Secrets of a Royal Guard

by Anzel

First published

Life has never been better for Silent Knight, but he finds himself shackled to the past by guilt, anger, and regret. Even though he tries to hide his true feelings from those he loves, he knows that the secrets he keeps will come at a cost.

From the outside looking in, life has never been better for Silent Knight. He is the first pony in a long line of Royal Guard ancestry to earn a commission, he has a loving mare by his side, and he bears the kingdom’s highest honor for bravely risking it all to protect Princess Luna. The future shines bright with potential, but the shadows of the past lurk at every twist and turn that lies ahead.

Guilt, anger, and regret are constantly at war in the depths of Silent Knight’s mind. Despite his best efforts to enjoy the life he has, he finds himself trapped in the past, reliving the moment when his unit was ambushed and his ponies were killed. He refuses to show any weakness, instead hiding everything behind a tough face to protect himself and those he loves. But his true feelings—and what he plans to do with them—shackle everything he holds dear with chains forged in secret.

Secrets of a Royal Guard is a comedy series with romantic, dramatic, and adventure elements. It features an original character cast and their interactions with the princesses they protect. It is recommended that readers be familiar with Memoirs of a Royal Guard.

Quill & Blade Universe

1. Day One

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Walking through Canterlot Palace in my armor just felt right. I had been away for twelve weeks at the Royal Canterlot Officer’s Academy, and that was almost too long to be gone. It had felt like a lifetime away from my princess, my unit, and my duties. Mercifully, I was now home.

There would be no more wool uniforms in sweltering heat. I would not have to suffer through any more dry lectures. Now I had my commission and my command, both of which made up the new life I would lead. Today was the first of many where new challenges, responsibilities, and experiences awaited.

It was a lot to take in. Even though I knew most of the palace guards by name, they stood to attention when I went by. I was no longer their friend or peer. All they saw was an officer… a different pony. And that was how it had to be.

My name is Silent Knight, and I am the commander of Princess Luna’s House Guard. I come from a long line of pegasus warriors but, in the generations of service given to Equestria, I am the first officer. The only officer. This was all new territory that my father could not possibly have prepared me for. Of course, that didn’t mean I was any less ready for the challenge.

When I reached Princess Luna’s wing, I sought out our House Guard’s unit room. That was where my ponies would be, since Princess Luna was spending the day in conference with Princess Celestia. In reality, that was just a polite way of saying ‘resting after partying too hard the night before.’ As a favor to me, Princess Celestia and her House Guard were keeping an eye on her so I could have a whole-unit meeting.

When I crossed the threshold, everypony suddenly stood up as Sergeant Iridescence firmly commanded, “Attention!”

This was a new experience, especially coming from my oldest friend. Iridescence had been by my side almost since day one and—despite all we’d been through together—she still looked like as pristine, collected, and sharp as the day Shining Armor had introduced us.

Today, like that day, her silvery-white coat was perfectly groomed, her armor was polished, and her turquoise-and-pink mane was styled exactly to regulation. And though she looked the same, she had grown quite a bit. We all had.

“As you were,” I said before moving to the head of the room and setting my forehooves on the podium.

The unit relaxed and settled back onto their chairs. As they were getting situated, it allowed me a moment to survey all of the new faces. There were nine new ponies here: six guards and three guard-medics.

After the ambush in Nordanver, medically trained guards became a necessity. We’d lost three ponies in an ambush during what was supposed to be a peaceful visit of diplomacy.

The official account was that one of the gryphon officers had inspired his soldiers to go rogue. It had been an effort to abduct Princess Luna for personal gain. My ponies were casualties of greed, and it still haunted me.

Even though I’d been in the hospital to recover from my physical wounds, I still felt injured in a way I couldn’t explain. My new commission wasn’t the only change for me. The world around me simply seemed different.

I tried not to dwell on the memories of it; I still had nightmares, but the Guard doctors had seen me fit to return to duty.

At least there were other major changes of a more positive kind. For example, Miley Hooves and Mountain Stone were now sergeants… which was almost comical. Our smallest and largest ponies, respectively, served as equals in leadership positions. The humor of the juxtaposition of the petite brown mare and the sturdy grey stallion was not lost on me.

Their styles of dealing with their squads also couldn’t be any more different. Mountain set expectations and trusted his ponies to meet them. Should they fall short, he’d intervene. Miley Hooves invested more time in active mentoring and checking after her guards. The only thing they had in common was that they both needed some coaching from our new section sergeant.

New, of course, is a term I use lightly. Radiant Orchid was far from new when it came to the Guard. We’d met when she was still in Princess Celestia’s House Guard, and she’d looked after me. So much so that when it was time to grow the unit, I’d recommended her.

Orchid was the pony I trusted the most to get things done. A wise, mature mare that could teach me what I’d need to know as commander. She’d assumed my former role temporarily as a favor to me to give Iridescence time to be ready to ultimately assume those responsibilities.

All of these arrangements were carried out at my request while I was at officer's school. I knew that they were the ponies I wanted in these positions. This group would never let me down, and I would always have faith in them.

There were, of course, new faces that would have to earn that same level of trust. They were seasoned guards from other units that had finally won the right to be on a House Guard. However, this unit was different than all others. Directly serving a princess was much different from anything else a guard might encounter.

With a blank expression, I let the silence continue to hold. There was nothing wrong with making them wait. This was my opportunity to inspect the section I would be leading.

I’d given strict instructions to mix the new ponies with our veterans to ensure they would adjust to our culture. Joining the House Guard meant leaving behind your old unit not just physically but, more importantly, mentally.

Their attention was solely focused on me. It was almost hard to believe that this was my first official day of command. Change had come to me many times in my life, and this was just another page in the story of my career.

“Good morning, everypony,” I finally said. “Believe me when I say it is a pleasure to be back here with you. It is wonderful to see my unit, even though I realize a third of you barely know me as a pony. I’m sure your peers have told you stories. Hopefully they weren’t all bad.”

There was a polite chuckle from the room. Always laugh at the commander’s horrible jokes—even the greenest guard knew that. I just didn’t know they’d be treating me like a commander immediately, or that I’d be making jokes. That was a relatively new thing for me.

“Getting to know everypony is a priority for me. I take your careers as seriously as I do mine, and it will be good for me to learn what you want to achieve. More importantly, I’d like to get a sense of who you are. I’ll be setting up time to have one-on-one meetings with everypony. Until then, please know that my door is open to you.”

I motioned to Radiant Orchid with one hoof. “Sergeant, they’re all yours. Let’s be sure we have a good first day, alright?”

Short and sweet: that was all they needed today. I wasn’t one for long speeches, anyway. Orchid could handle the finer points. She was both a motivator and mother figure for me and soon would be for the rest of the unit.

She played the role well, too, with her soft pink coat and grey-streaked red mane. It also helped that she actually had foals and cared for us like she did them.

“Yes, sir!” she replied cheerfully.

“Very good. Carry on,” I called before heading out the door.

The first rule that every new lieutenant should know is that you never get in the way of your section sergeant. She knows her job better than you do, so let her do it. You have your own job to do.

As the commander of Princess Luna’s House Guard, the second rule was a little different than that of most units: ensuring the very important pony you’re protecting hadn’t done any permanent damage to herself the night before.

That was why my next stop was Princess Celestia’s wing. Princess Luna was likely still hiding in her sister’s private chambers. Hiding, sleeping, groaning, or a combination of the three. She really had overdone it.

As I drew near the house guards outside of Princess Celestia’s door, they both stood to attention.

I waved a hoof. “At ease. Is my princess still in there?”

“Yes, sir,” the one on the right said before knocking twice and then opening the door for me.

“Thank you.” I trotted inside to find Princess Celestia sitting at her desk and sipping from a gently levitated tea cup.

Princess Luna, by contrast, was flat on her back, unceremoniously strewn across a few pillows. A blanket had been laid across her middle, but it was clear she’d both kicked it off and pulled it back on. It all just depended on which portion of her body was hot, cold, or both.

“Good morning, Princess. How is our patient?” I whispered to Princess Celestia as I bowed.

The alicorn smiled brightly. “And good morning to you, Lieutenant. Welcome home and congratulations!” Her eyes shifted to her sister before she added, “She has a belly ache, a headache, and her hooves are sore. She kept me up most of the night, but finally fell asleep sometime before the dawn. I imagine it will all pass by this evening. Should I assume that you had a wonderful weekend?”

“Clearly not as much fun as my charge. I enjoyed myself in moderation instead.”

The princess laughed and winked at me. “Perhaps some of that will be impressed upon Luna?”

“A pony can only hope. I’ll have a few of her guards come over to keep an eye on her so that you may go about the business of ruling this kingdom. Thank you so much for allowing me time with my whole section this morning.”

"My pleasure, Silent Knight. May you have an uneventful first day.”

“Thank you, Princess.” As much as I enjoyed the sight of Princess Luna sprawled out like a cat, I had a schedule to keep. It was time for me to report in with the Unified House Guard Commander.

Despite the fact that both House Guards were housed within the palace proper, our unified command was in the adjacent Royal Guard Central Command headquarters. It was built into the large outer wall to be accessible to guards from both sides. In a sense, that meant the Royal Guard had one hoof inside the palace and another out in the city.

I crossed the courtyard at a leisurely pace. It wouldn't look appropriate for a new lieutenant to gallop out in a hurry. There was also the added expectation from a pony like me; combat experience was pretty much unheard of for my generation.

To be honest, however, I'd have preferred not to have that particular badge of honor. It certainly didn't feel like one to me.

That was something I could focus on later, though. It was time to turn my attention to my duties. As I reached the command building, it struck me how indistinguishable it was from the rest of the palace complex. If a pony didn’t know any better, they’d assume it was just an extra-large gatehouse.

It was built that way so as not to call attention to itself. After all, just because Equestria had never been invaded, that didn’t mean you wanted to advertise important commands.

I passed through the large wooden doors and made my way upstairs. The commander’s office was on the second floor near one of the corners. When I arrived, I knocked.

“In!” she called.

I pushed open the door and trotted inside to find Major Ruby Measure behind her desk, going over some paperwork. She had her helmet off, her red mane tucked up in a tight bun. I didn’t know her very well, as she was new to the House Guards.

Thankfully, she’d been backed up by Russet Rook. He was my predecessor and the first officer I’d mentored when I was the first sergeant. Russet was a dependable pony and would be a positive influence on the major.

“Good morning,” I said, going to attention.

Major Measure waved a hoof. “Good morning. At ease.”

Major Measure was the first Unified House Guard Commander. In the past, both units had reported directly to the Captain of the Canterlot Guard. That title had not been bestowed upon a new pony since Shining Armor had been transferred to the Crystal Empire.

Royal Guard Command felt that the title was antiquated and was too large of a scope for a single pony, so the duties had been separated out in a more traditional way. Now we had two House Guard sections that made up an undersized company. That company reported to Major Measure with Lieutenant Rook as her executive officer.

“Welcome back, Lieutenant. I assume you had no trouble finding your new command this morning?” the major asked.

“None at all, ma’am. Everything is as it should be.”

“Excellent. Thank you for checking in; dismissed.”

Dismissed? What about a briefing? A list of duties? Something? “Ma’am?”

She leveled an even stare in my direction. “Dismissed, Lieutenant. I have no order for you that differs from how things were prior to your commission. You’ve been in command of this section before. You’ll forgive me if I focus my attention on the responsibilities I have that actually need it. You don’t really want me to help supervise your guards, do you?”

With a shake of my head, I replied, “No, ma’am!”

“Then dismissed,” she repeated. She wouldn’t have to tell me again.

I bailed out of her office and took the compliment for what it was. This was turning out to be a pretty great first day, all things considered.

A short trot later and I was at my office in Princess Luna’s wing. It seemed like it had been vacant during my entire time away. After a quick dusting, I was in the middle of arranging what few personal effects I owned when the door behind me opened without warning.

Radiant Orchid trotted in with her sergeants in tow. When I turned to stare at them, they all froze. At least, they did until Mountain Stone crashed into the back of Miley, who crashed into Iridescence, who then crashed into Orchid. It was just a matter of physics from that point as they went down like dominos.

After doing her best to scramble back into some semblance of decorum, Orchid’s cheeks burned bright red. “My apologies, Sil—sir!” She reached backed past the others and knocked on my door.

It was amusing. Very amusing, actually. Still, my face was fixed with a stern officer’s glare. “Come in.”

Once they’d managed to collect themselves, my sergeants all stood to attention.

“At ease,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

“While you were away, I instituted a morning leadership meeting so that we could coordinate better. I thought you’d want to be included...” Somewhat awkwardly, she tacked on, “Sir.” It would take some getting used to for everypony.

I nodded. “That seems like a wise idea with the additional squad and all of the changes I’d instituted. Please, continue as you normally would.” I settled behind my desk and made myself look official.

Orchid cleared her throat. “During your absence, we’ve stood up that new squad and…” She hesitated a moment before cringing. “…and integrated the replacements.”

Replacements—the word stung. It literally ruffled my wing feathers and sent the taste of bile into the back of my throat.

The office went silent, the air thick with tension as the memories loomed over us all unspoken.

Orchid took a deep breath and pushed on. “As you might imagine, we aren’t exactly sure what to do with all of these ponies since we did just fine with the unit we had before. That has basically meant I’ve had to occupy their time. The first thing I did was relieve all of the palace guards from the Princess’s wing. We now cover every post.”

“Smart thinking. That will occupy some of them. What about the rest?” It was good to shift back to our business of running the section. That would keep my mind occupied.

“Cross-training opportunities. I’ve been sending them out to some of the specialist schools for training. Usually it is just a two-week refresher course, but I figure once they get back, they can train the others. Beyond that, I took a lesson from you and sat them down with their respective sergeants to start going over promotion packets.”

“Enlisted education,” I mused.

“Yes, sir.” Orchid replied. “You used to do it for your squad and then moved on to doing it for the section. Why stop a good thing?”

I almost smiled. “It’s a good tradition. Thank you for keeping it. Anything else?”

Orchid shook her head. “Nothing here. Iridescence, Miley, Mountain?”

My attention turned to my sergeants. They were three of the most reliable ponies I’d ever known. There was little doubt we’d be successful together, and it was good to have them at my side.

Iridescence had held her leadership position the longest. When everything fell apart in Nordanver, she’d taken command and made sure Princess Luna escaped safely.

“Nothing for me.” She blinked and hurriedly added, “Sir.”

Miley Hooves bounced in place while she waited her turn. She was notoriously accident-prone, but the dark brown earth pony was a humble, excitable, and tenacious bundle of energy. We had a close relationship, as I’d mentored her the entire time she’d been with the House Guard.

“Nope!” She beamed at me. “Just welcome back, boss. I’m so happy to see you!”

Then there was Mountain Stone, my only stallion sergeant. He was tall, built like a fortress, and all muscle. His grey coat and tan mane made his name seem all the more appropriate. He didn’t talk much, and I’d always appreciated that about him. The two of us had the ability to stand guard together in silence and just enjoy it.

“Smooth sailing, sir,” he said in his usual gruff tone.

I nodded and stared at them all for just a moment. A good officer never issued orders if she didn’t have to. It was better to just describe the task that needed to be done and let the non-commissioned officers work out the best method to achieve it.

Fortunately for me, I had excellent NCOs. I’d groomed three of the four, and the fourth had groomed me.

Unfortunately for me, it left little for me to do as their commander.

“Alright then, it seems you have everything well in hoof. Orchid, stay a moment. The rest of you are dismissed.”

Iridescence, Miley, and Mountain stiffened to attention and then left my office after I gave them an acknowledging salute.

Once the door closed behind them, I smiled at Orchid. “First day back and it is already obvious how little you need me.”

She laughed and gave a light shrug. “Like you ever needed an officer when you were wearing my hoofguards, sir. Somepony has to be here to sign the forms and take the blame. Now you have that privilege!”

I couldn't help a light chuckle. “Celestia knows that is right. At any rate, I want you to push your responsibilities down to your sergeants and load Iridescence up with everything extra you can put together. From now on, they do your job while you provide mentorship, understood?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Dismissed.”

Orchid nodded, stood at attention, and then left my office. It was only a second or so before she poked her head back in. “It’s so good to have you back, Silent Knight. We missed you.”

“It's good to be back,” I replied before leaning into my chair. Good to be back indeed. If only I had some idea of what I’d be doing, exactly. At least that absence of work afforded me a lot of time to figure out how to stay busy.

A light brown hoof hovered inches from my nose, wiggling around. “I’ve heard all about you, Lieutenant.”

My brow arched as I looked down at the pegasus mare standing on the other side of my desk. She had plastered on a passable glare, even if most of it was hidden behind her green mane.

“Is that so?” I replied.

Willowy Tempest hadn’t made an appointment to see me. We’d never even been officially introduced and yet she was Princess Luna’s new assistant. New to me, anyway. She’d been in training under Princess Celestia's personal aide, Raven, while I was overseas and officially started the job when we’d returned.

‘We’ was sort of subjective, though, due to my post-Nordanver coma and then the trip through officer’s candidate school.

This was our first, formal introduction, if you could call it that. She was still wagging her hoof in my face and we hadn’t exchanged any pleasantries.

“Yes!” Willowy slammed a hoof on my desk. At least she had started to, seemed to think better of it, and then slowed her momentum to just land it delicately on the wood. “I’m not going to let you take things away from me now that you’re back!”

What was she on about? “Huh? I’m not interested in taking your job away from you, Willow. I’m a Guard commander.”

“What? Not that! I mean my schedule. I’ve heard you liked to keep Princess Luna’s schedule and make it all about security and safety.”

“I see. That is true. I just—”

“You just nothing!” she squeaked as her ears flicked back. “If somepony is going to plan what she does during the day, it’s going to be somepony that can balance the fun and the boring.” She tossed her appropriately willowy green mane. “You keep your hooves in your unit’s business and out of my way. Are we clear, Mr. Knight?”

I stood up from behind my desk, towering over her. “That is Lieutenant Knight, and yes, we are clear. You keep the schedule, but just remember that I’m in charge of her security.”

“Oh, I’ll remember!” Willowy narrowed her eyes up at me.

“Yes, you will,” I replied.

“I will!”

“Yes, you will!” Then I stomped my right hind hoof.

Willowy yelped in surprise and galloped out of my office. I settled back onto my chair and shook my head as I went back to my paperwork. “What a weird mare.”

“What was that all about?” The voice was accompanied by a light knock. I looked up to find a familiar pony in my doorway. He was a tall one—taller than most pegasi, actually—and had the stature to match it. It was the kind of frame that had made an excellent linepony for hoofball back at Canterlot Academy.

The uniform he wore these days was gold and bore the insignia of the Canterlot City Guard. It looked good over his coppery brown coat. All at once, I felt a wave of nostalgia that brought a smile to my face.

“That? I don’t know what it was. Misunderstanding or turf war. Something. More importantly, come in, please!” I stood again and came around my desk. “Defender Bronzewing. How long has it been?”

He paused a moment and then just shrugged. “Most ponies call me Daffy, but I guess you never did.” He smiled. “Nice to know some things don’t change when you run off to officer's school.”

Change. That seemed to be the theme of the day. I gave an idle nod and asked, “What brings you by?”

“A couple of things, I suppose. You know, I applied for Princess Luna’s House Guard when I saw the openings. I guess it didn’t work out this time.”

That was a fact. I’d seen his application for the medic positions and had a hoof in him not being selected. “Yes. To be perfectly frank, it was a tight race, and I didn’t want anypony to think that I’d selected you because we used to play hoofball together. You know how it is… the new lieutenant bringing in old teammates. That looks suspicious.”

Defender chuckled. “I figured it was something like that. You’ve always been a stickler for the rules. I’ll never forget that time you argued with the referee about the difference between flying straight up and straight over a player during an extra point buck.”

I snorted. “It isn’t my fault he was wrong. If you go over a player, that’s a foul.”

“Silent, we were up by three scores! It wasn’t like we needed the point.” Defender shook his head. “Never mind, we got off track. I don’t blame you for sticking to the rules.”

That was good. I’d felt kind of bad about it even though the ponies we’d selected were equally qualified. “You know, on a related topic, I believe Princess Celestia’s House Guard is going to be looking for medics, too. A letter of recommendation in your file would go a long way. If you like.”

He blinked in surprise. “Really?” A grin spread across his face. “That’d be great, actually, if you don't mind. But honestly that isn’t why I dropped in. This is more of a social call from one old teammate to another.”

My ears twitched. “Yeah?”

“Yeah… so, I’ve made a lot of friends while I’ve been in the Guard and even more so as a medic. I’ve heard your name going around a lot lately, especially after your… experiences in Nordanver. It started in the medical circles, but now it’s moved into different ones. That’s why I came by.”

The mere mention of Nordanver set the hairs of my coat on edge, but I tried to stay calm and figure out where he was going with this. “Alright?”

Defender shrugged. “Look, I know you’ve never been the talking type. With that said, if you need a pony now and then to talk with about what happened over there, I’m actually assigned nearby. Now, and I really shouldn’t be doing this, I have a name for you.” He reached into his satchel, fished out a piece of paper, and offered it to me.

I accepted it and looked it over. “Just a name?” I asked.

“Yes. In my work, I’ve spent some time with the ponies in intelligence. They come back injured now and then without any explanations. We don’t ask; we just patch them up. Anyway, that pony there can help you with the… side project I’ve heard you’ve got going on. Which, by the way, I think is a bad idea, but I understand where you’re coming from.”

Our eyes briefly met before I looked back down at the paper. “I can’t thank you enough.”

He shook his head. “I really wouldn’t. You’re probably playing with fire. Anyway, it was great to see you, Silent Knight. It’s been too long. We should meet up sometime and hit the turf. I imagine we could get into the Guard’s league.”

I smiled. “You know, that isn’t a bad idea. I might just take you up on it. Don’t be a stranger, Defender.”

The stallion nodded and waved a hoof. “See you around.”

“Take care,” I replied before going back behind my desk. I had two new tasks to handle immediately: a letter of recommendation for an old teammate and a note of introduction to a new friend.

The rest of the day blew by in a fairly mundane fashion. Other than the visit from Defender Bronzewing, nothing really happened. Princess Luna had eventually become ambulatory and Nova, one of my new medics, promised me she’d make a full recovery.

Now my door was shut, locked, and I was off shift. At least as much as a commander can be. On my way down the hall, Iridescence popped out of her office and fell in step with me.

“And how was your first day as commander extraordinaire, sir?”

With a shrug, I replied, “Not quite as different as I would have imagined. Still, it all went well. It looks like you all kept everything together. Nice work on that.”

She smiled. “We try and usually succeed. I’d still rather have you here to look out for us, though. So… celebratory drinks at the Spearhead?”

That was a lovely offer. Iridescence and I had been partners when I was an enlisted guard. That partnership had blossomed into a friendship and, for a short time, even more. Despite that, it never crossed my mind that she’d invite me out to celebrate.

My focus had been off since getting back. Recovery, trying to adjust to the role of an officer, and, of course, there was my marefriend, Crystal Wishes. At least, she was the mare that wanted to be my marefriend, and that was what I wanted, too. Did that make her my marefriend-to-be? I wasn’t quite sure what to call her yet.

She had me thinking about her almost as much as I thought about my duties. Almost.

Sheepishly, I cleared my throat. “Well… I’d like that. I’d like that a lot actually. Unfortunately, I can’t. At least not tonight. I’ve made other plans.”

Iridescence’s head tilted. “Oh? For another celebration? Is it some ‘officers only’ thing or something?”

Yes! An officers only thing. That would be an easy, simple, white lie. Instead, I shook my head. “No… I have a date.”

Iridescence came to a stop. “A date?” She sounded surprised and then quickly tried to hide it with a more even tone. “I mean… a date?”

“Yeah. I, uh… asked Crystal Wishes out and she said yes.”

“Oh, good.” Iridescence cleared her throat. “She’s nice.”

“Yeah…” Then we just stood there in awkward silence looking at anything but each other. Finally, I took a step forwards. “I should go. How about drinks tomorrow, alright?”

The mare quickly nodded in agreement. “Yes! Yes, tomorrow is better. Have a good evening, sir.”

“You, too,” I responded hurriedly before rushing out and away from the cringe-fest that was that conversation.

2. Missions

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I tried my best to focus on Crystal Wishes as several fillies galloped by, bumping into my wings… for the tenth time. Where were their parents? Didn’t foals have parents?

“I’m so sorry, Silent Knight,” Crystal said from across the table. She raised a shaky hoof to push back her mane behind her ear, but a pink highlight slipped free of the blonde locks.

“Quite okay.” I could just arrest them for disturbing the peace. I was disturbed from the peace of enjoying how pretty my marefriend-to-be was.

Crystal was clearly flustered. A cute blush showed through her creamy white coat. “This was not what I had in mind at all!”

I shrugged. It could have been worse. We were at Sunridge Sweets, which was nice. It was our first date… a date that was one year and one coma in the making. So that was great, too. Really great, actually. It was amazing at how long the unicorn mare had put up with me completely missing her signals.

Still, this probably wasn’t what she had in mind for such a momentous occasion. It was evidently some sort of school holiday and the only seats available in the cafe were at one of the tiny tables normally reserved for colts and fillies.

The chairs simply weren’t made for pegasus warriors, but I did my best to keep the one I occupied under me while I drank tea. Then I carefully set the cup back on the minuscule table.

“I just thought this would be fun,” Crystal continued in an anxious voice. “A trip down memory lane, so to speak. You may not know it, but one time during our academy years, I saw you here after your big game. Your hoofball team had just won some sort of tournament an—”

She stopped as a clumsy pegasus filly bumped into her horn mid-flight. “I have no idea where all of these ponies came from.”

As I crouched on my tiny chair, I replied, “Oh yeah… senior year. We were unstoppable back then. In fact, I just saw a teammate this afternoon. Anyway, this is fine. Any date with you is fine. I’m glad you have a good memory here. Now you’ll have a silly one to tell your friends about.”

Crystal laughed a little and seemed to perk up. “Would you like to go?”

“I would.”

“Then let’s get out of here,” she replied as she stood.

I stood, too, doing my best not to knock the chair and table over. This is what it must have felt like to be one of the big monsters from that one board game we frequently played with Princess Luna: Princess of Manehattan.

“Where to?” Crystal asked.

“Well, Dot is having a sleepover at my place, so I don’t want to interrupt that. We could go look at the constellations at the observatory? I hear that is nice.”

“That sounds lovely.” She paused, then blinked. “Wait, why is the sleepover at your place?”

“Iridescence is on duty for the evening shift, so Winterspear is playing den mother. When I stopped in, I found our condo in total chaos.” I gave her my most pained look. “I can’t go back there, Crystal, not after what I’ve seen. I wasn’t aware four fillies could wreak such havoc.”

Crystal laughed her sweet little laugh once again. It was something I always enjoyed hearing. “That is probably wise, especially since you have duty tomorrow.” She looped a hoof around my foreleg and we trotted out into the cool evening air.

That was true, even if my duty was kind of slow right now. Wait… she saw me after a hoofball game? “We went to secondary school together?”

“Yes! And it’s the academy. In Canterlot, we call it the academy.”

“In Canterlot, they call everything something fancier than it needs to be,” I playfully put in.

Crystal giggled and shook her head. “Oh, you. Anyway, yes, we did go to ‘secondary school’ together. Although you were a senior and always on some team doing something. You were in my theater club, though.”

“I was never ‘in’ theater club. I just built sets for the club.” I tilted my head as I tried to think back a few years. I never knew I had gone to Canterlot Academy with her.

Of course, back then I just went from team to team. Anything to stay fit and work on my group dynamics to prepare for guard life. I certainly wasn’t looking at the mares around me. That part of life wasn’t important to me while I was in school.

“Yes, I remember you building sets when…” Crystal trailed off. We’d reached the observatory and, to her clear dismay, it was closed. She pouted. “I hope this isn’t an omen. This has been a lousy first date.”

My ears wiggled. “I wouldn’t say spending time with you is lousy. I thought dates were supposed to be about the company.”

Crystal pressed close against me and my heart jumped in my chest. She whispered, “I trained you a little too well.”

That was true. Crystal Wishes was a prim and proper Canterlot lady. While I had been training to become an officer, she’d educated me in the art of being a gentlepony.

Still, any date was probably like a battle or match. I couldn’t just let her win. “We didn’t have a class on being polite. That is all me.” I gently tugged on her hoof. “Come, Ms. Wishes, I’ll walk you home.”

The petite unicorn flushed and nodded. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”

It wasn't that far of a walk to her building. We went through the front door together and up to her condo. I stopped outside the door.

“Won’t you come in? I have adult-sized seats,” she giggled.

“I am confident there has never been a more tempting offer from a mare to a stallion in all recorded history,” I chuckled.

“Oh, I can think of a few more tempting ones,” she teased before pushing the door open and motioning me inside.

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Crossing the threshold, though, I felt weird.

Today was different. I was a stallion in her cute little condo not as a friend or student, but as a date. Sure, it was the same living room it had been before. Sure, it was the same pair of bedrooms and shared bathroom as before, too! It was even the same kitchen.

Now we were courting, and everything was different somehow. At least a little bit. I walked into the living room and selected a stallion-appropriate pillow and settled onto it.

While I worked over my new role and what that meant for me, Crystal had been busy making tea. She floated the cups over in her magic, settled one in my hooves, and then filled it from the kettle.

It was easy to accept. She made far better tea than they did at Sunridge Sweets. It was a bit late for tea, but I wasn’t going to refuse it. “Thank you.”

Crystal nodded and settled across from me. I looked around to see if Velvet Step happened to be hiding somewhere. When she was home, there was no pressure. She wasn’t, though, so we were alone.

“You’re being quiet,” Crystal finally said.

She noticed! What should I do? Think of something smooth to say. What would a smooth stallion say? “Things feel different now.” Okay, not a bad start. “Every time I was here before, I was just a friend or a student. Now I’m not.” Sip the tea. Stall for time! I sipped my tea.

Crystal waved a dismissive hoof. “Sometimes things change for the better. Now I don’t have to subtly hint that I’m interested you and feel embarrassed when you don’t notice.”

That made me chuckle. She laughed, too. It brought back fond memories from my last day or so in the hospital, when Crystal had explained some of the insane schemes she and Velvet had put together to entice me. They’d been awfully busy mares. With every plot, it just made them seem more and more like a couple.

The clock on the wall started to jingle softly, alerting us to the fact it was late. “I should probably get back. Duty tomorrow. I’ve got this whole new command thing going on. Perhaps things will go smoother on our second date? A ride through the country, perhaps?”

Crystal rose to her hooves and smiled. “Yes, please. Although, it is already pretty late, and you’ve said yourself that your place is full of fillies. Why don’t you just stay here?”

My brow arched. “Why Miss Wishes, what will the neighbors say?”

“Probably something along the lines of ‘What is that fillyfooler doing with a stallion?’ That is what I’d say if I were them… though in far more polite terms.”

We both laughed again. I tried to sound playful as I continued, “And you’re not concerned about having a big, single, masculine stallion here?”

“You’ve been a perfect gentlepony thus far. Is there something I don’t know about you, Lieutenant Knight?”

I stood and took my tea cup to the kitchen to wash it. If I was going to stay and be a guest, I’d be a good one. “Evidently, I snore,” I called.

“You do. You’ll recall that I sat vigil beside your bed in the hospital for quite some time. We’ll just have to make do. Now come along, I’ll make up the couch for you and deal with the dishes tomorrow.”

That sounded fine to me. I was pretty tired, and a snooze on the couch would be great. Any couch away from my quarters would be good. Poor Winterspear. But better her than me!

The following morning had been less thrilling than the evening before. Crystal was still asleep in her room when I woke, and I certainly wasn’t going in there uninvited. I wrote her a thank you note and hurried off for home.

Canterlot was quiet at that hour. Most ponies were asleep after what they considered to be a hard day of attending galas and other high society events. I snorted at that thought. I shouldn’t be so disparaging since my almost-marefriend was part of that world, but she was different. She was kind and selfless.

It was a nice flight over the empty streets, with just a hint of sunlight beyond the horizon. I always liked standing guard for the night shifts. My princess’s time was quiet and peaceful. The starry sky was also the prettiest, in my opinion.

When I reached my condo, I opened the door as quietly as I could. The living room was littered with four fillies in sleeping bags. They were still asleep, and it was in my best interest to make sure they stayed that way.

Waking them up would be my sister’s job whenever she got up. Thankfully, I reached my room without incident and started to put my armor on. It was a painfully slow process, as metal tends to make noise and I wanted to avoid that.

“Well, well, well,” Winterspear said softly from my doorway. “A first date and you don’t come home. How scandalous.”

I tugged at a buckle to tighten my chestplate before shaking my head. “It isn’t like that. I just slept over so I wouldn’t disturb our guests. How did that go, by the way?”

Winterspear came over to help me dress. She nuzzled my cheek. “If you want to move fast, you can move fast. Crystal is really into you. I just don’t want you hurt again.” She went about fixing my armor. “And it was fine. Loud, but fine. It is nice to see Dot making friends finally. They seem like sweet fillies.”

“It really wasn’t like that,” I repeated honestly and then nodded a ‘thank you’ as she finished helping me. “I’m a big stallion. Besides, aren’t you the one who said it is easier after the first?”

“I did.” She replied and then shook a hoof at me. “Then don’t you hurt her. She is sweet.”

“You’re a pest.” I quipped before nuzzling back and putting my helmet on. “Have a fun day.”

“You, too.”

As quietly as I could, I flew over the living room and sleeping fillies to land softly at the door. Winterspear and I made eye contact and she smiled a loving, sibling smile as I stepped outside.

I returned it with the same followed by an evil grin. Her eyes went big and I slammed the door as loudly as possible. Then it was off to the palace!

The whole flight over left me occasionally chuckling. It had been a mean thing to do, but wasn’t that what being a sibling was about? I thought so.

I landed out by the palace gate, checked in and strolled up to my office. It was neat, orderly, and still pretty barren. That might be another thing that needed to change.

There was some paperwork work to go through and files to catch up on. It wasn’t glorious work, but it would ease me into my role.

“Good morning, sir,” Iridescence chimed as she knocked on my door and grabbed my attention. “Quiet night here. The princess would like a word with you once you’re settled. How was your date?”

I could feel a slight scowl crease my face. With a small sigh, she closed my door and took her helmet off. “How was your date?” she repeated.

Well, that was at least more professional. Not that I was sure I wanted to discuss it with her in either capacity.

We stared at each other a moment. She was waiting, and I guessed it wasn’t a secret. “It was fine. I guess every other pony in Canterlot had a date, too. All of the places we went were either packed or closed, so we ended up back at her place. We’ll try again soon, though.”

Iridescence nodded and kept a neutral tone as she asked, “And how was Dot? Not too much trouble I hope.”

“Winterspear said it went fine, so I doubt she was.”

“Winterspear said, huh? It is sounding like you didn’t come home,” she pressed.

“Not that it is any of your business, but I didn’t. Crystal rescued me from a house full of fillies and nosy sisters.”

Iridescence smiled and put her helmet back on. “Well, good for you… sir. If that will be all?”

I nodded. “You are relieved. Go get some rest and make certain my quarters don’t burn to the ground.”

“Yes, sir!”

After she left, I finished going over the paperwork I had been on before taking a break to go see what the princess needed. I didn’t make it very far before I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of Miley Hooves with a mane so long that it was spilling out from under her helmet and dragging along the floor.

I tilted my head. “Experimenting with Runic again?”

“I’d really prefer not to discuss it, sir," the little earth pony said, “but if I need to disappear a pony, can I count on you as an accomplice?”

That was something I had to ponder a bit. “He is my cousin… but it sounds like he’s brought it on himself. I’ll look the other way for your sake if he goes missing.” I allowed a chuckle before returning to my even expression. “Just get it back into regulation before Major Measure sees it.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, boss!” she chirped and went on her way.

I barely made it halfway down the hall before I heard a squeak and a thump of body and armor against the floor. She’d be okay, but I was a little worried for Runic. Did it still count as looking the other way if I sent him a note by courier to warn him that he was in trouble?

When I arrived, Night Frost stiffened to attention beside the door. I nodded to him and knocked.

“Come in,” Princess Luna called.

I walked inside to find her pacing back and forth. “You’re up early, Princess… or are you still up?”

“I am still up!” she said louder than she probably meant to. My brow arched under my helmet. “Sorry,” she added hastily with frustration in her voice.

“Anything I can help with?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No, Silent Knight. Thank you for offering. It is a disagreement between Celestia and I. Family matters. She can be… She is such a…”

“...pest?” I offered.

Of course, generally speaking, you shouldn’t call the ruler of your kingdom a pest. Princess Luna wouldn’t sell me out, though, and I really had the impression that Princess Celestia wouldn’t care.

Princess Luna stopped mid-pace and turned to look at me. Her lip curled up as she started to laugh whiling shaking her head. “Verily!”

“Big sisters just try to look out for younger siblings. They want what is best for us. At the same time, as we get older, they may not know what is the best for us better than we do.”

Her head tilted and her smile became soft. “When did you become so wise?”

“You caught me early in the morning. I can assure you it’s all downhill from here,” I replied and the princess laughed again.

Princess Luna settled on a pillow and patted the one next to her, an offer I was happy to accept. With alicorn magic, she levitated my helmet off so that she could comb my mane. It was something she’d taken to doing since my stay in the hospital and it seemed to give her peace.

In all honesty, it gave me peace as well. I had always been a strong pony, but there was something about that gryphon getting the better of me and then escaping that made me feel small and weak. The pampering helped reduce that stress.

“She is keeping things from me still. I can tell. Even after we had our talk, I don’t think she feels that I’m ready to truly rule at her side. But she has had to bear these burdens by herself for so long. Longer than anypony ever has. I worry that it will start to be too much for her. But when I try to help, she just pushes me away!”

The princess punctuated that point with a brush stroke that tugged my head straight back. I grunted in surprise.

“Sorry!” she gasped.

“Quite alright, Princess. I’ve had worse,” I replied before falling silent. There wasn’t a lot of advice I had in this situation. The rulers were equal, but there was also a family dynamic. There was also the issue that Princess Luna had been banished for a thousand years or so.

Princess Luna went back to the gentle combing and asked, “How was your date last night?”

Ponies are evidently just nosy by nature. “It was fun. Nothing went right, but Crystal is an easygoing mare. She had elaborate plans that fell through, so we just spent time together. I enjoyed it, but the feeling was different from before.”

“Dating will do that. It was about time you two found each other,” Princess Luna said. She sounded credible, too, which is weird. Part of me suspected she had had a hoof in putting us together. “Do you feel good about it?”

“I’m not very good at that sort of thing…” I hedged.

Princess Luna’s ears twitched. “You know a feeling.”

I sighed and tried to put my feelings into words for the princess’s sake. “I feel comfortable with her, like we’re right for each other. I admire her kindness and generosity. She is selfless to a fault… But it isn’t like how it’s portrayed in books or plays.

“When she agreed to see me, I didn’t hear singing or see her with a glowing aura. My knees didn’t go weak. I just wanted to be near her and I think she wants to be near me, too.”

“That sounds perfect to me,” Princess Luna said as she finished with my mane. It wasn’t how I’d style it, but I had long since given up on that. She dropped my helmet back into place.

“We’ve only had one date, though. That seems too soon to base any decisions on.” I frowned. “There isn’t enough intel.”

“Sometimes, Silent Knight, the heart wants what the heart wants.” Princess Luna rose and headed back to her bedroom. “Thank you. I am calm enough to sleep. Please see that I’m not disturbed and be sure to return this evening. We have business to attend to.”

“Of course, Princess,” I replied after bowing. I turned to walk in the opposite direction, somehow feeling less stressed but more confused than when I came in.

“The heart wants what the heart wants,” I repeated quietly to myself.

“Sir?” Night Frost replied.

I blinked at him and quickly schooled my expression and tone. “Don’t let anypony in. The princess is going to bed. We’ll come and check on her later today.”

“Yes, sir.”

That was one appointment down. There was another one on my agenda, one that I’d eagerly been waiting for. It was early, but that would just afford me some time to snoop about.

I left the palace with a brisk pace. Nervous energy filled my chest as I approached the Royal Guard Central Command. The walk wasn’t nearly long enough to burn off the extra energy, but I did at least enjoy the fresh air along the way.

When I passed through the main door of the unassuming building, the receptionist nodded in recognition. “Lieutenant.”

“Sergeant,” I replied, glancing around. There wasn’t much to see in the lobby, just the receptionist and his desk as well as some plants, a Royal Guard poster, and two chairs. Nothing of interest to my mission.

The receptionist stared at me. “A little early aren’t you, sir?”

“Punctuality is usually considered a plus.”

His brow raised before he smiled. “It is, sir. In the case of this particular meeting, however, early isn’t going to work for them. Head down to B3. I’m sure the guards will be happy to let you stare at them.”

So much for snooping. “Thanks,” I replied before taking the stairs down to the third basement level to find a small waiting room that was even emptier than the lobby.

Two royal guards flanked a heavy steel door and stiffened to attention. As I approached them, the guard on the left lifted her hoof. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but this is a restricted area.”

“I have an appointment,” I replied.

“If you do, sir, somepony will be along to collect you shortly. Please make yourself comfortable.”

It wasn’t like I had any other choice. I took a few steps back and stood at ease, staring at the two of them. They merely stared ahead. A lot of guards had withered under my gaze in the past, but these two weren’t remotely fazed.

Minutes dragged on as we had our staring contest. Eventually, the door opened with a grating sound, and Sergeant Major Granite looked out. He had the same stern expression from when I badgered my way into finding him at the Spearhead Tavern not long ago.

From that point on, we’d built a working relationship, and he’d introduced me around. That, plus a push from some senior officers, had gotten me on the list. This was my way to find peace with the Nordanver ambush: to be involved in tracking down the gryphon behind it.

“Lieutenant Knight, if you’ll come with me please,” the sergeant major said when we made eye contact.

“Thank you, Sergeant Major,” I replied before following along behind him.

The Royal Guard Intelligence offices were nondescript. The carpet was a dull grey, the walls were simple stacked stone, and even the unicorn lanterns were mundane.

Sergeant Major Granite opened one a door and motioned into a conference room. There was a familiar pony waiting inside: Intelligence Officer Guise. Our relationship hadn’t started on a good note. He’d taken exception to me being included, and I’d taken exception to his attitude.

The door closed behind me, and the sergeant major settled some documents on the table. “Lieutenant, if you’d like to look these over…” he trailed before looking over at Officer Guise.

I started reading files as thoroughly as I could. Although some of it had been redacted, what they contained in clear was surprising. “How good is this data?”

“The best we’ve seen so far,” replied Sergeant Major Granite. “There was a lot of research involved, but we’re very confident that this is legitimate. It came from one of our field operatives.”

Guise jumped in with a condescending tone, “It was credible enough that I felt it was worthwhile to send an operative in for more details. We estimate we’ll hear back soon.”

It seemed our relationship would continue to be adversarial. When it came to data, he was very territorial and seemed to delight in keeping it dangling just out of my reach. I could respect he took his job seriously, even if I didn’t like him personally. This was all slightly out of regulation, after all.

This was just the latest example of his little power plays. The report was old enough to have been received and orders sent back.

“Why wasn’t I brought in sooner?” I asked.

“This is a courtesy, Lieutenant,” Guise snapped. “You are not part of this unit nor should you even be here. I’m not insensitive to your feelings, but this is my command. I’ll feed you information when I deem it safe, or you’ll get nothing. Your choice.”

I felt the hairs on my neck rise but I kept my cool. “Yes, sir. I apologize. Thank you for bringing me in.”

“You seem to have found yourself the right friends.” He looked over at Sergeant Major Granite, who simply shrugged.

“I would be very interested in knowing the outcome,” I put in.

Guise snorted. “I’m sure. I’ll release it when and if I deem it appropriate. I can’t have you running off and doing something foolish.”

I shook my head. “No, sir. That won’t happen.”

“I’ll see that it doesn’t. Dismissed.”

3. The Hidden - Part 1

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The setting sun heralded Princess Luna’s awakening. Her orders were for me to return to her, but there was no need to rush. She would, as always, meet with her sister first. They would discuss the day and the night to come, and perhaps share a meal.

After that, Willowy Tempest, the pony who I was apparently the nemesis of, would brief the princess for her evening while serving tea. Could I interrupt that? Sure! Should I? Only if I thought it was funny. She was high strung enough as it was.

I quietly sat at my desk, looking down at my hoof-written notes. When I’d returned from my meeting with Royal Guard Intelligence, I reproduced everything from the report that I could from memory.

Absorbing information and regurgitating it had been a big part of getting through Canterlot Academy, basic training, and officer’s candidate school. That skill proved useful yet again.

The pointers on the clock caught my attention as they ticked over to the next hour. I closed my personal file regarding Captain Alastair with a sigh. This was my side project and consumed a lot of my mental energy, but he was still a threat to the princess. A threat that could not be ignored.

I slipped the file into the bottom drawer of my desk, locked it, and stood up. It was time to move on to other, more official projects. My office hours were over, but my duties were far from finished. Princess Luna would be waiting.

Once I’d secured my office door, I headed towards the princess’s private quarters. There was little doubt in my mind what she wanted to discuss. That assumption was confirmed when I found Astral Bolt standing outside with his peer. She’d already sent him out of the room.

The pair snapped to attention at my approach, and I said, “At ease. Remain outside until further notice.”

“Yes, sir,” they replied while I let myself in.

Princess Luna was sitting at her desk going over some papers. The nox pony journal that I had recovered on one of my missions for her was resting open for reference. When I shut the door behind me, she looked up and asked, “Are you well, Silent Knight?”

“Yes, Princess.”

“That gives me a great sense of peace. Now that you are back in form, I think it is time that you go and make contact with my nox ponies. Presuming you are still amiable to the task?”

Of course this was about the nox ponies. I knew how important they were to her, but the last time she and I spoke of them, I’d just gotten out of the hospital. I hadn’t been prepared to think about a bunch of ponies living in seclusion. Ponies that may or may not be holding a thousand-year-old grudge against Princess Celestia.

While my mind was clearer now, I still had reservations. Her eagerness and my clarity didn’t mean I should ignore caution, so I chose my words carefully. “I am, but I want to understand our purpose. What exactly is your goal for this meeting?”

Princess Luna stood and wandered over to her balcony. “Our purpose, then?”

“Of course, Princess,” I said softly as I followed behind her. “Your purpose is my purpose. I serve at your pleasure. All that I ask is that you don’t shelter me from that purpose. Trust me as a partner, not a servant.”

She briefly looked back at me before giving the slightest of nods. “Very well. You have earned such. The purpose is simple: find them, understand how they are doing, and hopefully, in time, bring them back.”

“Bring them back?” I asked.

“Into the fold, yes. Perhaps not physically, but at least to the kingdom. That is why you must seek them out. Should you find them, introduce yourself as the messenger of Luna the Student. You will then arrange for safe passage for me. I would speak to their matriarch as soon as possible. I fear the longer they go without knowing of me, the more frightened they may become.”

The idea of the princess wandering into potentially hostile territory set me on edge. My focus had to remain on the task at hoof, however. We could discuss the rest later. For now, I was finally granted some critical information.

One particular point stood out to me. “Why Luna the Student?”

“That is how they would likely know me. That is, of course, depending on how much information sharing they’ve done over the generations, assuming they’ve done any at all. I also do not want to appear presumptuous to them by calling myself Princess Luna.”

My head tilted. “But… you are Princess Luna.”

The alicorn shot me a look over her shoulder that I couldn’t get a read on. It wasn’t a pleasant look for sure. “Yes, by default. These ponies may be more familiar with the old ways, however, and I wish to respect that.”

I shifted somewhat uncomfortably on my hooves. “Princess Celestia warned me that some of this knowledge would frighten regular ponies. If we meet these nox ponies and they’re familiar with the old ways, as you say, do we not run the risk of their knowledge reaching regular ponies?”

“That we do, but it is a risk Princess Celestia and I are willing to take to reunite all ponies. For the time being, we will encourage the nox ponies to remain isolated until we can explain this to all of Equestria.”

What exactly would the princesses be explaining? That there were more ponies than we had realized? It didn’t make sense yet, but in time I was sure it would. “I see. Am I to convey that message as well?”

Princess Luna shook her head. “No. Introduce yourself, verify they’re there, and set the meeting. Nothing more, and nothing less.”

“And if they’re hostile?”

“They won’t be.”

“And if they are?” I pushed.

“Surrender. Put up no resistance. If you do not return in two weeks, I will know their mind and send an appropriate rescue.”

That wasn’t exactly a confidence booster, but I trusted the princess. “As you wish. Where am I going?”

The princess returned to her desk and produced a rolled-up map. She spread it out and I quickly realized it was a lot older than any map I’d seen before. There were locations that were within the borders of Equestria that I wasn’t familiar with.

“Here, deep in the southern Badlands. This mountain is the most likely place. Look for an entrance high on the peak.”

“Alright. I need to see to the unit and then I’ll leave.”

“No.” The princess pointed to the balcony door where a saddlebag rested. “Major Measure will look after your unit. I frustrated her with an ambiguous request, but she understands that you are on a personal errand for me.”

She offered me the journal and added, “Return this to its rightful owner, I have pried enough into her life. Go now. Be as swift as you can.”

This was very sudden but, as Princess Luna’s agent, I’d learned that many of these missions came on short notice. Covert work wasn’t necessarily in the average Royal Guard playbook, but I was adapting well enough.

“As you wish,” I replied before heading to the balcony, putting on the saddlebag, and leaping into the air.

My wings spread wide and caught a bitterly cold updraft that sent shivers along my spine. I’d been born in winter, but I’d never taken to it. This year, the season seemed to be dragging on and I was ready for it to wrap up. I’d missed the end of summer and start of fall during my coma.

That yielded another shiver, a different kind this time. He’d hurt me, badly. He and his dirty soldiers. They’d turned away from their duty for coin. To attack me was one thing. To attempt to foalnap or kill Princess Luna was inexcusable. There would be repercussions.

My thoughts started to darken as I imagined the possibilities. With a quick shake of my head, I cleared my mind and focused back on my mission. There would be a lot of flight ahead of me.

The Badlands are further south than many ponies realize. Most maps aren’t to scale and there is a lot of territory beyond the Appaloosan Mountains. The vast majority of it is wild, rough, and not for the average pony.

After hours of travel, I stopped to have a snack and watch the sun come up. The saddlebag Princess Luna had packed was full of rations, water, and other useful items like a first aid kit. It was enough for a two-week trip if I ate normally, and even longer if I was sparing.

With a full belly and a night’s worth of flight fatigue, I decided it was time to sleep. The light from the sun would keep a lot of the creatures below in hiding and waiting for night to hunt. Despite that knowledge, I still picked a particularly high cloud to settle into.

I’m no weather pony, so it didn’t quite cooperate with my attempts to fluff it up and move it in the right direction. It was like fighting with a pillow that was both sentient and ill-tempered.

In time, I did manage to get it comfortable enough, even in my armor. After that, it was just a matter of closing my eyes and I was out.

I woke from a dreamless sleep with a renewed spirit but a sore body. Sleeping in armor was yet another thing my father’s training hadn’t prepared me for the reality of. No matter how many times you did it, it still hurt in the morning.

Or, in my case, in the early evening, judging by the position of the sun and darkening sky. I tried to stretch as best I could before retrieving the map from my saddlebags. It took a few moments to get oriented, but once I matched a few landmarks, I was grateful to discover that the cloud hadn’t drifted off-course in my sleep.

After a few more minutes of studying the map to be certain of my route, I tucked my map away and set off towards my destination. There was a mountain range on the horizon and I suspected it was the one Princess Luna had mentioned.

It wasn’t until the moon rose to its highest point that I was able to discern the peak in the distance. I tapped the crescent moon on my breastplate, urging the night vision enchantment to life. My vision changed as objects shifted into subtle shades of brown and grey. That was a handy perk of my new armor.

The mountain itself wasn’t much different than any other that might exist in Equestria. It wasn’t as tall as Alicorn Spire or Midnight’s Peak, but it was still an immense obstruction. It would take a pony days to trot around its base.

I noticed a key difference other than size, too. The stone that dominated the surface was a granite very unlike its peers. It was darker in color and did a better job of blending in with the shadows. At least it would have had I not had an enchantment.

Now was the time for me to see if there was an entrance without looking like a sneak. I made slow circles around the spire, working my way down while looking out for anything that could be a portal inside.

It took two hours before I finally spotted what could not be mistaken as anything but an entrance. It had been cleverly hidden behind a massive stone that jutted out from the side of the mountain.

If you were to look at it head on, the stone and the mountain behind it would blend in, concealing the cavernous entrance. From the sides, it would merely look like a gap. The only real angle to see it was from above. Clever.

I casually flew down and landed in the area between the stone and the entrance. It was big enough for a wagon, but anypony pulling it would have to come in from the side and then make a tight turn into the entrance.

On hoof, things were less difficult. I merely trotted under the dark arch of stone into the tunnel beyond. Twenty meters in, I found a threshold flanked by two large steel doors. They were currently open, which I took to be an invitation. Possibly an invitation to a trap, but at least they were friendly about it.

As far as the rescue Princess Luna had promised went, I couldn’t imagine trying to assault a gate that formidable so high in the mountains. These ponies had planned well for their defense.

For a moment, I stopped at the door, took a deep breath, and put on an air of confidence. It was show time. I set a normal pace and walked along the center of the passage. It sloped downward and slowly spiraled into the mountain’s heart. I made no effort to be stealthy, nor did I hesitate. My presence here was to be known.

The path was long, but eventually it opened out into an expansive cavern. Once again, I’d found myself in a hidden village. This one was not in a state of disrepair, however, as there was no rot or decay.

It was lived in, and the ponies there were staring at me. Fear was in their eyes—their glowing eyes that accentuated the vertically slit pupils.

Nox ponies, I discovered in that moment, looked more or less like regular ponies. Most of them had darker-colored coats that looked kind of fuzzy. Though their shapes and sizes varied, there was certainly not a ‘template’ that they all followed.

To be honest, I had kind of expected nox ponies to be their own distinct type, like a pegasus versus a unicorn. Instead, it turned out that they were more like crystal ponies in that, other than a shared characteristic, they were composed of pegasi, unicorns, and earth ponies.

They all shared the same tall, tufted ears like my own. The vast majority of them had wings, but I did spot ones with horns and others with neither. Those with wings either sported feathers like my own or were smooth like that of a dragon or bat, as was the case of a little colt that ducked behind who I presumed was his mother.

As I approached the town, most of the ponies backed away, or hurried indoors. I’d never felt like a monster before, but they clearly reacted as if I was one. Perhaps I had underestimated the effect of total isolation would have.

I kept my movements slow and predictable as I reached a large plaza towards the center of town. It was dominated by a large pedestal, the kind that would house a statue. This one, however, was incomplete. Nothing stood upon it.

The crowd wasn’t hostile. If anything, they ranged from scared and curious to wholly terrified. One plum colored filly seemed interested, but her mother quickly threw a hoof around her and pulled her back. That made it clear what they thought of me. It was best not to antagonize them.

I stood in silence and looked the group over. Several of the nox ponies approached and encircled me. They were larger than most of the others but didn’t have the look of professional soldiers.

None of them had any armor or weapon, they didn’t take a proper combat stance, and they weren’t in any kind of tactical formation. If anything, they were just the local tough ponies. Perhaps a militia at best. I was out numbered but if I had to, I was certain I could fight my way out.

One of the ponies finally took a step forwards as if he meant to challenge me. His coat was dark grey, his wings black and dragonesque, and his mane and tail were a dark red. So dark they were the color of blood.

In the darkness, his amber eyes gleamed and he said firmly, “Who dareth trespass hither? This is not a place for warriors of the House of the Day to tread.”

It had been quite some time since I last heard Luna speak Early Modern Equestrian, but it wasn't so long that I couldn't understand it. At least it wasn't Old Equestrian.

Instinct told me to shift into a combat stance. That wasn’t the goal here, so I turned to him as slowly as I could. “Good evening, everypony. I am a warrior, yes, but I mean you no harm or offense. Luna the Student has dispatched me as her messenger. My visit is peaceful, and I seek your matriarch.”

There was a collective gasp from the ponies nearest me. The crowd that had gathered beyond them burst into hushed whispers. Even if we didn't speak the exact same Equestrian, they certainly got my meaning.

The red-maned pony’s eyes narrowed. “How can that be so?” he asked… more or less. I’m not a linguist, so translating the gist of what these nox ponies said is the best I can do.

Hackles raised, the pony continued, “Luna the Student was banished ages ago by the House of the Day. You insult us by lying about such a thing!”

“Luna the Student has returned,” I replied before rising to my full height and fixing my gaze out to the crowd. With confidence and a hint of challenge in my tone, I added, “I am her emissary, Silent Knight, and I don’t lie.”

As the breath of my name passed my lips, there was another round of shocked gasps followed by everypony immediately prostrating themselves before me. It was a surprising—and confusing—turn of events.

“Forgive me, Sir Silent,” the nox pony said, suddenly sounding humble. “We did not know that any Knights of the Moon still walked Equestria.”

What was a Knight of the Moon? Was I one? No, I was a Royal Guard. “No… please rise. All of you. I’m not a knight. That is my name. Silent Knight.”

They did not rise. “Yes, Sir Silent. We understand,” another pony nearby toned.

I shook my head. “I’m not certain you do. I’m not a—”

“Was one of your parents also Knight?” a clear voice asked, cutting through the noise of the crowd. It was that of a mare, and as she spoke, the rest fell silent.

That was an easy enough question. My father was Stratus Knight. “Yes.”

“Was one of their parents also Knight?” the voice asked again.

I was sensing a pattern already. “Yes.”

“And their parents and so on?” she asked.

“To the best of my knowledge,” I replied as I tried to get a fix on the source.

The questions stopped and an ancient nox pony slipped from her place within the crowd. She had been blending in so well I wouldn’t have taken her for anypony different, despite her voice.

Unlike most of the others, however, she was a unicorn. Her silver horn stood tall out of her faded gray mane that blended almost seamlessly with her coat. As she approached me, she walked with a wobble and on several occasions stabilized herself on another pony.

“In ages long past, your family served as warriors of the Moon. Knight was a title, not a name. Perhaps, in these times, the name is all that is left. And yet here you are, a warrior and a servant of Luna the Student.”

Her bright yellow eyes fell to the crowd and she lifted a forehoof. “Rise, all. I will speak with the emissary and know his mind.”

The ponies did as the mare bade them, but there was hesitation. The group that surrounded me made way for her, other than the stallion that had led the charge. He took her hoof carefully in his own and helped her closer to me.

“Welcome to our village, Silent Knight,” the old mare said. “I am Moonlit Star, the matriarch that you seek.”

That was a name I knew immediately. This was another surprise. Before I could think things through, my mouth opened and blurted out, “Moonlit Star? Luna’s mentor?”

An amused smile crossed Moonlit Star’s face. “In a fashion, yes, but in reality, no. She and I are not the same. Much as your name was handed down, so, too, was mine. The pony of which you speak has long passed, but her name and role were handed down to her daughter.

“That daughter waited for the Student to return, preparing to mentor her. When she did not, she focused on her family. A new generation was born, the role and name passed once more. So on and so on has this occurred in an unbroken line until now.”

Unbroken until now? This Moonlit Star was an ancient pony for sure. Perhaps she had not had a family? I’d have called it an interesting coincidence, if there was such a thing. That was something I was starting to doubt.

“Matriarch, I bid you greetings on behalf of Luna the Student. She believes that she’s been disconnected from her ponies for far too long and requests permission to visit.”

The assembled ponies stared on with expressions of shock. All except the matriarch. She merely nodded. “Luna the Student does not need permission. She has always been welcome here and may come and go as she desires.”

This might be easier than I thought. I cleared my throat, “You have my thanks. May I have your word in front of all those assembled that her safety is guaranteed?”

The matriarch’s head tilted as a look of confusion fell across her face. “Luna the Student lives among the aggressors from the House of the Day yet fears harm from her own? Why is this?”

Excellent work, Silent. You’ve opened your mouth and stuck two hooves into it. I could fix this. “She doesn’t fear harm from you. I, however, am a mortal pony and her guardian. Though you know her as your… kin, you and I are not yet acquainted. I will always fear for her safety.”

That appeared to be a satisfactory answer. The mare looked to the crowd and gestured with a hoof. “Then I give my word, in front of all assembled, that Luna the Student shall be safe here, now and always.”

“You have my sincerest gratitude, Matriarch. I’ll return to her directly and prepare for her visit.” Mission accomplished. It was time to leave.

When I pivoted towards the street I’d come up, the matriarch lifted a hoof. “What is your hurry, Emissary? Will you not accept my hospitality?”

Mission unaccomplished. A refusal of hospitality might reflect poorly on Equestria, Princess Luna, and myself. “Forgive me, I was overly eager to return to my charge. Luna the Student is most interested in hearing this news, but I wouldn’t want to be rude. Perhaps I can stay until tomorrow evening? Then, I really must return with this news.”

“A fair compromise. Come along, Emissary. You will stay in my home. Dusk and Dawn, with me, please.” When she said Dawn, the pony holding her hoof’s ears stood up. He nodded and continued to aid her as she started off in the direction I assumed her home was.

Dusk—at least I assumed it was Dusk—popped up in the crowd, making her way towards us. She was staring at me as she moved, a look of curiosity plainly visible on her face.

In contrast with many of the ponies there, her coat was a far lighter gray, the color of ash. Her blue-and-purple mane and tail put her at odds with Dawn. Based on their names, I had to assume they were related.

What struck me as interesting, however, was that as she moved, her hooves made no sound against the stone. That may have been a result of her extremely lithe build, but it was likely some kind of training.

When she drew close, she fell into step beside me. Her elegant black feathered wings flicked briefly at her sides before falling still.

Our trek took us through the village to what I’d guess was the northern outskirt, if my sense of direction wasn’t completely off-kilter. It was there that a large, two-story stone house stood. Once inside, the matriarch started lighting candles, and the red-maned pony, Dawn, tended to the hearth. I casually tapped my breastplate to end the enchantment.

When the tasks where complete, Moonlit Star motioned to one of the stools that surrounded a simple round table at the heart of the main room. “Please, sit.”

I did as I was instructed and took a moment to admire the home. The ceiling went all the way up to the ridge of the flat roof. At the peak, a large window was left open to the outside.

At ground level, there were two doors opposite the one that we’d come in and one to the right. All were closed. Beyond the table and stools, the room we were in had a stove, something that was probably an ice chest, and a few cabinets.

This was a simple home filled with years upon years of personal effects. Shelves were lined with hoof drawn pictures, portraits, and other items of that nature. It was a far cry from the impersonal quarters I usually kept.

Dusk began to set out food, all manners of fruits and berries. Most I didn’t recognize, but some were clearly a variety of apples and oranges.

Eventually, my hosts joined me at the table, and Moonlit Star motioned to the stallion. “My grandson, Crimson Dawn.” She then shifted her hoof to the mare. “And my granddaughter, Tranquil Dusk.”

Grandfoals, but no daughter? A granddaughter not named Moonlit Star? Is that why she had mentioned the line was unbroken until now? Had something happened? That would not be a polite question for this meeting.

For now, it was all diplomacy. “It’s a pleasure to meet you both and to be invited into your home. Thank you.”

Moonlit Star nodded. “You are most welcome. Now, please illuminate us. You come bearing great tidings. Tell me, how is it that Luna the Student has returned? How could she defeat Celestia of the Six?”

That was when it dawned on me that this was not going to be a polite interrogation. These ponies were as curious as I was. I wasn’t certain how much I should tell them. Princess Luna had not given me instructions on that. I’d have to exercise my best judgment.

“She didn’t defeat Celestia. Pri—Luna the Student slipped the bonds of the moon through the means of a prophecy. I should also be honest and say that I don’t understand magic nor prophecy. The exact machinations behind that are well beyond me.

“What I do know is that on a celebration, a thousand or so years after her internment, she, or more accurately, they escaped their bonds and returned to Equestria.”

The matriarch tilted her head. “What do you mean, they?”

What did I mean by ‘they’? “Right, they. This is once again hard to explain. I don’t understand it fully. Luna the Student, prior to her banishment, had been ensnared by a nightmare. Together, they escaped the moon and waylaid Celestia.”

Quickly, I added, “of the Six. So, in a way, I suppose they did defeat her. It wasn’t long, however, that the nightmare and Luna the Student were separated by the Elements of Harmony. That restored her to her normal self.”

“Celestia of the Six separated them?” The question was almost a whisper from Tranquil Dusk.

“Pardon? No,” I said.

Moonlit Star chimed in, “Celestia of the Six wields the Elements of Harmony and yet you claim she did not separate Luna the Student from the nightmare? How is this so?”

I could feel myself getting hot under my armor. That wasn’t something I’d let them see, though. “I see what you mean. Celestia of the Six no longer possesses nor wields the Elements of Harmony. They’re in the care of other ponies now.”

Moonlit Star listened intently and lightly stroked her chin. “She surrendered the Elements willingly?”

