• 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 III

Sergeant Cowl was what most ponies would, seeing him for the first time, label as the classic, jolly fat sergeant who couldn’t find a clue from his own moustache, massive as it was. He himself loved to offer this impression, especially if it would lead to an attempt to bribe him. In those occasions he’d let out a deep chuckle before giving them a lick of his baton and a trip to the station. This rarely happened anymore, for a reputation like Sergeant Cowls’ gets around quickly. The thing about him was that you couldn’t bribe him; not if it was his own weight in gold (a sum capable of buying, say, a small island) against even letting a common thief run away with a carrot or two.

Heart had once asked him why he wouldn’t touch a black bit, as bribes were often called in the Guard. The Sergeant had smiled at him happily and said: “Can’t do it, sir. My old mum would have my nuts, right after she had dug herself out of her grave and beaten me senseless.”

If there was but one clean pony in the Guard, it was be Sergeant Cowl. There was one problem, though.

“And what would that be?” asked Feinsake curiously.

“He hates griffons,” said Heart. They were sitting in a coach travelling through Canterlot’s midday traffic. Even though half a dozen Unity Guard soldiers were trying to clear their way, the trip from the mortuary had lasted almost an hour. Ten minutes more and they would have already arrived there by hoof.

“Doesn’t sound like much of a character defect,” said Feinsake. “Not if you consider that most everypony in the city has similar attitudes toward our feathery friends.”

“No, it doesn’t sound like a problem. That’s only because there is no word for what Cowl really feels towards the griffons. It’s not hate, loathe, despise or repulsion.” He leaned forward, a bit like Feinsake had done in the interrogation cell not two hours ago. “It’s all those packed in a barrel and set on fire.”

Feinsake pursed her lips slightly. “I see that might cause trouble, considering we are trying to save the city from a war, not to plunge it into one.” She looked thoughtful for a moment and then added: “But you can keep him leashed, isn’t that correct?”

Heart leaned back, his face wrinkled by disdain. “You forget we’re not in the Parliament now. Leashing might work for senators, but not for ponies.”

She smiled at him. “Of course. Allow me to reformulate. Will he follow your orders?”

“No.”

“Ah-ha.”

“But he will listen to me,” continued Heart. “That’s called friendship. I recommend you try it one day.”

“Mayhaps you could assist me in that regard?” she asked meekly, looking at him with her head tilted. The gesture suited her, there was no denying that. Heart stared at her for a moment longer and then looked through the window at the street beyond. The glass was enchanted, so he could see out but none of the bypassers could see in. He was grateful and bothered by the fact, both at the same time. It felt as if he watched the world from beyond it, as a stranger, even though he had lived his whole life here.

“How did you find out where I live?” he asked.

Feinsake raised an eyebrow. “Is that what you’ve been wondering? I’m surprised you’d even think finding that would’ve been an issue.” She nodded at Chip, who was sitting by her side, completely focused on her notebook as always. “For her the task took half a lunchbreak.”

Heart glanced at the secretary, who looked up at both of them, blinked, and returned to her own little world of numbers and letters.

“Can she find anypony just like that?” he asked. “Anypony at all?”

Feinsake narrowed her eyes. “If they are not too well posited outside the grid of bureaucracy. Why do you ask?”

Heart coughed. “For the investigation. We could use somepony like her in this case.”

“We will do everything we can to assist the Guard,” said Feinsake. “All you need to do is ask.”

Heart wondered if even that would be necessary. He was ready to bet a leg that Feinsake had more spies on her payroll than the Guard had cells to offer. Trusting a pony like her made eating a boxful of nails seem like a healthy move.

“There is also something else I need,” he said.

Feinsake rolled her eyes. “You mean, on top of the thousand other ‘requests’ you've made thus far? What would it be this time: a house in Saddle Arabia, perhaps?”

“It’s about Lily. She needs a safe place to stay until all this is over. The one we live in now won’t do: if you were able to find me, there’s no telling who else could.”

Feinsake looked at him, her expression changing into slightly softer one. “I had already thought about that. There is a place I have in mind: the safest you can get in this city.”

“I’m listening.”

“My home,” she said.

Heart’s face fell. “No.”

Feinsake raised another eyebrow. “I assure you, that is no exaggeration. I live in the heart of the Horns’ quarters, which is the closest building to the Parliament itself. You know how well the area is guarded.”

“I also know who guard it,” said Heart. He shook his head. “That will never happen.”

