• Published 3rd Apr 2012
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The Equestrian Spring - Chocolate Milk



Nine months was all it took for one earth pony to put Princess Celestia on the defensive.

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War Games

The Equestrian Spring
by Chocolate Milk
-----
Chapter III: War Games

My dearest Tempered Steel,

Allow me to begin by apologizing profusely to both you and Temperance. The two of you deserve far more time together than your work allows. Please understand that the decision to call you to duty on this day was not taken lightly.

At present, we are faced with a rare threat to our nation’s unity and peace. I don’t mean to worry you needlessly: the threat is, for the moment, minimal. Still, we did not build our current prosperity by ignoring threats and hoping for the best.

Established procedure would have me ask you to convene the other commanders at my castle. In this instance however, our threat is not militaristic in nature. To best handle this particular difficulty, it is imperative that no others are aware that I have contacted you. I’m afraid that due to time constraints and complexity of execution I cannot afford you the courtesy of explaining the reasoning behind my requests in this letter. This is all the more regrettable because much of what I am asking you to do is unlike any previous request I have made of you. I can instead only give the orders, and ask that you trust me as much as I trust you.

My first request is that you hug your wife, and tell her that everything is going to be fine. You may not be fully aware of this, and she would never express it to you, but I can assure you that Temperance worries every time I send you on a mission—especially one that is out of the ordinary, as this one most certainly is.

Once you’ve seen to it that Temperance is cared for, I would like you to go to the basement levels of the Canterlot post, where the Night Guard operates. Look for a Night Guardspony named Choler—she will probably be the only one there, and will probably be busy filing paperwork. Ask her for the photo and details collected from the detainment of an earth pony named Just Cause. My sister must not find out that you have done this. Truthfully, I do not know how you will prevent Choler from informing her superiors of this highly unusual request. But, if at all possible, you will. I trust you.

My next request is that you go to The Hoofington Post’s Canterlot bureau on the corner of Starswirl St. and Honeylane Ave., without your armor. Ask for Scoop, and identify yourself as a Royal Guardspony. Scoop will almost certainly recognize you as Commander Steel. Please give him the lead that one of the protesting ponies has been agitating at Day Court as well as at Night Court for more than three months. Offer the suggestion that those who followed her to Night Court may not be aware of her true intentions. Do not give him Just Cause’s name. Above all, ensure that he believes this tip is coming from you, and not from me.

My final request is for you to retrieve your armor and track Just Cause. Ideally, her home address should be listed with the information gathered during her detainment, but I find it unlikely that she provided entirely accurate information to the Night Guard. Still, I ask that you find her. And when you do, I ask that you be as courteous as possible. Introduce yourself as Commander of the Pegasi Infantry. Remove your helm. Bow in salutation. Treat her with the respect you would show an ambassador from a foreign land, and do so regardless of the level of respect she—or anypony she may be with—shows you.

Extend to her an invitation to meet with me personally at the castle tomorrow, immediately following Open Hour. Leave as quickly as you can, and come straight to the castle afterwards. Write me a summary of the day’s events and slip it under my chamber door.

Tempered Steel, I know that many of these requests may not seem to be entirely in keeping with the purest form of our ideals. Such is the nature of war games, my dear: difficult problems have difficult answers. But as long as we are acting in service to the lives of all Equestrians and reject our personal preferences, we can be confident in our own ethicality. If you trust that I have the ponies’ interests always at heart, then you can trust that in carrying out these orders you are working in the best interests of the nation.

On behalf of Equestria, and on behalf of myself: thank you.

Sincerely yours,

Celestia

The commander read the message loud and clear. “War games”: the deception that pony diplomats had used on their counterparts in foreign nations during the prolonged night of Nightmare Moon, in order to keep the Equestrian crisis under wraps. For her to use that term so casually... that was a hint at something larger. Whatever the true threat Celestia perceived, she was playing it down in her letter. And whatever actions she was prescribing to maintain the nation’s peace were nopony else’s business.

Piece by piece, Tempered Steel began ripping the missive into strips small enough for him to swallow. None of this sat right with him. Why the cover-ups? Why the lies? Under different circumstances he might even have thought the letter to be a forgery. But in the princess’s own handwriting, bearing the Royal Seal, hoof-delivered by Whitestone, and written in that unmistakable tone of hers? It was almost as if she had addressed his suspicions before he’d even had them. Actually, he was pretty sure that was exactly what she had done.

As long as the letter really was from her, there was nothing else for the commander to concern himself with. His own reservations were irrelevant: he didn’t have all the facts. And even if he did, he would never claim to know better than Princess Celestia what was right for Equestria. He trusted the princess more than anypony he could ever hope to know. His course had been written in Celestia’s impeccable script, upon the very parchment the commander was now consuming.

Forcing down the last bit of the letter, Tempered Steel threw open his closet doors. Behind them—resting on a long shelf all its own—was his golden breastplate, painstakingly smelted to match the contours of his body. The commander’s ornate armor rested on his back, surrounding the flank and tapering upwards along the sides to leave room for his wings. Both sides curled past his neck and met at a single whorled point just in front of his chest, clasped by three interlocking stars of azure, violet and jade.

