• 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 II


When Mill Stone woke up, his first thought was that something was wrong. For one thing, he was lying fully clothed on a hard floor but still didn’t have a hangover, which seemed like a causal impossibility. He opened his eyes. The room was dim, but the glow behind the curtains told him that technically it would be morning outside.

Then his memory caught up with him. With some difficulty, he stood up as quietly as he could and looked at the bed next to him. The purple blanket there rose and fell in a steady rhythm. A leg of some stuffed animal was all that peeked out from under it. He stood there for a while, collecting bits of his memories in the haze of his mind. Something still felt wrong, but not in any physical way. It wasn’t the aching that had woken him, but something else.

Cling.

His ears pricked up. That had come from the living room. A faint metallic sound, like a coin being tossed in the air. He pressed his ear against the door.

There it was again. He opened the door.

The Lieutenant sat on a couch, facing the other way. Some small, round object floated before him. Silver flashed as he tucked it into the pocket of his uniform and turned to look at Mill.

“Close it,” he said quietly.

Mill obeyed, staring at the other stallion. He looked like something that had recently crawled from a grave. And could those stains under his blood-red eyes be tears?

“Sir? Is everything alright?”

Heart’s eyebrows plummeted.“That’s none of your business, private.”

Mill cast down his eyes. “Sorry, sir.”

Heart stood up, swaying slightly in the process. Mill would have bet a week’s pay that the pony had not slept a wink since he had last seen him.

“Sir… Permission to leave? My shift is about to end.”

Heart stopped swaying and fixed his eyes on Mill. “That is up to me to decide. Now, I want a report.”

Mill gave him a deadpan look. “A report? About what?”

“About last night, idiot. Did she sleep well? What bedtime story, if any, did you tell her? A report, private: I want one and I want it now!”

The Lieutenant was trembling faintly, like a bowstring wound up too tight. If it snaps, it’’ll cut me in half, thought Mill in passing.

“Uh, we did alright, sir,” he said carefully. “She went to bed just like you told her, sir. Only, afterwards she asked me to share the room, sir, because… Well, she said she wasn't used to sleeping alone.” He paused, but when the Lieutenant didn’t blink for another half a minute, he added: “Guess I sacked out at some point. Sir.”

Do you think she’s happy?

For a moment, Mill could only blink in response.

“I… I’m sorry, sir. I couldn’t say.”

The Lieutenant sagged. His flawless bearing crumbled like a house of cards, leaving but a shred of a memory behind. Even as he looked away, Mill could see more tears pushing past his eyes.

The sight counted among the most horrible he had ever witnessed.

“Should… Should I go… sir?” Mill tried while the Lieutenant began sniffing and rubbing his cast down face with the side of his hoof. “Maybe I could send for somepony or–”

Three heavy knocks hit against the front door, echoing all over the flat. Almost immediately after, somepony shouted: “In the name of the Unity Guard, open up!” The voice was peculiarly deep, as if it carried from the other side of the world.

Two things happened. First, Mill was sucked back into reality. Second, he saw the Lieutenant straighten himself like a puppet yanked up by its master. A wild flame burned in his skull, illuminating his eyes from within. Without a second’s thought, he marched to a large cabinet in one corner of the room and opened it with a flick of his horn.

Before Mill could so much as flinch, he found a crossbow and a quiverful of bolts floating a few inches from his face. He accepted them instinctually.

“You hold position here and shoot anypony coming through that door who isn’t me,” said Heart in a hushed, urgent tone while simultaneously loading his own weapon. “I’ll flank them, see who they are. If something happens to me, take Lily and run. Tell her you’re her uncle who’ll take care of her from now on. She is allergic to pears, and is afraid of big dogs, and doesn’t always–”

“Sir!” cried Mill before Heart could climb through the window which he had opened while talking.

Heart’s eyes snapped to him. “Quiet,” his moving lips said.

What are you doing?” continued Mill desperately. He trotted to him quickly, the crossbow floating behind him. “It’s the Guard: us!”

From the corridor, the deep voice called again: “We know there is somepony there! You have two minutes time to obey! After that, we'll break through!”

With swiftness that send shivers down Mill’ spine, Heart grabbed him by the neck and pulled him closer.

“There is only one pony in the Guard who knows where I live,” he whispered, his gaze locked in Mill’s. “And he’d know better than to send the damn Unity Guard smashing my door in.”

“But–”

Heart pulled him half an inch closer. Mill found the words retreating all the way back to his stomach.

