was thinking about Caramel Mint, actually.”
I slipped a hoof around her shoulders and tugged her close. “Don’t worry about her.”
“I’m not actually. For the first time in a very long time, I’m not.”
“Good. I guess that means you’ve moved on. Right?” I asked.
Winterspear nuzzled against me. “I guess so. Have you moved on?”
“What?” I almost gasped. How could she even think that? “From Iridescence? Of course!”
“No. From your wounds. From what happened over there. Iridescence says you’re keeping strange company and don’t think I haven’t noticed the odd hours… or that you’re working out or practicing all of the time. Even more than usual for you.”
“Oh,” I replied before I shook my head. “No, I haven’t moved on yet. I can’t get past it. Not yet, anyway. I see him sometimes. Like he is still around. I feel like… like I failed in my duty.”
My sister nodded. “That’s okay, Silent Knight. It really is. That sort of thing takes time, and if exercising or whatever helps you, it’s fine. You’ll get past it, I believe that. If you need somepony to talk to, though, you know you can talk to me. You’re not a failure. You got the princess away. That is the priority.”
I squeezed her tightly and without thinking replied, “I know. I just wish he was dead.”
Winterspear’s ears shot up but she looped her hooves around my middle. “He hurt you, you want to hurt him back. I can understand that. You can’t… I mean, he’s gone, right? He’s over there. You don’t have the power to do anything. The gryphons will handle it.”
“They won’t… and it isn’t just about hurting him back. I’m supposed to remove any threat to Princess Luna. External or internal. That’s my job. Not theirs,” I said resolutely.
She sighed and nodded. “Okay, you’re probably right about the gryphons. Try not to think about that.”
“I try to, but I can’t switch it off. It just happens over and over in my head. I don’t understand why he gets to attack the princess, kill my ponies, and yet I have to suffer. Tell me why we’re the ones that must suffer?”
My sister shook her head. “I can’t, I’m sorry.” She lightly stroked my cheek and then shrugged. “Try to think about something worse.”
That took me by surprise and I looked at her. “Something worse? What are you talking about?”
The mare smiled mischievously. “You get to go home and tell Mom about this engagement and explain why you thought it was okay to just send a letter.”
“What do you mean? I’ve been busy! A letter was better than nothing.”
Winterspear shook her head. “Nope! You should know better.”
“I should not!” I protested.
“You best go tomorrow. The longer you wait, the worse it will be,” she said.
“Great, thank you. I feel so much better now.”
Winterspear smiled. “It’s what I do.”
Dot ran over and said, “Winterspear, I think I’m played out. Plus, the girls had to get back to their school. Lunch is almost over. Shouldn’t we be leaving or something?”
“Well, all of the cool fillies’ parents let them come in from lunch just on time instead of early,” Winterspear said teasingly.
The filly blinked. “I guess we could stay out a little longer… but you have to play with me. Silent Knight, too. Everypony else is gone.”
“What are we playing?” I asked.
“Tag!” Dot chimed but then she held up a hoof. “But you can’t use your wings. That isn’t fair.” She then looked at me. “And you have to crawl. Stallions crawl.”
“Yup! You’re too big and fast. Winterspear knows how this works,” the filly said before tapping Winterspear with a hoof and running off. “You’re it!”
“She’s awful willful,” I said.
Winterspear shrugged and smiled. “I think it makes her fun.” She then reached out and pressed her hoof against my nose. “You’re it. And remember: stallions have to crawl!”
Chief Steel Wings was staring at me like I was insane. “I don’t think this is a good idea, sir. You’re basically letting the ponies we stole these files from know we stole them. That seems like the last thing we should do.”
“This is the best way I know to resolve this. There isn’t really another path for getting them back into the archive that doesn’t go through one of the pony resources sections. I happen to know this PRO really well, and she owes me a favor.”
Chief shook his head and grumbled. “I hope it is one huge favor. Fine, but I still don’t like it.”
I snorted and leaned back in my chair. “You don’t like anything. When she gets here, just stand over to the side and let me do the talking. She scares easy and I don’t want you running her off. You catch more ponies with sugar than you do vinegar. Besides, we didn’t steal these files. We improperly accessed them.”
He snorted and went back to the chalkboard to continue studying the plan I’d been developing. It was pretty much done, and our nightly dry runs were turning out to be very well orchestrated. Now we were just tweaking the tiniest of details to get the most out of everypony.
It wasn’t long before there was a knock at my office door. “Come in,” I called.
It opened very slowly and when there was just enough space Azurite poked her head inside. She looked around. First at me and then at chief. When she spotted him, she stared for a while and then looked up. “Reporting as ordered, sir.” She already looked nervous.