This was unfamiliar territory. “Forgive me, Matriarch, but as I mentioned, magic is not something I understand. From what I’ve been told, once Celestia used the Elements against her sister, she either lost the will or ability to wield them again. That power has fallen to other ponies.”

“Other alicorns?” Crimson Dawn asked as if to correct me.

“No,” I replied. “Two unicorns, two pegasi, and two earth ponies.”

“Why would Celestia deny their use to her new alicorns?” he asked.

This was getting confusing. Interesting, but confusing.

I shook my head. “There are no new alicorns. I only know of three alicorns: Celestia, Luna, and Nocturna… and I know Nocturna has long since left this world.”

That may have been the wrong response because the other three fell completely silent. They just exchanged glances between themselves before the two younger ponies finally looked to their elder.

The matriarch tentatively asked, “Then… who rules?”

Princess Luna was going to be disappointed in me for going so far off script. I shifted on the stool. “The sisters rule jointly. There is no longer any conflict or rivalry between them.”

Again, there was silence.

“Very well,” the matriarch finally said. “I look forwards to the visit from Luna the Student. Now, please eat.”

Putting food in my mouth would stop me from spilling information, so that seemed like a good idea. At least until a better idea crossed my mind. Polite interrogations could go both ways. “Matriarch, may I ask you a question?”

“Of course. I imagine you’re quite curious about us. I assume we are not well known in Equestria?”

I nodded. “Not known at all. Although, I imagine that is by design. You’ve hidden yourselves so well. Could you tell me why?”

Moonlit Star nodded. “This is true. It was a great blow to us when Nocturna the Mentor and Princess Azuleka the Ruler were murdered. Our kind feared aggression from the House of the Day after that. Though none ever came, we began our exodus from the places we were known to live.

“When Luna the Student was banished not long after, we feared the worst. Our ancestors fled Equestria for lands we felt were safer and isolated.”

Azuleka the Ruler. That was a new name for me. “I understand. Weren’t alicorns of the House of the Day also murdered at the same time?”

The matriarch tilted her head and for a moment suspicion crossed her expression. Then it vanished. “So we were told, yes. That is why, initially, our ancestors waited, mourned, and did not act too hastily. Once Luna the Student was banished, they felt it was time to go into hiding.”

“Did they know who murdered the alicorns?” I asked.

“Do you?” Crimson Dawn cut in, his tone fiery.

I’d struck a nerve. It was clear the nox ponies suspected the House of the Day. “No,” I replied as plainly as I could.

“They did not, but they had suspicions.” Moonlit Star held up a hoof. “On one side, you have three alicorns of the sun. On the other, you have three alicorns of the moon. Remove the mentors, remove the rulers, and you’re left with two students. Two students that somehow managed to escape a power capable of destroying extremely powerful ponies. Is that not convenient?”

My expression did not change, but in my head three words hammered repeatedly: they underestimated me. Princess Celestia had told Princess Luna that. They underestimated me. It was way too convenient.

I swallowed. “Their point is well made…” It was time to change the subject slightly. “Celestia willingly consented to share her rule with her sister upon her return.”

Moonlit Star said quietly, “Ambitions can change in a thousand years.”

Reunification was starting to feel unlikely. The nox ponies were under the impression that Princess Celestia was a usurper. I really needed to get back to Princess Luna.

It was time to keep my mouth busy after all. I started eating the fruit. The others did the same, and we shared a really silent and awkward dinner.

As the meal wound down, Crimson Dawn stood. “I’ll be leaving now, Grandmother, unless you feel I should stay?”

Moonlit Star shook her head. “No, we have nothing to fear from our guest. Go tend to your duties.”

Crimson Dawn nodded and slipped out. At the same time, Tranquil Dusk had started to clean up the table. That seemed as good a time as any to handle a bit of business. I reached into my saddlebag and pulled out the journal.

I set it on the table and pushed it towards her. “Luna the Student used this for us to find you. I found it at another nox pony city. Would you be able to return it to the rightful owner?”

The sound of a wooden bowl clattering on the floor caught my attention. Tranquil Dusk quickly scooped it up and put it away. “Sorry. I’ll be going now, Grandmother,” she said softly. The lithe mare then beat a hasty retreat from the home.

Moonlit Star smiled and picked up the journal in her magic. As it drew close, she lovingly stroked the cover. A little smile played at her lips. “Yes. Of course.”

“You know the pony it belongs to?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. This was my daughter’s journal before she gave it to my granddaughter. I see that Tranquil Dusk has been busy disobeying me. There are few ponies as stealthy as her. Fewer still that can come and go from our home.”

I tried not to smile at the fondness in the matriarch’s voice. “It wasn’t my intention to get anypony into trouble. Luna the Student didn’t feel it was right for us to keep another pony’s journal.”

Moonlit Star shook her head. “Young ponies are either curious about the outside world or frightened it will destroy them. My grandchildren represent both of these views very well. Despite her quiet and polite exterior, Dusk is willful and disobedient, just like her mother was. They’re both just like me, so I can hardly blame her. She feels we should have reached out sooner.”

“I guess she’ll have her wish then,” I replied.

“We shall see…”

4. The Hidden - Part 2

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In the morning, I was rousted from my bed by the light pressing of a hoof against my shoulder. My eyes opened to the sight of Tranquil Dusk peering down at me. It had been another dreamless sleep. Restful and without visions of Nordanver.

“Hello,” she said softly.

“Hi?” I responded as the fog of slumber started to wear off. It was impressive that she’d snuck up on me.

“Grandmo—The matriarch had business to attend this morning. She asked that my brother and I show you around. I’ve prepared breakfast for before we go.”

I rolled off the pillow that had been made up for me and started to don my armor. “That would be lovely, thank you.”

Tranquil Dusk nodded and then stood in the doorway, watching me. She was staring. Perhaps for these ponies it wasn’t rude. Perhaps she was super curious. Perhaps she’d never seen a stallion like me before. In either event, it was somewhat awkward.

Once I finished, she turned and headed back into the main room, affording me a brief glance at her cutie mark. It was blue and purple, like her mane, and in the shape an open book with the spine out. At least what should have been the spine. It was, instead, a burning candle.

Crimson Dawn was already at the table, eating a slice of bread covered with some kind of preserves. I sat across from him and started to make my own. Tranquil Dusk joined us, her gaze still locked on me.

“You know Celestia personally?” Tranquil Dusk asked.

“I do,” I replied before stuffing a whole piece of bread in my mouth. Secrets couldn’t be given away while I was eating.

The mare shifted on her stool. “Is she nice?”

“Tranquil,” Crimson said sharply.

The two then exchanged glares.

I swallowed my bread, cleared my throat with a drink of water, and then nodded. “She has always been nice to me.”

“And she doesn’t have the Elements of Harmony anymore? Who does?” Tranquil Dusk pressed.

“Enough!” Crimson Dawn cut in. “The matriarch has instructed us to show our guest around, not pester him with questions about the world beyond.”

The two glared at each other once more before Tranquil Dusk tossed her nose up in the air and let out a little humph.

“When you’re ready, I would be honored to show a warrior such as yourself around,” Crimson Dawn said.

It was interesting to watch the two of them together. They weren’t unlike another pair of siblings I knew. Winterspear had always been more of a trickster, and I had been serious like Crimson.

I finished eating and stood up. “Now is as good a time as any. I do have a long flight ahead of me.”

“Certainly, if you’ll just follow me,” Crimson said as he led me out of the house and into the street.

The village itself was not nearly as impressive as the other nox pony settlements I’d visited. The architecture was clearly similar, and these buildings had been well maintained over the years. There was also a whole lot more of them.

Without a keep, however, this place just didn’t seem as regal or concrete. Not that I didn’t understand the reason for not having one. A seat of power for a non-existent alicorn would be a depressing reminder day in and day out.

As we toured around, I did spot one point of interest. It was a large building that seemed an awful lot like a fortification. It was built from precisely cut stone blocks extended back until they melded into the mountain’s interior. The whole structure stood on a large foundation that could only be ascended by a single set of stairs.

To top it all off, two heavy metal doors stood closed and locked at the top. Any attackers on hoof would have a difficult time utilizing any sort of ram to assault them. Flying invaders wouldn’t be able to carry as much weight. Perhaps this was their bunker.

“What is this place?” I asked as we stood outside, looking up.

Tranquil Dusk inhaled excitedly to speak, but Crimson Dawn set his hoof to her mouth. “This is our library. It is the collected knowledge of our people.”

“It looks like a fortress,” I said casually.

The stallion nodded. “Knowledge is a powerful thing, and for all we know this may be the only place that these writings still exist in an unbiased state. No offense intended to you personally.”

“None taken,” I replied. By unbiased, he meant uninfluenced by the thousand years of history that the ‘Ponies of the Day’ had experienced. The nox ponies may have begrudgingly accepted me, but there was still a xenophobic vibe around.

“I’m guessing there is no chance we could go inside?” I asked.

Crimson Dawn simply shook his head.

That was probably for the best. I was already trotting a path that was far outside of the scope Princess Luna had given me. These ponies were also giving me ideas and glimpses into an alternate view of history.

It was making me uncomfortable, as it forced questions that needed answers. Questions that could make a reasonable pony suspicious of the pony Princess Celestia was ages ago. I didn’t like that, nor did I like the idea that these ponies thought both she and even I were some sort of aggressors.

“Very well,” I said. “Where to next, then?”

Crimson said nothing and just started forwards. We continued through the village, but each time I had questions, Crimson would shoot Tranquil down before she could give me an answer. It really didn’t help that all the other nox ponies were looking at me like I might lash out at any moment.

With a frustrated sigh after being cut off yet again, Tranquil Dusk finally suggested, “If we are not to talk or share, perhaps we should have an early lunch?”

We both looked to Crimson, who replied in a polite but clearly annoyed voice, “Yes, that's fine.”

The cafe that the two selected seemed quaint and humble. If it weren’t for the fact I was literally inside a mountain using my armor to see, I’d have said it was like any place back home in Canterlot. That was comforting, even if the server trembled every time he was near me.

I did my best to ignore that and be gracious, but it was starting to wear on me. Back home, when ponies see a royal guard, they feel safe and smile.

“Is Luna the Student beautiful?” Tranquil Dusk asked, interrupting my brooding. “I always imagined she’d be beautiful.”

Crimson glared at her, but I answered anyway. “Yes, she is. She’s taller than all the regular ponies I know, and her mane is magical. It always looks like the night sky and flows even without wind. I think you’d like her.”

Tranquil Dusk smiled shyly and clapped her hooves together. A sterner glare from Crimson Dawn brought that to a quick conclusion, however.

I cleared my throat and tried to change the subject. “Do you two have professions? Other than assisting the matriarch of course?”

“I’m a knowledge hunter!” Tranquil Dusk chimed.

“You aren't!” Crimson Dawn put in. “She’s a student.”

Tranquil Dusk stuck her tongue out. “They’re the same thing. Soon the matriarch is going to let me explore the world. You can stay here and sulk all you like.”

Crimson Dawn just shook his head. “Your dreams exceed the reach of your grasp, sister.” He then turned to me and added with pride, “I’m a watchpony.”

My ears flicked at the term. That is what I had suspected: some sort of militia. “I notice you don’t carry a weapon, though.”

The younger stallion’s ears pinned back and a frown crossed his face. I’d hit on something. “The matriarchs, both current and retired, have believed that nonviolence is always best and that our defenses will keep invaders out. Soldiers are unnecessary inside our mountain, they say.”

“Who keeps the law, though?” I asked.

“Watchponies like myself do. We don’t have many issues.” He tilted his head. “Are there many crimes in the place you come from?”

“No, but I suppose the theory has always been that by having a lot of guards out in the public’s view, it reduces the chances of crimes occurring.”

Crimson Dawn nodded slowly. “I can see that point of view.”

Our food arrived shortly afterwards and was, once again, fruit. I’d had more fruit in two meals than I’d had in weeks. We ate in companionable silence.

The sound of a cane clicking against the stone caught my ear and I looked up to see Moonlit Star approaching with the assistance of another pony. As she neared us, she smiled and said, “Everypony in town said I could find you here. Have you enjoyed your tour?”

“I have. Your grandfoals were very kind to me. Thank you for allowing me to look around so freely.” Freely was, of course, not the case, but politics were politics.

The matriarch nodded. “You’re most welcome, Silent Knight. I assume you are now ready to take your leave and head home? That will allow us time to prepare for Luna the Student’s visit.”

“Yes, I think that is for the best. The sooner I return the sooner, I can inform her of all that I’ve learned. From there, I can plan a visit for her.” I finished my last slice of orange and stood, then gave a formal bow of my head. “Until we meet again.”

“Until then,” the matriarch responded.

Crimson Dawn, Tranquil Dusk, and I then made our way out of the village and up the long cavern that served as its entrance. When we reached the outside, I paused to look at the two of them.

They could have hardly been any more different. An insular, bulky stallion and a curious, lithe mare.

“It was our honor to have you, Silent Knight,” Crimson Dawn said before offering his hoof to me.

I bumped it and nodded. “It was my pleasure.”

“Will you really bring Luna the Student back?” Tranquil Dusk asked.

“If that is her will, yes. I serve at her pleasure.”

The mare clapped her forehooves together and grinned. She did little to hide her enthusiasm and I could tell it annoyed her brother.

“Take care you two. Until next time,” I called as I got a galloping start and leapt from the landing platform. My adrenaline surged when an updraft caught my wings and hurried me along. It was great to be out of the mountain and back into natural sunlight, no more cold darkness or muted night vision.

I’d learned so much and desperately wanted to share it all with Princess Luna. She would be ecstatic that I’d found her ponies. A whole city that had lived outside of the kingdom.

The excitement spurred me to keep flying far longer than I should have. I imagined what it would be like to bring Princess Luna to the mountain and see the looks on the faces of the nox ponies. Would they fear her or love her?

With each passing moment, new and more exciting thoughts came to me until I realized the sun had set and I was flying by the light of the moon that would lead me home to Canterlot.

I was pushing to go further, faster. It was the first real exercise since my wounds in Nordanver. There was nopony around to tell me to take it easy or slow up. No, it was just me and the wind. That was a luxury I was going to enjoy so I flew. I flew until I couldn’t anymore.

A fat, heavy cloud was plodding along below me. It was riddled with hints of gray which may have meant I was in for a bumpy ride, but my options were limited. I tipped downwards and crash landed into its soft, puffy embrace.

My body ached, my lungs burned, but, on the whole, the exertion made me feel alive. Without giving my location another thought, I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

That proved to be a mistake.

It was hard to know exactly how long I’d slept; it was day when I woke. At least, as best as I could tell. The sun was cutting through the clouds but that was quickly changing. I’d been surrounded by fatter, heavier, storm-laden, snow-filled, cranky clouds.

“If some weather pony is responsible for this…” I muttered as I gathered my things, briefly checked my map, and started off towards Canterlot again. Whatever joy I’d felt the day before was quickly being drowned in the waves of snow that had started to pelt my face.

I was cold, I was wet, and I was miserable. It was a nightmare trying to navigate through the snowstorm that floated between me and my destination. I tried on a few occasions to reason with the clouds, but they reminded me that I was not a weather pony.

Weather ponies were now a lot lower on my list of things that I liked. Who needed storms, anyway? By the time I reached Canterlot, I was partially frozen and soaked to the bone.

I practically crashed onto Princess Luna’s balcony before shoving the doors open and hurrying to her large hearth. Hoofguards went flying as I kicked them off trying to get close to the fire.

“Well, hello to you, too,” the princess called from her seat on the couch. In my foul state, I’d completely missed her. She’d blended in too well with the material and there wasn’t a lot of light in the room.

Her face was easy to read. She was mildly amused but too filled with apprehension about my mission to really appreciate my misfortune.

“Apologies, Princess. My mind is elsewhere and half frozen. I had the misfortune of flying through a blizzard to return here, a task I will never again take on lightly,” I groused.

Princess Luna chuckled softly. I must have looked somewhat pitiful… wings and coat soaked through. “May I assume by your grumbling at the weather that the meeting was successful?”

My rump hit the floor and I thrust all four hooves towards the fire, letting it warm the bottoms. “You may, although there are things you should know. The situation is more delicate than we may have guessed.”

Concern filled the princess’s voice. “How so?”

“To begin with, the ponies I found were frightened of me. Not just a little bit, either. I had escorts the whole time and the nox ponies I did come in contact with literally shook. They think I’m a monster or, at the very least, an aggressor.”

Princess Luna replied, “Surely you’re exaggerating.”

I shook my head. “Oh, no, Princess. I’m being literal. When we had lunch, the server shook so bad he knocked a glass of water over. That isn’t all, though. That is just the little tiny part that got under my coat.

“Their ancestors believed that Princess Celestia murdered all of the other alicorns and banished you so she could rule by herself. That is the knowledge that they’ve passed down across the generations. Day ponies bad!”

“What!” Princess Luna’s voice was loud enough that it knocked me over. Balancing on my hind end hadn’t been a stable position.

Honesty and bluntness aren’t exactly the same thing. “I apologize again, Princess, but that is what they told me. They’re terrified of her! They wanted to know how you defeated her and who all the new alicorns are.”

“Celestia would never murder anypony!” Princess Luna’s tone had shifted from disbelief to anger. “How dare they! What did you tell them? Surely you assured them they were wrong?”

Carefully, I righted myself. “Princess, I was alone in their care. Do you really think one royal guard that they didn’t trust could really convince them to change a belief that is generations old? I told them that you didn’t defeat her and that she was happy to see you returned.”

Princess Luna got up and started pacing the room. Her jaw was set and her expression betrayed a mix of confusion, anger, and sorrow. To be honest, I was impressed any pony could express such a range of emotions all at once.

With a soft sigh, I pressed on, “I’m not telling you this to upset you, but I feel like we may need to reevaluate just inviting them to join modern society. They’re different ponies. We also have other items we probably need to deal with, too.”

“Such as?”

I stood and walked over to place myself in her pacing path. The princess stopped and our eyes met. “Princess, do you remember what actually happened that day?” I asked cautiously.

“I have told you that I do not, Silent Knight! Are you suggesting I’ve lied?” Her tone was defiant.

“No, but finding out may be necessary. You’ve told me yourself that Princess Celestia keeps some things from you. If there is even a hint of truth to what these ponies say, we’re going to have to deal with it.”

Princess Luna’s voice rose again. “She is not a murderer!”

My ears fell flat and I replied softly, “Well, be sure to tell them that when she shows up for a meet-and-greet. You know, before they all run away in a panic and shut their society off for another thousand years.”

The princess’s anger rose for a brief moment and then deflated. “You’re right. This is a sensitive topic for my sister. I will try to broach it and, at least for the immediate future, we will not invite her to any ‘meet-and-greets,’ as you so casually put it. Is there anything else?”

“Yes, a lot, actually. They have a library. It was heavily fortified in a way that puts the Royal Archive to shame. I wasn’t allowed inside, but I was told the texts have not been influenced by contemporary history.”

“That sounds most interesting,” she replied softly.

“Agreed. I wanted to get inside, but it wasn’t allowed. They’d probably let you in, though. I couldn’t imagine them denying an alicorn. Then again, they thought I was a special pony, too.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“They said I was a Knight of the Moon, or at least a descendant. My name isn’t a name, it’s a title.”

Princess Luna softly chuckled and ran her hoof along the crest of my mane. “Won’t your Crystal Wishes be pleased? Yes, as I have long suspected, your lineage is tied to the nox ponies and it is certainly probable that your ancestors were Knights of the Moon.”

I tilted my head. “Can you tell me anything about them? I’d like to know more about my family, other than what my father has said.”

“I’m afraid there isn’t too terribly much to say. They were pegasus warriors one and all. Some were protectors like you but most, went out into Equestria to do valiant deeds in the name of the Alicorns of the Night. When our House disappeared, so did they. Of course, Equestria is a far safer place now. There hasn’t been a need for knights for some time.”

Knights that did valiant deeds. That sounded a lot more like the games Winterspear and I played as foals than my father’s version. I think I liked that better. “Their matriarch believes in nonviolence, but I can’t say for certain that all the ponies feel that way.”

“Oh?” the princess asked curiously.

“The watchponies that keep the law. One in particular seemed interested in the more martial aspects. I think most of them would be more terrified than hostile when we visited, but it is something to keep in mind. They’re terribly isolated and frightened. Nothing is more dangerous than a trapped animal.”

“Verily,” the princess replied with a sour tone. She moved to her couch and motioned to the spot across from her. “Please sit down. I’d like to hear everything again from start to finish.”

“Of course, Princess.”

Being the commander of Princess Luna’s House Guard was starting to seem mundane compared to my work for the princess and my involvement with the intelligence section. From a career perspective, that was not a good thing.

I spent a lot of my time waiting for news from activities that were not exactly within my scope of control. They also weren’t exactly outside of my duties as Princess Luna’s chief protector. In either case, I should have been focusing more on my official duties and aimed to do so.

There were some responsibilities to handle as the CO. Despite being out for a bit, keeping up with the unit was turning out to be surprisingly easy. Radiant Orchid handled most of the work just as I had when I was in her position.

Iridescence had picked up a fair share, too, since she was learning to do that same job. Typically, my role involved doing paperwork, attending meetings, and explaining to my sergeants what needed to be done. They did the rest. I was starting to see why my father had the poor opinion he did of officers.

My door had been open constantly as of late while I got to know the new ponies in the unit. Some officers might not bother, but my current intention was to remain where I was for a long time. Plus, it was just a good habit to take an interest in your subordinates.

I looked over files while three ponies stood at attention on the other side of my desk. Nova, Golden Touch, and Oopsie Daisy were my new medics. New to me, anyway.

“Your records are all impressive,” I said. “I’m not sure we could have found better medics. You’ll still function as guards, but your training is going to be skewed towards your medical skills.

“I’ve pulled a few strings and, if you like, you can work one shift a week over at the Royal Guard Medical Center. They’ll train you and you’ll do a lot more than patch up ponies with minor cuts and scrapes.”

Nova replied, “That will be a great opportunity, sir. Thank you.”

“I can’t wait to work a shift and maybe even save lives. Thank you, sir!” Golden Touch responded.

“Do they have any foals there?” Oopsie asked.

I honestly didn’t know, so I shrugged in response. “Thank you all for stopping in. I look forwards to working with you. Dismissed.”

The trio made their way out of the office and Radiant Orchid came in after them. She waited until they were gone before asking, “How are your meetings going?”

“Well enough. I like the ponies you and Iridescence decided on. Speaking of her, how is she coming along?”

Orchid shrugged. “She’s still tentative but making progress. These things take time.” She closed my door.

My brow arched. “Something on your mind?”

“Yes, sir.” She advanced on my desk with a serious expression. “You and I need to have a little talk.”

I tried not to cower under the intimidating stare. “Alright, you have my attention.”

“With all due respect, sir, you’re turning into a disappointing commander.”

My mouth opened but she lifted a hoof and kept going.

“Since you’ve been back, you’ve been aloof. You have off-the-books meetings. You disappear for days and you don’t tell me squat. I didn’t agree to be your section sergeant so that you could go do whatever it is you’re doing.”

The back of my neck got hot and anger bubbled up inside my breast. I kept my expression blank, however, and locked eyes with Orchid. It was time to lay down the law and remind her exactly who she was talking to.

I took a deep breath. “Sergeant…”
Then I trailed as my experiences with officers flashed across my memories. What would I have done in her shoes? What does a commander that disappears all the time look like? An empty desk.

“Sir?” she replied, glaring at me.

“You’re mostly right.”

“Mostly, sir? Hardly! I think—”

A bit of anger escaped when I interrupted her. “Enough! It took a lot of guts to say what you did and gamble that I’d do the right thing, but you don’t know nearly as much as you think you do, Sergeant. There are some things going on above your pay grade.”

Orchid shook her head and advanced on my desk. “No, sir. Not between me and you. Lieutenant Rook never kept secrets from you. Don’t you dare treat me like I’m any less. We’re partners, or I walk.”

We glared at each other a while in silence as I went over everything in my head. Finally, I set my hooves on the desk and stood. “Okay, but when we’re done, I’m going to remind you that you asked for this. More importantly, you’re not going to like it. You’re going to have to keep secrets from your sergeants and that was something I never did. Now, sit down.”

Her rump dropped immediately.

“When I disappear for longer periods of time, it is at the direct request of Princess Luna. Technically, Princess Celestia is also in the loop. That is why Major Measure has never said a word. You don’t think you’re the only one that would notice me running off, do you?”

After some thought, she carefully asked, “What kind of requests?”

Orchid was right about one thing: Rook and I had very few secrets. This had been one of them, though. “There is a group of ponies living out there that aren’t part of Equestria. The goal is to reunify them.”

“What do you mean? Like the zebras?”

I shook my head. “No, this is more along the lines of the Crystal Empire magically reappearing. There is a whole group of ponies that have been living on their own. They were Princess Luna’s subjects a thousand years ago. When she was banished, they went into hiding.”

Orchid cut in, “What do you mean by Princess Luna’s subjects?”

“That… That is more complicated. Look, a long time ago, the princesses didn’t exactly share everything. These ponies only recognized Princess Luna as an authority and we’ve only recently found them.”

“Okay…”

“Princess Luna will want to visit them soon and there are some problems with that. They don’t trust Princess Celestia or ponies like you. It is going to be delicate.”

“Ponies like me?” Her nose scrunched. “What is that supposed to mean?”

I waved a hoof. “Sorry, that came out wrong. They don’t trust ponies that don’t look like them. I’m distantly related to them, apparently, so I don’t technically count. But they don’t really trust me all that much, either.

“That is neither here nor there. We’re going to conduct diplomacy with a lost civilization. I’ve been paving the way, and I wasn’t allowed to discuss it. Technically, I’m still not but your point is well made.

“At any rate, we’ll be going to visit them soon enough and Princess Luna is crazy if she thinks I’ll be the only guard with her.”

Radiant Orchid just stared at me with wide eyes. “How long has this been going on?”

“A while. Since before the gryphons. I just found them recently, though. The details are still a secret and you’re going to keep it that way. I’m not kidding when I say this goes all the way up and skips the Royal Guard. Am I clear on that?”

Slowly, she nodded, looking a bit spooked.

“I warned you. You’re the one that stormed in here.”

“Yeah…” All the intimidation was gone. She sounded almost sheepish now. “I just thought you were off… I don’t know… figuring out you were a hot young stud and had missed sowing some oats. I mean, you did finally just get a marefriend.”

“Hot young stud sowing oats?” That made me snort.

She flushed and quickly changed the subject. “The meetings are about this?”

I replied flatly, “Not all of them, no.”

Orchid lightly rubbed at the side of her helmet. I think she was after her temple. “Am I going to like hearing this?”

“No.”

“Okay.” She breathed in and out. “In for a bit, in for a silver piece.”

“The meetings are with the intelligence sections, particularly a Nordanver-focused group. All of my involvement is a courtesy and off the books. I don’t even brief the princess, but I’d guess she knows since she’d receive the official notices.”

Her ears flicked. “Alright… Why?”

“Come on, Orchid, surely it is obvious! You were there, too. He killed our ponies and tried to capture the princess. He’s a threat! I can’t get past that while he is still out there.”

“I know he hurt you, Silent Knight, but we got away, okay? We’re here, he failed, that is that. You won, you did your job. What are you doing now and how is it helping?” she asked.

“The job isn’t done! I failed. I didn’t get the bad guy. So now we’re making his life hard. We have certain assets available to us that can make certain he doesn’t get comfortable.

“I’ll be perfectly honest, too: if I get my hooves on him, he and all of his men are going to receive a ton of punishment before I turn him over.” The statement came out more as fact than bravado. I could see a chill run along the mare’s form.

Orchid frowned. “Are you sure you’re not just off having fun, then? Playing hide the stallion with Crystal Wishes?”

Slowly, I shook my head. “As crude as that is—and seriously, thank you for that—not while I’m on duty, no. Look, I realize this is all unorthodox but this is the job. At least for me. It was different when Lieutenant Rook was here. Do you think it was dumb luck I miraculously got command of the unit I came up in? You know better than that.”

Orchid shifted a bit. “I thought it was because you and the princess were close.”

With a shrug, I replied, “Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. I wear more hats than Rook did and commander is just one of them. At this point I’m not even sure Princess Luna views that as the most important one, either.

“That leaves you. You're the section sergeant. You know as well as I do that your job is to run your section and train your lieutenant well enough to convince her that is the pony doing it.”

“Yes, sir… That is what I was trying to do when I came in here. Now I’m wishing I hadn’t. You don’t need the kind of help I can provide.”

I smiled smugly. “You asked for this.”

Orchid groaned. “Yes, I did. Look, Silent Knight, you know I’d do anything for you. I’m here, right? I’ll cover the unit and train Iridescence to do the same. I’ll even snow over the sergeants since I know what is going on now—”

“But?” I cut her off.

“We had an agreement. Nothing that risks me leaving my foals without a mother. You keep that gryphon thing to yourself and don’t ever, ever ask for my help with it. If you did I’d be dumb enough to agree because it is you.

“Please understand, I don’t think you’re wrong. I just think some things are better left alone. This is one of them but you’re just a little too young or too stubborn to realize it yourself, though.”

I looked at her and replied, “To be honest with you, Orchid, I’m not… but I can’t get past it. I just can’t. I swear I won’t ask you to help me on this. Other than to cover for me that is. I’ve seen enough ponies’ graves already.”

“Yeah… me, too. That is why I’m hoping there isn’t one more. Think about that a while, okay, sir?”

I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

Orchid left me then to think about what I was doing. Half of me knew she was exactly right. The other half didn’t see it that way. There was an enemy out there plotting and planning. It was a Royal Guard’s duty to take care of criminals.

It was a House Guard’s duty to ensure the safety of the princess. How could I do either of those things if I just walked away? I couldn’t. All I could do was close my eyes and see the face of the bastard looking down at me on the train. One day I’d be the one looking down at him.

I got up and headed out. There was official business to do. I had the UHG weekly alignment meeting which would be followed by the palace guard monthly alignment meeting. Central command loved alignment meetings.

After those two I’d then attend the committee for the Palace of Tomorrow, the Filly Scouts ‘Meet a Royal Guard’ experience, and finally something hastily thrown together about a dragon roost.

That was the rest of my day. I spent the whole time going through the motions while I thought about what Orchid had said. Was I really being stubborn by wanting justice? Was it really blind youth? I certainly didn’t feel immortal. There was no delusion that if I met Alastair again I would be assured victory. Perhaps my section sergeant was right.

After all of my duties had been completed, I wandered back to my office, yawning when no pony was looking. It had been a long day and I was running out of energy. I’d sleep on what Orchid had said and consider backing off a bit. When I reached my office door I unlocked and pushed it open. She was probably right and after I slept on it I’d feel—

There was a plain grey envelope on the floor with no markings at all. Somepony had slid it under the door. Casually I looked back and forth down the hall before picking it up and opening it.

My teeth clenched in anger as I looked it over. “Of course. Well, then, I’ve got you now you bastard.”

5. For Canterlot! - Part 1

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It was going to be a long day. I was tired and irritable due to not being able to sleep much after reading the report that somepony had casually slipped under my door. The same report that had become something of an obsession for me.

This was far different than what the intelligence section had been feeding me in both detail and delivery. Nothing previous had been shared anywhere but in their secured facility. Everything I had was hoofwritten from memory.

The other eye opener was that this was a recent report, not one carefully delayed for my consumption. If I were to guess, in the normal course of business, I wouldn’t be receiving this data for at least another week or two.

What struck me the most, however, was that nothing was redacted. The report was fully intact with a level of detail I couldn’t have previously dreamed of. This was the real thing. How or why it had come to me was a mystery, but it was definitely appreciated.

My relationship with Sergeant Major Granite was excellent, but not so much that he’d take this kind of career risk for me. At least… I didn’t think so. I also couldn’t just ask him about it. What an awkward—

“Sir!” Miley Hooves shouted as she burst through my doorway without knocking.

It wasn't unusual for Miley to forego proper door procedure, but she looked genuinely panicked. “What’s happened?”

She pointed a hoof in the general direction of outside. “We’re under attack!”

“Under attack?” I repeated in surprise as adrenaline started to kick in. “Form up in the princess’s chambers, send a runner to summon every other guard. Go immediately.”

Miley quickly saluted and rushed off, leaving my door open. I spared just a moment to throw the report in my bottom desk drawer before galloping out into the hall. There were palace guards scrambling everywhere, and many of them were looking out the windows instead of going to their posts. I had no idea where their officers were, but I had a job to do.

The doors to the princess’s chambers were open but still guarded. My house guards, at least, were professional enough to mind their duty. They stood to attention as I hurried through. The princess was out on the balcony with Radiant Orchid and I joined them.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said as I surveyed Canterlot. The situation was clearly serious, but I was having a hard time accepting the threat.

The city was under attack, but not by changelings, gryphons, or any aggressor I'd expect. No, we were being assaulted by giant cockatrices.

Princess Luna looked down at me. “They are reacting to a fast-moving celestial body of extreme evocational significance.”

“What?”

Radiant Orchid clarified, “A big comet is giving them superpowers.”

That made more sense. “I see. So we’re dealing with extreme magic here?”

“Verily,” the princess replied.

My house guards were starting to arrive, filling the room. As they crowded into the princess’s chambers, they got into line and stood at attention. Their eyes were flicking towards the windows, but that was forgivable.

“Alright, we should get the princess inside and down into the basement,” I ordered. “They’re still at the outskirts of the city, so we should have plenty of time.”

“Not this time, Silent Knight,” Princess Luna said with a toss of her mane. “Our city is under attack. Celestia has joined the battle and so shall we! There will be no hiding this day.”

I gawked at her. As every reason why she should do the exact opposite jumped to the forefront of my mind, she met my eyes with an intense determination.

“I will not hear otherwise,” she commanded in a voice that was just shy of the Royal Canterlot Voice.

It was still enough to make me drop into a bow. “Alright, I can accept this request as long as you agree to some rules.”

“I will, but first, my armor, please!” she called as she swept past Orchid and me.

I followed along behind her. After the trip to Nordanver, Princess Luna had commissioned a suit of armor for herself. I think it was part of the way she dealt with the horror she had seen. It was also reasonable for her to have her own protection.

Protection was an understatement when it came to this suit, however. It was a masterpiece far beyond even mine. The finest smiths in all of Equestria had forged it for her and the brightest alchemist had strengthened it. Until now, it had merely sat on a stand in the back of her chambers. Today was the day that would change.

The aesthetic for Princess Luna’s armor had been designed to match ours, with polished plates of dark and light purple hues—byzantium and heliotrope, as I recall. Her hoofguards extended further up her legs than ours, and there were little flourishes that had no protective value but looked nice. With her size and regal stature, she cut quite an imposing figure when she wore it.

“Iridescence, help the princess with her armor,” I ordered.

She nodded. “Yes, sir. Princess, if you’ll follow me.”

While the two of them tended to that task, I turned to face my section. They looked ready for the opportunity to get back into combat. What were giant cockatrices compared to a changeling attack or gryphon ambush?

“Listen up, ponies. Today is going to be a little different than usual. We have an opportunity to play offense. We’re going to help the city guard push these magic-fueled monstrosities out of Canterlot. At the same time, we are going to be careful as we do it. Our number one priority is to protect the princess. Don’t forget that fact for an instant.”

When Princess Luna returned fully dressed in her armor, my attention shifted to her. “The rules are as follows: you will remain with Iridescence and her squad at all times. You will not charge off on your own. You will not overextend. If things get too dangerous, we will drag you out of the streets and into the basement, kicking and screaming if we have to. Am I being clear?”

She blinked a few times at me. I think she sometimes forgot that I was more than just her royal guard. I was also her friend who wasn't afraid to speak to her like that. It was necessary so that she understood the gravity of this situation.

"Yes," she finally said with a nod.

I nodded back and turned to the unit. “Sergeant Iridescence, as you might have already guessed, you’re with the princess. Diamond formation. No pony gets further than two meters away from her.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

“Sergeant Hooves, I want a wide external perimeter around Alpha Squad. If they’re out of sight, collapse in. Try not to let anything get through.”

“Understood, boss.”

“Sergeant Stone, you’re with me. We’re going to be the vanguard. I’ve got an idea that I think just might work on our giant friends.”

“I like the sound of that,” he replied.

With a motion towards the door, I ordered, “Alright, everypony, move out. Let’s keep to an orderly fashion. Look fearless, angry, and professional. The palace guard might need some inspiration.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, all of the ponies fell in and started marching out the door. Radiant Orchid lingered back. When the last tail went through the door, she leaned in and whispered, “You didn’t assign me anywhere. I know we discussed this, but that looked pretty bad.”

“Not my reasoning,” I replied. “I want you on Princess Luna’s flank. If she stops following the rules, subdue her and get her out. I’ll be up front, so it falls on you.”

“Subdue the princess?” she asked incredulously.

“You heard me. If you have to, jump on her back, grab her mane, and ride her into the basement, you do that. You’re the only pony I trust to follow that order.”

Radiant Orchid nodded and turned towards the door. “I think I liked you better when I thought you were a screw-up.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” I replied as I trotted quickly beside her.

The palace guard was starting to get organized when we marched through the hallways. Many of the ponies stopped and moved out of the way as my column went by. If any of the House Guard were frightened, they didn’t show it and our air of confidence was infectious.

By the time we reached the courtyard, there were several other officers marshalling their guards for the defense.

“Keep together!” Orchid called sternly as we approached the gate. It had been closed per our standard procedures.

Without missing a beat, I called, “Make way for the princess! Open the gate!”

The guards in the gatehouse didn’t seem to question that order and did as commanded. The drawbridge fell, the portcullis went up, and we marched out into the city proper.

Canterlot was in total chaos, which wasn’t a surprise. Being invaded by giant monsters isn’t a day-to-day occurrence. Most ponies had the good sense to stay indoors, but that didn’t mean there weren’t still some that had been trapped on the streets, uncertain of where to go.

“Silent Knight, on your left!” the princess called. “Be careful, ponies; do not look them in the eyes!”

Quickly, I turned and spotted one of the cockatrices lumbering our way. “Fan out! Stick to the plan! Mountain Stone, with me!”

The House Guard broke into formation exactly as ordered, and I galloped with Charlie Squad towards the beast.

“Keep clear of the legs,” I called before rearing back and pummeling the cockatrice’s lower belly with my forehooves.

Or, well, I tried. Admitting my attack was wholly ineffective isn’t something a royal guard would normally do, but I’m confident the thing laughed at me.

The cockatrice moved far faster than something its size should as it leaned over to peck at me with its huge beak. I leapt into the air to avoid the attack and, while its head was low, Mountain Stone whipped around and landed a ferocious buck right against the cockatrice’s temple.

The overgrown chicken staggered like a drunk and fell over. As best I could tell, it was out cold.

Mountain Stone snorted and trotted past the unconscious heap of feathers and scales. “What’s next?”

“I think we should scare up another target and lead it back to the princess,” I replied. “Her magic will probably pack a big wallop.”

The sergeant nodded and looked to his squad. “Stay close.”

We pressed on further down the street and were caught off guard when two more of the giant fowls appeared from behind a tavern. They squawked and started to charge towards us.

“Fall back!” I called, doing my best to keep my tone firm and full of confidence.

We all galloped towards where the rest of the House Guard had set up their perimeter. As the distance between us and them evaporated I ordered, “Drop!”

The ten of us dropped flat to the cobblestone as one of the two birds behind us was struck by a powerful burst of alicorn magic. It went reeling and collapsed against a nearby building.

The other was pelted with a hail of crossbow bolts. They didn’t cause much in the way of damage, but I guessed being stung by half a dozen bees at once wouldn’t go unnoticed. The effect certainly forced the cockatrice to pause. That hesitation was long enough to allow Princess Luna to power back up and knock the creature out cold with another burst.

“Huzzah! Find us another, Silent Knight!”

“Aye, Princess!” I responded before taking to the air to survey the battle. Civilian ponies were scrambling everywhere. Units of city guards were moving through the streets doing their best to get them out of harm's way while simultaneously driving the creatures back.

They were doing the first task very well. The latter was lacking, but city guards weren’t equipped to face giant magical creatures. That was all the more evident when I saw an extra-large cockatrice approaching a small squad of guards one street over. At least three of them looked injured.

“Mountain Stone! One street north. A real big one! Meet me there and hurry! We have sisters in danger,” I ordered.

“Yes, sir,” he called as his squad took off at a gallop.

I circled the cockatrice once to get at its back before diving straight at it. There was little chance I’d be able to stop it on my own, but I wanted to distract it from the injured ponies. The big beast staggered when I slammed into its back, knocking most of the wind out of me. I fell onto the street, landing heavily in my armor.

My goal had been to get its attention, but what I’d done was make it angry. I scrambled as I tried to get back on my hooves while desperately trying to catch my breath. All I could really do was scoot back. At least the guards were now safe.

The beast had found its footing and turned to stomp towards me. When its foot rose, several ponies sounded off with war cries and came galloping out of a side alley.

Mountain Stone and his squad arrived just in time. They smashed the cockatrice’s other leg with a series of bucks and shoulder checks and sent it sprawling.

Battle Ready and Astral Bolt helped me up and we started moving away. I coughed a few times before finding my voice. “Fall back! Lead it to the others.”

As fast as we could, we headed down the alley. The extra-large cockatrice had already recovered and was gaining on us. In a fit of rage, it smashed its way down the narrow passage, doing extreme damage to the two buildings that framed it.

“Incoming!” I heard Miley shout as we fanned out once we’d cleared the alley.

All of the guards lifted their crossbows and I could see Princess Luna’s horn illuminating.

“Drop!” I called.

A hail of bolts flew over our heads and hit the charging cockatrice. All were ineffective… the thing just kept coming. Somehow it even anticipated the princess’s attack and ducked the magical bolt. It barreled forwards and smashed into Miley’s perimeter, knocking three ponies aside like ragdolls.

Ironclad shouted, “Medic!”

The cry sent fear through me. I saw Starry, Lavender, and Risky lying there, and a gryphon rapidly closing the distance between it and… “Princess!” I shouted in warning, my blood running cold.

There was just too much momentum behind the beast for anypony to have a chance to stop it. Firn Bristle threw herself in front of it, bracing herself for a blow that never came. The cockatrice instead slammed into a glowing royal blue shield.

Iridescence stood defiantly at the princess’s side, her horn burning brightly to project the spell. Her magic gave out almost immediately, but it had been enough. The force had been stopped.

A moment later, Princess Luna’s horn erupted in black fire and a beam of light exploded into the creature. In an instant, the cockatrice was off its feet and sailing away. Not just away from us, but away from the city.

Everything went silent for a moment as I got up and looked around. I was in Canterlot, I kept reminding myself. Not Nordanver. “Report! How are the wounded?”

Oopsie Daisy called back, “Three down here. A few broken bones, but stable.”

“All minor here, sir!” Nova shouted.

“Good here, sir,” Golden Touch said off to my right. Somehow the creature had missed trampling the ponies that were lying on the ground.

I nodded. Sweat was clinging to my coat, and not just from the exertion. “Alright, Iridescence, have two of your ponies help the wounded to the palace. Mountain, pick three to fill in for the perimeter. Everypony take a quick breather and keep a sharp eye out. We’ll get started again in a moment.”

My orders were being carried out, and Orchid walked up to offer me her canteen. “They look silly but they’re no joke,” she said softly.

After taking a quick drink, I shook my head. “No. I guess they’re not.”

“You’re doing fine. Although, with all due respect, sir, be sure not to lead from too far up front. If you go down it will demoralize the section. Sometimes you need to know when to let others take the risks.”

I glanced at her and paused to mull over her words. It seemed like my job to lead by example, but when she put it like that, she had a good point. Finally, I nodded. “You’re right, First Sergeant.”

She gave me a pleased look, then steeled her expression and turned away. “Alright, ponies, let’s not get too comfortable. We don’t know how long we have until the next encounter. Lightning Flash, Thunder Tumble, get up there and spot for us. I want to know if any of those things gets within a block of this position.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they replied before flying up.

I took my own advice and caught my breath. When I felt less winded, I flew up after Lighting and Tumble to get another good look at the city. The battle was still raging on. There were cockatrices and royal guards everywhere fighting it out in small skirmishes. That was when it dawned on me that this wouldn’t be a quick fight.

Far to the west, the sun was just starting its descent towards the horizon. The cover of night might be turned to our advantage, but I wasn’t certain the cockatrices would be impacted.

My attention shifted a few streets over when the distant sounds of screams reached my ears. A single royal guard was galloping with a herd of colts and fillies. Two cockatrices were chasing them and shortening the distance to their prey quickly.

“We need to move immediately!” I shouted down to the others. “There are foals in danger!”

With a mighty flap of her wings, Princess Luna left her escort and joined me in the sky. She followed my gaze and immediately took off in the direction of the young ponies.

“Princess, wait!” I called after her before cursing under my breath. “Sergeant Orchid, follow us as best you can. Pegasi, with me!”

The momentary lull in the action was now shattered, and everypony that could fly took to the sky with me as we chased after the princess. Down below, I could hear Orchid screaming orders to try and keep the galloping ponies in some form of order.

We closed the distance quickly. It took everything I had just to keep close to Princess Luna. When we drew near our foes, her horn lit up and another great lance of magical energy leapt forth and struck the lead cockatrice.

“Get the foals!” I shouted to the other pegasi and they dove towards the street.

I similarly turned my attention to the little ponies, trusting that, in this one moment, Princess Luna would be safe.

With precision and care, each guard swooped down and scooped up a foal or two, spiriting them towards our unit. The second cockatrice was gaining on the remaining pony, the lone guard who’d tried to help the young escape. I could see Princess Luna was still powering up and didn’t want to take the risk of her missing.

My course took me straight to the guard and I wrapped both forelegs around their middle. I pumped my wings as hard as I could, doing my best to lift us both from the cobblestone street while she squealed in surprise.

It was slow going, since carrying a pony while flying in armor is a challenge. Carrying a royal guard who was also in armor is near impossible, even for a stallion of my size. Luck was on my side, however, as this particular guard was smaller than normal.

When my strength gave out, we came to a crash landing in one of the city’s many green spaces. We were lucky, however, as the cockatrice was far away and likely on the receiving end of Princess Luna’s wrath.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

The little blue guard squirmed out from under me and gasped. She was trembling all over, so much so that her armor rattled. “I think so. Are the foals okay?”

“Yeah, we got them all.”

“Good.” She flopped over into the grass, seeming content to just lay there. It dawned on me then: I knew this particular guard.

“Warrant Officer Azurite?”

She looked over my way and just nodded.

“What are you doing out here? You’re a pony resources specialist!”

Her eyes went wide and she looked almost… offended. “The city is under attack! Do you think I could live with myself if I just stayed in my office and hid?”

I got up and brushed myself off before offering her a hoof. “I wouldn’t have lost any respect for you if you had… but in all honesty, you’ve earned a lot more of it now.”

Azurite took my hoof and pulled herself up. She was still trembling all over, but that didn’t bother me. Smart ponies get afraid. Fear is good. Fear keeps us alive.

“Come on, we need to get back to my unit. Brave or not, you shouldn’t be out here alone.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied softly and we headed back the way we’d came.

Radiant Orchid had reformed the perimeter and was standing with the princess. The two cockatrices were nowhere to be seen.

“Report,” I called.

“All foals accounted for, the princess is unharmed, minor wounds only, sir.”

“Good. Oopsie Daisy, Ironclad, and Starlit Veil, I am temporarily assigning you to Warrant Officer Azurite.” I shifted to look at the little blue mare. “Take the foals and go to the palace. I want you to get them down to one of the central rooms in the basement and protect them.”

She looked up at me and nodded. “Yes, sir. Alright everypony, let’s get moving. Stay together, little ones.”

While we watched them go, I caught a look from Radiant Orchid. She was eyeing the foals with a worried furrow of her brow. It was the look of a mother who suddenly realized the same could be happening to her own offspring.

I knew what she was thinking, and I didn’t blame her. We had a duty to the princess, however, so I shook my head no. Her eyes closed briefly and then, just like that, the expression was gone, replaced by the look of a hard and determined House Guard sergeant.

6. For Canterlot! - Part 2

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Canterlot was in chaos as the attack from the giant cockatrices raged on. Where we were, however, an eerie quiet surrounded us. It was unsettling. The princess and I looked up and down the street together.

On the horizon, the sun was starting to set, and it would soon be the princess’s time to raise the moon. She looked down at me, her horn glowing a soft blue. “I can sense more of the magical creatures about. We have done well, but there is much to do.”

Radiant Orchid trotted over to me. “What is the plan, sir?”

Azurite had left with more of my guards, and we had sent the injured back as well. Resources were tight. “We’re getting light on ponies. We should probably look for another unit we can hook up with, otherwise we’ll need to retire the field.”

Orchid nodded. “That seems sound. Lighting and Tumble, get back up there and give us some eyes.”

“Yes ma’am!” Tumble replied before he and his partner leapt into the sky.

Princess Luna shifted in agitation. It was plain for anypony to see that she didn’t want to wait or move slowly. There wasn’t long to wait, however, as the sound of clambering hooves on cobblestone caught our attention.

Somepony was coming our way and extremely fast. The sound of armored hooves rattled off the buildings and echoed.

Lighting Flash swooped down and said, “We’ve got company coming.”

“Another unit?” I asked.

“No, sir, one pony,” he replied, pointing past me.

Orchid and I turned our gazes to follow the path of his hoof. Coming down the street, all alone, and at a full gallop was a single brown stallion in Princess Luna’s colors. It shouldn’t have surprised me that he’d be out looking for us.

When Russet Rook reached us, he looked a bit hot under the collar. “Lieutenant, what in Celestia’s name are you doing out here?” he practically shouted.

“Defending the city, sir,” I replied calmly.

“You’re supposed to be defending the princess!” He had lowered his tone to keep his voice low but the emphasis was there.

After I glanced over at Princess Luna, I turned back to him. “If you tell her to go back inside she’s going to say she won’t until Princess Celestia does.”

The stallion groaned. “You’re a better princess wrangler than Sunny. We can’t have them both out here! So wrangle her!”

“Why don’t we just ask Princess Celestia to retire from the field, then?” Orchid put in.

Lieutenant Rook snorted. “The moment the city fell under attack, she flew off. The last time she was seen, she was laying down a world of hurt with a little dragon riding on her back. As much as it pains me to say this, I have no idea where she is.”

That was no surprise. Princess Celestia could be very hooves-on when she wanted to be. I tilted my head to the side. “Maybe Sunny could talk her down?”

“As I said, you’re a better wrangler than Sunny.” He then sighed and groaned. “I also have no idea where Sunny is, either. When I find one or the other, I’ll ask them to tone it down.”

My brow arched at that. “What do you mean you don’t know where they are?”

Rook motioned towards the heart of Canterlot. “Her princess flew off into the city, so Sunny and her whole House Guard went after her. They were out here before you. Probably because they rushed out like some sort of wild street gang. There was no order to it. Just wild, angry house guards.”

It took a lot of self-control not to grin. Sunny Day was not afraid of anything and, as good as my guards were, hers were all veterans with years of experience. We’d marched out in proper order. They’d burst out like an exploding fireworks display.

Russet Rook didn’t seem to take it too well as I patted him on the shoulder. “Well, sir, unfortunately you can’t order me away from my princess in the heat of battle, and she isn’t going home. That just means you’ll have to stick it out with us and make sure she is safe. If you like, I’ll even let you take your old section out for a spin.”

The stallion pushed my hoof off his shoulder and glared at me. It wasn’t a real glare. Just one to keep up appearances. “Gee, thanks.” He turned from me and addressed the group, “Alright, everypony, listen up. We’re going to work our way back towards the palace and clear the streets between here and there. I had to dodge at least four of the cockatrices to find you, so I’m sure there will be plenty of work to do.”

Far above, the last rays of sunlight gave way to a dark, star-speckled sky. Princess Luna exclaimed, “Behold! The celestial body draws near. Be wary, Lieutenant Rook; the power of the creatures will be at its zenith.”

“They weren’t powerful enough before?” he asked.

“They will be more so now,” Princess Luna replied.

I shifted and said, “You’ve all heard the princess. We need to be extra careful. Keep one eye on your sergeant and the other on your surroundings."

Lieutenant Rook nodded and motioned down the street. “Let’s move out. We’ll head down this avenue and catch the cross street towards the palace.”

We shifted into position and started to march in the direction he’d indicated. We weren’t halfway to the intersection when Thunder Tumble whistled sharply from above. He pointed the direction opposite the palace. “We’ve got guards pinned in, sir!”

“Go get a look, Silent Knight,” Rook ordered.

I joined Thunder Tumble in the sky and he motioned to what he was seeing. Sure enough, there was a whole group of guards bottled up in a market square with five cockatrices pinning them in.

Lances of magical energy kept erupting from the guards, holding the beasts off, but five was too much for most units and unicorns eventually get worn out from using magic.

“Good eye,” I told him before swooping down and landing beside Russet. “Bad news, sir. Five angry birds are closing in on a section of guards. It looks like they have some powerful unicorns but I can’t imagine they’ll hold forever.”

Russet looked at the princess and then up the street. He shook his head, let out a groan, and commanded, “Quick march, we’ve got ponies to rescue! Sergeant Iridescence, keep your squad close to the princess.”

“Yes, sir!” Iridescence responded as we picked up the pace.

My section headed down the avenue and turned away from the palace. Out ahead of us we could see the backside of at least one cockatrice. There was also the occasional flash of unicorn magic and the sounds of crossbows firing.

“Skirmish formation! Spread out and advance,” Lieutenant Rook ordered, and my ponies obeyed. We closed the rest of the ground between us and the cockatrice. “Halt! Fire at will!”

Once again, we made use of our crossbows and sent numerous bolts into the backside of the nearest beast. It squawked in surprise and wheeled around to face us. When it did that, it caught a golden bolt of magical energy from behind that set its tail feathers on fire. That really got it moving!

It charged right at us only to be knocked out cold by one of Princess Luna’s magical blasts. From the plaza beyond, there was a hearty cheer.

Lieutenant Rook motioned. “Advance into the plaza and secure a retreat route!”

I trotted out ahead of the section. “Mountain Stone, cover the left. Miley Hooves, cover the right. Iridescence, keep the princess in the middle.”

“Aye, sir!” came the reply before everypony surged forwards. We broke into the plaza and split up to cover the southern half of the square that surrounded it. I hurried into the green space where the ponies were pinned down.

“Well, hello there, Silent Knight!” Sunny Day called before another golden blast of magic launched from her horn. “Welcome to the party!”

I tried not to smile. One of us had to be the professional. “Ready to get out of here?”

The unicorn mare nodded. “Yes, but I’ve got wounded. Some bad.”

A quick glance around confirmed not only that, but also that Sunny was leading a makeshift unit. There were many from her section, but I also saw palace and city guards mixed in.

I nodded. “No problem, hold them here a moment more.”

“Make it quick,” she grunted before firing off another beam.

From over my shoulder, another blast of Princess Luna’s energy sent a cockatrice sprawling. It tumbled against a building before slumping down.

I turned and flew out of the central area to where my ponies were. They had surrounded a third cockatrice and were keeping it at bay with continuous crossbow fire and bucks to the feet.

“We’ve got multiple wounded that can’t walk,” I called down to Russet Rook.

He nodded and looked over at Miley Hooves. “Sergeant, get your ponies in there and start hauling the wounded out. We’re not going to be able to stay here much longer. It is time to retire the field.”

Princess Luna’s ears twitched and she advanced into the market square. Radiant Orchid, Iridescence, and her ponies trotted alongside her while I flew overhead. There was another flash of alicorn magic and we were suddenly down to one cockatrice in our immediate vicinity.

Miley Hooves and her squad gathered the wounded and started moving them out of the center area and towards the way we’d come. In the opposite direction, I caught sight of movement and my heart sank.

The cockatrices had either called for reinforcements or we’d made enough noise to draw their attention. A whole flock of them were running our way, wings flapping in agitation. One particularly mean-looking one was leading the rest.

“Sunny, it’s time to go!” I called from above. “There are eight more heading this way.”

“Cover the wounded and fall back!” Sunny shouted.

The mishmash of royal guards left the square just as Princess Luna zapped the last remaining cockatrice of the original group.

I dove towards her and yelled, “Princess, you need to fall back, too!”

She flashed a disgruntled look up at me but replied, “Very well!” Thankfully, she kept to our agreement and moved after the rest of the guards.

Russet Rook ordered firmly, “Everypony, fall back in an orderly fashion. We are returning to the palace to tend the wounded and regroup.”

Both sections formed up and started to hurry down the street. My wings flapped as I held myself aloft and kept an eye on the approaching cockatrices. They were covering more ground than we were. Carrying wounded was simply slowing us down too much.

I looked at the retreating unified House Guard and then back at the magic-fueled beasts. A diligent flyer could distract them and lead them away. Perhaps buy enough time before going down. Just as I made the decision to be that distraction, a streak of white caught my attention.

Princess Celestia flew by in all of her radiant glory. A young dragon was perched precariously on her back and carrying a golden trident. The pair dove towards the eight cockatrices and, a moment later, a whole contingent of pegasi followed behind.

The group was an irregular unit, but that made sense. There weren’t a lot of all-pegasus units outside of our own cities. Putting together an ad hoc team to chase after the princess was a good plan. Wonderbolts, city guards, and palace guards alike followed in the wake of the alicorn and joined the battle against the giant birds.

Another white blur zoomed past before looping around and coming back my way. Even under the armor, I recognized her as Winterspear right away. “Silent Knight, thank goodness you’re okay!”

“I can handle myself in a fight,” I replied, but in truth I was relieved to see her, too.

She reached a hoof out to me and I took it. “You sure can. I’ve got to catch up with the others, but be careful, alright?”

“You’ve got it. Iridescence is fine, too. Be careful, okay? These things are seriously dangerous. I have wounded.”

She nodded and, for the briefest of moments, we shared a look. Then went our separate ways, Winterspear after Princess Celestia and me after Princess Luna. We were a family of guards who understood duty always came first. Most ponies would have an issue with that, but it was who we were.

I dove down and landed at the head of our column. “We’ve got cover now. March, double time.” All of the ponies, including the ones carrying the wounded, gave it all they could to speed up.

Sunny Day trotted up to my side and fell in step with me. Russet Rook took the lead. Behind us, I could hear the disjointed sounds of hoofsteps shift into ordered, measured, simultaneous marching. Show a little confidence and your guards will follow suit.

I whispered to Sunny, “Azurite was out here. She said she couldn’t live with herself hiding in the office. She managed to save several foals. I sent her with some guards back to the palace.”

“Thank you, that takes a load off my mind. I’m sure Soarin is somewhere up there doing his part, too,” Sunny whispered, her tone even and her eyes forwards. I could sense the tension draining from her.

It must have been tough being out in the city doing your duty while knowing that somewhere out here you had a loved one who could be in danger. Winterspear was safe and that thankfully meant everypony close to me was safe.

My thoughts swirled… and I realized how wrong I was. No… not everypony was safe. There were others, there was—

“Crystal!” I gasped.

Sunny saw my distress and bumped me with her shoulder. I quickly fell back into step. My heart started racing. In the heat of the moment, I hadn’t thought about her or Runic or any of the others. There was a city to save and a princess to protect, but Crystal needed to be protected, too.

“She’ll be okay,” Sunny whispered. “Keep it together.”

I set my jaw and just nodded. My eyes flicked towards the castle as we rapidly approached it. From where we were, it looked in far less disarray and, to my relief, there was a large column of royal guards marching our way, at least two or three companies in all.

“Halt and make way!” Russet Rook called and we obeyed, shifting to the side of the street.

At the head of the column was a black-coated unicorn stallion that I didn’t recognize. He trotted out ahead of his demi-battalion to approach us. He bowed to the princess and then said, “It looks like you’ve all seen a lot of action today.”

“Yes, sir, we’ve done our part,” Rook replied.

One glance at the stallion’s heavy, near full-plate armor was all it took for me to put the pieces together. These weren’t royal guards. This was the Equestrian Army. They had a small base close to Canterlot, and probably every mare and stallion from it was standing before us.

“I can see that,” the unicorn replied. “Excellent work. I consider it a privilege to have been in the presence of the princess and her House Guard. If you’ll excuse me, though, we have to clean up the last of the cockatrices. Our scouts say it looks like the vast majority of them are down.”

Princess Luna nodded “Thank you for making the trip up. Your ponies will ease the burden greatly. I wish you the best of luck.”

“And good hunting,” Russet Rook put in.

The unicorn bowed before hurrying back to the head of his column. We all stood off to the side and watched them go by. Everypony wore the same heavy armor and carried unconcealed weapons: swords, heavy crossbows, and lances. We were mostly knocking the beasts unconscious until the magic of the comet wore off. I doubted any that ran into these ponies would survive the encounter.

Soldiers aren’t trained to subdue.

Rook looked back at us and motioned forwards. “We need to get these wounded looked at. Move out.”

The battle of Canterlot drew to a close just before dawn. The comet had left the immediate vicinity and its magic dissipated shortly thereafter. When it did, the cockatrices shrunk down to their normal sizes and became a lot less aggressive.

We’d spent the rest of the night in the street outside of the castle gate keeping it clear so that wounded could be brought in and civilians could find shelter.

The Royal Guard had responded appropriately and, for as large and dangerous as the birds were, there were not a lot of serious injuries. Bones were broken, pride was wounded, but, in general, things turned out alright.

I stood on the empty street silently hoping that Crystal Wishes was not one of the few that had actually been badly hurt. The all clear had just been sounded and the City Guard was out trying to make certain that everypony was cared for.

Princess Luna sat quietly on one of the benches, looking out into the night. Most of my guards were in a similar state, lying near her in exhaustion. It was time to turn that around, even if I wasn’t feeling confident. I trotted over and hopped up beside the princess. Instead of sitting, I stood tall and cleared my throat.

“In the coming days, we’re going to hear about this battle. The good, the bad, and possibly the tragic. What you all need to remember is that when there was nothing but chaos, you rose to the occasion and did your duty.”

All eyes shifted to me. That had gotten their attention and many of my ponies stood up.

“Today, you protected your princess and this city. You risked everything once again for your fellow ponies and were found to be more than a match for our enemy. We were tested in the fire of combat, and here we still stand!”

The members of my section started stomping their hooves.

“I am proud of you, one and all. The day is won, our banner flies high, and we know only victory. Drink it in, enjoy it, but remember that all wins are fleeting. We march on to the next challenge.”

Princess Luna stood up beside me. “Well said, Silent Knight. Thank you all for going above and beyond what was called for. I realize chasing me out into the field is unnatural, but you handled it well. Now, we should rest. As your leader has said, there will be more challenges tomorrow.”

It was time to get back to our usual rotation and protection detail. My mind was a bit muddled with the mixed feelings of victory and worry. There was a roster I needed to recall, but several ponies were now injured. Others had families that needed to be checked on. We’d have to wing it for a few days.

“Sergeant Hooves, you’ll be watch lead for the first shift today. Sergeant Iridescence, you’ll take second. Minimal watch to begin with.” I then motioned them over to add more privately, “Send the ponies with families home first. We’ll put the single ones on watch.”

“Yes, sir,” they responded softly.

Miley picked out four guards and they all moved to the princess’s side.

“I want the rest of you to go home and tend to what needs tending to. Keep me in the loop if there is something that may require you to miss time. Otherwise, starting tomorrow, we go back to business as usual. Dismissed.”

The section broke up and started heading in several different directions. I remained where I was, looking vigilant and cool. On the inside, I was nervous. There were ponies I cared for out in the city. My cousin Runic, my friend Velvet, my sister Winterspear, and the mare I cared about most, Crystal Wishes.

“Princess, I think it is time you headed back inside,” I said, looking up at her. “There isn’t anything else you can do here.”

She nodded with only a little reluctance. “I think you’re right, Silent Knight. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I waited until she and her escort were in the palace before I took to the sky. Every fiber of my being urged me to race as fast as possible, but a Royal Guard officer doing so might cause panic. After orienting myself in the direction of Crystal’s building, I flew at a brisk pace.

My stomach sank when I arrived. The front of the building had been smashed; one of the cockatrices had clearly fallen against it. There was broken glass everywhere and all of the windows were dark. Crystal’s unit was on the opposite side and had likely been spared the damage, but the building looked rough.

I hurried through the remains of the front entry and up the stairs to her floor. When I got to her door, I knocked three times. There was no answer.

“Crystal? Velvet?” I called before knocking again.

Still no answer.

“Crystal!” I shouted.

Nothing.

Without another moment’s hesitation, I pivoted on my forelegs and bucked the door right at the handle. It gave way and exploded inside. I hurried in after it, looking around. The condo was in pretty good shape structurally, but almost everything that had been on a shelf had fallen over, probably when the beast had hit the building.

Frantically, I searched every inch of the dwelling. They weren’t there. Crystal and Velvet hadn’t been home when the attack started, or they’d left. My heart raced as I stood in the dark, disheveled room alone. That meant they were somewhere out in Canterlot.

They had been in danger, and I hadn’t been there to protect them.

7. Aftermath

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Crystal Wishes and Velvet Step. Two civilians out when the giant cockatrices had attacked. The mere idea turned my stomach and sent me into a panic.

