• Published 21st Nov 2014
  • 1,498 Views, 106 Comments

Equine, All Too Equine - stanku



In the grim future of Canterlot, the volatile relations between the three races and the griffon minority are nearing the point of no return. And the only pony who could stop the outbreak of a civil war cannot afford to do so.

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Chapter I

A unicorn stallion knocked on the door. The sound mingled with that of rain beating against the corridor window. He bided his time, chewing his lip while studying the simple oaken surface with the number twenty-three carved into it. Whatever lousy paintwork there had once been was now mostly faded. The color of it made Helm Cleaver think of the outhouse on the farm where he had spent his summers as a colt.

“I think we got the wrong address,” he said, looking at the other guard behind him. “This can’t be an officer’s home.”

The other guard, named Stone Mill, fished a badly creased note from the pocket of his uniform and unfolded it. His lips moved slightly as he read it.

“Says here Grease Street forty-two, B-block, apartment twenty-three. Isn’t that where we are?”

“Yeees,” conceded Cleaver. “But maybe they gave us the old address? I mean, what officer would live on bucking Grease Street? Even the Brigade keeps out of here.”

“Could be he comes here for the whores,” said Mill. He crunched the note and threw it down the stairwell. “Could be the Sarge knew he’d be here tonight.”

“Can’t imagine a Lieutenant was desperate enough to come here for a mare.” Cleaver banged the door again. Only the dull echo answered him. “Gives me the chills, to think what you might catch from the bottom of the barrel…”

Mill licked his lips. “Wanna find out? I know this place not far away that gives a discount for the Guard.”

Cleaver kept on chewing his lip and eyeing the door. It wasn’t like they were needed anywhere else, and it wasn’t their fault the address was a dud. And lately his wife had had a lot more migraines than she used to have.

“Sure, why the buck not,” he said. “One more knock and we’re out.” He raised his hoof.

Do not touch that door.”

The two guards whirled around. In the corridor behind them, in front of the window that a moment ago had been closed, there stood a unicorn stallion. The most striking thing about him was his expression: it could have curled milk. The two loaded crossbows that hovered by his sides, aiming at them, came as a close second.

“Who sent you?” continued the stallion. His voice barely carried over the rainfall.

“S-sergeant Cowl, said Cleaver. “W-we’re from the Guard.” He couldn't decide whether to stare at the bolt directed at his face or the eyes of the stranger. The only real difference between the two seemed to be that the former had yet to pierce him. “We’re on official business,” he continued, forcing some authority into his voice.

The stallion eyed them in silence. Very briefly, Cleaver considered using magic, but the idea was suicide. No horn could outspeed a bolt, not at this distance.

“Show me your badges. Slowly. And no magic.”

They obeyed like snails. Soon two thin notebooks were slid over the floor. The same green-grey halo that held the crossbows picked them up with ease.That much managed to penetrate Cleaver’s terror-filled mind. Manipulating already two separate objects with telekinesis was a formidable feat for any unicorn – most could never do more than three at a time.

The badges unfolded before the stallion. His eyes had never left Mill nor Cleaver. “Recite me the dates when you joined, and your identifying numbers.”

From the corner of his eye, Cleaver could see Mill’s face fall pale, just like he himself had. Nopony in the Guard memorized their identification numbers. It was insane to ask for them. Yes, technically the regulations demanded that each guard could at will recite those six little digits that proved they really were part of the Citizen Guard, but to actually demand that was a widespread joke, equivalent to saying that bribes were bad for the morale.

The stallion didn’t seem like somepony who cracked jokes, though.

“Yes?” he continued. The crossbows nudged themselves encouragingly.

“Ahh…” began Mill. Pearls of sweat dripped from under his helmet. “I joined the Guard… This year… On the tenth turn… the day was… uhh… se–no! Eighth. It was the eighth.” His trembling visibly intensified as he tried to recall his number.

Cleaver opened his mouth even though every cell in his body knew it was a bad idea – if this lunatic shot Mill first, maybe he could roll for safety before the second bolt would skewer his forehead. But some primal sense of fraternity made him say: “You know bucking well we don’t know them, you bastard! Nopony does! You might as well shoot us now, you bucker, and hope that our friends don’t find you before rest of the Guard does! You know what we do to guard-killers. That’s something everypony in this town knows.”

His heart was a jackhammer trying to bring down the walls of his chest. He felt how his lungs filled to their utmost extreme, how time slowed down, how the turquoise eyes looked at him as if he was some insect.

Then, without any warning, the crossbows were lowered.

“Forgetting your identification numbers, insulting a higher officer and conspiring to neglect your duties are all minor crimes,” said the stallion with the same quiet, formal voice. “However, they stack up quickly. For both of you, as punishment, loss of two days’ pay.”

Cleaver’s jaw dropped. “What? What the buck?”

“Is the source of your inability to understand me located in your brains or in your ears, private?”

“You’re an officer?” asked Mill hesitantly.

The stallion looked at him. “Lieutenant Heart. Remember to mention the name to the clerk when you register your loss of pay.” The badges soared through the air at the feets of their owners. “Judging from what I got from your conversation, you came to look for me. Considering that it is the middle of the night, the issue must be acute.”