I’m not insane,” Heart said. “There are people in this town who want me dead, or worse. So far, I haven’t found a reliable way to tell them apart from all the others.”

There was a metallic click. Every cell in Mill’s body knew what the sound meant. It was the sound of a bolt being inserted into a loaded crossbow.

Are you one of those people, Mill?

Mill’s chin wobbled a bit. It was the closest equivalent to headshake that he dared to perform.

“That’s what I hope, too.”

And just like that, Mill found himself facing an open window. The chill of the morning felt like sunshine compared to what he had just experienced.

He loaded the crossbow, set up a position behind a couch and started praying. Soon, the abyssal voice behind the door started counting.

“Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven!”

Mill prayed some more. To whom, he wasn’t sure. Canterlot hadn’t known real gods for a century.

“Six! Five! Soldiers, get ready! Four! Three! Two!”

What if he just left me here? thought Mill suddenly. What if I’m just a bait? What if

“One! Okay, now we – what the hay?”

The voice quieted down, but there was clearly something going on in the corridor. Mill could hear steps, some shuffling, toned down voices, his own blood rushing in his ears. Seconds passed on and died in their scores. It got real quiet. For a moment, it seemed like all was going to end well.

Then somepony touched him from behind. He made sure to turn around slowly.

“What’s goin’ on?” asked Lily. She was holding a stuffed, purple dragon against her chest. “Where’s daddy?”

Mill opened his mouth. From the corridor beyond, there came a faint twang like only a crossbow can make, followed by a bloodcurdling scream.

It was the signal for all hell to break loose.





***




When it came to cellars, this one wasn’t from the shoddiest end of the spectrum. Stick would have known – he had spent the better part of his life in underground rooms. At some point, he had forgotten how to live outside them.

The room smelled of mold, sewage, and blood. Lots of blood. Thick candles had been put up on every flat level that could fit them, their flames flickering madly in the draught that moved through the room. Dozens of various blades hung from from the ceiling. They reflected the candlelight like some twisted Hearth's Warming Eve ornaments.

Over the breeze, words danced into the darkness that surrounded the scene.

“Tin, fin, kin, sin… skin…”

He put down the blade. The work had been tenuous, but finally it was done. The leftover strings of flesh and skin were quickly swept away into the open sewer beside him. He reached for the nearest shelf, where six glass bottles, all different color, stood neatly in order. He picked the pink one.

“Link, sink, wink…”

Very carefully, he placed the flayed cutie mark inside the bottle and closed it. Shadows licked the glass from inside as he gazed at it. It was impossible for him to tear his eyes off the brightly colored balloons imprinted on the piece of pink coat swimming in the light pink liquid. The sight was mesmerizing. Kind of like watching her, except that there was no pain.

He flinched. A pair of eyes had flashed in his mind, and the cut they left behind stinged. With care he laid down the bottle and looked behind. Blinded by the candles, it took him awhile to become adjusted to the blackness there. It seemed empty… but with her around, there was no telling.

“Selling, swelling, yelling,” he muttered, but quieter than a moment ago. He turned back, and gasped.

The bottle gleamed from within. A sphere of pink light surrounded it, fighting back the erratic flames and shadows that accompanied them. Soon the whole room bathed in the glow. Stick looked around in awe and terror, the corners of his mouth twitching.

“So it is true… It’s just like she said… The blood… the power is in the blood.” He looked at the bottle again, his face twisted with terrible fascination. “The Prophecy will be fulfilled.”

The glow strengthened, threatening to devour everything. But then it stopped, and began to dim. Stick watched it die to the point where it hardly pierced the glass anymore.

That was the first one. Five more to go.

“Go, sow, low, foe…” he hummed while striding into the darkness, his saddlebag filled with blades, yellow paint and some rags, along with a list of six addresses accompanied by six names, one of which had been scratched over.




***



Chancellor Feinsake felt amused. What had started to unfold as a plainly boring day had ended up containing more excitement than she had experienced in the whole month. And it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.

She was studying Lieutenant Heart through an enchanted mirror, the counterpart of which was located in the next room. The first thing that she had noticed about him, and which still drew her eye, was his bearing. Flawless, you might call it. But not in any natural way: it was hard to put the impression in words, but it seemed like the pose didn’t actually fit him, even as it practically was him. It was as if something was bending him into a shape strange to his nature. But what other force could that be except his own will?