“Thank you for coming up, Azurite. I’ve got a lot of files here, and they need your special touch,” I replied and directed her attention at the stacks against the wall. “Would that get your attention?”
She blinked in surprise. “Yes, sir.”
Chief marched the distance between him and Azurite to thrust a list of names at her. He eyed her with wary suspicion but didn’t say a word.
I didn’t want to give Azurite any room to ask questions, so I ordered in my best lieutenant voice, “Return the file of every pony on that list back to the archive.”
“Yes, sir.” Her eyes darted between me, Chief, and the piles. “This seems, um. Pretty simple. Sir.”
I nodded. “Indeed. Unfortunately, there is a slight catch: these files were pulled…”
Come on, stupid honest mouth. Don’t fail me now.
“Inappropriately.” That worked. It wasn’t a lie. “We need them to be put back where they belong without it looking like they were accessed.”
Azurite’s head tilted as she looked up with a curious frown. “What for, sir?”
“Classified,” I replied mostly out of habit. “I need this done quickly, but don’t let it impact your normal work. When you’re done, destroy the list and do not log the request. Am I clear?”
She squirmed. A squirmy Azurite was never a good sign. “Does Lieutenant Brook know about this, sir?”
Chief looked at me with narrowed eyes. He wanted to take charge, but I wasn’t going to let that happen. Especially not to a friend.
My head shook. “No, and I’m afraid he isn’t going to. This is… above him. Since you’re doing this on my authority, I give you my word that I’ll say I coerced you if anypony finds out.”
“Coerced?” Her ears stood straight up and her eyes went wide. “Um, that makes this sound kind of not good? Bad? Unethical?” She squeaked, “I mean, outside of protocol, sir.”
“Not unethical, no. Just a stretch of protocol. I don’t want anypony knowing who is on the list, or that their file was pulled. For their safety. If I make an official request, it gets logged, and the list goes into the record. I’m just ordering you to break the documentation chain.”
I could see the gears turning in her little head. They were working overtime. My gut told me that they weren’t working in my favor.
Finally, she blurted, “I’m sorry, but I can’t, sir! I just got my good pony award, and I really like it, and I want to keep it. If I do this then I’m doing a bad thing and I don’t want a bad pony award!”
Azurite was a good pony. Everypony knew that. Besides, I was pretty sure there was no such thing as a bad pony award. I got up from my seat and walked around my desk, hoping a little looming might convince her to change her mind.
“Am I coercing you, Warrant Officer?” I asked, keeping my tone even.
She flinched. “It kinda feels an awful lot like coercion right now, yes. And your scary friend, the Chief Warrant Officer. He’s super scary. He’s definitely coercing me. With his scary eyes.”
I glanced over my shoulder. Chief was, in fact, staring daggers at her. I looked back down at Azurite and pressed, “So, you’ll do it?”
“Um.” She wrung her forehooves. “Um, no?” Her ears flattened and she babbled, “If I do it without reporting you, and somepony finds out, they’ll say I should have reported you. Whether you coerce me or not. And even if I don’t get a bad pony award, it’ll go on my record as a black mark for questionable behavior.”
She started to curl inwards, and her voice got quieter. “Plus, um, you’re usually a nice pony and I don’t think you’d ever actually hurt me, so it’d be a really big lie to say I was coerced, even if I am very, very scared right now.”
My eyes turned on Chief again. He was practically seething, and honestly, I was starting to feel the same. Why couldn’t Azurite just do this? Why did she have to fight me on it? I wasn’t asking a lot. She was the best at paperwork. There was no way she’d get caught, and even if she did, the risk to her was minimal.
And that was when I realized that I was angry at Azurite for being a good, honest pony. The kind of pony I was supposed to be. My anger cooled and I found myself strangely proud of her for standing up to me, especially with me looming over her and Chief glaring at her.
“You’re right.” I patted her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry. Okay, we’ll follow procedure. Please feel free to report me, too.”
“Sir,” Chief cut in with a low growl.
I raised a hoof to stop him. “No, she’s right. If I had wanted this done quietly, I should have just done it myself instead of letting it get out of hoof.”
He sneered. “The mission, sir. We don’t have time for nonsense. Just—”
“We’re not burning ponies. Not like this.” I gave Azurite my attention again. “My apologies, Warrant Officer. Please handle my request how you normally would. I promise I won’t be mad at you for reporting all of this to Lieutenant Brook. In fact, I encourage you to do so.”
“Yes, sir.” She backed away from us without turning away. Proper defensive form. “Thank you, sir.” As soon as she was out the door, she took off in a panicked gallop.