Cleaver, who was eyeing Heart as if he was a changeling, picked up his badge and said: “Don’t know, sir. Order was to come here and fet – summon you to a scene of crime, sir. Immediately, sir.” He pronounced the “sir” like the word had nails pressed through it.

Heart didn’t seem to mind this one bit. “I’ll dress up. You will wait for me downstairs.” He looked at Mill. “Whereas you will stay in my apartment until somepony comes to relieve you. Understood?”

“Sir?” said Mill.

Heart didn’t answer but walked right past the guards for the door. He pushed his horn into the lock. There was a faint metallic sound, mixed with a flash of green light, after which the door opened quietly. Heart marched in, leaving the two guards staring at the gloom which had swallowed him.

“Best of luck,” said Cleaver before descending downstairs. Mill watched him go with envy before stepping into the apartment.

It all seemed very ordinary, at least from the perspective of the small living room. Two sparsely filled bookshelves, a table and a pair of couches around the fireplace. A carpet that had seen its better days years ago. The only thing that struck him as weird was the absence of pictures and photos. Based on the first impression that Mill had about Lieutenant Heart, the place should have been rife with pictures of him getting awarded with medals and shaking hooves with Senators and other big shots.

“Do you have foals?” asked Heart behind Mill, who jumped a bit. It was amazing how quietly the stallion could move.

“No, sir,” he said, turning to face the Lieutenant. Already he had gotten his full uniform on. Suited like that, he actually looked like an officer and not some wild beast filled with icy rage. “Sir, please, I don’t understand why–”

“Dad?” asked a frail, sleepy voice. Mill looked at the doorway. There stood a small filly, looking both at him and Heart with wide eyes. “Where are you goin’?”

The first thought that ran through Mill’s mind was: “He’s going to make me the foalsitter.” The second was: “He’s going to make me the foalsitter.”

Heart walked calmly to the filly and kneeled in front of her. He stroked her purple, messy mane.

“There is a boogeyman in town,” he said softly, yet not a touch less formally. “Somepony needs to catch him.”

The filly leaned to hug him. Her eyes met Mill’s, and both looked away quickly.

“This gentlecolt here is Mill Stone. He will stay here with you, to make sure no bogeys get in.”

The filly remained mute. Heart gave her a light kiss on the brow and stood up. “Now, back to bed.”

When the foal was gone, Mill found Heart’s eyes nailed to his own. They seemed to be saying: “With your life.”

Mill saluted quietly.

Next, he found himself alone in the living room. He sat on the couch and for half an hour fought against the urge to start looking around when a tap on his shoulder made him flinch.

It was the filly. She seemed very bothered by something, standing behind the couch. Mill couldn’t help but notice she hadn’t even gotten her cutie mark yet. When she finally spoke, her voice seemed to carry from beyond oceans:

“Could you come into my room? To lay on the carpet like dad? I can’t sleep alone…”




***



The night was drenched. Every gutter in the city had overflowed hours ago, and some of the narrower streets were now indistinguishable from rivers. Trash and rats, both dead and alive, where everywhere. Heart and Cleaver cantered across the city in silence, pushing through the veil of beating rain. Both had cast a simple spell to keep themselves dry, but no matter how bright their horns turned, the visibility remained poor. Street lamps were a luxury in this part of Canterlot. Were it not for Cleaver’s innate sense of direction and foalhood spent playing on these very streets, they would have most likely gotten lost in the endless maze.

“It was a clever trick, sir, flanking us by the fire ladder,” he shouted over the rain. “Took me awhile to figure out that’s how you did it. Is that something they teach in the Academy?”

If there was an answer, it didn’t make it past the raindrops.

Prick, thought Cleaver. All his tentative attempts to start a conversation had so far received a similar treatment, or lack thereof, from the Lieutenant. That was weird, even weirder than his behaviour in the corridor. It was common knowledge that all the officers were snobs, but usually they wouldn’t mind a casual chat with the common guards. It was like charity to them.

“I wasn’t expecting that they’re also cutting the officers’ pays nowadays,” continued Cleaver. “Times must be hard when a lieutenant has to settle for a flat on Grease Street.”

Again, no answer. There was no helping some ponies.

They finally arrived at the crime scene. When Cleaver announced this, Heart simply walked past him and straight to sergeant Cowl who had sent Cleaver on his ungrateful task in the first place. He saw the two greet each other like old pals, then immerse into a private conversation. Soon after, they trotted into the alley that had been restricted both from the public and from Cleaver. There was something worth keeping quiet about there, he had reasoned, and in Canterlot that probably meant a corpse.

Well, it wasn’t his problem. His problem was to explain to his wife how he had lost two days’ pay by swearing to an officer.




***



Cowl and Heart trotted into the alley. The light of their rainproof domes reflected upon the brick walls, bringing a touch of life into the wet gloom. The effect disappeared right as they moved along, letting the darkness pour in once more.

“So, how you’ve been managing?” asked Cowl. “Lily doing okay, is she?”