“I shall talk with him now,” she said while her horn dimmed along with the vision in the mirror. She looked at the Unity Guard Sergeant standing by the door. He, too, seemed very stiff. “And I shall talk with him alone.”

The Sergeant looked wary. “With all due respect, Chancellor, I feel obliged to express my disagreement.”

Feinsake smiled at him. “Go on.”

The Sergeant shifted his weight uneasily between his legs. “First of all, it’s not safe. Second, it’s against the procedure. Naturally, I cannot stop you from entering alone, but in the case you do, I am forced to include it in my report.”

As expected, thought Feinsake, with some weariness. The Sergeant was a pegasus, after all, and she was a unicorn. And that’s all there really is to it.

Unlike the Citizen Guard, the Unity Guard was not completely composed of unicorns, but had an equal representation of all three races, leadership included. In theory it was a sign of progress, of the fundamental harmony that still characterized the ponydom. In practice it was a paradigmatic example of a political deadlock. Whereas the Citizen Guard was merely corrupt, the Unity Guard was both corrupt and plagued by political struggles disguised as fights over formal principles. Originally it had been created to ensure the safety of the Parliament. Nowadays it was one of the main threats to its stability.

This day, Feinsake was not in mood for petty squabbles like that.

“Living up to your duties is all that is expected of you,” she said pleasantly. “Frankly, it’s all that is expected of any of us.” She looked at Chip. “Write down everything that is spoken in there. I’m sure the Sergeant will find that useful later on.”

She walked into the room and closed the door behind her.

Contrary to what she had expected, Heart didn’t look at her. He merely kept on sitting straight by the table. Heavy chains bound his limbs, and a ring of cursed obsidian shackled his horn. Feinsake sat down opposite to him. Still his eyes looked past her, perhaps to some horizon only he could see. She could practically smell the challenge in the air.

“Hello,” she said. “Allow me to introduce myself: Chancellor Feinsake. However, I’d rather drop the formalities right at the start. You can call me Clarity. Do you mind if call you Deck?”

Heart remained impassive like the stone walls around them.

“I’ll take that as a yes. In any case, since we are both on a schedule, I suggest we move straight to business. Do you know why you are here?”

No answer.

This might take longer than I thought, thought Feinsake. “Well, from the outset it could be said that you shooting a Captain of the Unity Guard had something to do with the matter. Luckily, Ember Trail was only lightly wounded by your assault, and should recover fully in a week or two. Still, inflicting an injury like that to a fellow pony, least of all to a Senator, is a major offense.” She paused.

“It was self-defence,” said Heart after a while, still keeping his eyes on the nonexistent horizon. “I even told them what would happen if they tried something. But the good Captain wasn’t too keen on listening.”

Feinsake pursed her lips slightly. “Still, you might have killed him…”

“If I had wanted to. But I didn’t, and that’s that. Luck had nothing to do with it.”

Feinsake weaved a troubled look on her face. “I see… Hmm. That is most intriguing to hear. I doubt it will make any difference in the end, though, even if you manage to convince everypony of your… sincerity.” She leaned forward. “You might be surprised to hear this, but in the Parliament there are ponies who would demand to have your horn amputated for what you did.”

Heart blinked.

“Some extremist earth ponies and pegasi mostly,” continued Feinsake, paying careful attention to his face. “The subject of cornusection is highly contested in the Parliament, you see. For its advocates’ defense it could be said that they cannot conceive the terrible inequinity of the procedure, not like we unicorns do, at least.” She leaned forward still. “That is a blatant lie. They can imagine exactly what it would mean for a unicorn to lose their horn, just like they can imagine exactly what it would mean for them to have their wings clipped, or a couple of their legs sawn off. Their cruelty is not born of ignorance, but of politics.”

Heart was breathing a bit faster now. His chains clattered as he shifted his position.

“Indeed, I can easily imagine how your case could be used as an example bespeaking for the adoption of cornusection as a legitimate form of punishment, designed for the unicorns who abuse their powers. It would be a great blow to us all.” After a short pause she continued: “I will do everything in my power to stop that, of course. We Horns must stick together, after all.”

“I’m not one of your ‘Horns’,” said Heart, contempt dribbling through every word. His eyes were still fixed on the wall behind Feinsake.

“Oh, but you are,” said Feinsake, pulling back. She stood up and circled behind him. “You may find this hard to believe, but I’ve actually done some studying on you. I always do when I catch a scent of greatness.”