The stallion shook his head. “Alright, Steel,” he whispered to himself, slipping the breastplate over his head and onto his back. “For Equestria.” His horseshoes sat lined up on the closet floor, and with four quick snaps his hooves too were clad in brilliant gold.

As he moved to return to the dining room, he caught a glimpse of his own eye in the mirror behind the closet door and froze. Only then did he realize that his brow was rife with lines of anxiety, partially hidden underneath his black mane. He watched as his every exhalation sent a shiver down his spine. The commander took a few seconds to fix his expression as best he could before trotting out to face his wife.

“I guess you can’t tell me what the princess has you doing, can you?” Temperance asked from her chair at the dining table, listening to his golden horseshoes click against the dining room tiles behind her.

“Sorry, Temperance,” he sighed, drawing near to her. “For what it’s worth, I should be all finished with this one by tonight. Who knows? We might even have time for stargazing.”

Temperance waited for her Steelie to wrap her in his strong embrace, and when he finally did she pressed the side of her face against his powerful neck.

“I’d like that,” she whispered in reply. The mare kept him there until she was sure she’d have a vivid memory of it to carry her through the long day ahead. Eventually, Temperance brought her head back to deliver to him one of those faint kisses that drove him mad, and then gently nudged his muzzle away with her own.

“Alright, alright,” he said, responding to his wife’s unspoken exhortation: the sooner he left, the sooner she’d get him back. Stepping into the living room, Tempered Steel took up his gold-smelted, silver-plumed Royal Guard helmet in his front hooves.

Temperance frowned. “I don’t know, Steelie,” she called as he returned to the dining room. I still think it looked better with the purple plume.”

“Yes my dear, but the commander’s plume pays the bills,” he opined. “It’s still the same wonderful gift, Temperance.”

Turning towards the door, Tempered Steel came upon a thought he felt needed expressing: “You do know this is still the nicest gift anypony has ever given me, don’t you?”

“Yes, dear,” she replied through bashful chuckles, smiling from ear to ear. “You tell me as much every morning.”

“Good. My first stop is the visiting nurse offices, to go get Nurse Tenderheart. Will you be OK by yourself for 10 minutes?”

“Yes, sir!” she replied, her words crisp with vim and vigor.

“Are you sure, Temperance? Do you want me to move you anywhere?”

“I’ll be fine, Steelie, really!”

“Alright.” He spun the helmet upside-down in his hooves and pulled it over his head, wriggling his ears back and forth until both were poking out of the perfectly sized holes reserved for them. “How do I look?”

Temperance blinked twice against the gleam of the gold-plated armor, and said out loud the first thought that came to her mind: “You look like my hero.”

Behind his helmet, the commander blushed as he started backwards out the door. “I love you, Temperance. See you soon.”

“I love you too, Steelie,” she breathed, her dutiful husband flying off for reasons only he and Celestia knew.


Pacing the decorous carpeting of the Canterlot Castle drawing room, the daylight princess grappled with her thoughts. It had been four hours since she’d written to her pegasi commander, and it appeared that she was right to choose him for the day’s work. Her guest would be arriving shortly.

As expected, Just Cause was nowhere to be found at this morning’s Open Hour. All the media coverage served to further enhance her appeal to misguided anti-Luna ponies, and would continue to do so until Celestia herself alerted Equestria to Just Cause’s true mission.

“Politics,” she spat out to the empty room. She hated it all: the avoidance of accountability, the half-truths and outright lies, the inevitable pain. The disrespect. For a tool best used with subtlety and misdirection, there was something awfully brutal about politics. But now that a dangerous political mind was working to disrupt Equestria’s hard-won peace, the good of the nation demanded a leader willing to use politics in service to the nation’s unity. And like many other skills of hers that she would have preferred never to need, Celestia was the best. She was the best politician in Equestria.

Only once had the princess let her personal biases keep her from doing what was right. One mistake was all it took. It wasn’t an honest mistake, either. She hadn’t missed the signs: Celestia’s assistants had reported back to her with every troubling change in her sister’s behavior. Luna canceling Open Hour, leaving 15 petitioners—some had traveled from as far as Baltimare—without so much as a community liaison officer to hear their problems. Luna raising the harvest moon out of season, forcing the tides into disarray and endangering several small vessels at sea. Luna pinning one of her Night Guards against a wall until his shift was complete, after she’d caught him trying to punch out five minutes early.

Celestia had tried everything she could to halt the emergence of the nightmare within her sister’s heart. But though she eventually came to recognize the change as an impending inevitability, she had failed to do what was necessary until a terrible price had been paid. Her unwillingness to take preemptive action—hoof stayed by blind faith in “Little Sis”—had cost Equestria the lives of four courageous Royal Guardsponies. Never again would she let her feelings stop her from acting with the greater good in mind. Never again.

She had no intention of letting them now, either: her opinion of whether politicking was appropriate for a princess was a personal matter. For the greater good to be served, she had to make sure that Just Cause did not succeed in subjecting the lives of her little ponies to democratic politics and its outcomes.

Elections. Politics. Endless manipulation, self-interest, pandering, power-brokering, superficiality. That’s what you want for Equestria, Just Cause. Whether you recognize it or not, that is your cause.