I worked over the details in my mind. First, I’d check the hospitals. If they weren’t there, I’d check Runic’s shop, Sunridge Sweets, and both of their parents’ homes.

No, it would be smarter to check those places first. The hospitals might be overflowing, and it was unlikely they’d have good records of who was who right until the crisis was over.

Then, if I couldn’t find them there, I’d get Winterspear. She and I could cover more ground that way. She’d be happy to help me find them. I knew Iridescence was fine, so she didn’t really have to worry about anypony... except for—

“Dot!” I shouted out loud.

Why were there so many ponies to protect now?

My knees started to shake and, for a moment, I was back in the gully. Gryphons were on both sides, shooting my ponies. Not my guards, but my friends, my family.

I shut my eyes and took a deep breath. Then three more. This wasn’t like that. It wasn’t going to be like that. Back to the task at hoof: check the places they’re the most likely to go and follow a logical progression. First find Crystal and Velvet, then Dot. I’d deal with the problems as they came.

The light spilling in from the doorway shifted as a figure walked in front of it and cast a long shadow inside.

“Hello?” came a soft voice. The greatest voice. “Silent Knight, is that you?”

When I turned, Crystal was staring into the place in confusion. I pulled off my helmet and let it fall to the floor beside me. In an instant, I closed the distance between us and wrapped my forehooves protectively around her. She melted into the embrace and I kissed her with all the passion and relief that I felt from hearing, seeing, and holding her.

As our lips parted, she swallowed and whispered, “I don’t know exactly what happened to you today but, good or bad, I think I approve.”

A bit of motion on our right caught my attention. Velvet was staring at us with both hooves held close to her grinning face. “Aww…”

I breathed a sigh of relief and held the unicorn against me. “I was worried about you. Both of you… but you.”

Crystal smiled and nosed my cheek. “We’re fine, Silent Knight. We’re both fine. Not a scratch. I’m happy to see you are, too.”

Reluctantly, I let her go and went to retrieve my helmet. “I have to go check on the others. Be careful inside. Everything has fallen and there is some broken glass. I’ll come around for you later, alright?”

The beautiful mare nodded. “Alright, we’ll be fine. Go be a hero.”

I smiled at her and hurried off to check on the others. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I felt relieved. There was still a chance others were hurt, but knowing Crystal was safe gave me peace.

My flight took me over to Runic’s shop. It looked like a fortress from the outside and showed absolutely no damage whatsoever. If the cockatrices had tried to assault it, they’d failed miserably.

The back door was open and several ponies were streaming out, heading off into Canterlot to discover the damage there. Runic was standing proudly by and eagerly waved up at me. “Hi, Silent Knight!”

I landed by him, starting to feel relief. “Hey, Runic, looks like everything is okay here?”

“Oh yeah,” he said gleefully. “After the changeling situation I decided I’d never be caught unprepared again, so I turned the backroom into a bunker. That is why all of the neighborhood ponies came over. Those big chickens tried to get in, but I wasn’t having it!”

“You should get into private security,” I replied with a chuckle.

Runic waved a hoof. “Me? No, it was just to protect the store. Although I do have some ideas about armor. Who knows? Space comes first.”

Space? I didn’t have time to figure it out. I gave my cousin a brief hug. “I need to go check on Dot. Make sure everypony around here is safe, okay? I deputize you as the block captain.”

“Block captain? Okay! Will do, Silent Knight. See you later!” he called as I flew off.

There wasn’t such a thing as a block captain. Not officially, but it would keep him focused on helping others. Runic was a powerful force when appropriately directed.

Figuring out where Dot could have been was harder. Although, it was the middle of the day when this all started, so the most logical place would have been the school. I landed there and found it to be wholly intact.

Iridescence trotted out the door and smiled when she saw me. “Were you checking up on Dot?”

“Of course, I had to know she was okay. I assume this was your first stop,” I replied.

“You bet. The teachers have drills for this sort of thing. They all go down into the basement and wait for the royal guards to tell them it is safe. Dot is fine. She’s sleeping now. It was a scary night, so most of the foals are on their mats taking a nap. They’ll be safer here than at home while we sort everything out.”

That made sense. Keeping colts and fillies safe was a priority for any school. It was logical that they would have an area for them to hide in the event of something dangerous happening. Most of these plans had been put into place after the changeling invasion and it seemed like they were paying off.

My heart started to slow in its eager beating and the adrenaline that had been coursing through me for the last twenty or so hours started to wane. All at once, I felt exhausted.

Iridescence trotted over, a concerned look on her face. She set her hoof on my chest. “Are you alright?”

“I am. It’s just that when we were coming back, I realized I had ponies in the city to protect. Ponies to lose. For a minute, I…” I trailed off, looking away.

“You thought you’d lost them again and it felt like Nordanver,” she finished for me.

All I could do was nod.

She lowered her voice to a serious but gentle tone. “Silent Knight, let me tell you a secret. I have nightmares now and then. We’re back on that train and I watch you go down over and over. Only, Ferrel doesn’t make it to you. I wake up screaming sometimes. It’s okay. Just try to stay focused and if you need somepony to talk to, do that. Alright?”

I took her hoof in mine and lightly squeezed it. Iridescence had been my partner. She was my friend. She was also my subordinate, which meant I couldn’t really talk about this with her anymore. Still, it was good to know she cared. “Thank you. I’ll do that.”

She held my hoof a moment longer before letting go. “You should go get some sleep. We’ll have a lot of work to do in the morning.”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I regretted the loss of physical contact with another pony. “Yes, Sergeant, I’ll do just that.”

“Goodnight, sir,” she said in response before heading back into the school.

Sleep would do me good. It would calm my nerves and soothe my anxiety. Tomorrow would be another day.

The Battle of Canterlot, regardless of how intense it had been for me, would not be remembered in the same way that the changeling invasion was. The response of everypony involved had been exceptional.

All told, the newspapers painted a very positive picture during the aftermath. The headline was The Royal Guard Saves the Day with the subtext, “City in chaos but no fatalities reported.” That had to be a miracle. There were some ponies seriously hurt, but not a single death.

What shocked me the most was the fact that in less than two weeks, the city had been repaired. Numerous crews that included special unicorns came out and made it as if the cockatrices had never been there.

My own ponies were almost all back on limited duty, too. A few broken bones here and there weren’t enough to stop them, and quick medical attention had resulted in better outcomes.

For a battle, this had certainly turned out the best way it could have. That was something I considered lucky. Much like myself, since I was in the company of a beautiful mare.

Crystal Wishes and I were sitting in the officer’s club. It wasn’t much more than a private lounge inside the palace for officers to find a little bit of peace. In older times, it had been far more opulent but command didn’t want too much disparity between us and the rank and file.

“Next time, I think you should come to the palace,” I said. “It would be far safer here.”

She shrugged. “I wasn’t that scared. Honestly, once we heard the alarm and saw what was going on, Velvet and I headed down to the basement with our neighbors. That place is basically a bunker, after all. Besides, it would probably have been more dangerous to try to get here. Could you imagine us running through the streets trying to get to the palace?”

Imagining that gave me the chills. One of the frightening things about dating Crystal was that she wasn’t a royal guard. When bad things happened, she was at the mercy of whatever threat was at hoof. Thankfully, nothing had happened during the recent attack and I tried to focus on that instead of the what-if scenarios.

“You’ve got a fair point there,” I finally admitted.

“You seemed awfully worried about me,” she teased before sipping at the drink we were sharing.

“I can’t lie to you. In the heat of battle, I was primarily worried about the unit and the princess. But once the adrenaline started to wear off and I saw that other ponies were thinking about their… their… special ponies, it hit me hard.”

She smiled softly and asked, “Which is why you flew straight over to find me?”

“Yes.”

She reached out and set her hooves on mine. “Don’t worry about me. I’m scrappy.”

My head tilted and I stared at her, one eyebrow raised. She stared back with determination.

After a moment, her composure broke into a pout. “Okay… how about I’ve got a good head on my shoulders?”

I nodded. “That I’ll believe.”

She smiled again and then her gaze focused on something past me. A curious look crossed her face. “There is a mare coming our way,” she whispered.

I turned to see Major Measure approaching. She had her helmet on and, even though I was off duty, I stood. “Ma’am.”

The major nodded. “Forgive my intrusion. I was walking by and saw you inside. Good work the other day, that was really something. It wasn’t princess protecting, but it was something!”

I couldn’t help but smile a bit. “They are overly willful, ma’am… and thank you.”

She then cleared her throat and nodded her head towards Crystal. I looked, too, and then it hit me.

“My apologies. Major Ruby Measure, meet my marefriend, Crystal Wishes.”

“How do you do,” the major said with a polite bow of her head. “I recognize that name. You’re on Princess Luna’s access list, are you not?”

Crystal returned the gesture. “I am, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Very good, then.” The major patted me on the back. Her tone changed from the usual military cadence to a more knowing, familiar one. “Please take care of my lieutenant. He is very useful and I need him in good shape.”

“Oh, I intend to. Have no concern there.” Crystal giggled.

Major Measure smiled and nodded. She winked at me, saying, “As you were.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I relaxed as she turned to walk away.

“She seems nice,” Crystal said once the major was gone.

I nodded and said, “She is. But she’s also a very different officer than most. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to, she just sort of ignores you.”

“Isn’t that good?”

“Yes, I suppose it is. It’s just different, and that can be off-putting, I guess. Some commanders are really hooves-on,” I explained and shrugged. “Either way, I like the autonomy. Enough about that, though. How is the book coming?”

Crystal grumbled, “It isn’t my best work. The draft is with the editor, but there was something missing this time. I was… struggling with myself instead of just letting my muse run wild. I think the stallion came out a lot more plain because of that.”

“Maybe you were preoccupied with pondering a stallion of your own?” I asked.

That gave her pause. She took a few, long sips, then said, “Maybe so. I was thinking about you an awful lot.”

I smiled and teased, “Perhaps next time, you should write a story about two mares that are just friends. It will probably be your greatest romance novel to date.”

With a snort, she rolled her eyes and waved a hoof at me. “Oh, laugh it up. If it were true, you’d be missing out.”

“You made a cute couple.”

“Hush!” she ordered and I complied.

We fell into a companionable silence, taking turns sipping our beverage. When we reached the bottom of the glass, I asked, “Ready? I imagine Miley and Runic are all set.”

Crystal rose, nodding. “Yup, this is going to be fun!”

I tossed a few bits on the table and we headed out of the palace and into Canterlot. I was still amazed at how fast earth ponies could rebuild things. Between them and the unicorns, a building could be repaired in a matter of hours.

It was hard to believe that one week, something could come through and destroy an entire town and… the next, everything would be as if nothing had ever happened. Magic paired with hard work was amazing.

We trotted casually across town, enjoying each other’s company and discussing the various ways our night could end. The unknown variable was Runic. When Miley had asked me for a double date, I’d readily agreed before really thinking it through.

Crystal had been on board immediately. She and Runic were friends, of course, but she wanted the opportunity to get to know Miley better. Their circles overlapped a lot, but the two were rarely together without a group.

As we drew close to Runic’s shop, both he and Miley came out and waved eagerly in our direction. Miley trotted right up to give a big hug to Crystal, who stiffened briefly before looping a hoof around the earth pony and returning it.

“Hi, Silent Knight!” Runic chimed offering me a hoof.

I bumped it in return and grinned. “Hi, Runic. Ready for this double date?”

“I am! I plan to be on my best behavior. Mostly because Miley said I had to,” he reported.

That parted the hug as Miley gave Runic the ‘you weren’t supposed to say that’ look that mares seem to acquire right after they get their cutie mark. Winterspear sure had a good one.

“You look lovely, Miley,” Crystal said, complementing the brown mare’s dress and defusing the stare.

It was odd, as I’d never seen Miley outfitted in anything but armor. Tonight, she was draped in a yellow sundress that really contrasted her dark mane. A mane, I noted, that was still really long thanks to Runic’s ever-growing hair potion mishap. At least now it met regulations when she braided it.

“Thank you so much! You, too!” Miley replied. She then clapped her hooves together and asked, “Where are we going?”

All eyes shifted to me as if I was supposed to have decided that. I looked at my cousin.

“Why don’t we go over to the Fillyharmonic?” Runic suggested.

“I’ve heard their food is excellent,” Crystal replied.

Miley cheered, “Then let’s go there!”

We set out together with Miley and Crystal in the lead making small talk about where the best places to shop for dresses were. Miley, apparently, preferred sundresses like the one she had on. Crystal, also apparently, had a guilty pleasure for ball gowns.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t understand mares. I especially don’t understand how clothes can be a ‘guilty pleasure,’ or why there are so many different types of dresses. Crystal called the pink scarf she wore an ‘infinity loop.’ I called it a pink scarf.

Really, it just makes me glad to be a stallion. Runic was wearing one of his nicer vests that didn’t have vials all over it or burn marks, and I had brushed my mane.

Runic looked over at me and asked, “Did you see the latest copy of Square Equis? The one that has the stallion with the massive sword on the cover?”

I had, in fact, seen that. The stallion was one of the fanciest miniatures ever produced. His sword was also unrealistically large. It wouldn’t be useful in actual combat. “I did. I also happened to see how many points that pony was. I don’t have enough figures to match it.”

“Yet!” Runic cheered.

“Come on now, surely you don’t want to grow our armies even larger than they already are? I mean, it’s clearly just a sneaky way of getting us to buy even more stuff,” I said.

“Obviously, yeah,” Runic replied. He sounded thoughtful, but the kind of thoughtful that sounded fake.

I glanced over at him to see a sheepish grin on his face.

When our eyes met, his grin widened. “And it’s working?”

My brow shot up. “I’m on a fixed income here!”

The grin fell and he huffed. “Fine, if I buy it, I won’t expect you to match it. It will go on the collection shelf and stare down menacingly at your pathetic little knights.”

Runic rarely engaged in boasting, but when it came to miniatures games, he was almost a different pony.

“I’ll remember that the next time your lizard-ponies are routing with their tails between their legs,” I chided.

“Now see here, I—”

“We’re here, fellas!” Miley chimed happily.

It was clear that there would be a wait to get into the restaurant, as the line was out the door. Crystal and Miley took care of that, however, by filling most of the time with conversation about Miley’s family back home. She had eleven siblings and that blew Crystal’s mind.

Runic and I had mostly listened to them, our conversation shifting to his latest experiments. I hadn’t been his lab assistant in a very long time, which was kind of sad. It was something I missed doing, but time was a rare commodity.

The hostess flagged us down and led us to a table. After a brief wait, another pony set a basket of rolls in front of us.

“Would you like a roll, sir?” Miley asked, holding the basket out to me.

Crystal giggled and waved a hoof. “You don’t have to call him sir, Miley.”

“Yes, I do,” Miley said right as I also said, “Yes, she does.”

The unicorn blinked in confusion. “You’re both off duty, though… We’re on a date.”

Miley met my gaze before she smiled and began to explain, “Yes, we are, but he’s an officer and we’re both royal guards. A royal guard is a guard twenty-four hours a day. If he wasn’t my commanding officer, we might be less formal, but think of it this way: what would everypony else think if they saw us sitting here and I treated him any differently than we were at work?”

Runic’s head tilted as he chimed in, “That he isn’t a stuck-up jerk?”

That made me chuckle and I shook my head. “They’d think I was favoring one sergeant over others. We’re fine. Miley and I will keep it professional. Everypony else can just be normal.”

Crystal pouted. “That doesn’t seem as fun… but okay. What should we get to eat? Does anypony want to share an appetizer, maybe cheese sticks?”

Softly, I cleared my throat and looked over at my marefriend. “Velvet said you had a bad experience with cheese.”

The mare turned red from ear tips to delicate neck. “I’m going to murder her,” she mumbled.

I tried not to smile. “I hope not, I’d hate to arrest you.”

Miley quickly suggested, “How about the potato wedges? That sounds good, right?”

“I do love potatoes!” Runic replied. “They make excellent batteries. Let’s do that.”

I raised one brow. “Make batteries or eat the potatoes?”

That gave Runic a moment of pause before he shrugged. “These are probably for eating, and I don’t really need any batteries tonight. So… eat?”

Crystal, finally returning to her usual self, nodded. “Potatoes it is!”

We placed our orders and idly chatted while we waited. Miley and Crystal had moved on from dresses to hats. I tried to be interested, but the topic was not one that caught my interest. The opposite, in fact. I’ve never trusted hats.

My attention turned to Runic, who was rather visibly staring off into space. He was far worse at hiding his disinterest than me. To our relief, the food began to arrive, starting with the potato wedges. That brought the conversation to a lull. I’d picked a pasta dish, which turned out to be excellent.

“I’m getting closer to visiting the moon,” Runic said out of the blue.

“Pardon?” I replied, noodles hanging from my mouth. Crystal and Miley looked equally confused.

Runic grinned. “You know, my plan to reach the moon. We’ve talked about it before!”

We had, but for the most part, I thought he’d been exaggerating. I’d warned him about the risks before.

Miley cleared her throat. “Runic, I thought we’d settled this. You’ve tried to fly up there and it didn’t work. I don’t want you getting hurt!”

Runic nodded in agreement. “We did settle it, I’m not going to fly there with my wings. I’m going to use a ship.”

A ship? “I’m not following, Runic.”

“Me either,” Crystal added.

Runic laid his fork down and set one hoof on the other. “Imagine a rocket filled with an immolation potion. You set it on fire and it propels you into the heavens.” His left hoof went higher than the other. “Then you land on the moon, collect some rocks, and come back.”

I nodded like I understood, even though I didn’t really. “Okay… but Princess Luna has already been on the moon. I don’t think she liked it. Why would I want to go there?”

“For science!” Runic smiled wide.

“Alright…” I saw that Crystal’s eyes were glazing over, so I changed topics. “Did you see that the Airship Armada starter box came out? That looks like a lot of fun.” For some reason, that didn’t seem to solve Crystal’s glazed eyes.

Runic brightened. “Yes! We should go get it right away. Oh, and the first wave, too. I’m ready to fly!”

Miley shook her head and stood up. “I’m just going to go to the filly’s room. Be right back!”

“I’ll go with you!” Crystal said a little hurriedly.

“Okay… wait, why?” Miley asked.

Crystal looked my way and then back at Miley. “That is what mares do in filly flicks and…” She motioned our way with her hoof. “This.”

“Right, okay!” Miley replied and they went off together.

Not everypony was into Airship Armada, I guess. Although, I’m not entirely sure how that was even possible. Turning back to Runic, I asked, “Did you see how big the Imperial class is?”

“I did! You could never field it, but I want two… or three. It’s ridiculous.”

My head shook. “No, NOT having two would be ridiculous.”

Not long after our conversation turned from Airship Armada to other board games, Crystal and Miley returned.

“Alright, boys, you know what time it is!” Miley chirped cheerfully.

Runic’s head tilted. “Nine?”

My ear flicked. I had a feeling that wasn’t the right answer.

Miley laughed. “No! It’s time to sing!”

Sing? Both ears shot straight up and I shook my head no.

“Come on, stud, you have to!” Crystal begged, doing her best to push me out of my chair. She was unsuccessful.

“I think not. I just build sets,” I replied.

Runic shrugged, standing up and walking away. “I’ll go first.”

I remained still as Crystal pushed against me again. “Still no. I had no idea this was that kind of place.”

Miley laughed. “It is called the Fillyharmonic, sir. How could it not be a karaoke restaurant?”

My expression didn’t change.

“Fine… fine…” Crystal sighed before she turned her chair to face the small stage that had previously been unoccupied.

I turned my chair as well and waited while Runic got set up. He flipped through a song book and then seemed to settle on one. The music started, words bubbled up in one of those magic unicorn lanterns, and what followed next was astounding.

Runic started belting out the song in a slow, steady rhythm. His pitch and tone were perfect, and everypony in the room sat in awe. Including me. Perhaps especially me.

How does it feel, how does it feel?

To be without a home

Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone?

He went on like that until the music drew to a close. Everypony in the room started stomping and cheering. Runic just nodded and came back to the table while all of us stared at him in shock.

“What?” He glanced between us all. “I have other interests.”

Over the course of the evening, I held my ground and managed to get away with just standing on stage as Crystal sang a song she apparently normally did as a duet with Velvet Step. Evidently, Velvet was better at it than I was.

All good and, in this case, embarrassing things had to come to an end, though. With our meal and song-birding complete, we headed outside the restaurant.

“You two have a good evening!” Crystal said as she exchanged hugs with Miley and Runic. “Let’s do this again real soon.”

Runic and I hugged, too. Miley just got a hoof-bumped. You can’t hug your sergeants. That was a pretty hard and fast rule.

Miley chirped, “Absolutely! Next time, we’ll go do something that the sir might actually participate in.”

“I just build sets,” I repeated for the ninth time that evening.

Runic laughed. “Goodnight, you two. See you around.”

After Miley and Runic headed off in the direction of the shop, Crystal beamed up at me. “That was so much fun!”

“Yeah, I enjoyed that. I’m glad you and Miley get along.”

“She isn’t hard to get along with. Walk me home?”

My brow arched and I replied, “Do you even need to ask? After you, beautiful.”

Crystal giggled, and we walked the familiar route to her condo, hoof-in-hoof. “You know, I fell for you when you walked me home one time. I think Luna was playing matchmaker.”

“Did you now? And in a year, you never thought to tell me?”

The mare winked. “You never asked.”

“Sure, sure. Well, anything worth having is worth waiting for, right?”

“I think so…” she trailed and then added, “So, you and Miley can’t be friends? What about you and Iridescence? She’s your best friend, isn’t she?”

I shook my head. “Life changes when you become an officer. I’ve had to start putting distance between us. That is just how it is.”

Crystal looked at me curiously. “And you can just accept it? That you have to put distance between you and your friend?”

I stopped walking. That was an interesting point. How could I just accept that distance so easily? Had I even considered it? Friendship had always been difficult for me and I may have given my first true friendship away for a silver bar. There wasn’t much choice, though. It was either me or somepony else.

“Silent Knight?” Crystal asked, staring at me. “Are you okay?”

My head shook as I tried to clear away the thoughts. “It is how things have to be. I don’t have a choice. Can we talk about something else?”

“Of course. What?”

What, indeed? I shrugged and nuzzled her cheek. “Let me just get you home safe.” I started moving again and she walked along beside me. Once we arrived at her building, I followed her up to her door to make certain she got in.

“I had fun tonight,” she said softly, lingering outside.

“Me, too.” This part was always the most awkward for me. I knew she didn’t want the evenings to end, but I had to go back to my place eventually. Even if I stayed with her for another hour, it would still be just as hard to part ways then.

“Good…”

My ears stood at attention and I leaned in to kiss her. It was brief but warm, and the mare shivered happily.

“Goodnight,” I said.

“Goodnight,” she replied with a smile.

I left the building and decided it would be best to fly home. Sometimes flying made it easier to think. After a galloping start, I leapt into the air and pushed for the clouds. Iridescence and I hadn’t spoken like we’d used to since I’d gotten back from school. I’d become all officer all the time.

Slowly, I circled around my apartment building as I thought about what I should do. It was probably time to at least explain my behavior to Iridescence and make certain she understood. Life just works out that way, sometimes you have to—

My eyes locked onto movement outside of my door. The figure was not Winterspear. It was also a little too late for most ponies to be haphazardly wandering around.

I flew down and landed on the balcony behind him. “Can I help you?” I asked.

“Argh!” the violet-coated unicorn yelped in surprise. “Goodness…” He straightened his glasses. “Do you always sneak up on ponies?”

“Only those wandering about suspiciously.”

“Suspicious? You’re suspicious! Who are you?” he replied.

“Silent Knight, royal guard. Who are you?”

“Oh! Excellent. I’m Avid Fiction, non-royal courier, and I have a delivery for you. If you’ll just sign here, please?”

The unicorn levitated a large envelope out of his bag. A clipboard and pencil followed after it, which I took and signed. “It is a little late to be delivering, isn’t it?”

“You weren’t home earlier, and the requester gave specific instructions that it had to be delivered today and directly to you.”

That was odd, but I accepted the envelope nonetheless. “Alright… sorry to scare you. Thanks.” I walked past him and opened my door.

Avid Fiction lightly cleared his throat, his hoof stretched out.

“Oh, right.” I reached into my bag and produced a few bits.

“Thank you…” His brow rose. “You know, it is late and if you’re alone in there I could co—”

I shut the door and wandered over to the table. The envelope had no return address, just my name on it. I pulled it open and found a single piece of paper inside. The message on it was typed out to read:

If you want more information on our mutual friend overseas, meet me for lunch at the Hay Cafe next Monday. Sit outside and come alone.

The letter was signed with a flourished M and nothing else. It was suspicious, but I’d been running in covert circles lately. It was also highly likely that this was the source that had sent me the most recent information.

I turned the stove on, set the missive on fire, and dropped it into the metal kitchen trash can. It looked as if I would have another date soon.

8. Preparations

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I was standing at attention at the center of Princess Luna’s office while Willowy Tempest was at the princess’s side, going through the day planner. The day planner that I previously maintained. It wasn’t important who had it, but there was a part of me that disliked giving up that control. Especially to Miss Tempest.

The princess stared at two different crowns that sat on her desk and casually ordered, “Silent Knight, Willowy has cleared my schedule for the foreseeable future. You and I shall leave for the Badlands immediately to meet with the nox ponies. Make the necessary arrangements.”

“No, Princess,” I replied flatly.

Willowy Tempest’s eyes went big as she looked from me back up to the alicorn.

The princess was already levitating some luggage. “I want to travel quickly and we’ll—” She turned to look at me in confusion. “Did you just say no? You never say no!”

“Yes, Princess, I did. You and I, as you say, aren’t leaving immediately and we certainly aren’t going alone.”

Princess Luna rose to her full height and commanded, “We will and we are!”

I shook my head resolutely. “No, Princess. I’m glad you have a bond with these ponies and trust them fully. That is important, but it isn’t enough. Even though I feel a moderate level of trust for their matriarch, we don’t know that her word will hold everypony in check, however. When we go, we’re taking your guards. This is just like any other diplomatic trip.”

“It is not!” the princess exclaimed before stubbornly stamping a hoof. “You said yourself that these ponies are afraid of us. You expect to march royal guards into their home? I will hear nothing more of this. We are leaving and we’re leaving now.”

I wasn’t fazed by that. She was being unreasonable. “A single squad of ponies will be acceptable, and I can have chariots ready by this Thursday. We’ll take their feelings into account, but we have to protect you. I will not be enough.”

Princess Luna stormed over and dropped her head to look me in the eye. “If I fly out that window right now, you’ll have to follow.”

The princess had a withering gaze, I’ll give her that, but she was being petulant and immature. I fixed my eyes on hers and stated flatly, “No. If you fly out now, I’ll send Torch Light after you with a beacon. Then, I will personally go tattle to Princess Celestia. What do you think she’d say?”

Torch Light, the poor guard that happened to be on duty right now, looked confused and mortified by the conversation.

“You are a stubborn pony!” Princess Luna exclaimed in exasperation. She stomped away from me to stand at the doors to her balcony, flicked her wings, looked back at me, snorted, and dropped her rump to sit on the floor like a foal. “Fine, but we leave first thing Thursday. You may bring six ponies in addition to yourself. Willow, make the schedule work.”

Willowy Tempest looked at me with a muddled expression and then nodded. “Yes, Princess.”

I turned to go make the arrangements and then paused. “We’ll need amulets for everypony. Possibly for you, too, Princess, assuming you can’t see in the dark.”

“It will be done,” Princess Luna replied grumpily, her back still to me.

That was easier than I thought it would be. Evidently, the threat of summoning her older sister was enough to motivate the alicorn to behave.

I almost smiled. I didn’t, because it isn’t professional to smile when they’re sulking, especially when she was a princess. Instead, I nodded to Willowy, ignored her light glare, and marched out into the hall to get the process started.

When I reached our admin area, I stuck my head into Radiant Orchid’s office. She was at her desk, flipping through the latest reports from the palace. She stood up when she caught sight of me. “Sir.”

I motioned for her to sit and she did so. “We have work to do.”

“Alright, fill me in. What’s happening?”

“Thursday, I’m escorting the princess to meet those ponies we talked about before. We need to make plans and do so quickly.”

Orchid jumped back up and exclaimed, “Great! I could use a trip. Let me tell everypony and we’ll get everything together. It is short notice, but we can do it.”

That wasn’t what I had in mind, so I held a hoof up. “No, I said I. As in me. Well, me and a squad. You’ll be staying here.”

“What? You bring me into the know just to immediately box me out?” Radiant Orchid shot back.

“Not at all. If we’re both with the princess, who am I going to leave in command here?”

The mare practically shouted at me, “Iridescence! If she is ever going to take this job, we have to let her do it at some point.”

It was a solid argument. Iridescence did need some hoofs on experience and keeping the unit together while we were gone would be good. “Alright, that works for me. Brief her when we’re done here.”

“Of course she can do it, we just—” She stopped when she saw my pointed look.

What was it with mares and assuming they knew what I was going to say? Was I that predictable?

Her ears perked when she realized what I had said. “Oh. Alright. So, I’m going?”

I nodded. “Yes, you are. Although, again, I didn’t ask. You volunteered. Now we’ll need two sky chariots. One small and one large. Be sure the large one is big enough for six ponies. For the small one, let’s go with what Princess Luna had made for Nightmare Night. If that doesn’t scream Alicorn of the Night, I don’t know what does."

"It’s tacky but, yes, sir. I’ll get it all together,” Orchid replied.

“Also, instruct all our ponies that we are to only refer to Princess Luna as Luna the Student until I say otherwise. Princess Celestia is to be referred to as Celestia of the Six. They should not discuss history or anything about Equestria as we know it. In fact, they should, in general, keep their mouths shut. Clear?”

Orchid’s head tilted in confusion, but she replied, “Yes, sir. Confusing, but clear. Who are we taking?”

“You, Nova, Golden Touch, Lightning Flash, and Cloud Lance.”

“All pegasi but me? Seriously?”

I shrugged, “If things go bad, there isn’t any way for a non-pegasus to escape without help. I want to limit the groundbound to two.”

The mare snorted at the term. “That gives me so much comfort and fills me with joy for having volunteered myself…” she trailed and then blinked. “Wait, two? Who else did you have in mind?”

Our eyes met, and I grinned. “The only medic I trust with my life.”

Orchid groaned as recognition dawned on her. “Oh, come on, no. She isn’t even part of the House Guard!”

“She might say no,” I teased.

“Not to you. She weirds me out, sir.”

“She saved my life, and probably the lives of a lot of others. Our medics are good, but they’re not on the same level as her.”

Orchid nodded… and then sighed. “You’re going to stick us ‘groundbound’ together, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I reached over to give her a consolatory pat on the shoulder. “Welcome to the inside. Now get to it. We’ve got to get this whole show together and ready before Thursday.”

“Yes, sir!” she said.

I left her office and started down the hall. That was one task down. It was time to handle another that was of a more personal nature. Thankfully, finding Iridescence was easy, since I had the schedule memorized. It was one of the perks of being in charge: I knew what everypony was up to at all times.

When I found her in the main hall midway through her rounds, I approached her with a blank expression. I didn’t want anypony to know this was personal. “Sergeant, can I speak to you a moment?”

She nodded, “Yes, sir.”

This was one of those conversations that I typically struggled with. I’d rehearsed some words, but I didn’t want them to feel staged. As we walked together, I kept practicing in my mind.

“Sir? Where are we going?” she asked quietly.

“Sightseeing,” I replied before leading her to the top floor of the palace and through the door that led to the highest tower. We took the spiral staircase in stride before coming out onto the observation balcony. It was the one we’d been on when the changelings had started their attack.

I took my helmet off and set it on the ground. She got the message and did the same, then asked, “What’s going on?”

“I wanted to apologize if I’ve been distant lately,” I started. “It wasn’t meant to be directed at you personally. There has just been a whole lot going on.”

She shook her head. “I know. It happens to everypony, Silent Knight. Things change.”

“They do, but I should have at least taken the time to discuss it with you. This feels like when I made sergeant. It is almost like we’re doing the same thing again.”

Iridescence chided, “No, it isn’t like that at all. Don’t feel that way. You had a huge opportunity. You’d have been a fool to pass it up. To be honest I’d be more worried if you had. Look, it means a lot that you’d even take the time to explain yourself to me but you didn’t have to. I know the regulations just as well as you do.”

“Yeah. You know, life used to be less complicated when we lived in that little room together and you weren’t into mares,” I said.

She softly laughed and nodded. “Yup! Well, nope, I was into mares, but you didn’t know it. Besides, look at us now. You’re an officer, dating a famous author, and a big pony at the palace.”

“And you’re a soon-to-be section sergeant, surrogate mother, and still the best-looking house guard.”

The mare gave me a soft shove. “I’ll tell Sunny Day you said that… but thank you. We’re going to be fine, Silent Knight. We know the difference between on-duty and off. We’ll just have to work a little harder to stay friends is all.”

It was good to know she felt that way. I certainly didn’t want to lose a friend. I shifted and looked to the horizon. “You know, I don’t mind when you and Dot come over to visit Winterspear. She doesn’t always have to go to your place. It doesn’t weird me out or anything.”

“I know, but you need to remember that Crystal Wishes gets a say, too. Do you think she really wants your ex hanging around your place a lot?”

That was something I’d never considered. I didn’t think that way usually. “She’ll be fine. Besides, she likes Dot.”

“Who doesn’t?” Iridescence asked with a laugh.

“Yeah. Hey… on that topic, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

I idly drummed my hooves on the railing. “I don’t mean this in a rude way. It’s just that I’ve noticed that Dot doesn’t look like you or your other sisters. Plus, her name isn’t similar. Was she adopted?”

Iridescence’s cheeks turned bright red and the mare cleared her throat. “Right… so please don’t repeat this—and I know you wouldn’t—but the truth is she’s actually my half-sister.”

My ear flicked. “What? Your half-sister?”

“My father gives most of his life to his work. He hasn’t ever been there for my mother or us. Sure, he provides extremely well but, you know, he was absent. So…”

“Are you telling me that your mother…” I trailed in disbelief.

“Yup. Daddy knows, but they both pretend like it isn’t true. Polite society and image, that sort of thing. I think that is partially why Luminescence and Opalescence are so mean to her. They think she isn’t good enough because she isn’t his.”

I let that sink in and it upset me. It upset me a lot. How could they treat her so poorly due to something she had no control over? We would do better. “That doesn’t matter. She’s family.”

“Unfortunately, they don’t have the same outlook on life that you do.”

I shook my head again. “That isn’t what I meant. She’s our family.”

Iridescence smiled. “That is sweet, but you don’t have to look out for her. She isn’t really your family.”

“She will be,” I replied.

Iridescence looked up at me and then just nodded. She leaned her weight against my side and said softly, “You’ll be a good uncle.”

We stood in silence and just enjoyed watching the clouds go by. Life can get complicated, but it can never take away what is most important: family and friends.

The sun hung high in the sky as I flew over Canterlot. Before my lunch appointment, I had some official business to conduct. There was another pony I needed for our mission. A powerful pony that could get us out of a sticky situation if we found ourselves in one.

When I neared the Unicorn Temple, I couldn’t help but admire the large green space that spread out within the large, nondescript walls that separated it from the city. The closer I got, the more I felt the urge to divert my path or land. It was a strange magic, but one I had a great respect for.

It was also a magic I had no intention of challenging. Most flyers simply steered clear of this space on instinct without realizing it. The whole area was meant to blend in and be unobtrusive, as these ponies had no desire to mingle with society.

After landing, I knocked softly at the gates. In the past, I tried to make sure that I’d be heard, but the strength or loudness of the knocks didn’t seem to matter. Somepony always answered.

It only took a few moments for the door to open. A somewhat familiar temple guard looked out at me. “Silent Knight. We have not seen you in a while. Have you come to enjoy the garden?”

“It has been too long, yes. I’m afraid my new responsibilities have been keeping me busy, and as much as I wish I could stay and smell the flowers, I’m here to see the exemplar. I suspect if I wander the garden, she’ll find me as she always does.”

The guard stepped back and opened the door further. “You’re probably right. She is in the barracks, though, so perhaps a more direct approach is in order today?”

I’d never been inside any of the buildings within the temple grounds even though I visited often during my recovery. This was going to be a new glimpse into the lives of the ponies that lived here. “Very well, then. I’ll do that.”

“Follow the path as normal. When you cross through the inner wall, it is the first walkway on the left. Tennant Hall.”

“Thank you,” I replied before trotting down the path. At the heart of the grounds was the inner wall. Unlike the exterior wall, it was not nearly as impressive. It was nothing more than field stones stacked together that rose barely to shoulder height. I passed through what amounted as the gate and took the first left.

The Tennant Hall was an impressive but unassuming building. It, like every other structure I’d seen at a distance, was built into the landscape. The walkway sloped down into the earth and ended in the face of a hewn stone entrance. Grassy knolls on each side rose to the height of the building and almost fully obscured it. The final touch to complete the odd architecture were windows on the roof to better let light in.

When I reached the door, it seemed like I was visiting the warren of some burrowing animal even though the structure stood much like any other building. It was just deep within a depression and surrounded by earth.

I let myself in. The interior, like the exterior, was also hewn stone. It was immaculately clean, and a plush rug ran along the short hall that expanded out before me. I walked along it to the first and only intersection. The hall ran far longer to the left and right, framing the building as a plus sign that had been squashed on the top and bottom.

A small placard on the wall listed the inhabitants and room numbers. It seemed that Exemplar Ferrel lived in suite 10 East so that is where I headed. Her door was wooden, blue, and simple. Some of the others had decorations but this one had nothing but her name. I knocked.

“Come in,” came her voice.

I pushed the door open and walked inside. Despite her rank within the temple, the exemplar did not have much more of a room than I’d had as an enlisted pony. It was just large enough to house a single bed, a small desk with a stool, two sitting pillows, and a tall but narrow bookshelf. There was a door off to the left side, so perhaps there was more beyond.

Exemplar Ferrel was sitting on one of the pillows, looking down at a scroll. She also wasn’t in her armor.

“Oh, excuse me!” I said, stepping back.

The unicorn’s head tilted and she said, “It is me, Silent Knight. I assume you were looking for me?”

My head bobbed. “Yes, of course. I just didn’t know you’d be…”

“Yes?” she asked.

“Out of uniform?” I replied weakly.

The curious look returned before she briefly smiled in amusement. “I do not wear my armor in my room. Do you? Surely no. Please, come in. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

She was right. I was being silly, so I came in and settled on the opposite pillow. It was small for a pony of my size, but I wasn’t going to be rude. “Do you have to ask? You don’t already know?”

The exemplar eyed me a bit and then shook her head. “No. I have not had any Silent Knight-related visions lately.”

“I’ll take that as a good sign. Princess Luna and I are going on another diplomatic mission. I thought you might like to come.”

“Back to the gryphon kingdom?” she asked.

“No!” My reaction had been immediate and surprising even to me. I lowered my tone and added, “Forgive me, no. This time we go to the Badlands and into the city of the exiled nox ponies.”

There was no recognition in the mare’s eyes. She stared blankly a moment and then asked, “What is a nox pony?”

“Ponies that were vassals of the House of the Night is probably the best answer I can give. They’re an ancient group that has been hiding. Princess Luna wants to start reunification talks.”

That explanation seemed to make more sense to the mare. “Of course. You view them as dangerous?”

“To be honest… not really. They didn’t have soldiers so much as brutes. Still, I prefer to be safe and this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”

She nodded. “Yes. I will go, providing the archon agrees. Leave that with me.”

“Thank you.” I stood and the glimmer of something on the exemplar’s bookshelf caught my eye.

When I looked there were numerous crystals strewn about the shelves. Most were similar in shape and size: cylindrical with two points. Some were large. Others were small. Almost all of them were clear-white. A dozen or so were clear-grey and then there were three that were as black as obsidian.

“These are beautiful. What are they?” I asked innocently.

Exemplar Ferrel rose and replied, “Memories.”

I blinked and then pointed at the black ones. “And those?”

“Bad memories.” There was a chill in the words.

It seemed better not to inquire further. “Well… alright then. We leave Thursday. I hope to see you then,” I said as I started to let myself out.

The exemplar was staring off into space. Briefly, her eyes focused back on me. “And so you shall, Silent Knight. Be well."

She sounded certain. That gave me confidence that the exemplar would be joining us. She’d provide a great deal of protection if we needed her.

With that task completed, I hurried out of the temple grounds and took back to the sky. It was lunch time and I had an appetite. Not for food, but for knowledge.

I headed over to the Hay Cafe and settled at a table outside. The server pony came by and set a glass of water in front of me. “Would you like to order, or are you waiting for somepony?”

“I’m going to need a few minutes. Water is fine for now, thank you.”

He nodded and wandered off to help another guest.

Without warning, I heard a voice whisper in my ears as clear as if somepony was standing next to me, “Silent Knight, don’t look around. I’m projecting my voice to you. There is little chance you’ll be able to spot me. Take a drink of water if you understand.”

So much for sharing a lunch with my new friend. I picked up the glass and drank from it.

“Excellent. As I’m sure you have surmised, I’m responsible for that envelope under your door.”

I tried to figure out if I was dealing with a stallion or a mare. The voice was distorted into a husky whisper.

“Consider that an appetizer, but if you want the main course, we’re going to need to play by some rules. It is far too dangerous to drop information in your office where one of your subordinates or some cleaning pony might happen upon it. You may place trust in them, but I don’t.”

She or he had a point. I would have felt the I gave a slight, subtle nod in agreement.

“From now on, when I have information for you, I’ll make a small chalk mark on the light post nearest your apartment. When you see that you’ll know there is a pick up.

“Our drop will be at the Phial and Filly. It is a place you’re known to go and nopony will be suspicious of you doing so. Runic Phial has recently purchased some new displays and I have made some modifications to one of them prior to delivery.”

This pony knew a lot about me. Too much, really. It was somewhat off-putting, but if this was the game she or he wanted to play, I was going to comply.

Plus, there was no denying the validity and detail of the information that had been passed to me. I’d checked it against what the intelligence section was showing me, and there were too many matches to doubt it.

“In the last aisle there is a table of bubble baths,” the voice continued. “The back-left leg of that display has a catch facing the wall. Press it and a compartment will slide out. Remember to replace the compartment when you have the package. Drink if you understand. Yawn if you want me to repeat it.”

I picked up my water and drank again.

“If, for some reason, you need to contact me, open the curtains to your south-facing window and stack two books on the windowsill. When you see an x on the lamppost, that means I agree. Come here for lunch the following day and we’ll do this again.”

I grumbled quietly, “This is awfully one-sided. I can’t throw my voice.”

“Oh, I can hear you. I just didn’t want you drawing attention to yourself by talking to an empty chair like a crazy pony. One more rule. If you mention to any pony that you’re receiving information I’ll stop and disappear.

“There will be no second chances. I’m risking a lot by even talking to you about this, let alone passing on unredacted, classified information. That is why you’re going to keep using official channels, too. We don’t want to be too obvious, do we?”

My head shook.

“Over time, you can slow down the requests. They’ll think you either grew bored or were too frustrated with the speed. If you do it too quickly, your new friends might take notice and investigate. If our little arrangement is discovered, they might start throwing around words like treason and incarceration. Now, order lunch and then get back to work.”

I softly snorted and mumbled, “Alright, invisible pony… if that is who you’re going to be to me.”

There was a pause and then an audible sigh. “Against my better judgment, I’m going to extend you a measure of trust. Do not make me regret it.” Another pause. A far longer one. "You may call me Maya. Happy hunting, Silent Knight.”

The server wandered back over and asked, “Have you made a decision, sir?”

“Oh, yes, I certainly have. I’ll have the zucchini salad to go. I just remembered I have an appointment,” I said.

He nodded. “Very good, I’ll have it right out.”

I had a name. That was useful. I could put together some of the other parts as well, but I would have to do so carefully. Tipping off my benefactor would be a bad idea.

Once my waiter had returned with my food, I paid and headed off for one more errand. I flew over to the Canterlot University Research Library, where I hoped to do a little snooping. The palace archives were good, but they were also curated. Sometimes, academic ponies had other ideas.

The campus was still blanketed in winter’s chill. All of the trees and plants were buried under snow and showed little sign of life. The students seem to be in an equal state, as there weren’t many out and about at lunch time.

Once I was inside the library, I found that there was little difference in the placid atmosphere between the outdoors and indoors. The rows of books were largely undisturbed and the whole building seemed deserted, save for one light green unicorn mare at an information desk.

When I approached, she looked up, her green-and-blue mane tumbling down over her left eye. “Is there some sort of problem?” she asked point blank.

“No...” I replied before looking at her name tag. “...Miss Ley Lines. I need somepony to pull some information for a project I’m working on.”

Her horn erupted into light and unicorn magic encircled a clipboard. It levitated to her and she set a form on top of it. “Alright, what can we do for the Guard?”

I cleared my throat. “We’re looking into a meeting that took place in the Crystal Empire over a thousand years ago.”

Ley Lines looked at the form and then up at me. “Come again?”

“There was a meeting held by the rulers of Equestria in the Crystal Empire a thousand years ago. We need some information on it. It may require coordination with whatever libraries they have there. Can you do this?”

“It is one hay of a challenge, but we’re not afraid of that. Who should I forward the information to?”

“Lieutenant Silent Knight, Princess Luna’s House Guard, Commanding.”

Ley Lines nodded. “Can do!”

9. Haven - Part 1

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Crystal and I stood out in the courtyard of the palace, staring at each other. My head was held high and she was giving me a mock glare. Ponies were watching, and I felt extremely uncomfortable. This had been a trap.

"Oh, come now, Silent Knight, they don’t care,” Crystal said.

Princess Luna chimed in, “Yes, Silent Knight, we don’t care. Kiss her so we can go.”

I politely glared at the princess and group of ponies sitting in the chariots waiting on me. They were all watching with their beady little eyes. Very quickly, I leaned in and dotted a kiss on Crystal’s lips. “See you soon,” I said.

“Be careful,” she replied with a smile.

I backed away before trotting into the back of the larger chariot with Orchid and Exemplar Ferrel. “Alright, let’s move out.”

“Yes, sir!” Nova replied loudly. She and Cloud Lance started to gallop, and our ride lurched forwards. Within a minute, we were airborne.

Princess Luna was right behind us with Lightning Flash pulling the smaller vehicle.

Radiant Orchid leaned in to whisper to me so that none of the other ponies could hear, “Aren’t you two adorable? Smooches!”

“Yes, Sergeant, we are,” I replied dryly. “And I’m not above ordering you to pull the chariot.”

Orchid just grinned. “I’ve never flown before, so it would be totally worth it!”

“Uh-huh. We’ll see how you feel when you get air sick.”

“Air sick?” she asked in surprise.

I didn’t reply. I’d just let that idea sit in her mind while I laid down on the bench to rest my body. Eventually, I’d need to take a turn pulling us.

The ride was pleasant enough since nopony really spoke. Orchid had spent most of her time just staring at Ferrel who, in turn, had just stared back at her. It was quite the contest.

What really stood out to me was that we weren’t moving as fast as I had alone. All of the weight was slowing us down. That wasn’t unexpected, but it was annoying. We’d be lengthening our trip considerably by traveling this way.

At some point, I’d nodded off. It was a blissful nap that was suddenly cut short by the feel of Orchid poking me in the nose with her hoof.

“Sir, sir get up,” she whispered.

I yawned and stretched. “What? What’s going on?”

“I need to stop,” she hissed.

“We just stopped recently. At least, I think recently. I haven’t been asleep that long.”

Orchid glared. “I need to stop again.”

“Why?” I asked.

“You know…” She trailed.

I looked at her in confusion. “What do I know?”

“I have to go!” she said louder than I’m sure she intended.

She had to go? Again? I glared at her. “You should have gone when everypony else went!”

“I didn’t have to go then, and my bladder is older than yours!”

I cupped my face in my hooves and grumbled, “Any chance you can just hang off the back?”

“Sir! I am a lady!”

“Of course you are.” I flew off the chariot and over to Nova. She was taking a turn pulling Princess Luna. “We’re going to have another break. Follow us down.”

The brightly colored pegasus nodded. “Yes, sir!”

Both chariots came to a landing and Orchid hopped out as soon as we were down and galloped off into the bushes. I’m pretty confident I’d never seen her move that fast during physical training. Evidently, I’d been using the wrong motivation techniques.

As I looked around at my fellow pegasi, I could tell they were worn out. The larger craft took two to pull it effectively. The smaller may have only needed one, but it wore that pony out just the same. At any given time, only two of us could rest. It was less than ideal.

I called out, “Since we’ve stopped, we might as well make camp here for the evening. I don’t want to arrive exhausted.”

I went over to the chariot to grab the tents and laid them out in a circle. Everypony else pitched in and started putting them together.

Even Princess Luna helped. Her magic was exceedingly useful for this sort of thing. I could tell she didn’t want to stop, but she wasn’t going to fight me on the topic, especially not in front of my ponies. Our disagreements were generally kept private.

It wasn’t long before camp was made and we were relaxing. My body ached and I was tired, but it was all physical. It didn’t quite seem like a time to fall asleep. At least not yet.

After some awkward silence passed by, Nova pulled out a deck of cards. “Anypony fancy a game?”

“I’m in,” Lightning Flash responded.

“Me, too!” added Cloud Lance.

Radiant Orchid nodded. “My foals need new shoes. I hope you two brought bits.”

I knew better than to gamble with Orchid. It was one of her lesser-known talents. Golden Touch seemed to have similar misgivings, so the two of us quietly backed out.

“I’ll play, if that is alright,” Exemplar Ferrel said, surprising everypony into looking at her.

“Sure…” Nova trailed somewhat uncertainly, then smiled. “I don’t see why not. Have a seat. Do you know how to play?”

“I do not,” the exemplar replied.

Princess Luna looked on with interest and whispered to me, “This evening just potentially became far more entertaining.”

“Mmhmm,” I replied idly while I looked around.

With us out in the open and in a poorly defensible position, I had settled almost side to side with her. Some may call me overprotective, but diligence is important.

The princess and I kept an eye on the game for a while, enjoying the comedy of enlisted guards trying to explain gambling to a temple exemplar. The first round was more of a practice game, but by the third, Ferrel seemed to get the gist.

She was also, according to Orchid’s occasional exclamations, unnatural. I could have told her that.

Once the novelty wore off, I returned my attention to watching our surroundings. Everything outside of our small camp was quiet. I didn’t like quiet. Quiet was suspicious.

Keeping her tone to a private level, Princess Luna asked, “Is there anything going on you would like to tell me about, Silent Knight?”

One ear flicked to give away my annoyance. More prying into my relationship. Couldn’t ponies just leave me alone to be happy with my mare? “Crystal and I are taking it slow. Well, I think we are. I just do what she tells me, mostly.”

“That is wise.” There was a long pause that was filled with laughter from the playing ponies. “Although that isn’t what I meant.”

My eyes shifted to her and I tilted my head. “Oh?”

“Indeed.” She didn’t look at me, at least not directly. I could see tension in her expression. “You’ve been keeping yourself busy at the office. Anything I should know?”

Perhaps I should have played the cards. I knew my poker face was flawless. “I have, but no, not yet. I’m just dealing with things in my own way. You know I wouldn’t do anything foolish without letting you know.”

It wasn’t a lie. I was being very careful. Just talking with a mysterious, thus-far-disembodied voice wasn’t foolish.

She chuckled softly. “Well, that is certainly something to say. That does not mean you aren’t going to still do something foolish after you tell—”

“I don’t believe this!” Orchid shouted in exasperation. “How can you have a straight flush?!”

Exemplar Ferrel peered at her cards in confusion. “How? You dealt these two to me and those others to us all. Isn’t that how this game works?”

“Yes!” Orchid tossed her cards down. “Unbelievable. What am I up to now?”

The exemplar looked at the scrap of paper in front of her. “Thirty-two thousand, seven-hundred and fifty bits.”

My ears shot up at the number. When had the stakes gotten so high? This was meant to be a friendly game, not a life debt.

“Double or nothing!” Orchid groused.

The other guards stared at her in shock.

Clearing my throat, I called, “Sergeant, why don’t you quit while you’re only indebted to the exemplar for a small house?”

Orchid waved a hoof at me. “I’ve got her, sir. She has a tell. I bought my first apartment with bits I earned playing cards. No pony is this lucky.” She stared straight at Ferrel. “Deal them.”

I leaned back and replied, “When we get back I’m just going to make a note in your file that you have a gambling problem. I’m frightened you’re going to sell the Princess’s hoofguards.”

“She had best not, I just finally got a set that fit right,” Princess Luna said absently to nopony in particular.

Orchid looked my way and then shrugged as the cards came out. The game went back and forth a bit and ultimately came down to one more card flip.

Exemplar Ferrel turned her two cards over. “This makes four princesses. Sun, Moon, Heart, and Diamond.”

Even in the dark and from across the camp, I could see Orchid’s eye twitching. “You… you… you waited on the river to make four of a kind?”

Ferrel blinked. “Should I not have?”

“NO!” Orchid’s head hung and she mumbled, “Okay, you win. When we get back, we’ll set up some sort of payment plan.”

“For what?” the exemplar asked.

“To pay you the tens of thousands of bits I owe you.”

Ferrel’s head tilted. “We were playing on paper. I did not realize we needed real bits. I have none. Perhaps we should call it for fun?”

Relief washed over Orchid’s face, flushing away the ill expression she’d held a moment earlier. “Alright… for fun then. I’ll buy you lunch sometime, though.”

“That would be fun. I shall look forwards to it, especially if we can get noodles. I like noodles.”

I stood up and brushed off my legs. “Alright, little ponies. Get to sleep. We’ve got another day of travel ahead of us and then a short day after that. No more gambling, either. I don’t want to explain to Orchid’s husband why the Unicorn Temple owns their foals.”

At the princess’s insistence, we started off the next morning before the sun had risen. We pulled on through the day and into the early evening. It had been completely uneventful, even though we’d had to land in the Badlands on a few occasions for breaks.

I was starting to question the name, given the lack of anything bad thus far but, at the same time, I was glad. We had enough to deal with where we were going.

My ‘no gambling’ rule had been enforced once we made camp. That was not a popular order so to subtly get back at me, my small contingent of guards sang campfire songs for two hours straight. Sergeant Orchid, of course, led the group as a morale-building exercise. They were excellent royal guards, but they made a horrible choir. Bedtime became the greatest of blessings that night.

On the next day, Princess Luna was pensive the whole time. She hadn’t slept well the night before and was clearly nervous. She may have been able to hide it from the others, but not from me. We spent too much time together for her to hide her true feelings.

For the final leg of the journey, I decided to pull the princess’s chariot personally. It seemed like a good idea that my face should be the first one the nox ponies saw. They knew me, more or less, even if they didn’t trust me.

“Sergeant,” I said, “we’re going to take the lead. I want you and the rest of the entourage to follow close.”

Orchid nodded from the back of the larger chariot. “Yes, sir. Will do.”

“One more thing. Exemplar, please keep your cloak on. I don’t anticipate a problem, but I don’t want to discover at the last minute that there is some sort of ancient disagreement between the nox ponies and the Unicorn Temple.”

“You make a valid point,” the exemplar replied before pulling her cloak tight and donning the hood. “I am not aware of such, but caution is never unrewarded.”

I glanced back at her. “I don’t suppose you have any knowledge about whether or not we’re about to fly into a trap, do you?”

Exemplar Ferrel shook her head, “I am afraid not.”

“Wonderful.” I sighed before flapping my wings harder and pulling forwards to take the lead. Lightning Flash and Nova slowed up, letting the bigger vehicle fall back behind me.

It was easier to find the cut between the main peak and the offshoot during the day. I settled the chariot down and turned into the opening to make room for the larger transport. Once we were under the cover of the mountain, I touched the crescent moon on my breastplate and the night vision enhancement kicked in.

“This is a scary place,” I heard Lightning Flash whisper behind us.

“Hush,” Orchid admonished. “Everypony, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.”

I kept my mouth shut, too. Never get in the way of a sergeant doing the right thing. I left the other chariot and its occupants to her and continued to pull the princess down into the depths of the mountain. We crossed under the threshold and into the big open cavern.

At the outskirts of the town, there were a few nox ponies out and about. When they saw us coming, one immediately galloped off towards what I remembered as the center square. The others saw Princess Luna and threw themselves to the ground, fully prostrated.

We pulled on to the square without addressing any of the locals. A crowd was already building ahead while numerous ponies were following along behind us. Once we arrived, I unhitched and helped the others do the same.

Princess Luna stood tall on her chariot and looked around at the assembled masses. The crowd was growing larger by the minute and was already far larger than when I had arrived. That made me nervous. We would be hard pressed to fend off this many ponies.

Of course, they were nervous, too. There were murmurs and quiet conversations going on as they watched and waited. It seemed like we were going to be making the first move.

As quietly as I could, I ordered, “Perimeter around the princess. Close to the chariot. Make it look casual.”

“Yes, sir,” my ponies whispered in response before doing as I asked.

I took a deep breath, started flapping my wings, and leapt into the air to get above the chariot. The crowd was massive and spread out in every direction. There would be no galloping out. Nothing could be done about that, so I decided it was time to start the proceedings.

“Greetings, my gracious hosts. As many of you know, I am Silent Knight, emissary of Luna the Student. We have traveled far so that she could look upon you herself. I ask that you join me in welcoming her.” I dropped from the sky in front of the chariot and bowed low to the princess.

The host of nox ponies did the same. That was a good sign.

When Princess Luna finally spoke, her voice was confident and loud. It carried throughout the cavern, likely enhanced by magic. It was weird to hear her speak in Early Modern Equestrian again, but I knew how to translate most of it in my head.

“Citizens of this hidden refuge, you have my deepest gratitude for your hospitality. It is my honor and pleasure to stand here before you. For far too long you have been separated from your House. I have come so that I may get to know you and, more importantly, allow you to get to know me.”

The princess hopped from the chariot and slowly spun to take in the entire crowd. “We have been apart for an age and you should be skeptical. I am deeply moved that you honor the old traditions but I am here to earn your respect, not simply have it given. Please, all rise so that we may stand as equals.”

There were more soft murmurs from the crowd, but they did as the princess bid and stood. Obedience and order remained. With this many ponies, that was critical.

“I am so glad to see you all. Once again, I must thank you for opening your town to us and allowing me the opportunity to reconnect. In the coming days, I hope to spend time with many of you and learn your history. Until then, I request the presence of your matriarch so that I may not disrupt the order she has clearly cultivated.”

As if on cue, the crowd slowly started to part as the nox ponies cleared a lane. Moonlit Star limped her way forwards with Crimson Dawn on one side and Tranquil Dusk on the opposite. When they reached the clearing, they all bowed deeply.

“Silent Knight,” Moonlit Star said to me, “you have indeed brought an alicorn before us.”

“Yes, Matriarch, and she would very much like to speak with you,” I replied.

“And I to her.” The matriarch rose and approached so that she could look up to the Alicorn of the Night. For a moment, she seemed to be studying her.

Finally, Moonlit Star said loudly, “You are, without a doubt, Luna the Student. I never imagined I would meet you in my lifetime, and I consider it an honor to do so. It is without reservation that I welcome you home.”

All around us, the nox ponies exploded into cheers and stomped their hooves. The roar of the crowd was overwhelming and reverberated within the great cavern. It was deafening and filled with unbridled joy and relief. These ponies wanted the princess. They needed the princess. They were no longer alone.

Moonlit Star motioned out of the square and said, “Lady Luna, would you join me on a tour of our home?”

Princess Luna nodded in agreement. “That would be delightful. Lead on, Matriarch.”

The crowd parted in the direction that had been indicated and we started off. Moonlit Star walked beside the princess. She needed the aid of Crimson Dawn, but he was quiet and respectful.

Twilight Dusk trailed behind them with me. The other nox ponies were curious and excited, but they gave the princess and their matriarch a wide berth. That was comforting.

The rest of my ponies followed in precise formation. Orchid was giving us plenty of room but was remaining close enough to be of use should the sudden hospitality take a different turn.

“Of course,” Moonlit Star began to explain, “our ancestors had done their best to recreate the look and feel of Midnight’s Peak. It didn’t seem appropriate to build the keep, though… and, of course, neither we nor they had the magical faculties to recreate the stained glass.”

“You’ve done wonderfully. What do you call your town?” the princess asked.

The matriarch replied softly, “Haven.”

The briefest of frowns crossed the princess’s face before she nodded. “I understand. Haven is beautiful.”

Moonlit Star smiled. “Thank you. It is amazing to have you amongst us. Perhaps this generation will build the keep and sculpt the statue our square has so desperately needed.”

The princess smiled gracefully and replied, “That is appreciated, but I certainly wouldn’t want to burden you. I’ve grown a lot when it comes to the desire to be recognized and revered.”

“Those are words of great comfort. Words that your ponies have hoped to hear for generations. That means, of course, you are more than ready to see what I’ve been eager to show you. If you are interested, that is?”

“Of course! I wish to see everything.”

“It is just this way.” Moonlit Star motioned up the larger road in town. Our procession changed course and we were shortly outside of the doors to the library that I had wanted to explore during my prior guided tour.

“This is our treasure and greatest pride,” Moonlit Star explained. “It is where we have kept all of our knowledge. For centuries, we’ve protected it and passed it down so that one day it could be used once again. Crimson, if you please.”

Crimson Dawn broke rank with me and walked to the door. He reached into his saddlebag and produced a silver key. The matriarch did the same. Together, they fit two separate locks and, when both keys were turned at the same time, there was a soft click followed by a loud sound that I could only imagine as a beam being hoisted aside.

The heavy metal doors parted inward and revealed the rows upon rows of books inside, all illuminated by unicorn lanterns. It was a sight that rivaled the archives in Canterlot and perhaps even surpassed it. All of the knowledge of the nox ponies was here.

Princess Luna walked in and looked about in wonder. I motioned for Orchid to stop on the entrance. She nodded as the rest of us stepped inside the trove of knowledge.

The library’s interior was astounding. It was three stories tall and filled with endless rows of books, scrolls, and tablets. Plush purple carpets ran along the main thoroughfare down the center of the building and covered the smooth, cut stone floor. In the pale light of unicorn lanterns the whole expanse seemed like something out of a fantasy novel.

“This is wondrous,” the princess said finally. “The history of my ponies, the knowledge of old, and so much else. You’ve kept it all.”

Moonlit Star beamed at her. “Yes. When our ancestors fled, they took all of their knowledge from every town and village and brought it here… but that is not the only treasure here. Behold.” The matriarch pointed to the back of the library where a silver-railed fence separated off the entire northernmost wing.

Princess Luna looked at the matriarch curiously before the four of us crossed the vast expanse and came to stand outside of the gate. The stacks beyond it were made of stone. Many were lined with purple silk-bound books. The others were a pale blue.

“What are these?” the princess asked.

“These, my dear, once belonged to Nocturna the Mentor and Azuleka the Ruler. They are your inheritance.”

Princess Luna gasped and covered her mouth with a hoof. Tears pooled in her eyes and she asked, “You have their libraries? I thought them lost!”

“No, child, not lost. Hidden. Protected. They, like me, have been waiting for you to return, to claim them and the knowledge contained within.”

The tears pattered onto the carpeted floor as Princess Luna found herself at a loss for words. She finally turned and asked, “Will you teach me?”

The matriarch bowed deeply. “I have prepared my entire life to do so. I am at your service.”

The princess set her hoof over Moonlit Star’s and whispered, “And I will be a better student to you than I was to your namesake. Let us begin.”

10. Haven - Part 2

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Princess Luna’s excitement had made it clear that our visit to Haven was not going to be a short one. The library alone could take years to go through, not that I anticipated being here that long.

I left the matriarch and the princess alone to go outside and address my guards. “Alright, everypony, listen up. Inside this library is something so important to Luna the Student that I can’t even appropriately quantify it.

“Suffice to say, it is magic in nature and she is going to be spending a lot of her time here. I’m not certain how long we’ll be staying yet, but we need to secure someplace for us all to stay.”

Orchid looked back towards the town. “I’m not sure they’re accustomed to visitors, sir.”

I chuckled and nodded. “You make a valid point. We can ask some of the locals if they’ll—”

“There is an inn,” came a soft voice from above, interrupting me and surprising us all.

I wheeled around and fell into my combat stance; my guards did the same.

Tranquil Dusk dropped down to land in front of me. The whole motion was fluid and she came to a rest without a sound. Had she followed me out?

“I’m sorry,” she said with sincerity. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. We have a single inn. It is typically used for when ponies are building new dwellings. It also has a suite for Luna the Student.”

The hairs of my mane settled and the adrenaline shifted to admiration, though I tried not to let it show. “You should be careful sneaking up on royal guards.” I rolled my shoulders to relieve the lingering tension. “Are there rooms for the rest of us, or do we share the one suite?”

Tranquil shook her head. “Perhaps I was unclear. The suite is specifically for Luna the Student. Only she and those she allows are permitted to stay there. It has been kept for her since Haven was established. There are other rooms, though. The inn is large since it is the only one.”