Heart’s gaze momentarily swayed, as if drawn to the mare behind him. His posture turned a tad more rigid.

“Not many know this, but not whole of the Canterlot’s Great Library was lost during the Catastrophe,” said Feinsake. “A small portion survived. Those included many family trees, at least of the more important bloodlines. Did I mention that I have a soft spot for genealogy? It’s really a sin of mine. To know a pony, I always search up their origins. Needless to say, yours is especially intriguing.”

Without a warning, her hooves crossed his rock-hard shoulders. She leaned over him from behind, resting her weight against him.

“To think that before me stands the grand-grand-son of none other than Shining Armor the Pure, husband to Princess Cadance… and brother to Twilight Sparkle, the Last Alicorn, herself.” She gently massaged his exposed chest, kneading the hard muscles there. “No wonder it took three unicorns – and two pegasi – to bring you down. You are not just a Horn. You are the Horn.” Behind him, she pressed her pregnant stomach tightly against his back.

“What do you want from me?” he asked through gritted teeth.

She stayed glued to him a moment longer and then pulled back. “If you simply had allowed Ember Trail to bring you here like I had ordered him, you’d already know. But since your paranoia and ego got the better of you, we all had to go through this whole trouble.” She walked to her original spot on the other side of the table, sat down and looked him in the eyes. “Your father is dead.”

There was no visible change in Heart’s face, nor in his body. From the outset he might just as well have heard the sky is blue. And yet there was a difference. It was like the finest crack in a mirror ten miles wide, but still it was there.

“Dead…?” echoed Heart after eons of silence.

Something had changed on Feinsake’s face, too. For one, she wasn’t smiling anymore. It had been years since that had last happened while she was awake.

“From natural causes, it seems,” she said quietly, looking at the table now. “His doctor made an official declaration a bit over an hour ago, but apparently he passed away sometime during the night. A heart attack, most likely.” She glanced at him. “My condolences.”

Heart was blinking now, and his chains rattled lightly as he moved around, apparently ignorant of their weight. “He… He didn’t have a doctor,” he managed, his batting eyes focusing on nowhere, not even on the unseen horizon.

“What makes you think that?” she asked, tilting her head slightly. “As I understand, Doctor Fox visited him most every day, at least for the past year. He was very sick, after all. Surely you knew that?”

Heart pressed a hoof against his temple, eyes pressed shut, as if he had just fallen victim to a massive headache. “I… visited him, last night. He said he had no doctor. Didn't need any.”

Feinsake eyed him sadly from under her brow. “I believe you, Deck. I also believe Captain Hilt was a very, very proud stallion.” She leaned over the table again. “If it is of any help, I was led to understand he didn’t suffer much, in the end.”

Heart’s eyes opened. Their glare made Feinsake flinch.

“I need to see him,” he said bluntly.

“Yes,” said Feinsake, standing up. “I was about to suggest the same.” She walked to him and, without a moment’s hesitation, removed the obsidian ring. Heart, the surprise written all over his face, watched her toss it onto the table like a piece of candy wrapper.

“No need to look like that,” she said. “Why, it looks as if you expected to be taken there in chains.”

He looked at her, the mask of grim annoyance already back on his face. “Why didn’t you do that at once?”

She smiled. “To make sure you wouldn’t become too used to the fetters. We can’t have the new Captain of the Guard running around shooting ponies with a crossbow, after all.”







***




In the city, a million different things were going on, all at once. Streets were backed up with ponies on their way to work or to the market, where fierce haggling would ensue over the days’ vegetables. Foals on their way to school ran rampant in herds or went quietly along with their parents. Even the air was crowded as countless pegasi delivered mail and various goods, or simply enjoyed the feeling of wind under their wings. In the less luxurious alleys, beggars met to agree on the territories and to organise more effective begging.

It was all terribly fascinating to Stick, who trotted along one of the main streets. His eyes drank all the sights; his nose inhaled every scent; his ears picked up every shred of conversation. For the Canterlotians, the day was a paradigm of everydayness. For Stick, it was the grand opening of the fun park.

A blood-red apple was pushed in front of his face with such speed that it almost vanished up his nose.

“Here you go, mister: have a free sample!” declared a cheery voice from somewhere behind the apple. Stick looked down and saw a scrawny little earth pony filly about half his height: she practically had to stand on her hind legs to bring the apple so close to his face. The sight melted Stick’s heart on the spot.