Knock, knock, knock.

Celestia turned to the door. “Come in, Scoop,” she called, swinging the door open.

“Hey, thanks for meeting on such short notice P. C.,” he shot through the corner of his mouth. The beige pony’s fedora gained a sheen of yellow magic, then flipped quickly off his head and back over his horn as the unicorn gave a brisk bow. Before allowing himself to finish the greeting he charged into the room, nearly tripping over his own front hooves, and rested his haunches on the smaller of the two ottomans in the room.

The princess chuckled. Scoop was a rare breed: a pony consistently busier than the princess herself. “In a bit of a rush, are we?”

“Well, you know. Your sister’s little brouhaha last night’s got all us hacks running around like headless chickens,” Scoop remarked, rummaging through his saddlebags to pull out a yellow steno pad. “Got six stories I need done for deadline tonight instead of the usual two. But hey, I’m a speedy writer, P. C. That’s what I do. That’s why I’ve got these two tiny typewriters on either side of my butt. The beat goes on.”

“Indeed it does,” Celestia said, working to keep her own speech at a normal pace amid Scoop’s machine gun delivery. She took her place across from her interviewer.

Scoop cleared his throat. “Alright then, Princess. Just to make sure we’re on the same page: I’m interviewing you for a feature story on the modern-day Royal Guard and Night Guard that I’m writing in light of recent events, but the news piece I’m doing about the detainments at Night Court is a totally separate article and this interview isn’t gonna go there. Sound good?”

“Sounds good.”

“Alright. Now, I’d just like to make sure we’ve got this quote from the press release right, and then we can get started.” Pages flipped wildly as Scoop’s notepad floated in front of his face. Eventually he settled on one and began his dispassionate recital: “‘It is not my place to comment on or criticize particular actions taken by the Night Guard. However, I have full confidence in Princess Luna’s leadership ability, including her ability to lead the Night Guard.’ Do I have that right?”

“Yes, Scoop. You do.”

“OK then, P. C.,” he said with a quick head-tilt head and a smile, turning to a fresh page and slipping a pencil out from under the brim of his fedora. “Let’s talk about the military, shall we?”


IN DEFENSE OF A PEACEFUL LAND, PONIES STAND GUARD
By SCOOP

CANTERLOT—The Equestrian Peace, the colloquial name given to the current period of 200 years without war or major internal unrest, is well known and well studied in Equestria and beyond. But the ponies who dedicate their lives to maintaining it are rarely given the same level of attention.

Princess Celestia’s Royal Guard, along with the Night Guard commanded by Princess Luna, serve as Equestria’s military and police force at a time when both services are rarely needed. The nation’s violent crime rate has been at or below 0.01 per 1,000 ponies for over 50 years, and Celestia has signed pacts of non-aggression with every other major foreign power in the world.

Yet the daylight princess believes that the longevity of the Equestrian Peace itself is due in no small part to the Guardsponies’ dedication: “Our peace is underwritten by the loyalty of the Royal Guard and the Night Guard,” she said. “I don’t mean to cast aspersions, but who can say what any given world power might do if presented with an undefended Equestria? The fact that we have not been attacked in the past few centuries does not mean that we would have been able to enjoy the same peace without our military.”

Indeed, the beginning of the Equestrian Peace was marked by swift military victory over invading Griffon forces, ending what is commonly known as the Sixteen-Hour War. Many historians believe that the ease with which the Equestrian military dispatched the invaders served as a warning to other would-be aggressors: a major factor in motivating other nations to make peace with Equestria. “Even now, at a time when our land has never been safer,” Celestia added, “the Guards are dedicated to ensuring it stays that way.” (continued on A9)


The Canterlot Post, or "CP", to those who worked there, was the central hub of all non-ceremonial Royal Guard and Night Guard activity in Equestria. Yet for a building with such an important function, its form was incongruously mundane. Everything about it screamed “mildly successful accountancy firm”: the six-story building had no spires, no columns, and no archways to its name. Not a single gargoyle adorned its sandstone façade. It was so corporate that every once in a while a determined pony from out of town would wander in, ranting and raving about some defective saddlebag they’d bought or hellishly long train delay they’d suffered, requesting—nay, demanding!—both a refund and a personal apology from the company’s CEO; before coming to the slow realization that they weren’t where they thought they were, helped along by the fact that the pony to which they were venting their saddlebag- or train-related frustrations was wearing not a suit and a scowl, but rather a golden helmet and a facial expression of bemusement and confusion.

Flying through the front doors, Tempered Steel began waving away salutes before even seeing them. And, as always, the disciplined Royal Guardsponies rejected his silent entreaty: they stopped dead in their tracks, backs straightened, with their right front hooves held just above their eyes. The obligation to salute an officer of higher rank did not come from him but from the prescribed rules of Princess Celestia, and in the Royal Guard, nopony but the great mare herself had the authority to dismiss it.

Royal Guardsponies never used the door at the end of the Western corridor leading off the main hall. Well, not never. But not very often at all. Tempered Steel himself had certainly never used it, and he couldn’t think of anypony he knew who had, either. It had probably been years—literally, years—since that door was last opened. But it made sense: after all, the Night Guard were down there, and it was extremely rare for a Royal Guard to have any business with his or her dark counterpart that couldn’t be more easily handled through the internal mail system.