There was a pause as the others tried to parse the Early Modern Equestrian that Tranquil spoke in. Finally, Nova broke the silence by asking, “The innkeeper has kept a room for the pr—pretty Luna the Student for hundreds of years?”

“Yes, though not this specific one only,” Tranquil explained. “Each one over the generations has. It gave those that lived here hope.”

How interesting. It made sense to me, though. Especially with the trove of knowledge Moonlit Star kept for her, I wasn’t surprised to know how deep their dedication ran.

I cleared my throat. “Sergeant Orchid, I want two guards outside of this library every moment Luna is inside. If she moves, they will move with her. Everypony else can avail themselves of the town as long as they’re respectful and careful.”

Orchid nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“And me?” Ferrel asked.

I gave her a brief glance before finally just shrugging. “We can discuss that back at the inn. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.” My gaze returned to Tranquil. “This may be a stupid question, but do you take bits here?”

Tranquil’s lips twitched in a brief smile. “No, but worry not, for my grandmother has seen to that already. I would be glad to show them the way.”

Orchid motioned to Nova and Cloud Lance. “First watch. I’ll come back for you once everypony else is settled.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they replied before taking position.

The rest of my ponies headed off with Tranquil Dusk to what I hoped would be a pretty accommodating and discreet inn. I trusted my ponies, but mingling with the locals could go south quickly.

I looked over at Nova. “I never even heard her.”

She shook her head. “Me neither, sir. You don’t think they’re all like that, do you?”

Cloud Lance shifted uncomfortably.

“I hope not… Stick close to the door, you two. Nopony in or out without my or the matriarch’s permission,” I ordered before going back inside.

Princess Luna and Moonlit Star were already busy going through books and scrolls. It seemed they were taking stock of some of the high points.

Crimson Dawn was laying outside of the silver gate, keeping an eye on his grandmother. I took a position opposite of him, but I stood at attention. Royal guards did not lay down on the job.

He glanced between me and our charges. I could see his head move out of my peripheral vision. After a short period of time, he rose and shifted into a similar position, trying to match me. It was admirable, but there was little chance the stallion was going to out-attention me.

For the first hour, he looked cool and confident. His ears occasionally flicked back when the princess made some expression of joy or glee.

By the fourth hour, Crimson Dawn had started to slightly shift from hoof to hoof, likely to reduce cramping. You can’t just start standing for hours on end at attention without training and practice.

It was during the sixth hour that he slowly settled back onto the floor, displeasure clearly on his face.

I didn’t turn to look at him directly, but I spoke in his direction to say, “I have been trained to do this since I was a foal. The fact that you lasted as long as you did speaks volumes for your tenacity.”

That seemed to brighten his spirits, or at least I hoped it did. He crossed his forehooves and settled into a more comfortable position on the floor. We then fell back into companionable silence. The competition was over, but he’d earned my respect.

After the eighth hour, I briefly looked over my shoulder to see that both the princess and matriarch were still quite engaged with whatever they were doing.

I slipped my helmet off and settled down onto the floor. That rose Crimson’s brow.

“Is that the limit?” he asked.

“After a fashion,” I explained. “Guards are meant to be relieved every eight hours so that they can remain fresh. Pushing longer reduces efficiency. I’ll take a rest and then start over.”

His head tilted to the side. “You have many such rules?”

“We do. The Royal Guard has developed for over a thousand years. We’ve learned a thing or two in that time.” I settled my chin on my forelegs and closed my eyes. Nopony would get into the library, and even with my eyes closed nopony would get past me.

Crimson’s voice came softly, “I see. I wish we had learned as much.”

“Silent Knight?” The voice was distant and sudden. Hadn’t Crimson just been speaking to me?

“Mm?” I replied, my eyes opening and focusing on the blurry image of Princess Luna. It dawned on me that, perhaps, I drifted off to sleep. “Yes, ma’am?”

She chuckled softly. “We’re ready to take a break. I thought you might want to escort me to my quarters?”

My body was stiff. I’d fallen asleep in my armor while lying on the library’s stone floor. “Yes, of course. What time is it? What day is it?”

Moonlit Star softly laughed as she softly stroked Crimson’s mane, urging him to wake as well. “It’s morning. Lady Luna’s first session ran long due to our shared exuberance. It’s time for rest though.”

Morning already? Perhaps I slept a bit too long. “A rest sounds good. I wouldn’t want Lady Luna to overexert herself,” I replied before trotting to the library doors.

From the outside, it took two keys to open them. On the inside, there was a special lever. That way nopony would ever be trapped. It was clever technology.

As the heavy doors opened, Golden Touch and Lightning Flash turned towards me and stood at attention. Orchid had already orchestrated a shift change. It was good to know that order was still in place.

“We’re heading to our quarters,” I said, trying not to sound as stiff and groggy as I felt.

“Yes, sir!” Lighting Flash replied before motioning. “They’re this way.”

We made our way towards the center of town with my guards leading the way. The inn wasn’t quite on the main square but instead one street over. It was a large, three-story building that dwarfed all of the others around it.

“Welcome to the Haven Inn and Tavern,” Moonlit Star said when we arrived. “I’m sure you can handle it from here. I’ll see you in a few hours, Lady Luna.”

The princess nodded. “Verily. Have a good rest.”

The matriarch headed off in the direction of her home with Crimson Dawn to aid her, and we went inside the inn. There weren’t many ponies in the common room, but all that were there turned to stare. An older mare came around the counter to greet us.

“Luna the Student! Welcome to our humble establishment. Your suite is prepared and waiting. Your guards have also been given rooms on the same floor.”

The princess smiled. “Thank you very much, that is too kind. Would it be possible to have breakfast in my room? I’m exhausted and don’t want to cause too much of a disruption for your business.”

“Of course, madam, of course. I’ll bring it right up. If you need anything, just ask for Rose.”

“Your suite is on the third floor, Pr—” Golden Touch’s nose twitched as she fumbled. “Uh, Lun—Luna the Student. Sergeant Orchid has already made sure it’s safe.”

Princess Luna nodded. “Very good. Lead the way.”

Although the princess seemed to struggle to keep her eyes open as we walked up two flights of stairs, I was kept awake by the threat of new surroundings. Just because the nox ponies we’d met seemed to revere her, that didn’t mean I should trust all of them. Or the potential for loose floorboards.

We arrived at the suite, which turned out to be rather impressive in size. Not Canterlot large, but still large. The princess had her own bedroom, bathroom, and living space in addition to another small bedroom and a dining area. Everything was spotless, too. There wasn’t a speck of dust to be found, and all of the decorations were in pristine condition.

“I like the curtains,” I joked. They were made of a thin fabric that was the very same color as the princess’s coat and featured an approximation of her cutie mark.

The princess smiled and settled on the plush blue couch. “I think it is sweet.”

“Of course,” I absently said as I checked the suite out for anything dangerous: hidden ponies, secret entrances, or hats. If I was going to stay here, then I had to look out for my wellbeing, too.

My search ended in the second bedroom. It was small, as if it were designed for a foal. The whole space was taken up by a narrow bed and a tiny dresser. “It’s going to be tight in here.”

The princess snorted. “Well, if it doesn’t suit your newfound officer sensibilities, you could always share the giant bed with me.”

That was how the princess was going to play it? The officer angle? It was time to show her that she wasn’t the only one who could be funny.

I smiled and started my way towards the bedroom. “Actually, yes, you’ve worn me down. It is time to accept that you want to snuggle me and that I’m willing to be snuggled. See you in bed.”

Princess Luna leapt off the couch and threw out a hoof. Her magic took me by tail and tugged. “Silent Knight! I was making a joke. What of your Crystal Wishes? What will she say?”

I kept my tone even as I replied, “She knew this would happen eventually and I suspect that is why she wrote the story about us. Don’t deny it, Luna, I’m all the stallion you’ll ever need.”

The princess’s eyes went wide and the grip on my tail loosened. She just stared at me before she lightly hoofed at the air in my direction and started laughing. “You’re pulling my leg.”

“I certainly am not. I’m wholly serious,” I deadpanned.

She continued to laugh. “Oh, I see. Alas, you’re too late, Silent Knight. I reject your advances. You shall sleep in the tiny room alone.”

We then laughed together before I turned around to go get out of my armor. It was finally time to relax. “Feels different when the shoe is on the other hoof, doesn’t it?”

“Verily.” There was a pause before she asked in a quiet voice, “Silent Knight?”

My ears stood up. That wasn’t a good tone. “Yes, Princess?”

She didn’t meet my eyes. “I suspect we might be here longer than I had anticipated. Will that be an issue?”

“How much longer is longer?”

After a moment of thought, she shook her head. “I’m not sure.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out,” I replied before going into my tiny bedroom. We didn’t have enough guards for a really long stay. Orchid and I would need to be creative, but we’d work it out. We always worked it out.

Today was a day I could never have imagined. Princess Luna was holding court in Haven the same way her sister did at Canterlot Palace. She wanted to meet and greet every nox pony personally.

I looked down the massive line of eager faces. With this many ponies, we might be done by Hearth’s Warming Eve. If we were lucky.

My guards were positioned in a circle around the princess. She was standing out in front of the empty pedestal in the town square. Crimson Dawn had also shown up with his watchponies and was busy making certain the line was orderly.

He was a pony I needed to speak to. It might make sense to pair one of my guards with one of his ponies for shifts at the library. That would allow me to rest mine more often and build a greater trust between both groups.

Princess Luna began to address the crowd, cutting into my thoughts and drawing a portion of my attention. “Ladies and gentleponies of Haven, I am pleased to address you all once again. Over the last three nights, I have spent time with your matriarch learning of your history and culture.”

Trust was not an issue for me and Crimson, however, as we’d already found our own level of understanding. It was the other ponies. The ones I didn’t know. On the other hoof, they trusted us extensively.

“It has been a delight to learn how much that you’ve achieved on your own,” the princess continued. “There will be many more nights spent in the pursuit of knowledge, but today was set aside to greet you individually and get to know you.”

Princess Luna was our entrance and guarantor to nox pony society. The fear and skepticism that had been leveled at me was now absent. I’m certain these ponies weren’t thrilled to have royal guards in their town, but the excitement over the princess far overwhelmed whatever misgivings they had.

Nothing proved that any clearer than the response to Luna the Student holding court. There was an excited energy in the air and the exuberance on their faces was all too clear. These ponies looked upon the princess with a magnitude of eagerness more than I did the first time I stood in the presence of Princess Celestia.

Ponies approached and shared a few words with the princess as I stood nearby at attention. On the outside, I would appear as an unmoving sentinel. On the inside, I had plenty of time to consider life. Standing guard was good thinking time.

“It is just such a blessing to meet you, Luna,” one of the nox ponies exclaimed. “To think, the Student would return in my lifetime. That is so exciting! How long will you be staying in Haven? I hope it is for a while. You’ve been gone so long.”

“I’m glad to have the opportunity to come and meet you,” Princess Luna replied. “I cannot thank you enough for the joyful reception I received. As to the length of my stay, I am not yet certain, but I can promise you that when I do leave, it will not be for nearly as long. Months instead of centuries.”

The pony smiled brightly. “That is wonderful! Thank you!”

That pony moved on and a mare and a stallion stepped up.

With a nervous smile, the mare asked, “Lady Luna, would it be possible for you to acknowledge our marriage? My mother always told me as a filly that in the ancient times, an alicorn or a pony representing her had to assent to all marriages. It may be old fashioned, but it would mean a lot to us. Could you do that?”

Without missing a beat, Princess Luna declared, “Certainly. In the absence of Azuleka the Ruler, I hereby acknowledge and assent to your marriage. May it be long lived and harmonious.”

The two ponies hugged one another tightly. “Thank you so much! Thank you!” When their turn had passed, we moved on to the next one.

Hours later, there was no end in sight. When the current ponies finished, I held up a hoof before the next ones could move forwards. “A moment, please,” I said before turning to the princess.

“Lady Luna, your ponies come in great numbers. As such, we’re not going to finish seeing them all today. May I suggest that we go another hour and call an end to court? Neither you nor your guardians have had a break.”

The princess sat a moment in silence before nodding. “Very well. Make it known.”

I turned and spoke loudly, “Court shall end in one hour. The Student, regrettably, must attend other matters. You will have another opportunity before she leaves.”

Crimson sent one of his ponies down the line to estimate the end and let the ones past it know. There was some noise from further back but the nox ponies, in general, seemed to accept the news. Once the matter was settled, I motioned the next group up and moved off to the side. It would be a miracle if any of my guards were still standing after this trip.

When the hour passed, Crimson Dawn and I quietly dispersed the crowd. There was disappointment, but they understood. That was a blessing.

My final duty of the day was to ensure the princess returned safely to her suite. Once we were there, I put her in the care of Radiant Orchid and headed downstairs.

Exemplar Ferrel was sitting alone at one of the tables in the inn’s common room. She’d remained shrouded in her cloak the whole trip thus far. I settled on the stool across from her and removed my helmet. “Good evening.”

“Good evening, Silent Knight,” she replied. “You look tired.”

“Court was quite long. Far longer than it is in Canterlot. I’m afraid if we’re to keep this up with so few guards, we’ll all start to make mistakes,” I mused.

“I could stand guard if you like. I am trained in such a way.”

“I might accept your offer.” I was curious, though. Was it rude to ask? Ferrel was a friend. I could ask. “For curiosity’s sake, however, when was the last time you actually stood guard?”

The unicorn’s head tilted under the hood. “When did mares wear their manes like beehives?”

Beehives? My nose scrunched up in thought. “When my mother was a filly, I’d guess from the pictures I’ve seen.”

“Before then.”

It was the casual nature of the statement that tripped up my thought process. “You realize it is odd talking to you, right?”

She blinked slowly. “Odd in a bad way?”

I shook my head. “No, just odd in general. Perhaps you’d connect with ponies more if you caught up on modern society.”

She hesitated a moment. “Leaving the temple grounds can be problematic with my gift.”

“I understand, but perhaps you could find time to discuss life with the younger guards. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt if I came by a bit more often. Not that I really know what ponies my age actually do.”

Ferrel’s eyes shifted to mine and she nodded. “Perhaps. I would welcome your visits.”

“I’m glad to hear that. We could walk in the garden together, but I think I’d like to avoid talking about problems. That was one of our few activities before. What do you do for fun?”

“For fun? I like to read mostly. Books do not have destinies. I am also an accomplished gardener. My roses are quite impressive.”

Solitary activities. Given the mare’s talent, it made sense. It also seemed sad and another question popped into my mind. “Forgive me, but given your age… in all that time, have you never found a companion?”

The unicorn’s blue eyes settled onto me, this time fully focused. It was probably the most ‘here’ I’d ever seen her. “I have not looked,” she replied. “We are allowed to do so, but I have not. Although I was loved once.”

“Loved? What do you mean?”

“In times past, temple guards as powerful as I were assigned bodyguards,” she slowly explained. “A guard for a guard. These guards were not like us, however. They were far more martial. Not unlike you. Mine fell for me deeply. She would never leave my side even when it was allowable and appropriate.”

Even under the hood of the cloak, I could see a slight frown darken the exemplar’s face. She fell silent a moment before pressing on. “A relationship in such an arrangement, as I’m sure you may surmise, is forbidden. That would not dissuade her as I hoped. So instead, she chose to love me from afar.”

That diligence and affection sounded an awful lot like Princess Luna and me, although my feelings towards her were far more familial. “What happened?”

“Time fails all ponies, Silent Knight. One way or another. Fiona was an earth pony and even my magic has its limits. She passed comfortably after a lifetime of service and unrequited love.”

I looked over at the mare, mouth agape. “That… sounds tragic.”

“Indeed,” she replied, her eyes going back to their usual glossy state. “We all make our mistakes and learn to live with them. May you learn a lesson I did not until it was too late.”

“I’ll try,” was all I could say. Silence fell on us as we sat together, regret filling me for having asked such a foolish question of a seemingly ageless pony.

I roamed the rows within the library, patrolling and browsing at the same time. Alicorn magic may not have been my area of interest, but there was other knowledge to be found. Ancient, interesting, and potentially useful.

Keeping up with the princess and matriarch had been hard. They were burning the candle at both ends by spending their nights in the library and the days in the town. Sleep was an afterthought and I was shocked that an elderly mare like Moonlit Star could outpace me.

A right turn brought me back out to the main thoroughfare through the center of the library. Moonlit Star was standing on the carpet looking back towards the alicorn section.

“Where is Lady Luna?” I asked in confusion. These two were never separate during study time.

“Napping,” Moonlit Star replied. “She was learning a new spell. It took a lot out of her so I thought a break was in order.”

Napping? Where? “Back at the inn? I doubt you could have gotten her past me. This place is so silent every hoof fall is obvious, and the door makes that awful sound.”

Moonlit Star smiled and shook her head. “No, Silent Knight. You need not be concerned. She is safely asleep in the study area. Your guards are outside. Do not worry.”

With a chuckle, I replied, “Worrying is my duty. If I didn’t, I’m not sure what purpose I’d serve.”

“I am certain you’d find other pursuits,” she replied.

“Perhaps, but I’m not sure what else I’d be good at.” It made me feel a little empty to think about. I was a guard. My father trained me to be a soldier. My cutie mark was a sword.

There was nothing in front of me but one pursuit. Like my father. Like his father. Like—

I blinked as I looked around, a thought occurring to me. “Luna explained to me about my ancestors, the Knights of the Moon. Are there any tomes here about them?”

The matriarch nodded. “That is so, but they are forbidden to my ponies. While the Knights of the Moon did a great deal of good, their training was inherently violent and not necessarily only for defense. The time from which they were born was a far nastier one than what my ponies enjoy today. My predecessors and I do not see a need for keepers of the peace to have that knowledge.”

“And how about me?” I asked bluntly.

Moonlit Star’s brow arched and she fell silent a moment. Her eyes briefly scanned back and forth as if she was weighing the options. Finally, she replied, “You are not beholden to our rules and it seems inappropriate to deny a descendant his birthright. You may seek the knowledge if you must. I only ask that you do not share it with those to whom it is forbidden.”

“Agreed.”

“Come along, then. I will show you the tomes. Again, I must caution you: their knowledge was not for the defense of a princess. It was codified to teach ponies to go out and destroy the things that we were made to fear.”

I snorted. “You may be surprised to learn that there are a few of those things still out there in the world. Thankfully, most ponies will never see them. I consider myself warned.”

Together, we made our way to the third floor and the back corner of the library where the skillfully cut walls melded into the mountain’s surface.

Moonlit Star gestured to a single row of books. “Remember, these are for your eyes only. I’ll return to the Student.”

I waited until she’d left before moving to the row. The books were all bound in black silk with images of the moon in various stages on the spines. The first book bore a new moon. The last, a full.

Carefully, I pulled the first book free and moved over to a balcony that overlooked the library. I kept a casual eye on the door as I flipped the cover open. The text on the title page was in the old dialect that Princess Luna and the nox ponies spoke.

A single sentence was there, awaiting anypony who looked. It read, more or less:

Prepare thyself, initiate, for within this tome thou wilt find the way, the strength, and the courage necessary to start thy journey out of the darkness and into the moon’s light.

11. Haven - Part 3

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Just as I was leaving the inn to begin my shift at the library, a hoof caught me by the shoulder. It was clad in familiar hoofguards, so I relaxed my initial instinct of tension and looked up to see Radiant Orchid’s serious expression.

“Lieutenant,” she whispered, “your guards are wearing out.”

I sighed. “I know. Believe me, I know.”

My section sergeant shifted. “I know you know, sir. Knowing doesn’t do anypony any good. Now it’s time do something about this. It has almost been two weeks and I haven’t been able to give a single one of them a full day off. No weekends, no holidays, not even appropriate breaks. Four guards aren’t enough, especially if we keep using two at a time.”

She was right, there was no question on that. I paused to go over the resources available to us in my head. “Cut it back to one. That is three shifts a day with one guard off. I’ll go talk to Crimson Dawn and see if he can spare a watchpony for each shift to work with us.”

“Are you sure you trust the locals?” Orchid asked.

“I’m starting to, yes,” I replied. “Plus, up until now, you or I have been in the library every hour the princess has. If one of them was a rogue, they’d still have to get past their partner, the door, and one of us if they want to get at her.”

Orchid nodded. “You know, I kind of trust them, too. I mean, if they as a group wanted to harm Princess Luna they could have easily overwhelmed us during any of the days she held court. I’m just worried about the lone fanatic, but you’re right, we’ve got defense in depth.” She blinked. “Speaking of, have you seen the princess lately?”

I shook my head. “Not since they stopped coming out of that alicorn wing a few days back. I hear the noise and see the flashes of magic. Plus, her voice carries, but no. She doesn’t want to be disturbed.”

“That was the impression I got, too. I hope whatever it is she is learning is for good and not evil,” Orchid muttered.

My ears shot up. “What does that mean?”

Orchid raised her hooves defensively. “Just being paranoid. Didn’t you consider the possibility that maybe these ponies, as nice as they seem, are more into the nightmare than the moon?”

That idea brought a frown to my face. “No, I had not… until you put the idea into my head. Thank you, Sergeant. Thank you ever so much.”

She softly patted me on the head. “Don’t worry. She’s really into her training, so if she decides to go that route, there isn’t anything we can do. We’ll just accept it and become her evil warriors. We can even wear those costumes her guards use for Nightmare Night to pull the chariot.”

“Orchid, please leave before you decide to comfort me more. Just get back over to the library and I’ll relieve you shortly.”

The sergeant briefly stood to attention and replied, “Yes, sir!”

When she was gone, I reached into my saddlebag and checked on the black-covered book. It was turning into an interesting read. So much so that I had, more or less, temporarily requisitioned it for outside-the-library use. Which, in layponies’ terms, meant I’d stolen it. Temporarily. I was going to return it.

This was the book for the ponies that weren’t even a knight yet. It outlined the code to live by, the rules of conduct, and the perils of the world. Dragons, hydras, gryphons, and other creatures were all described in detail. Over and beyond that, these ancient ponies had come up with methods of dealing with them, too. As such, Princess Luna wasn’t the only one learning.

Whenever Orchid was on watch, I was reading. If I wasn’t reading, I was practicing the stances and maneuvers diagramed within the Knight of the Moon tome. Moonlit Star was right: these were not used to subdue; they were meant to kill. It was almost the exact opposite of what I’d been taught as a royal guard.

I closed my saddlebag and fastened it before leaving the inn. Haven was starting to become familiar to me. So long as I followed the main roads, I could get to just about anywhere I needed to go.

The Haven Watch had their own building not too far from where we were staying. It wasn’t much to look at and, at least to me, was difficult to distinguish from the houses that surrounded it. The only notable feature was that it was about three times the width of the other structures nearby.

I went through the main door and into the small waiting room. All of the chairs were empty, leaving a single pony sitting behind a desk.

I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, I was looking for Crimson Dawn.”

The pony stood up and replied, “Certainly. If you’ll have a seat, I’ll go about finding him.” He headed off through the door behind his desk.

Crimson came out in a matter of minutes. “Silent Knight, what brings you by?”

I gave him a cordial hoof bump. “Business, but I think you may like it.”

His tufted ears flicked. “Is that so?”

“It is. Out of respect for the matriarch and all of the ponies of Haven, I only brought a few guards. We weren’t sure how long we were going to be here, though, and I’m pushing them pretty hard. Would the Haven Watch have any interest in aiding in the protection of Luna the Student?”

Crimson Dawn straightened to his full height. “I can think of no greater honor. What do you need?”

“Three ponies a day, eight hours each,” I explained. “They’ll be partnered with a house guard. It won’t be glorious work. As you know, it is mostly just standing outside the library and then escorting Luna to the inn.”

“We can do that,” Crimson said with excitement in his voice. “I’ll speak to the head watchpony, but I know he’ll agree.”

I nodded. “Thank you. It will be a great relief and a good opportunity to exchange some ideas and experience.”

“That is something I’ll be looking forwards to. If you’ll excuse me, I should go speak to the head watchpony to get this moving immediately.”

“Of course. Thank you again.” We exchanged hoofbumps again, and as he turned to go back through the door, I walked outside.

One thing I didn’t think I could ever get used to was the lack of sun and moon. Every time I stepped out of a building, the lack of a familiar orb hanging above was greatly disconcerting.

I shook off the anxious feeling that nagged at me to instead focus on making my way to the library. Even though flight was allowed within Haven, I and my guards opted to walk. It was good to be seen by the locals. That, and flying in a cavern with night vision is uncomfortable.

When I arrived, I knocked three times in succession followed by two slower knocks. That was today’s knock. The mechanisms of the door echoed as it unlocked. It was the sort of sound that drew a lot of attention, but none of the nox ponies seemed to mind.

Radiant Orchid was waiting, as expected. “Nothing to report, sir. Everything is normal inside.”

“Very good.” I paused, then raised a hoof to stop her before she could leave. “I struck an arrangement with our allies here. Go and visit Crimson Dawn before you call it a day and start working on the schedule with him. He assured me could get their leader to agree.”

A pleased look crinkled the corners of her eyes. “Yes, sir. Have fun in there.” She gave a quick salute before heading off down the road.

I went in, closed the door behind me, and did a quick sweep of the ground floor. Moonlit Star and Princess Luna were already busy at work. The princess was levitating six different orbs while meditating.

Alicorn magic was something I’d never understand, so I went up to the third floor and settled in to read my book. Knights from ages past and I got along just fine.

Time went by with the only interruptions being louder than normal spells coming from below. When we first arrived, I checked every time that happened. Now I was growing lax.

My attention was drawn, however, at the sound of the main door opening slowly. I slipped the book into my saddlebag and swooped down from the balcony, ready to see who had access with me and the matriarch inside.

It was Tranquil Dusk. I wasn’t aware she had a key. Crimson was in his usual place and waved a hoof before moving into position where one of my guards should have been. Things had moved swiftly on that front, it seemed.

Tranquil trotted in and made her way towards me as the door closed behind her. “Good afternoon, Silent Knight.”

“Good afternoon,” I said, keeping myself between her and the area in the back. “Forgive me for asking, but how did you get in?”

“I have a key. My grandmother allows me entry,” the mare replied shyly. “A student needs to be able to study, after all.”

That made sense. “Of course. Are you looking for the matriarch?”

She shook her head. “No, I am looking for you.”

“For me? Well, you’ve found me. What do you need?”

Her hooves shifted along the carpet as she took a tentative step forwards. “Nothing in particular. I just thought you could tell me about Canterlot and the outside world. If you’re willing?”

My brow arched. “I can, but I imagine you’ve seen more of the outside world than the other nox ponies. After all, you dropped your journal when we ran across each other.”

Tranquil Dusk’s cheeks started to flush. “Seeing from a distance and hearing about it firsthoof are very different. Besides, when we ran across each other before, you gave me quite the scare.”

I chuckled softly. “I thought you were going to attack, so I had to do some evasive flying.”

Her head shook hurriedly. “Never! I would never attack a pony that was doing no harm.”

“Honestly, given your performance the other day, I’m surprised I was even remotely aware you were there,” I noted.

Tranquil’s black-feathered wings softly flicked at her sides. Her voice dropped a bit softer as she replied, “Yeah...”

The nervous flick and her mannerisms suggested something was off. She was too good to be so easily caught. Then it clicked for me and I couldn’t stop my lips from curling into a knowing smile. “You did it on purpose.”

She frowned. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Sure you do. You and I were both in a buried nox pony town. Perhaps that was coincidence, perhaps it wasn’t. Either way, I heard you and miraculously you dropped your journal?”

Tranquil looked towards the back of the library. After a long pause, she mumbled, “We’ve been sequestered away for too long, Silent Knight. Some of us may have decided it was time to force the issue. Others of us… don’t agree.”

She was as interested in getting out as the princess was getting in. Perhaps even more so. “I understand. Your secret is safe with me.”

“I appreciate that.” She then shifted and added, “I really did want to hear stories about the world outside, though. Would you mind telling me some?”

“Not at all. Have a seat.”

I wandered into the inn around lunchtime after Radiant Orchid relieved me from my position inside the library. The princess and the matriarch had been deep in study for days. It was beginning to look like an obsession, as they rarely stopped for more than an hour or two to eat or sleep.

That fact was worrisome to both Crimson Dawn and me. Moonlit Star was not a young mare; all of this exertion couldn’t have been good for her. It certainly wasn’t good for the ponies trying to protect the princess.

Due to popular demand, we’d held another court day, but it was obvious to me that during it the princess’s heart was being pulled towards the library. She had seen another hundred or so ponies before it was time to call it an evening.

Everypony here wanted to see the princess, talk to her, meet her, and just share a few words. That was why the inn was busy from dawn to dusk… or, well, lanterns on to lanterns off. The nox ponies had taken to eating there often in the hopes of a glimpse of Luna the Student. It made getting in and out difficult. Finding a place to sit and eat was even harder.

As I looked for an empty seat, I spotted Exemplar Ferrel alone at a table. She wasn’t in her armor, had her cloak pulled close around her, and her forehooves rested beside her lunch. It looked untouched and she was staring off into space.

I walked over and asked, “Good afternoon, may I join you?” There was no response. I waved a hoof in front of the mare’s eyes. “Ferrel? Hello?”

Finally, she blinked and looked at me. “Silent Knight? Where are we?”

“We’re in Haven. Where were you?” I asked.

“I’m not certain. Are you really here?”

A shiver ran down my spine but I tried not to let it show. “Yes, you’re back in reality now.”

The exemplar stared and then replied, “Precisely what a vision would say.” She glanced down at her lunch. It was obviously cold. “Nevermind. What did you need?”

“I wanted to eat lunch with you,” I said simply.

“Oh, please sit, then.”

I did so and a server came over to take my order. They grew an amazing variety of mushrooms down in Haven. Some of them actually tasted like fruit… almost. I liked the savory ones that had a crunch to them.

Just as the server started to turn away, the exemplar offered up her meal and asked, “Would it be possible to reheat this?”

“Yes, ma’am, of course,” he replied.

Exemplar Ferrel turned to me. “There are a lot of ponies here now. I see many things.”

My brow arched. “Any calamity?”

She shook her head. “Not as such, though I imagine there will be a divorce or two. I also believe your efforts will be successful. Some of these ponies will venture out into the world.”

That brought a smile to my face. “Good! I much prefer it when you bring good news.”

She nodded and once again her eyes focused off into the distance. Their vibrant blue color shifted into a subdued grey and she spoke with a voice that was both ethereal and not her own. “Some of them will be able to help you in your dark dealings.”

“What?” I asked, my tone suddenly falling even. It was an old royal guard habit to mask a surge of emotion.

“You have placed yourself on a path that does not appear to have any forks. You only move forwards with the horizon in sight. In your mind, there is an end. You will reach it, Silent Knight, but it will not be what you hoped for.”

I didn’t respond. I wasn’t sure how to.

Ferrel’s head tilted as her eyes shifted back to blue and onto me. “Was I gone again?”

“You were. You spoke, though. Do you not recall?”

“I spoke?” she asked with a voice of sincere confusion.

“Yes, you spoke.”

She shook her head. “I’m not sure that has ever happened before. I also don’t remember what I saw. Perhaps being around all of these new ponies has befuddled my visions.”

“That could be it,” I replied, my brow furrowed.

The server returned and set our lunches in front of us, interrupting my train of thought. I thanked him and set to eating. Orchid would be on shift for a while, but I wanted to use the time I had to check on all of my ponies and then find a secluded place to continue practicing what I’d been learning.

Ferrel started to eat, keeping herself focused on the food. I wasn’t sure if that was because she was hungry or because it didn’t give her visions.

The warning was confusing, and I didn’t want to discuss it. I cleared my throat and returned to my more upbeat tone. “What of the princess? What do you see for her?”

As if what she had said was already lost, the unicorn shifted and smiled. “Happily, I see nothing. After yesterday, she disappeared. She now appears to be beyond the reach of my gift.”

“What? Is that a good thing?” I didn’t feel like it was. How quickly could I get to the library?

The exemplar shrugged. “It is either that, or her life is about to end—but before you charge off, I have not seen anything that leads up to that. She simply was, and now she isn’t.”

My instinct was to do just that: to run off and check on Princess Luna right away. This time, however, I remained where I was and ate my crunchy mushrooms. It was time to have faith in my guards and Orchid to keep the princess safe.

We ate in relative silence. I rarely had conversations with the exemplar that made me feel good. I thought this one was going to be different.

“I would like to see the library,” she said without warning.

“Oh? Well… I’m sure that would be okay. It is probably better than leaving you here, prodding into nox pony love lives.”

She nodded. “Agreed. Shall we go?”

Her lunch was barely half eaten, but it seemed like a good way to change the mood. I nodded and set some bits on the table out of habit, then scooped them back up when I remembered they were useless twice over: bits had no meaning to them, and Moonlit Star arranged for all of our meals to be free.

“Sure,” I said as I put away my bits. “Let’s go.”

Together, we made our way to the library. For as much as the nox ponies crowded into the inn, they stayed away from where the princess was training. That was probably the matriarch’s doing.

Nova stood to attention as we approached. The nox watchpony next to her did the same, mimicking her posture. It was kind of cute.

“Welcome back, sir,” Nova said. “There is nothing to report.”

I nodded and motioned for her to be at ease. “That’s good. I’m going to go in for a moment. Please keep Ferrel company.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

I gave the knock of the day and, after the big metal doors opened, I walked inside to find it was quiet and the unicorn lanterns had been dimmed. Orchid looked at me curiously when I arrived since it wasn’t shift change. I waved her off before continuing down the central carpet.

There was no activity other than the occasional magic flare from the direction of the alicorn archive. The silver gate was open, and I made my way back to the small practice area that had been set aside.

As I turned the corner around a large bookshelf, I gasped, “Luna!”

Princess Luna was standing behind a small desk, her horn illuminated. Several large tomes were levitating in her magic and she was looking out vacantly in the same way the exemplar did.

What was shocking was that she was taller and larger than she had been just days before. Not quite the stature of her sister, but bigger than any other pony I’d ever seen.

Moonlit Star held up a hoof towards me. I stood there dumbfounded and waiting. Minutes seemed to drag on forever, and then the princess blinked.

“Silent Knight, hello,” she said.

“You’re huge!” I exclaimed without thinking.

She stiffened and frowned. “This is not so! I retain my mareish figure, but I have grown! Do you not like it?”

“You look… impressive. It was just unexpected. How can you just get bi… uh, grown?”

The princess laughed and let the tomes come to a rest on the desk. “We grow as regular ponies do: with time. But as we expand our magical prowess, that physical process is… accelerated. In sudden bursts. Have you never thought it odd that Celestia is so much larger?”

My head shook and I replied, “No, I just assumed it was because she was older. I thought she was the tall one and you were the cute one.”

Princess Luna laughed again and slipped from behind the desk to come to me. “You dare call me, the Alicorn of the Night, cute?”

“Not anymore,” I said, looking up to her with a smile.

“You are lucky you’re my favorite. Now, what brings you here to disturb my lessons?”

I blinked. “Oh, yes, ma’am. The exem—” My gaze flicked to the matriarch. “Ferrel has requested permission to see the library, if that will not be too much of a further disturbance.”

With a shake of her head, the princess replied, “Not at all. I am tired and would like to eat lunch. Would you have something brought here for the matriarch and I?”

“Of course. I’ll send Nova for something and bring Ferrel in.” I turned and headed back out of the library.

I liked Princess Luna the size she was before, but I guess it couldn’t be helped. There was little chance I’d be able to shrink her. Although, Runic had told me that washing things in hot water could have that result. Hot water, and some of his potions.

“What is going on back there?” Orchid asked when I rounded the corner.

“Princess is bigger,” I replied as I threw the lever for the door.

Orchid blinked and looked over her shoulder. “Come again?”

I ignored her to instead poke my head outside. “Nova, your partner and I will keep an eye on things. Please send for lunch for Luna and the matriarch. Ferrel, you’re welcome inside now.”

“Yes, sir,” Nova replied before heading off down the path.

Exemplar Ferrel ascended the stairs and came through the doors. She looked around with great interest clear on her face once she was inside. “What an amazing cache of knowledge.” Her expression was soft with wonder as she trailed a hoof over the spines of nearby books. “I could be content here for a century.”

“Indeed. Will you be around for another one?” I led the way down the central aisle towards the library’s heart, the door resounding as it closed behind us.

The exemplar’s ears flicked and she nodded. “I think so.”

“Lieutenant, explain the part to me again about a bigger princess?” Orchid asked as she trotted after us.

“Well, then perhaps we can work something out,” I said with a smile, intentionally ignoring Orchid just to drive her nuts.

“Lieutenant, I said, what did you—woah…” Orchid trailed as Princess Luna and the matriarch came from the other way, presumably to have lunch outside of the area with the priceless, impossible-to-replace alicorn tomes.

I couldn’t help it. I grinned, just a little bit. “Woah is right. Allow me to introduce you to our new—”

Without warning, Ferrel turned across me to look at a row of books and I bumped into her. We went down together, and the exemplar’s gray cloak flipped over her back.

Moonlit Star took one look at Ferrel’s cutie mark and gasped in surprise. “The oracle!”

Princess Luna frowned in confusion. “The oracle? What is the meaning of this?”

The exemplar didn’t answer the princess, so I repeated the question. “What does she mean?”

“I don’t know. This pony is not known to me,” Ferrel replied plainly before helping herself up.

Moonlit Star pointed at Ferrel’s flank. “That is the mark of the oracle.”

Ferrel peered at the nox unicorn. “What does that mean?”

“You’re a scion! You can see what will be. Your talent was invaluable to the alicorns of old.”

Ferrel furrowed her brow. “We are not allowed to interact with the alicorns. It is forbidden. Perhaps in ancient times, but not in my lifetime.”

Moonlit Star looked genuinely surprised. “Forbidden? That is nonsense! Your kind, like mine and like Star Swirl’s, have always aided the alicorns. That is what scions do! Surely you don’t waste your gift?”

Ferrel’s head tilted. “I am an Exemplar of the Unicorn Temple. I protect the weak, heal the sick, and mend the wounded. My life is not wasted.”

The matriarch fell silent for a long moment. Princess Luna gave me a look that read as either 'where is my lunch' or 'get one of these two ponies out of here.'

Clearing my throat, I said, “Perhaps we’d best leave, Ferrel.”

“Perhaps,” she replied softly.

As we turned to go, Moonlit Star held up her hoof. “Wait… please. Just a moment.” She hurried off deeper into the library.

The echoes of her hoofsteps faded away. It seemed that wherever she was going, it wasn’t a quick trot.

We all stood there uncomfortably.

Clearing my throat, I tried to say casually, “I think your mane looks good in a ponytail, Luna.” She had it tucked back like that to keep it out of the way.

The princess was staring at Ferrel who, in turn, would not look directly at her. Orchid had shifted to the other side of the princess and was subtly holding a hoof up and then moving it higher before coming back down. She was measuring.

“Thank you, Silent Knight,” Princess Luna finally responded before idly pushing Radiant Orchid away with a wing.

Eventually, Moonlit Star returned with a scroll trapped within her magical glow. “Please, take this as a gift. It is some of the knowledge we have of the oracles. We have none of our own. Perhaps you will learn something.”

The exemplar’s silver magic surrounded the scroll as she accepted it. “Thank you.”

I walked the exemplar out of the library and stopped just outside the doors. That seemed like the smartest thing to do, because she was fully focused on the sealed scroll floating in front of her.

“I hope it is a good read,” I said, not expecting an answer and surprised when she glanced at me.

“As do I. Good day, Silent Knight.” She looked back at the scroll and started to walk away.

“Good day, Exemplar,” I replied.

12. Haven - Part 4

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The library of Haven was a quiet place most of the time. Occasionally, Princess Luna or Moonlit Star would break the silence with some form of magic or instruction. Radiant Orchid had shown up before she was supposed to relieve me and dragged me off to a row of books furthest from the training area.

She poked her head around the end of the aisle, peering down where she knew the princess would be. Once she seemed satisfied that we weren’t being monitored, she turned back to me.

In a hushed voice, she said, “Our ponies are getting restless, sir. This was meant to be a meet-and-greet, but now there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. Keeping them all cooped up in this place—a place that I need to remind you is almost pitch black—is bad for morale. We need to give them a target to focus on.”

This was a conversation I’d been anticipating. I was walking a delicate line between what the princess truly desired and my own goal of keeping my guards happy. “I’ve noticed it, too. Freeing our guards up from their shifts just gave them more time to stand around bored.”

“Yes, sir. Obviously they’ll stick it out, but we should do more than just rely on their professionalism. Can you talk to the princess?”

“I think I can. It might be difficult, but I’ll get it done. In the meantime, I want you to take everypony up and out of the mountain for the afternoon. Have Crimson send another watchpony to take over.”

Orchid’s head tilted. “All of us, sir?”

I nodded. “Yeah, best give them all some sunlight. The watchponies are trustworthy, and I’ll keep an eye on the princess while we’re in here. This place is a fortress, after all.”

My section sergeant stood up and nodded. “How about you, sir? Don’t you need some sunlight?”

I shook my head. “It doesn’t seem to bother me. I guess it’s a trait passed down by my ancestors.”

“Suit yourself,” Orchid replied before turning to leave. “I’ll handle our ponies while you handle the princess.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied absently as I tried to figure how I’d broach this subject with Princess Luna. Her excitement was off the charts since we’d arrived. This was not going to be an easy conversation.

Magic flared from the training area as I approached it. The princess was right in the middle of a lesson, so I stood off to the side, waiting patiently and observing.

Princess Luna wasn’t the same pony physically anymore. She stood taller, her coat was darker, and her mane had taken on the look of an endlessly flowing starlit sky rather than a gentle summer evening. I wasn’t sure but if she kept this up, she might end up being larger than her sister.

Eventually, the lesson came to an end and the princess looked my way, finally noticing me. “Silent Knight, what can I do for you?”

“May I have a word with you privately, please?” I asked.

“Of course.” She gave the matriarch a meaningful look. Moonlit Star nodded and hobbled past me out of the training area.

Once she was out of earshot, I spoke quietly. “Princess, I truly apologize for this, but I need to bring to your attention that unit morale is suffering.”

“And why is that?” she asked with a frown.

“We’ve been here for weeks with a very small complement of guards. There is little for them to do, they’re surrounded by darkness, and they are likely thinking about their commitments back home.”

The princess tilted her head. “Were we not gone far longer to Varrheim?”

“Yes, Princess, but they prepared in advance for the length of that trip and we had far more guards,” I reminded her, trying my best not to sound like a parent talking to a foal. “They were also not idle there and had a clear goal. We had a lot to do. These few ponies have been on constant duty with no end in sight. They’ll continue on forever out of loyalty to you, but as their commander, I owe it to them to have some answer.”

Luna’s expression grew tight as she clearly bit back what she wanted to say. She stood up and began to pace. “I cannot simply walk away from my mentor a second time, Silent Knight. You understand how important this is, do you not?”

On the surface, she looked and sounded irritated. I knew better. In reality, she was nervous and maybe a little scared. This was a sensitive subject for her, especially given how the Nightmare Moon incident played into things.

I lifted my head and looked her straight in the eyes. “It won’t be like last time. You’re not walking away, Princess. We’ll go home, you can attend to the royal business in Canterlot, and I can pick fresh guards for a second trip.”

She wasn’t convinced. “Why don’t you send the guards home? I’ll be fine here.”

I shook my head. “No, Princess. Idle or not, bored or not, we will not abandon our duty and you cannot abandon yours.”

There was a flicker of hesitation in the princess and I latched onto it.

With a soft breath, I pressed, “Luna, we’ll come back. If I have to come alone with you, we’ll come back. Moonlit Star isn’t going anywhere, but you do have other duties. I’m half surprised Princess Celestia hasn’t sent a search party.”

Princess Luna smiled like a cat that had gotten into the cream. “Oh, no, she’s aware that we are fine.”

My brow furrowed. No messages had left Haven; there was no mail service here. “How?”

“I informed her personally with one of the new spells I’ve learned. She knows I’m safe.” Her tone had a certain smugness to it that I’d never heard before.

Magic. Leave it to magic to try to ruin my solid argument. Nonetheless, I stood my ground. “That doesn’t change the fact that you have other duties. Other ponies to care for.”

After some deliberation, she sighed and nodded. “I agree. Very well, then. Tell your guards that we shall stay a few days more and then leave. I want you to work with Moonlit Star to establish a messenger service for future visits.”

“Of course, Princess. Thank you.” I bowed and left her alone to her studies.

Dawn came to Haven once again. How these ponies decided when that was, I still didn’t understand. I just started my day when they started theirs. When the city burst into life, so did we. My first task of the day would be simple enough: a conversation with the matriarch.

She was easy enough to find, sitting in a rocking chair on her porch, looking at me as I approached. “Good morning, Silent Knight. Won’t you have a seat? May I get you something to drink?”

When she started to push herself up, I held my hoof out, urging her to stay in place. “No, thank you.”

The matriarch relaxed back into her chair. “Lady Luna tells me she’ll be leaving soon.”

“That is true,” I admitted without hesitation. “She has duties and I need to rest my ponies. We’ll return soon enough, though. She has an opportunity here that she has dreamed of for centuries.”

“It is probably for the best,” she said softly as she began to rock her chair. “After all, she may be the Student to us, but Princess Luna is the Ruler to you and thousands of other ponies.”

“How did you know?” I asked as my ears shot up in surprise.

Moonlit Star chuckled softly. “My granddaughter is very stealthy and even more curious. Your younger guards are not as cautious as you.” She raised one playful brow. “This was bound to happen, so don’t take this as a failing on their part.”

Young guards talking when they shouldn’t have been. They were good ponies, though. I shrugged and replied, “She didn’t want to seem presumptuous. I don’t have the full picture, but I guess there is some order to the three alicorn positions?”

She nodded. “Oh, yes. The Student is the youngest alicorn and has much to learn. The Ruler sees to the needs of all ponies. The Mentor teaches the Student the ways of magic and prepares her to one day take over the role of Ruler.

“When a Mentor is ready to take the great journey, she would train the Ruler to be her replacement. Then the Student would become the Ruler, and a new alicorn would become the Student.”

“Where do you get a new alicorn?” I asked.

She chuckled at first, then shook her head with a solemn frown. “That is a secret even I don’t know. I expected that Celestia would have found some new ones by now to replace, at the very least, the two her house lost. Yet both you and Luna say this is not so.”

This conversation was starting to unsettle my nerves. A little desperately, I suggested, “Perhaps she didn’t want to further aggravate the problem by having three alicorns of the day and only one of the night? Maybe once Luna is strong enough, they can rebuild their houses together?”

The matriarch shrugged. “If so, that is beyond the tomes we have here. There is no information on ascension at all, and I’ve read every book in the archive many times in preparation for my role as Luna’s mentor.”

My mind raced to search for an answer and instead landed on a memory. “Exemplar Ferrel believes that extra good ponies that help others will ascend to become an alicorn after they pass.”

“Then I suspect there haven’t been any extra good ponies in over a thousand years,” she replied simply.

I frowned at that and our conversation lingered there in silence. She continued to rock, her chair squeaking with every forwards sway.

Finally, I found something to ask. “I’m curious about your pegasi, the ones with draconic wings.”

“Ah, yes. The original nox ponies. In ages past, they were far more xenophobic. Even more so than we are now. In time, though, day and night ponies started to mingle. You’re an example of that. All that is left in you is the ear tufts.”

“Some are still…” I wasn’t sure the word to use.

“Pure?” she offered.

“That seems like a negative way of putting it, but yes.”

The matriarch chuckled and nodded. “Some of the families only condone selecting mates of the same type. Of course, I caution that this can be foolish, since without mingling, we’d have never had magic. I certainly wouldn’t be who I am. Still, they have their right to choose.”

“So they do. Given your open mind when it comes to… mingling, I hope you’ll all consider giving the rest of Equestria a try?”

Moonlit Star replied in a soft voice, “That seems inevitable now. In fact, I want you to take my grandchildren with you when you leave. I would like Luna to have some nox pony influence, and it is time they start learning about the world outside of this mountain.”

This was not a small task she was asking of me. They’d more or less be two very naïve tourists, and both of them would stand out both in appearance and their manner of speech.

However, the palace was a safe enough environment for them to learn about the world. Our guards knew how to deal with foreign dignitaries. This wouldn’t be much different, really.

I finally nodded. “I can arrange that, if you think it is a good idea.”

Moonlit Star looked at me for a moment, then out into the city of Haven. Her expression was soft and a little sad. “Tranquil Dusk will leave on her own sooner or later, regardless of what I want. She is too curious about the outside world. In doing so, she may invite many other young ponies to go with her.

“Crimson Dawn is far more obedient, but he dreams of being a great knight. He is enamored with you and your guards. As much as it pains me to say so, Silent Knight, sending them to your world for now may be the best thing I can do for mine. They will be no burden to you, I promise.”

We exchanged glances. Her eyes were full of fear and doubt. She was trying to quarantine her own family. Moonlit Star had chosen to be a leader first and a grandmother second.

“This must be tough for you,” I said softly.

“Immensely, but I trust that you’ll keep them safe.”

“Me?” I asked in surprise.

“Yes, I want you to be their guardian outside of Haven.” She leaned towards me, the sadness and fear replaced with a sharp, stern look. “Can you do that? Can you keep my family safe?”

Keeping track of two tourists wasn’t really in my wheelhouse, but they weren’t foals. How hard could it be, especially if it would give their grandmother peace?

“As long as they don’t do anything that is against the law, I can ensure their safety. You have my word.”

The matriarch nodded and stood from her chair. “Good. I’ll prepare them. Now, I need to get to the library. We have much work to do and only a few days to do it in.”

I bowed my head. “Thank you, Matriarch. Have a good day.”

She limped her way in the direction of the library, leaving me to consider my new mission. I’d need to set some ground rules but, in general, the risk to Canterlot was very small.

Would the two of them even stay there once we were out? Tranquil Dusk might run off to explore the world immediately. If I could get her into school, that might be helpful. Canterlot University had a lot to study.

At the least, I would have a few days to plan something for them. That was something to occupy my mind when I was standing watch and didn’t have the ability to read the Knights of the Moon tomes.

The days passed by rather quickly, as I was busy getting everything ready for us to leave. Things were finally in order, and Radiant Orchid had taken the late shift so I could get some rest, which was exactly what I was trying to do. I was half asleep on the couch in Luna’s room when the door opened, and I nearly fell off as I prepared to confront the intruder.

A familiar face looked at me. The intruder was Princess Luna, apparently coming in early. Early for her and Haven, anyway. She and Moonlit Star had been working all the harder these last few days.

My nerves settled and I rose to look more respectable than a pony sprawled out on their back. “Welcome back, Princess.”

“You may go back to relaxing, Silent Knight,” she replied with a smile.

That was all the encouragement I needed go boneless again. “You’ve been working so hard I’ve barely seen you. Are you ready to go home?”

She frowned at me. We both already knew the answer to the question, but she replied nonetheless, “No, but I understand that it can’t be helped. For now, anyway.”

I watched her while she paced the sitting area. “I don’t understand, Princess. You have a whole lifetime to come back to this place. You may learn as you please. The knowledge isn’t going anywhere now that it’s been found. Why are you so... upset?”

She turned her back to me. “I stunted my development when I refused the wisdom of the original Moonlit Star, Silent Knight. Some of what I am learning now is pedestrian by alicorn standards. I should have long since mastered much of this.”

There was regret in her voice as she continued, “After a thousand years of banishment, I have become a very eager student. Celestia may be an immensely successful teacher and we may be sisters, but our magic is very different. The knowledge and magic have always been split between the houses. As such, there is only so much she can teach me. This is my opportunity to learn what she cannot.”

That was a perfectly logical explanation. One I couldn’t question, so I attempted to lighten the mood. “I think I understand. It’s like that time I wanted to go to jump school.”

Luna turned to me with a curious frown before she laughed and shook her head. “And I still maintain that you are a pegasus. You can fly. Jump school seems an impractical waste of time.”

“I wanted the badge,” I said with a wave of my hoof. “Yes, I can fly, but they teach other skills I didn’t learn at flight camp. How to land without getting hurt. How to discern terrain at a high altitude. But I just wanted the badge, because other guards had it.

“I didn’t care about the training, just the end result. I probably would have hurt myself because I thought that since I was a pegasus, I’d be fine. Just because you’re an alicorn that is supposed to master this stuff, doesn’t mean you should rush through it. You’ll wear yourself out, Princess. Don’t think just about the badge.”

Luna tipped her nose in the air. “A badge and alicorn magic are hardly comparable, you know.” She sighed and settled on the couch beside me, then started to fluff my mane. “But I see your point. As long as you remain true to your word that we will return, I shan’t hold a grudge.”

“Oh, thank you, Princess. It is good to know you won’t smite me for doing what is best for you.” My eyes widened when I realized I said that out loud. Stupid, honest mouth.

“Is that so?” She laughed and groomed the disheveled hairs on my shoulders from wearing armor all day. “I presume you mean that you only want to help me? This isn’t about you? Poor Silent Knight. Are you jealous of the alicorn tomes?”

I scrunched up my nose in preparation to make a face. Then I realized she was right. I was jealous of all the time she was spending away from me. “You were my princess first.”

This gave her cause to smile and she nuzzled my cheek. “I believe I was theirs before you were born, but I appreciate the sentiment.” She stood and turned away, walking across the room. “Pleasant dreams, Silent Knight. Tomorrow, you may rest assured I will not stop us from returning home.”

“Yes, Princess.”

Luna lingered in the doorway to her bedroom and looked over her shoulder. “I apologize for shirking my royal duties. Celestia has ruled so long that I feel as if she can continue to do so without me.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but she silenced me with a raised hoof.

“Be not concerned, I know I have my important part to play, too. I’ll be more useful to everypony once I’ve been appropriately trained. Even you cannot deny that. But what is most important is that I cannot keep you away from Crystal Wishes too much longer or she also may get jealous.”

“She may indeed, Princess,” I said, teasingly. “Good night.”

I pulled myself off of the couch and headed into my small bedroom. We would finally be leaving in the morning, and that was fine by me. It was time to rest my guards, see Crystal, and get some semblance of my regular life back.

Early the next morning, I made a quick stop at the library to borrow the next Knights of the Moon tome. I’d gone through the initiate’s guide several times, and though I still had a lot of practicing to do of what was in it, I could at least start reading ahead until we came back here. The second volume seemed to be focused on dealing with threats from manticores, dragons, chimeras, and other species that were dangerous during those times.

I arrived at the town square to find the chariots packed and my guards waiting for me, as they had been instructed the day prior. They were standing at attention, looking as professional as always, but I could see the fatigue in them. We were all ready to go home.

“Listen up, ponies: we’ll be leaving today,” I said as I walked up and down the line. “We’ve got a long flight home and I’d like for it to go smoothly. Thankfully, we’ve found ourselves two new volunteers to help pull these chariots. That should make things a little easier. In case anypony missed introductions, this is Crimson Dawn and Tranquil Dusk.”

Crimson stood to his full height. “It is an honor to be one of the first to go to Canterlot. I’m proud to have a chance to serve Lady Luna directly.”

“Glad to have you,” Orchid replied.

“I’m excited to get there,” Tranquil said, tapping her hooves together. “When I’m taking a turn pulling, we’ll go a little faster.”

I chuckled at that. “It sounds that way.” I turned my head to look at the rest of the ponies present. “Orchid, final inspection of our chariots, please. Nova, you’ll start with the princess. Crimson and Lightning Flash will be on the larger. We’re in the sky in one hour.”

“Yes, sir,” my ponies responded and set to their tasks.

I trotted over to where Princess Luna stood with Moonlit Star. “Lady Luna, we’ll be ready to go shortly. On your order, of course.”

“Thank you, Silent Knight. I’ve said my farewells and am pleased with the plans made for correspondence. As soon as the chariots are ready, we may go.”

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll let you know.” I turned to go, but Moonlit Star set a hoof on my shoulder.

“Keep your promise,” she said in a soft voice. “Watch over my family.”

“My word is given and it will not be broken,” I replied.

“Thank you. Now, have a safe journey,” she said before turning back to speak softly to the princess.

That was my cue to check over the work of my guards. They were hard at work finishing our preparations. While I watched them, I felt a presence at my side: Tranquil Dusk.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked.

I smiled and nodded towards Crimson, who was fumbling with the harness. “Why don’t you go and help your brother get ready? He looks like he could use it.”

Her laughter was quiet but unmistakable. “Yes, sir.”

I stood quietly by and watched the two of them interact. They seemed about as fit as a pony right out of the Royal Guard Academy. I wasn’t sure how much protection they’d need, but I also wasn’t certain that the matriarch had meant they were in physical danger.

It was going to be interesting keeping my eye on them and guiding their interaction in a world that would be very unfamiliar. That was something I’d worry about later. For now, I moved over to where Nova was putting on her own harness to check her buckles and straps.

Everything seemed to be in order, and the remaining ponies had piled into the larger chariot. It looked like it was finally time to go, so I went back to Princess Luna. “We’re ready for you.”

“Very well.” Luna turned to look at Moonlit Star. “Matriarch, you have my eternal gratitude for your hospitality and your wisdom. I will return soon.”

Moonlit Star smiled. “You are always welcome here, Lady Luna. I shall prepare for your next visit.”

The princess bowed her head to touch her horn to Moonlit Star’s. “Until then.” She straightened up and looked at me. “Lieutenant, we may go.” She then strode to her chariot and took her place.

“Yes, ma’am. Move out!” I called before motioning with a wing.

The chariots lurched forwards and we were on our way home. It was a great relief to me even though I’d hidden that from the others. Once I felt the sun on my face and the wind in my mane, I realized how much I’d missed it. It took all of my discipline not to fly off like a foal that finally grew into her wings.

Tranquil Dusk spoke up, shifting my attention to her. “What is it we will be doing when we get to Canterlot?”

“What would you like to do?” I asked.

“I want to see everything!”

I chuckled. “That might take some time, but it is a great goal. Where would you like to start?”

Her eyes lit up with excitement. “The castle where Lady Luna lives!”

That gave me some pause as I thought it over. “There are some limits to where you can go within the castle, but initially, you’ll be living there.”

The mare quietly clapped her hooves together. “Wonderful! And then I would like to visit all of the major cities of Equestria. When can I leave to explore them?”

“I—”

Crimson shifted in his seat and asked, “What about me?”

I graciously took the chance to back away from Tranquil’s growing list of questions. “The same rules apply. The sky's the limit. What would you like to do?”

“What if I want to become a royal guard like you?”

My ear flicked in the wind. “Pardon?”

He frowned and repeated, “What if I want to be a royal guard, like you?”

“Your grandmother may not approve. At the same time, ponies your age are allowed to make their own decisions. Of course, they’re wise to listen to their elders. The Royal Guard is a long commitment. If you were to do that, you wouldn’t be able to go home for a while.”

Crimson Dawn looked back in the direction of Haven and then back at me. “I understand… but I would have that right?”

This was a complex question right out of the gate. “By our standards, you’re an adult, Crimson. That means you can do as you please, but it also means you must accept the consequences of your actions. Do you understand?”

The younger stallion shifted uncomfortably. “I do.”

“Then think about it very carefully.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

It seemed that being the one responsible for these ponies was going to be a lot more perilous than I’d thought. What had I gotten myself into?

13. Respect

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The trip back from Haven was uneventful, but pleasant. The addition of two ponies to pull the chariots made resting easier, and it was clear that all of my guards were eager to be ‘out of the pit.’

Evidently, weeks with minimal sunlight could make even the sweetest pony less polite when talking about somepony’s home. Crimson Dawn and Tranquil Dusk didn’t seem to take it personally; they were too busy being excited about seeing the outside world.

Today was our final day of travel and the siblings had moved from excited to exuberant. They were at the front of the large chariot with their heads poked out of the windows. The fact that the wind was whipping their manes was lost to them.

Suddenly, Tranquil thrust a hoof through the window and squealed. “Crimson, look! There it is! I never imagined it would look like this!” It was the loudest I’d ever heard her speak.

“Nor I,” Crimson replied as his gaze lingered on the massive battlements that surrounded the city.

From my spot on the bench, I called, “You won’t find many places quite like Canterlot. It keeps much of the old architecture.”

They were too excited to notice me, so I turned my attention to Lightning Flash. “Why don’t you hop out and fly on ahead? Let the palace know we’re coming home and to prepare to receive us.”

“Aye, aye, sir!” he replied warmly before opening the door and leaping from the chariot. He zipped off ahead, full of energy. I didn’t blame him. I’d be just as happy to get back to Crystal and Winterspear.

Radiant Orchid set her hooves on the railing. “I’m actually pretty curious to find out if my foals overpowered my husband.”

I chuckled at that. “I’m sure he managed.”

“You’ve never met my foals,” she replied with a wink.

“So noted, Sergeant,” I replied, pondering briefly why that was the case. The most likely culprit was that I’d never made time to, and I felt a little bad for that. We’d been working together for years.

My thoughts shifted when I felt the chariot dip forwards as we started to slowly turn into a downward spiral. We made several passes to reduce our altitude closer to the palace courtyard.

Finally, the wheels made contact with the stones and we drew to a stop. I pushed the door open and the ramp down, motioning everypony off.

Crimson and Tranquil were the first out of the gate, their eyes as big as could be as they looked around.

“Oh my gosh!” Tranquil gasped.

Crimson even smiled. “It is how I imagined Nocturna’s keep would be.”

“Please don’t run off,” I said with a teasing tone, but I was seriously concerned that they were flight risks.

As Exemplar Ferrel passed, she said, “I much preferred this trip to the last one, Silent Knight.”

That sent a shiver down my spine and I averted my eyes, not sure how to respond to that.

When her hooves found the cobblestone, she called back into the chariot, “Sergeant Orchid, do not forget that you have promised me lunch with noodles.”

“Better noodles than my house,” Orchid muttered as she walked down the ramp.

That left only me, so I followed suit and dismounted.

Miley Hooves was approaching us with four other guards, flailing her hoof in a happy wave the whole way. “Welcome back, sir! Welcome back—” Her eyes went wide as Princess Luna stepped around the larger chariot. “Princess?”

I cleared my throat. “Thank you, Sergeant. It is good to be back. Please escort Princess Luna back to her quarters and send ponies to unload the chariots. Everypony else is dismissed. Go back to your families.”

Radiant Orchid chimed in, “Check in tomorrow as normal, but I imagine the lieutenant will be assigning leave.”

She wasn’t really giving me a choice. Not that I’d have done differently. “You’re correct. Dismissed.”

Miley leaned in close and whispered, “Am I crazy, sir, or is she taller?”

I whispered back, “She’s taller. Be sure she makes it up to her room. I need to see to our new guests, okay?”

“Yes, sir!” the little mare replied before her eyes fell to Crimson and Tranquil. She blinked, looked at me, and then just motioned at Princess Luna. “Princess, if you’ll come with me.”

“Yes, of course, Miley Hooves,” the princess replied before trotting off with her escorts.

Orchid and the rest of the party had flown off for home already, leaving me alone with the very obviously not-regular-looking nox ponies. This was going to be an interesting situation. For now, I just needed to get them a place to stay.

“Alright, you two, you’re going to be guests of the prin—” I paused and then just shook my head. “Of the princess. She’s a princess here. Follow me, please.” I started towards the main entrance of the palace.

Tranquil gasped, her eyes going even wider. “Into the castle?”

“Yes, this is where you’ll be staying. Before I get you some quarters, I’ll need to take you to the front office and get you passes.”

“Passes?” Crimson asked.

“Yes, ponies can’t just wander about the castle,” I explained. “We keep a list of those allowed in much in the same way you protect the library. The two of you are the princess’s personal guests, yes, but you’re unknown to the staff here.”

Crimson nodded. “That is perfectly logical.”

I’m glad he thought so. All ponies needed passes regardless but I wanted to ensure these two had them. With the way they looked, some young guard might make a huge mistake. And given the looks Crimson got from every guard, it was a real possibility.

When we finally arrived at the pass office, Crimson leaned in close to me and whispered, “Will we be welcome here? I sense… animosity?”

I quickly shook my head. “It’s not that at all. It’s curiosity and confusion mixed with diligence to keep an eye out for anything different. These ponies have not seen a pony like you ever. They’ll settle once you’re familiar.”

His posture relaxed and he nodded. “I see. The same way we felt when you arrived.”

“Basically, and we all got along just fine, so I expect the same here,” I said before pushing the door open and trotting inside.

The lieutenant in charge was polite and professional, but her eyes kept falling on Crimson’s leathery wings. I managed to keep her focused long enough to get the task done, however, and looped a pass around the neck of each nox pony.

Once that was done, I led them to the guest wing and had the palace hotelier assign them two nice but modest rooms. They weren’t official dignitaries, after all, and the nicest rooms needed to be kept open in case somepony of political importance arrived.

We stood in the hall outside their rooms. Tranquil already looked ready to take off, and Crimson was side-eyeing the nearest guard.

“Now listen,” I said, “you two are not prisoners here. You may come and go as you please, but you must wear your passes at all times. I’d even do so outside of the castle just to be sure.