“When was the corpse found?” asked Heart, keeping his eyes straight ahead.

Cowl payed a sideways glance at him. The face he saw under the heavy helmet was, discounting a few scars and dark circles around the eyes, the same he had known for years, ever since their first day as recruits. It was the soul behind that he had trouble recognizing nowadays.

“An hour ago. Maybe. The bum who stumbled on it said he alerted the guards as soon as he could, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out he tried to sell it to the University first. You know how they’re always looking for education materials.”

“Is there evidence that the body has been moved?”

“None that we could see. There’s plenty of blood, at least.”

When they turned a corner, a strange sight spread before them. Four unicorn guards stood in a rectangle formation, their horns aglow with magical light. A part of the alley had been isolated by a transparent field that kept the rain away from an area about the size of an average living room. In the middle of it lay a pony. It was like a scene pulled straight from a theater stage, limelights and all.

Heart and Cowl turned off their domes and stepped into the play.

For some time, they only looked at the cadaver. A mare, probably in her twenties. A light-pink coat with slightly deeper colored mane and tail, both messed by water and blood. Her eyes were open, glazed, and her tongue lolled limply past her lips, just barely touching the cobblestones.

“Throat slit,” said Cowl with a neutral voice. “No other visible wounds or bruises, save of course the… the…” He coughed. Even after seeing it for the second time today, the sight still made his stomach turn. “Save of course the flayed cutie mark,” he finished, turning his face away.

Heart kept on staring. “Did they take one or both?”

“Don’t know, haven’t checked,” said Cowl, fighting against the bile climbing up his throat. He beat his chest a couple of times, cleared his throat and turned to the corpse again.

Heart was leaning over her. After a moment he grabbed her by the hind legs and, very carefully, lifted her.

“They didn’t,” he said, lowering the mare again. “Strange.”

Cowl raised an eyebrow. “What, stranger than flaying her in the first place?”

“Think about it,” said Heart, still leaning over the mare. “The most rational reason to remove somepony’s cutie mark would be to hinder their identification. But for that, you need to take both. That means the murderer had some other reason in mind.”

“What the buck could that be?”

“I don’t know. And that’s why I called it strange.”

That’s more like the Deck Heart I used to know, thought Cowl. The observation strengthened his theory that his old friend wasn’t as much dead as simply hiding. A thing like what had happened to him could break anypony, that was for sure, but Deck was not anypony. He just needed time to recover. Just time.

And revenge, naturally.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of strangeness in this case, that’s for sure,” said Cowl. “And you haven’t even seen the half of it.”

Heart turned a questioning look at him. “Are you playing games with me?”

Cowl blinked. “Deck, no. No games. But I didn’t want to throw this at your face all at once.” He turned to look at the wall to his right. “Lads, some more light.”

The four guards obeyed. The circle of light around them spread to touch the walls, to reveal their blankness. Only, the other wall was not blank but far from it, as both Heart and Cowl could now see.

There was a mark: an elaborate version of “B”, painted in deep yellow. Despite the fact that the paint had run a bit, you could easily recognize the attempt to bend the letter to resemble a beak. It was a symbol everypony, and every griffon, in Canterlot knew.

“They’ve done it this time,” said Cowl with a hint of celebration in his voice. “They’ve crossed the line. When the papers get this, it’s the end for the feathery buggers. All that jazz about harmony and unity? Hah! This shoves the politicians’ bull right back their throats.” He eyed the symbol as if it announced the beginning of a brand new world, a world rid of all that which had plagued the old one. “Mark my words: in a week, we’ll be rounding up the Cliffs. Once and for all.”

“No.”

Cowl blinked. Something must’ve gone funny in his ears. Maybe the rain had distorted the voice. Yeah, it had to be.

He turned an amused expression at Heart.

“No,” repeated Heart. “You will not go to the press with this. Nopony does. That’s an order. Whoever breaks it will be fired from the Guard on the spot and face prosecution for threatening public peace. I swear that on my life.”

Cowl stopped looking amused. “Deck… What?”

Heart stood up. “Who else knows about this? I want their names.”

Part of Cowl’s mouth tried to look amused again. “You… Don’t you see? This is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is what you’ve been waiting for, ever since the–”

Heart moved in a heartbeat. His face pressed against Cowl’s, so close that the tips of their horns touched.

“Cowl… You are my best friend. I would trust my life to your hooves. But if you don’t stop talking right now, one of us will have to be carried from this alley.”

Cowl’s mouth moved. The words did their best to follow. “Yes… Sir…”

Heart remained still for a second longer and then stepped back. “Now, listen. I will go straight to the Captain with this, just like you should have done. You will stay here, all night if necessary, and make sure nopony, nopony, touches anything. And doesn’t speak a thing. That bum you mentioned? Put him in isolation as the main suspect. Understood?”

“Yeah,” muttered Cowl. After some hesitation he continued: “You don’t actually believe the bum could have–”

“Of course not,” said Heart, pushing past the Sergeant. “But we can’t have him talking about this to anypony, either.” Before disappearing around the corner, he looked one more time at Cowl. This time, his eyes didn’t try to pierce him, but rather to see him. “I do want to get the Brigade. You know that. But this… this could start a war tomorrow. And that is the opposite of what I want.”