Naturally then, as Tempered Steel made his way directly through the Western corridor, the guardsponies around him grew increasingly intrigued by the question of whether this silver-plumed pegasi commander was actually going to where it was really starting to look like he was going.

If the princess had asked him to keep word of his trip to the Night Guard away from everypony, this would have been a poor performance indeed. But she hadn’t asked him to do that, and he really didn’t need to lie to these ponies, did he? There was no rule against him going down there. And even if one of the more overzealous guards decided they needed to tell somepony, who were they going to report it to? Him? Somepony under him, who would then relay the message to... him? Even if they did manage to pry that unicorn commander away from the military archives, or track that earth pony commander down in Celestia-knows-which part of the world he was in today, the worst his peers could do would be to report it to the princess herself. Which would be, of course, no problem at all.

With more than a few pairs of eyes on him, the commander walked straight through the dingy doorway without so much as a glance over his shoulder and trotted down two flights of stairs to the basement.

Tempered Steel walked through the basement-level door slowly and cautiously. It wasn’t that he thought there was any danger down there. But something about losing the ability to see one’s own hoof in front of their face even with the extremely temporary assistance of the light seeping in through the open basement door, does have the potential to put a pony on edge.

Thud. Darkness. The pupils of his eyes grew wider and wider, yearning in vain for even the slimmest ray of light in the abyss they now had to contend with.

“Who the hay is that?” somepony called from the depths.

Or so his reasoning and experience told him: his ears had heard a sound not easily recognizable as that of a pony. To those unfamiliar with Night Guard speech, it is best described as a four-tone chord from a violin section comprised entirely of first-time musicians fed through a speaker system and inharmoniously accompanied by white noise and feedback. Just one of the many reasons why Luna’s Open Hours were so sparsely attended.

“Tempered Steel,” he bellowed. “Commander of the Pegasi Infantry.”

“You don’t say…” was returned, quieted this time into an out-of-tune acoustic guitar, strummed with something that was clearly neither a pick or a hoof.

At once, the perfect darkness was broken. Directly in front of him—not six inches away—floated two globes of golden light, side-by-side, each slitted top to bottom by some dark blade. It took him nearly ten full seconds to process the message his eyes were sending him.

“Choler, is it?”

Tempered Steel felt a wisp of warm breath brush past the left side of his muzzle and collide harmlessly with his cheek. It took a particular kind of gloom to bring out a pony’s latent and underused senses. This definitely qualified as that kind of gloom.

The yellow lights held utterly motionless in the space in front of him. “The one and only,” he heard, as the eyes blinked out for a split second.

Something in her stare told him that his host had more to say. But the seconds ticked on, and all either pony heard was the dull beating of Tempered Steel’s heart.

The commander was a learned pony, well-versed in both history and military tactics. On an intellectual level, he was acutely aware of the importance of the Night Guard as an organization to the security of Equestria. But he didn’t like them, and his was by no means an uncommon sentiment. Most Night Guards had very little concept of how best to interact with ponies that didn’t sleep during the day and couldn’t see in the dark. Nor did they have much interest in learning.

That cruel mockery of a melodic voice returned: “Look at you. You’re just as handsome as the day we met, Temp.”

Without thinking, he shifted his weight and brought his two left hooves back one step. The eyes followed as though they were tethered directly to his own.

“I—excuse me. Do I know you from somewhere?” he replied, an indignant twinge creeping into his voice.

“Married life hasn’t slowed you down one bit.”

Tempered Steel’s pale white ears quivered. Slowly, he began to draw his head up to stretch his neck. Gone were the infernal tones of disorientation; in their place sounded a normal pony’s voice—one he thought he recognized.

“That isn’t....” He plumbed the recesses of his mind. She must have once been a Royal Guard cadet, he reasoned. So then, maybe he knew her from—

“Summer? Summer, is that you?”

The slits drifted to the corners of her eyes in thought. “Well, yes and no. That isn’t an easy question to answer.”

“But,” she continued, “I do still have my memories.” The cat’s-eyes flicked forward again, and then glided deliberately downward before beginning a painfully slow crawl back up to his eyes. “And oh, do I remember you.”

One brushstroke at a time, Tempered Steel recreated his portrait of her from his memories. As it began to come together, he was reminded of that inclination towards flirting that had always gotten under his skin. He had a hard time imagining she had been this bad, though.

The commander closed his eyes, and considered the implications. The stallion was many things; unfocused was not one of them.

“Chole—”

“Feel free to call me ‘Summer’, if you’d like. Commander, you can call me whatever you want.” He didn’t need the benefit of sight to know a coy smile lay somewhere underneath those yellow pools of light.

Tempered Steel gave a slight smile of his own, and he knew she could see it. “Choler. Let’s turn a light on in here.”

“There are no lights down here, Temp.”

Without waiting a beat, the commander advanced: “Let’s go upstairs, then.”

“I’m the last one here, Temp. Can’t leave the basement, I’m afraid.”

He took a moment to regroup. “So what you’re telling me,” he summarized, “ is that you and I are stuck here, with no light and nopony else around, until we finish our business.”