“I also recommend that you remain within the palace grounds to start. Most ponies will be curious and may pester you endlessly. A small amount of them might be afraid and end up seeming rude.”

Tranquil’s wings twitched in clear irritation. “There is a whole city out there, though.”

“And you can explore it. Just start small and work your way up.” I tried not to smile at her petulant pout. It reminded me of Crystal. “After I’m settled back at home, I’ll be happy to give you a tour and show you everything there is to see. If you get hungry, there is a commissary downstairs, or you can ask to have food brought to your room.”

“Brought to us?” Crimson asked. “As if we were nobles?”

I chuckled and corrected, “Welcome guests who deserve hospitality.”

That seemed to be most everything. Although, if they went out into the city, they’d need money. I rooted around in my saddlebag, pulled out the small sum of bits I had on me, and offered them to Crimson. He took them and nodded in thanks.

“That isn’t much, but I’m sure we can get more from the princess tomorrow. It should be enough to get something from the gift shop, if you’d like.”

“And until tomorrow we’re going to be all alone here?” Tranquil asked softly.

“Just this evening and maybe some of tomorrow. I’d stay but I really should look to my home and family first. Any royal guard you see can assist you and you might make friends. Plus, you have each other. Hopefully that will suffice for a night.”

Crimson Dawn shifted. “Is there anything we should watch out for? Dangers?”

I shook my head. “Not in the castle. Canterlot is also very safe. Just be polite and remember that most ponies are curious, not dangerous. I can assign one of my House Guards to you for the time being, if that’d make you feel safer.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Crimson said. “We’ll keep to the palace for now. At least until you return,” He then looked at Tranquil and added, “Both of us.”

Tranquil rolled her eyes and sighed. “Yes, fine. Both of us.”

“Alright, but don’t hesitate to ask somepony if you need anything. I’ll see you soon,” I said before heading for the palace entrance.

Leaving them there alone started to play on my mind. They weren’t familiar with the world they were in. Would they be fine for a single night? Yes, right? Yes. It was the palace!

When I got outside, I pumped my wings and flew into the sky. It was time to go home. I could handle those two in the morning. For now, I just wanted to go to my quarters and sleep in my bed. That sounded like an excellent way to spend an evening.

Down below my quarters came into view, the windows lit with a soft glow. Winterspear was home. That was nice. I missed her terribly. I swooped down and landed on the balcony outside my door and unlocked it.

When I pushed it open, I was surprised when I found five pairs of eyes staring at me. Winterspear and Iridescence were in the kitchen, Crystal Wishes and Dot were on the couch, and—“Mom?”

“Hello, Son,” she said softly. “Why don’t you come on inside? There is something we need to tell you.”

My heart started beating quickly as I walked into my quarters and shut the door. A quick glance around the room found sympathy in the eyes of all the mares. “Mom, what is going on?”

She took a deep breath, her eyes closing briefly. My mother had always been a confident, measured mare. After what seemed like forever, she said, “Silent Knight, while you were deployed, there was an accident. You know how your father is. Blind or not, he thinks he can do anything.”

I took my helmet off and set it on the table by the door. It was suddenly smothering me. Being blind was not something that had ever stopped my father from trying to do whatever he wanted. There had been incidents in the past. “How badly is he hurt this time?”

Winterspear stood up and exchanged glances with my mother before she came over to hug me.

My mother swallowed and blinked her eyes several times. It took her a moment to find her composure. “This time it was just too severe.”

“What?!” I gasped, struggling against my sister. “What does that mean?!”

“He’s gone,” Winterspear whispered.

My stomach knotted and I had to set my jaw to stop my lip from quivering. It took a few steady breaths to stop the shaking. “Excuse me, please,” I said before I pulled away from my sister.

“Of course,” my mother replied before stepping back. Winterspear did the same, pain and hurt in her eyes.

With as much dignity as I could manage, I walked past everypony and into my room. Once the door was closed, I let gravity take over and collapsed. I shook within my armor as tears pooled in my eyes.

Stratus Knight was not a nice pony. It might even be fair to say he was callous, cold, and even cruel, but he was my dad. He’d been my hero and now he was gone. Suddenly gone! I hadn’t seen him in over a year and now everything left unsaid between us would be unsaid forever.

When the tears had finally abated, I forced myself up and removed my armor. I cleaned my face as best as I could and went back out into the living room. Once again, the sympathetic eyes fell on me. I went to my mother and pulled her into a hug.

She held me and whispered, “I’m sorry, Son.”

I nodded. “I know. Me, too. What needs to be done?”

“Not much, honestly. Stratus wanted a headstone in one of the Royal Guard cemeteries, but he also wanted to be cremated and scattered in the wind, per our traditions.”

“Alright. I can get with veterans’ affairs for the headstone,” I said, throwing myself into the tasks ahead. A purpose would help occupy my mind and keep it from going into darker places.

“Thank you,” she said softly, patting my forehoof.

Then we all stood in silence. No pony seemed keen to say anything. What could you say?

Finally, Winterspear asked, “What about some plans for you, Mom? This changes everything, doesn’t it? Why don’t you move here with us? We’ll all be together.” She winced. “Well, most of us.”

“You should,” I put in.

My mother shook her head. “Thank you, but no. I’m happy you two have made a home here. You both have lovely…” She trailed, looking at Iridescence, “...partners, but I’ve lived in Cloudsdale my whole life. That is where my friends are. I’m not sure I would fit in with Canterlot society. You’ll just have to come visit more often.”

That hit a little too hard and my breath hitched as I fought back a sob. Quickly, I wiped a forehoof across my eyes and nodded. “Of course.” Over on the couch, I caught sight of Crystal Wishes looking my way with deep concern and sympathy.

“Have you eaten yet?” Iridescence asked, offering a much needed and appreciated distraction. “Since you got back, that is?”

I shook my head. “No.” I went to the couch and settled between Crystal and Dot. My marefriend looped her hooves around me and I softly ruffled Dot’s green mane. “I could eat.”

“Me, too,” Dot said.

“Alright, I’ll go ahead and make a little something,” Iridescence replied before heading into the kitchen. Winterspear went to help her.

There was a long, awkward silence, filled only by the sounds of dinner being prepared.

My mother cleared her throat. “Crystal Wishes, I fear that every time we see each other it is under unfortunate circumstances. I hope that won’t dissuade you from sticking with my son.”

Crystal shook her head. “No, ma’am. If anything does come between us, it won’t be because of something like this.”

“You do seem like the strong-willed sort. You, too, Iridescence. I find it curious that both of my foals have similar taste in mares.”

Dot snorted and laughed. “Oh, you have no idea, Mrs. Wallflower!”

In the kitchen, Iridescence’s eyes went big before narrowing into a glare at the smaller pony. I simply looped a hoof over Dot’s mouth and pulled her close to me.

Mother’s brow arched, but she was polite enough not to inquire further. I wasn’t sure if she’d put two and two together or remembered our discussion during Hearth’s Warming Eve.

Iridescence stirred the pan in front of her, finally asking before the silence dragged on too long again, “Sir, do you have any interesting stories from your recent mission?”

It was a merciful change of topic. “Yes, several, to be honest. It was a complete success. You’re going to be surprised when you see Princess Luna. She’s grown.”

Crystal looked at me curiously. “Grown?”

“Yes. She learned a lot of night alicorn magic, and evidently that makes her grow,” I explained.

Dot peered at me. “When I learn spells, I don’t grow!”

Iridescence started setting the table. “Well… based on your grades, I’m not certain you’re actually learning spells.”

“C is for complete!” Dot chimed.

“I’m not sure about that, sweetie,” Winterspear replied.

“Grades are very important, Dot,” my mother said. “Especially if you want to make something of yourself. Hard work is rewarded. Look at your sister. She’s a sergeant in the House Guard. That is a very important position.”

Dot squirmed against me. “I understand. I’m doing better, honest.”

“Dinner is served, ponies,” Iridescence said, the smell of cooked vegetables reaching me.

I stood and headed over to our table. It was designed to seat two comfortably and four in a pinch. Six was probably going to be tight.

My mother walked past me and over to Iridescence. “Have a seat; I’ll do the serving.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Iridescence said, moving to the nearest chair. It happened to be at the head of the table.

Softly, Mother cleared her throat. “Not that one.”

Iridescence stopped mid-seat and moved to the next chair over.

I moved the living room chair over to the table and nestled it next to one of the sides. “Crystal, why don’t you sit here?”

“Thank you,” she replied, settling into the comfortable chair.

Winterspear flipped over our trashcan, sat a pillow on it, and pushed it next to Iridescence. “Sorry, Dot, this will have to do.”

“That’s alright,” Dot replied.

Mother started setting out portions on all of the plates. She then sat at the foot of the table and nodded at the chair opposite her. “Silent Knight, sit down.”

I looked at the head of the table and then over at her. “No, ma’am,” I replied softly before sitting down beside Crystal.

Winterspear smiled briefly at me before taking her place at the head of the table.

Stratus Knight was gone and there would be things about him I’d want to carry on. This was not one of them. Winterspear was the eldest, and things were going to be a little different from now on.

Our dinner was quiet with forced conversation. I shared some of my experiences in Haven and about how I’d returned with nox ponies. That was met with a lot of questions from Dot. In a way, it was welcome.

Once we were finished, I felt myself needing another moment and slipped out onto the balcony. The fresh air did me good as I tried to process the idea of a world without my father.

My mother came out of my quarters to stand beside me and we exchanged glances briefly.

“I’m sorry you had to come home to this,” she said softly.

“This isn’t exactly the sort of thing you plan,” I responded.

“No, I suppose it isn’t. At least if he’d been off somewhere fighting it would have been more expected. Still, you shouldn’t have to be gone so long doing your duty and then face this right when you get home.”

Mom was always apologizing for my father in one way or another. She’d always supported him but also cleaned up the messes he left. I shook my head. “Why don’t you move here, Mom? What are you going to do there alone?”

She shifted to look at me directly. “Silent Knight, I appreciate the sentiment, but I won’t be alone. All of the ponies I know live in Cloudsdale, and they aren’t going to be sent away on dangerous missions nor judge me for wearing or not wearing the right frock. My name may be Wallflower but I am anything but. And—”

Mom stopped talking mid-sentence. Her eyes fell briefly before she set her hoof over mine. “And forgive me for saying this, but I think I’d like to be away from the Guard for a little while. I know my children are going to follow their father’s path, but for just a moment I’m going to pretend I’m not a Royal Guard mother.

“I’ll just be a regular mare whose husband didn’t come back different from a war and whose son didn’t almost die in nearly the same way. I just need a little room to breathe. Can you understand that?”

It hurt to see her like this, almost more than knowing my father was gone. There wasn’t anything else I could say except, “I guess I’ll have to.”

“That is appreciated. This is what I need. At least for now. Perhaps I’ll take you up on the offer soon. Maybe sooner if you start having foals. Although I’ll be quite frank with you, living below the clouds seems unnatural to me. The fact that both you and your sister have attached yourselves to unicorns is beyond me.”

My brow arched. “You don’t approve?”

She softly chuckled and shook her head. “Oh, I don’t care who you like, Silent Knight. Crystal Wishes is lovely. This isn’t about her or Iridescence, specifically. It was your father’s idea to leave you in this city and he got far more than he bargained for. You’ve adapted too well, but you’re still a pegasus. I just don’t want you to forget who you are. You’re meant to live in the clouds, above all of this.”

“I don’t understand what you’re getting at,” I admitted.

“I know, but perhaps one day you will. Either way, I’m happy with the stallion you’ve become. Just… find a balance between being Stratus Knight and Silent Knight, alright? There was more good in him than I think you and your sister realize.”

More apologies. I’d heard those all my life. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear right now, so I changed the subject. “I’ll go over to veteran’s affairs in the morning. Dad will easily qualify for a spot in Canterlot’s Royal Guard Cemetery. Even if it is just a headstone. If that is alright with you.”

“It is, but that can wait until we get back,” she said.

“Get back?”

My mother nodded. “We have to spread his ashes. Winterspear and I put it off until you got home, but tradition demands it be done soon.”

That didn’t make sense; pegasus tradition was to mourn for almost a month before spreading the ashes. That gave all members of the family time to come pay their respects. My mother would follow the tradition exactly.

Then it hit me, that was exactly what she was doing. “When was the accident?”

Mother replied as evenly as she could, “Two days after you left. We’ll need to leave tomorrow.”

They’d known for weeks and had time to mourn. I got an evening. One lousy evening. Would I be ready tomorrow? It didn’t matter; tradition is tradition and my father deserved that at least.

“Alright, tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” my mother repeated before reaching out to take my hoof in hers. We squeezed each other and held on in silence, watching the stars twinkle in the sky.

West of Canterlot and high in the clouds, Winterspear, my mother, and I stood looking down at Equestria below. It appeared small and insignificant compared to the task we were meant to perform today. The wind whipped through my coat and swirled all around us. The landscape below showed the earliest hint of spring, but the air this high was bitterly cold.

My sister and I wore our ceremonial guard armor: hers gold, mine dark purple. Mother had found a suitable black dress for the occasion with the help of Crystal Wishes. It was sad that for this solemn occasion, there were only the three of us. There were a lot of ponies that respected my father, but he didn’t really have friends.

We stood in relative silence, the urn clutched in my mother’s grasp.

Winterspear asked softly, “Do we just dump it? Shouldn’t there be a ceremony?”

“He wasn’t much on fancy ceremonies,” Mother replied.

“He wasn’t keen on a lot of things, Mom,” Winterspear retorted bitterly. “This isn’t only about him.”

I took a few deep breaths. The tension that was building between my sister and mother was almost palpable. It made me uncomfortable, especially right now.

Mother shook her head. “You’re right, but please, if only for today, have a little respect.” She sighed and offered the urn to me. “Silent Knight, I think you should do it.”

On instinct alone, I recoiled. “Why?”

My mother held the urn out still. “You are his namesake and son. Regardless of whether it is right or wrong, that meant something to him. He may have never said it but he was proud of you. Now, this may not only be about him but they are his ashes, his body, his spirit. This is what he would have wanted.”

My eyes met Winterspear’s and I could see the anger and bitterness in them. There was also sadness and perhaps even shame. Being the eldest had never been enough for our father. She had always fallen short and now, when it was all done, she was to be passed over a final time.

“Do it,” Winterspear said in an emotionless tone.

With shaking hooves, I took the urn, carefully removed the lid, and waited for an appropriate gust of wind. When a particularly strong one hit, I turned the vessel sideways and let the ashes spill out.

“We return Stratus Knight to the sky from whence he came,” Mother said quietly. “May he be at peace knowing the wind will always be beneath his wings.”

In that moment, the whole situation was more than I could bear. With my composure cracking, I turned my back on them to cry.

Winterspear’s voice was shaky as she asked, “What now?”

“You say your goodbyes and go home,” Mother replied, her tone tightly controlled. She was holding herself together with the mountainous strength she’d always possessed.

“What about you?” my sister asked.

“I’ve already said mine and it is time I head home. It has been good spending so many days with you, Winterspear. It was a shame we couldn’t all be here together. You’ll come visit me more often, I hope. I miss our lunches.”

“Of course. I promise,” was the reply. Then I heard the shifting of armor and cloth. It was likely they were embracing. I couldn’t look at them.

My mother came to my side, standing a pace back to spare me my dignity. “You’re a fine soldier, Son. You’ve got everything figured out and I have no doubt you’ll be able to stand on your own hooves. Come visit me soon.”

“Yes, Mother,” I said softly before wiping my eyes with a hoof. When she turned to leave I stood my ground a moment before turning to swiftly follow and embrace her.

“It’s alright, Silent,” she said, squeezing me back and lingering in the hug. Eventually, it ended and she patted me on the chest. “Be well.”

With that, she hopped off the cloud and gracefully angled herself towards Cloudsdale. My mother was an incredibly strong mare. She’d always put up with my father and supported him. Still, I worried what she might do alone without him to watch over.

When she was out of sight, Winterspear came over and looped her hooves tightly around me, grinding our armor together and causing me to cringe at the sound.

“You can cry. It’s okay, I’ll never tell anypony,” she whispered.

And so I did.

14. Favors

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Following the death of my father and my long trip to Haven, the Royal Guard insisted that I take a week of leave to relax. That was the last thing I ended up doing, as having nothing official to do led to me being stir crazy.

They didn’t understand that idleness was not right for me. What were Crimson Dawn and Tranquil Dusk doing? How about my guards? Was the princess okay in Sunny Day’s hooves? Even with a trip to the Phial and Filly that resulted in more clandestine information, I couldn’t keep my mind focused on anything for too long.

Instead of relaxing, I had just sat and worried and obsessed. Mercifully, that was all over now, as I’d be able to return to duty after lunch. The idea of spending even one more hour in my quarters was too much to bear, so I went out to fly through the city.

That resulted in a very positive discovery: Canterlot had finally gotten a proper game store, the Crystal Delicacy. It lacked the nerdy charm of the Ponyville store, since it had to present itself as higher class to match the aesthetic expectations of a Canterlot clientele.

The Crystal Delicacy was a combination game and figurine shop. The proprietor had a thriving business in carving likenesses of famous ponies out of crystal. He’d then branched out into other miniatures. That, in turn, had led to board and war games.

I wasn’t big on the crystal figurine side of things, but I was glad that I no longer had to brave toy stores or go to Ponyville to find a suitable selection of games. The former had earned me too many uncomfortable glances and the latter just took too much time.

As I wandered along the shelves, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Nothing in particular stood out to me. This was just something to do. A distraction before I could get back to my regular life and out of a sour mood.

“May I help you, sir?” came a voice from behind me.

I turned and found a ruby-colored earth pony mare looking at me. She flicked her tail when our eyes met and smiled, inclining her head slightly to the side.

My head shook. “No, thank you. I’m just browsing.”

She pursed her lips, then nodded in response. “If you change your mind, my name is Ruby. Anything you need at all, just let me know. I’ll be up at the counter.”

“Alright,” I replied before going back to the rows of games.

I looked over the various titles. Most of the war games depicted ponies in resplendent armor, charging off into glorious battles. I guess the ponies that made the covers didn’t imagine a situation where you would come home alive from a war and die in an accident by stubbornly flying off without a guide.

“Stupid,” I spat, stomping my hoof.

“Sir? Are you okay?” Ruby called from up front.

I hadn’t realized it but my jaw was clenched. It took a moment to relax it. “Yes.”

“Okay…” she responded with uncertainty.

I put some distance between myself and the war games. The family game shelf had far happier covers. One in particular caught my eye. The cover showed several different colored wires hanging from a tower. The goal was to get rid of all of your pieces before the tower fell. It was more about hoof skills than mental ones, but a change of pace wasn’t bad.

With my selection made, I took it to the counter. “This one please.”

Ruby nodded, her short green mane bobbing. “Anything else today?” She leaned in across the counter towards me.

“Not today, but I’m sure I’ll be back.”

She rang me up and replied, “I look forwards to seeing you again, then. We always appreciate the business.”

My purchase went into my saddlebag and I flew off towards the palace. Flying was something I’d occasionally taken for granted before talking with my mother. Most of my time was spent in my office or in the palace.

A quick shift in course took me away from the city and up into the clouds. The air was cool as it rushed through my feathers and coat. For some reason, it was always easier to think in the clouds. The world and its problems just seemed so much smaller.

Smaller was better. It helped me get a handle on what needed to be done. There were a lot of balls in the air right then, and it was time to put some of them to rest.

I loitered in the clouds for a while before finally swooping down and into one of the towers at the top of the castle. That wasn’t an official entrance, but the guards didn’t mind when they knew who was coming in.

From there, it was a winding trip down staircases and through long hallways to reach my office. There was a pile of paperwork waiting on my desk. Just because I was on leave didn’t mean my position stopped.

That wasn’t a problem, though. Throwing myself back into the work would keep my mind occupied and my hooves busy. That is exactly what I needed. Something to dis—

“Knock knock!” Velvet Step chimed as she and Crystal wandered into my office.

A pleasant distraction it would be, then.

“Hello there. How are you today?” Crystal asked. She’d stopped specifically prodding about my feelings, but she still checked how I was very consistently.

I stood from my chair and came around the desk. “Fit and happy to see Canterlot’s finest fillies. What is the occasion?”

Velvet was practically shaking with excited energy. She looked at Crystal with pleading eyes.

The mare sighed but couldn’t help but brighten up. “I know this is poorly timed and I didn’t want to… horn in, but…” She looked at Velvet and said, “Okay.”

With a squeal of delight, Velvet tossed confetti everywhere and cheered, “Crystal is graduating from the Academy next week and you’re invited!”

“Oh, that’s right! Congratulations!” I replied.

Crystal beamed. “Thank you! I’m so happy to finally be finished. So… if you don’t mind, I would really appreciate it if you came.”

My head bobbed. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

“Great!” Velvet cheered.

“Alright, well, here is an invitation,” Crystal said, handing me a crisp white envelope. “I invited Luna, too, but for the sake of not turning the whole thing into a circus, she isn’t going to attend. She did, however, offer to host a little reception-slash-game night here. So that all sounds like fun to me!”

That would be entertaining. Another pleasant distraction. “That sounds great. Count me in.”

Crystal leaned in, pushed my helmet up, and kissed my cheek. “Good. Have a great day, dear!”

The pair left my office and me alone. With confetti everywhere.

There was a light knock on my door before Lieutenant Sunny Day came in. She stopped to look around at the mess, then grinned. “Had a party in here?”

I shook my head no. “Clown exploded.”

“Ah… spontaneous clownbustion. See it all the time. Would you like some help cleaning up this mess?”

My brow arched. “I would… but are you doing it because we’re friends, or because you need something?”

“Can’t it be both?”

Lightly, I rubbed my temples. “I’ll get the brooms. Stay here.”

Sunny Day had been a good friend to me in general. She was an excitable pony with an overly positive attitude. In some cases, she was quite lax as a royal guard, but her job always got done and her ponies were safe.

When it came to cleaning confetti out of a carpet, she turned out to be the right pony for me. While I swept, she used her magic to pick up the pieces and dump them into the dust pan. I couldn’t be too appreciative, though, because I knew she wanted something.

After the last sparkle went into the dustpan, Sunny turned to me and grinned. “So, Silent Knight…”

Here we go. I emptied the pan into the trash. “Yes?”

“I know you’ve got a lot going on, but I need a favor.”

I gave her a blank look. “What can Princess Luna’s House Guard do for you?”

She shook her head. “Not the Guard, just you.”

Great. “Alright, what can I do for you?”

Sunny grinned brightly. It was unnerving. “Before you got this job, did you ever imagine yourself in Princess Celestia’s House Guard?”

My ears flicked and I groaned, “I’m going to say yes, but I’m also going to regret it.”

The golden-coated mare lifted her forehooves and wiggled them. “Ta-dah! You’re the new commander!”

My brow raised. “You’re resigning?”

Sunny kept doing ‘jazz hooves’ and shook her head. “Ta-dah! You’re the new temporary commander!”

“What about Lieutenant Rook?”

She shrugged. “He’s there if you need him but when it comes to the direct command of the unit, I want it to be you.”

“Why?”

Sunny’s head tilted. “You’re the pony I trust the most.”

“Well sold, Lieutenant. Where are you going?”

The forehooves came up again to wiggle. “Vacation!”

My ears cocked forwards. “Vacation? Seriously?”

“Yes, seriously! I haven’t had a vacation since I took command. Plus Azurite is getting cranky, so I’m going to take her to the beach and get her wet.”

I held up a hoof. “Please stop talking. I’ll do it if you stop.” I sighed. “When do you leave?”

“Next week! I’ll send Storm Rider over to make sure the transition is smooth.” She turned to leave.

“Wait! When are you coming back?”

Sunny winked over her shoulder. “Who says I am?”

“Sunny…” I held a firm tone and stared at her.

“I might not!”

“I might change my mind,” I growled.

She pouted. “Oh, you’re no fun. We’ll be gone for two wonderful weeks. Then you can go back to doing whatever it is you do.”

“We do the same job,” I said, pointing out the obvious.

“Says you!”

“We do!”

The mare shook her head. “No, we don’t! I’ve got my eye on you,” she chimed melodiously.

“Lieutenant, I’m going to find so much paperwork for Azurite to do that you won’t be able to go.”

She gasped. “You wouldn’t!”

“Go before I change my mind.”

Sunny winked and said, “Thank you, Silent Knight; you’re a peach. Oh, and… I’m sorry about your father.”

“Thanks,” I replied flatly. That was a reminder I didn’t need.

“You know if you want to talk ab…” She trailed, evidently catching whatever expression I had on my face. “Anyway, you know where my office is.”

“Have a nice vacation. Be sure you bring Azurite back, though. She is far better than the last pony resources warrant officer.”

“We’ll see!” she chirped before ducking out of the office in a hurry.

I waited for her to be gone before I got up and left my office. What was she keeping an eye on me for, anyway? Sure, the missions for Princess Luna had been a little off the beaten path for a house guard. And sure, I was on my way to an intelligence briefing that house guards didn’t normally attend. But it wasn’t like I was doing anything wrong.

With any luck, this next meeting would provide some insight, although I doubted it. With my new source of information, most of what I received at these was old news.

Old news or not, I still needed to attend. If I’d suddenly lost interest, that would strike Officer Guise as odd. He might start asking questions. That would upset Maya, and the whole thing would fall apart.

As usual, I arrived on time and as usual I was admitted and given a heavily redacted report. A report that had been waiting for me from Maya when I returned from Haven. Hers was far more informative.

“We should pass this information on to King Ranald immediately,” Guise said to the few ponies in the room. Most of them I didn’t know, nor had they been introduced. Old information passed immediately? What an odd idea.

“I’m not certain of that, sir,” Sergeant Major Granite replied. “Yes, we know that his real name isn’t Alastair. Yes, we know he is related to someone important. There is no evidence here that he acted on orders, however.”

Guise asked, “What do you suggest then?”

“Extricate,” I put in, turning every head in the room.

“You’re crazy!” Guise exclaimed.

My head shook. “Not in this case. His alias is wanted in the Northern Kingdom. If we don’t share the information about his identity, King Ranald has complete deniability. We capture Alastair and work him for the connection. Then we take that to the king.”

Granite said, “He has a good point, sir.”

“I see. I’ll consider it. For now, I think we’ve shared enough. You’re dismissed, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied before heading out.

Garrard Kronson, grandson of King Victor Kronson of the Southern Kingdom. That was who Captain Alastair really was. There was almost no possibility he’d acted without orders. The grandson of a king has little need for money.

This was far deeper than I imagined and I wanted more answers. When I got home in the evening, I would leave the signal for Maya. It was time that she and I had another chat.

That would have to wait, however, as I had yet another matter to take care of. With my week of leave, I’d neglected my responsibility to our guests. To make up for that, I’d promised them a full tour of the palace.

When I returned from my intelligence briefing, I found the pair waiting outside of my door. “Forgive me for being late. My duties rarely respect my schedule,” I said as I approached.

Crimson Dawn shook his head. “That is alright. We understand.”

Tranquil idly rubbed a forehoof against my door. “We still have time for the tour, though, right?”

“Of course. I’ve blocked out the rest of my day just for that. If you two would follow me, we’ll start at the courtyard and work our way through the various areas of the palace,” I explained as I led them back out.

Over the next few hours, I showed them every nook and cranny of the palace complex. I shared all of the trivia I knew, which seemed to delight them both. We were almost done, but there was one more thing left for them to see.

“I’ve saved the best for last,” I explained as I walked backwards towards two massive doors. Palace guards were stationed on each side and, as I approached, they encircled the handles with their magic and tugged the doors open.

“The throne room and seat of Equestrian power. It is also famous for its stained-glass windows,” I said as I led the pair in.

I had barely finished speaking when Crimson pointedly asked, “Why is there only one throne?”

Seriously? That was the first thing he noticed? These two were far more observant than most ponies. Many were so awestruck that details like a single throne never crossed their minds.

“There is a remodel being planned to fix that situation. There was also some discussion that Princess Luna would have her own palace, but that was scrapped.”

Tranquil Dusk’s head tilted as she asked, “Why?”

“The princesses don’t want to be divided again. They’ve agreed that there shall be one castle, one throne room, and two thrones.”

“I see. It is a lovely castle.” Tranquil Dusk paused, and her wings started to tremble with excitement. “May we see the city now?”

“And I would like to see the Royal Guard Academy,” Crimson Dawn put in.

So much for the splendor of the throne room. I turned back to the door. “Yes, of course. I suppose it is about time you went beyond these walls. I think there is a place you’ll like.”

“I’m certain we’ll like anywhere you take us,” Tranquil said.

“I hope so. Let’s go, it won’t take long if we fly,” I said, leading them back out to the courtyard and leaping into the air. It would be faster, but it would also draw less attention. Ponies rarely paid attention to pegasi when they looked up.

The Royal Guard Academy was as busy as ever with ponies galloping about and training hard. Nostalgia filled me with a strange, bittersweet longing for the simpler days.

“If you are set on becoming a royal guard, this is where you’ll process through,” I explained as we landed. “Most ponies in central Equestria come here. It is the toughest program, but it also yields the best results.”

Many of the recruits were looking our way, and that earned a lot of angry yelling from their instructors.
Crimson looked around and said with absent wonder, “There are so many soldiers.”

“Guards, not soldiers. But, yes, there are a lot of them. For now. A lot of ponies try, but less than half make it. The Royal Guard is highly selective at all levels. There are more ponies that want to be a guard than there are positions.”

His expression turned serious. “Then that means I may try and fail.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. There is no shame in failing, though. I’d rather have a pony at my side that gave it their all and came up short than one that was too afraid to even start.”

He turned to me. “Some ponies have an advantage, though, don’t they?”

I wasn’t sure exactly how he’d meant that but I nodded. My own narrative would work. “Yes. My father was in the Equestrian Army and then the Royal Guard. He trained me my entire life for this career. That was certainly an advantage and I had little difficulty when I was here.”

“Then you owe him much,” Crimson said.

Despite Stratus Knight’s methods, he had prepared Winterspear and me for the rigors of the Guard. It was hard to deny that we’d both excelled in our careers.

“Yes.” It was all I could say before shifting away from the grounds. “Come along. I want to show you someplace fun.”

We left the academy and flew above the city. Ponies are nosy by nature and we’d attracted enough attention at the RGA. Now it was time for something else, so we crossed town together and landed outside the happiest place I knew: Sunridge Sweets. I pushed the door open, jingling the little bells, and motioned the siblings inside.

“Welcome to Sunridge Sweets! I’ll be right with you,” Pepper Ridge called, his head in the front display as he gathered cookies.

The place got quiet as all the patrons stopped what they were doing to stare at Crimson. Tranquil got her share of looks, too, but he was far more out of place.

Pepper Ridge looked up in confusion until he saw me. “Oh, hi, Silent Knight, long ti—” His eyes found the nox ponies and he just stopped talking.

“Yes, sir,” I responded loudly and clearly. “I was off visiting some distant relatives of mine. They decided to come home with me. This is Crimson Dawn and Tranquil Dusk.”

He blinked several times before stammering, “H-How do you do? Any friend of Silent Knight’s is a friend of mine. What can I get you?”

Tranquil Dusk looked at all of the sweets, wide-eyed. She turned back to me, seemingly oblivious to the awkward scene. “What may I get?”

Crimson was busy eyeing everypony else, a bit of challenge in his gaze. I set a hoof onto his shoulder and angled him towards the displays before responding, “Anything you want. Both of you. My treat.”

The stallion took my hint and stepped up closer to the counter to start looking over all of the confections. “We don’t have anything like this back home,” he said plainly.

“They all look so pretty! What’s good?” Tranquil asked.

Pepper Ridge grinned brightly. “Well, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think everything is good, little miss. They taste as wonderful as they look.”

“Oh, I see!” Tranquil replied excitedly. Her hoof pointed in three different places. “I’ll have one of those, one of those, and one of those.”

“Coming right up! And for the stallion?”

Crimson looked around and then pointed at one of the tables where three fillies were sitting and drinking milkshakes. “I don’t see those behind the counter. May I get one of those?”

“Yes, you may. One milkshake coming up. Wait right here while I get it all together,” Pepper Ridge said cheerfully.

The patrons were still staring, but most had started to get back to their sweets. It helped to have a royal guard present.

Behind me the door opened, jingling the little bells once more. “Dad, I’m here! I’ll get started on the—” Velvet squealed in surprise. “Sweet Celestia! Vampony!”

“What?” Crimson asked, turning around to face her.

I stepped forwards and set a hoof on his shoulder again. “Crimson, this is my dear, sweet, understanding, and polite friend, Velvet Step. She would never be rude. She just has a wacky sense of humor. Velvet, this is Crimson Dawn and his sister, Tranquil Dusk. They’re visiting Canterlot. I thought they’d like to check out the local treats.”

Velvet stared at me in horror while she slowly side-stepped her way around us to get behind the counter. “Oh, how lovely. Welcome, both of you. Try the pink cupcakes, they’re delicious. If you’ll excuse me, I just need to go into the back and get some stakes—I mean plates!” She then disappeared into the back.

I softly groaned and motioned to an empty table. “You two go have a seat. I’m going to pay and then I’ll join you.”

Tranquil and Crimson nodded, headed over to the table, and settled down. I set bits on the counter and whispered to Pepper Ridge, “She knows there is no such thing as vamponies, right?”

The stallion simply shrugged and rang up the order. “Silent Knight, giant chickens attacked this town recently. Are you positive she is wrong?”

“Point taken. In either event, he isn’t a vampony. We flew here during the day.”

“I’ll be sure to tell Velvet that. By the sounds of it, she might be trying to sharpen one of the rolling pins, so if you could just keep a general eye on the front of the store, I’ll go make certain she doesn’t weaponize the bakery.”

“Deal,” I replied before picking the order up and carrying it over to the table. “Here we are: treats. Enjoy.”

The pair peered at the different items before tentatively tasting each of them. Tentative lasted about half a minute. They devoured the rest in a matter of seconds.

Crimson looked over at me and asked, “What is a vampony?”

“Oh, it’s make-believe, there is no such thing. Velvet was just being silly. What would you like to do next?”

Tranquil thought for a moment as she licked frosting off an empty wrapper. “What do you do when you’re not being a guard?”

“Mostly I spend time with my friends. Usually we play board games,” I explained.

“You play games? Like foals?” Crimson asked.

I chuckled and shook my head. “No, foals wouldn’t be able to play the games we play. They all require skill, strategy, and critical thinking.”

“Hmm, I see,” he mused.

Tranquil shifted in her chair. “May I visit the archives?”

“I don’t see why not. I should be able to get you a pass for that.”

She smiled cheerfully. “Thank you, Silent Knight.”

Crimson looked up from his milkshake and asked rather suddenly, “Your father, he is a great warrior?”

My body went rigid at the question. “He is… Well, he was.” I looked out the window to try to find a sense of calm before I returned my attention to them. “When I had to take leave, I told you it was for family matters.” I took a measured breath. Stay calm, Silent. You’re a grown stallion. “My father died while I was in Haven.”

The stallion blinked. “Oh.”

Tranquil’s ears folded back. “Forgive my brother’s lack of tact, he means no disrespect.”

“It’s alright. He didn’t know,” I said, burying my frustration deep down where it belonged. “I’m sure nopony thought to tell the two of you.”

Crimson nodded in agreement with his sister. “Truly, I did not. I only ask because you mentioned he prepared you for this role.”

I shook my head. “Not for this role, no. My career as a royal guard and a soldier for sure, but not an officer. That has been a learning experience on my own.”

“Would you be willing to teach me?” Crimson asked. “I don’t want to go to the academy unprepared, and if you show me what it is like, I will be able to make a better decision about it.”

Would I be willing to? Of course. Should I be, though? I was his guardian. It was difficult trying to weigh his rights against Moonlit Star’s wishes.

Finally, I replied, “I can’t help but worry the matriarch wouldn’t approve.”

Crimson did his best to keep his expression even, but a twinge of annoyance was clear. “Agreed, but you said yourself that it would be my choice. I am an adult here.”

It seemed like I was already doing a poor job of being a guardian. At the same time, the matriarch sent these two with me for a reason. Even if I said no, he might go about it on his own. Perhaps under my guidance, he could make better choices.

I nodded. “Alright, I’ll do it.”

“You will?” he asked, seeming surprised.

“Yes, but there will be rules and I won’t tolerate disobedience. If you can’t agree to that, you’ll never make it in the academy. I’m not sure what you imagine it will be like, but I need to warn you that your expectations will likely not be met. Do you understand?”

Crimson nodded. “I understand. It will make it clear whether or not the academy is right for me.”

“Yes, it will,” I said plainly before looking to Tranquil. She was sitting silently looking down at the table. “Is something wrong?”

She shook her head. “No, it will just be odd if he goes. We’ve never been apart for long.”

“We won’t be,” he replied.

“Silent Knight left his family to go with Luna the Student. Think how long he was gone and what happened while he was. We may be apart for a long time.”

The stallion scowled and crossed his hooves.

I glanced between them as the mood soured so much I could practically see it in the air around us. “Alright, for now, let’s just assume he isn’t going yet. He wants to make an informed decision is all. Why don’t we go back to the palace and relax? You two can discuss this when and if the time comes.”

“Very well,” Tranquil replied.

Crimson Dawn nodded. “That seems fair. I would also like to know more about these vamponies. Your friend was quite frightened of them. Perhaps we should learn to defend ourselves.”

As the three of us stood and made our way out, I explained, “Alright, well, first of all, they’re not real. But if they were, the first thing you have to know is to never invite them into your house…”

And thanks to Velvet Step, I now had to explain vamponies to the two ponies in Canterlot that looked the most like them.

I could feel my eyes glazing over as I sat behind my desk listening to another speech about paperwork. Azurite was wedged next to me pointing out several things and explaining others. None of it interested me in the slightest.

“Sign here. And here. Initial there. Sign here. Not there, sir, here!” Azurite prattled on.

“What am I signing?” I asked.

The pixie-like unicorn replied, “The first three are vacation approval forms. The next group is just the annual benefits packages. Your ponies do them with us and you just sign them. Complete formality. You can’t not approve them.”

“What do you mean annual packages? We’re not even halfway through the year,” I foolishly pointed out.

Azurite shook her head in exasperation. “These are the ones everypony filled out at the beginning of the year to set up everything for the current calendar year.”

“Didn’t I sign these before?”

The little unicorn tilted her head and stared at me. “Sir, do you want me to be here longer and understand this completely, or do you want me to be shorter and accept that this is what I do for a living?”

Could she be any shorter? I started signing where she indicated and stopped asking questions. “Yes, Warrant Officer.”

There was a knock on my office door. I looked up to spot Miley Hooves, who was supposed to be off duty. She wasn’t wearing her armor, so perhaps she was.

A somewhat familiar grey unicorn mare was lingering behind her. She also didn’t have armor, but I knew her from somewhere. I waved them in with one hoof while signing with the other.

“Sorry to interrupt, sir…” Miley trailed, eyeing Azurite with interest. The little mare just stared for a moment. Miley had always been small, but Azurite took the prize for the littlest adult I knew. Finally, Miley shook her head and pressed on, “Val and I were going to take a few days off. If that’s alright?”

“Val?” I asked curiously, my focus shifting. Azurite grabbed my hoof and started moving it on pages to sign. How did I know Val? Was I giving her a few days off, too? No, she wasn’t one of mine. Was she one of Sunny’s?

That didn’t make sense. Azurite was currently in my office, so Sunny hadn’t left for her vacation yet. It was going to drive me nuts until—it finally clicked. “Oh, right, Val! You’re the friend of Miley’s that I met at Runic’s party.”

Val nodded and smiled. “Exactly. If it is okay with you, I want to steal Miley for a few days. We’re going to be heading to Las Pegasus for a long mares’ weekend.”

“That sounds dangerous. Am I going to get her back?” I asked as my hoof continued to move under the control of a crazed little mare.

Miley squeaked, “Of course! I’d never give up my position.”

“I believe that,” I said as Azurite’s small hooves moved my big one wildly around. “I’ll approve it, but you need to be sure to talk to Sergeants Orchid and Iridescence for coverage. You probably have plenty of leave days.” I looked over at Azurite. “Does she have plenty of leave?”

“Sergeant Hooves, tons of days, sign here!” Azurite exclaimed, exasperated.

“That means yes. Approved, Sergeant,” I said.

Miley cheered, “Thank you, boss!”

I signed the last form and tried to hide a grin. Over time, I had come to find Azurite immensely entertaining most days. I also had a huge amount of respect for her, too. She was the best at what she did. Plus, she was easy to tease. Which I didn’t do often; I mostly just watched Sunny Day do that.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Azurite said, closing all of the files and taking them up in her lavender magic.

“Alright, everypony is dismissed. Give me my office back. It was nice to see you again, Val. Keep an eye on Miley for me.”

“Of course! She’s my friend, and I want to keep her in one piece,” she replied.

All of the mares turned and started out the door. Once they were out in the hall, Miley looked down at Azurite and said, “I’m bigger than you.”

Azurite just sputtered and said something about being a warrant officer. I cracked a smile and couldn’t help but laugh.

I looked up at the clock; it was about time to go, and I was hoping to have a meeting after hours. I stood up, walked around the desk, and towards the door. Before I could get out, however, Russet Rook stopped me.

“Sir?”

“Silent Knight, I’m glad I caught you,” he said. I took a few steps back to let him come in. He shut the door. “I wanted to give you a head’s up on something.”

“Yes, sir?”

“I’m going to be leaving soon for captain’s training. I’m sure that is no surprise. At the same time, though, I’m going to push straight on to advanced leadership school. You and Sunny don’t need me, and Major Measure can more than handle keeping an eye on you two. I think the timing would be good.”

Captain’s training. I hadn’t even thought about that for a minute. There wasn’t much to it: two weeks or so of classes to prepare lieutenants for larger units. ALS, however, was serious business. Without completing it, an officer’s career ended at the rank of major. Russet was trying to get a huge leg up.

“That is some major forwards thinking, Russet. Pardon the pun. The boss is on board?”

He nodded. “She is. I think she’s already shopping vice colonel. You know as well as I do that this whole Unified House Guard didn’t really work out how leadership planned. It looks great on the resume, but Major Measure and I don’t do anything. The princesses always bypass us and go directly to you.

“Plus, I think I might want a company of my own. You know, one that I’d command. Once I get that, finding time for ALS is going to be hard.”

I shook my head. “No, you’re right. You got railroaded once. If you have the chance to move up fast, you should go for it.”

“I figured you’d understand. I just didn’t want it to be a surprise.”

“When do you leave?” I asked.

“Next week.”

I blinked. “Come again?”

Russet’s head tilted. “Next week, why?”

“Sunny’s on vacation for two weeks.”

He rolled his eyes and snorted. “She beat me here?”

“The early bird gets the worm, sir.”

Russet smiled at me. “Well, in this case, both birds get the worm. Besides, Silent Knight, I’m sure running the whole UHG for a while will look great on your resume, too. Have a good evening.” He turned and opened my door.

“Thank you for breaking it to me easy, Russet,” I said, not hiding my sour feelings from my voice one bit.

“Kindness is just one of my traits!” he replied before escaping out into the hall.

Great. Just great. I sighed and shook my head as I locked up my office to head home.

So, I was going to be left in charge of the UHG and two overly curious nox ponies who could no longer be contained by the castle walls. I gave silent thanks to whoever was looking out for me that, normally, not much happened to either house guard.

The trot up one of the tower’s spiral staircase was a great warm-up for when I arrived at the topmost balcony. Leaping off and taking flight was a breeze. The air felt great as it brushed underneath my armor to cool my coat.

Home wasn’t far when flying. In no time at all, I spiraled down to land just outside the building, stopping to check the lamppost.

There was a chalk X on it. At least somepony was cooperating with me today.

“Lieutenant! Lieutenant!” a voice called from behind me, growing closer.

I quickly wiped the X off and turned, putting on a grumpy face. Somepony had followed me home from the palace and I was in no mood for it… until I saw who it was. Coming down the street in a hurry was Ley Lines from the Canterlot University Research Library.

When she got to me, she was huffing and puffing. “Tried to catch you at palace—” She panted more. “Saw you fly.” With a wheeze, she offered me a folder. “Found it.”

“You chased me all the way here to give me research?” I asked as I accepted the packet.

She nodded, finally catching her breath. “It was fascinating research. I just returned from the Crystal Empire and had to get it to you. There is a wealth of information up until that meeting and then it flat out disappears.”

I opened the folder to start skimming. “That doesn’t surprise me. Any high-level points I should know?”

“Yes, sir.” She beamed with excitement. “The rulers of Equestria all went to meet there, but there is no information on what the meeting was about and what the outcome was. It was arranged by the Unicorn Temple and held on their grounds there. Only one ruler declined to attend: the old unicorn king, Sombra. The rest, apparently, were there.”

My ears shot up. “I’m sorry, did you say the Unicorn Temple arranged and hosted the meeting?”

Ley Lines nodded. “Yes, sir, is that important?”

I closed the folder and tried not to frown. “Oh, yes. That is very, very important.”

15. The Graduate

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“Keep moving! Keep moving!” Orchid shouted at the unit as they galloped around the track. She worked them hard during physical training, but from my perspective that was a benefit. Staying fit as a guard was important. Healthy ponies were less prone to injury and, in situations like Nordanver, were far more likely to survive.

That is one of the reasons I always galloped with my enlisted ponies. Not all officers attended unit physical training, but I thought it was best for morale. It also allowed me the opportunity to keep an eye on our newest unofficial members: Crimson Dawn and Tranquil Dusk. They’d asked to work out with me and I’d agreed.

“Alright, ponies, that is enough cardio,” Orchid instructed. “Pair off, it is time to work on those hoof-to-hoof combat skills. I don’t want you all getting rusty just because you stand around in the palace halls.”

Crimson started to head towards another pony and I reached out a hoof to stop him. “You two just watch for now. If you don’t know how to fall appropriately or pull your blows, you can get hurt. I’ll show you how it is done later.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, moving back to the sideline with his sister.

Nova approached me looking all sorts of confident. “If you don’t have a partner, sir, I can fix that.”

My brow arched. “You sound pretty sure of yourself. Are you certain you want to tangle with me, medic?”

Nova’s eyes narrowed and she settled into her fighting stance. “You only get to be the best by learning from the best, sir.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m the best, but you’re on.” I shifted back into my own stance and waited.

Orchid called, “Now listen up, this is practice! I don’t want anypony getting too crazy. When a pony goes down, that is the point. Fighters ready! Go!”

Nova was quick to react to the command and on me instantly. She was fast, way faster than me. Her forehooves caught me in the chest before I could even think about moving. Her blows had been measured and controlled with the right amount of sting to let me know she wasn’t playing.

My wings flapped as I hopped back and onto my hindlegs. She came at me again with the same intensity, but this time I was ready and she hadn’t varied her attack much. She swung at me with her right and I caught it in both hooves. Without really thinking it through, I shifted my weight and used her momentum to wheel her over me.

The mare flew over my head and landed with a painful thud. My body then moved on muscle memory, stepping over her and lifting a hoof to smash her throat. She was staring up at me wide-eyed while she tried to catch her breath.

That was when I turned off autopilot and kept my hoof where it was poised. There would be no strike to follow. Instead, I just turned it over and offered to help her up.

“That isn’t any Royal Guard maneuver I’ve ever seen,” she rasped. “Where did you learn that, sir?”

She was right about that. Royal guards didn’t put down ponies and follow up with killing blows. As I helped her up, I shook my head. “Sorry about that. Some signals got crossed upstairs.”

I’d been practicing that maneuver with a training dummy repeatedly at night. It was one of the first things an initiate learned.

“That’s okay. Should we go again?” she asked with less fire than before.

I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll try to be better behaved this time.”

Nova shook her head. “I can take it, sir. The way I hear it, gryphons don’t play fair when it comes to fighting in close quarters.”

“No, they don’t. Are you expecting to run into any gryphons?” I asked as we squared off.

“No, but I’d rather not come up short.”

“Fair enough,” I replied before adding, “Go!”

The Hay Cafe was busy as usual, which made spotting ponies rather difficult. Every table was filled and none of the patrons looked like a master spy unicorn. My assumption was that Maya was a unicorn due to the voice-throwing spell.

I ate my meal very slowly and waited. Normally we’d be speaking by now, but there wasn’t anything normal about these meetings. The server pony came by several times to make sure my food wasn’t the reason for the slow consumption. After the fifth time I’d shooed him away, the voice hit my ears.

“What can I do for you?”

“We’re going to try to grab the package,” I said into my sandwich.

“I’m aware. Was it your idea to keep the locals in the dark?”

“Yes.”

“Smart. Unfortunately, our mutual annoyance is using local mail carriers for this job. He didn’t want to kick up any fuss by sending the pony express.”

My ear flicked in irritation. “We may as well just tell the package where to drop itself off. It would probably yield the same results. What are the odds of success?”

Maya’s pause went on longer than normal before she replied, “Not great. The locals aren’t really used to this sort of delivery, and I’m told the mail room is already full. I’d say to expect failure.”

I drank from my water glass and then nodded. “Alright. Anything you can do about that?”

“No. I’m good, but if I were to involve myself directly, I’m concerned we’d be discovered.”

“Alright, I can appreciate your position. Have we had any update on his motivation?”

“That is something I’m still working on. Finding the links are difficult. Some carriers went to great lengths to disassociate the package with the sender. It’s obvious, but not provable. I’ll need more time… or the package itself.”

“Alright.” I frowned down at my plate. “Listen, assuming this fails, I’m going to use it as an excuse to bow out of the standard work flow. It is pointless.”

She paused again. “Agreed… but it will look suspicious.”

I shook my head, which may have been a stupid thing to do. Who knew if she could see me? “Not the way I’m planning. I’ll throw a fit about using local carriers. Make unreasonable demands and tick off our postmaster. He’s been itching for a reason to remove me.”

“Valid point. I’m on board, then. I’ll hope you’re as good of an actor as you are a soldier,” she said dryly.

“Good. Listen, keep working the sender and, if you can, I have an idea. If we’re going to fail, let’s do so in a way that drives the package further north. I want to push it away from the south and towards the sea. Can you do that?”

Maya’s tone changed ever so slightly, picking up a hint of curiosity. “Maybe… I could have pony express near the border and suggest the local carriers pick up more routes there. Why?”

“I want to have the pony express hot on this package even if they can’t directly interact with it. They can drive it further north and into the sea. Turn the heat way up. Why not force it into a long journey to the one place it thinks it will never be found because no carrier would ever think to look for it there?”

“You’re crazy.”

“That isn’t a no,” I replied.

“I’ll get back to you. Enjoy your lunch.”

I turned back to my meal and started eating a bit quicker. That seemed to please the server, at least.

It barely seemed like a moment but a week had flown by. It had been filled with secret late-night practice sessions, spending time with the nox twins, taking Crystal out once, and generally trying to get caught back up on everything that had fallen by the wayside while I was in Haven.

Today, I was leaning back in my chair, looking at the three ponies in front of me. One was First Sergeant Storm Rider, Sunny Day’s section NCO. He and I went way back. Generally, up to this point, he’d managed Princess Celestia’s House Guard without too much intervention on my part.

He’d brought me two palace guards. The first had a rich blue coat with a two-toned turquoise mane and a medic badge on his armor. His expression was extremely serious.

The second guard had a white coat like mine, a turquoise mane that somewhat matched the other pony’s, and a set of gold, square-framed glasses. His badge was unfamiliar to me and had what looked like a bomb on it.

“Sergeant, it isn’t that I don’t want to help you, I’m just confused. Why did you bring them here?” I asked.

“I couldn’t find their CO,” Storm Rider replied.

I nodded. “Okay… what about their company commander?”

The blue guard replied, “Out sick, sir.”

“Executive officer?”

“Paternity leave.” The blue guard’s expression stayed even.

My eyes flicked to the first sergeant and I asked, “Who is running this place right now?”

Storm Rider cleared his throat. “Well, sir. Lieutenant Day is on vacation, as you know. The section lieutenant for these two is missing in action, their company commander is down, Lieutenant Rook is at captain’s training, and Major Measure is at that ten-day conference in Baltimare. So… it is either you or Lieutenant Brook down in pony resources. I chose you.”

Excellent. I was suddenly the de facto palace commander. “Proceed,” I said.

The guard with the white coat said, “There isn’t anything to it, sir, honest!”

“Gryphon feathers!” the blue guard cut in. “You almost blew up the barracks.”

“No! I stopped the barracks from blowing up.” He tapped his badge. “That is what we do!”

“But you set the bomb!”

“For training purposes only! You’re just too—”

“Enough!” I rubbed my temples. “Did the barracks actually blow up and was anypony hurt?”

“No, sir!” they repeated in unison.

I pointed to the white one. “Name?”

“Unwitting Armageddon, sir.”

That seemed fitting. Weirdly so. I had to wonder if he was born with that name or chose it for himself later. “Alright, no more training exercises involving live bombs without command approval. Clear?”

“Yes, sir!”

I looked to the blue one. “Name?”

“Deep Blue, sir.”

“I appreciate your diligence. Next time, maybe go get a sergeant first before you take out the pony that knows how to disarm the bomb.”

“Yes, sir, understood!”

“Alright, dismissed. Sergeant, stay here a minute.”

The two guards went on their way. Once they were out the door, I stared at Storm Rider. “Seriously? Where is their sergeant? Their first sergeant? Their company sergeant?”

The pegasus simply shrugged. “No idea, sir. I just happened to be going by. Glad I was, too, or we might have needed a new barracks down there.”

“Fair point. From this moment on, assume I’m in command of the palace. Pass the word that the House Guard is taking over. Also, send somepony to find the palace guard lieutenant in charge of their section or any section. I want him, her, or somepony in my office immediately.”

“Yes, sir!” he replied before hurrying out.

I got up and followed him to the door shouted, “Sergeant Orchid, Sergeant Iridescence! My office, now!”

There was some scrambling from the offices next door before the two mares came out in a hurry and to my office. Both looked shocked. That was probably because I never shouted.

“Sir?” Orchid asked in confusion.

“Evidently, I am in command of the palace and, evidently, some pony almost blew up a barracks.”

Iridescence blinked. “How is that possible, sir?”

“There seems to be some problem with officers scheduling their personal lives over their work ones. They all seem to think there are more important things to do than being here.” I rolled my eyes and grumbled, “This is why you can never rely on officers.”

“If I could remind the lieutenant that you’re an officer, too…” Orchid put in, a slight grin on her face.

“Only in title. Orchid, I want you to go and assume command of the palace guard. I don’t care who is there; stomp them and take over until I get down there. Am I clear?”

She blinked but then nodded, “Aye sir.”

“Iridescence, you’re in command here. I’m going down to pony resources to inform Lieutenant Brook he is now the palace’s executive officer.”

The unicorn nodded and replied, “You can count on me. This will be one less headache for you.”

“I certainly hope so. Dismissed, both of you.”

They turned to go and I headed the opposite direction. Brook was going to love this.

I headed down to the pony resources area and stuck my head into his office. Thankfully, he was there. “At least somepony knows where he is supposed to be,” I said casually as I walked.

“Pardon?” Brook replied, looking up from a pile of paperwork.

“Every officer above us seems to be missing in action today. The palace guard is running itself. My CO and XO are gone and so are theirs. A few lieutenants are no shows and that means I’m in command and you’re my new executive officer,” I explained.

“Come again? Wait, why I am I the XO? I have more seniority than you,” Brooks said as he leaned back in his chair.

On that account, he was right. He’d joined the guard sooner than I had and without question had been an officer longer. I tapped a hoof on my armor. “I assumed House Guard trumped pony resources, but if you want to captain this ship, it’s all yours.”

Lieutenant Brook shook his head and smiled. “No chance, I just wanted to hear you say it.”

“Thanks for that. Listen, in all seriousness though, you and I might be it. So if you can toss all of that paperwork on Azurite’s desk and head out to the courtyard and show off that bar, I’d appreciate it.”

“Azurite is on vacation, but yes, I can do that. Are all the lieutenants really gone? Gate, walls, keep, and such?” he asked as he got up and put his helmet on.

I’d known that. Obviously, Azurite was on vacation with Sunny. Although he might as well toss the paperwork on her desk anyway. I doubted he’d have any free time now. “Storm Rider couldn’t find one, so let’s assume the worst and hope for the best. Although if you do find one, send her to me.”

“Sure thing,” he replied before walking past me.

“Thanks,” I replied before I caught sight of his clock. “Wait, where did the day go?”

His brow raised. “Into the past, minute by minute. Why?”

“I have to go, I have an appointment,” I replied before turning to gallop off.

“Wait! You were literally just talking about how every other officer has taken off! Where do I send the lieutenants now?”

My ears pinned back. Crystal would forgive me if I was a little late. She’d understand. It wasn’t every day you suddenly became the palace commander.

“You’re right. I’ll be in my office, so send them there. I’m going to get a plan in place before I leave.”

Lieutenant Brook nodded. “Alright, see you then.”

It only took twenty minutes or so for Storm Rider, Orchid, and Brook to round up every officer in the palace. Somehow that amounted to four lieutenants out of a five-section company. One of which had just walked in for her shift.

Without hesitation, they’d voted me commander despite my junior status to them. In my mind it was because nopony wanted to take on the responsibility. That was fine with me. I gave them the dressing down they’d earned and laid out my expectations until their CO and XO returned.

After that, I put Brook in charge and rushed off as quick as I could to Canterlot Academy. When I snuck into the auditorium, I was almost an hour late. All of the insanity at work had resulted in me missing most of Crystal’s graduation ceremony.

That didn’t matter now, though. I’d made it and I was going to watch my marefriend graduate from the back of the auditorium. All the good seats had already been filled.

Three years ago, I hadn’t bothered to go to my own graduation, but I still recognized the teachers, principals, and staff members. It amazed me that not only had I gone to school with Crystal, but that we had shared a club together. Of course, my mind had a single focus back then. Dad’s focus.

Quickly, I shook my head, chasing those thoughts away. The pony at the podium had started calling names and it was time to pay attention. He finally called “Crystal Wishes” and some polite, quiet stomping started.

Without warning, the unmistakable voice of Velvet Step shouted “Woo! Go Crystal! You’re mah gal!” which was followed with quiet laughter.

Even from my position, I saw Crystal blush on the stage and her eyes started scanning the crowd. They eventually found me and she smiled. It is hard to miss a large blue-and-white pegasus in full armor. I simply nodded at her and smiled in return.

The names went on and on until there were no ponies left to walk across the stage. After that, there were some closing remarks and then everypony was set free. It all made me grateful that I’d skipped mine. If it weren’t for getting to watch my mare, the boredom would have driven me insane.

I lingered in the back while Crystal mingled with her parents and friends. They all eventually took their leave, and she and Velvet sought me out.

“I’m sorry I was late,” I said. “You wouldn’t believe the day I had.”

Crystal shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. I know you have a serious job. You were there when it counted.”

Velvet squeaked, “I was there, too!”

“Yes, and now everypony thinks even more that we’re a couple,” Crystal replied with a smile. “‘You’re mah gal’?”

We all laughed.

“Now, let’s move on to more fun things.” Crystal smiled up at me. “We’re still having game night at the palace, right?”

“Of course,” I replied as we started to head in that direction.

Velvet asked, “What are we playing?”

“It is a new type of card game,” I explained. “Everypony shares a center pool and you build a deck to use to buy estates and such. The pony with the most in the end wins.”

Crystal smiled. “Hmm… interesting. I want to play that Timberwolf game again, too. We’ll just have to make sure not to give Velvet a heart attack.”

“I’ll do my best, but I can’t control the princess,” I said before falling quiet.

Crystal and Velvet chatted about the graduation ceremony and future plans while we covered the remaining distance to the palace. When we arrived, all of the gate guards snapped to attention as I walked through.

By the time we arrived at Princess Luna’s chambers, everypony else had already arrived. The usual crowd of ponies was in attendance for graduation game night, with one addition: Miley Hooves. Our little club was growing and it had gotten to the point where it was easier to have two games running at the same time.

I sat with Crystal Wishes, Miley Hooves, and Runic Phial while Princess Luna, Iridescence, Winterspear, and Velvet Step were at the next table. One downside to this was that I wouldn’t be able to coordinate with the princess. She and I were a devastating board game duo.

Miley, being new to board games, was struggling a bit. “Sorry, sir…” she said as she just stared at her cards with a furrowed brow.

I waved a hoof. “There is no rush, Miley. Tonight is mostly about socializing, anyway.”

Princess Luna cackled. “Speak for yourself, Silent Knight! Tonight, we are out for blood!”

“Don’t mind her, sweetie,” Crystal Wishes said. “We threw Velvet in front of her so we could get you caught up.”

Velvet shot a glare from across the room. “Gee, thanks, Crystal. Love you, too!”

Crystal giggled. “We’re not dating anymore, honey. You’ll just have to take Luna on yourself. Just focus… and when she isn’t looking, peek at her cards.”

“Such treachery!” the princess said with a gasp. "I remember when this evening was civil.”

Iridescence reached for an estate. “Don’t mind me.”

Winterspear laughed. “If we keep failing to pay attention, Iridescence is going to win.”

“Oh, you hush.” Iridescence slid her card into place and smiled.

I chuckled softly and held my cards close to my chest. I was a little behind. My strategy of picking up bigger coins wasn’t exactly paying off. Figuring out what Runic was up to was also proving to be really difficult. He kept buying mines and workshops. It was time for a distraction.

“Miley, I noticed that your mane is back to normal,” I said innocently.

The little mare huffed a bit and glared at Runic. “Yes… we had a lesson on labels after that.”

Runic shrugged. “Could have been worse. The potion caught fire on the rock.”

Oh, rookie mistake there, cousin. Even I knew that.

“Caught fire? And you still let me try it?” Miley’s voice cracked as she clearly tried to not yell.

The stallion looked surprised at her tone. “Only the first few times. By the time you tried, it the formula was down to near zero risk.”

I subtly spent my coins and bought an estate. There weren’t many left.

“Near zero?!” Miley squealed.

“You’re awful,” Crystal whispered to me.

“Strategy,” I replied with a serious expression.

The evening went on late as usual, with many alliances made and destroyed. The game was interesting, but not a crowd favorite. We also weren’t thrilled about being split up, so the agreement was that we’d all go out and look for games that could accommodate us all.

Princess Luna stretched and said out of habit, “Silent Knight, please see Crystal Wishes and Velvet Step home.”

“My pleasure,” I replied and motioned to the door. “Ladies?”

“Why, thank you, Lieutenant,” Crystal said as she stood up.

The three of us left together. It was a familiar walk home: one I’d trodden with Crystal on a lot of occasions. I tagged along in silence while the mares happily discussed Crystal’s liberation from school.

“I’m so thrilled to be done. Think of all the free time I will have now!”

“Yup! Think of all the sleeping in you can do,” Velvet said with a grin.

The pair giggled and prattled on as the building drew closer and closer. We went through the front door and up the stairs to their unit.

Outside the door, Velvet announced happily, “I’m just going to head inside and right to my room! See ya, Silent Knight!” She then winked at Crystal and ducked inside.

“Bye, Velvet,” I called.

Crystal and I stood and stared at each other a moment. Usually, this was the part where we kissed. The mare waited a moment before asking, “Would you like to come in?”

My ears perked. It would be nice to spend more time with her, especially since I had been late and then betrayed her twice during game night.

I nodded.

Her voice lowered and she offered a hoof. “Would you like to stay?”

That made sense. It was so late that it was tomorrow already. By the time I got home and fell asleep, I’d barely get any rest before having to get up.

So I nodded again and took her hoof.

She giggled and replied, “It is more fun when it feels like we’re getting away with something. Come on.”

Quietly, I followed along behind her as she led me to her room. That made sense. We’d probably talk some before going to bed, and I wouldn’t want to keep Velvet up. That would be poor sleepover etiquette.

“I feel like I missed out on this experience in school,” I whispered.

“My parents would never approve. Especially when you were in school,” Crystal whispered back.

“Oh? Perhaps I should sleep out here, then. The pillows are fi—woah!” The mare’s grip on my hoof tightened as she tugged me inside her bedroom and shut the door.

16. Exits

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When the sun came up, Crystal was snuggled close to my side. She looked beautiful as she softly breathed, her mane splayed out on the pillow like a golden aura. Then she gave a little snore and I grinned at the mental image of how she’d pout if I told her she snored.

I wanted to stay there with her. She was soft and warm, and I felt better than I could remember in years. I’d slept over before, but last night had been different. Very, extremely, life-altering different. Things would never be the same and I was more than okay with that.

Maybe if it had been a normal day, I could justify being late because I wanted to sleep in with my marefriend. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to have a normal day for quite a while, so I carefully slipped away from her and snuck out of her bedroom.

The condo was painfully quiet. Every hoofstep felt like it was the echo of pots clanging. I took care to move as quietly as I could I crossed the living room.

“Well, good morning,” Velvet’s voice with a little suggestive tone said from my right.

I stopped, my eyes going a bit wide as I turned my head to look at her. She was sitting at the dining table, hind legs crossed, like a parent who had caught a disobedient child.

I swallowed. “Good morning…”

Velvet gave me a sly look. She knew. “So… would you like some breakfast?”