“Because you don’t trust me?”

The din of the street claimed the carriage.

“No, I don’t,” he said eventually. “Just as I know that you don’t trust me.”

Feinsake eyed him, the smile barely crossing her lips now. “You are a direct pony, Deck. It’s something I haven’t seen for a while. The life in the Parliament can be so… curvy, at times.”

The window pane on Chip’s side was knocked on. She opened it and exchanged a few quiet words with a guard. “We’ll arrive there in five minutes,” she stated while closing the window.

Feinsake sighed in disappointment. “Our time is spread thin again. Too thin.” She looked Heart in the eyes. “In a very narrow sense, you are correct: we can’t trust one another. But the point is not what we can do, but what we must do.”

Heart said nothing to that. In five minutes, the cart drew to a halt. As he stepped out, Feinsake leaned out of the window and said, “See you around, Captain.”

The window closed, and Heart was left staring at his own mirror image. The cart drove away, taking the Unity Guard squadron along with it. Heart watched it disappear into the crowd, but before he could see the last glimpse of it, a hoof tapped him on the shoulder from behind. He turned.

“About time you showed up,” said Cowl. His moustache twitched: a sure sign that he wasn’t in the best of moods. “Ten hours. Ten bloody hours I’ve been sitting here like a street sign, waiting for a forensic team to arrive, and what do I get? Nothing! Ten bloody hours!” Another hairy twitch followed in a way of an exclamation mark. “And what the buck were you doing with the bloody Unity Guard, anyway?”

Part of Heart just wanted to burst out laughing. Another part, slightly more insistent, wanted to lay down and let the internal clock catch up. In the end, he had no clue which part of him was thoughtful enough to draw Cowl off the busy street before anything else. “Look,” he started. “I’m sorry that you had to wait a bit. No, save the pointy comments for later. I’ve got some… things to discuss with you.”

Cowl looked suspicious. “Things? What things? What the hay are you on about?”

Heart closed his eyes. This was going to take a more than one try, he could tell. “Well, to begin with… I’ve got some good news about that promotion you’ve been nagging me about for, what, since we joined the Guard?”






***



The street was dead still. Still Stick waited for a good while before leaving the shade of the alley, making sure he had not a drop of blood on his fur. He couldn’t afford to get caught now. That’d be even worse than losing the list. He trotted easily for a couple of blocks and only when he was sure nopony was following him, set to a steady canter. There was not a moment to waste.

The colt had been very helpful, eventually. Apparently the Crusaders’ headquarters were on this very area, in an abandoned school building not far away. The filly, called Apple Seed, would turn up there sooner or later. A whole community lived in the school grounds, the colt had told: orphans young and old. The name referred to some ancient, pre-Catastrophe organisation that had helped foals to earn their cutie marks. That was still the central goal of the Crusaders, although stealing food and valuables had grown in popularity recently. This all sounded like a load of posh to Stick, but he didn’t doubt the colt’s honesty. In his mind, ponies were always at their most sincerest in the face of death.

He had followed through the colt’s instructions soon enough. There was indeed a school, just like he had said. Neither was there a question if it was abandoned or not: the roof had holes the size of a pony, all the visible windows were broken and the grass in front of the premises had turned into a jungle probably years ago. There was no movement of any kind visible. Stick walked warily to the rusted gate and pushed it. The metal screamed once and then the whole thing came down in awful clatter. Well, saves the trouble of sneaking in, he thought while walking over it.

The door was locked, but a few kicks brought it down easily. That made a lot of noise, too, but Stick wasn’t feeling very stealthy at the moment. The taste of blood lingered in his mouth, making him thirsty.

“Honey, I’m home!” he shouted in the lobby. Not a cobweb stirred, and the echo died away quickly. “Ready or not, here I come!” he added and headed to the left, because it smelled slightly less moldy there.

The school’s insides weren’t in any better shape than its outside was. Roots pushed through the planks in the floor, water had destroyed whatever furniture hadn’t been stolen and the walls looked like he they’d fall from a kick or two. Mushrooms ran rampant on all corridors. The school had turned into a small forest, that much was clear even for Stick, who hadn't taken a step in a real forest in his life. It was difficult to believe how anypony, let alone a whole community, could live here. At the very least they'd freeze during the winter.