“And since when has that been a problem, hmm?” she asked, her every word saturated with misbehavior. “Such an intriguing proposition, Tempered Steel.”

For a few seconds, the two lights blinked on and off at an impossible speed. “Whatever business did you have in mind, commander?”

He gave his wings a stretch, and folded them tightly against his back. “I’m sure you know that I’m here about the detainment last night.”

“Oh, Tempered Steel, what kind of business is that!” she whined. Yet in the dark, she caught sight of something dart across her old friend’s face. As she spoke, her kittenish tone fell prey to a creeping seriousness.

“Alright. Yeah, I figured.”

Tempered Steel thought of himself as a straightforward pony. He was firm believer that in some cases, the only way out of an impasse was to smash through it.

The commander twisted the kinks out of his neck and returned Choler’s gaze. “I need all the photos and details the Night Guard collected from one of the ponies you detained. The name is ‘Just Cause’.”

Whatever remnants of playfulness remained fled the scene at the mention of that name. Her eyes narrowed sharply.

“Really.” She took a long and considered pause. “What do you want with her?”

There. That little touch of... something else, buried deep in her tone and in her eyes. Apprehension, maybe. Or perhaps it was anger. Either way, this was something she cared about.

It made sense, though, didn’t it? Of course she’d hate Just Cause after last night’s little stunt. If she felt about her princess as he did about his.... And if she thought that keeping a secret would help to bring this pony in....

He began putting form to the budding deception that would keep this morning’s deeds a secret. But he knew Summer, and he had no desire to lie to her. Sure, she was a Night Guard now, and Tempered Steel had no idea what had made her choose this path. But she was still a friend, and he was still a Royal Guard. And yet here he was: at once the orchestrator and the orchestrated in some grand scheme of unknown ends but clear and odious means.

This could have been so much easier, if he’d understood why he was being asked to do it. But it wasn’t his place to question the princess. And who knew how many times this “Choler” had lied and misled other ponies to get what she wanted? He gave his head a light shake. Maybe it was time for Tempered Steel to fight fire with fire.

The commander drew a deep breath. In the darkness he leaned his whole body forward and leveled his eyes with Choler’s.

“This is actually a bit under-the-radar.” He stepped forward to bring his head next to hers. He could feel a faint heat emanating from the side of her muzzle. “It’s something of a... personal initiative.”

“What are you—”

“Shh,” he reassured her. “Just listen.”

He spoke to her in hushed tones—he was telling her a secret, after all. “I’ve actually been paying attention to this Just Cause pony for a while now. I don’t have any defensible reason for believing she is planning to commit a crime, which is why there’s never been a record for her here in CP.”

The stallion let a sliver of a breath escape from his mouth. “Still, ever since I heard about her coming to Day Court I’ve been... suspicious. I want to see if what I have on her matches up with what she told you when you detained her. But I’m not supposed to have what I have, so I don’t want anypony finding out that I’ve asked for these. Do you understand?”

Again, he felt a weak breath against his cheek. They stood together in a long and blackened silence.

“I understand,” came the reply, and seconds later the only two lights in the room blinked away.

He was careful not to sigh out loud. But in that moment, Tempered Steel’s heart fell stricken to three emotions it was not accustomed to: guilt, fear, and a strange sort of isolation. He wondered if this was not what it must feel like to become a Night Guard.

For Equestria, he reminded himself.

The commander felt something slip into his breastplate and the eyes flicked back on a second later. “Those are copies. You can keep them.”

Tempered Steel blinked his own eyes a few times. “Thank you,” he said. “Summer.”

The globes brightened, not in luminescence but in timbre. “Those are two very lucky mares, Temp. Please tell them I said so one day, won’t you?”

“Two?”

A little laugh—almost a giggle—poured from those slowly-shrinking headlights in the dark. “Temperance,” she said, “and that princess of yours.” She sighed through a smile; he could hear it. “How could I ever compete with them?


(continued from front page)

With the exception of the once-in-a-decade peacekeeping mission, the Royal Guard and Night Guard’s duties can now be categorized in two ways: ceremonial and policing. The guardsponies’ ceremonial duties include announcing arrivals and departures of the princesses, transporting the princesses to official events in chariot processions, and standing guard during the Summer Sun Celebration.

Policing, however, is relatively new duty for the organization, at least in its expanded scope. It was only five years ago that Canterlot’s city manager made it the final municipality to dissolve its police force and turn security over to the Royal and Night Guards, citing obsolescence and budgetary concerns. Many believe that Princess Celestia silently supported the centralization and consolidation initiative.

Though she has never taken a public position on the matter, the princess is willing to acknowledge that she is pleased with what it signifies. “In my opinion, the fact that every municipality in Equestria has individually chosen to assign to the guards responsibility for security and criminal investigation demonstrates a profound level of trust,” Celestia said. “The Royal Guard and the Night Guard have earned that trust—city by city, town by town—with their competence and their unrivaled integrity.”


“I’d like to speak with a pony named Scoop please, if he’s available.”

“Who should I say is here?” the receptionist replied, headset microphone resting over one cheek and unimaginably large wad of gum lodged in the other.

“Just tell him it’s a Royal Guardspony.”