And then he was gone. Cowl stood still in the rectangle of light, waiting for him to come back to explain how it had all been a big joke. Of course they’d let the press know; of course they’d drive the bucking feather brains out of town, together. That was what was expected of them.

“Hey Sarge,” said one of the guards. “You forgot to tell him about the bloody feathers we found. That might’ve turned his mind right way around.”

Cowl turned his face slowly at him. “What bloody feathers?”

The guard looked puzzled. “Well, you know, the ones we found–”

Cowl stomped his front hoof hard against the ground. “You all, listen! We heard the Lieutenant’s orders! As of now, this case and all its details are under absolute confidentiality. So I ask again: what bloody feathers?”

The guard said nothing.

“That’s what I thought,” said Cowl. “Now, I will go arrest that bum of whom none us knows a darn thing about.”





***



The Captain’s home was on the other side of the town, and with the heavens split open it took Heart the better part of an hour to get there, even at full canter. Already after a mile he had to let go of his rain protection: it was slowing him down too much. By the time he got to the gates, he felt like he had actually swum there.

It all made him wonder if it really was worth the effort. In the end, the perpetrator most likely was a griffon, and most likely had some association with the race’s militaristic wing, the Beak Brigade. They all had, everypony knew that. Everypony had been expecting something like this for months, years even. Ever since the griffons had begun moving into the city en masse, it had all been like watching a really long fuse crack and fizzle as it made its way towards a barrel full of gunpowder. It was all meant to be. Why fight against it?

Because Lake would have. She would have fought against it. With her very last breath.

“Open the gates!” Heart barked while banging the solid iron with his front leg. “Open the gates!”

Two guards appeared soon enough, their domes glowing in the wet gloom. “Who goes there?” one of them asked.

“Lieutenant Heart, identification number 316376.” He floated his drenched badge through the bars. “I need to speak with Captain Hilt at once.”

“Not at three o’clock in the morning you don’t,” said the other one. He took the badge, glanced at it and then looked Heart up and down. “What is the matter about, anyway?”

“Doomsday,” said Heart. The word had little effect on the guards. A part of him simply wanted to teleport into the premises and be done with it, but obviously that wouldn’t do – they would try to stop him at which point he’d have to stop them, and just like that he’d started a catastrophe instead of prevented one. “There are two ways we can do this,” he said, keeping his voice calm. “You let me in and, who knows, you might receive a little raise for showcasing such great judgement during a volatile political crisis. Or you resist me until the very end, in which case I’ll take as my personal project that both of you will do shifts in the Cliffs for the rest of your careers. Now how’s that for a choice?”

This seemed to incite a reaction. A lifetime duty in the Cliffs was basically the equivalent to being assigned as catapult fodder.

“He has a badge and a Lieutenant's uniform,” said the first guard. He looked at the other, the older one.

There was a short moment when it seemed to Heart that they wouldn’t let him in. After all, it was three o’clock in the morning, and the Captain wasn’t known for his jovial nature. Very briefly, Heart considered pulling the wild ace from his sleeve, but there was a good chance they’d just laugh at him or worse, take him seriously. So he decided to pull the second wildest ace in his repertoire, the one that made his soul ache.

“Twenty bits to both of you if you open the gate right now.”

The tingling of keys followed immediately after. What had the world become when a lieutenant had to bribe privates to make them obey?

That was another thing that added to the mass of indifference weighing down Heart’s shoulders. Was the world itself worth saving anymore? Not just the Guard, the griffons, the Council, but the whole of Canterlot. The general lack of discipline plaguing the Guard was not a disease – it was a symptom, a sign of a more profound corruption. Even Lake could not have denied its existence, and in her darker moments Heart had seen the desperation turn pitch black in her eyes. But it had not been the void that had finally devoured her, he knew.

It had been the hope she had clung to until the very end.

Am I just hanging myself with same rope?

The guards led him to a small study on the first floor and left him there, although he knew that at least one of them would stay behind the door. Security had gotten a lot tighter in the Guard lately, just like it had in the whole city. Shops were closed well before dark and barely anypony moved in the streets after six o’clock. The wealthier citizens were arming themselves with ever higher walls and private armies of thugs and mercenaries, most of whom had previously been on the Guard’s payroll. The whole city was preparing for something, had been for years. On quiet nights you could hear the future approaching by the wings of a vulture, as the old folks tended to say.

The door to the study opened with a creak. A grey-maned unicorn stallion limped in and kicked the door shut. The stump of his left front leg peeked from the folds of his morning robe.

Heart saluted by stomping the mattress. “Captain.”

“At ease,” croaked the Captain. A strong coughing fit hit him, forcing him to bend over slightly. His horn glowed as he pulled a hoofkerchief from a pocket to cover his mouth. “Blasted dampness,” he muttered. The hoofkerchief returned to the pocket, after which the old stallion’s eyes rose to meet Heart’s.

“So? Have the griffons started a war or did you come to resign after drinking on your wife's grave again? Speak up.” After a pause Hilt sniffed the air and added: “You don’t smell drunk, so I take you’re not planning leaving us quite yet.”