Softly, I cleared my throat. I could feel sweat beading on my brow. “That… that would be lovely, but I have to fly home, get my kit, and then report in. I’m in command of the whole palace, so I wouldn’t want to set a poor example by showing up late. Even for a great breakfast.”

She smiled and shrugged. “Suit yourself. Perhaps in the future you should just bring your kit along?”

“In the future… yes… that, that would probably be wise. I hope I’m no inconvenience to—to you,” I stammered a bit, completely embarrassed. “You forgive me?”

Velvet giggled. “Forgive you? For what?”

The look I gave her said that I was absolutely not going to answer that question. It only made her giggle all the more.

“You two are adults, Silent Knight. Don’t apologize for that. Just keep her happy.”

My ears shot up and I felt my face turn red.

Velvet laughed loudly and waved a hoof at me. “That came out wrong!”

I pointed to the door and started to inch towards it. She just nodded and laughed harder, unable to catch her breath to speak to me otherwise.

“Bye,” I struggled to say before ducking out the door and closing it behind me.

Well, that was awkward. I didn’t regret last night but I certainly didn’t want to encounter Velvet first thing in the morning again. As I took to the sky, I tried to ignore the embarrassment by focusing on one task at a time.

First thing was getting home. That much was easy. Once I was there, I showered, changed into a fresh gambeson, and had a quick breakfast.

Next, I trotted outside to check the lamppost and found the chalk X. It looked like I’d be going to the Phial and Filly soon. I rubbed my hoof on the mark to clear it away and took flight to the palace.

Secret data could wait. A palace full of lightly supervised guards couldn’t.

When I got to my office, there was already a line of ponies at my door. Radiant Orchid, Storm Rider, a palace guard lieutenant, and a sergeant were at the head of the line. Behind them was Sogni DiVolare, Cloudy Skies, and a random assortment of enlisted ponies.

I was half an hour early! They were at least polite enough not to launch into their problems immediately, but there were a lot of eyes on me.

Without a word, I walked past them all, unlocked my door, and went inside. Settling behind my desk, I shouted, “Now serving number one!”

The day went exactly as I expected: ponies had problems and they came to me because their immediate superiors weren’t there to solve them. DiVolare was missing a hoofguard and needed a new one requisitioned. Cloudy Skies came clean on taking and then losing said hoofguard as part of some sort of foolish but well-meaning prank.

There was also a scheduling conflict that required Radiant Orchid to miss her eldest’s school play, and that was not going to fly, or so she told me with a very stern look. I agreed because nopony argues with a mare regarding her foals. Even I knew that.

I even had to eat my lunch at my desk while some low-level bureaucrat explained his anger over being denied immediate access to Princess Celestia. He didn’t like my answer that he had to make an appointment like everypony else. He also didn’t like when I stood up and loomed over him at his suggestion that he could get me relieved of duty.

At the end of the day, I had approved a tour of elderly ponies for next week, tracked down the owner of a dog found wandering the halls, and dealt with several so-called ‘emergencies.’ Apparently, a pony not liking the commissary food was an emergency.

I couldn’t take it anymore. The day had exhausted all of my patience and my last nerve had gone AWOL. I turned the palace over to one of the other lieutenants and headed to Princess Luna’s wing so I could hopefully spend a little quiet time with her.

The guards posted outside her chamber nodded in acknowledgement as I passed them. Princess Luna was at her desk, poring over some documents. She blinked in surprise when our eyes met.

“Silent Knight! I was just wishing to see you.”

I came to a stop across from her, head tilting to one side. “Is that so?”

Princess Luna nodded. “Verily. I have not seen you often enough since we’ve returned. In fact, I have not even offered you proper condolences on your loss. I’ve been uncertain as to how. Crystal Wishes informs me that you’re being stubborn about this.”

Everypony wanted to say they were sorry or they hoped I felt better. I never knew how to take it and I was tired of hearing it. Maybe that was being rude, but nothing anypony said ever gave me peace. My father was dead. Sooner or later I’d come to terms with it. Probably later, but it would be on my terms.

I put on the best amiable face I could and replied, “I apologize for not spending much time with you. Somehow, I’ve ended up in command of the palace.”

Luna’s ears flicked. We stared at each other a moment, but she accepted my obvious attempt to change the subject. Her eyes shifted to display confusion and then a little smile crept onto her face. “You’re teasing me again?”

“No, Princess,” I said, “I’m actually being serious. There are so many officers out right now that there are only section lieutenants left. The group of them elected me commander.”

She went silent, the smile faltering and then returning. “Elected? Well, that was inevitable, wasn’t it? Who better than you?”

“I could think of several ponies, but thank you. I appreciate your confidence in me.”

“You’ve more than earned it. Although… it makes my next question a bit more difficult.”

My brow arched. “And what question is that?”

The princess walked over to her desk and motioned to her empty inbox. “I’ve worked diligently and caught up on my work. I’ve spoken to Celestia and she agrees that it is wise for me to learn all I can, as soon as I can. I need to return to Haven and continue my training.”

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It couldn’t come at a worse time. There were a lot of ponies relying on me at work, and then there was Crystal. Being apart from her had been hard the first time, and now we were closer than ever. I didn’t want to be separated from her for so long again.

Of course, I’d promised the princess that she could return. With a forced smile, I replied, “Yes, of course. I’ll make the arrangements immediately, Princess. I—” I closed my mouth before it could be too honest.

Luna’s ears turned towards me expectantly. “Yes?”

I shook my head. “It was nothing, Princess.”

“No, by all means, Silent Knight. Speak freely.”

Reluctantly, I said, “I’m torn. I probably shouldn’t leave until a superior officer comes to relieve me. You’ll forgive my bluntness, but the average lieutenant around here doesn’t know the difference between a pilum and a broom.

“At the same time, I made a commitment to take you back and, of all ponies, I would be the last to break my word to you. I’m in an awkward position here.”

The princess, for some reason, smiled. “Then do both.”

“How do you mean?”

“Run the palace, Silent Knight. Delegate my trip to Haven,” she replied, setting a hoof on my shoulder.

I blinked and looked up at her… which was a lot harder these days, given her new height. “You’d go without me?”

“Yes, but only because our schedules are not being respectful of each other. That will also allow you to spend more time with Crystal Wishes. Perhaps this one trip, you should send another pony in your stead and, when it is time for me to return, you could come and retrieve me?”

My eyes darted back and forth as I considered that possibility. Haven was safe. Getting there was dangerous, but not overly so. Yet, the idea bothered me. It bothered me a whole lot. I’d rarely trusted other ponies to protect Luna. I was never far away.

“Princess, I… don’t have a good reason to say no.”

Her brow arched and she asked, “And yet you want to?”

I nodded in return. “I realize that my responsibilities have grown and that I might have to let go of certain hooves-on responsibilities, but it feels wrong. I’m your bodyguard.”

Princess Luna settled down in front of me and softly looped me in a hug. “I know, but perhaps it is time you live a bit for yourself as well. I’ll agree to more guards to compensate, but I feel it is best I go without you for now.”

Her words hit me hard and tears unexpectedly built in the corners of my eyes as my emotions surged. It was irrational, but in that moment it suddenly felt like I was losing another parent. I embraced Princess Luna and held onto her as tightly as I could.

“Silent Knight, it will be alright. I’ll be perfectly safe and we’ll be reunited soon enough,” she said softly, rubbing a hoof along my back.

I didn’t respond for fear that my weeping would be obvious. Instead, I nuzzled against her neck and took some deep breaths to get myself into check. Once I was confident that I could be mature enough to speak, I leaned back to look up at her.

“You will need a whole lot of guards to compensate for the lack of my presence, Princess,” I said with as much bravado as I could muster.

She laughed softly and nodded. “Yes, yes. How many?”

“How long do you want to stay?”

“Twelve weeks.”

I kept my expression blank and business-like as my emotions flared again. Twelve weeks apart was a long time! She had set an end date, though, which gave me a target to work against. I went over the numbers in my head, focusing on the task instead of the loss I was feeling.

“I can work with that. You can go with a squad. That will be sufficient for the day to day but I’ll want to rotate them out every three weeks to keep the ponies fresh. When the last rotation comes, I’ll relieve them myself.

“You know, as long as a senior officer is back and ready to take over the palace. If not, we’re probably better off moving to Haven at that point anyway,” I said, trying to force a bit of humor.

She smiled and stroked my mane. “Agreed. I shall also take Willowy with me, some staff, and additional couriers. My studying will be less aggressive and I will do royal business in the evenings.”

“I think that is wise. I also think we should speak to the royal guard command about setting up two outposts along the way, to make the journey safer for all ponies and perhaps help facilitate trade. Assuming that is your goal?”

The princess pondered that a moment and then nodded. “We should introduce them slowly. I’ll draft a letter to the Royal Guard. You can do the rest, yes?”

“Of course, Princess. If you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of planning to do and ponies to prep,” I said as I backed away from her. Focus on the tasks at hoof, get them done, and feel later.

“Thank you, Silent Knight. Truly,” she replied.

I turned towards the door but paused halfway. “It is my pleasure. It always will be,” I said before trotting down to the administration area. On the way, I knocked on Orchid’s, Iridescence’s, and Miley’s doors.

Heads popped out and I called, “Send for Mountain Stone, and everypony be in my office in an hour.”

“Yes, sir,” Radiant Orchid replied.

It wouldn’t take an hour to send a runner to Mountain’s home and ask him to come in. The reality of the situation was that the hour was for me to organize my thoughts and calm down in the privacy of my office. I was touchy. It was unusual for me to be so.

I settled into my chair and took my helmet off. Feelings were something I was having to deal with a lot more since my return from Nordanver and the death of my father. Sometimes I was angry for no reason. Sometimes I was sad. Sometimes it just felt like I was going through the day to get to bed.

It was just easier to focus on the tasks I needed to do than think about the deeper meaning. In time I’d get over everything and my life would go back to normal. Time healed everything. I just had to hold on. I just had to remain strong. I just had to—

There was a knock at my door loud enough to wake me up. I didn’t remember laying my head on my desk but it was. I sat up, wiped my mouth and put my helmet on. “Come in,” I called.

Radiant Orchid, Iridescence, Miley Hooves, and Mountain Stone filed in together. “What’s up boss?” Miley asked cheerfully.

“Princess Luna is going to be heading back to Haven soon,” I replied.

Orchid’s brow arched. “Oh?”

“Yes, but we’re going to be doing things differently this time,” I started before explaining my plan and how we’d keep everypony fresh this time around. That alone left Orchid looking a lot more relieved.

“Iridescence, you’ll lead the first expedition, Miley the second, Mountain the third, and then Orchid and I will go down for the pick-up. Any questions?”

Iridescence piped up, “From what Orchid told me, we’ll need to be concerned about morale. Especially for three weeks of darkness. Any thoughts on that?”

Orchid nodded and said, “You’ll have more guards. I’d say station two at Haven’s gate every day. That will give them some sunlight. Other than that, perhaps take some games and such.”

“No gambling,” I put in and earned myself a dirty look from Orchid. “Other games are fine. I like the idea of watching the gate.”

Miley shifted a bit. “When does this all start?”

“The end of the week. The princess has some business here before leaving. I want the chariots ready to go immediately though in case she changes her mind.”

“So… sir. Without the princess here, what are the rest of us going to do?” Miley asked.

“Jump school,” Mountain Stone said and it took all of my effort not to glare. I’d approved his paperwork for it, but I was still a little jealous. It was like he had heard me talking to the princess about it.

“Exactly. It is time for advanced training and specialist schools. This is a prime opportunity for any of the two-week courses, unless you’re Mountain and his bunch. They’ll have even more time. Get with your ponies, pick some programs, and get them ready. I want all of the paperwork on my desk before the princess leaves. Anything else?”

“No, sir,” they replied.

“Dismissed then.”

Iridescence, Miley, and Mountain made their way out. Orchid lingered back and shut the door behind them.

Our eyes met and then mine narrowed. “You’re not going to tell me I’m a disappointment again, are you?”

She shook her head and came over. “I’m sorry about your father.”

“It’s fine,” I replied flatly.

“It isn’t. You’ve barely had a moment’s peace. How’re you feeling?”

My ears fell. “In this moment? Mildly annoyed.”

Radiant Orchid glared at me and then shrugged. “Suit yourself. If you want to talk, you know I’ll listen. I need you to listen to me, though.”

“Sergeant, forgive me, but I’ve had a long few weeks. I’m not up for a lecture or some anecdote about love and loss. Let me deal with my father’s death in my—”

“Silent Knight, for Celestia’s sake,” she said, cutting me off, “shut up a minute. This isn’t about you.”

I sat up straight and peered at her. Outside of my office, that level of familiarity would have been a gross violation of protocol. Behind closed doors, I rarely minded and she had yet to be wrong when she did so. “Alright, go ahead.”

“I’m due in four months and each day from here on out it is going to be more and more obvious,” she said plainly.

I shook my head and blinked. “Wait, what? What do you mean, due?”

“After we got back from the gryphon kingdom, Mr. Orchid and I were really, really happy to see each other and—”

My hoof somehow found its way onto her mouth. “No, no, no. I get it. You never said anything. You haven’t even slowed down!”

She swatted the hoof away and grinned. “I’m a royal guard and this is my third foal. I’ve got this all down cold now. It wasn’t going to impact my performance until now so I didn’t see a need…” The grin fell and she added softly, “I’m sorry, sweetie. I wanted to tell you but you had so much on your plate already. I didn’t want you to be worrying that I had an expiration date but, I kind of do.”

All I could do was stare at her. This was a shock. Another big change that was being sprung on me. “This is it?”

She nodded and smiled. “I’m afraid so. I’m going to push the paperwork for maternity leave. After that, I’d like to go to warrant officer school, if you’ll write me a recommendation.

“The House Guard is for ponies without foals. I’ve had the privilege of serving on both and under two amazing lieutenants, but it is time to take a bow and leave the stage. Iridescence is going to be fine and so are you.”

Her words gave me a little comfort but turmoil was buried beneath it. Orchid had every right to do this and I was happy for her. A little angry, too, but that was just a petty part of me that was easy to ignore. I offered her my hoof. “I’ll write you the best letter of recommendation you could ever imagine.”

Orchid shook her head, pushed my hoof aside, and hugged me instead. “I expect you to be there when this little stallion is born.”

As we embraced, I replied, “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

The sun had ducked below the horizon and I found myself standing outside the gates of the Unicorn Temple. In the quiet and darkness, I knocked three times. The door opened immediately, revealing Exemplar Ferrel. Our eyes met and she stepped back.

“Please come in,” she said.

“You were expecting me,” I replied as I walked across the threshold.

“Two out of three pointed to you, yes.” Her tone was flat and without warmth.

“And the third?”

“Celestia of the Six called upon me.”

My ears twitched, catching the title. A title that the exemplar had never used. There was no sense in beating around the bush, then. “Do you know what happened to them?”

The pearl-coated unicorn looked into the heavens, the moonlight reflecting off her highly polished armor. “I do.”

“Tell me.” The words rung like an order, far harsher than I had intended.

Exemplar Ferrel started walking towards the garden and I moved to block her. She merely went around me, correctly guessing that I would do nothing to actually stop her.

I fell in step beside her. “Please, tell me.”

“To what purpose?” she asked.

“What purpose? This is important! The Unicorn Temple arranged the summit. They hosted it and nearly every alicorn ended up dead. Do you realize how suspicious that looks?”

“Extremely, and so should it be,” she said flatly.

“Exemplar, you’re not casting the Temple in a positive light here. What am I supposed to tell Princess Luna?”

The unicorn stopped and focused on me. “It is not my intent to cast it in any light, and you will tell her what you will, Silent Knight. There is a reason that we are no longer allowed to interact with the alicorns. In the past, we were too close to the rulers of this realm.”

We continued deeper into the garden. In the distance, the moon was rising higher into the sky and casting its light onto us. It struck the exemplar’s blonde mane, illuminating it and causing her to look as if she were glowing.

Her clear blue eyes fell to me. “Equestria is not yet ready for the knowledge we protect.”

“You wish to hide your shame?”

Her head shook. “No. Ponies of this world are barely aware we are here. What would we care if they thought us evil because of deeds carried out by those long dead? This knowledge would frighten them and lead to disharmony. Its revelation would be a disservice to the princess.”

My blood suddenly ran cold. “Disharmony? The princess? Exemplar, please. Tell me Princess Celestia did not murder the other alicorns.”

Exemplar Ferrel lifted her head suddenly and blinked. She looked at me as if I were crazy, the first emotion I’d seen from her. “Is that what you believe? No, Silent Knight. Celestia was to be a victim herself, as was Luna. Thankfully for us all, no pony could have imagined they were as powerful as they were.”

“Then why are you keeping this secret? Why won’t you tell me what happened?”

“Is that not obvious?” she asked plainly. “The knowledge is even more frightening than the idea of Princess Celestia murdering all of the other alicorns.”

Silence fell around us. It crashed down and filled me with dread and discomfort. “When will you stop hiding the truth?”

“When Princess Celestia deems it so. If she deems it so.”

“And Princess Luna has no say in this?”

“She will once she understands, and soon she shall.”

“What does that mean? How?” I asked.

Exemplar Ferrel turned from me. “Silent Knight, there will come a time in the future where you will be ready to take on this trial. That time is not now. When you have the blessing of the princesses, you may return and I will give you the knowledge. Until then, I have my orders just as you have yours, and we are both aware that you have no orders for this. Good evening.”

“Good evening…” I replied, trying to take solace in the fact that Princess Celestia was no longer a suspect.

Unfortunately, all I could focus on was what could possibly be worse than her being a murderer.

17. Unsupervised

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Just before lunch, I’d finally cleared out the queue of ponies waiting to see me, the de facto military leader of the palace. I’d also attended a record number of meetings. Attended, organized, and ran.

Most of them were procedural, dry, and boring. It amazed me how much the palace guard lieutenants looked to their superiors for guidance. These were supposed to be some of the best and brightest, but they could have also just been the foals of important ponies.

In the midst of all the dull meetings, there was one of great interest. Evidently, a group of dragons was moving in nearby and the local civilian leadership was extremely concerned about it.

That was a problem I wasn’t going to solve in a day, so I got up to try to take five minutes to myself and find some food. When I opened my door, Iridescence and Miley Hooves were standing right outside it and looking very upset.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Iridescence didn’t say anything. She just pulled Miley’s helmet off. The small mare’s raven mane was now a rather fetching shade of platinum blonde.

“Okay? So she dyed her mane. That isn’t against regulation and it looks good.”

Miley shook her head. “No, sir! I WASHED my mane this morning and then this happened about an hour ago.”

I smirked. “You knew the risk when you shopped at the store and got involved with Runic. I figured after the extra-long growth from the last serum, you’d stop.”

Iridescence put her hooves to her face. “That isn’t the problem. Princess Luna wanted a luxurious bath before traveling. She asked for something new and exciting, so Miley went to her locker and loaned her the bottle.”

Miley cut in quickly, “Before my mane changed color! Before! I only washed my mane, though. Princess Luna took a bath in this stuff.”

My heart skipped a beat and I stared at the two mares before asking flatly, “What color is our princess?”

“We are a glorious blonde!” Princess Luna cheered as she sailed over our heads. She was indeed blonde from head to hoof. Her coat was a rich gold color and her mane sparkled like an afternoon sunset with various shades of brown, yellow, and orange.

The princess landed delicately and looked over her shoulder. “Chase me!” she shouted before galloping off, giggling.

I blinked. “Is she happy or is the soap having an effect on her brain?”

“We’re not exactly sure,” Iridescence admitted.

“Sweet Celestia.” I took a deep breath in and put on my serious expression. “Miley, go get your stallion and bring him here. Iridescence, you and I are going to chase the princess. Go through the break room and try to cut her off before she can get out of her wing.”

“Yes, sir!” they responded in unison.

I galloped down the hall after Princess Luna, trying to sort through what I was going to have to charge Runic with. The alicorn was moving quickly and shot right past where Iridescence jumped out from an adjoining hall.

Iridescence squealed in surprise as I came barreling down behind the princess. Before I collided into her, I leapt, spread my wings, and flew over her head. I called over my shoulder as I landed, “Keep up, Sergeant!”

“Easy for you to say!” she yelled after me before giving chase.

Keeping the princess inside her wing was an impossibility. The two house guards standing at the arch that separated it from the rest of palace stared on in shock as their golden charge shot past them.

“Don’t just stand there, help us catch her!” Iridescence ordered after I’d shot by. That resulted in more hooves thundering along.

Luna was bouncing all over the palace and looked like she was having a great time, too. She knew the palace better than I gave her credit for and was excellent at avoiding the guards I kept sending ahead while I personally pursued her.

When I went past the palace administrative offices, Raven stuck her head out. “Lieutenant, what are you doing?”

I slid to a stop, paused, and hurriedly replied, “Playing tag with the princess,” and then continued my pursuit.

Raven called after me, “Very good. Carry on… I guess.”

The princess was proving to be a far more elusive prey than I’d credited her. All of the growth she’d gone through seemed to have given her more stamina and speed. After a half hour of pursuit Iridescence and I stopped to take a break. Regardless of how in shape we were, both of us were sucking wind pretty hard.

“Where is Miley?” I growled.

“Beats me,” Iridescence replied. “Runic may not have cooperated or they’re working on some sort of… Sir, what are you doing?”

I was taking my armor off, that is what I was doing! My patience was wearing thin. “I’ll be faster without all of this weight. If blondie thinks she is getting away from me she has another thing coming.”

“You realize that blondie is Princess Luna, right?”

“I do now,” I replied and shrugged, “She wants to play tag, I’ll play tag. Remember, I played hoofball in secondary school.”

Iridescence chuckled. “This is not going to end well.”

I flew off down the hall and cheered, “For Equestria!”

Princess Luna bounded across my path at one of the four-way intersections. I made the tight turn and was right on her tail. She laughed and called, “You’re cheating, Silent Knight!”

The princess bounded through a big set of double doors just as I caught her. Literally caught her, mind you. I landed on her back and wrapped my hooves around her middle. She laughed more and slid to a stop.

She giggled. “Very well, you have caught me!”

“Yes, we can all see that,” Princess Celestia’s voice said.

I looked up. We were in the throne room. We being me, out of uniform, and on the back of a crazy blonde alicorn. Princess Celestia was on her throne and several dignitaries from various other pony territories were there. Confusion played on their faces.

Princess Luna’s eyes went big a moment before she stood and walked regally up to her place beside her sister. She sat down and I slid off her back to rest behind her. “We have arrived, Celestia.”

“Thank you for coming…” Princess Celestia replied before she looked at me inquisitively. I held up my hooves and shook my head. Without missing a beat, the princess turned back to the crowd. “Now that we’ve been graced with Princess Luna’s surprise presence, we should get back to business.”

It was the most awkward four hours of my life. I sat behind Luna for the whole conference while thinking up numerous ways to explain. At least for the first half. During the second half, I plotted my revenge against my cousin.

Outside of my immediate situation, there was a part of me that shuddered at the idea of the palace running without me for one hour, much less four. It was less robust than I’d given it credit for. That was likely due to the lack of Shining Armor’s strong guidance.

While I mused on how much chaos was waiting for me, the meeting eventually came to an end and everypony filed out while the princesses waited patiently.

Once the doors were closed, Princess Celestia looked over at her sister and asked, “Are you okay?”

Princess Luna laughed heartily and replied, “Yes, I am so sorry. I was having fun at the expense of my guards. Everything has been so serious and tense lately, I thought a little levity was in order. I didn’t mean to come this way.”

“You were faking?” I asked incredulously from behind her.

Princess Celestia gave me a look that told me to hush, so I did. Her attention returned to her sister. I expected a lecture, but instead, her gaze softened and she laughed. “You look ridiculous. Pretty… but ridiculous. How did this happen?”

“Runic Phial strikes again,” Luna replied before joining in on the laughing.

“Why isn’t Silent Knight in his armor?”

“It seems I am too fast for him when he is laden,” came the reply with more giggles.

I flushed and just sat there feeling silly. I didn’t mind being the object of their humor, though. It was rare for the princess to cut loose and have some fun. Especially insane, silly fun.

She was right, too: levity was something we’d needed around the palace. I was wound up so tightly that everything was getting on my nerves. This was something I could enjoy now that I knew Princess Luna’s brain wasn’t being turned to mush by a potion.

The door to the throne room creaked open and the princesses fell silent. I tilted just enough so I could see around one of Luna’s wings as Iridescence marched in and Runic Phial followed reluctantly. He was being pushed along by a panicked Miley Hooves.

“Princess? Are you okay?” Iridescence asked.

“I’m so happy!” Luna threw her head to the side and I watched one of her eyes roll. “A-ha! Happy go lucky me!”

Princess Celestia pointed at Runic Phial. “Thirty days, dungeon.” She sounded quite serious, too.

Miley piped up, “Please, Princess! We brought the cure. Right, Runic?”

“I think so,” he said before Miley bonked him on the snout. “Yes! The cure.”

Princess Luna shook her head. “Oh, no, thank you. No cure. I like this. This is now me forever.”

Princess Celestia laughed and waved a hoof. “Very well. Princess Luna is pleased, so you are free to go.”

It was at that moment that I crept out from behind Princess Luna and sat beside her.

“Hi, Silent Knight!” Runic said, waving and seemingly having already forgotten the potential trouble he was in.

“Hi, Runic,” I replied, my tone deceptively warm.

In the wake of the incident later known as ‘Banana Luna,’ Runic had received an unofficial visit from Equestrian Health and Pony Services. The inspector had given him several suggestions on how to properly separate products.

The reality of the situation was that Miley Hooves’s friend, Val, knew an inspector and the two of them had convinced that pony to come scare Runic a bit. I thought it was a good idea.

In addition to that, I realized I hadn’t been spending as much time with him as I’d used to. That was something I needed to fix and was the reason he and I were now lounging in his store together, a ‘Closed’ sign on the door and starberry fizzy drinks in our hooves.

“I’m honestly not sure how it happened, but my special twelve-tone blonde mane dye got mixed in with the twelve-scent orange blossom shampoo-and-coat wash,” Runic explained.

“You’re not sure how? Are they both orange and kept in near identical bottles?”

“Well, obviously, but that doesn’t explain the mix-up,” Runic muttered as he swirled the last few sips in his bottle.

I went to point out the obvious but shrugged instead. “What was the cure?”

Runic laughed. “Soap and water!”

That made me laugh as well. “Your brilliant plan to fix the princess was soap and water?”

With a shrug, Runic replied, “I wasn’t certain that my dye could actually impact her behavior. That would have been a new side effect not yet reported. I suppose we were lucky that she was just having fun with you.”

“You’re right about that,” I replied while idly looking over at the dead drop I shared with Maya. That could wait, so I changed the subject. “How’re things with you and Miley?”

Runic perked up a bit. “Oh, they’re going well. We do alchemy one night a week, science another night, and dates on the weekend. We have a good time.”

“I’m glad to hear that. As long you two are happy.”

“I am, and I think she is, too! We’ve got a good thing going.” He shifted and lowered his eyes. “I’ve noticed you haven’t been around as much lately.”

I brushed a hoof behind my neck. “Yeah… I am sorry about that. I’ve been spending a lot of my free time with Crystal. When I get free time. I hope you don’t think less of me.”

Runic shook his head. “Not at all. We all have our hobbies.”

Laughing, I asked, “Hobby? I wouldn’t call Crystal a hobby.”

“Tomato, potato,” Runic replied.

The two of us sat across from each other in companionable silence. It was good to spend time with Runic.

Finally, when I’d finished my drink, I stood up. “Alright, well, why don’t you head into the back and get the workshop going? I assume I can still be your assistant… or is that only for Miley now?”

“Of course you can, you had the job first!” Runic chimed happily. He disappeared through the door with a merry trot.

“I’ll be right there,” I called before setting my bottle down and heading to the special table. It took a moment to find the secret latch but it clicked, the box popped out, and there was a file inside. I slid that into my bag and closed the compartment before heading off to do some science with Runic.

The sun was peeking over the horizon as I watched Iridescence and her squad moving about the palace courtyard. It was preparation I watched with trepidation. They were getting ready to take Princess Luna to Haven without me.

This was a reality I was not comfortable with, but it was time to place my confidence in my friend and soon-to-be first sergeant. She had to know that my discomfort wasn’t a reflection on her. It was just how I was.

“Sergeant, a word,” I called to her.

Iridescence quickly excused herself and trotted over to me. “Yes, sir?”

I lowered my voice. “You know I’m struggling with letting her go.”

She nodded. “It isn’t obvious to the others, but I know you. I can see the look in your eyes. We’ll be fine, I promise.”

We’d been friends long enough that I took her at her word and smiled. “I know you will. Why do you think I’m sending you to get her there? It was you and me before, partner, and it is going to be you and me again soon.”

She tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

“Orchid is transferring and you’re taking her place,” I explained. “Providing you want to.”

Iridescence just stared at me as if she was letting the words sink in. She shifted and then nodded. “It will be me.”

“Good mare. I’ll miss you, but don’t worry. Winterspear and I will take good care of Dot,” I said softly as pride filled me. She was going to take responsibility.

The unicorn softly chuckled. “No doubt about that. Dot likes Winterspear more than she does me. Still, I’m more worried about you two than her. She is more than a hoofful.”

“Well, you know how fillies are. You used to be one. At least, I think you were. Obviously with you being so much older than me, I can’t say for certain.”

The glare I received was both frightening and a warm reminder of a shared bond. Then she winked. “Take care of yourself, too, Silent Knight. Don’t let the job run you ragged.”

“I’ll do my best. Enjoy the flight.”

She nodded, looked like she was going to hug me, and then thought better of it. Out in the courtyard, that would have been a breach of protocol for sure. She simply saluted and hurried back to her squad.

It was about that time that Princess Luna strode out of the castle and made her way towards me. When she was close, I remarked, “Back to your usual color, I see?”

The regal alicorn nodded. “I liked it, but the ponies of Haven may not approve of me looking like an alicorn of the day.”

“That’s unfortunate. I don’t care what anypony says, you made an excellent blonde.” I chuckled. “Are you all set?”

“I am. Although, before I leave, I wanted a brief word with you.”

“Of course, what about?” I asked.

The princess stepped in closer. “You’ve taken an awful lot upon yourself, Silent Knight. I see more than you might realize. I just want to remind you that sometimes, the thing we believe we want most comes at a price that is too high. Do you understand?”

Understand? I didn't, and yet I felt a chill run down my spine. What did she know? Had she found out what I was up to? Was she going to stop me?

With an even expression to hide the panic I was starting to feel, I looked up at her. “What do you mean specifically?”

She smiled and shook her head. “Today, nothing specifically. Just remember, Silent Knight. There was once a filly that wanted everypony to love her. She wanted it so badly that she was willing to do anything to make them cooperate.

“She gave up who she was, and if it weren’t for a miracle, she’d never have been saved. Remember that as you navigate this time while we are apart. Alright?”

It was a coincidence. It had to be. She couldn't know. Nopony could know. “Of course, Princess. I’ll do just that.”

“Then we should say our goodbyes,” she said.

My head shook. “No. I’ll see you later, Princess.”

Princess Luna smiled brightly at that. “Yes, that is indeed more fitting. I’ll see you later, Silent Knight. Make sure the palace is still here for my return.”

“That is a tall order, but I’ll do my best.”

She chuckled and made her way to the chariots. I stood and watched as they took off into the dawn sky, heading south. My chest hurt, but I kept watching.

I wasn’t going to see her for nine weeks. The last time we’d technically been apart that long, I’d been in a coma. It was going to be a big adjustment. One of many.

I’d sent most of my ponies to advanced training. My own schedule had been fully freed of the day-to-day House Guard activities. Orchid could run our skeleton crew while I took over the day-to-day operations of the palace.

I waited until the chariots were long gone before heading back to my office. As usual, there were ponies waiting for me and my decisions. They could barely wait long enough for me to get inside and sit down before the first one was already talking at me.

The next few hours were a procession of small problems, petty issues, and a few concerns that actually did deserve the attention of the palace commander. Unfortunately, I never knew who I could blow off until their speech was done.

It was truly taxing my patience. I'm not ashamed to admit that I snapped at more than one pony who came into my office. I'm a little proud to note that my intimidation rolls were always a critical hit. Not that I'm making light of losing my temper, of course. That normally never happened to me.

The pony in front of me now was one I probably could have rescheduled, but now he was in my office. The dark grey stallion had made an appointment in advance, so being respectful of that was the least I could do. He was running long, however.

My eyes briefly drifted up to the clock as it neared time for an off-the-books meeting. I didn’t want to miss that, but everypony deserved my full attention when they were in my office. And right now, that meant Shadow Hunter.

“… All that is to say, sir, I’d like to just change roles to medic. Lieutenant Day said she’d look into it, but she’s on leave and training opportunities are coming up, so…” He trailed.

My brow shot up. “You want me to make a permanent decision for Princess Celestia’s House Guard even though I’m just temporarily in command?”

“More or less, yes, sir. If anypony would know the commander’s mind, it would be you,” Shadow Hunter said, buttering me up a bit.

I shook my head. “I’m not comfortable with that, but I’ll meet you halfway. I’m not promising you that you’ll be able to change from a guard to a guard-medic, but I’ll override the training requirement. You can go take that advanced medic course. Lieutenant Day will then make a decision when she returns.”

Shadow Hunter replied, “That is fair, sir. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Dismissed.”

I didn’t even wait for him to get out the door before I stood up and started walking out, too. It was time for me to put on a little scene. The ponies waiting in line outside my office all looked up when I appeared.

“I’ve a meeting to attend. You can come back later or maintain your place in line,” I said without giving them anytime to protest.

I hurried over to the intelligence section and waited in the lobby until Sergeant Major Granite came to fetch me for the meeting.

When we got into the briefing room, Intelligence Officer Guise was there, but on this occasion, there were a lot more ponies lingering around the outskirts of the room. Some had been in before, but most of them were new faces.

I glanced around before saying, “I saw your note. What is the update?”

The sergeant major lightly cleared his throat, looked over to the intelligence officer, and then looked back to me. “They missed, Lieutenant.”

It was show time. “What do you mean, they missed?” I asked, my cool guard stare wavering ever so slightly.

“Exactly what I said. We went with the extrication plan, brought in the local gryphon security, and—”

I cut the sergeant off, turning my attention to Guise. “I’m sorry, did he just say you brought in the gryphons? To catch him? Why didn’t we use our ponies?”

“Of course, we did!” Officer Guise snarled. “We have no jurisdiction! We can’t just snatch a gryphon out of there without their help.”

The glare I leveled at him was withering. Unfortunately, he wasn’t an easily spooked pony. “Where is he now?” I asked through gritted teeth.

“We don’t know, but he didn’t go south. They drove him further north. The gryphons will be making certain the border is tight,” Granite put in while Guise and I continued our staring contest.

I broke it long enough to roll my eyes. “I’m sure they will! You’ve bungled this and made us look like fools. Relying on gryphons to catch a gryphon, surely you’re not so st—”

“That is enough, Lieutenant!” Guise shouted to cut me off and silenced the room. For as good as he was at staring, he didn’t seem to keep his cool under pressure. He was falling into the trap I’d laid out.

“I’ve about had it with you, Silent Knight,” he growled while thrusting a hoof in my direction. “I don’t care who you have backing you; you’re out of this operation! You have no business being here in the first place.”

I straightened to my full height, putting me almost a head taller than him. “I’m out? You think I’m out? I don’t think you have the clout to throw me out. You’re lucky I don’t get you reassigned so that a competent pony can run this operation.”

He snorted. “Don’t be so sure about that, Lieutenant. You’ve been nothing but a pain in my flank since day one. I’ve had it. Get out of here and go tattle on me if that is the kind of guard you are. I’ll take my chances.”

Giving up too easy might be obvious. I fixed my stare on him once more before finally turning and heading to the door. “Fine. It’s your command. At least for now,” I said before throwing the door open and leaving the intelligence suite.

Once I was outside it took some effort not to smirk. I did my best to look angry while I stomped my way down the hall and across the corridor.

A voice cut through my thoughts. “Well now, little colt, don’t you have a way with others?” The voice was rough and gravely. I turned towards it. A pegasus stallion was standing in the corridor that ran perpendicular to the one I was in.

He was older, much older. Probably around my father’s age… well, the age he’d have been. His coat was a dark grey and his mane was such a pale shade of blue that it was almost indistinguishable from white. He had sharp features, the cut of a warrior, and piercing green eyes.

What really stood out was that he wore a plain dress shirt. No armor, no uniform, but on one side of his collar was a chief warrant officer’s pin and on the other the insignia of an armsmaster.

“That would be Lieutenant Little Colt, chief,” I said dismissively.

The stallion chuckled and shook his head. “Yes, little Lieutenant Colt playing where he shouldn’t be.”

The hair on my neck stood up. Even if I had acted the very part he was calling me on, his tone and insinuation was starting to make me legitimately angry. Then it hit me: he was intentionally trying to get under my coat. He was using the same tactic on me that I’d employed against Guise.

That fact immediately deflated my rage and I shifted into a mode of suspicion. Who was this pony? I didn’t recognize him from the faces in the room, but I never paid much attention to anypony else. With a guarded and clipped tone, I replied “As you say,” and turned to start walking away.

He followed. “Come on, is that all? Surely a little toy guard that spends all his time mothering a princess might want to throw that clout around.”

It was that moment that I lost the high ground and stopped being the bigger pony. I suddenly stopped, turned, and stepped across his path. The anger returned and swelled into my breast. We almost bumped into each other but he came up short, reacting quickly.

“Listen up, Chief. If you think you’re going to upset me, you’re not. I may be a new lieutenant, but let me make something clear: if you’re going to continue this pointless attempt to get a rise out of me there will be consequences.

“You’d best respect the rank. If not, I’m certain I can correct that discipline problem for you in a more traditional way,” I threatened with absolute confidence.

That brought a grin to his face. I wasn’t positive, but his teeth looked sharper than mine. “Is that so? Now there is some fire. You actually think you’d come out on top in a fight?”

“Highly unlikely against an armsmaster, but I’m quite certain you’ll have something broken when the palace guard hauls you off for striking an officer,” I replied, filling the tone with ice.

We glared at each other and then he smiled. “So, where was this cool when you were inside?”

“That pony knows how to get to me,” I lied, poorly.

“Crabapples. You wanted out.”

Confirming him would be a bad idea. It was time to get out of the situation, so I turned and started walking. “You were more interesting when you were insulting me.”

He hurried up to get at my side. “You wanted out. You were a little too dramatic compared to your previous appearances. A colt like Guise would be stupid enough to believe you. He just sees you as meddler and has his own ego to protect. He doesn’t see what is underneath that violet armor.”

I glanced at him. “Oh yeah? What is underneath, then?”

“A warrior. You wear that guard armor, you protect that princess, but I can see it plain as the sun. There is a fighter under there, and he’s ready to get back on the field and stomp on the gryphon that hurt him and his ponies. I like that. We need more guards like that, in fact.”

We made the turn to the connection between the palace and the Royal Guard building. “I appreciate that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a palace to run. There is work to do.”

“Yes, sir. Real work and I think I can help you,” he pushed.

“I really appreciate that, but I have enough friends and I—”

A hoof landed forcefully on the wall in front of me. I came to a quick halt. “You’re not listening, sir. I’m not some by-the-book Guard intelligence officer. I’ve been over there and I’ve fought those feathered demons.

“More importantly, Risky Storm was my nephew, and I have as much of a score to settle as you do. When I heard about some Celestia Cross veteran looking into the trade, I had to check it out, and you didn’t disappoint.”

That was not something I expected. It could still be a trap, but it could also be an opportunity. “Alright, Chief, what are you proposing?”

“I figure, if you let yourself get tossed out of there that easily, you must already have something planned or another avenue of intelligence. I’m still on the inside and may have a few favors owed to me. We use your plan and my knowledge to keep chasing Alastair and his brigands until we can close the book.”

Maya had been clear: do not reveal her. The chief had no idea where I’d gotten my information from, though. He probably thought I was using the same channels I’d leveraged to get into the meetings. He could be a valuable asset. Valuable enough to take a risk.

“Step into my office, Chief…”

He smirked. “They call me Steel Wings.”

Guardian. It is a word that I thought I understood well. At least until I had inherited the responsibility to protect and mentor two nox ponies.

I wasn’t their physical protector; that would have been very easy for a pony like me. No, I was their guide in a world they barely understood.

It was a responsibility I hadn’t had much time to pursue given what was going on in my life. In a way, Princess Luna being in Haven was a positive thing. She’d given me back some of my day. That time could then be shared with Crimson Dawn and Tranquil Dusk.

The two of them had decided to embark on a training regime to prepare for the Royal Guard. Crimson was set on it, and Tranquil was just following along. She’d been spending far more time in the archives when we weren’t together.

After much discussion, Tranquil had decided that she didn’t want to be apart from her brother, so if he decided to join the Royal Guard, she’d join with him. I didn’t have the heart to explain to her that it doesn’t work that way.

For now, my role as guardian meant pretending to be a training instructor. Tonight, we were working on muscle building and endurance, so I stood over the pair while they did pushups. Far more pushups than most ponies could do.

“This may be a basic exercise, but it is one of the best," I said in a stern voice. “Keep going until your forelegs give out and you can no longer lift your body! A royal guard needs to be strong and still keep going.”

Crimson grunted as his stamina finally failed him. He slumped onto the mat and couldn’t push himself back up no matter how hard he tried. Tranquil did a few more reps before she joined him on the floor.

I came over to help them back upright. “Very good, both of you. You’re already in better shape than most ponies that start basic training. Don’t let that go to your head, however. If you’re serious, you want to be in the best shape you can be in.”

“When do we learn how to fight?” Crimson asked, brushing himself off.

“We don’t,” I corrected. “We learn to defend ourselves, defend others, and subdue. Fighting is for undisciplined brawlers and the Equestrian Army.”

Tranquil Dusk’s head tilted. “I am confused, Silent Knight. The forms you practice alone do not look as if they are for defense or to subdue.”

Crimson Dawn shot her a look and hissed, “Hush.”

My ears stood to attention and I looked at her in surprise. “Pardon?”

The mare’s cheeks turned bright red and her head ducked.

What in Equestria was going on? I could feel my hackles rising. “Have you been spying on me?”

She looked ashamed as she nodded.

“Why?” I asked, trying to work out if I’d done anything foolish or embarrassing when I thought nopony was looking.

Tranquil Dusk shrugged. “You’re the most interesting pony we know. Well, you’re the only one we know, and you’re often too busy to spend time with us, so we thought we could learn by watching.”

I brought my hoof to my face to hide my expression. She was right about the busy part. “How often?”

Crimson cleared his throat. “All the time. Although when you visited that walled garden we couldn’t follow.”

“Okay, two new rules. One, no more following Silent Knight around. I like you both, but I need to have a little privacy. You’re invading my personal space.

“Two, training is going to go both ways. I can’t believe you’ve both been stalking me and I didn’t even have a clue. That is a skill I want to know. I’ll keep training you, and you start showing me how you move around so stealthily.”

Tranquil looked up with clear surprise. “You… want us to train you?”

“I do. We’ll consider it a fair trade for all the training I’m sharing.”

Crimson shifted. “What about the other knowledge? The things you practice alone?”

That was something I had to be firm on. I shook my head. “I’m afraid not. I gave my word that I wouldn’t share it. It is for me and me alone until I’m released from that promise.”

He looked frustrated but gave a resolute nod. “Very well. Outside of that, what if I want to learn to be a soldier like in the tales of old? Is that the same thing?”

For a young pony, he was clever in his tactics. “Technically, it isn’t. We have a small army. You could learn those skills there or from a veteran.”

Tranquil Dusk’s head tilted. “Veterans like you,” she said plainly.

She was always the more insightful one. I really needed to be on my guard around these two. “I suppose so. Although, I don’t teach that sort of thing. It’s very rare that ponies find themselves in combat.”

“But you did!” she blurted before quickly covering her mouth. “Apologies. Your guards speak proudly of your actions against your gryphon foes.”

Anger started to swell within me, but I tried to change it to determination. Enough was enough. It was time to put a stop to this.

I drew myself up to my full height. “That may be true, but that isn’t something you should go looking for. Death and war are usually permanent solutions to temporary problems. Now, if you want to join the Army, you have that right. I’ll help you, but there needs to something clear between us.

“Those tales you may have read leave out a lot about the reality of it. Far more than I understood and far more than I was ready for. You need to realize that going in before making some flippant decision.”

“What do we need to realize?” Crimson challenged. “What more could there be?”

“Anguish, guilt, and remorse. The weight of dealing with death and being around it. It took me a while to get right in the head after my battle with the gryphons. I left a part of me there. We all did.

“I’ll personally be far more cautious in the future when it comes to life-and-death situations and I certainly don’t intend to train two young ponies I’ve promised to protect how to kill. You’ll have to accept that. For now, I will get you physically fit and teach you how to be a royal guard. What you do with those skills is up to you. Agreed?”

The pair stood still and stared at me quietly. They briefly exchanged a meaningful glance before turning back to me.

“Agreed,” they responded in unison.

18. Balance

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Hearts and Hooves Day was rapidly approaching. Every year of my life prior to this one, I simply hadn’t cared about it. Now, I was feeling the pressure. Crystal Wishes was a romantic pony and this was the most romantic holiday of the year. It was also our first Hearts and Hooves Day as a couple, so I had to nail it.

Unfortunately, my job still demanded almost all of my time, as it was not as concerned with my romantic machinations as I was. It was making it difficult to balance work and romance, plus run my own black operation on the side. Thankfully, on that at least, I had a new ally that could help fill in some of the gaps for me.

It was surprising at how quickly my new roles were becoming normal and commonplace. No pony in command had either noticed or cared that a lieutenant was running a major installation and had been doing so for quite some time.

I hadn’t realized it had been so long until a nox pony courier had brought a missive to let me know that Princess Luna had arrived safely in Haven a week ago. It may have actually been a little longer, as the nox pony had been so overwhelmed by Canterlot that she took a detour to explore it before coming to me.

I didn’t blame her. The city might have been mundane and familiar to me, but it must look like a fairy tale to her. She’d decided to stay for an extra week just in case I needed to send additional notes back. I didn’t, but I also didn’t tell her that.

Now, I stood in one of Canterlot’s many flower shops, surrounded by roses of every color and flowers whose names I didn’t know. A light green mare with a nametag that read ‘Leafy’ was staring at me. Her expression was one of trepidation and confusion.

I was staring back, although I wasn’t looking at her. I’d been in my head just pondering my day and exactly what I wanted for Crystal Wishes. How long had I just been standing there? By her expression, it was probably an awkwardly long period of time.

“Is… Is there something wrong, sir?” she asked in a soft, nervous voice. “I mean, guard? Sir?”

“Lieutenant, and no. There isn’t anything wrong.”

She shifted. “Then why are you here?”

One thing I’ve never gotten accustomed to is the fact that my armor is off-putting to some ponies. When a royal guard comes in, most merely assume she’s there in an official capacity. I just happened to stop off on my way home from work.

“To buy flowers for my sweetheart,” I replied.

Leafy blinked and then smiled, seeming to relax. “Oh, that is nice. What would you like?”

I looked around at the plethora of surrounding flowers and then back to her. “I’m paralyzed by choice.”

“Oh, well you probably want roses. Red ones are for lovers. Bright red ones are for passion and cardinal red is for desire. If that is too much, there are also pink roses which are more like thankful roses or an expression of appreciation. White roses are—”

“Please stop,” I cut in as I tried to figure out what the difference between bright red and cardinal red was.

How many colors of red were there and why did they all mean something different? It brought me back to when I had just gotten my House Guard armor for the first time. I still couldn’t remember which shade of purple was byzantium and which was heliotrope.

“I… What do most ponies buy?” I asked.

Leafy flushed a bit. “You can’t go wrong with any red if you’re serious about your lover.”

My face felt hot. I must have flushed right back at her. “Sweetheart,” I corrected before adding, “A dozen red, please. To be delivered on Hearts and Hooves Day.”

“Absolutely, sir! Which re—I mean yes, red!”

I paid and carefully filled out the delivery forms while she went on about how I was a smart stallion for shopping early. The word ‘lover’ kept coming up and, by the time I was out of the shop, my coat had changed from white to red. Cardinal red, I think.

The streets of Canterlot were busy as ponies went about their business. Most of the shops already had pink, red, and white decorations in their windows to entice customers in for the impending holiday. As I wandered through the shopping distinct, I started to sense that there were eyes on me.

Tranquil Dusk and Crimson Dawn had proven to be very adept tutors when it came to teaching me to be sneaky and, more importantly in some cases, to recognize a sneak. I’d picked up a lot from them in a short period of time. This may have been one of their tests, so I turned down a side road and then made a quick move into an alley.

“Much better, Silent Knight,” came Tranquil’s voice from behind me. It took all of my willpower not to jump in fright.

I turned to face her. “You still got behind me.”

She shrugged. “You’ve only been learning for a short period of time. What do you always tell us when it is our turn to be trained?”

“Repetition yields results,” I quoted.

Tranquil smiled. “Exactly.” Her head tilted. “What are you up to today?”

“Doing some shopping for Hearts and Hooves Day.”

“What is Hearts and Hooves Day?”

I motioned for her to follow and left the alley. I was on a schedule, so explaining would have to be to-go. “It’s a holiday for romance. Ponies get gifts for their special somepony.”

The nox pony mare’s ears twitched. “And you’re shopping for that unicorn mare you spend so much time with?”

“Her name is Crystal Wishes and I thought we talked about following me,” I replied.

“We did, but we saw her before, and then you asked for training. How can we train you if we cannot put you in situations to detect and be detected?”

Valid point or not, I still didn’t like the idea of the nox siblings spying on my personal life. “Fair enough, but during the time I’m with Crystal, I don’t want to be trained. Understand?”

“I do. It is private time with your unicorn.”

I tried and failed to ignore the subtext. I was definitely cardinal red again. Speaking of red… “Where is Crimson?”

“Watching the Royal Guard trainees and studying their methods.”

That brought some calm to my embarrassment. “He doesn’t trust that I’m properly instructing the both of you?”

Tranquil shook her head with an amused smile. “Oh, no, quite the contrary. He mostly goes to watch what they do wrong. Crimson is of the belief that he and I would already be able to succeed. Most of the ponies are not nearly as prepared as us.”

We turned a corner and, in the distance, I could see our destination: Sunridge Sweets. “Are the two of you going to join?”

“It is a course of action that I am against. Crimson is still on the fence about whether or not he wishes to defy Grandmother. For now, he is holding off, since I’ve convinced him that you’ll need the two of us and our talents soon.”

“Need you? I mean no disrespect, but for what?” I asked in confusion.

Tranquil’s voice lowered. “To catch the bad gryphon.”

My blood ran cold and I wheeled on her. “What?” I asked in a tense whisper.

The nox pony’s ears pinned back. “I’m sorry, Silent Knight. We’ve followed you to a few of your meetings at the cafe and overheard a conversation with Steel Wings. We have not told anypony. I swear it.”

The back of my neck started to sweat. Had I really been so sloppy that two young ponies right out of Haven could easily figure out what I was up to? Were they following Steel Wings, too?

“Tranquil, you should forget the things you’ve heard,” I whispered hurriedly. “This isn’t a path for you two to trot. I appreciate your devotion to me but the training will be sufficient. Your grandmother would never approve of anything more, and you said you’d never hurt somepony. This is not a situation where somepony doesn’t get hurt.”

With a resolute look in her eyes, she shook her head. “No, I said I would never attack a pony that was doing no harm. This gryphon has harmed you and good ponies. You intend to punish him, yes? This is justice.”

“Yes, but that is for me. Don’t you remember what we agreed? I’ll train you to be guards. Guards, not soldiers. The two of you accepted that. This goes beyond that. It isn’t safe,” I said, a pleading tone creeping into my voice. I couldn’t have the blood of these innocent ponies on my hooves.

Tranquil simply shrugged. “I remember, but also know that you will need help. You’ve kept this a secret from all of the other guards. You have chosen your allies very carefully. The one that you talk to that cannot be heard, and now the old one with grief in his eyes. We will be the ones that teach you to be silent and will fly by your side when the time co—”

I raised a hoof to stop her. “That isn’t for you to decide. I choose, and I don’t choose you. Not for this.”

She simply nodded. Not a nod of agreement, just a nod of understanding. “I will discuss it with Crimson. Enjoy your shopping, Silent Knight.” Then, with a few flaps of her raven-colored wings, she was off and on her way.

My gut told me to fly off after her and set her straight. Both of my wings twitched in agitation as I tried to calm down. They weren’t in any danger right now. I could set them straight later. Right now, I had to use my limited time to focus on Crystal Wishes.

I pushed on to Sunridge Sweets, burying my anxiety for the time being. When I slipped through the bakery door, Sunbeam smiled from behind the counter. “Silent Knight, welcome!”

“Good afternoon, how’re you?” I asked as I approached, her happy demeanor starting to calm my nerves.

“Fit and well! How’re you?”

After leaning across the counter, I whispered to her, “On a secret mission. Can I trust you?”

“If not me, then who?” she asked, her tone slightly serious but still honey and sugar.

“Agreed. I need treats for Crystal for Hearts and Hooves day, but you can’t tell Velvet. She may be too easily compromised, and this has to be a secret.”

Sunbeam gasped in mock surprise and then winked at me. “Of course.” She picked up an order form. “One special order from Mr. Dashing Moon for Ms. Wishful Heart. What will she be receiving?”

Idly, I twirled a hoof. “So, Dashing Moon has never done Hearts and Hooves Day. Could you maybe help him out?”

“Of course. Ms. Wishful Heart is a very special pony with romantic tendencies. Some off-the-shelf item would never do. It has to be as unique as her.”

Dashing Moon had his work cut out for him. “How about dark chocolate quills and blades with a hint of orange flavoring in them?”

“Very clever, Mr. Moon. A cutie mark special? I think Ms. Heart will be pleased. You’ll pick them up the day of so that they’re fresh. They’ll be the last thing I make. Consider that special gift from Momma S,” she teased.

Once I’d settled the bill, I headed off to complete steps three, four, and five. They were possibly the most important parts of my plan, too. If I did anything noteworthy this year, it was going to be making Hearts and Hooves Day perfect for Crystal.

My vision was blurred and I couldn’t quite get my hooves to cooperate as I heard Steel Wings say, “Get up, Silent Knight, it isn’t that bad.” He was looming over me like a storm cloud.

That was easy for him to say. It took another moment to find my footing and push myself up of the ground. I touched my face and winced. The taste of blood lingered in my mouth. “I’m not sure this is educational.”

The old pegasus shot me a look. “Do you want me to go easy on you, or do you want to learn how to kill a gryphon? You’re all over the place. Some guard training, some brawling, and some… well, I don’t know what that stuff is, but it seems to be some kind of fighting art. Maybe stick with that.”

Steel Wings rubbed me wrong on a good day. He was an abrasive pony that was confident in himself at all times. “I can kill a gryphon, I’ve done it. This isn’t about killing, though, this is about learning how to fight them better. We’ll snatch him and let the authorities here handle the rest,” I replied, falling into the combat stance I’d learned from the Knights of the Moon tome.

He snorted. “I’m not sure you can, boy. You didn’t kill him when you were over there and they got a heck of a lot closer to killing you. Don’t let pride and arrogance blind you. You tell me you’re ready, but you’re not. Yes, you’re in prime shape, but you’re not a killer and that is what we need.

“It is cute that you think we’re going to bring him in alive. Don’t be so ignorant. This gryphon isn’t some cheap thug—he is an assassin. A failed one, yes, but he is still an enemy combatant. If you’re not ready to kill him without hesitation, then we’ve already failed. Now, either come at me like you mean it, or I’m going to bloody you again.”

There were still some items of our plan that Steel Wings and I didn’t agree on. As much as I hated to admit it, however, I was starting to see his side. Would Alastair even consider coming alive? Surely he wouldn’t—

“Lieutenant, TODAY!” Steel Wings shouted at me.

Without hesitation, I dug my hooves in before lunging at him again, letting the thoughts melt away. My right hoof came around and clipped his shoulder. That was the first time I’d managed to tag him.

I followed up with the left, but he somehow got right beside me. His hoof looped under my left, trapping me. Then he hit me right in the gut, knocking the wind out of me. When I doubled over, he struck me again in the back, laying me out.

Steel Wings leaned down. “I’m starting to think I gave you too much credit. Look, you’re pretty good. You’re better than any guard I’ve seen, but we’re talking real fighting here. You’d never cut it in the Equestrian Army.

“If we’re lucky we’re going to get one shot at this. One. You have to stop thinking like a guard. There isn’t anypony to protect and you’re trying to subdue me. It is just me and you. Focus on killing me, or I’m going to kill you. Now get up.”

I had killed before, yes, but it was in self-defense and defense of the princess. He wanted me to be a true aggressor. It was exactly what I’d been trying to talk Tranquil Dusk and Crimson Dawn out of, and yet here I was ignoring my own teachings.

My back ached, my face throbbed, and I was still catching my breath. Steel Wings was right for the most part: I didn’t have a will to kill. No pony should. What he didn’t know was that my self-training had been designed around non-ponies. The Knights of the Moon only fought ponies as an absolute last resort and spent little time instructing on how to do so.

That didn’t matter, though, because all I had to do was imagine he was Alastair. Steel Wings had skills I needed. Most ponies never met an armsmaster, much less trained individually with one. Losing him would be a major setback. My eyes closed and I thought back to that day.

Alastair's face flashed before my eyes. So did my ponies', the ones I lost, the ones I'll never forget.

I saw the flames as the train car carrying Princess Luna safely away from me.

I felt the claws raking my sides.

I lunged.

My right hoof missed completely, but this time it was a feint. He stepped aside to avoid it and that gave me the opportunity I needed to close the ground between us and slam my left elbow against his throat.

At least that had been the idea. Before the impact, he managed to get a hoof up to block.

Then he stepped back with a wicked grin. “Now we’re talking. Again!”

“Hey, boss?” Miley Hooves asked as she came into my office.

I casually closed the recent report Maya had provided me. “Yes, Sergeant?”

“I was wondering—” Her head tilted. “Hey, do you have a black eye?”

“Yes, Sergeant, I had a little training accident. What is it you needed?” It wasn’t really much of an accident. I’d left myself open, and Steel Wings punished me for it. He was a lot like my father.

“Training? When?” She blinked when I gave her a blank stare. “Oh, uh, right, my thing. Would it be possible for me to have Hearts and Hooves Day off?”

That was an awkward question. Any other year and I’d have been happy to say yes. This year, though… “You’re the only sergeant I have around, and I can’t cover for you.”

Miley nodded. “I understand completely, but could we make an exception, sir? There isn’t really anything to guard right now. You could just station a palace guard or two to cover the wing to ensure the spiders don’t run off with anything expensive.”

She had a valid point there. All but four guards were off at training, and they were standing around to make sure no pony wandered into the vacant wing. However, I was also still in command of the palace. Allowing Miley the time off could look like favoritism.

At the same time, it was practical. She could use her leave during one of our least busy periods. Miley was a good pony and deserved a little treat.

Finally, I relented. “I’m going to say yes, but only because we’re guarding a vacant wing. Pick one of your ponies to be acting sergeant for that day and I’ll backfill her position with a palace guard.”

“Thank you, sir!” she cheered before turning to trot off. Halfway through the door, she stopped and poked her head back in. “Oh yeah, Raven is looking for you. That is actually why I came over in the first place.”

My brow arched. “Maybe lead with the official business first next time, Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir! Sorry, sir!” she squeaked and galloped off.

I shifted my attention briefly back to the report. Alastair and his brigands had been fully cut off from escaping to Sudramoar. He’d tried twice but was harassed by a combination of gryphon authorities and deep cover pony operatives acting under Maya’s orders. The second time had gotten violent and several of his gryphons had been killed. The net was closing in on him and driving him northwest. It was a satisfying read.

Once the report was locked away, I got up and sought out Raven. I found her in her office, which was typical. If she wasn’t with the princess, she was usually working.

“You were looking for me, ma’am?” I asked after knocking on her open door.

“Yes, Lieutenant,” she replied without looking up. “We’re making advanced preparations for the Summer Sun Festival and needed your input.”

That was about a month off. It had completely slipped my mind. “Of course. What can I do for you?”

“Sunny will obviously handle Princess Celestia’s part. I understand she’ll be back any day now. We’re curious whether or not Princess Luna will be attending any of the ceremonies and, if so, will you have adequate guards to cover her?”

This was a subject I was well-versed in and excited about. “Yes, Sunny is due back overmorrow unless she decides to live on the beach which, at this point, may be a valid concern.”

Raven looked up from her work with a raised brow. “Overmorrow?” Her lips twitched. “I wasn’t aware ponies still used that word.”

My chest puffed out in a playful show of pride. “They do in Crystal’s stories and, yes, I read. When I want to.”

The mare snickered and waved a hoof. “And the princess?”

I nodded. “Princess Luna will return in time for the ceremony unless she extends her stay. I’ll send word immediately asking about that. She hadn’t mentioned anything before she left, but coverage will not be a problem. All of the training scheduled will end before she returns.”

Raven smiled. “Excellent. I knew you’d be on top of things.” She then shifted forwards to lean in closer to me. “Since you mentioned Crystal… Are you on top of things for Hearts and Hooves Day?”

Nosy! Ponies are always so nosy. “I am, but I will not divulge any information as I believe you to be an unreliable confidante in this sphere.”

The mare gasped, frowned, and then smiled. “You’re right. I can’t wait to hear about it, though.”

“I’m sure you will,” I chuckled before turning to leave.

Raven stood up. “Oh, no, Lieutenant. She’ll see you now.”

“Who?” I asked in confusion.

“The princess.”

“What?”

“The princess will see you now.”

I blinked. “I didn’t ask for a meeting.”

“She did. I guess nopony told you. Either way, she’ll see you now.” She motioned to the other door in her office, the one that went right into Princess Celestia’s study.

“Alright, then,” I said in confusion before crossing the office and knocking on that door.

“Come in,” Princess Celestia replied. Her voice was soft but easily heard. Magic, I assume.

I did so and closed the door behind me. “What can I do for you, Princess?”

Princess Celestia was sitting behind her desk, going over some scrolls. “How have you enjoyed being my House Guard commander, Silent Knight?”

That was an odd way to start a conversation. “It was actually quite smooth, Princess. Your House Guard needs the lightest of touch to guide it. I’m sure they’ll appreciate Lieutenant Day’s return, though.”

She smiled and looked over at me. “Is that a polite way of saying you’ll be glad to give it back?”

I cleared my throat and replied, “I mean no offense, Princess. It has been a privilege, but I feel like an outsider.”

“No offense taken. You and Luna have a deep bond, just as Sunny and I do. You’ve done well in her stead. I understand you’re running the palace, too?”

“I am. At least until Lieutenant Day returns. She has more seniority, and I intend to hoist the role onto her when she returns,” I admitted with entirely too much levity in my voice.

The alicorn peered at me. “Ah, is that how it is decided?”

“Typically, yes, ma’am. Pardon me, Princess, but is that why I’m here?”

Princess Celestia shook her head. “Oh no. I was just curious. I entrust my sister’s safety to you, so I feel it is important that you and I can speak frankly to each other about things from time to time.”

“Of course. I can respect that.” I shifted uncomfortably in the momentary silence. “You’re not worried about her in Haven?”

She shook her head. “No, not at all. I know you’d take care of all the security concerns, and the nox ponies are deeply committed to her. She and I can stay in touch when we’re apart, and I want her to come into her own. There is so much for her to learn there that can benefit all ponies.”

I just nodded, confused as to what this meeting was supposed to be for. “Princess?”

“Yes, Silent Knight?”

“Forgive me for asking again, but what did you need to see me about?”

She motioned to the pillow on the other side of her desk. “Please, sit down.”

I did so and suddenly felt small. Alicorns tend to loom over you physically, but they also have an intangible aura. It can be comforting, inspiring, and sometimes frightening, depending on what they want to project. Princess Celestia’s demanded attention.

“Do you still worry that we may be enemies?” she asked.

In all honesty, I replied, “No, Princess. I absolutely do not.”

“You don’t think I wish Luna harm?”

“I do not.”

“And you’ve decided this? You speak with such conviction about it,” she said pointedly.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. “There was no evidence to suggest you were anything but the pony we know and adore.”

“Well, I’m pleased that we’ll no longer have that between us. However, we now have a new issue. The Crystal Empire has brought back a lot of knowledge and memories that were buried for centuries. That will soon spread and ponies will have questions.”

“I understand. We can’t stop the spread of knowledge, though.”

The princess smiled and nodded. “Agreed. We must face it and we will. Although we don’t have to help it along before ponies are ready. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I cleared my throat. “I’m not sure I do. Perhaps you could elaborate?”

“There will come a time when the crystal ponies start to remember that there were once six alicorns. For now, that knowledge is locked deep inside them, enchanted away. They merely remember some of the old territorial rulers.

“That will change, however, and they will be frightened in a similar way the nox ponies are once they realize that the status quo has dramatically changed. That fear could spread. We want to gradually bring these ponies into modern times.”