He came to what had probably once served as the ballroom of the school. A lone tree grew in the middle of the floor, reaching for the sunshine spilling through the large hole in the ceiling. Numerous carvings littered its bark: initials, names joined by a heart, that sort of thing. They meant nothing to Stick. The pegasus stallion relaxed on one of the branches was all he cared about now.

“You!” said Stick.

The youth payed him a slow glance. An aura of cool disinterest flowed around him, radiating from the way he leaned against the tree; how his eyes remained half closed; how he chewed his toothpick. “‘Sup?” he said.

A brief strategic calculation flashed behind Stick’s eyes. This pony didn’t smell like a threat: more than anything he resembled the many mushrooms that littered the place. Perhaps plain aggression would not be the way to proceed.

“I’m looking for my little sister,” he said, the lie coming to him like breathing. “We’ve been looking for her for days now, ever since she ran away.” He weaved a worried look on his face while walking closer to the tree. “I… I know this is the place runaways come. Please, you must help me find her.”

The indifferent look followed him all the way to the base of the tree. The pegasus’s tail kept on swinging under him like the pendulum of the most bored clock in the universe.

“What’s she look like?” he said after a while.
“Light purple coat, silvery mane. Glasses. Likes to read a lot.” Stick summoned the most pleading tone he could muster. “If you haven’t seen her, perhaps somepony else here has? Somepony of her age? The last time she was seen, there was some orange-coated filly with her.”

The pegasus yawned widely. “Yeah, sounds like Celler. She likes recruiting new members.”

Bingo, thought Stick. “Recruiting?” he said in desperation. “What? No, don’t bother to explain. I need to see this Celler, now. Please.”

The youth ended his yawn with a smack of his lips. Next, he whistled sharply.

“Did you call her just now?” Stick asked, eyeing eagerly around.

The pegasus said nothing, not until hoofsteps carried from the second level of the hall. Soon, a foal appeared on one of the many balconies there. Stick stared at him for a second, and then a fuse lit in his memory. It was the other colt from the alley.

“Yo, Peas!” called out the pegasus at the colt. “Is this the fella who got Bottles?”

The colt called Peas looked Stick in the eyes and nodded solemnly.

“Figures,” said the pegasus at the exact moment when Stick kicked the tree with his hind legs. The impact send leaves and dead branches falling around him.

Stick was prepared to rush the pegasus the moment he would hit the ground, but the youth was still floating some four meters in the air, safely out of his reach. He hadn’t even bothered to turn into vertical position.

“Why you wanna see Celler?” he asked with the same dull tone, eyeing the sky above.

Stick hesitated. He was aware of the saying that on a good day, a pegasus could outspeed an arrow. This one actually made it sound true.

“She stole something from me,” he said, his eyes fixed on the back of the pony above. “Something very, very important.”

“Tsk tsk,” said the pegasus, shaking his head. “I’ve told her she shouldn’t. Something like this would happen, I said. And who's gonna take care of it? Figures.”

“So you’ll help me get it back?” asked Stick carefully.

“Bit!” cried the colt from the balcony. “You promised!”

Bit the pegasus turned a piercing look to him. “You think I forgot? Be cool, Peas. I got this.”

“You better got this!” shouted Stick. The situation was starting to resemble a schoolyard squabble. “I’ve got business to take care of, you little–”

For the second time today, his jaw received a nasty punch. This time it actually felt like tearing off. He staggered back, a hiss of pain squeezing through his lips.

“That was for Bottles,” said the dull voice, now behind him. Stick whirled around, but there was nopony there.

“Where is he?” continued Bit, again behind him. Stick, at times a fast learner, turned around slowly.

The pegasus had changed. What a moment ago had seemed like a tired mushroom now looked like the very definition of speed. He was skinny even for a pegasus, and Stick could probably break him with one leg in a fair fight, but underneath the sky-blue fur, muscles like steel wires rippled. And those wings – they looked capable of turning wind itself around, should they please.

Stick’s ears pressed against his skull.

“You deaf?” said Bit. “What did you do to Bottles? He hasn’t shown up since you caught him.”

“Break his knee and ask again!” cried the colt, leaning over the rail.

Stick took a step back. This was not going the way he had planned. He scanned the room as much as he could while keeping one eye on the pegasus. Maybe if he could get into a corner he could defend himself against that insane speed. Or maybe he could even get back to the corridor? In an open space like this, he was a turtle against an eagle. It then dawned to him that perhaps that was how the eagle had planned it all along.