“Why, I’d love to,” he said with a smile. He accepted the fruit and took a mighty bite. The sharp taste of juice flooded his tongue, fondling his taste buds. “My gosh. This is simply delic–”

His mind exploded. Somepony had kicked him in the groin from behind, hard. He fell to his knees with a painful grunt, fireworks of pain splattering all over his skull.

“Get the bags!” shouted the filly, who looked a lot less cute than she had a second ago. A determined glee burned behind her bright eyes, Stick could see through the mist of agony. Next, there was a slashing sound, and he felt the saddlebags falling from his back. The moment he turned his head to see what had happened, the filly reared and kicked him in the chin. It was amazing what a punch such a skinny little thing could muster.

By the time he got up, he saw the cut belt of his saddlebag on the ground, and the filly and some colt running away with the bags themselves. He gave his head a violent shake and tried to make it after them, but before he could, a strong hoof seized him from behind. He turned, ready to sink his teeth to anypony’s throat. Seeing a head taller earth pony stallion looking down on him made him reconsider.

“You okay?” boomed the stallion.

“I’ll be when I get hold of those two little… rascals,” finished Stick, eyeing the stallion up and down. “Thank you for asking, but I need to teach them some manners.” He tried to turn around again. The hoof didn’t let him.

“You bit the apple,” the stranger stated. “Maybe the foals nicked it from me, but you bit it. Means you’re gonna pay for it.”

Like all the doctors of the Everdream Hospital knew, Stick really was insane. But like they also knew, he was cunning; enough so to pass, at times, for a sane person with strange hobbies and an awful sense of humour. It wasn’t that he was completely devoid of what you might call reason: to the contrary, he often showcased excessive sense of rationality. For one, he refused to believe in anything that couldn’t be proven by logic. It wasn’t his problem that included morals.

But at this very moment, even Stick felt inclined to summon an ethical argument in his favour.

“That’s not fair!” he cried.

The stallion’s limb grew heavier on his shoulder. “Nope. That’s Canterlot. Now pay.”





***





Canterlot’s mortuary, built on the side of the Medical University, was not a sad place. To the contrary, a visitor there could often catch a burst of laugh coming from behind a door or around a corner. Employees regularly organized poker nights after hours. There was a great likelihood that the place ranked as one of the top ten happiest communities in Canterlot. This was not public knowledge, though. Even if the staff wasn’t dispirited by being surrounded by corpses all day, they knew better than to let the visiting relatives see what was really going on behind the scenes.

Deck Heart was one of the few outsiders who knew the truth. The head of the homicide unit was a common sight in the mortuary. At first the knowledge had shocked him. Not only did the employers lack a sense of respect towards the dead: they regularly made fun of them. The inventive use of nicknames was from the milder end of the spectrum, and Heart didn’t even want to know if some of the stuff he had heard was actually true. And now he was on his way there to see his father.

Even as he stepped through the door and into the lobby, the idea didn’t seem real to him. Not really.

“Ah, Lieutenant Heart!” said a young unicorn clerk as he spotted him from behind his desk. “Long time no see. And who did you bring along this day, if I may ask?”

“Chancellor Feinsake,” said Feinsake.

“Secretary Chip,” said Chip.

“Enchanted,” said the clerk. His eyes turned to Heart. “A routine check?”

All kinds of answers filled Heart’s head. Some of them were even funny.

He walked to the desk. “I need to inspect a case named…” He swallowed. Tiny muscles twitched all over his face. His breathing started to convulse again. “Named…”

The clerk kept on looking at him, his horn ready to leaf through the archives. “Yeeees?”

Behind Heart, Feinsake leaned to whisper something to Chip. The secretary nodded and trotted to the desk, where she snatched the archive book and began flipping the pages.

“Hey!” said the clerk, frowning. “What do you think you’re–”

“Section C, room twelve,” said Chip. She flung the book back to the blinking clerk. “Thank you for the assistance.”

Feinsake walked carefully next to Heart, who was staring straight ahead. She set her hoof on his shoulder.

“Are you sure you want to do this right now?”

Heart stood still a moment longer and then strided through the double doors that had the letter ‘C’ written above them. Feinsake watched him go, an unreadable expression on her face.

“Uhm… What’s the deal with him?” asked the clerk.

“His–” began Chip. She stopped when Feinsake coughed lightly.

“Lieutenant Heart and I will pay a visit to a certain cadaver,” she continued, still looking at the double doors. “Chip will fill out the necessary forms from our behalf.” Without waiting for a response, she left the room.