As soon he slammed the door shut, Chief groused, “Well, that could have gone better! You should have let me rough her up a little. She knew you’d never do anything. Me, on the other hoof… Well, she was afraid of me.”
“We aren’t going to rough up Azurite,” I replied absently as I changed a few things on the board.
“She’s going to report us. This seriously puts the mission in jeopardy.”
I rubbed two lines off with my hoof and drew slightly different ones as I replied absently, “Uh-huh.”
“Sir! I don’t think you appreciate the level of danger we’re in now.”
I set the chalk down and turned to him. “Chief, there is nothing we can do. It is out of our hooves. Either she reports us, or she doesn’t. Either Brook does something about it, or he doesn’t. If I had pushed any harder, it would have looked far more suspicious.
“We can’t control it, so right now, we need to focus on this. We are almost out of time. The package will be here soon, and we need to be ready to move when the word is passed to me. I’ve got too many other things on my mind to worry about whether or not these files are going to ruin us.”
“Yeah? Anything else I need to know about?” Steel Wings asked.
I chuckled and replied, “I’m meeting my future in-laws tonight, so you’ll be running the drills.”
“You poor pony. That is always the worst part.”
My brow raised. “You’re married?”
“Was. Was married. Three times. None of them stuck, though.”
That wasn’t exactly a surprise. Steel Wings was a coarse pony on a good day. That would be an incredibly rude thing to say out loud, so I just replied, “Sorry to hear that.”
He shrugged. “That is how it goes. Soldiers don’t get to lead that kind of life, Silent Knight. I’d have thought you’d have learned that lesson from your father.”
A chill ran along my spine as I turned back to the chalkboard. Steel Wings was wrong. Things didn’t have to end up like they did with him, or my father. A smarter pony should be able to figure out how to do both.
I wanted to be that smarter pony.
Crystal Wishes’s parents lived in the nicest neighborhood in Canterlot. That was little surprise since they were well-off ponies financially. Despite that, bits were never their primary concern. Social status was more important to them, and they were very rich in what Crystal called ‘social capital.’ That meant ponies cared about what they thought and said.
We walked up to the house which, while large and expensive looking, paled in comparison to the manor that Iridescence grew up in. In fact, when viewed that way, you could call their house modest. It was two stories, made of light gray brick, and situated on a medium-sized lot.
Crystal nervously knocked on the door and then turned to make certain my armor was perfect for the sixth time. I had insisted on wearing it. Crystal wasn’t sure that the Royal Guard part of me was a perk, but she relented. I compromised and left my helmet at home.
Unbeknownst to her, however, I had my service sword concealed. You could never be too careful.
The door opened and Crystal said, “Hello, Mother… we’re here. This is Silent Knight. Silent Knight, this is my mother, Upper Crust.”
The mare standing in the doorway was exactly what I expected a high society mare to look like. Not a single hair or thread was out of place, from her smooth blonde coat to the blue sweater tied around her neck in a way that looked casual but I was certain wasn’t really.
Though I wouldn’t say it out loud, I was glad that Crystal didn’t inherit her mother’s idea of beauty. If she wore as much makeup as Upper Crust did, I’d never be able to kiss her without coming away smeared with it.
I bowed my head politely and said, “It’s a pleasure, ma’am.”
Upper Crust took one look at me, tipped her nose up, and replied, “Charmed. Do come in.”
Crystal went in first and I followed along behind her. The house was decorated with all sorts of knickknacks and art. Most of the items were the sort of baubles you bought and just set out to fill space. I never minded an empty home. These ponies, however, seemed to be afraid of inches of empty space.
“Please, sit down,” Upper Crust said, offering us the couch.
It was a fancy couch that didn’t look exceedingly sturdy. Crystal settled onto it and I followed suit very carefully by sitting towards the middle. The weight of a pegasus stallion in full armor is heavier than you might imagine. The couch held up and Upper Crust levitated in some tea. She started serving as a grey unicorn stallion came down the stairs.
Like Upper Crust, he was perfectly put together like he’d just stepped out of a magazine. His short black mane had a little bit of curl to it that was probably due to some expensive product. He also had a sweater tied around his neck. Was there some significance to it? I wasn’t sure.
Unlike Upper Crust, there was warmth in his voice as he said, “Welcome! You two are a little early. Forgive my late greeting.”
Crystal stood up and the couch rose from the floor ever so slightly on the side she had previously occupied. I stood to let it settle back down.
“Silent Knight, this is my father, Jet Set.”
I approached the unicorn and offered a hoof. He took it and we shook. He had a solid, firm shake that demanded respect. I hoped he felt the same about mine. “Nice to meet you, sir.”