Bit rolled his eyes at the colt’s suggestion. “Peas, really? You should stop reading those comics. They mess up your head, bro.”

“He hurt Bottles!” continued the colt, jumping on two legs. “I heard him scream!”

“That’s what happens when you let yourself get caught,” said Bit. He looked at Stick, who was inching his way to the doorway behind him. “Ain't’ that right?”

Stick braved a thin smile. “Got me there. Heh.” He coughed, and the smile turned ever thinner. “Look, there has been a terrible misunderstanding here. I really only care about my stuff. In fact, you can keep the rest if I get back just one stupid little piece of paper. Then I’ll tell you where to find your friend.”

“You’re saying he can’t find us?” said Bit. With no effort at all, he rose directly over Stick. “Why’s that?”

Stick’s mind raced for answers that didn’t include phrases like “it was an accident” or “things just got out of hoof” or “he’s probably in a better place now, anyway”. And then, just briefly, his gaze travelled over Bit’s cutie mark.

The list he had lost had six names in it, accompanied with six addresses where the owners of the names had lived at some point of their lives. Stick never really was good with names, not of ponies or streets, but he could remember pictures just fine. And the list had included six pictures, too. Some colored air balloons had been among them, along with a white cloud which a rainbow lightning struck out.

The pegasus above him had that last one. Only, his mark had a pair of lightnings. That was okay, though: she had said that the symbols wouldn’t most likely look exactly the same as the originals, not after all this time and mixing of bloodlines. But the basic resemblance would be there. So would be the power.

Suddenly, Stick felt very calm once more. If this didn’t count as fate, he didn’t know what did.

“You…” he began. “Your name… It’s not really ‘Bit’, is it?”

The pegasus frowned. “Why do you care?”

Stick rummaged around his memory, searching for glimpses of the list. “It’s… Gambit, right?” The smile lighted his face again. “Gambit Dart.”

The pegasus’s frown deepened. “Who are you?”

“I…” began Stick, all tension now gone from rom his body. “...am the Envoy of Harmony, tasked to save this city and country from certain destruction. And you are the only pony in the world who can help me do that.”




***



It was true that Sergeant Cowl often liked to complain how he never got promoted, in the same way he often liked to complain how nopony wanted to bribe him. In a way, complaining was a hobby to him, a way to pass time or begin a conversation. And if Canterlot had anything in abundance, it was things to complain about. At times he would even complain how pessimistic the city in general had become. When Heart told him he wanted to make a Captain out of him, Cowl immediately complained how awful his jokes had recently become. When Heart told him why he wanted to make a Captain out of him, Cowl stopped complaining. He stopped talking altogether for two whole minutes, which must have been a record for him.

The two stallions stood in an alley, suddenly wary of looking each other in the eyes.

“Look,” said Heart. “This is much to take in at once. I would know. So if you feel the need to take the rest of the day off, well… do that.”

Cowl muttered something, but Heart couldn’t make out the words. He doubted whether he could, either.

“Cowl?”

The Sergeant looked up. An uncharacteristic dreaminess filled his eyes.

“Take the day off,” Heart continued. “I signed Hilt’s document in Feinsake’s coach, so consider that as an order.”

“And leave you alone in the middle of all this?” Cowl said. “What, you take me for a griffon or something?”

“And I appreciated if you stopped sowing remarks like that.”

Cowl snorted. “I see the office has already gotten a hold of you.” He shook his head slowly with his eyes closed, then put a hoof on Heart’s shoulder. It felt strangely powerless. “Aye, a break does sound good. Soy must be sick with worry back home by now.”

“Take as much time as you need.”

Cowl nodded, but didn’t make a move to leave. Very slowly, he looked Heart in the eyes again. “You… You’ll manage here, right?”

That question had nothing to do with the crime scene, Heart knew, just like his answer wouldn’t have. But there were some things old friends would never ask directly. There was too much love between them for that.

“Yeah,” said Heart. “I’ll get the forensic team here within the hour. No problem.”

“No problem,” echoed Cowl. He nodded one more time and then left. Deep within, Heart wished he hadn’t. Right now, he could do with some casual complaining, even if it was just for the weather. No orchestra could match a good rant by Cowl, right now, in this alley, under that perfect sunshine.

He trotted deeper into the alley. The four guards were still there, along with the corpse, but the dome was gone. One of the guards noticed him approaching and saluted loudly enough so that the others got the message.

“At ease,” Heart said. He pointed at the closest guard. “You. What’s your name?”