She sat back and crossed her legs in front of her. “And does this Royal Guardspony have a name?”

“Yes. He does. But right now, it’s ‘Royal Guardspony’.”

Mercifully and menacingly, the receptionist stopped chewing. She stared at the armorless commander with her lips curled tight, allowing her jaw a brief respite.

“Alright, siddown,” she sighed, ambling off into some distant backroom.

Tempered Steel took a seat in the wide, clean lobby of the Hoofington Post’s Canterlot bureau offices, and habitually ran a hoof through his mane. It was no problem for him to leave his breastplate in his office back at CP, but he hated having to go anywhere without that helmet either safe on his head or safe at home.

It was his most prized possession. Sweet Temperance had known that he was devastated by the sacrifice he was making for her, no matter how hard he had tried to hide it. It was his dream to be a Royal Guardspony since he’d been a little colt, he told her. He’d joined the first day he was eligible to do so. His cutie mark was the image of a golden shield, for flank’s sake. How could he not have been upset about leaving the academy?

She couldn’t take that from him. She’d never have been able to live with herself. So, she scraped together some money selling old jewelry and bought him a Royal Guardspony helmet from the Canterlot Armory, even as he was preparing to resign his officer candidacy. It was her commitment to him: if not now, then later. But someday, he would be a Royal Guardspony. Inside she’d had it engraved:

For my selfless hero: never forget who you strive to be. I love you. -T

She’d seen a side of her husband entirely new to her upon giving him the helmet. With the very manifestation of his childhood dream in his hooves, he’d broken down before her and cried into her lap. No act of kindness had reached the depths of his soul like this: this thoughtful, important, truly selfless act from a pony who had gone through so much, so recently. They had been married for a week by then, but it was this moment that truly sealed their union. This was their bond. This was their vow.

“Hey! I know you! What’s your name again... hm...” fired Scoop, a ridiculously small pair of glasses balancing atop his muzzle. The commander stood straight up and shot a warning glare down at the beige pony.

“Uh, right. Well, guess you have your reasons. Come with me, ‘Royal Guardspony’,” he said, rearing back to hang quotes in the air with his hooves.

In an attempt to turn around before letting his front hooves return to solid ground, the fast-talking pony found himself flat on his face on the ground. He got right up and charged through the newsroom anyway without the faintest hint of embarrassment; Tempered Steel followed behind him, barely keeping up in an awkward half-trot half-canter.

All around him were cubicles, ponies yelling and typing away. The noises brought to mind, oddly enough, a tattoo parlor. There wasn’t much opportunity for comparison or exploration however, as Scoop quickly ushered him through a glass-paneled door and into a glass-walled room.

It really was a waste of glass, though. This room—evidently Scoop’s office—had wallpaper, which is to say that various newspaper clippings, scribbles, magazine covers, drawings, pictures, posters, charts, graphs and timelines adorned the entirety of each wall, as well as the ceiling. But hey: at least there was a light in here. It was the little things for Tempered Steel today.

“So what’ve you got for me Tempered Steel? Don’t hold out now, I know you didn’t come down here for nothing.”

Tempered Steel nodded and sat back onto a chair. Five seconds earlier, the pages of what appeared to have been a pile of several dozen manuscripts had sat there instead, before glowing yellow and flying in more or less every direction but towards the seat from whence they came.

“Just out of curio—”

“I do my research, buddy. You want a coffee? Tea? Water? No? Good to hear. Let’s go then, T. S., on with the show. Time’s money and all that jazz.”

Tempered Steel thought he heard his brain actually creak inside his head.

“I don’t have much to tell you, Scoop,” he said. “But if you want to use it for color in a different article, I’m afraid it’s not for attribution.”

“Alright. ‘A senior Royal Guard official’, it is.”

“‘A senior official’.”

Turning his head away, Scoop frowned hard. “Oh, come on. Fine. ‘A senior military official’. Good? Good. So: what does a senior military official say?”

“A senior military official says nothing.”

The shocked journalist pondered this for two seconds. For him, that was a long time to reach a decision. “And what does a senior official say?”

“He says, ‘I have some information about one of the ponies who was detained at Night Court.’”

Scoop raised his eyebrows so high that the tiny spectacles balancing above his nose tumbled onto the floor. He didn’t seem to care. “Oh, hey now! This could be juicy. Lay it on me, Steels: what’s the skinny?”

“One of those ponies—one of the leaders, I think—she’s been coming to Day Court to protest, but by herself. She’s been doing so for a few months now, actually. And as I understand it, she comes every day.”

For a few highly unnerving seconds, Scoop stared straight past the commander’s eyes, zoned out, with a facial expression giving no indication of emotion. Then, as if punched in the gut he aspirated: “Whoa.”

Another pause. “Yes. That’s a good one. Yup. Yup. Yes. That’s a good one. Keep ‘em coming, Steelmeister. Whatcha got? Speculations? Motivations? Insinuations?”

“Well, I don’t know much about these ponies. But I have to question whether they know that one of their leaders isn’t just anti-Luna, but anti-Celestia, too.”

“That’s a fine point there, Steelerino. A fine point indeed. Anything else for me?”

“Sorry, Scoop. That’s all I know.”