While Chip looked after her with some longing, the clerk glanced at her quickly. He licked his lips. “So… If you don’t mind me asking, was it a hard pick?”

Chip gave him a blank look. “What?”

“Choosing between becoming a secretary or a model?”





***




Room number twelve was at the end of a long, long corridor. Or so it felt to Heart, at least. There was a door there, a door like any other in the world. He was alone now: Feinsake had had the good sense to keep her distance. Heart wasn’t in a particularly social mood anyway, but something about that mare made his skin crawl. The way she had touched him in the interrogation cell… Just the memory of it made him cringe. For what reasons, he could not say, not for his life.

He opened the door. The air was chilly. C section was two storeys underground, and they had all kinds of ways to make the rooms even colder than they’d normally be. That was for the bodies, of course. There were eight operation tables in the room. Only two were empty. On the rest, grey blankets covered forms that were impossible to mistake for anything other than ponies. Dead ponies. The fourth one had his father's name tag.

Heart had seen a fair share of bodies in his life. Fourteen years in the Citizen Guard of Canterlot tended to have that kind of an effect. You never got totally used to them, not like you did to most things in the world. But you learned to see them differently: as books telling the story of their owners, or at least the last moments of it. You learned to ignore the letters and focus on the text. By now the skill was an instinct to him, so why did his hoof shake like that when he reached to pull away the blanket?

Because you’re afraid you’ll only see the letters? whispered a voice inside his head.

A memory broke the stormy surface of his mind: Hilt arguing with his own father. Heart had been seven at the time, and couldn’t remember but a single word of it: coward. Grandpa had used it a lot. When Heart had asked about the fight, Hilt had explained how grandpa had wanted the family to take part in the resettlement movement. He was part of the generation that had actually lived the Catastrophe, not just read about it in history books. The will to see the whole of Equestria populated again drove thousands to emigrate from the relative safety of the capital to the districts that were widely considered as lost forever. When grandpa had left with his wife and three other children, Hilt had stayed. That was the last time he had seen his family.

Once, as a young adult, Heart had braced himself and asked if Hilt had ever regretted the decision to stay. He had looked him in the eyes and said: “Only when I have to listen to your idiotic questions. Now get me that bottle.”

Like a thousand times before, Heart removed the blanket.

His first thought was: That’s not my father. The second was: How can I tell? I never knew him.

Lying on the cold metal, Captain Hilt looked even older and smaller than he had during their nightly encounter. The grey of his mane wasn’t silvery like Heart had remembered, but resembled dirty ash. His wrinkles, once a sign of weather-beaten wisdom, were nothing but ugly cracks now, spread over leathery coat. Without his uniform there was nothing to separate him from the lousiest beggar, from the sorriest cripple. Even his cutie mark – two swords crossed over one another – looked faded.

The sight didn’t make Heart sick. He wished it had. Any feeling would have been better compared to the hollowness of his chest. Anything at all.

“You lousy drunk!” he screamed. “Hopeless disgrace! Your predecessors died with their armor drenched in the blood of their enemies, but you found your end in the bottom of a bottle! And called yourself the Captain of the Guard!” He paused to pant. “If you think I’m going to waste half of a bit in burying you, think again! Let the city deal with you! Let the bucking University have you, cut you into little pieces and put in jars!” He started laughing maniacally. “I bet they’ll be having a bitch of a time finding your heart!”

He blinked, suddenly aware of strange moistness in his eyes. He wiped them with the side of a hoof, only to find the fur there wet afterwards. And then he noticed the stains of spit on Hilt’s face.

In flaming panic, he started wiping them away, using his sleeve. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, tears dropping on the spots where he had just cleaned the spit away. “Forgive me… Dad… Forgive me… I didn’t mean… Dad…”

Even in the depths of sorrow, he became aware of a presence. In his line of work, some instincts never shut down, not completely. He looked to the doorway.

Feinsake stood there.

“You…” croaked Heart. “Get… out of here… now…”

She didn't budge.

Heart took a step towards her. “Get the buck out of here!”

“Why?” she asked calmly.

Heart pawed the floor. There was a nasty scraping sound as the edge of his hoof met the smooth stone. Heart’s chest heaved as air swished in and out of his lungs, filling his vision with cold steam. The flow of tears had subsided, replaced by a piercing stare.