“Nickel, sir.”

“Run to the station and send whatever forensic team is on duty here, at once.”

“Yes, sir.”

Nickel slipped past him in the narrow alley, but Heart’s focus was already elsewhere. Technically he should be exhausted, having slept but a few hours during the night, but instead he felt like his senses had been galvanized. Everything seemed sharper, like seen through a magnifying lense. It was a sensation he had known before: every time he readied himself for a hunt.

“In the meantime,” he said, eyeing everything from the guards to the corpse to the painted symbol on the wall. “Tell me everything I didn’t have time for yesternight.”






***





There is a widespread belief that psychopaths are naturally skilful liars. Stick wouldn’t know much about that. For him, truth and falsehood just weren’t questions of either/or, but came in degrees. For example, when he honestly wanted Bit and Peas to believe that he really was on a quest to save Canterlot from certain destruction, the thought that he might be lying never occurred to him. It was something he needed them to believe, and that was that. It wasn’t like he himself knew whether it was true or not: it was something she had told him. And that was that.

“You’re lying,” said Peas, for the fourth time now. He had agreed to come down from the balcony only when Bit had promised to break something precious to Stick if he’d try something funny. Now the three of them were sitting at the shadow of the tree, as if that had been the purpose of their encounter all along.

“At first I did,” said Stick. “With a mission such as mine, you can’t be too careful. A lot is at stake here. Everything, in fact.” He smiled apologetically at the colt. “I was too rough with you and Bottles. I’m sorry about that, but that list is very important for us all, you see. And would you have trusted me any better, had I offered you candy instead?”

Peas glared at him, then looked up at Bit, whose side he had practically glued himself to. “You’re not believing this idiot, right?”

Bit moved the toothpick from one corner of his mouth to the other. “It’s a crazy story alright,” he said. “Way too crazy to be credible. And that makes me think it just might be true, after all.”

The colt’s eyes grew wide. “Bit! You can’t–”

The pegasus gave the colt a glance that quieted him like a slap to the face. Stick had figured out quickly enough that Bit was somewhat of an authority in these circles, insofar as Cutie Mark Crusaders knew what the word meant.

“There’s one thing I can’t wrap my head around though,” Bit continued, turning his half-closed eyes back to Stick. “Why’d you shut Bottles in some cellar?”

“I couldn’t take the risk he was lying about the location of this hideout,” said Stick without batting an eye. “It sounds rough, I know, but my quest is of utmost importance.” He had started talking more like she did now that they were actually listening to him. The official tone bought him some much needed credibility, he thought. “My colleagues are guarding him there.”

That was another fine touch he had come up with: an organisation who he was but a part of. They were authorized by the Parliament itself to seek out the closest living descendants of the Element Bearers of old. United again, the six of them could bring back Harmony to ponydom by summoning a powerful spell that would mend both the land and the hearts of all ponies. That was a legend known by everypony – all Stick had done was to make it sound real.

“I assure you, Bottles is fine,” he continued. “As soon as we gather the missing Elements, he is free to go.”

“Because the word that you’re trying to fulfil the Prophecy mustn’t get out?” revised Bit. “Because the griffons would try to stop you?”

“Exactly.”

“Why?”

“Because they would rather see us perish than flourish,” said Stick sadly. He shook his head slowly. “Our race is blessed by Harmony, you see. The griffons are not. That’s why their Kingdoms suffered worst during the Catastrophe. That’s why they are pouring in: to take whatever is left of our land.” He looked Bit in the eyes. “You know all this, don’t you?”

Bit blinked. The toothpick switched sides. Peas kept his eyes on the ground.

“What exactly you want me to do?” the pegasus said.

Stick drew a deep breath, as if preparing to hold an inspiring speech. “Three things. First of all, your knowledge: the Bearers are scattered around the city, and nopony knows exactly what they look like or where they live. But surely you know somepony who knows another one and so on. Secondly, your wings: we could certainly use a natural talent such as you. Finally, we need your cutie mark.”

Bit’s wings stirred. “My cutie mark?”

Stick nodded. “It’s your heritage, you gift, your fate. The power of the Elements runs in the blood of their Bearers, from mother to daughter, from father to son. Cutie marks are concentrations of that power.” He looked at the twin rainbow lighting on the pegasus’s flank. “Your’s comes from Rainbow Dash the Loyal, I believe.”