“You want to avoid a panic. I fully understand. What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“I want you to stop. At least for now.”

“Stop what?”

She looked directly at me with eyes that seemed to stare into my very soul. “Investigating the deaths of the alicorns. You sent a pony to the great library within the Crystal Empire. You’ve spoken to the unicorns at the Temple. The consequences of these actions could be dire. So, I’m asking you to stop and I want to emphasize that. I’m asking, not telling.”

“Asking? Why?”

Princess Celestia set her hooves on her desk and leaned towards me. “If I order you to stop or compel you, you’ll suspect me again. That, and it would be wrong. This knowledge will come out. Now just isn’t the time. Luna isn’t ready.”

My brow furrowed. I wanted to argue with her, to demand answers, but the look in her eyes kept me strangely calm. Calmer than I'd felt in a long time. “What does that mean? I’ve been investigating to better protect Princess Luna.”

“I know, and you’ve proven to be far more skilled at it than I imagined. You’ve gotten too close to the truth and Luna isn’t ready. If you want to protect her, then you need to stop. I promise you… no, I swear to you that that is the truth.”

I shifted on the pillow and replied, “Then tell me. If I’m close, just tell me, and I won’t tell her if it is clear it isn’t necessary. What happened?”

Princess Celestia’s gaze drifted to the window and then back to me. She seemed to struggle with the question. “I will tell you enough to satisfy you. The rest you will have to accept on my word. Agreed?”

It was time to decide. Trust her fully, or not at all. I’d been on the fence long enough. I weighed the options and then replied, “Agreed.”

“Very well. What I tell you now has been held in confidence since the oldest ages. It has been known only to alicorns, scions, and a few special ponies.” She paused to let that sink in. “Many unicorns view magic as a convenience or natural advantage. Other ponies view it with a lack of understanding or sometimes fear.”

As the princess spoke, she held up her right hoof. A glowing ball of golden energy collected there and began to swirl.

“Magic is neither and both. What most don’t know is that it is alive and has a will of its own. Unicorn magic is somewhat universal and may even seem mundane to most of them. Any kind of unicorn can use it if they have the talent and will to learn. However, magic selects its wielder as much as its wielder selects it. This is why some spells come naturally and others are more difficult.”

The princess turned her head to look at the golden energy. “Unicorn magic is just too mild for them to really see the connection. Outside of a few exceptional ponies, that is, and even in that case, their knowledge and insight falls short. They quickly find that alicorn magic is outside of their reach. To put it bluntly, they’re too small.”

I blinked. “You’re large, so that you can use alicorn magic?”

“It is far more complex than that, but in the simplest terms, yes. Much as you get bigger as you exercise your muscles, we get bigger as we exercise our magic. A unicorn has limits. We do not. Where they plateau, we keep going.”

Exercise and muscles. It was cliché, but those are terms I understand. That didn’t change the fact that I still didn’t follow what she was getting at on the whole. “How does this relate?”

“In the way that unicorns are limited to grow their power, we have our own limitations. No alicorn was ever meant to control all of the magic. Thus, the divide between the magic of the sun and of the moon. Equestria has been out of balance for a thousand years due to the absence of lunar magic. Luna has just found the beginning of the path to restore it.”

“And as you said, she’s not ready… but not ready for what?” I asked.

In the princess’s right hoof, another ball of energy came to life. It was as black as the night sky and shifted chaotically. Flecks of purple streaked through the swirling energy, and deep within my spirit, I knew to fear it.

“There is another magic, Silent Knight. The opposite of ours. Chaotic, unharmonious, and corrupting. It is powerful, destructive, and—most frightening of all—willful. It sought out my sister and turned her from the light.”

My eyes widened. “When she became Nightmare Moon?”

The princess nodded. “Yes. Even with the Elements of Harmony, I was barely a match for her. All I could do was banish her until a time when I could find others to wield the Elements.”

“But you did and they defeated her,” I put in.

“No, I’m afraid that isn’t the case. They saved Luna, yes, but the magic of disharmony is still out there. The Nightmare is simply waiting to make its next move, and the ponies that hold the Elements, while wonderful, are not alicorns.”

It clicked in my mind. “They’re not big enough.”

Both balls of energy vanished and Princess Celestia nodded. “They are not. That is why it is so important for Luna to learn all she can. She must grow and become as strong as possible. She is still sensitive to the fact that she fell once. I do not want that failure weighing upon her that she will have to face those very forces again.

“Your investigation ends here, Silent Knight. You know enough to do great harm. You may use the knowledge as you will, however.”

My mind raced through what I had just learned and ended up unsatisfied. “You’ve left parts out. Who killed the other alicorns? Why haven’t you made more?”

Princess Celestia shook her head. “You know enough for now. We have an agreement, and you do not need any more weight upon your shoulders.”

I thought to argue that point with her, but she was right: we had an agreement. Celestia had told me what I needed to know to protect the princess. I had to make certain she was strong, that she learned and grew. That was something I could do.

Finally, I nodded. “I can accept that for now.”

“You may have to lie to Luna,” she said softly.

Without even a conscious thought, I shook my head. “I can’t do that. If she asks me directly, I’ll tell her the truth. I can accept keeping this from her temporarily for the greater good, but I will not lie to her.”

The princess smiled at me and nodded. “I suspected as much and am pleased that my sister has a protector with such character. I just wanted to be certain. Good day, Silent Knight.”

I stood and then bowed respectfully. “Good day, Princess.”

19. Hearts and Hooves

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Sunny Day burst into my office without knocking. With her floral blouse and well-rested expression, she looked as if she’d just wandered off the beach. “Hellooo, I’m home!”

Azurite, or a pony I presumed was Azurite, was following behind her. She wore a huge floppy white hat that pretty much covered her completely. All I could see were blue hooves under the brim.

“Welcome back, did you two have fun?” I asked as I rested my chin on my hooves, anticipation of my own news already bubbling up.

Sunny nodded. “We did! It was amazing, Silent Knight. For a moment, I almost thought about retiring. I couldn’t do that to Princess Celestia, though. She needs a House Guard commander that is more fun than you.”

I raised my brow. “Don’t you mean, ‘thank you Silent Knight, you’re so wonderful for covering for me for weeks while I ran around in the sun with Azurite’?”

“Oh, don’t be a grump. You should take a vacation, too. It will do you some good.” Sunny tossed her mane and grinned. “So, what did I miss?”

It was time now! I could give her back as good as she’d given me. “It’s funny that you mention that. I happen to have reservations for a trip to the Crystal Empire right here on my desk. That can wait, though.

“I have a very important question to ask you. Lieutenant Sunny Day, have you ever thought about being commander of the palace guard?”

The unicorn’s head tilted and she replied, “No, why?”

I wiggled my hooves in the same way she had before she’d left. “Ta-dah! You’re now in command of the entire palace guard!”

“What!” she squeaked.

“Why don’t you and your walking hat sit down so I can explain it to you,” I replied, gleefully motioning to the stools in front of my desk.

The mares did so and I regaled them with the tale of my ascension to commander of the whole palace. No detail was spared as I joyously listed all of the sick, missing, and training ponies, and then explained how Sunny—because she had seniority—was in command now.

From under her hat, Azurite said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have come back.”

“It’s too late now,” I replied before getting up and collecting my things.

Sunny was staring at me with big eyes. She didn’t speak until I reached the door. “Wait! Where are you going?”

“Home. I’m only in charge of my section now, and my princess is in Haven. Enjoy your new command!” I said with a smile before trotting out of my office and the palace. There were more important things to focus on now.

I had executed steps six, seven, and eight of my Hearts and Hooves strategy and was prepared to face Crystal when the time came. Flowers, chocolates, and a gift had all been secured well in advance. I’d also made arrangements to go to one of Canterlot’s fancy spas to get extra clean.

Those preparations would be accented with a custom suit. That is what I considered my greatest force multiplier. Crystal wouldn’t even recognize me! She would be overwhelmed and defeated. In a good way.

Romance was easier for me when I treated it like a military operation. That is why I’d brought in an expert to give me appropriate intelligence. Winterspear was a mare’s mare. She knew mares because she was one and she loved one. What pony could offer better advice? What pony was more obligated than my sister?

When I was near my quarters I stopped at the lamppost outside my building. There was an X on it so I wiped it off and headed up. I’d swing by Runic’s tomorrow for the latest report. Everything was in order. At least, it felt that way until I walked through the door and saw my mare expert.

“Welcome home,” Winterspear said to me from the kitchen. Her mane was short. Extremely short, bordering on nonexistent.

Dot was sitting on the couch, looking guilty.

“New hair cut?” I asked.

Winterspear shifted. “Something like that, yeah. Dot and I were working on baking cookies together. I was kind of teaching her and… well…”

Dot squeaked, “I caught her on fire.”

I blinked. Other than her mane, my sister looked fine. “Everypony looks alright,” I said.

Winterspear nodded. “Yes, we’re fine. It was an accident. Honestly, Dot, I’m not mad. You have to learn one way or another.”

“That’s right,” I said absently as I just noticed that one of the kitchen walls was now blackened. “Must have been quite a blaze.”

The filly’s ears drooped and Winterspear glared at me.

“And I bet you two handled it wonderfully.” I quickly added. “Don’t worry, Dot, you’ll get those cookies next time.”

“Do you think so?” she asked.

“I know so. Practice makes perfect.” I made a note to hire a contractor to repair the kitchen and headed off into my room to start removing my armor.

“How goes Hearts and Hooves planning?” Winterspear called.

“Great, I’m all set,” I replied, setting my helmet on the armor stand.

“You may want to look in the mirror, then. You’ve got some pretty obvious bruises. You need to relax a bit on that new training regimen or whatever you’re doing,” she yelled after me.

What was she talking about? I wandered over to the mirror to look and frowned at the sight. Winterspear was right. My right cheek showed purple under my white coat. There were also several more on my forelegs and chest.

“How do I get rid of bruises in two days?” I asked as I came back out into the living room.

Winterspear chuckled. “You don’t. You just take it easy for those days. Now, come on and sit down. Dot made a special dinner for you.”

Dot cheered, “I made blackened zucchini and squash!”

“Oh, how sweet,” I said, my even Royal Guard tone coming through as I sat down.

Dot had taken a great interest in cooking. Which was surprising, considering how bad she was at it, just like her older sister. Still, she was trying, and Winterspear and I had agreed we were going to be supportive.

My stomach, on the other hoof, was less than thrilled.

Weeks’ worth of preparation were about to pay off. It was Hearts and Hooves Day, and I was ready to shower Crystal Wishes in romance. I’d been coy when we’d discussed what we were going to do. I didn’t let on with anything.

The flowers should have already arrived. They were the vanguard. That would soften her up without the expectation of more. Now, it was time for the main romantic display. I was in my new suit, perfectly clean, and had my bag full of surprises. It was the perfect Hearts and Hooves ambush!

I landed outside of Crystal’s building and headed up to her unit. Once again, I straightened my tie, smoothed my shirt, pulled out the box of special Sunridge Sweets chocolates, and knocked on the door.

It opened almost immediately. “Hel—Oh!” Crystal said, her expression not one of thrilled surprise.

Very few plans survived first contact with the enemy. I did my best to keep my tone level. “Oh?”

Crystal gasped. “No! Not oh. I mean, oh! Oh, I’m so surprised! Honestly, really surprised. Won’t you come in?” She backed out of the way.

I did so and offered her the box of chocolates. “The first of many surprises, I hope. You received the flowers?”

The mare nodded. She didn’t say a word as her magic accepted the gift. She just seemed to be looking me over. It was probably the suit.

“And I made reservations at Le Bernardin for dinner,” I offered into the silence.

“Wow, I’m... honestly speechless. You did all this for today?”

I nodded. “Of course. This and more.” My pride started to deflate. “Is that not right?”

Crystal slipped closer and wrapped her hooves around me in a tight embrace. “Oh, no you did right. More than right. More than any mare would be expecting today. I just… well, you’ve been so busy. I made dinner for you. I thought we could spend a quiet evening together alone.”

My hooves looped around her in kind. “If you want to stay in, we’ll stay in. I don’t mind that at all.”

“Great!” she said before letting me go. “I’m just going to go finish dinner. Why don’t you and your nice suit have a seat?”

It had been the suit, I knew it. “Of course.”

Crystal hurried about her tasks, clearly in a state of shock. Iridescence had once told me that it is good to be spontaneous and surprise a mare. Mission accomplished today.

It wasn’t long before she had a beautiful meal on the table. Zucchini, noodles, broccoli, salads, and a few different breads all made up a buffet of my favorite things to eat.

“You really went all out,” I said as I helped myself, perhaps a little too eagerly. Non-blackened zucchini was even better than I remembered.

Crystal softly laughed and shook her head. “No, I made a bigger than normal dinner. You went all out, Silent Knight. I’m sorry that I forced you to change some of your plans.”

“There is no reason to apologize. This is perfectly lovely,” I replied as I continued to eat ravenously.

When I’d finally had my fill, I loosened my tie and settled back from the table. “Crystal, you don’t know how honest I’m being when I say that was the best meal I’ve had in a while.” Granted, compared to Dot’s cooking most things were but this had been exceptional.

She giggled. “Well, thank you, Mr. Knight, I’m glad you approve. And for dessert, we have chocolate covered berries. Of course, we can also eat the special chocolate you bought, if you prefer.”

“Those are special just for you. We’ll share what you made,” I said.

She nodded and levitated a small platter of sweets onto the table before slipping over and settling into my lap. My ears flicked and I looped a hoof around her.

“You really surprised me, Silent Knight,” she said softly.

“That was the goal,” I replied while she fed me a strawberry.

“I’ve never seen this side of you. I like it,” she practically purred. Now was the time for the final surprise. The grand romantic gesture that was the master stroke of my strategy!

I swallowed the berry and smiled at her. “Well, suffice to say it is only for you. Now, if you’ll be so kind and exercise that unicorn magic, there is an envelope in my bag for you.”

Crystal’s horn lit up as her magic flipped the bag open and pulled the pink envelope free. As it floated towards us, she asked, “There is more?”

“This is the last gift, I promise,” I said, trying to play it cool.

She pulled the envelope open, slipped the trifold card out, and read it out loud, “To my very special somepony. Celestia’s sun may be bright, but you are radiant. Luna’s moon may be silver, but you are shimmering.”

Crystal flipped the first flap over. “I wouldn’t trade you for the sun nor the moon. You mean more to me than both. Aww…” That last little bit she adlibbed. Her eyes drifted down to the part I’d hoofwritten. “Even in a world full of Crystals you’ll be the one that glimmers the most.”

Her head tilted and she flushed. “That is sweet. I guess there are a lot of ponies named Crystal.”

I smiled, shaking my head. “Open the last flap.”

She did so and blinked. Her magic illuminated the two tickets I’d affixed to the back of the card. “Silent Knight!” She gasped. “Are you serious?”

“Of course. Will you go with me?” I asked.

The mare threw her hooves around my neck and hugged me tight. “Yes! Of course! I can’t believe we’re going to Glimmer World! Just you and me!”

She pressed her cheek close to mine and I chuckled. “Yes, just you and me… mostly.”

“Mostly?” she asked with a skeptical tone, leaning back to meet my eyes.

“I sort of made plans to have lunch with Colonel Armor and Lady Cadence one day while we’re there. I mean, if you don’t want to visit the Crystal Palace that would be fine, too. We cou—” Her hoof landed on my mouth.

“No, no, no, that would be fine. I know how important Shining Armor is to you. I’m sure I can share you for one day. Although today is most certainly not going to be that day! You have been a very, very, very good stallion.”

That was when Crystal showed me some of the gifts she had prepared for me. They were all just between us, though. A stallion never tells on a lady, and I was taught by the best.

When I woke up the next morning, I found myself alone in the bed. Normally, I was the early pony. In the pre-dawn hours of the morning, there were few noises so the sounds coming from beyond the bedroom door were easy to make out. Somepony was cooking.

“Hello?” I called, poking my head out of the bedroom.

“Good morning,” Crystal replied cheerfully. “I’m making breakfast. Why don’t you come and have a seat? You should eat before you go to work.”

“No argument there,” I replied before settling into one of the chairs.

Crystal brought out an assortment of fruits and muffins. “I thought you’d have a healthy appetite this morning.”

I felt my face flush. “A bit, yeah. That smells good.”

She sat across from me and selected a muffin for herself. “So, just about two weeks and we’re off on our special vacation?”

My mouth was stuffed full of muffin, so I just nodded. I had to eat as much as I could while good food was an option. Knowing my luck, Dot would bring me a lunch.

“Mmm, I don’t know if I can be patient for two weeks. I’d like to leave now,” she said wistfully.

After swallowing, I replied, “Me too, but it will be worth the wait. The travel agent told me the weather will be far milder that time of year.”

“Oh good.” She smiled at me. “You thought of everything, didn’t you?”

“I tried, I really did. I wanted it to be as close to perfect as it could be.”

Crystal practically glowed. “I’m sure it will be great. Anyway, I wrapped up several of those muffins and put them in your bag. You can enjoy them at work.”

“Oh, I intend to,” I replied before getting up. “I really should go, though. We’re still short staffed.”

“Of course,” she replied, following suit and trailing along behind me. At the door, we exchanged a brief kiss. “Come back by tonight?”

“Yup. See you then.”

Lately, on the way out I’d said ‘Love you’ in my head when leaving. It was something I’d tentatively been trying out in my private, mental space. It seemed to work out there. At least when I thought it.

“What?” she asked and I stopped cold.

This time, it seemed like I’d said it aloud.

Nothing, I’d been told, can ruin a somewhat new relationship by blurting out the words ‘I love you’ too early. I had to recover. Plenty of words sound like love you. Right?

Stupid, honest mouth, however, had different ideas. “I love you,” it said out loud with more conviction.

Crystal Wishes stood quietly for a moment. “That’s what I thought you said.” She stroked a hoof softly along the door frame. “I love you, too,” she whispered.

I nodded and hurried off to the palace. My hooves barely touched the streets as my wings flapped, keeping me aloft.

She loved me, too. Crystal loved me! The knowledge sent my heart soaring while my mind raced. With everything going on in my life, she was the only constant goodness. My northern star.

This trip to the Crystal Empire suddenly became a whole lot more important to me. To us, even if she didn’t know it yet.

Sunny Day and I sat in her office, looking over the palace guard roster. The palace had one company comprised of six guard sections and one headquarters section. In theory, each section reported to a lieutenant, and they all reported to the company commander, or the company executive officer in his absence.

Currently, Major Aegis was suffering from an aggressive infection that seemed to be lingering. It was so bad that he was in the hospital. His executive officer, Captain Dancer, was out on paternity leave. His wife had given birth to triplets. That left only lieutenants around to run things.

Sunny groaned and put her head in her hooves. “Why can’t the section commanders handle scheduling their own coverage?”

“As best I can tell, they’re accustomed to Major Aegis being extremely hooves-on. So much so that they don’t have to coordinate between each other. They just guard their portion area and ignore the rest.”

She looked at me. “You mean, he micromanages and they never learned to do this stuff on their own.”

“Your words, not mine, Commander.”

“Quit calling me that!” she said with mock irritation.

“You’re the palace commander and I’m your XO. That is the situation and we’ll just have to deal with it. Why don’t we get the section commanders and NCOs in here and just train them? Major Aegis can have it his way when he gets back. Until then, we have our own problems.”

“Says the pony whose princess is in another city,” Sunny snarked.

“We could always put Azurite in charge of a section. That might be fun.”

“I don’t think Lieutenant Brook could spare her. Besides, I just got her relaxed. Don’t you go getting her all wound up again.”

With a light pat on her shoulder, I smiled at Sunny. “Then you’re it, Commander. Awaiting orders!”

She glared at me. “Get the section heads up here now. It is time they got an education.”

“Aye, ma’am!” I replied before heading towards the door. When I pulled it open, I found Major Measure on the other side, a hoof raised to knock. “Ma’am! Great to see you!”

She looked surprised. That was understandable. I was smiling. Probably a bit too much.

“Thank you, Silent Knight, that is awfully nice of you.” She glanced between us. “What are you two up to?”

Sunny grinned like a cat. “Please, Major, come on in, let me catch you up. Have you ever wanted to be in command of the whole palace?”

Major Measure smiled brightly at that. “Have I? Absolutely yes! Why do you ask?”

Sunny and I then explained the whole situation. With the major back, she was the seniormost officer and would be in command. Sunny would be her XO, and I would be free. Free!

“That is true, but I’m afraid your plan isn’t going to work out this time,” Major Measure replied while pulling out a scroll. “You see, I’ve actually been transferred, at my own request, to an assignment that is quite a bit more active. You two don’t need me, so I thought I’d try my lot somewhere else. I actually came here to invite you to my going away dinner.”

I looked over the papers while Sunny stared on in horror. “D… Dinner?” she finally managed to stammer.

The major nodded. “Yes, tonight, actually. The transfer is immediate. I’d been told some excellent officers have been taking care of everything here while I was gone. There is a vacancy that is in desperate need of being filled, so I took it.”

“Transfer? Immediate? Dinner? Tonight?” Sunny babbled.

“We’ll be there,” I said for her while offering Major Measure her orders.

“Great! See you then, and good luck running the palace. I know you’ll do wonderful, Sunny,” she said before trotting out.

“It isn’t fair,” Sunny howled.

“There, there, we’ll manage,” I said flatly.

“How does anypony get a transfer that quickly? Seriously! From a command as important as this?”

My brow arched. “You mean from the command where she does nothing and is little more than a figurehead? Now she’s going to run one of the largest supply depots in the west.”

“Yes! Supply? Supply! She is going to go run a supply depot out west? Instead of taking over the palace? Think of her resume,” Sunny went on, practically repeating me. I wasn’t sure she was really listening.

“There, there,” I repeated, patting Sunny on the helmet.

Her eyes narrowed at me. We glared at each other a while and then she started laughing. It was forced and fake. I knew her real laugh.

She ran a hoof over her face. “This is pretty funny, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it really is,” I said with no amusement.

“I miss Shining Armor,” she said.

“Me too, Sunny, me too. I’ll try and talk him into coming back.”

Slowly, she slumped back in her seat. “You do that. Well, then, I guess we have work to do. Since you’re relatively free, I want you to organize a big going-away gift for the major. Then I want you to spend some time each day with the palace lieutenants. Make sure that, if this turns into a long-term problem, they can actually do their job.”

I nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Anything else?”

“No. Not yet, anyway.”

I left her office and headed out to the courtyard. Before handling all of that business, I had some House Guard affairs to take care of. I’d sent Miley Hooves and her squad down to Haven six days back, which meant it was about time for the first squad to return.

I wasn’t certain exactly when they’d arrive, and it certainly didn’t make a lot of sense to just stand in the courtyard and wait, but I was nervous. Iridescence and Princess Luna had been gone three weeks. I’d had two couriers in that whole time and the details were sparse. I wanted to hear about the princess from my friend.

Fortunately, I only had to wait an hour or so before their chariot landed nearby. As the group of ponies unhitched and started unloading, I approached.

Iridescence caught sight of me and called, “Attention!”

Everypony dropped what they were doing and stood up straight. I waved a hoof. “Carry on. It looks like you all made it back in one piece.”

“Yes, sir. It really isn’t that bad of a ride,” Iridescence said.

“All due respect, Sergeant, that is because you weren’t pullin’,” Nova called. There were some light chuckles.

Iridescence shot the pegasus a mock glare. “Keep mouthing off and all you’ll be doing is pulling.”

I stood by, trying not to look like I was waiting for information about the princess. That was precisely what I was doing, but I didn’t want it to look that way.

“How were things here, sir?" Iridescence asked.

“For the most part, pretty well. Although, I want to warn you upfront: Dot accidentally set Winterspear’s mane on fire and it hasn’t grown back fully yet. She looks a bit rough.”

The unicorn’s eyes went big. “When you say set on fire…”

“Cookie-related accident. Totally mundane. It only took the workpony a day to repair the kitchen.”

Iridescence covered her face with a hoof. “How much do I owe you?”

I waved the question away. “Don’t worry about it. How is the princess?”

“She’s doing well. She’s pacing herself a bit more. Oh, she also wanted me to tell you that she will be attending the Summer Sun Festival in Ponyville. She’d like to see arrangements for that before she returns,” Iridescence reported.

That was good news. It meant the princess was sticking to her timeline. “Good, thank you.” I then raised my voice a bit. “And you’re all to take three days' liberty. Enjoy yourselves. Once you get back, I want you all off to advanced schools.”

That garnered several positive comments. Iridescence looked at me, her head tilted. “Are you okay?”

“Doing fine. You’re off to the advanced NCO course next week. It is going to be time to pin you soon.”

“If you say so,” she replied and then blinked. “You didn’t go to ANOC.”

I shook my head. “No, I didn’t, but you’re going to. Somepony around here should know how things are actually done.”

“I’m gone three weeks and you’re going to send me off to a four-week school after only three days of liberty and a couple days back? Do you not want me to see your sister?” she asked, her voice dropping to a whisper.

“Actually, ANOC is being held south of Baltimare. I hear the beaches are wonderful there this time of year. I also happen to know that Sergeant Winterspear will be attending the same class you’re going to be attending.”

Iridescence blinked at me. “That… sounds convenient. What about Dot?”

“Summer break at home for a bit. She’ll get back about when you do.”

The unicorn mare lowered her voice even more. “Thank you… You must have invested quite a bit of time arranging this.”

“A little, but don’t think it will be all beaches and drinks. You two are going to work hard during the day. I expect to see both of you with a sunburst under your chevrons soon or you’ll have to answer to me. I’ll write you up and ground her.”

Iridescence smiled and replied, “Yes, sir.”

20. Vacation Pending

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My office felt hotter than usual. It was likely due to the fact that Steel Wings was all but literally fuming. We almost never met in my normal duty area, but when I’d left him a note about my leave, he’d stormed over.

“You’re going to run off to play hide the stallion?” Steel Wings groused.

“Yes, I am. I need a vacation and I’ve made a promise to my mare.”

He shook his head. “You need more training and practice. Yes, you’ve been doing better, but this… this feels superfluous.”

I shot him a look over the report I was reading. Our new dragon neighbors were causing a bit of a stir with their smoke. “I would call it having a healthy relationship. You know, I might want to get married one day.”

“After!” he replied, his voice full of gravel.

“Chief, we’ve got time,” I said with a sigh as I tossed the report down. “He hasn’t even figured out where he is going to try to hide yet. We’ve got ponies on it. Me being gone for a short vacation isn’t going to set me back. I’m as committed as you are, but I’ve had enough bloody noses and sprained muscles for now. When I return, we’ll pick it right back up.”

He snorted and glared at me. “And what am I supposed to do while you’re off playing Sir Chevalier?”

There was something ironic in being called by the name of a character that was loosely based on me. It really spoke volumes about the popularity of Crystal’s books to have references to her works enter the modern vocabulary. Especially by a pony like Steel Wings.

Swallowing a grin, I shrugged. “You’re going to fill in for me instructing Crimson and Tranquil. Guard techniques and physical fitness, though. No killing.”

His brow shot up. “What makes you think I’m going to do that?”

“You’re as noisy as a train when you move around, so they’re going to show you how to be slightly less so. A pony like you never had a need for stealth before. You were accustomed to being the most skilled warrior on the battlefield, but that won’t be enough for this operation. It will require a type of finesse that you lack.”

The older pegasus tilted his head, looking me over. “What do you mean? We’re just going to sneak in there and cut their throats?”

“I doubt we’d be that quiet, but yes, something like that. If you haven’t noticed, there are only two of us and, regardless of how much training you throw my way, we know that he’ll still probably have a group of soldiers with him. We’re not walking up to Alastair and challenging him to a fair fight. He ambushed me, so now I’m going to ambush him.”

Steel Wings opened his mouth, a hoof coming up to point at me. He blinked several times and the hoof came down. “You,” he started. Then nothing. “I,” he started again. He just shook his head. “I don’t like it. You’re thinking like a guard again: sneak in, subdue, and move on. But… we can discuss that later. Regardless of whose tactics we are going to use, we need more operators.”

I nodded at that. “I came to the same conclusion, so that is goal number two while I’m gone. You’ve got enough clout and clearance to peek into Guard and Army files. Grab a list of ponies that have the kind of skills we’re going to need and records that suggest they may be receptive to the idea. I’ll want to see them when I get back.”

The old stallion was silent for a while. He’d nodded, sure, but there was something else there. Finally, he spoke up. “This isn’t the kind of thing I normally do.”

“What is that? Avenge your nephews? I hope not.”

He rolled his eyes. “That isn’t what I mean. This business about bushwhacking him. In my day, you’d put on your armor, sharpen your blade, and march out to face the enemy. That is sort of how I imagined it. Him dying with my hooves around his throat.”

“I don’t think it’s going to work like that. Chances are we’re going to take care of him and nopony is ever going to hear about it. If they do, you and I will be stripped of our ranks and I’ll probably be thrown in prison. There isn’t any glory in this one, Chief. It is just something that has to be done.”

Steel Wings stared at me long and hard. For a moment I thought he was going to argue the point. After a while, he shook it off and snorted. “That doesn’t sound like subduing at all.”

No, it didn’t. I’d thought a lot about what he’d been saying. “We make the best effort to drop him off at the nearest Royal Guard outpost beaten and broken, but alive. I’ve not come around to your way of thinking, but I’m also not foolish enough to believe he won’t be fighting to the death. I have to accept that.”

“That’s the first smart thing you’ve said today,” he grumbled. “Fine. I’ll get the list and fill in for you.”

That was probably the best I’d get out of him. “Thank you, Chief. Now, we’d best get back to practice. There is still some time before I leave.”

We then went together down to the palace basement where there was a Royal Guard gym. It was one that I’d utilized a lot in my life and, to outsiders, it would just look like a House Guard commander receiving training from an armsmaster.

It was a bit suspicious, but it would be easy enough to explain. In my position, I had access to a lot more resources than most of my peers. What actually drew the most attention was Steel Wings’s general lack of safety procedures that royal guards followed.

That is why, when we were finished, I was hurt yet again. I limped my way back to my office, trying to make it look as if I wasn’t doing so. Steel had gotten a bit overzealous and I was pretty sure I’d sprained my right hind leg badly. Hopefully, it would heal in the couple of weeks I had left before heading off on my trip with Crystal.

When I reached the door, Nova was waiting outside. I unlocked my office and asked as I walked inside, “Aren’t you supposed to be at the hospital doing advanced training?”

“Yes, sir, but there was a paperwork mix up. I need you to sign—” Her eyes fell on my leg. It might be possible to hide a limp from regular ponies, but not from medics like her. “What happened, sir?”

“I was exercising and overdid it. It’s just a sprain. I’ll be fine.”

She shook her head and shut the door behind us. “I’m not so sure about that. Take your armor off.”

“Pardon?” I asked, looking at her with a stern glare.

“Take your armor off, sir.” Her tone was just as forceful.

“I don’t have time to—”

“It isn’t a request, sir. If you want to get all bent around protocol, let me remind you that you’re injured. That means that you’re now a patient and I’m still a medic. I can call a couple of palace guards to come take your armor off forcefully if that is what I have to do, but I’m not leaving until I look at that leg.”

I glared at her a moment and then asked, “Medics still have to keep this sort of thing confidential, right?”

“I have to report any injuries sustained on duty or that would inhibit your ability to perform your duty.”

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I wasn’t going to put her into a situation where she had to lie for me. Being an officer wasn’t going to get me out of this, either.

Slowly, as if biding time would help, I removed my armor. When I got my gambeson off, she inhaled sharply.

“Sir! What have you been doing?”

I was covered in bruises, cuts, and other minor injuries. I’d tended to them mostly myself. “As I said, I have been overdoing it a bit.”

Nova shook her head. “With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that is true. You’ve been fighting.”

“Sparring. I’ve been sparring, and that is a form of exercising,” I pointed out as she started pulling off my sloppy bandaging while making disapproving noises the whole time.

“Yeah, I remember the kind of sparring you do,” she said absently as she worked.

“Pardon?”

The mare shook her head. “This one needed stitches. It is probably going to scar. Don’t you remember our little sparring session? For a minute, I thought you were going to kill me.”

My head shook. “I wouldn’t ever do that. It was just muscle memory.”

“Of course. What is this all about? That looked like some Equestrian Army stuff. Stick out your leg.”

I settled back and did as she asked. Pain shot all the way up to my ears and I clenched my jaw. “I just want to be ready if I’m ever in a situation like the one before again,” I hissed between my teeth.

“Psychology isn’t my field,” she replied, looking over my leg and frowning. “I get you, though. But if you keep this up, you’re not going to make it to another situation. You’ve clearly been pushing it too hard and your partner is violating procedure. I won’t know without an x-ray, but this is more likely a stress fracture than a sprain. We’re going over to the hospital.”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” she replied.

“No.”

Nova glared at me. “Lieutenant, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. We go together as buddies, or I knock your block off and carry you over there. Either way, I take my duty seriously and you’re not going to tromp around here injured. If you like, I can fail to mention the fighting part. You can get stress fractures from any athletic activity. The rest of this is just superficial.”

I carefully got up and sighed. “Alright, doctor. You’re the boss. Leave the part out about the sparring. I don’t want some nosy royal guard doctor yelling at my partner because he is a bit too excitable.”

“Your partner sounds like bad news. If you agree to stop patching yourself up, I’ll keep my trap shut. You’re terrible at it, and if you’re going to keep ‘sparring,’ you need to be monitored.”

“It isn’t that bad. I can handle this,” I muttered.

“Your leg is broken and you look like you just got back from a battle. It IS that bad. I don’t know what you’re into, but if I think it is impacting your duty, I’m going to report it. So either you do it the safe way with me monitoring you, or you do it your way and answer to Command.”

My nose wrinkled at that notion but then I chuckled. “Command is Sunny Day at the moment.”

“Don’t be glib. This is serious. What’s it going to be, sir?”

I relented with a sigh. “Fine, you can monitor my training. Now let’s get over to the hospital and back. I’ve got a lot of real work to do.”

Nova nodded. “Lean on me and keep the weight off that leg. You’re not going to be able to do much with it for a while.”

When I moved to lean on her, pain shot through my body and I groaned, “You know what, I’m actually okay with that right now.”

Several small rocks swung on twine to rattle against the door frame when I walked into the Phial and Filly Alchemist Supply. I paused to stare at them. Most shopkeepers used a bell, but Runic was not most ponies.

The store was busy, as usual, so I gingerly walked towards the back with a limp. Nova had been right. I had a stress fracture, which meant a cast and no more exercising for weeks. Steel Wings had been livid, but he was high strung on a good day.

Runic was leaning on the counter and talking to a customer. As I approached, he smiled. “Hi Silent Knight.”

The customer standing across from him turned and smiled at me before her expression changed to one of concern. “Hello, Silent Knight… oh, what happened?”

“Val? You shop here, too?” I asked, recognizing Miley’s friend. I waved a hoof dismissively and added, “Just a stress fracture. Too much exercise.”

“Who doesn’t shop here?” Val replied with a smile. “I should go, though. There is a lot to do! I hope you feel better soon. See you later, Runic.”

“See you, sis!” Runic replied cheerfully as the unicorn mare left.

I settled up against the counter. “Sis? I thought Val was Miley’s friend?”

Runic nodded. “She is.”

“But she’s your sister?”

“Yes.”

“Which came first?” I asked curiously. That should be obvious, but when it came to Runic, you never knew.

The pegasus chuckled. “The sister bit. I introduced them and they hit it off. Say, I have a potion for that broken bone.”

“Well, I do enjoy gambling with my life," I said with a smile. "What are the side effects?”

Et tu, Silent Knight?” Runic frowned playfully. “It’s actually very safe. I started working on it after you came back from Nordanver all banged up. It wasn’t ready before your recovery, though. I had to do a lot of testing. Let’s just say, some of the rocks I tried to un-fracture exploded. Twice.”

I held up a hoof. “Now, when you say very safe. Are you talking there is still a chance my bones will explode twice? Or now it is just that they’ll explode once?”

“No explosions. It’s safe, I promise! It will cut your recovery time down a lot. Come on, where's your sense of adventure?” he asked before motioning to the back room.

With a fake, exaggerated sigh, I replied, “Alright, doctor, light me up. That isn’t why I’m here, though.”

We went into the backroom and Runic started sorting through the plethora of potions. Thankfully, it looked like Miley had labeled everything… three times. There was even a section called don’t use on Miley.

While he rummaged, he asked, “Oh yeah? What’s the occasion?”

What, indeed. Perhaps the most important thing I’d ever do. And the best.

I smiled. “I miss doing things together, so I had an idea that I thought you’d like.”

“You brought your Airship Armada stuff?” he asked absently before finally holding out a white potion. “Drink this!”

Once I accepted it, he went back to rattling around. "Of course I did, but that wasn't what I had in mind." I held my nose and drank the liquid. “Say… this tastes like milk.”

“Probably because it is milk. That is just good for your bones. I altered it slightly so you don’t have to keep it cool. Now, let’s see… oh, here we go!” He picked up another potion and brought it to me. “S.K. Mender!”

This one was also white, mostly. The top and bottom had settled out into a blue liquid, and the thicker white color was suspended between the two.

I eyed it suspiciously. “That looks odd.”

“Oh, well I made it for you, so it’s blue and white like you,” he explained. “Just shake it up really well and then drink it.”

“If this kills me, I just want to say that I think it is really nice that you made this with me in mind.” I shook the potion up and poured the whole thing down my throat as fast as possible. It tasted like milk with a hint of blueberries. “Milk again?”

Runic shook his head. “Purely coincidental. It isn’t for use on cows, trust me on that. I’m still paying off that lawsuit. So, what did you want to do?”

I stood there waiting for my bones to explode. Fortunately, I didn’t really feel anything, so I took that as a victory. “Do you remember back when you helped me make that bracelet for Iridescence?”

“I do!” He smiled. “That was pretty fun. I hadn’t done anything like that before.”

“Yeah, me, neither. I thought I’d do something like that for Crystal. You know, a special surprise for the trip.” I fixed him with a serious stare. “You can’t tell her or Miley, though.”

Runic nodded. “No sweat! I’m not one to ruin a surprise. I’d love to make something with you… but, uh…”

“Yes, we can still play Airship Armada,” I said.

“Great! Let’s get to it, then!”

Over a week had slipped by and, much to my surprise, I had not yet burst into flames or exploded. In fact, my leg was already starting to feel better. When Runic got it right, he got right. Although I felt bad for that cow.

I turned the corner towards Sunny Day’s office and was met with a surprised squeal followed by an undignified thump. Azurite had been turning from the opposite direction and I guess she hadn’t heard me coming. She’d gone face first into my breastplate and then fell over.

“Are you alright?” I asked, offering a hoof.

The unicorn’s small hooves found mine as she pulled herself up. “You move like a cat!”

“I’m wearing full armor and my leg is in a cast. Are you sure you weren’t day dreaming?” I asked, hiding a smile.

Her eyes got big. “What? No! Who daydreams in the palace? No! I was thinking about… about…” Azurite’s gaze darted about. “Warrant officer stuff! You wouldn’t understand.”

“I imagine not. Can I assume you came from Sunny’s office? Is she still there?”

“Yes, and yes. Are you going to be okay? Why is your leg in a cast?” Azurite asked, peering around me to look.

“I’ll be fine, it was just a training accident. Shouldn’t be too much longer before it is all mended.”

Her ears wiggled and she offered, “You have plenty of sick leave.”

“Thanks. I’ll be fine, though.” I slowly side stepped to get around her. “I need to…”

“Oh, right! Sorry, have a good day!”

As Azurite hurried off down the hall, I finally turned the corner. From behind me, there was another surprised squeal, the sound of armor meeting armor, and an emphatic, “I’m so sorry!” Poor Azurite.

“Knock, knock,” I said as I walked into Sunny’s office. “You were looking for me, boss?”

She looked up and glared. “I hate when you call me that.”

“I’m just respecting your authority as Palace Supreme Commander.”

“Please quit that. It’s bad enough I have every palace lieutenant kowtowing to me. I don’t need you doing it, too. We’re peers. I just happen to be running the place for a while.”

I held up a hoof. “Okay, okay. You did summon me, though.”

“I don’t summon!” Sunny squawked before settling back behind her desk. “Have you picked a new sergeant for your unit yet?”

“No, I was going to have Iridescence do that. Why?”

“As a favor, could you accept putting some of my ponies on the list? You don’t have to pick one. I just want them to at least be considered.”

Promoting outsiders into my House Guard wasn’t high on the list of things I wanted to do. Of course, Sunny’s guards would be some of the best. They’d probably also been waiting a long time. That was the nature of our units. They were high profile career endpoints.

Finally, I asked, “You’d owe me a favor?”

She nodded. “I would.”

“Alright, give me the list. I can’t promise she’ll pick one of them, though.”

“I know. I’m just asking that they be considered. You know how rare it is for a sergeant position to open up, and seeing as you’re letting a PCHG alumni go, why not consider taking on a new one?”

I waved my hoof. “Give me the list.”

“I’m just saying,” she said, offering me the paper with her orange magic. “Also, what’s with the leg?”

After accepting the sheet and looking it over, I shook my head. “Hurt myself training.”

“You shouldn’t do that,” she replied, deadpan but with a grin.

“You’re brilliant, Sunny, why didn’t I think of that! Training, but not hurting myself? What a concept.”

She pointed a hoof at me. “Don’t be snippy. I meant don’t train so hard. You can run and fly circles around almost every one of us. Ever since you got well, you’ve been one of those gym ponies. More weight! More weight! One more rep, bro! LEG DAY!”

I glared at her. “I don’t sound like that.”

“Nah, you don’t, but you do act like it. I’ve seen you down there pushing more weight than you should by yourself. Honestly, I’m amazed you haven’t been hurt sooner.”

“Fair enough. I’m just trying to be as fit as I can for the next time,” I said without really thinking about it.

Sunny’s ears stood up. “Next time? Silent Knight, there isn’t going to be a next time. They had one shot and they failed. We’ll never be caught flathoofed like that again.”

Never? How could she guarantee that? Alastair was still out there.

Through the rush of anger, I tried to pick my next words very carefully. “Sunny, we hope there isn’t, but we can’t know that. We thought there couldn’t even be a first time and yet here we are. I’ve got to be stronger and faster. Some of us can’t zap giant cockatrices with lances of heat.”

“Okay, good point, but… you know, moderation. Consider it an order.”

“What happened to being peers?”

Sunny winked. “I’m a mare and I can change my mind. Take it easy, Lieutenant. I can’t have my executive officer dying on me. Especially before he goes off on a big bring-your-mare sleepover vacation. You need to be fit for the evenings.”

I took a step towards the door. I still felt hot under the breastplate and needed to leave. “I do not have any way to respond to that, but I’m pretty sure the pony resources officers wouldn’t approve.”

“No? Nothing? No stallion bravado? If I’m going to approve your vacation form, I need something,” she pressed, oblivious to my threat. She knew I was bluffing. Azurite would take her side, anyway.

My brow arched. “Approve my form? Are you serious?”

She leaned over her desk and grinned at me. “Why yes, Azurite just brought it to me. You see, I can sign it… or I can just dump it in the trash here. You know, with you being the executive officer of the palace in a time of great strife, I might need all hooves here, so—yipe!”

The pillow I’d picked up from her couch narrowly missed her head as she ducked.

“That is assaulting a superior officer!” she barked.

I picked up another pillow, which took on an orange glow as she tried to pull it away from me. “And that is blackmailing a fellow officer!”

Both me and the pillow started to float towards the desk as I held onto it.

“It wouldn’t be if you’d just lighten up and share something!” Sunny retorted, grappling with me over the pillow.

“Tyrant!” I put a hoof against her forehead and trying to wrest the pillow free so that I could pummel her with it.

“Mutiny!”

Behind us, there was the subtle clearing of a throat. We both stopped and turned to the doorway. Iridescence and Storm Rider were standing there watching, amused looks on their faces.

“Are you two going to kiss or something and make us standing here worthwhile?” Iridescence asked.

I cleared my throat and let go of the pillow and took my hoof off Sunny’s head.

“Silent Knight was just helping me with my…”

“Helmet,” I said.

“My helmet, yes. What can I do for you two?” Sunny asked.

“Afternoon senior NCO meeting, ma’am. The one you scheduled?” Storm Rider put in.

Sunny shooed me off her desk. “When did it become afternoon?”

I got down and stood off to the side, wondering the same thing.

“We can come back if this is a bad time,” Iridescence said, obviously struggling to hold back laughter.

Sunny quickly signed my vacation form and taped it to my breastplate. “Take that down to Azurite, Lieutenant.”

“Aye, ma’am,” I replied before hurrying out the door.

21. Before We Go

View Online

“Very good, Silent Knight,” Tranquil Dusk said as I walked silently across a balance beam. With my leg in a cast, it was a lot harder than normal.

Being sneaky was not as easy as I hoped, but I was making good progress at it. The theories were sound enough: use your wings for balance, flap slowly to take the weight off your hooves, and try not to shift the wind too much. I’d also been shown several ways to fly with less wind resistance and sound.

Crimson Dawn looked over his shoulder at me before continuing to pummel the heavy bag with his forehooves. He was learning how to box. It was a little more aggressive than what we usually did, but there was no doubt it was good exercise, and it sated his desire for combat training.

“Thanks,” I said as I awkwardly turned around and walked back across the beam. A few more times up and down were in order today. Tomorrow, it might be tiphooving across rooftops.

“You seem to be healing well. Perhaps in the future, you and Steel Wings will be more careful?”

I sighed and shook my head. “You’ve been spying again.”

“Training,” she corrected cheerfully. “It would be easier if you’d just introduce us.”

“As a matter of fact, I will be. He is going to take over your training while I’m gone on vacation.”

The thumps against the heavy bag stopped and Crimson asked, “Really?”

“Yes, really.”

Tranquil tilted her head. “He is a soldier. Are you not concerned he’ll train us in things you do not wish us to know?”

“I’ve asked him not to, but at this point, both he and you are going to do what you want to do,” I replied with a grunt as my hind leg hit the beam. “Maybe that means I’m a failure as a guardian but, young or not, you two are smart enough to make up your mind. You also seem to know what you want even if I think it is a mistake. Ponies learn best by making their own mistakes.”

Crimson turned and made his way over. “So you’ll train us to fight like you fight, then?”

I shook my head. “No, I promised I wouldn’t, but I won’t stop you from learning from others. If you and Steel Wings come to an arrangement I’ll accept it. I should warn you, though, he is rough and I don’t agree with his methods.”

Tranquil hopped up onto the beam. “Did you promise you would not involve us with your mission against the gryphon?”

Always the clever one. I shook my head. “No, I did not.”

“Then I choose to help and fight at your side,” Tranquil said proudly.

“As do I,” Crimson put in.

“You’re making a mistake.” Bringing two young civilian ponies into a fight like this was a horrible idea.

The mare took two graceful steps towards me like a predator approaching her prey. “It is ours to make. You said that.”

“So it is, but my mistake to make is allowing you to follow me.” I motioned her off my beam so I could continue to practice. “If you two are committed, you better start working harder. If you think the level of fitness necessary for the Guard is going to cut it for what we have to do, you’d better think again.”

“Will it really be so different?” Crimson asked.

“Yes, yes it will. Facing a gryphon is not like facing a pony. They have sharp claws that can easily grasp and hold. Their beaks can exert enough pressure to snap bone. Most important of all, they can fly better than you or me.”

I hopped off the beam and started to approach the younger stallion as I continued, “This won’t be some fairy tale like those books you read. They’ll cut you up and tear out your eyes. They’ll break your bones and leave you bleeding.”

When I reached Crimson, I poked him hard in the chest with a hoof while looming over him. “When you meet these gryphons in battle, it’s likely that only one of the two of you is coming back alive. So yes, it really will be different. Get that in your mind and really think about it. I’m not going to bring you along to have you get in my way.”

The nox pony blinked as he stared up at me. He had no response, nor did his sister.

“Show up and meet with Steel Wings to keep up your normal training. If you make some other deal with him, that is your decision. If not, you can keep doing what you’re doing now. You’ll live a lot longer.”

I left the room with that lingering in both their minds… and mine. Even though I hoped that speech would frighten them off, I knew in my heart that it wouldn’t. They were going to follow me down this path into darkness no matter what I said.

And the worst part was that there was a voice in my head that told me I should be glad for it. Tranquil’s stealth was unrivaled and Crimson had raw potential to be more than a guard, but a soldier like me. Their youth would make them quicker and faster. They would be great assets.

I didn’t want to fail my promise to Moonlit Star, though. This was going to result in somepony getting hurt. I couldn’t imagine having to go to the matriarch and tell her that I’d let her grandfoals come to harm, or worse.

The decision was now in their hooves, and whichever direction they went, I had to believe that I tried.

“I can’t believe you arranged all of this,” Winterspear said as we walked to the train station.

“What you’re saying is that you don’t think I’m a capable enough officer to schedule two spots in a Royal Guard school?” I asked with a slight grin.

Iridescence bumped me. “That isn’t what she meant!”

“You don’t think I’m a thoughtful enough brother and friend to schedule it so you two could advance your careers and be together?” I asked, still grinning.

Winterspear groaned. “When did you become such a smart mouth? I liked you better when you didn’t talk.”

“Me, too,” Iridescence said.

My right wing flicked forwards to lightly rest over my heart. “I’m deeply hurt.”

With a snort, Winterspear said, “Oh, I’m so sure. Although, speaking of hurt, I don’t like the idea of leaving you while you’re injured.”

“Crystal and Runic are looking after me,” I replied.

Iridescence chuckled. “The Runic part is why she is worried.”

“I’m pretty sure if I was going to burst into flames or turn into a dragon, I’d have done so by now.”

Winterspear rolled her eyes and swatted at me. “Dragon may be an improvement.”

That was a point I couldn’t argue with. I could do a serious amount of good if I were a dragon.

“Seriously, though, thank you for this,” my sister continued. “Things have just been so crazy lately. First you, then Dad. Plus, and I should make it clear I’m not complaining, having Dot. Work, fire, and, you know.”

I nodded.

“What are you going to do while we’re gone?” Iridescence asked.

“I’m taking leave, you know that.”

Winterspear’s eyes flicked over at me. “She does know. So do I. We want to know what you’re going to do.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It isn’t that we think you’ll get into trouble… but I’m not sure I approve of your new friend. He seems rough,” Winterspear explained.

“Well, he is an armsmaster. You think he and I are going to spend my entire leave training?”

Iridescence put in, “I could see you doing that, yes.”

“Well, we’re not. You both know that I’m going to go see Shining Armor,” I groused.

“Oh yeah, do we? You’re going to the Crystal Empire for sure?” Winterspear asked, her ears wiggling happily. Evidently, that was what she wanted.

We are, yes.”

“Oh, I see,” Iridescence said with a throaty tone. She looked over knowingly at Winterspear. “He’s taking Crystal, so now they’re we.”

“Yes, we. You know, he doesn’t come home at night anymore,” Winterspear shot back.

“No, I didn’t know.” Iridescence smirked. “Well, how about that?”

“Still here,” I put in, feeling my face flush. “And that is none of your business. Neither of yours.”

“So you’re not taking Crystal?” Iridescence asked, knowing full well I was.

“Of course I am.”

Winterspear pointed a wing. “He said of course. Not yes.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Nothing,” they replied.

When we got to the train station, I said, “Gee, it’s a shame you have to go so soon. I’ll really miss you both. Bye bye!”

Winterspear laughed and looped me in a hug. “Don’t be cross. We mean well. It is nice to see young love.”

“As opposed to the dried-up, old-mare love you two share?” I countered.

“Ouch!” Iridescence frowned. “See if I bring you anything back.”

“You’d best bring me back a certificate of successful completion so I can promote you.”

Winterspear squeezed me tighter and shook her head. “No, no. No mixing work and home here. You were saying how old we were?”

“No, you were making light of my relationship.” I nuzzled her cheek and hugged her. “You started it.”

My sister let me go with a nod. “Fair enough. New love, then. Have fun, okay?”

“Yeah, you, too. Both of you.”

“Oh, we will!” Iridescence said pointedly before hugging me.

“Alright, go… but seriously, if you two don’t both pass, Silent Knight the Officer is going to kick your flanks all the way across the palace grounds and back.”

“Yes, sir, understood, sir!” Iridescence replied before heading off into the station with Winterspear.

It was a pleasure to be rid of the meddling mares, but I’d absolutely miss them. I loved them both and, even though they were both pests, they meant well. A pony could have a worse sister and friend.

I limped my way back across town until I got to the Hay Café. The host recognized me and sat me at my usual table. It wasn’t long before the server came over and recognition dawned on his face, too.

“Pardon me, sir. May I ask you a question?” the serverpony asked me. His nametag read Silber. It never failed: if I was at the Hay Café, he was the pony that ended up waiting on me. It was uncanny enough that I started to wonder if he was Maya.

“Sure, go ahead.”

Silber was a pegasus like me. He had a grey coat, a dark blue mane, and his cutie mark was a scimitar. It seemed out of place for a server. “You come here periodically. Always alone, but you seem to be waiting for somepony. Occasionally you mumble to yourself. I don’t get it. Is this some sort of royal guard thing?”

I chuckled softly and smiled. “It probably looks pretty odd right?”

“With no hint of disrespect… yes, it kind of does.”

I took my helmet off and set it on the table. “I’ll be honest with you. Most ponies can’t tell royal guards apart, but I have a stressful job at the palace. I’m a—”

“Princess Luna House Guard, yes. I know that armor. I know all of the armors, to be honest. It is kind of a hobby,” he interrupted.

“Right. I’m actually the commander of Princess Luna’s Guard. Ponies are coming to my office all day long for various things. So, every now and then, I just need a few minutes to myself. This restaurant isn’t near the palace, it isn’t a Royal Guard hangout, and I can just sit outside and mumble to myself. Do you understand?”

Silber nodded. “I do, actually. That is one of the reasons I work here. It gets busy sometimes, but it is still pretty private. I take it that is also why you don’t rush to eat and leave?”

I pointed a hoof at him and nodded. “Exactly.”

“Alright, well, I won’t encroach on your time, then. I’ll go get your usual put in with the kitchen.” He bowed his head and turned to walk off.

As soon as he was out of range, Maya’s voice hit my ear. “That was smooth. You’re getting pretty good at misleading ponies.”

I fought the urge to visibly frown. “I’m not sure I’m going to take that as a compliment. Once we’re done with this, I’m going to have to reevaluate my behavior.”

“Perhaps. On the other hoof, if you’d like a job, I could probably see to that, too. You’ve picked up a lot of valuable skills and your diligence is extremely admirable.”

“Thank you, but no. This is a one-time deal. Not that I don’t enjoy our little visits where I look like a crazy pony, it just isn’t the sort of life I want long term.” I shifted to rest my chin on my hoof. “Now, I assume there is big news since you wanted a meeting instead of a drop?”

“Yes, and you’ll like this. You may like it a lot. The Pony Express ran into a local carrier from Sudramoar. It seems he was looking for a lost package. Not just any lost package, mind you, but the same one we’re after. And he was carrying a coded message.”

“Coded? Was that a problem?”

“To be frank, gryphon codes are rubbish at best, childish at worst. We’ve had the ability to decipher them a while.”

That was interesting. “So what was it, then?”

“That is the best part. It was a location for a pick-up and a promise of safety from that kingdom’s postmaster general himself.”

My ears twitched. “He honestly addressed it himself?”

There was a pause. Too long of a pause. “We can’t say it was for sure, but it seemed earnest enough. It was heavily insinuated.”

“Alright, so what is next?” I asked.

Maya didn’t reply immediately so I waited patiently. As patiently as I could, at least.

Finally, my patience wore out. “What is next?”

“It gets a little complicated, Silent Knight.”

“Try me,” I replied.

“Don’t get too upset, but this information is a little dated. The Pony Express on the ground made some judgment calls based on a short timeline and limited opportunity. I didn’t bring this to you until I had the outcome.”

I took a soft breath and just sipped from my water.

“The Pony Express substituted the letter for a forgery, telling the package that the postmaster general was no longer willing to accept it back. With no right of return, the package was limited when it came to options.”

“Did it pay off?” I asked.

“It seems to have, yes. The deadline was missed. It was extremely risky for the Sudramoar postmaster to extend so far in into Nordanver to retrieve the package. It is unlikely he’ll try again, especially since he has no idea what happened with the package.”

Something crossed my mind. “How did you convince the carrier to deliver the fake letter?”

“We didn’t. We made a substitution,” she said coolly.

I frowned and idly tapped my water glass. “I take it the carrier didn’t make it back to the south?”

“He retired. Don’t go soft on me, Silent Knight. You could take a lesson from your armsmaster friend.”

Did everypony know about that? “He was just doing his duty.”

Maya made a sound of discontent. “Others have retired for less, and his boss wouldn’t think twice about you. Is this going to be a problem?”

I sat in silence for a moment and thought that over. Before, in one of the skirmishes, some of Alastair’s brigands had been killed. That hadn’t fazed me. They were murderers. This was different. He was just some poor courier sent from the king.

“Silent Knight, is this going to be a problem?” she repeated.

This was it. All the way in or lose my nerve.

I knew I couldn’t walk away. Alastair, or Garrard, or whoever he really was had to answer for what he’d done. The ends would justify the means. If the king was behind this, that made all of his agents enemy combatants.

“Get him on the ship,” I said, the darkness I felt clinging to my tone.

“It will be done. He is running out of options. We’ve got some assets that may provide some influence. I’m working on setting up a less-than-reputable sea captain to be in the area. One that transports goods to Equestria without asking questions.”

In the middle of Maya’s reply, I saw Silber walking towards me with my lunch. He set it down and said, “Here you are, sir.”

I tried not to look like a pony who had just accepted the death of an unwitting courier. “Thank you. It looks good.”

Once he was gone and out of earshot, I made a sound of acknowledgement.

“Anything else?” Maya asked.

“I’ll be traveling soon. A few days away from here. If you require my attention, can you get word to the Crystal Empire?”

“I can get word anywhere. Leave your travel plans at the drop. If I need you, I’ll be able to get you.”

“Alright,” I replied before settling in on my lunch.

The rest of the day went, more or less, about the same as any other. I got through my duty and put everything that happened recently behind me so I could enjoy a date with Crystal Wishes.

With Winterspear and Iridescence out of town, we had made plans to spend the night at my place. It would be easier on my morning commute, which meant I could sleep in a little. It also meant I wouldn’t have to face Velvet and her judgmental grin or embarrassing questions.

Unfortunately, there was a weight in my chest that made it hard to enjoy Crystal’s company. We ate dinner and were going to have a cuddle on the couch, but my mind was full of anxiety.

I excused myself to get some fresh air on the balcony. I could feel her worried eyes on me as I stepped outside, but once I saw the moon hanging in the night sky, I felt at ease.

The nox pony twins were old enough to understand consequences. I was more than old enough to do the same. I wanted Alastair to pay for his crimes, and that meant there would be casualties along the way.

I just hoped there would be more on their side than mine.

The balcony door slid open and Crystal asked in a tentative voice, “Sweetie?”

“Hmm?”

“Are you alright?”

I turned to face her. “Sure, why?”

She shrugged, avoiding my eyes. “You’ve been out here a while with… Well, sometimes you get this look. You had it a lot right after the… the… After you were hurt. Then it kind of stopped some. You’ve had it a lot lately.” She swallowed. “You had it just now.”

“A look?” I asked.

Crystal just nodded softly.

I looped a wing over her back and softly tugged her closer to me. “Yeah, I think about it a lot. About Lavender, Risky, and Starry. I’m happy with life, but sometimes I feel like there is a shadow over me. Business left unfinished.”

The mare nuzzled up against me. “I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

“Just be understanding. Mom once told me that when Stratus came home from Sudramoar, he was never the same. I never understood what she meant before. Now… I guess I do. I don’t want to turn out like him.”

“You won’t,” Crystal said emphatically. “You won’t, Silent Knight. You mustn't think that way. You’ve been through it and you’re still the same pony you were. You went there, it happened, and now you’re home. That is it.”

Softly, I replied, “If only it was.”

“What?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Nothing, I’m sorry. This is a pretty poor excuse for a date. Anyway, are you excited about the trip?”

Crystal stared at me a moment. She just shook her head and rubbed her cheek up against mine. “I won’t pretend like I understand, but I hope you know I’m here for you. As for this date, any date with you is fine. I am very excited, though. I want to get away for a bit and enjoy it. I can’t believe the package you put together.”

Package? What an interesting choice of words. I reassured myself that Crystal didn’t know anything. It was a coincidence. “I really wanted it to be special.”

“It will be. Now the hard part is just waiting. I’m counting the days, the hours, and the minutes until we step onto that train and leave for the beautiful Crystal Empire.”

My lips curled into a smile. “I hear they named it after you.”

She giggled. “I think it has been around longer than me.”

“Technically, no. It was out of reality for a while. You never know. They might have called it the Gem Empire before.”

“Well, you’re wrong, but the sentiment is lovely. Now, if you want, you can sit out here, stare at the moon and brood, or…”

“Or?” I asked.

She slipped out from under my wing, her side sliding along mine. “You’ll have to come inside to find out.” As she turned to head back inside, she swatted me softly with her tail.

Find out wh—Oh.

Brooding could wait. It could absolutely wait.

22. Final Preparations

View Online

To Col. Shining Armor, Crystal Empire Garrison, Commanding
From Lt. Silent Knight, Princess Luna’s House Guard, Commanding

Sir,

I am writing to confirm that Crystal Wishes and I will be visiting the Crystal Empire at the originally agreed upon date and time. Please extend my deepest gratitude to Lady Cadence for helping me secure the tickets to Glimmer World. Crystal was beside herself with excitement.

At your recommendation I made reservations at the Fluorite Ferrier Resort. There seems to be a lot to see and do there without the price tag of the hotels directly on site at Glimmer World. That is, of course, appreciated on a lieutenant's pay.

I also want to thank you for being so accommodating. I realize my letters have gotten less frequent but I’m certain you understand how busy command is. Command and life. I’m not sure when it happened exactly but I feel like I stopped being a young adult and became a full on one. That seems to creep up on you.

My father died recently. Not too recently actually but I didn’t want to write about it. I’m struggling with that loss. Stratus Knight was a tough pony to live with. As I grew up I realized that more and more. When I was a foal I could only see him as a hero. Now I have mixed feelings about it.

Stratus was terribly cruel to my sister. Nothing she did was ever good enough. He didn’t have any respect for mares as guards. He also used to beat both of us during training exercises to toughen us up. For some reason it never felt wrong to me. I just kept getting up and moving on. I wanted his approval. I can’t imagine doing the same to my own foals.

We didn’t speak for the last year of his life. I didn’t visit, I didn’t write. I just went about my own business. I had planned to take him to task at some point. At least I think I did. It is hard to know really. It is easy to talk about standing up to a bully once you’re far removed from them.

In any event, he is gone, I’ll never have the chance to stand up for my sister or even tell him that, despite all of it-the beatings, the ambushes, the harsh words, everything, I still love him. There are worse fathers, I guess. Celestia knows in a twisted way, he was right. I had no problem in the Guard Academy.

My apologies, sir. I didn’t mean for that to go on so long. I’ve struggled with speaking to anypony about this. I guess a letter is easier. I should move on.

I’m looking forwards to spending some time with Lady Cadence and yourself. Crystal, in particular, is delighted with the idea of spending some time in the palace and taking in everything the Crystal Empire has to offer. A vacation is exactly what I need right now.

I also want to thank you for allowing me to sit in on the various intelligence briefings. Ultimately, I butted heads too much with the officer in charge and was dismissed from the proceedings, but that is probably for the best.

See you soon.

Silent Knight

I carefully folded the letter two times and started to fit it into an envelope.

“Lieutenant? Are you alright?” The voice was Azurite’s. I looked up to find her standing in my door.

“Yes, why?”

She pointed a hoof at me. “It looks like you’ve got tears in your eyes.”

I shook my head and wiped my hoof across my face just in case. “You’re mistaken. What can I do for you, Warrant Officer?”

Her head tilted and she peered at me for a little while. “You know, I see this pony every month. Her name is Mindful Soul. She’s super helpful and what you talk about doesn’t go in your Guard record.”

That sounded like a therapist. I didn’t need a therapist. “Is that what you’re here for?”

She shook her head. “No, sir. I… uh… well, this is sort of awkward.”

My brow arched. “What is?”

“Sunny—I mean, Lieutenant Day sent you down with your vacation paperwork. I’m sure you remember. I looked at it. Which I’m allowed to do!” She squeaked. “To process it.”

“Yes?” I wasn’t sure where she was going with this, but her face had turned from blue to purple. A mix of her coat color and an embarrassed blush.

“You’re going to the Crystal Empire!” Azurite exclaimed.

“I am.”

“And Glimmer World!” she added.

“Yes, although that part wasn’t on my paperwork. It doesn’t get that specific. What are you getting at, Azurite?”

The small unicorn squirmed for a bit and then blurted out, “Glimmer earrings!”

“What?” I asked in confusion.