It was a welcome Heart had been expecting. Instead of commenting on any of it, he told him about the corpse and symbol in the alley.

When he was done, a few more wrinkles had turned up on Hilt’s face. His raspy breathing filled the room while his eyes studied Heart from head to heel.

“Who did you leave in charge there?”

“Sergeant Cowl, sir.”

Hilt considered this. “He will do, for now. What kind of instructions did you give him?”

“To keep the word from spreading, and to ensure the safety of the scene.”

“Well, perhaps that will carry us over the night,” said Hilt. He trotted to a small cabinet next to the fireplace. A happy clinking of glasses and bottles followed as he opened it. “The word will get out eventually, though.”

Heart kept on staring straight ahead of himself while the Captain poured himself a drink. He started and finished it in one go and went immediately for seconds.

“I’m twenty years too old for what is about to come, and the Guard is twenty hundred horns too short,” he said, studying the amber-colored liquid sloshing in the crystal glass. He turned to face Heart, who stood like a statue of militaristic pride, his bearing flawless. Yet very tense, as if some inner force was bending him to an unnatural shape.

“You have permission to speak your mind,” said Hilt.

Heart blinked, but his gaze didn’t sway. “With all due respect, sir, I cannot agree that everything is lost.”

He paused. Hilt took a sip. “Go on.”

Heart drew a deep breath. “First of all, it is not given that the murderer is part of the Brigade, or even if they are a griffon. This could be a set up, either to cover up an ordinary murder or simply done by somepony who wants to see the world burn. At this point, it’s too early to say–”

“You miss the crucial point,” interrupted Hilt. “It’s not a question of what people see, but what they want to see. And unfortunately for themselves, most of them want to see the world burn. Probably because they all think they’ll be part of the audience.”

Heart looked at the older stallion in the eyes. “Then tell me, sir, if there’s nothing to be done, why should I stand here listening to an old pony’s blabberings when I could get the same story from any drunken bum I happened to find in the gutter?”

The Captain’s mouth twisted into a grin. “Perhaps because this old drunk happens to be your father.”

“How could I forget?” said Heart. He shook his head slowly. “This was a mistake. Even the rats know that when the ship is sinking, it’s no use running for the Captain.” He saluted and strided for the door.

“Before you go,” began Hilt, his eyes lost in his drink. “You might want to look in the top drawer of that desk there.”

Heart’s horn had already seized the handle. Open it, run home, pack all the food and clothes you can and get out of the city with Lily. They’d find shelter in some inn on the road near the city, and first thing in the morning they’d leave for the east, to the sea. This was the moment why he had come up with that plan in the first place. He was a father, his first duty was to his foal. His only duty was to his foal.

Or so he wanted to believe.

The glow died around the handle.

“What’s in there?” he said quietly.

“A piece of paper that will make you the Captain of the Canterlot’s Citizen Guard. Only lacks my signature. And your's, naturally.”

Heart walked to the desk, opened the top drawer and pulled out the piece of paper that read exactly what his father had said it would. Still he read it thrice.

“I don’t understand,” he said, looking at him in perplexion. “You swore to die in this office.”

Hilt gave him another crooked grin. Next he fished the hoofkerchief from his pocket and set it on the table.

Heart stared at it. In retrospect, it was impossible to tell how he had not spotted the blood stains on the first time. Or perhaps he had.

“I’ve had a while to think this through,” said Hilt quietly. “Years ago, they gave me this job because there was nopony else to take it, and I accepted it because once, long ago, I was like you. I thought I could make a difference, that death and destruction were not unavoidable.” He turned back to the cabinet and poured another drink, which he floated to his son. “Who knows, maybe I bloody well did manage to do something right. At least the city stayed in one piece, more or less, for another ten years.”

Heart was still staring at the bloody hoofkerchief. Meaningless questions overwhelmed him, question like “How long?”, “Why didn't you tell me?”, and, worst of all, “Maybe it’s nothing?”.

He sat on the chair. “What do you expect me to do? You said it yourself: there’s no hope. No hope worth hanging onto, anyway.”

Hilt started laughing, but stopped when another seizure hit him like a ton of bricks. Heart stood to help him, but he fended him off. “And you said it yourself, too,” he wheezed as he sat on the carpet. “It’s the same story you can hear from any bugger in the street. So all you really need to do is to win an argument with a few million buggers. One at a time, if need be.”

Heart studied the old stallion from under his brow. Since when had he appeared so frail, so weak, so… old?

And since when did I start feeling pity towards him?

“I think the worst thing you could do in a situation like this would be to change the Captain of the Guard,” said Heart. “And it doesn’t help that the title would be inherited. Isn’t the city corrupt enough as is?”

“The city is only as corrupt as it needs be to survive,” whispered Hilt. He stood up again, with some difficulty, and looked at his son. “The city needs a change, Deck. And I’m not talking about the bull Feinsake and the rest are pouring on us. I’m talking about a revolution. And for that, you need a new face. A young face.” He paused and added: “But in the circumstances, your’s will have to do.”