Bit followed his gaze. There was a long pause, and for a moment it seemed like the toothpick would drop from his mouth. “You’re saying that Rainbow Dash… the Rainbow Dash… was my grand-grand-grand-grand-grandmother?”

Stick made himself keep a blank face, even as the grin of victory was tempting his lips. “Could be a few grands off, but basically yes.” He tilted his head slightly, in the way she sometimes did. “Surely you had some idea about this?”

Bit kept on studying his cutie mark as if he had just now found it. “I… No. My parents… left me to an orphanage me when I was a kid.” He looked at Stick, who only now realized how very young the pegasus in fact was. “I mean, my hair’s not even the right color…” He absentmindedly smoothed his mane. It was mostly carmine, but had strands of deep yellow here and there.

Stick waved a hoof dismissively. “Manes matter none. Blood does. And cutie marks.” Like guided by fate, another fragment of the list surfaced in his mind. “This orphanage… Its name was Two Hills, yes?”

“How come you know so much about me?”

“We did a thorough research to locate the closest descendants of the Bearers,” explained Stick. “Eventually I, or somepony else, would have come to you. But fate chose that we should meet before our time. I take that as an encouraging sign,” he added.

Bit kept on chewing the toothpick. The thin piece of wood was soaked to the point where it might liquefy in his mouth. “I don’t know… I’ve got to think this through…”

“I understand completely. However, there is still the matter of the list that we must address. It must not fall into foreign hooves. Or claws.“

“Why don’t you just ask another one from your pals?” asked Peas sharply.

Stick smiled at him tenderly. He had vouched to unite the little devil with his friend, and by gods he intended to do just that. Or at least send him to the right direction.

“I thought I had already explained that,” he said. “The griffons suspect that something is up. If they should happen to get a hold of the names that we’re after, they would try to eliminate them. Celler does not know that she is holding the lives of six ponies, including our friend Bit here, in her hooves: she might simply throw the paper away, and at that point it might end up anywhere. The griffons have spies everywhere.” He looked at Bit. “You are free to make your own choices. But we need that list.”

The pegasus rubbed his temple, an unfocused look on his eyes. “Gosh… This ain’t what I expected to hear when I woke up this morning, I tell you that.” He bit his lip, grounding the toothpick between his slim lips. “I mean, I’m no hero or anything: I just, you know, exist. And you’re saying Rainbow Dash the Loyal was my grandma? Give me a break…”

There is another thing they say about psychopaths, besides that they’re natural born liars. Most of them have a highly developed sense of empathy, while sympathy is an altogether foreign concept to them. Stick could easily recognize the common symptoms of insecure adolescence in Bit, all the flux and flow of contradictory emotions stuffed under a shell of carefully guarded disinterest. What he lacked altogether was the ability to feel sorry for him because of that.

Stick laid a hoof on his shoulder. Pease sprung to his feet, mute horror twisting his face, but the pegasus only blinked at the limb in surprise.

“There are all these genealogy trees, family lines and whatnot that I could show you to convince you,” said Stick. “To be honest, that is what most ponies in my place would do. But I believe all that doesn’t really matter if you yourself don’t believe in it.”

The toothpick fell from the pegasus’s lips. The magenta eyes rose to meet Stick’s.

“Now,” he continued. “What do you believe Rainbow Dash would have done?”

Bit fixed his bearing a bit. “She would have stayed loyal to Harmony.”

“She would have,” mused Stick and stood up. Bit followed him while Peas kept on looking him and Stick in turns with wide, shimmering eyes.

“Bit… you can’t…”

Bit gave him an annoyed look. “Why? Because you’re being a little baby? Or ‘cause you don’t think Dash could have anything to do with me?”

It was hard to tell if Peas shook his head or if he was just trembling in the right way. “Bit… He hurt Bottles… “

This gave Bit pause. He glanced at Stick, who kept his face blank. “Well, he apologized,” he said, looking at Peas again. “And he’s fine now, right? Probably giving a headache to whoever’s stuck with him.”

“He hurt Bottles!” screamed the colt, pointing at Stick. “And now you’re his best friend!”

“We live in dangerous times,” said Stick, drawing their attention. “Ponies have already gotten hurt. More victims will come.”

“Yeah,” said Bit, looking at Peas. “This is serious biz, bro. You need to toughen up.”

Tears pushed past Peas’ eyes. His mouth twitched open, as if to argue one more time, but the look on Bit’s face made him swallow it. He backed away, sniffing.