“A pleasure,” he replied before going to sit by Upper Crust.
Crystal returned to the couch and I did the same but exactly in the center. We then all sat in silence while tea was served.
Jet Set said, “I understand you’re a royal guard. What…” He paused in thought. “What sort of guard are you? Your armor isn’t like the ones I see out on the street.”
“Very perceptive, sir. I’m the commander of Princess Luna’s House Guard. Our armor is unique and matches her livery. We ensure the princess is protected at all times and remove threats to her wellbeing. That differs from city guards you see in the streets. They are responsible to keep the peace,” I explained.
“Oh, capital! That means you’re an officer, right? Do you personally protect the princess?”
“I am, yes. A lieutenant to be specific,” I replied and then went on, “I do and I don’t. Previously I directly protected her by standing guard and the like. Now I supervise the ponies that make up her whole protection detail.
“As the commander my duties fall more along the lines of coordination, scheduling, combat readiness, and similar duties. That and working with her assistant. Though I’m still directly responsible for her safety.”
“And management!” Jet Set said. Upper Crust gave him a look.
Upper Crust asked, “And does that mean long, strange hours and traveling away from Canterlot with the princess?”
“It does,” I replied honestly.
Upper Crust pressed, “That seems like that would make for a difficult home life.”
“Mother…” Crystal Wishes cut in.
“What?” she replied. “I’m just pointing out that he’ll be in and out at all hours. He has a duty. Isn’t that right?” She looked directly at me.
“You are correct.”
Crystal got flustered and waved a hoof. “Oh, it isn’t that bad! He doesn’t come home late too often.”
Both of the older ponies’ eyes shot to Crystal. Upper Crust sniffed. “Pardon?”
My unicorn companion froze in place and was trying to figure out her next move. Before she could, I cut in, “I live with my sister Winterspear. She and Crystal are good friends and are often left waiting on me for dinner and such.”
“Oh, I see… Do you keep late hours?” Upper Crust asked.
“It would be fair to say I do. Princess Luna’s schedule is not quite opposite of Princess Celestia’s, but we start later in the day and leave later in the evening. Sometimes I stay over to handle minor problems or additional responsibilities. Typically, I am home after moonrise.”
“I see…” Upper Crust repeated in a tone I wasn’t sure I cared for.
Jet Set cleared his throat. “So, Silent Knight. Being a royal guard… Is that the family business?”
“More or less, yes, sir. The Royal Guard or the Equestrian Army. My sister is a guard, my father was a guard and a soldier. My grandfather as well. My understanding now is that the Knight family has been in some form of martial service to the crowns for longer than we have records.”
“That is dedication. Great… fidelity there,” Jet Set said, clearly working up to something. “And your parents are alright with you marrying a unicorn?” And there it was.
“Dad!” Crystal squeaked suddenly. “That isn’t appropriate!”
“What? Honey, I was just asking a question. Not everypony is okay with… mingling.”
“Mingling!” Crystal gasped.
I just shrugged and reached over to pat her shoulder. “To be honest, sir, we haven’t discussed it. I didn’t give them advanced notice of the engagement, so my mother doesn’t know much more than what I put in a letter. As far as my father... he would probably be upset that I was spending time on love instead of my career and wouldn’t notice she was a unicorn.”
“Oh… I see. I’m sorry to hear that,” Jet Set said. He sipped his tea and mumbled, “That isn’t going to make the wedding awkward.”
I shook my head. “In this case, no, sir. I’m afraid he passed recently.”
Crystal’s eyes went a bit wide and that pretty much killed the entire conversation. We sat in silence for a while.
A silence that was broken when Upper Crust looked me dead in the eye and said plainly, “You seem too rough for my little girl. You’re so much larger than she is.”
“Crystal is tougher than you might imagine. A trait no doubt earned through the way she was raised. I commend you on that.” That was what polite ponies call a backhoofed compliment. Crystal taught me that.
“Well I never! I—” Upper Crust started.
“Dinner!” Jet Set threw in quickly. “It is time for dinner. Shall we?”
Dinner was awkward and relatively quiet. I didn’t say much and Crystal spent most of the time forcing small talk with her father while avoiding her mother altogether.
“Have you made big plans for your birthday, dear?” Jet Set asked.
Birthday? Then it dawned on me. Crystal’s birthday was just about two weeks away. I hadn’t even thought about it because I’d been so wrapped up in work. That was the sort of mistake my father used to make.
“No, I don’t want a big show this year,” Crystal replied. “Silent Knight has been busy and of course my schedule is full. I’ve been working myself pretty hard. Deadlines, you know.”