Heart shook his head. “You’re delusional. You can’t ask me to fix the world. For Tartarus's sake, I can’t even fix my family.” He fell to the chair again. “You’re asking for the moon, dad.”

The room fell silent after that.

Hilt cleared his throat. “I’m sorry for what I said about you coming here… drunk from you wife’s grave.” A heavy, rough sigh fell past his lips. “You’re a damn good father, Deck. I would know: opposites tend to recognize one another.”

Heart’s eyes remained fixed ahead. “Last week, I looked at Lily in the eyes and saw Lake staring back. I shouted at her for that, scared her real good. The second time it happened, I had to leave the room. But on the third time… I couldn’t see her. And somehow, I wanted to shout at Lily for that, too.”

Hilt noted how tense his son's shoulders suddenly looked.

“She can’t understand why we had to move,” continued Heart. “And what could I tell her? That we’re hiding because some griffon, or somepony, might take her away some day? That she should trust no one? That the world is her enemy?”

The same strange force that earlier had bended him into a salute now seemed to be rippling beneath his every muscle. It was like watching a marble statue slowly crumbling from inside.
Hilt discreetly pushed the untouched glass closer to him.

There was a pause, at the end of which a green halo grabbed the drink and brought it under Heart’s muzzle. “Smells like lamp oil,” he said eventually.

“It’s called character,” said Hilt. “You’re going to need it.”

Heart gave him a blank look, but nonetheless took a sip. A burning sensation squeezed tears out of him in seconds.

“Does your doctor know you’re drinking this stuff?” he managed.

“What doctor?” said Hilt and emptied his glass. Heart decided not to touch that one tonight.

“So…” he began while wiping his eyes. “Hypothetically speaking, let’s say I sign this document. What do you actually expect me to do to stop the good citizens of Canterlot from slaughtering one another? And if you start talking about some revolution, I’ll take you to a place where they only serve sour milk for drinking.”

A glint visited Hilt’s turquoise eyes. “First of all, you have to make a public statement of the murder and make sure everypony, and every griffon, reads it. No, listen to the rest of it. You can’t keep a thing like this secret, not by a long shot, so your best option is to make sure the city gets your version of the story, not the one that starts circling in the streets. The most important thing is to keep up the appearances, to keep the stage shining. Let them know you’re in control.”

“But they know I’m not,” said Heart. “It’s a public secret that the Guard is a sham. Everybody knows that if the dam breaks there’s not a damn thing the Guard can do about it.”

Hilt rolled his eyes. “Do you listen a thing what I say, boy? It’s not about what they know or see, it’s what they want to know and see. And they want to see the Guard in action, to take the lead. They want to see us as strong, at least at the moment.”

“How can you know?”

“Because we’re not all dead yet. Now, the second thing–”

“Do us both a favour and save your breath,” said Heart, rising up. There was a brief moment when he almost threw up, and not just because of the liqueur. He steadied himself against the table, waiting for the room to stop spinning. Closing his eyes didn’t help much. “I can’t accept this post… and hold on to the shreds of my honor as a father at the same time.”

Hilt’s silence filled the room.
“I barely have time for her as is,” Heart continued, opening his eyes. “Me as the Captain, she might as well move to an orphanage.” He looked at his father in the eyes. “Perhaps once, you were like me. But I have no intentions of ever being you.”

A battle of sorts raged on Hilt’s face. His breathing had grown heavier; now it sounded like a steam-powered saw cutting through a sack of sand. When he spoke, the words were heavy with consideration.

“What we are and aren’t goes beyond us, Deck. As I said, I’ve been thinking this for a while. Perhaps longer than was wise.” He stifled a cough with a hoof. “I trust you, son. And so do many others: many more than you know. You have what many of us lost years ago.”

“Common sense?”

“A heart.” Hilt nodded discreetly at his son’s cutie mark: a silvery-grey shield, behind which half of a blood-red heart peered.

Heart stared at his father. The feeling of nausea was still pressing him: a mixed effect of buried memories and home-made drink that could have been used to wash the toilet. In the corner of his vision, the bloody hoofkerchief still stuck out like a skull from an open grave.

“The fact that you came here despite everything that has happened proves I’m right,” said Hilt. “We can make a change. You know this. Just as you know that we can only do it together.” He shifted his weight between his hind legs. “I’d offer you my hoof now, but you’d have to pick me up afterwards.”

An ambiguous burst escaped Heart: a half-laugh, a half-snort. A half-curse. “Oh yeah? And what real good could we do? Keep the city together with spit for another ten years?”

“Ten years at a time will do fine, I reckon.”

“There will be blood,” said Heart, still facing Hilt from eye to eye.

“There always is.”

“It’s not just the griffons we have to face: the Guard will end up in the middle of it. Someponies will call us turncoats, and like as not some will believe it: the desertion rates will soar.”

“You realize you’re only trying to convince yourself?” snapped Hilt.

Heart’s eyes narrowed. “And what if I am? I already said it: I can’t do it, not for my own sake but for Lily’s! She already lost her mother! I’m the only pony she has!”