“Fine. Do what you want, Gambit. But you’re wrong: Rainbow Dash would’ve stood up for her friends, not for some stupid Harmony!”

“Peas!” shouted Bit as the colt sprinted for the doorway. His wings snapped open, but Stick’s quiet cough leashed him.

“If you don’t mind a piece of advice, I believe he needs more time to digest this,” said Stick. “He is so very young, after all.”

Bit kept on looking after Peas, whose hoofsteps died away quickly. “Yeah,” he said. “He’s just a kid. Figures he wouldn’t understand what’s really important.”





***



Microscopic crevices and peaks filled Deck Heart’s vision, all colored in deep yellow. The strokes of the brush were clearly visible, which meant the perpetrator hadn’t been too bothered by the end result of their work. That wasn’t a decisive clue, but it was certainly something – the Brigade was known for the respect they harbored towards their symbol. Only members of a certain seniority could inscribe it in the first place, and every usage was carefully planned out. Unlike what most ponies believed, the “Amber Peak” was not a random graffiti or tag that could be spread around at will. The insignia had a history that stretched all the way to the dawn of the griffon race, and thus had dozens of meanings depending on the context. Most had to do with war, though.

“Ready for a break, chief?” called a voice from behind him. Heart put down the magnifying glass and looked behind.

As the cheery voice had suggested, it was Violet, the head of the forensic team C. She was holding two mugs of some steaming liquid with her horn.

“Maybe in a minute,” he said, turning back to the painted wall with his magnifying glass raised. For a moment the world looked tiny, and then realized he was holding it the wrong way around. “On second thought,” he said while turning to the mare again. “Maybe a break wouldn’t be out of the question.”

Violet smiled and offered him one of the mugs, which ended up containing coffee. The sharp taste hinted that she had spiced it with something stronger, though.

“Since when did it get so dark?” Heart asked while sipping his drink.

“About two hours ago,” answered Violet. “I thought you would have noticed when they set up the lights.”

Heart looked at the alley at large, only now noticing that they had indeed put up lanterns around the place. The magically processed glowstone inside them colored the whole scene with white, clinical light, in the cover of which several ponies worked on different elements of the crime. To his annoyance most were on a break, too.

“They’ve done all that can be done for now” said Violet, reading his thoughts off his face. “There’s only so much analysis to be done in one day.”

“I know that,” said Heart. A sudden wave of vertigo passed over him, making him sway. Now that he wasn’t completely focused on an area the size of a few square centimeters, he found his focus severely disturbed by such mundane things as hunger and exhaustion. On top of that, the air was getting rather chilly.

“Any progress?” he asked, finishing his coffee in one gulp.

Violet shrugged. “Lots of data. It’ll all have to be processed, of course. Ask me again in a week.”

“We don’t have a week,” said Heart, putting the mug down next to the pool of dried blood. He eyed the spot where the mare’s body had been. All that was left was the blood and a chalk approximation of her contour.

“Her” of course referred to Berry Pie. Based on the information they had gathered about her during the day, there was no imaginable reason why she should have ended on an alley with her throat slit. She worked as a clown for a local circus. That didn’t make her nearly rich enough to be worth robbing, and even if it did, that theory still wouldn’t explain the missing cutie mark. Heart had real trouble to imagine a more random, or more innocent, victim. It made him think all too much of Lake.

“I’ll have to make a press announcement tomorrow,” he said. “If I don’t give the public something concrete, they’ll turn to whoever will. There’s plenty of those around, at least.”

Violet studied him from under her eyebrows. “You sure that’s a good idea?”

Heart shook his head tiredly. He had to focus to keep his eyes open, so there wasn’t that many brain cells available for checking what he was actually saying. “We can’t take the risk this gets out on accident: it’ll be too late to explain anything after that. In the worst case, the Brigade will come clean all by itself, or some featherbrain pretending to represent the Brigade.” He started falling forward, but stopped himself just in time. “If the city can’t bear to hear this from us, it can’t bear to hear it at all. And at that point we’re all dead already.”

“Hooves crossed, then,” said Violet, picking up his mug. “Anyway, if you’re going to talk to a dozen reporters tomorrow, I suggest you hit the bed ASAP. Otherwise they’ll be using a whole lot of Z’s in the next day’s article.”

Heart burst out laughing. “Hahah, mmm, yeah. No worries. I got something special in store for them.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

Heart stopped chuckling. “Tomorrow, before the press conference, I’ll pay a visit to the Cliffs.”