“I’ve just got to ask you one more question, then.” Scoop cleared his throat. “Did anypony put you up to this?”

He’d prepared himself this time, mentally and strategically. “Nope, this is all me. I breezed through the photos of the ponies that were detained, and I recognized one of the protesters from when I was supervising my guards at one of the princess’s Open Hours. I figured she was a leader because she was the very first pony the Night Guard processed. That’s all.”

“So why are you here then, Steelster?” Scoop narrowed his eyes.

The commander smiled amiably. “I just think it’s important for context.”

“Really, Steelie? That’s why?”

“Really.”

“Well, alright then, Steelhead. I’ve never known a Royal Guard to lie, and you’re a Royal Guard’s Royal Guard. So I’m gonna take you at your word on this one.”

Scoop’s horn glowed yellow, and a typewriter in the far corner of the room set to work. “Thanks for the tip, T. S., don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Really, don’t. It’s got a quick swing.”

Tempered Steel waved to the pony, then rushed out of the office, out of the newsroom, and out of the building at a speedy trot. He hadn’t even had to think twice about telling a blatant lie to an established journalist. Why had it been so easy for him?

For Equestria, he remembered. For Celestia.


When asked about the decision to dissolve their police forces, leaders from nearly every city and town in Equestria will mention among their reasons the level of courtesy Royal Guardsponies show civilians in their town. “They’re so down-to-Earth,” one senior Fillydephian official remarked. “They treat you like an equal, because that’s what we are. We’re all equals.”

This is no coincidence. “One of the qualities I and my commanders look for in our Royal Guard cadets is the ability to look out for others in a competitive environment,” said the daylight princess. “Ponies who only know how to win by dragging everypony else down are not admitted to the Royal Guards.”

“It’s about respect,” she added. “It’s all about respect.”


It was roughly one hour after the moon began to rise that Tempered Steel found his target. He circled high, way above any earth pony’s field of vision. And as it happened, Just Cause, a short, dark brown mare with a black mane if the picture from Choler was to be believed, was traveling with just a few other earth ponies. Not a single pegasus was in sight.

He always ran a short mental checklist before an approach. Very rarely had he ever gotten into a physical altercation with another pony outside of training, but those few times he did were helped immensely by his preparedness. And while he wasn’t expecting a fight with these ponies, he was grateful to be back in his armor for this meeting.

The commander mouthed to himself quietly: “Seven earth ponies. No pegasi. No unicorns. Total weight: around 400 pounds. In an alleyway behind Green Street, 300 feet long. Low visibility. Two exits at either end.”

“Objective: Just need to deliver a message without altercation. Seems pretty straightforward.”

He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was overlooking something. Some unexplored possibility. But there was nothing he could do about it now: they were on the move, and he was running out of time.

Tempered Steel began his descent. For the first 1,000 feet he pulled in his wings and hastened his pace in a spectacular skydive. As he approached the ground, he let his wings naturally spread behind him and angled himself into a spiraled arrival for the final 500. He came to a halt hovering just above the uneven ground of the alleyway.

The alley was dark but not impossibly so, errant light bleeding through the tiniest of splits, chips and fractures in the wall of buildings that separated the scene from the streetlamps. Before him stood a troop of earth ponies at an appropriate distance from him for an old-fashioned duel. Four young mares and two stallions stood behind their torchbearer, whose flickering light-gray eyes sifted through this new guest’s soul.

Oh yes. Just Cause was the leader.

The commander—the Royal Guard commander, that is—took a deep breath and broke the silence. “Greetings, Just Cause.”

He slipped his helmet off with his front hooves.

“I am the Royal Guard Commander of the Pegasi Infantry,” he announced as he began a swift, yet calm advance. “My name is Tempered Steel. I hope the night is treating you well.”

A hoof up to the mouth here, a bit lip over there: the followers showed more and more nervousness with each further flap of his wings. Just Cause showed nothing.

Three clinks rung out a few yards from the agitators as Tempered Steel turned his landing into a deep and chivalrous bow.

He brought himself back to full height. “Miss Cause. Princess Celestia would like to extend to you an invitation to meet with her personally at the castle, immediately following Day Court Open Hou—”

“Why are you here?” she asked abruptly. He was not entirely sure if he had yet seen her blink.

Tempered Steel counted to five in his head. “Perhaps I was unclear. I apologize. I am here to invi—”

“You don’t understand what I’m asking. Why are you here, ‘commander’?”

She stated his rank like a mockery. “I was asked t—”

“Do you know why a top-ranked Royal Guard like yourself would be out here playing messenger colt with me right now?”

“I’m sorry, Miss Cause, I ha—”

“Your princess is paying me lip service.”

Tempered Steel was supposed to leave as soon as he’d relayed the message. And the message had indeed been relayed. But he was hungry for answers, explanation. Anything to make sense of what he was being asked to do. And though he told himself not to trust a word out of her mouth, something screamed from inside him that this pony had a hoof on the truth.

Just Cause continued: “I know full well that Celestia has no intention of making any of the changes we want. So there’s no real respect here. Not for us, and not for our opinions.”

“Sending you here, in all your splendor? That’s a show.” Eyes unwavering, she pounded on the dimly-lit cobblestone in applause, and her followers took the cue to do the same.