“This touches her, too,” insisted Hilt. “It’s her future we are talking about here. How would you see that turn up, eh?”

“With a father who’s more than a name and a few pretty words in some stone,” said Heart, heading towards the door. “Or more than the backside of a uniform,” he added under his breath.

“Deck!” shouted Hilt, but too late. Way too late.

The door was not slammed. In fact, it could not have been closed any quieter. Hilt looked at it for a long, long while. He only blinked when, almost dreamily, he noticed that his glass had at some point filled itself and floated under his mouth. With the same dreaminess, he poured the liquid on the carpet…

…and hurled the glass against the door with all the might his horn could summon.





***




At some point during the twilight, the merciless rain subsided and ultimately died away, leaving a thick, misty veil behind to cover the city. By the time the sun broke through, the sky belonged to the rainbows. It was bound to be a good sign, thought a unicorn mare who had awoken to witness the spectacle from her bedroom window. Her name was Feinsake; Clarity Feinsake.

It had often occurred to her, during moments just like this, how vulnerable the city really was. The rain didn’t so much soften as expose it in all its frailty. Behind the violent shell, under all the cynic indifference, dark intentions and hate, Canterlot was a newborn foal, as confused as it was terrified. Abandoned at birth, the mare thought while idly touching her stomach distended by pregnancy. As she caressed herself, her eyes wandered to the massive cliffside that loomed behind the dispersing grey veil. She could just about make out a few of the lower level caves that stood out like black wounds from the body of some great, sleeping giant. She flinched.

There had been a kick. The strongest so far.

The time would be at hoof very soon. Very, very soon indeed. Just the thought of it made her smile at the sleeping, wounded giant that seemed to be eyeing her even as she eyed it.

She drew the curtains and started dressing into the Chancellor's official cape and vest. With her horn the task was over in a few minutes, after which she trotted out of her chamber.

“Good morning, Chancellor,” said a cheery voice right as the doors closed behind Feinsake. Her smile, which never entirely disappeared from her lips, turned to face the young unicorn mare that trotted down the corridor towards her.

If there existed a deity for secretaries, Chip would have been her incarnation. Or at least a High Priestess.

“As to you,” said Feinsake pleasantly as they set towards the Keep. “Say, how does the day’s schedule look?”

The question was rather moot from a functional point of view. Not only did Feinsake know the whole month’s schedule inside and out – Chip very well knew that she knew. But routines often serve other purposes than simple practicality. For one, they are the bedrock of social reality, atop which everything else is built. So while Chip went on about various future votings, conspiracies, recent alliances and other such things that made up for the bread and butter of the Canterlot Parliament, Feinsake was only half aware of any of it. Instead, she focused on the things that really mattered. Those included breakfast, food in general. She wasn’t responsible just for her own nourishment, after all.

Also, there was the other thing which she’d have to take care of today. But since she didn’t wish to spoil her appetite, she wasn’t going to think about that too hard for now.

“–after which we have the concluding vote on next month’s rations for the poor: that’s a yay and a wrap for the meeting,” said Chip. Her floating notebook made a sharp, papery sound as a page was turned. “Rest of the afternoon is reserved for preparing next week’s meeting with the griffon delegation.”

Feinsake nodded vaguely, her mind preoccupied with fresh vegetables.

It would have been a terrible mistake to think that Clarity Feinsake took politics lightly. Her Chancellor’s outfit was the strongest evidence of the fact that she didn’t. Ponies twice her age had spent a lifetime trying to achieve what she had acquired after mere twelve years involvement in politics. Those few who had come to know – at least in theory – Clarity Feinsake had learned that behind the various smiles there stood a maze of razor sharp intellect, the sole purpose of which was to calculate every move you had ever thought of taking. That was of course a blatant exaggeration, but a very convenient one at that.

The trick was not to take politics seriously. It was to make the politics take you seriously.

They made it to a small hall that served as the lobby for the Horns’ quarters, as the unicorns were commonly called in the Parliament. A few senators had awoken already and were standing by the doors that led to the dining hall. One of them, a tall, obsidian-black stallion, noticed Feinsake and Chip, and coughed meaningfully. The other two immediately stopped talking and turned to them, their faces conspicuously blank. Feinsake hardly paid attention to the fact – most likely they were discussing something irrelevant, like trying to replace her in the next Chancellor’s elections. She smiled at them with all her teeth.

“Gentlecolts,” she said, nodding vaguely at their direction. Her lips smacked hungrily. “Seems like I’m not the only one starving to begin the day.”

“Chancellor,” said the two other stallions. The black one only smiled back at her.

His name was Ember Trail, Feinsake knew. Or so he wanted everypony to address him, at the very least. She doubted the name was real, for so much more about him wasn’t. His manners, opinions, allegiance, smiles: they all seemed borrowed. In the paper, he was an upstart from a family too rich to buy him a normal foalhood, which meant he took most everything as entertainment, the senatorship included. In reality he was even more boring than that. Add to this an arrogance around which you could bend horseshoes and you got a pony who practically begged to be taken advantage of.

“Have you already heard the news?” said Ember.