Violet dropped the mugs. A few ponies looked in their direction as the china broke against the cobblestones.

“You’re kidding,” she said. “The Captain of the Guard, visiting the Cliffs? Tell me you're kidding, or at least sleep talking.”

Heart looked her in the eyes. There was not a touch of humor among the pools of turquoise. “It’s the only way. I’ll go meet the King himself, have a word or two. Should be interesting.”

“But, but,” began Violet. “You can’t just walk there, not without negotiating with the Parliament, with the Lieutenants, with the bucking city! Buck, they might even think you're starting a war if they see you marching there with half the Guard!”

“Won’t be half the Guard. Only me, and maybe two other soldiers. I already know which ones, too.”

Violet sat down. “Oh crap. You’re serious about this.”

“They won’t kill me,” said Heart, stifling a yawn. “It’s not a part of their code of honor to kill three ponies with a thousand griffons.”

“They can still take you hostage,” said Violet. “And what do we do then? Turn to Cowl and see if he has something to complain about?”

Heart cackled again, a bit more maniacally. “Yeah, I bet he’d like that. Never mind what he says: he loves an eager audience.”

Violet slapped him in the face. Not hard, just enough to put an end to his laughter.

“I know you’ve had rough times lately,” she said, aware that probably every pair of eyes in the alley was watching them by now. “But Hilt didn’t make you the Captain so you could kill yourself in a fancier uniform. If you don’t give me one good reason to go to the Cliffs, I’ll arrange a coup among the Lieutenants to replace you.”

Heart rubbed his cheek with the side of his hoof. A memory came to him uninvited: the last time she had slapped him. It had been in a bar, when things with Lake had suffered an ice age, and he had wanted to taste the grass on the other side of the fence. The groundskeeper had turned out to disagree with the idea.

“I met him last night,” he said quietly. “Hilt, I mean. We… had a talk. About stuff. He was… eccentric. Not in the usual way, that is.”

Violet’s stare urged him to elaborate.

“He talked about how the city needs a change. Not the type you hear about in the Parliament. A change to transform hearts and minds, not laws and regulations. He talked of a revolution.” He paused, working to keep his tongue alive. “I didn’t listen, of course. Not really. The rant was marginally more sane than what the usual three-o’clock-in-the-morning-special used to include. But when I found out he was dead, the words started coming back. And not just the words: the sense, too.”

“Did he tell you to go to negotiate with the griffons?” asked Violet.

“No. But he didn’t forbid me to, either. There was something he said… something about me. That I have a heart; something the others lost years ago.” He turned a lost look to Violet. “Do you know what that means?”

Violet shook his head.

“Yeah. Me neither.”

“But I do believe in it,” she said. A tiny blush visited her cheeks as Heart raised an eyebrow. “I mean, on some metaphoric-biological level, I guess.”

He smiled, for the first time today. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

“If it eases you, the press conference was Hilt’s idea,” said Heart. “As is, I can’t give them much beyond fuel for suspicions and panic. But imagine how they’d react if I could tell them of the fruitful and constructive conversation I had with the King just before the midday.”

“Well, declaring you insane might tempt them,” said Violet, but not that prickly.

“They’ll see that we’re still working with the other side,” he said. “It doesn’t even matter what we talk about, or if the meeting only lasts a few minutes. It’s better to make the press speculate with that than with who’s going to be the next victim.”

“And what if the King won’t even see you?”

“That is one of the risk we have to take,” concluded Heart. Little by little, he was starting to fold together under the weight of his own shoulders. “Sometimes the only way to go forward is to step where your eyes can’t see.”

Violet sighed. “I’m not saying I’m happy about that… but I suppose that goes for a reason.”

Heart smiled again. It felt good to smile, despite everything. Then an idea struck him, or rather, escaped his better judgement.

“Could I spent the night with you?”

There came an intense silence after that. Heart’s gears started working on it soon enough.

“Uh, I mean, could I and Lily spend the night in your place?”

Violet waited for her blush to die away. “Why?”

Heart explained.

“Oh,” said Violet. “Uhm. Of course you can come over. It’s no problem at all. Seriously, it’ll be nice to have some company for change, aside from the cats.”

“You have cats?”

“A couple. Well, five if you don’t count the stray ones. Is that a problem?”

A short laugh fled him. “In the light of recent events? I doubt it.”

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