“Bravo, Tempered Steel. Bravo.”

But the applause continued to grow. Just Cause cracked a tiny smile as she caught the spark of panic in his eyes.

Behind him. It was coming from behind him. It was loud. And it was close.

He whirled around to face nine ponies standing in a line across the width of the alley, not two feet away from him, each one staring and applauding. How could he have—

Tempered Steel’s heart stopped. His right foreleg lost its charge and slipped under him. His breastplate hit the cobblestone with a loud clunk. Eyes narrowed. Nostrils flared. Wings unfurled. He spun automatically to face his initial targets, wings swinging round and forcing the nine new additions to back up.

He ignored the laughter. The commander fixed his gaze on a light-blue mare scampering on three legs to the back of the pack: a cowardly insect seeking safety in numbers. From the pony’s extended right hoof dangled the perfect symbol of Tempered Steel’s whole universe: his country and his princess, his wife and his dreams.

With one flap of his powerful wings he shot up 15 feet in the air, and the two crowds below took the opportunity to merge directly below him.

“Give it back,” was all he could think to say. “Give it back.”

“We pay your salary with our taxes!” called one pony through a smirk. “This is as much ours as it is yours!”

“Yeah, property of Equestria!” shouted another.

“Property of Equestria,” a few repeated.

“Hey, look at this: ‘For my selfless hero’? Aww,” a stallion mocked.

“Aww!” the crowd replied.

“You ponies have no idea what you’re doing,” he warned. “Do not put me in a position to have to hurt you.”

A stallion near the back: “I’m sure you’d love to smack us around a bit, wouldn’t you?”

Mischievous shouts erupted from the wound-up crowd as the helmet disappeared below the mob of ponies. Thonk. The cheers grew louder. Thoom. Ping. Tempered Steel felt each noise physically hammer at his chest.

He reared back in the air and extended his wings fully.

“Think this through.”

The commander forced a jet of air through his nostrils.

“Quiet,” Just Cause ordered, just loudly enough to be heard by all. Her tool was firmness, not volume. At once the followers obeyed.

“Think this through, Tempered Steel,” she repeated, slowly and deliberately, as the crowd parted around her. At her feet he saw the helmet: dirty, but undented. “This morning, the Night Guard were on the front page of every major newspaper for detaining 120 protesters. Are the Royal Guard going to be on the front page of tomorrow’s, because their commander couldn’t hold it together over a piece of armor?”

She circled around to survey her troops, then scooped the helmet up in her hoof and surveyed it as well. “We aren’t giving you this helmet back voluntarily, Tempered Steel. You have just threatened us with a disproportionate and violent response. We are not inclined to sympathize with you, whatever this helmet’s significance may be.”

“So, the outcome is in your hooves. You can charge at us and fight us for this helmet,” she offered, turning her head upwards to face her aggressor.

“Or you can leave.”

He couldn’t tell if it had been worse to hear his helmet being kicked around like a toy, or to see it draped over this infuriating pony’s hoof. Such disrespect—and with what reason? They lived lives of guaranteed contentment: neither they nor anypony else in all Equestria would suffer true poverty or hunger again. He saw nothing in their actions but selfishness and ingratitude.

A novel thought came to Tempered Steel at that moment: what would Temperance do? Of course, she’d never find herself in a position like this anyway—not with that olive branch cutie mark of hers. But if she were here, the very last thing she’d do would be to charge in there and start beating ponies up for, as Just Cause put it, a ‘piece of armor’.”

Just Cause was right, too: the last thing his princess needed was for his day’s work to produce a headline. And it really was just a helmet. To leave it with these thoughtless ponies would be like tearing off a piece of his soul. But did he really have a choice?

“Very well,” he intoned as his wings carried him higher and higher into the sky, until his helmet was scarcely a glint of moonlight in Canterlot’s metropolis. And when his eyes finally lost its gleam among the city’s lights, the commander started for the castle, choking down a hollowness that grew with each flap of his wings, in the name of Equestria.


“Alrighty, I’ve got all I need. Thanks for your time, P. C.”

The pencil floating in the air slipped neatly back under Scoop’s fedora. He rose from his ottoman, and started for the door.

Just before he reached the doorway, he stopped and craned his neck to look behind him.

“One more thing,” he began. “I had a pony come to me this morning saying that one of the protesters from last night also shows up at your Open Hours and wants you gone. There any truth in this?”

Celestia cocked her head. “Off the record?”

“You got it, P. C.”

This question—this one little question—was the diligent journalist’s entire reason for being here, she knew. And she didn’t just know it: she’d been expecting it.

Well done, Tempered Steel, she thought to herself.

“Well, yes. That’s true. Good to see you double-checking your leads.”

Scoop winked. “I’m the real deal, you know. No half-baked pap under this pony’s byline.”

He rubbed his hoof against two days’ worth of stubble. “Hey, we gonna be alright, princess? Seems like a whole lot’s been happening all of a sudden.”

The great white mare brought her head down to meet Scoop at his own eye level. With a matronly smile shining across her face, she assured him: “We’re going to be fine.”

(to be continued)

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Special thanks: KitsuneRisu
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