Feinsake shook her head. There was not a trace of tension in her. “Why do you hate me so? What have I done to deserve such treatment?”

Heart opened his mouth, but the words wouldn’t come, no matter how badly he searched for them. So he ended up growling a bit.

She sighed. “This may not mean much to you but I, too, know what it feels to lose a parent.” Without a care in the world, she walked towards him. “But if that is truly the case, why don’t I just leave and let you fester in your sorrow?”

She stopped a step away from him. Heart’s whole appearance radiated primal violence, ancient instincts wired to their extreme. He felt himself hanging by a thread thinner than a hair, but somehow the gravity couldn’t get a grasp of him. He stared Feinsake in the eyes, in those pools of icy blue that in turns seemed to mock and pity him. But there was something else hidden in there, too. Some strange softness that would melt any glacier; a force just as primal as what surged from Heart’s spine.

Her hoof touched his cheek.

“Because I know the solitude will only consume you,” she whispered. “It is your deepest desire: to be alone. No responsibilities, nopony to take care of. Nopony to love.” She smoothed his cheek like he was a newborn foal. “It is where you are now, isn’t it?”

At some point, Heart had stopped breathing. The kick of the reflex was like an electric shock. He inhaled, suddenly aware that the blind rage had subsided.

“What did you do to me?” he asked.

Feinsake lowered her hoof, a simple smile lighting her face. “A little trick my mother taught me. Do you feel better?”

Heart batted his eyes. He did feel better: like he had awoken from deep slumber. And yet there was a sense of uneasiness, a memory of a terrible storm which lingered at the back of his head. A turn of breath and that was gone, too. “I… I do. Uhm… Thank you.” He glanced at his father. Now the sight barely stirred a shadow of a worry in him. “How did you…?”

“It’s a discussion we’ll have some other day,” she said. “Right now, more important than how I did it is the question why I did it.” With a flick of her horn, she pulled the blanket back over Hilt’s corpse. “Come. We need to talk.”

She trotted out of the room, and somehow Heart found himself following her without a thought of disobeying. A soft mist filled his head; a sense of tranquility which he hadn’t experienced for years. Or for forever. It was something he could get used to, really.

“Solitude is a luxury which ponies in our position cannot afford,” said Feinsake as she shut the door in Heart’s wake. She kept talking while they made it towards the lobby. “As you well know, we live in troubled times. The Guard needs a Captain, Deck, and that Captain must be you.”

Heart recalled the conversation they had had in the cell. The memory of it struck a needle into his blissful comfortability. “No it doesn’t. Any other Lieutenant would do the trick. Technically, any soldier in the Guard could be appointed as the Captain. The piece of paper my father made is of little relevance now that he has passed on.” A funny thing, though Heart in passing. Saying that last bit was like the easiest thing in the world.

“In an ideal world, yes,” said Feinsake. “But in ours, pieces of paper like that mark the difference between order and chaos.” She glanced at Heart. “If the document is deemed void, that means an open race for the Captain’s office. It will become political: already has, I’m sure. Every faction will try to get their candidate in charge. The Guard will become a bureaucratic battlefield for months, years even.” She looked ahead of herself. “Needless to say, it will be incapacitated in the process.”

The warm haze was quickly retreating in Heart’s mind. Not seeing Feinsake’s eyes seemed to amplify the process. In its stead, cool determination was setting in. Already he could see a plan of sorts forming before him. “How do you know about the paper, anyway?”

“It was found in the study,” said Feinsake. “Signed by Hilt, as I already mentioned. It was the last thing he did, I believe.”

Neither of them said nothing for a while.

“I see you’ll be a mother soon,” said Heart. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

“Perhaps when the foal is born, you’ll understand my decision better.” He stopped in a corner. “There are things we do for love, and things we do for duty. Do you know which generally wins?”

“Love?” ventured Feinsake.

Heart shrugged. “Occasionally. But the real winners are those choices which we do for both reasons. Mine’s one of them.”

Feinsake gave him a long look. “I suppose this is a conversation you already had during the night?”

Heart’s silence was answer enough.

“Very well,” she said. “What, then, do you propose we do? Lean back and witness the city fall apart like a string of dominoes?”

Heart snorted. “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to do anything. To the contrary, I will do whatever I can to save the city, not as the Captain, but as the Lieutenant that I am.”

Feinsake shook her head in frustration. “No no no, you don’t understand: if you don’t claim the office, the Guard will become indistinguishable from a petty political squabble.”