Upper Crust sighed. “Oh, I wish you would write something different. How long are these tawdry romance novels going to be popular?”
“They’re not tawdry, Mother! I won an award for my first one. The princess reads my books!”
“And that makes it okay?”
Crystal shot back, “If it is good enough for Princess Luna, it should be good enough for a pony like you!”
“Like me? What does that mean?”
Jet Set cleared his throat and asked, “Silent Knight, do you smoke cigars?”
He stood up and motioned with a hoof. “You do now. Come with me.” It was an order but it had a note of pleading in it. I stood to follow him but paused.
“Excuse me, please,” I said before leaving with him. Not that either of the mares had noticed. They were busy staring daggers at each other.
We went out onto the back porch and I heard Crystal raise her voice. Jet Set closed the door hurriedly, muting the sounds of the two mares arguing. He sat in a big comfortable chair and offered me the one across from it.
I settled into it just as he gave me a cigar, lit it for me, and then did the same for himself. He puffed on it a while.
The cigar tasted awful and the smoke from the end tickled my nose. I did my best not to sneeze, cough, or in any way look unstallionlike. I’d survived worse.
Jet Set finally spoke. “I hate my mother-in-law. I do. Hate is such an awful word, too. She isn’t even a bad pony. Actually, she is a pretty good pony. We just… disagreed on what was best for Upper Crust.” He looked directly at me for a moment. “Do you think you know what is best for my little girl?”
“No, sir, I don’t, but I know she does. She was raised well enough to know right from wrong, good from bad, and what makes her happy. There is no doubt in my mind that she is capable enough to make her own decisions.”
Jet Set bobbed his head at me lightly. I guess that was an appropriate answer. “I was always told that the ponies in the Royal Guard were dense jocks who couldn’t string together a coherent sentence. Clearly that isn’t true. I’m glad I don’t listen to idle gossip.”
Putting a bit of levity into my tone, I replied, “I did play hoofball at Canterlot Academy.”
Jet Set puffed and said, “Indeed? Pretty rough stuff. I was a polo stallion, myself.”
I nodded at that.
After a moment, he asked in a low voice, “Is your job dangerous?”
“More than most ponies would guess,” I replied.
He shifted and looked at me. “Does Crystal know that?”
I shook my head. “She knows in her head, but not in her heart. In my opinion, anyway. Then again, I was badly injured not long ago. The doctors weren’t sure I was going to make it. She was the one that primarily cared for me when I was in the hospital and if she was frightened by that experience she never let on. She is a tough pony.”
“You seem like an honest stallion. I like that. Honestly, I do.” He smiled but it didn’t seem like his heart was fully in it. “I would just hate for her to be so deeply in love and then have her heart broken.”
“I would never do that to her. My intentions are noble. I can promise you that she isn’t some filly that I’m just… playing with. I’m not that kind of pony, sir.”
“I have no doubt about that, son. Forgive me, that isn’t what I meant. It would be out of character for you to play with her feelings or cheat on her. I can see that by just talking to you for a few minutes. You’re committed. That is part of the problem, I think.”
He took a deep breath and tapped his cigar against the edge of the chair. “There is a big difference between our world and yours. And I’m not talking about unicorns and pegasi here. I don’t go in for that purity nonsense. I’m talking about guards and not guards. You’re obviously a serious pony with integrity and ethics.”
Jet Set fixed me in his gaze. Our eyes locked and he pushed on, “Unfortunately, I can also see that you’re an honorable and committed pony. The sort of pony that would give his life without a second thought to do his duty. Not a moment’s hesitation. Some crazy unicorn throws a fireball at Princess Luna and you just jump in front of her.”
His hooves banged together suddenly, startling me. “Just like that. Boom. Gone. You took an oath and you don’t plan to renege on it once you marry Crystal, do you?”
Words escaped me. I had, in fact, taken three oaths. To the Royal Guard, to the princess, and to protect my subordinates as an officer. All I could do was shake my head no. He was right.
He slowly settled back in his seat. “Well… maybe you should think about that. I mean seriously think about it. Marriage is an oath, too, son. Once you’re married, you can’t be careless with your life. It isn’t solely yours anymore. You share hers and she shares yours. Everything you do with it impacts her, whether that was your intention or not. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“Yes, sir.” I saw it all too well. Crystal sitting next to me in the hospital time after time… or worse, me going out one day and never returning. Suffering just like Mom had.
I didn’t say anything else. The weight of the moment was too heavy to recover from so we just sat quietly smoking cigars while our respective mares battled in the house.
Committed. That was suddenly a very powerful word.