If there was one thing to speak for general credibility in Ember Trail, it was his voice. It was deep. You could toss a coin down his esophagus and expect it to travel to the other side of the world. Feinsake had once asked if he had used magic to achieve that. He had had the good sense only to laugh in response.

“The news?” echoed Feinsake with mild interest. It was rare to hear Ember actually having information worthy of enunciation.

“The Captain of the Guard is going to resign, and to ensure that his son succeeds him.”

Feinsake made an effort not to yawn. As old news went, this one was ancient. And in Canterlot, old news was worth its weight in house dust – and just as common. Knowledge was a tricky currency: the risk of inflation was imminent to its nature.

“We were just discussing how best to take advantage of the situation,” continued Ember, his eyes shining with conspiratory glee. “The son is a mere Lieutenant at the moment. We need to move quickly to make a friend of him.”

The implicit translation of that was to bribe the pony before anypony else could. The notion made Feinsake cringe mentally. Not only was Ember utterly wet about anything one might reasonably call politics in this city: he didn’t even have the style to go about it with some dignity. Bits only ever bought you the cheapest, lowest part of a pony. The way to their heart was a more tricky one, at least in most cases. In Ember’s, a lucid whisper and a warm bed had done the trick.

Chip, whom the three stallions had so far altogether ignored, coughed into her hoof. Feinsake and the two other stallions looked at her while Ember kept on staring, in a somewhat starving way, at Feinsake.

“Actually, I have an update on that front,” said the secretary, correcting her glasses.

From the corner of her eye, Feinsake noticed how Ember’s mouth twitched. She partly expected him to blurt something along the lines of “You already knew?” or even the extremely hilarious “What?”. But he resolved to turn a disinterested, icy look at Chip as she went on.

“Informant number four reported that the son visited Captain Hilt during the night. They talked about something in private for about half an hour, after which the son marched out into the rain. Informant number two said he looked very solemn.”

“I suppose he knows about his promotion already, then,” said Feinsake.

“This son…” said one of the stallions ponderously. “I remember hearing something about him a while ago… Had something to do with the griffons…”

Chip’s notebook turned into a blur as she leafed through it. It was amazing how much information she could fit into a small leaflet with a simple spell.

“Heart, Deck… Ah, yes, here we are. Ouch. A nasty incident, indeed. Quite unsettling, actually.”

“What?” asked Ember.

Chip bit her lip as her eyes moved back and forth on the paper. “It was the ‘Barber Street Case’, four months back. A unicorn mare was caught in a fight between the Brigade and some hard-liner pegasus gang. Apparently she had tried to make a pacifistic intervention, but ended up losing her life.” Her eyes rose slowly from the notebook. “Her name was Honey Lake. She was the Captain’s son’s wife.”

“Ah, indeed,” said the stallion. “They never found out officially who exactly got her killed, correct? But a few weeks after some of the pegasi ruffians disappeared mysteriously. And a week after that, a griffon who had allegedly been part of the fight choked on a fishbone in the city jail, after being arrested for flying too low to the rooftops.” He payed a meaningful glance at the others.

Ember frowned. “You’re implying this son did all that?”

“Naturally not,” said the stallion. “That would mean accusing the Captain-to-be of murder.”

Ember snorted. “So, we’re just going to allow a known criminal to become the head of the Guard?”

“The current one isn’t that much different,” said Feinsake dismissively. “And to be frank, he has proved himself quite useful. His loss will be a blow to the city.”

“Could be he is leaving the ship,” said the stallion who had so far remained quiet. He paused, eyeing the others nervously. “You know what I’m talking about. The clashes between the gangs have grown steadily over the past year, both in number and in fierceness. The Brigade is turning more active by the day. I tell you, we’ll be having a lot more Barber Street cases, and soon.”

“Now, no need to inflame the apathy, Draught” said Feinsake. “That serves noponys’ cause.”

Draught blinked, and for a moment it looked like he was about to say something. Feinsake’s smile put an end to that.

“The times are hard for us all,” she said, looking at the stallions in the eyes one after another. “It has been so ever since the Catastrophe. And yet we have survived for a hundred years. Together, we will last a thousand, just like the regime of old.”

Draught’s face twitched. “That was different. They had alicorns. All we have is a poor substitute.”

“You refer to the Parliament?” said Ember after a short pause. “But how does that connect to the alicorns?”

Draught’s eyes revolved. “By stars, how can you call yourself a Senator? It’s written all over the bloody building! ‘Three as one, now as before and forever’ – the motto of the Parliament! What do you think it symbolises?”

Ember opened his mouth. Before he could make the argument any more stupid than it already was, Feinsake coughed lightly, drawing all the eyes on herself.

“It seems the dining hall has opened its doors,” she noted casually. She lowered her hoof from her distended belly, which she had caressed gently.

The other three turned and like as not, the door lay ajar, a delicious smell trailing through. Draught and Ember exchanged one more glance, and fell behind Feinsake as she trotted into the hall.

She had barely gotten her plate filled when Chip, after having exchanged a few words with a sweaty courier, came to her and whispered: “Captain Hilt was found dead in his study forty minutes ago.”

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