“You think I didn’t hear you the first time? I have a solution for that, one that will serve both of our interests.” He let her wait for a moment and then said: “I will sign the document devised by my father, only to immediately assign a stand-in for myself. He will gain all the rights and duties of the actual Captain, except in the most important of decisions. It’ll be legal and practical, and I can focus on solving the case which, if left unsolved, will plunge the city to war.”

Feinsake frowned. “But who could you trust enough to make the arrangement work? And what case are you talking about?”

Heart set to walk again, with Feinsake this time following him. For some reason and despite everything, the change lifted his spirits to new heights. “I have a certain pony in mind. He might be a bit reluctant at first, but I’m positive that in the end he can’t resist the temptation. And what comes to the case, well… I’d ask you to sit down first, but you seem like the kind of a pony who can take on what I’m about to tell without their mind blowing.”






***





On the other side of the city, Stick peeked around a corner into a shady alley. Besides a few trash cans and skittering rats, it was empty. He cursed under his breath and carried on, eyeing suspiciously anything that seemed out of place. There was quite a lot of such stuff, so his head kept on turning from side to side while he cantered along. At the moment, every gutter and loose cobblestone seemed like a threat.

The doctors of Everdream had diagnosed him with extreme paranoia, among other things. Stick didn’t know what meant, but it made him wary. A word he couldn’t understand was probably up to something.

“Thin, ling, sing, king,” he muttered darkly. It still ached magnificently where the colt had kicked him, and his jaw had a loose feeling to it. Worse still, they had gotten the list. Knives, rags, paint, even bits: all that he had more than he’d ever need, back in the hideout. But the list was important. He knew this because she had told him. Yes, she had been very strict about it. “Six names, six cutie marks. No more, no less.”

If she would know he had lost the list… The idea didn’t bear thinking about. And Stick had been stuck with it for hours now.

The apple seller had told him that the foals were part of some gang or knightly order or something. He had also known where to find them. Unfortunately, “try searching up a rat’s bottom” hadn't been that helpful of an advice.

One day, Stick would make a list of his own. The apple seller would be on top of that, right along with Doctor Pines. And his father.

“Give me that!” screamed a shrill voice from somewhere.

“Finder’s keepers!” called another one.

Neither sounded like the filly. Stick didn’t care. Right now, any foal would do.

After a short tracking, he found the source of the noises. Two earth pony colts were arguing about something, chasing one another over trashcans, dirty puddles and a dead dog. Both looked like they hadn't had a decent meal, or a wash, since they were born.

Stick look around the street. It was empty, like most of this particular neighbourhood was, at least during the daylight. He sneaked into the alley.

The colts were far too occupied with their squabble to notice him approaching before it was too late.

“Hello, boys,” he said.

The colts froze, their eyes fixed at him. One of them had a dead squirrel stuck in his teeth, although on closer inspection it might’ve proved to be a headware of some sort.

“What are you fighting about?” Stick ventured, looking the colts in turns.

“Nothin’,” said the one without the headware. “Just playin’.”

“I see,” said Stick. He smacked his lips. “I’m looking for a certain filly. Buttercup yellow, orange mane and tail. Likes to offer apples to strangers.” He flashed an erratic smile. “Ring any bells?”

The first colt didn’t move a muscle, which made the second one glancing at him even more telling of a gesture.

“Dunno,” the colt said. “Dunno nothin’.” He looked past Stick to the street, as if going over a quick risk analysis.

Stick smiled again, longer this time. This was a game he knew inside out. Only, in his foalhood it had been called “Who gets to play doctor with daddy today?”.

Dunno, daddy,” he said with a faraway tone, managing a pretty good impression of the colt. They gave each other a look. “Dunno nothin’.

He moved quickly. The colts were pretty agile, as Stick had seen. When you started stealing food before your tenth birthday you learned to be quick. But he had the advantage of being very, very mad.

His teeth caught the first colt by the scruff of his neck right as he tried to slip under him. The foal yelped in pain, but quieted down when Stick slammed him against the ground, the air fleeing his lungs. Stick pressed his chest with a hoof and looked up. He could barely catch the other colt’s tail as it vanished around a corner.

“A fleeting thing, friendship,” he said. “That’s from E.A. Poeny, you know.”

The colt wheezed in response. Stick looked down on him and put some more weight on his front leg. Mute tears pushed past the shimmering eyes below him.

“Now,” he started calmly. “Where do I find these ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders’?”

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