“My father is a jeweler, but he is a Canterlot jeweler and he doesn’t have the rights to everything, you know.” She started to approach my desk. When she got close, she stood up and set her forehooves on it. “Glimmer World has these things called glimmer earrings! They’re collectible. They’re only going to make so many sets every five years and this is the first set ever!”

I suppressed a chuckle. “You want me to get you earrings while I’m on vacation?”

“Yes, please! Two sets! I want to give a pair to Lieutenant Sunny Day as a gift,” she pleaded.

After taking a deep breath for dramatic effect, I leaned back in my chair and peered at her. “You want me to buy you, another mare, two pairs of earrings while I’m on vacation with my fillyfriend so that you can give a pair to your fillyfriend?”

Her eyes went wide. “Please, Lieutenant! Please! You can’t get them if you don’t go into the park and it is so expensive. You’ll already be there!”

“I suppose I can do that, but you’ll owe me a favor,” I said, mostly teasing.

“Yes, of course! Anything. Any favor!” she chirped and then gasped. “No, wait! Not anything. Most things.” Her eyes narrowed. “What do you want? It isn’t perverted, is it?”

My lips twitched, threatening to smile. I glared back at her. “I won’t know until I need the favor. Do we have a deal?”

She thrust out a hoof. “Deal. I want a pair that matches Sunny’s mane and the pair for her should match mine.”

I bumped my hoof to her tiny one. “Agreed.”

Azurite hopped back off my desk and flipped her bag open. A small pouch flew out, surrounded in her magic. When it landed on my desk, it practically shuddered under its own weight with a thump.

I stared at the pouch in open surprise. “How expensive are these earrings?”

“Very. They’re collectible!”

“Are you sure you trust me with all of these bits? I could just take them and run,” I teased.

She stuck her tongue out at me. “Nuh-uh. I’d go tell Sunny and she’d come after you.”

I scooped the pouch up and dropped it into my saddlebag. “I don’t think she could take me in a fight.”

Azurite happily pranced towards the door, mimicking Sunny. A tiny blue Sunny. “I’m going to go tell her that right now!”

I stood up and rounded my desk. “You best not.”

“I’m going to!” she chirped. Two more steps and she was at the door and out into the hall.

“Fine then, go tell her! Dismissed!” I called after her before turning back to my paperwork. It was unlikely she’d go tell Sunny, anyway. Not that I was afraid of her.

I settled in behind my desk and started to work through all of the tasks that I would be assigning to Iridescence and Orchid while I was gone on leave. There wouldn’t be that much for them to do, but I couldn’t leave them to their own devices. That would just be irresponsible as an officer.

Before I knew it, it was almost midday. That left me just enough time to do a quick round to check on my guards before a lunchtime excursion. Once I was in the courtyard, I flared my wings and leapt into the air to head to Runic’s.

Canterlot flew by under me as I crossed town. It always impressed me how a city so large could fit into an area so small. It was a miracle that ancient ponies could build anything like it. The city was truly a work of art.

As I landed outside the Phial and Filly Alchemist Supply, I was additionally impressed by how much Runic’s business thrived despite the plethora of lawsuits he’d settled. It didn’t matter what day or time I showed up, there were always several mares in the shop.

That made picking up my drops somewhat problematic, but I had gotten very good at pretending to be interested in the things on the back table. Unfortunately, Runic had recently moved mare hygiene products there… and I’m not talking about soaps.

After a brief perusal of things I didn’t understand and retrieving my latest document, I headed to the counter. Standing behind it was a pegasus who was too old to be a colt but too young to be a stallion named Rossby Waves. He had a little bit of a sour personality but Runic kept him employed, so I trusted my cousin’s judgment.

I tried to offer a polite smile. “Hey, Rossby, is Runic back there?”

The pegasus looked up with disinterest and replied, “Most likely. Assuming he wasn’t killed in the last explosion I heard.”

“You didn’t check?” I asked in surprise.

He stared at me over the rim of his glasses. “Sir, if I checked on him every time I heard something explode, break, or shatter, I’d never have any time to work the counter.”

“I’m not going to argue with that logic,” I replied before heading past him and into the workshop. “Runic, please tell me you’re not dead back here.”

“Not yet!” he called from across the room.

As I made my way towards him, I thought that over. “You make it sound like a challenge.”

“No, I was just kidding. The longer I’m alive, the more alchemy I can do.” He smiled brightly. “What brings you by today?”

Runic looked like he was in one piece, which was important. He was covered in some kind of soot, however, and so was the area of the workshop he was standing in. Of course, that was also typical. “I’m here for Crystal’s surprise. Remember, you were going to polish it up extra shiny?”

The pegasus blinked at me and then his ears stood up. “Oh, right! Yes, I polished it up so much you could see it from space. Let me get it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind in case I ever fly up there and look back down at her,” I said absently as I started to straighten up some of the area that had clearly been in the explosion.

“Don’t bother, I already tried to do that a few times. It gets too cold and the air thins. The last few times, I was lucky enough to crash land in the clouds after I passed out,” Runic said as he returned with a box that he opened to show the contents to me. “What do you think?”

“I’m going to just put that first bit aside for now. We really need to discuss that later.” I looked inside the box: a diamond set against white gold. My concern was washed away by warmth. “As far as this goes, however, I think it’s perfect. Hopefully she’ll like it, too.”

Runic shook his head. “I don’t think it so much matters what it is, only that you’re giving it to her and that you helped make it.”

I gingerly and carefully took the box from him. “You’ve been listening to Miley, I see.”

“I find life is easier when I do that, yeah. Mares aren’t as into Airship Armada and science as I am. So I figure to keep her happy, the least I can do is pay attention.”

That brought a smile to my face. “Glad it’s working out. Don’t break the heart of one of my sergeants. I wouldn’t want to be on a guard’s bad side.”

“Me either. I think having my name known by every judge is bad enough.” He waved a hoof. “So, you’re leaving soon, then?”

“We’ll be on the first train in the morning. Just me and her off to the Crystal Empire.”

Runic nodded and we stood there in silence looking at each other. Finally, I filled the void. “So, what can I do for you for helping me with this?”

He waved a hoof. “You know I don’t work that way.”

“I do, but that doesn’t mean I can’t return a favor. How about dinner on me when we get back?”

“That seems reasonable. Something fun though… and just stallions.”

I nodded as we bumped hooves. “Agreed. Alright, I should get packing. I have a few more errands to run, too. See you soon. Try not to blow yourself up at least until I get back.”

Runic chuckled. “Well, I frequently try not to blow myself up but I’ll mark this as a special occasion to be extra careful.”

“I do appreciate it. Nopony else can pilot tiny airships like you do, and I’d hate to have to find another opponent.”

He grinned. “Me too. Speaking of which, I’m learning to pilot real airships now.”

“Pardon?” I asked.

“Pilot airships! You know, the real ones. Those huge ones made by Jet Ventures and Eminence Enterprizes.”

My ears flicked. “Really? Is that safe?”

Runic blinked. “Of course! There is an instructor, and you start off on smaller vessels. Just think, one day I’ll be able to take us all out for a ride.”

I was suddenly overwhelmed by a new appreciation for my ability to fly should that ride take a turn for the worst. “That sounds like it will be… exciting.”

“You bet!”

My brow furrowed and I asked, “Hey, wait… Did you say Eminence Enterprizes?”

“Yeah, why?”

I almost explained that Eminence Enterprizes was owned by Iridescence’s father. But that was her personal life, so I shook my head. “No reason. I just didn’t realize they made airships.”

“They make everything, I think. Speaking of which! If you’re interested, they’ve just created a new line. It’s the largest and sturdiest yet. They’re going to be entitling the flagship of that series in a few weeks.” He beamed with excitement. “Would you like to go see it?”

As if I could say no to that face. “I’ve never seen an airship entitling. Yeah, if I can get away, I think I’d like that. What are they naming her?”

“The T.M.S. Harmony.

“Fitting. T.M.S.?”

Runic nodded. “All ships have been re-designated from Her Majesty's ship to Their Majesties’ Ship. You know, so it honors Princess Luna, too.”

That made me smile. “I’m sure she’ll like that. Alright, count me in. I should go, though. There are still a few more things to get done today.”

He nodded. “Have fun out there.”

“Will do. Thanks again, Runic. You know, for this…” I lifted the box. “And for being around when I need you for things like this.”

“That’s what family does, isn’t it?”

I gave him a hoofbump and nodded. “We do in this family. See you later.”

Unfortunately, when I got back to my office, my plans to be productive were waylaid by a note on my desk. I frowned down at the curt instructions to see Sunny at my earliest possible convenience. That little rat Azurite must have ratted me out. The rat!

Out of spite, I took the longest route possible to the opposite wing of the palace, saw myself into Sunny’s office without asking, and hopped up onto her couch while she stared at me.

“Yes?” I asked once I was sufficiently comfortable.

“Just yes?” She raised her brow. “What happened to ‘yes, Commander’?”

“You said you didn’t like it.” I feigned a yawn. “So, what’s up?”

She started waving a sheet of paper at me. “I have a leave form here. Are you sure this vacation is approved?”

“Absolutely positive, ma’am.”

“And I signed it?” she asked, staring at the form with disdain.

I nodded. “You did, and pinned it to my armor. Right after you tried to blackmail me.”

The mare looked at me sidewise. “I seem to remember there being an assault in there, too.”

“Either way, you signed the form and I’m leaving tomorrow. Are you going to be alright?”

Sunny snorted. “You ran both House Guards and the palace alone. Now your guards are gone, so the task should be smaller. Are you suggesting I can’t handle the heat?”

My head shook. “Not at all. I’m politely asking before walking out of here and not thinking about work for a few days. Granted, I won’t be gone as long as you were, but I’m warming to the idea that I might not come back.”

“Sure, sure. You’ll be back. You love it here. Besides, I’m not sure you could stand to be away from Princess Luna too much longer,” Sunny said smugly.

“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, sitting up.

“You two are co-dependent! She’s your work wife.”

The princess couldn’t be my work wife! We didn’t work together, I worked for her. She was my boss. “You’re my work wife!”

Sunny shook her head. “No, no, no, Azurite is my work wife.”

That wasn’t right either. “I’m pretty sure your fillyfriend can’t be your work wife. I think that goes against the rules of work wife.”

“How do you even know about work wives?”

“Crystal leaves all these magazines around. I swear she buys more of them than anypony else I know. They have really incendiary titles on the cover to draw you in, and then it is mostly mindless drivel that is usually inaccurate.”

The unicorn smirked. “And yet you keep reading them.”

I cleared my throat and shifted. “Okay, you have me there. How come you’re not my work wife?”

“Really?”

“Yes really,” I asked as, for some reason, I felt a bit of hurt.

She threw her hooves up. “I don’t know! We don’t really spend much time together. We don’t work on the same things. You’re one island and I’m the other. Especially since, until recently, all the communication pretty much went up to Russet and then back down.”

That was a logical point. At least not a personal one. “I guess that’s fair. This probably is the most we’ve interacted lately, at least since my Guard got its own officer.”

Sunny smiled and said, “You were more fun as a sergeant.”

“That’s because I just did everything you said and called you ma’am.”

“Exactly, let’s go back to that!”

“Yes, ma’am! I will now do exactly what you told me to do and go on vacation. With your leave, of course.”

“You’re going to leave regardless of what I say, right?”

I nodded. “The tickets are non-refundable.”

“Of course. How convenient. Dismissed.”

Once I’d gotten off of her couch, I headed for the door. “Thank you, ma’am. If you need anything, Lieutenant Brook is a solid officer. Don’t let that pony resources badge fool you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Have fun on your vacation. When you get back, I’m going to have a ton of things for you to do.”

“So noted!” I replied before marching out of her office in good form. With an exaggerated stride, I stomped down her hall until I was far enough away that she probably wouldn’t hear it anymore.

Every guard I passed looked confused, but it was worth it for the joke. When I reached the central area of the palace, I caught sight of Steel Wings heading the opposite direction. He must have been looking for me.

“Chief,” I called, hurrying down the hall to catch up with him.

Steel Wings paused and looked back at me. “Yes, sir? Aren’t you supposed to be leaving for your vacation? I assumed you were already gone,” he said with a disapproving tone.

I ignored it and pushed on. “Yes, tomorrow morning. I have one more task for you.”

His brow arched. “And that would be what, sir?”

“We need to move our training to someplace less obvious,” I replied in a hushed whisper. “Find something close to the city where we won’t be bothered. Too many guards are getting curious and watching our sparing sessions. It’s becoming harder to explain.”

The old pegasus smiled. “Yes, sir. I think that’s a wise idea. Leave it with me.”

My parents’ house looked different than usual. It was mostly the same, just far larger than I remembered. And I don’t mean more rooms. The living room was just bigger. The furniture was scaled up, too. Either that or I’d gotten smaller, which seemed unlikely.

“Hello? Mom? Dad?” I called.

Dad didn’t usually like me yelling in the house, but it was so quiet. I wasn’t sure what else to do.

“Hello!” I yelled louder. “Is anypony here?”

I tried to open the front door so I could leave, but it held fast. I dug my back hooves in, wrapped my forehooves around the handle, and tugged. Still it wouldn’t budge.

The kitchen door creaked behind me and I turned. Somepony was home after all.

“They are not here, Silent Knight,” came the soft voice of Princess Luna. “At least not this time.”

“This time? What do you mean?”

The princess walked over to me and settled down onto the floor. She was huge. Bigger than ever. “Is this not familiar to you? Do you not have this nightmare on occasion?”

“Nightmare? What are you talking ab—”

Then it hit me. She was right: this was familiar. I was a foal again, and loud. Usually it was my father who came through the kitchen door.

I looked myself over and confirmed that nothing was bigger, I was just a foal. At least this time I was in my armor. Tiny armor for a tiny foal. “Yes, Princess. I understand now.”

“You look cute like this. I thought if you had your armor, you wouldn’t be as frightened,” she said softly.

I just nodded. “The next part will go easier if there is armor.”

She shook her head. “There will be no next part. At least, not tonight. You asked on our last trip to Haven how Celestia knew I was safe. This is how.”

Dreams are a weird thing. At any rate, this was a marked improvement. I settled next to the princess to keep watch over her. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d done so in my sleep, nor would it be my last.

Her lips curled up and she softly laughed. “Silent Knight, this is a dream, but I am as real as when we meet face to face. I’ve come to speak to you.”

“Speak to me? I’m just imagining you.”

“This is not so. I am an alicorn of the night. I have the ability to delve into the dreams of ponies. Tonight, I’ve come to visit you so that we may talk.”

I held a hoof up. “Wait, you’re saying you can just hop into a pony’s dream?”

She nodded.

“And you put me in my armor and made certain my father didn’t come in here?”

She nodded.

“Princess… that, if true, seems like a fairly large invasion of privacy.”

Princess Luna nodded. “And so it is, which is why I do not do so lightly. It’s still a new spell to me and I use it sparingly. Mostly to speak with Celestia. Sometimes to do good. I can sense nightmares. For some reason, I seem attuned to them. You were having one tonight, so I stopped it.”

I shifted uncomfortably. “Do you see all dreams or do you have to actively go looking?”

“I sense, I do not see. To see I must actively look as I’m doing now. I revealed myself so that you would know and we could talk. It had not occurred to me that you might have many questions regarding this.”

She softly set a hoof on my back. “I have not seen anything inappropriate from you, nor have I looked… much. I will be honest, however; I have kept watch over your nightmares and chased them away. I knew, of all ponies, you would forgive me for practicing these skills with you.”

That was both somewhat mortifying and also sweet. I looked up at her and then asked, “Wait, if you can change things, why am I still a foal?”

Princess Luna grinned happily. “You’re adorable like this. Why would I change anything more than necessary to end the nightmare?”

“I see,” I replied flatly. “You wanted to speak to me? Is everything alright? Do I need to come down there?”

She shook her head. “No, you don’t. All is well. Miley is an effective leader. Although, her clumsiness seems to have returned with her physical separation from Runic Phial. That is not something even my new knowledge can explain.”

I smiled at that and Princess Luna just shrugged. She pushed on, “She is who she is. With that said, I need a small favor.”

“Of course, Princess, anything.”

“I received word from Lady Cadence that you will be visiting her and Shining Armor soon. Is this true?”

I nodded. “I’ll be leaving tomorrow for that very purpose. Why?”

“I would very much like it if my guard commander brought me a souvenir back.”

My head tilted and I looked up at her. “A souvenir? Really?”

“Yes. I don’t want it to seem like I’m using my royal favor inappropriately. Thus, I’m asking you.”

Slowly, I sighed. “Alright. Let me guess, you want a pair of glimmer earrings?”

Princess Luna gasped and stiffened. “How did you know!”

“What! You’re serious? You’re not trying to save Equestria from impending doom, or providing prophetic knowledge? You’re using massively powerful night alicorn magic to ask for earrings?”

She huffed. “Well, yes, it sounds silly when you put it that way. I also wanted to say hello and to see how you were doing. Is that not enough?”

I rose to my full height—which was virtually nothing—stood on my hind hooves, and set my front ones against her chest. I gave the best glare I could and asked, “What color would you like, Princess?”

She looped her hooves around me, easily picked me up, and hugged me to her. “Blue, of course! In silver settings.”

As I dangled in her hooves, I replied, “I’ll do my best. Now, just so I know this isn’t a crazy dream, I’m going to ask you a question and, when we see each other next, you’ll answer it. Agreed?”

She nodded. “That seems fair.”

“Were you once a unicorn?”

Her eyes went wide. “I’m not sure jewelry is worthy of such a question!”

I wiggled in her hooves. “We agreed!”

The princess pulled me close and nestled me against her chest in a warm cuddle. “Alright, I suppose that is fair, but only because I would not go back on my word to a foal.”

“I’m not a foal!”

“Tonight, you are.”

I wiggled more in her grasp. “I think you’re taking advantage of this situation.”

Princess Luna laughed and nodded. “Most assuredly. Now, behave or I’ll not allow you sweets for dessert.”

23. All That Glimmers - Part 1

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“Crystal are you read—” Two suitcases and a hat box landed right in front of me and Velvet.

“Yes, yes I am!” she replied before hurrying into the bathroom.

Velvet looked at me and shrugged. “I’d invite you in, but that seems silly. She’s been running around like a crazy pony for two days. All out of sorts. I told her to take one bag. This was the best she could do.”

“I can hear you!” Crystal called through the doorway.

“Not trying to be subtle here!” Velvet yelled back.

I chuckled and looked down at Velvet. “Are you going to be okay with me taking her away for almost a week?”

The earth pony threw one of her hooves to her heart. “Alas, I shall wait on the widow’s walk, staring out into the ocean, and praying for the return of my beloved mare!”

My ear flicked. “So… that is a yes?”

Velvet poked me in the nose. “Yes, you big brute. I’ll be fine. I’ve got my little brother to entertain me. Plus, I have other friends.”

Crystal swept out of the bathroom in a hurry. “And she never introduces us.”

The mare was really moving this morning, evidently full of nervous energy. With her eyes on the bags and her magic lighting up to lift them, she hugged me tightly and said, “Don’t burn the place down. If you get lonely go visit Horsey.” She then let me go, kissed Velvet on the cheek and said, “Let’s go, honey. We’re late already!”

Velvet snorted and started laughing. “Careful, Crystal. He already thought we were together once.”

I looped a hoof around Crystal and started to guide her to the door. “It’s alright, Velvet. We can share her.”

After a bit of embarrassment, a dash through Canterlot, and a brief wait at the train station, we on our way to the Crystal Empire. Crystal was uncharacteristically quiet, but I assumed she was just tired for having to leave so early.

It probably didn’t help that I was also the kind of pony who was happy to sit in silence and watch the world go by the window. That didn’t seem like a great idea for the whole day, however, so just before noon, I looked up at her.

“Would you like to have lunch?” I asked.

Crystal was sitting in her seat, back straight, head up, and looking out the window. Her posture was perfect. She turned to me and tilted her head. “On the train? Isn’t the dining car expensive?”

I shrugged. “Not too bad, really. Especially when we’re on vacation.” I eyed her and asked, “Are you alright? You look upset.”

Her head quickly shook. “No! I’m not upset. I just… we’re going on a vacation. Together. Alone.”

“Yes, those are the facts. You know, we’ve been alone before.”

Crystal gave me a sly look before she giggled. “Yes, Silent Knight, I know. This is a vacation, though! This is a big step. Ponies in serious relationships go on vacations together.”

My ear flicked. “Aren’t we in a serious relationship?”

“One never knows. Now I know! You’re serious enough to take me on a vacation. Either that, or you had no idea how big of a deal this is.”

It was the latter, of course, but I was still under the impression that we were very serious. Things were going to be very awkward later on if we weren't. “Is that going to make it more difficult for you to have fun?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m just being silly. Come on, lunch will do me good.”

I stood and then motioned. “After you, madam.”

“Well, thank you,” she said teasingly before standing and heading towards the dining car.

When we arrived, it was quiet. This particular train boasted a fine dining experience for ponies traveling to the Crystal Empire. That meant subdued tones and other things of that nature. High society ponies hated loud noises.

I pulled out a chair for Crystal, which she accepted with a smile. A serving pony came over immediately as soon as my rump hit my own chair.

“Ah, Madam and Lieutenant Knight, welcome to the dining car. We’re thrilled to have you. May I start you off with a beverage?”

Crystal replied, “Tea please. The house brew will be fine.”

“Very good. And for the lieutenant?”

“Water…” I eyed him suspiciously. “How do you know who we are?”

“Sir, when you book the Luxury Express, we make it our business to at least know you well enough to address you appropriately. The Commander of Princess Luna’s Guard is certainly a pony of note.”

I blinked and replied, “I understand. Thank you.”

Once he was gone, Crystal started giggling. I was grateful for the quiet of the car, because I loved the sound of her laughter.

“A pony of note?” I asked with a raise of one brow.

“Oh, come on, you are! You’re a royal officer and you spend every day with the princesses. Surely you realize that is important.”

“That’s my job. Anypony can do it. That doesn’t make me noteworthy. Now you… if they knew who you were, that would be noteworthy.”

Crystal smiled sweetly. “Flattery, Lieutenant Knight? How wonderful.” She then giggled again.

“Please don’t call—” I stopped talking as the server returned.

He set our drinks down in front of us and asked, “Have we had a chance to view the menu? May I recommend the brunch portion? Our chef’s specialty is Prench Toast. He makes it with applesauce, honey, and vanilla extract. We then top it with a light berry compote.”

Crystal’s eyes lit up and she replied, “I’ll have that!”

“Make it two, thank you,” I said.

The server nodded. “Very good, madam. Lieutenant.”

As he headed off again, I muttered, “I wish he wouldn’t call me that.”

“Why?”

“We’re on vacation. I left the silver bar back at the palace. For the next week, I’m just Silent Knight: stallion about town and exceptional stallionfriend.”

Crystal started to giggle. “And so modest, too!”

That gave me cause to grin. “Madam disagrees?”

“Madam most certainly does not. So, when we get to the Crystal Empire, what are we going to do first?”

“I thought we’d check into the resort, take advantage of some of the great amenities, and get really well rested. After all, tomorrow we’re going to be spending the day in Glimmer World.”

“I can’t wait!” She quietly clapped her hooves together. “I’ve heard about these special earrings they sell. They’re made from crystals you can only find in the Crystal Empire.”

Softly, I cleared my throat. “You don’t say. Funny you should mention that. I think first thing tomorrow, we should go and get you a pair.”

Her ears perked before she gave me a concerned look. “Really? Are you sure? I hear it can be a hassle. In fact, I read that sometimes ponies have to wait in line for up to two hours. Mares seem to be going crazy for them.”

“You don’t say,” I repeated, my enthusiasm wavering.

“Silent Knight? What’s up?”

I smiled at her. “So, funny story…”

The stories of the Crystal Empire’s beauty had not been an exaggeration. Not in the least.

The city was settled in the heart of a vibrant green valley. The winter had long since passed and spring was giving way to summer. Brilliant buildings made of hewn crystal rose to the heavens as far as the eye could see.

Canterlot had its charm and old-world style, but this was entirely different. I’d once heard Princess Celestia say that the Crystal Empire reflected the hearts of the ponies that lived there. If they were kind, loving, and hopeful, then all of Equestria would know.

Crystal and I stood on the train platform just staring at the splendor. Nothing had prepared us for this. Pictures simply did not do it justice.

“Lieutenant Knight?” came a voice from behind me.

It took effort to break my stare. I turned to find a Royal Guard sergeant looking at me. He was a pegasus, like me, with a blue mane tucked under his helmet and an orange coat. His armor was that of the local Palace Guard, made from a silvery metal so pure it almost looked like glass. A crystalline turquoise heart stood out on the breastplate.

He spoke again. “Sir, you are Lieutenant Knight, are you not?”

Much to my displeasure, I shifted from tourist to officer. “Yes, Sergeant. What can I do for you?”

The orange pony shook his head. “Nothing, sir. Lady Cadence sent us to pick you up and convey you to the resort.”

Crystal stepped close to me and asked, “Us?”

“Yes, ma’am, with Lady Cadence’s compliments,” he said, stepping aside and motioning to a chariot with two other guards hitched to it.

Crystal and I exchanged glances before I gave an accepting shrug. “Thank you, Sergeant. I’m sorry to pull you off normal duties to play host to tourists.”

“Not at all, sir. It's quiet here. The crystal ponies are the least rowdy bunch I’ve ever seen.”

I collected my saddlebag and our luggage before helping Crystal into the chariot. “I hope they stay that way for our visit."

“The weather ponies haven’t scheduled anything but blue skies and sunshine for two weeks,” he reported before looking at his peers. “Alright, fellas, let’s move.”

“This was awfully nice of Lady Cadence,” Crystal whispered to me as the chariot lurched forwards.

“Kind of embarrassing,” I whispered back.

As we were wheeled through town, several ponies stopped to look our way. “I feel like a princess,” Crystal replied, her tone still quiet.

That made me smile. “Good, I hope you feel that way all week.”

She nestled up against me and, for the rest of the ride, I tried to focus on her and not being the center of attention.

It wasn’t long before we pulled up to the Fluorite Ferrier Resort. It was a huge building shaped like an upside-down solitaire gemstone. The sun seemed to catch the point perfectly and shot light down the sides.

“Here we are, sir,” the sergeant said. “May we help you with your bags?”

Help with my bags? What kind of stallion did he take me for! I protectively set a hoof on them. “No!” I cleared my throat. “No, thank you, Sergeant. You’ve been kind enough. I can manage with the bags. Please give my deepest appreciation to Lady Cadence.”

He nodded. “Yes, sir. Have a wonderful stay.”

Once they’d pulled away, I loaded the bags on my back where they belonged. I was a big, strong stallion. I didn't need help with luggage. Proudly, I walked with Crystal into the lobby.

“Oh, wow!” she gasped, looking up.

My eyes followed her gaze and found that the building was largely hollow down the middle. It went all the way to the point and the sun did, in fact, radiate down and illuminate the whole area.

“This is amazing…” Crystal trailed.

“It really is. I’ve never seen anything like it,” I replied.

From off to the side, a warm, polite voice chimed in, “Our resort boasts the tallest lobby in the Crystal Empire.”

We turned and found a crystal earth pony looking our way from behind the front desk. She smiled at us and continued, “The peak is set in a way to catch the sun’s rays and focus them into usable, golden light. There are natural veins running throughout the entire resort so that every room gets at least one point of light from this peak. We want our guests to feel connected, warm, and welcome.”

She gave a playful wink. “Most of our guests from down south are struck by the beauty of our lobby.”

“I’m not surprised,” Crystal replied, looking around again.

I walked to the desk and produced the reservation from my bag. “Suite for Silent Knight.”

She took the paper and nodded. “Ah yes, I remember your correspondence. How did you hear about our resort?”

That gave me cause to shift uncomfortably. “A friend told me about it.”

“Oh, how lovely. Anypony I’d recognize so that I can thank them?”

Crystal had told me little white lies were okay, but I still wasn’t good at them. “You might? Shining Armor.”

The mare blinked and looked at me. “You mean Lady Cadence’s husband?”

“Yes?” I replied. “We served in the Guard together.”

“Really! Well, let me get you a special suite.”

I shook my head. “No, ma’am, thank you, but what I paid for is fine. We don’t want any special treatment.”

She looked at me in confusion. “But… you’re a friend of Lady Cadence’s husband.”

“I understand and I’ll be sure to tell him you were super nice and very accommodating. We’re modest ponies, though, and what we’ve paid for is more than enough for us.”

“Very well…” she trailed, turning the book in front of her around. “Sign here please.” Once I had done so, she gave me a key and a bright smile. “Enjoy your stay!”

“Thank you,” I replied before turning to Crystal and smiling at her. She led the way while I carried our bags up the stairs and to the door that promised relaxation on the other side. I slipped the key into the lock and then pushed it open.

Crystal squealed in delight as she trotted past me and into the suite. I followed after her.

“Modest ponies, huh?” Crystal asked me as we stood in the center of our palatial suite.

I’d booked the Single Diamond Suite for our vacation. The brochure had pictures, of course, but they had not quite prepared me for the scale of it. We had a bedroom, a large sitting room, a full bathroom, a half bathroom, a dining area, and a walk-in closet. It was a lot for just two ponies.

“Believe it or not, there were two sizes larger. This may have been overdoing it a bit, though.”

Crystal turned in a circle, still taking it all in. “I’m not complaining at all.” She stopped turning to look at me shyly. “Also, and I hope we’re far enough in our relationship where this won’t be inappropriate to ask, but can you afford all this?”

“I’m very good with my money. Remember, until recently I didn’t have to pay for any expenses. I lived in the barracks and ate in the chow hall. And, well…” I trailed and cleared my throat.

It was morbid but being in a coma meant income with no expenses. That wasn't something I wanted to rely on for money, though. It also wasn't an appropriate thing to say aloud.

“Obviously we can’t do this often, but I wanted it to be special,” I finished.

Crystal hugged me and nuzzled her cheek to mine. “Well, this is beyond special, Silent Knight! It is so above and beyond I can’t even begin to tell you.”

I chuckled and looped a hoof around her. “Well, sweetheart, it is all downhill from here.”

She laughed at that and hugged me tighter. “So, on the train, you promised amenities?”

“Oh, yes. There is a spa, a golf course, tennis, an indoor pool, a bar, and a restaurant. What would you like to do first?”

“After sitting on a train all morning, a massage would be nice. Plus, I imagine your leg is a bit stiff.”

She was right about that. The cast had come off in record time, thanks to Runic’s potion, no doubt. Plus it was just a stress fracture, not a full-on break.

“Massages it is,” I replied.

Crystal slept peacefully in the bed next to me. After her morning jitters, the train ride, the massages, and dinner she was worn out. We had a big day tomorrow. Glimmer World was unlikely to disappoint if the resort was any indication.

As quietly as I could I slipped out of the bed and into the living room. I grabbed my saddlebag, opened the balcony door, and hopped over the railing and spread my wings.

I caught an air current and flew high above the city. It was beautifully lit during the night. I compared my view to the map Ley Lines had given me. It wasn’t hard to spot the library since it was a massive building that wasn’t too far from the palace that dominated the center of the city.

Once inside I was impressed by the crystalline, two-story open layout. It was every bit as impressive as the rest of the city. The Haven library, of course, would be its only rival when it came to scale and beauty.

“May I help you, sir?” a crystal unicorn asked from where he sat behind a small desk.

I tapped the piece of parchment in my hoof. “I’ve got a list here. I’m interested in learning some history.”

He smiled and nodded. “History seems to be a popular subject with southern ponies. You know you’re not even the second to come for that reason?”

My brow arched. “No?”

“No. There was a young mare from the Canterlot University Library, several students from the Academy for Gifted Unicorns, and then a unicorn temple guard most recently.”

“A temple guard? From the local temple?”

He looked at me curiously. “Local temple? We don’t have one. At least I don’t think we do. This one was from the south, just like you. She… well, it is rude to speak ill words about somepony that is not present.”

I waved a hoof. “Blonde mane, blue eyes, kind of weird?”

He blinked. “Yes! Exactly. You know her?”

“We seem to share the same curiosity.”

“Please forgive me, then. I hope you don’t think poorly of me for agreeing she is weird.”

I shook my head. “Not at all. She’s weird, and she’ll be the first to say it.” I put my list away and then smiled. “Say, could you show me what she was looking at? We seem to be in a friendly competition and it looks like she is ahead of me.”

“Of course, sir! Right this way.”

My inquiry took me to the recent history section. Ley Lines had created an excellent briefing for me. She’d summarized a lot but had listed her sources in the hoofnotes. There were some things I wanted to expand on, but after my discussion with Princess Celestia I wasn’t about to send the librarian back. Plus, now I wanted to know what the Exemplar was up to.

The unicorn set the last book on the table and said, “This is all of it, save one.”

“Where is that one?”

“She checked it out for a project. Typically, we don’t do that but if a pony makes a deposit, we allow it. She had the bits and everything was in order.”

I smiled up at him and nodded. “Smart pony. I’ll have to see if she will share when I get home.”

“Indeed. If you need me, I’ll be up front.”

“Thank you,” I replied before turning to the books. I figured she’d remove one if there was something in it she didn’t want others to see. That couldn’t be helped, however. It was time to do a little research myself.

As I flipped through the first book on my list a twinge of guilt started to work its way into my mind. Guilt for leaving Crystal alone and guilt for investigating when I’d told Princess Celestia I’d drop it.

It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the princess. I had decided that I did. At the time I also had not intended to lie, nor was this trip about the library. It was just a bonus. It took effort but I pushed the guilt away. My reason for being here was sound.

I just needed to know more about what Princess Luna might face so that I’d be prepared. Yes, she needed to be stronger but so did I. Magical or not. Insanely powerful or not. Strong enough to kill four alicorns or not. When the time came and Princess Luna had to go into battle against whatever it was Princess Celestia knew was coming I was going to be at my princess’s side and I was going to be ready.

24. All That Glimmers - Part 2

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“This… this is overwhelming,” I said.

Crystal nodded, wide-eyed. “It's beautiful.”

We were standing just inside the gates of Glimmer World, marveling at the breathtaking scene in front of us. The crystal ponies had recently built a small town that was styled after how ponies had lived ‘down south’ fifty or so years ago from today. The buildings were quaint, immaculate, and made of crystals that were designed to look like Canterlot stone and marble.

A broad street spread out in front of us and ran right down the middle of the town to a central plaza, where a crystal copy of Canterlot Palace stood. This version was much smaller, of course, but when done up in the native crystal architecture, it was resplendent.

“Welcome and good morning!” a crystal earth pony said to us with a bright smile.

“Thank you,” I replied, still looking around.

“Is there anything I can do to make your day glimmer?” she asked.

My head shook. “Oh, no. Thank you. Although, could you point us towards the glimmer earrings?”

She eagerly nodded. “I can! You’re looking for Broad Street Crystal Arts. Right down that way.” She motioned with a hoof down the street. “Where all those ponies are standing in line.”

“Thank you,” I replied and looked at Crystal. “Shall we take care of that business first?”

Crystal didn’t look positive, but she nodded. “Yes. Then it won’t be on our minds.”

“Agreed. We’ll have plenty of time here in the park over the week.”

I offered my hoof and she took it with a smile. Together, we walked down to where the end of the line was. Most of the ponies in it looked extremely excited.

“At least it doesn’t look so bad. I’m sorry about this, Crystal.”

She nuzzled my cheek. “If your boss asks for glimmer earrings, you get her glimmer earrings. Especially when she's a princess.”

I only hoped she actually had. I still wasn’t entirely sure the dream was real. Still, it was better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.

An hour later, we finally reached the door to Broad Street Crystal Arts. I rolled my shoulders to loosen the muscles that were starting to stiffen. “Almost there.”

Crystal poked her head in the door and replied in a small voice, “I’m not so sure…”

I followed her gaze and suppressed a groan. The store was divided roughly in half. The left side was open and carried a lot of different items. The right side had a counter with three booths. A pony sat at each one, showing off the glimmer earrings to customers and letting them try them on.

Opposite those booths were a set of roped lines that snaked back and forth across the room. There were probably fifty ponies or more in front of us and none of them were moving very quickly.

Softly, I cleared my throat and said, “We’ve come this far…”

Crystal gave a noncommittal sound. She seemed content to look at the merchandise we happened to be near enough to see, but after half an hour I noticed she was starting to droop.

Now, my marefriend was a very sweet mare on any normal day. I wouldn't go so far as to say that she got cranky when tired… but she did. I just wouldn't say it aloud.

Of course, I didn't mind it, but normally I could distract her with cuddles until she took a nap and woke up back to her usual sweet self. So I did my best to wrap a wing around her as we took a small shuffle forwards. She nestled up against me and smiled for a while, but I knew it wouldn't last.

"Why don't you rest on my back?" I calmly suggested without making eye contact. I didn't want to make her go from cranky to irritated by looking at her.

"I'm fine," she said in that voice that told me she wasn't.

I just nodded and kept quiet. It only took another twenty minutes before she gave a small huff and buried her face against the side of my neck.

My wing tightened around her. "Offer still stands."

"You wouldn't mind?" she asked softly. "My hooves hurt…"

I shook my head. "Not at all. It would be just like standing guard. Except I'll be standing guard for my very own personal princess."

Crystal giggled and I gave my honest mouth a mental hoofbump. Maybe it wasn't always so stupid.

"Oh, you." With a little help, she climbed onto my back and settled in, her muzzle resting on my shoulder. "Thank you."

"Anything for you." Especially if it kept her from getting cranky on our special vacation.

Although it took longer than it did when we cuddled on the couch, soon she was snoring lightly. I didn't mind the sleeping or the snoring. I just settled into the familiar old position: eyes forwards, shoulders squared… at least, as squared as they could be with my special somepony using them as a pillow.

Time moved differently when I was like this. I was used to powering through hours upon hours in this mindset. Which turned out to be a blessing, because it took forever to make it to the front of the line.

“Crystal. Crystal, wake up, we’re next,” I said, looking back at her.

Crystal’s eyes blinked open and she yawned, “Hmm?” She then looked very confused.

“You fell asleep. We’re next, though,” I explained.

She giggled softly and slipped off. “Oh… wow. How long has it been?”

“Two hours,” I said.

She gasped and stared up at me with wide eyes. “Two hours! We’ve been in line two hours?”

I shook my head. “No, two hours since you fell asleep.”

Crystal squeaked, “What! We’ve been here all mor—”

I softly set my wing over her mouth and smiled at the Glimmer World employee waving us over. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, sir!” she chirped cheerfully. “Welcome to Broad Street Crystal Arts! Are you here for a pair of earrings for your beautiful friend?”

“My sweetheart,” I politely corrected and nodded. “Yes, for her, my employer, and two friends.”

The employee smiled and nodded. “Yes, sir. Just so you know, due to the limited supply, we’re only allowed to sell two pairs to any pony. However, I can sell you two pairs and—since your sweetheart was next in line—I can sell her two pairs, too. Is that okay?”

Crystal looked a little cross, but I quickly nodded. “Yes, please start with Crystal here.”

With a warm smile and a nod, the clerk pulled the black cloth that was sitting over the display case back. When she did, the light hit every pair of earrings, causing them to glimmer and shine.

Crystal softly gasped, her cross expression disappearing into wonder. “They’re amazing!”

“Yes, ma’am. Each stone has this year’s date, a unique number, and seal etched inside so that you can always know which ones are yours. What can I show you first?”

Whatever ill feelings Crystal may have had were now long gone. I sat patiently by as she tried on every pair and asked me how they looked each time. To me, everything looked great on her. Ultimately, she selected a dangly set that were white gold and had a glimmering, heart-shaped green crystal set inside what I’d call a kite shield.

After that, she picked out the pair for Princess Luna, Azurite, and Sunny Day. She suggested she might have a better idea on what they’d like than I would. I put up no defense there. One mare would know another.

When we were finally done, I paid more bits than I cared to admit. Azurite had thankfully given me enough to cover her two sets, but it was quite a gamble spending my own on Princess Luna’s. Lieutenants do not make enough for one set, and certainly not two. They were worth it, though. At least the one set.

“Oh, Silent Knight, they’re beautiful!” Crystal squealed as she looked at herself in a storefront window. She was a vision of youth and beauty. I couldn’t help but stare more at her than the earrings.

“They are something special for sure. They look great on you,” I replied while silently pushing the thought of how I was going to pay for this deep down.

After this vacation and these earrings, I was going to be broke. Would it be appropriate to ask Princess Luna for a reimbursement for her pair?

The mare peered at the window another moment before asking, “What would you like to do first?”

I checked my saddlebag for the second time and nodded when I found three pairs of earrings… and the special surprise I’d brought. Then I looked around. From the central area near the castle, Glimmer World broke off into seven different adventures. Each hit on a certain theme.

I pointed towards Fantasy World. “Why don’t we head that way? It looks a lot like our Oubliettes and Ogres game.”

Crystal looped her hooves around my foreleg. “You want to go pretend to be a knight?”

“Who’s pretending?” I asked with a wink before we headed off together.

Fantasy World was divided from the rest of the park by a small moat. We crossed a drawbridge and found ourselves transported back in time to early Equestria. All of the park employees were dressed in period gowns and armor.

Crystal started tugging my hoof. “Silent Knight, look! Look! Dragon Flight! Soar over Equestria like a dragon.” She pulled me towards the ride and read the sign, “Experience what it is like to fly. Silent Knight we could fly! Imagine what that…” She trailed and looked at my wings.

I looked back at her.

She frowned. “Don’t say it! We’re getting on this ride.”

I grinned and nodded, following after her to get in line.

“That was amazing!” Crystal cheered after we’d gotten off Dragon Flight. “Did you smell the oranges?”

“I did. It was like a tour of all of Equestria in a short period of time.”

She nodded and then asked, “How close to real flying is that?”

“Pretty close, more or less. I mean, for a ride, anyway. Look at how many rides there are just in this area! What do you want to do next?” I pointed out a standing map that was filled with interesting names.

Crystal peered at it. “So many choices! I mean, everything looks like fun. We could just start riding what’s nearby and work our way around, right?”

“That certainly seems logical. I’m worried that with this many ponies here, we might not be able to ride everything before we leave.”

“True… but it is just the first day. Let’s take it easy and see how it goes. How about we head over to the PonyPult?”

Take it easy. That was certainly easy for her to say. I was trying to make sure she had all of the fun she could. Everything else in my life was touched by darkness… but she was my light. She deserved nothing less than perfection.

“What is a PonyPult?” I asked, coming back to the conversation.

She bumped her flank to mine. “I guess we’ll just have to go and find out, huh?”

I chuckled and nodded. “Alright, off to the PonyPult we go!”

The PonyPult turned out to be a catapult-themed ride that ‘tossed’ ponies around, though we were safely strapped into a cart. It flung itself down tracks, took hard turns, looped, and generally gave the feeling of being thrown about through the air.

As we walked out, Crystal held onto my hoof as if it was the only thing keeping her upright. In a sense, it was. She stammered, “S-Silent Knight?”

“Yes?”

“I don’t ever want to do the PonyPult again,” she groaned.

“I’m okay with that,” I said with a chuckle. “Why don’t we find something a bit easier?”

She nodded quickly. “Yes, please.”

We walked together to where small boats were waiting in the Fantasy World moat. Crystal asked the attendant, “What is this ride?”

He smiled brightly, just like they all did, and replied, “This is one of our most famous rides! Our Petite Equestria. You’ll take a gentle ride down the river and stop in all of Equestria’s provinces.”

“That sounds perfect,” I said before offering a hoof to help Crystal into the boat.

“Agreed,” she replied, carefully getting in.

“Have fun!” the attendant called as the boat cast off into the moat. We sailed downstream before reaching a set of big wooden doors. When our boat approached, they opened and admitted us in while also letting out extremely happy music.

Crystal pointed. “Look at the little ponies! They’re so cute!”

On either side of the boat were tiny pony figures that danced and moved about. Our first stop was in Canterlot where a miniature palace dominated the scene.

It’s a world of laughter, a world of cheer, a world of wonder, and a world of fun.

Further down the stream, we reached Baltimare and then Phillydelphia. The little ponies there were going about their lives while singing slight variations of the exact same song. Over and over.

“Aw, look, Silent Knight! There is a little grumpy royal guard chasing some ponies.”

I snorted. “How do you know he’s grumpy? Maybe they’re criminals.”

She shook her head. “Nope! It is a world of wonder and a world of fun. At worst, they were up to shenanigans.”

Another pair of double doors loomed in front of us. When they opened, Crystal gasped and, to be honest, so did I.

Our boat was heading right down the center of a miniature Crystal Empire with a very large Crystal Palace bridged over us. It was all made of gemstones that sparkled in the lights.

It's a glimmer world after all! It's a glimmer world after all! It's a glimmer world after all! It's a glimmering glimmer world!

It's a world of crystals, a world of glass, it's a world of refraction, a world of class.

With the light gleaming bright, it's a fantastic sight! It's a glimmer world after all!

It's a glimmer world after all! It's a glimmer world after all! It's a glimmer world after all! It's a glimmering glimmer world!

“It is beautiful…” Crystal breathed as we sailed under the Crystal Palace.

“Yes… it really is. Although, I think I prefer my Crystal,” I said, looping a hoof around her.

“Aww… that is the cheesiest line ever.” She nuzzled my cheek.

“Thank you?”

“It’s a world of crystals, a world of glass, it’s a world of refraction, a world of class.”

I groaned. “Crystal… please stop.”

She shook her head, giggling. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I’m trying!”

We made our way over to Hay Fever. It was another thrill ride. Crystal eyed it with suspicion. “This isn’t like the PonyPult, is it?”

The attendant smiled brightly and shook her head. “No, ma’am. This is milder, but it is still exciting! You’ll ride a runaway hay cart. There will be a lot of speed, some tight turns, and thrilling sights.”

Crystal nodded. “Sign me up.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“She said milder. Come on, I want to know what ‘thrilling sights’ means.”

I shrugged. “Alright, off we go!”

After waiting in line, we were strapped into a modified, track-bound hay cart. It was bright red and was stuffed with fake hay bales.

“Y’all set. Enjoy the ride!” the crystal pony said to us before pulling a lever.

The cart lurched forwards, made a turn and came to a stop in front of what looked like barn doors. Then the lights went out.

Crystal grabbed my hoof. “Is that supposed to happen?”

“No idea,” I replied.

A rumbling built up around us and then there was a sudden sound… I could only describe it as the shattering of wood. Then we launched.

Crystal screamed as we sped through almost complete darkness. There was a moon up in the sky casting pale light on some sort of creepy farm. Of course, it zipped by so fast I couldn’t make out any details.

The hay cart took two sharp turns and then tilted back as we went up a hill. Right before it tipped down and we plummeted, I could have sworn I saw Princess Luna fly by. Crystal’s grip on my hoof tightened as we left our stomachs back at the top of the incline.

Then the cart slowed down, the exaggerated sounds of breaks playing nearby. “Hold on, everypony!” a voice called with a country twang.

Two big red barn doors approached us… fast. Way, way too fast. Just when we were about to hit them, the cart turned right, went through a black cloth, and came out on the other side of the platform we’d boarded from.

I helped Crystal out and she gasped, “That was amazing.”

“Yes… amazing is a word.” So was frightening. And crazy.

“Let’s go again!” she chirped.

“Sure, the line isn’t too long.” My ear flicked. “Did you see Princess Luna back there?”

She nodded. “I think so. Let’s go see if you’re right.”

The sun had finally set. It was almost time. With a smile, I turned to Crystal. “The firework display is going to start soon. I’ve booked us a special spot to watch it. The travel agent told me it was not to be missed.”

She nodded. “Then let’s go! So far, everything that was not to be missed was not to be missed.”

We walked together towards the central plaza. Most of the ponies were congregating there. I found the small kiosk in front of the entry to Yesterday Land and checked us in.

Our spot was two stories up on top of one of Yesterday Land’s marble spires. It was a bit of a climb, but Crystal didn’t seem to mind. When we reached our designated spot, there were only a few ponies up there, so it was nice and quiet.

From all around us a clear, feminine voice said, “Ladies and gentleponies, fillies and colts, Glimmer World is proud to present our evening fireworks extravaganza: Dreams.”

All around the park, the lighting dimmed and everypony went silent. A door opened from the front of the castle and an orchestra came out. It only took them a minute or two to set up before the first sweet, clear notes filled the air.

The melody was slow and whimsical. From behind the castle, a single golden trail shot up. It climbed high into the sky until it burst into a million points of light.

The orchestra’s music increased in volume and drums were added in. Several lines of gold trailed out like a fan behind the castle before bursting again, illuminating the whole park. Then things really took off.

Blue, green, red, and silver fireworks streamed into the sky, bursting into moons, stars, hearts, and suns. As they increased in frequency, the orchestra’s pace picked up.

Crystal’s eyes were fixated on the sky, but I couldn’t take mine away from her. In the light of the explosions, she looked radiant. A kind, beautiful unicorn mare that had chosen to spend her time with a pony like me.

We’d known each other for a while now, and yet every day I felt myself growing closer and closer to her, even if I didn’t say it enough. I’d been pulled in many directions, but she was the one I looked to the most. The only right direction.

The unicorn caught sight of my stare and looked over at me. “You’re missing the show, Silent Knight,” she said softly.

I shook my head. “No, I’m not.”

Even in the darkness, I could see her blush. She nuzzled up against me and we turned our heads skyward to watch the rest of a fireworks display the likes of which I’d never seen in my entire life. It was timed impeccably with the music and conveyed a sense of wonder and what could be. Dreams was an appropriate name.

When the show came to a close, the park erupted in cheers and hoof stomps.

Crystal’s eyes were still gazing up at the stars. She said softly, “That was not to be missed.”

“Yes, I agree there.”

She leaned in against me and sighed. “It is a shame it had to end.”

“Yes. There is no rush to leave just yet, though. It looks like all the ponies below are streaming out. We’re allowed to stay here a little later than normal. Why don’t we let them clear out?”

Crystal nodded. “Okay, that sounds like a good idea.”

I looped my hooves around her and we enjoyed the quiet together. Most of the other ponies had left, leaving the spot for us, which was far preferable.

Once the crowd below had thinned Crystal said, “I guess we should let them close.”

I let her go and nodded. “I suppose that is fair.”

We stood and, unaware of my plans, Crystal turned towards the staircase that had brought us up. It was good that she had no idea. The surprise was one of the important parts of this.

I took a deep breath and reached into my saddlebag, finding the small box Runic had given me. “Crystal, before we bring this night to an end, I just wanted to ask if you had fun.”

She turned and looked back at me curiously. “Had fun? Of course, Silent Knight! This was one of the most amazing days of my life!”

I smiled at her and replied, “I’m so happy to hear you say that.”

Slowly, I held the box up into view and her eyes fell to it with a soft gasp.

My voice trembled just slightly as I continued, “I hope that today will have been your last happy memory as a marefriend and that tomorrow, if you’ll have me, will be your first happy memory as a fiancée.”

Carefully, I opened the box to reveal a white gold ring with a single diamond resting inside on a black velvet pillow. It was cut perfectly to catch the lamp light and sparkled just as I had hoped it would.

“Crystal Wishes, will you marry me?”

25. All That Glimmers - Part 3

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Crystal stared at me in stunned silence. I couldn’t blame her. This was intended to be a surprise, after all.

However, I could tell what she was thinking: was this too fast? Probably for most ponies, yes. But not for me.

Everything else in my life was uncertain and dark. Every day, Alastair loomed over me like a great shadow. He’d already taken so much from me, and I feared he could still take more if I wasn’t careful.

And then there was Crystal Wishes. She had stayed by me when I was in a coma. I’d later learned from Winterspear that Crystal had spent the most time of anypony at my bedside. It takes a special kind of mare to do that for a stallion who hadn’t even been aware of her affection.

I was aware of it now, though, and it was definitely returned. More than that, I never wanted to let it go. Crystal was my guiding light.

She was also still not saying anything. My heart stopped with the sudden worry that it was too soon to propose.

My fear must have shown because she finally gasped and threw her hooves around me in a tight hug. “Yes! Of course! Yes!”

I pulled her close with one hoof, the ring nestled between us. We lingered like that, holding onto each other tightly until I felt warm tears on my shoulder.

“Are you alright?” I asked softly.

“I am. It…” She sniffled. “This was just so beautiful. You went to so much trouble, I wasn’t expecting this at all.”

Softly, I pulled back to look down at her. “Well, I wanted to surprise you.”

She wiped her eyes and nodded. “You did.”

“Would you like to try the ring on?”

“Yes, please,” she whispered, lowering her head.

I carefully took it out of the box and slipped it onto her horn. It was exactly the right size, fitting snuggly halfway down. Runic had somehow known how big to make it. I didn’t dare ask how.

“Is it right?” she asked, going cross-eyed for a moment to try to look for herself.

“Couldn’t be any better. Runic and I made this ring together. It had to be unique, just like you.”

Crystal softly sighed and looped her hooves around me once more. She squeezed me tight. “And to think, I just got done planning two weddings. Now I’ve got to plan another.”

I chuckled and nuzzled her. “Perhaps, at least for this week, you should just worry about having a good time.”

“I can do that,” she replied.

The park was fairly still and quiet around us. I nosed her cheek once more. “We should probably go. We can celebrate back at the resort.”

“Okay. It is a shame today has to end, though.”

“It is, but now we get to start fresh tomorrow.” I stood and helped her do the same.

She took my hoof in hers and we headed down the stairs. Relief washed over me. Now I could really enjoy the vacation with the pressure of a proposal off my shoulders.

Crystal and I were enjoying ourselves so much in Glimmer World that we hardly noticed when a whole week had passed us by. We had spent four fun-filled days exploring the different sections within Glimmer World. Our favorite had been Tomorrow World. It was all based around science and technology. It was highly earth-pony-centric and quite fascinating.

“Do you want to ride Living with the Earth again?” Crystal asked as we ate lunch.

I nodded. “I think so. It will be a nice easy ride after we eat. Plus, I just love the idea that they grow a lot of this food right there in those small greenhouses. I never knew earth ponies were so… resourceful.”

“I know! I think I take for granted how much of a crutch magic is for me. They’re so inventive.” Crystal giggled. “We’d all be in trouble if we relied on me for farming.”

With a chuckle, I replied, “Same here. I guess the physical part would be fine, but I just didn’t realize how much work goes into farming.”

Crystal smiled across the table at me. It was a look. Mares had many, and I still didn’t know how to decipher any of them.

I raised my brow. “What?”

“You look good,” she replied.

“Oh, well, thank you. You look good, too.”

The mare shook her head. “No, I mean… You look genuinely happy and… unconcerned. You’ve had a lot on your shoulders lately, and I was worried it was too much. I’m happy to see you happy.”

I shrugged. “I guess I just needed this vacation. I have had a lot going on.”

“Maybe when we get back you can reduce that?” Crystal asked softly and hopefully.

I looked down at my meal, not meeting her gaze. If only that were true. “We’ll see. We’ll worry about that when we get home. Are you excited to go to the palace tomorrow?”

Crystal stared at me a moment. I could feel it even if I didn’t see it. She finally answered, “I am. I’m looking forwards to spending some time with Lady Cadence and I know you’re excited to see Shining Armor.”

“I am. I’ve missed his guidance.”

“He is an amazing pony for sure. I think seeing him will do you some good.”

I nodded and then looked up. “All finished with lunch? I’m ready to get on that ride again. It might be our last one before we leave.”

Crystal smiled. “Okay, let’s go see the farm ponies again.”

Crystal and I walked through the Crystal Empire, enjoying the scenery. The city was laid out in a perfect circle, with all of the streets funneling into the central plaza. There stood the Crystal Palace, which towered above the city in brilliant, glimmering majesty.

“I think we’re so lucky that this city reappeared in our lifetime,” Crystal commented in awe. “I can’t believe that all of these ponies had just been… been… what were they?”

I blinked. That was a good question. “Disappeared? Suspended in time? Lost? I’m not sure to be honest.”

“Well… whatever it was, I’m glad they’re back. These views are just full of inspiration for me. I’ll be sitting down to write as soon as we get home.”

My brow raised and I grinned. “So you want to rush home?”

“No!” she squeaked. “Not until we have lunch at the palace, at least.”

“Alright, well we’ll have our lunch, then,” I teased as we reached the palace.

It was a strange piece of architecture, much more decorative than defensible. Each side of its base was a wide-open arch, with doors set against the inside of the pillars where it touched the ground. At the very center floated the Crystal Heart. Supposedly, it’s an artifact of great power, but it just looked pretty to me.

When we got to the nearest of the four entrances, I addressed the guards posted outside. “Silent Knight and Crystal Wishes to see Shining Armor and Lady Cadence.”

The guard nodded and pulled one of the doors open. “Yes, sir. They’re expecting you.”

We headed inside to find the interior was just as stunning as the exterior. The main lobby extended all the way to the top, just like our resort. This one, of course, went far higher… despite the front desk pony’s claim of tallest lobby. Although, perhaps in a palace, you don’t call it a lobby. I guess front desk pony won that round.

“I want to live in a palace like this,” Crystal whispered next to me.

I looked over at her. “You may want to consider a different husband.”

She giggled and waved a hoof. “Oh, you. I’m just saying. Let a filly dream.”

“Alright, well, you keep dreaming. You can buy any crystal palace that you can afford. We’ll use my salary to make sure we can eat,” I teased.

“I’ll remember that,” Crystal replied, her head tilted back as she looked up and around. “Look at all of these beautiful statues.”

I did so. The main lobby was surrounded by them, all ancient ponies whose names had long been forgotten in the rest of Equestria. Each was cut from crystal and seemed flawless. If we’d stopped to look at the plaques, I’m sure I’d have recognized some of them from my research into Crystal Empire history.

We wandered towards the door opposite the one we’d entered, taking in all the sights. There were several royal guards posted around. Most were ‘southern ponies,’ as they said up here. Reintegrating crystal pony guards was going to take a little time.

Two guards opened the doors for us and we found ourselves staring down a long hallway. A statue was situated right in the middle of it at a cross hall. It stood on a raised dais and featured an armored unicorn. He had been carved out of a dark-colored crystal and looked slightly out of place among the bright, glimmering architecture.

Crystal looked up and said, “I wonder who that is.”

“That is Sombra, the unicorn king,” came a voice that was sweet and soft as it drifted from behind us. “He was… or potentially is a distant relative of mine. Nopony has seen him since the Crystal Empire reappeared.”

We turned to find Lady Cadence smiling. At least, until she took one look at Crystal and gasped. “Is that what I think it is?”

Crystal squealed and rushed closer. “It is! He proposed the night after we got here!”

There was more squealing, a hug, and some bouncing. “How wonderful!” Lady Cadence cheered. “Well, this changes everything! We can’t just have lunch. Now we have to have Lunch!”

“We don’t want to be a bother,” I put in.

Lady Cadence shook her head. “You’re no bother. Come along! Shining Armor is just handling some business. In fact…” She took Crystal by the hoof. “Silent Knight, why don’t you go retrieve him so that I can talk to Crystal behind your back?”

My ears wiggled. “Alright.”

“Great! His office is that way!” Lady Cadence gestured vaguely off in the distance. Then she hurried off, dragging Crystal with her and speaking so fast I couldn’t understand any of it.

It only took me ten minutes to find the office. The Crystal Palace was laid out very logically. Plus, every guard knew exactly where to point me. The door was open, so I stuck my head in and knocked.

Shining Armor was behind his desk, going over something. He looked up and smiled. “Silent Knight, am I late for lunch already?”

“No, sir, I don’t think so. Your wife abducted Crystal and sent me to find you.”

He chuckled and took his helmet off. “Don’t call me sir. You’re off duty and my wife is wont to do that. What was the occasion?”

I came into the office and stood in front of his desk. “She noticed the engagement ring.”

His brow lifted. “Engagement ring? Then congratulations are in order!” He reached across and offered me a hoof which I took. “When did that happen?”

“The beginning of the week, actually. This whole trip was sort of a ruse so I could surprise her. Although I was looking forwards to seeing you and Lady Cadence, too.”

He nodded and smiled. “Well, I appreciate you sharing something so special with us. I was going to ask how you were doing, but I’m guessing you’re doing well.”

“No complaints here. How are you?”

“About the same. Busy, of course, but not in a bad way. There is a lot to do here. We have to reintegrate the Crystal Empire’s royal guard, get all of the citizens caught up on modern life, and things of that nature. At this point, it’s almost all paperwork, but I do occasionally get out there and do some real work. I heard about your actions during the attack on Canterlot. It seems like you’ve put together quite a unit.”

I shrugged. “We did our part. It isn’t every day you get to go up against giant cockatrices. Still, we have a good unit. Orchid retired, though, if you haven’t heard.”

Shining Armor chuckled. “Oh, she wrote and invited us to the foal shower. I offered to write her a letter of recommendation for warrant officer school. She said she already had one from you, Sunny, and Princess Celestia and that if I wanted to write one, she’d have it framed.”

I chuckled at that and just shook my head. “She’s a special pony for sure.”

He nodded and stood up. “By the way, I’m sorry I never got back to you on the frost ponies. I keep meaning to, but it seemed like an idle curiosity and things around here have been crazy. Especially trying to get them reintegrated, too.”

“Not a problem at all. Believe me, I know how busy command is.”

His expression shifted and he replied, “So you said in your last letter. I didn’t know that about your father. I guess that happens, sometimes: who we are at home versus who we are at work. He was well-liked in royal guard circles. Have you found any peace yet?”

Keeping my expression even was important. Of course, I would also not willfully lie to Shining Armor of all ponies. “I’m still struggling with it. Mostly, I just put it out of mind and focus on what is good and what needs to be done.”

He came around the desk to put a hoof on my shoulder. “Well, you can write me about it any time you like. Nopony else sees your letters. Of course, if you prefer, you could also talk to me about it face-to-face.”

My head tilted. “Oh?”

“There is a lot to do here, Silent Knight. It isn’t glamorous work, but it is work. I’ve finally decided to listen to my wife and take on an aide. If you want the position, it’s yours. It will even come with a promotion to captain.”

I blinked and looked at him in open surprise. “You want me to be your aide-de-camp?”

“Don’t give me that look, Silent Knight. I’ve known a lot of good officers, but when it comes to ponies who know the job, the regulations, and the Guard, there are few like you. We have a good working relationship and you know how important that is.”

“I don’t know what to say,” I replied in all honesty.

He chuckled. “I hope you’ll say yes but I understand if you want to think it over… and I suppose now you have to run it by your bride to be.”

“Yeah…” I said dumbly, a whole lot of ideas popping into my head at once. To serve with the colonel again would be amazing. Crystal would be able to live in the Crystal Empire. She did just say she wanted to live in the palace. What about Princess Luna, though? I couldn’t leave her. That wouldn’t do. Could I do both?

“Silent Knight?”

“Sir!” I responded as he waved a hoof in front of my face.

“You can think it over. Why don’t we go make certain my wife hasn’t done any damage by filling Crystal’s head with ideas about the wedding?”

I nodded, trying to clear my own head from all the ideas he’d filled it with. “Before we do… Sunny and I miss you. The palace doesn’t run the same without you. We were hoping there was some chance you might come back. I guess since you’re offering that job to me there isn’t any, is there?”

He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I was going to let Cadence tell you both, but things have gotten interesting here. Nopony can locate King Sombra. When the Empire disappeared, he was responsible for this part of the kingdom. Princess Celestia had asked Cadence to fill in for him until he could be located or a governor can be lawfully elected.”

King Sombra. Cadence had mentioned him, too, but I knew that name. Why did I know that name? I shook my head. “Right, the Empire would get a governor and delegates just like any other province, I suppose.”

Shining Armor nodded and started down the hall as I fell into step beside him. “Exactly! So, with the king missing and Princess Celestia preferring to have provinces run by governors these days, an election was held. Almost every single crystal pony wrote Cadence’s name in.”

“She was elected governor?” I blinked.

“Yes, which means I’m far less inclined to ask for a transfer. I’m pretty attached to my wife.”

“How about that,” I said. Lady Cadence was one of those ponies that got along with anypony she met. The turn of events wasn’t surprising in the least.

“I suppose it isn’t that big of a surprise,” he said, falling silent a minute. Shining Armor looked over at me with a serious expression. “I understand you have been removed from your advisory role on the assassination investigation?”

That is how he’d pitched me? An advisor? It made sense. “Yes, sir. I was too close to it,” I lied.

Shining Armor’s brow arched. “I heard you lost your cool in a meeting. I’ve never seen Silent Knight truly do that.”

My lips pressed tightly together. What could I say? He knew me well. “I—” I was cut off as a pink blur ambushed me from the side, wrapping her hooves around my neck.

“Don’t you think it is incredibly sweet, Shining?” Cadence asked as she squeezed me against her. “All of this to propose to Crystal? Oh, it’s like a fairytale!”

I did my best to struggle out of the headlock of a hug she was giving me.

“Yes, dear, it was very sweet. Now let him go,” Shining Armor replied.

“Hmm?” Cadence replied before looking down to see how she was holding me. She let go and giggled. “Sorry! I just think it’s so romantic. I feel so personally invested, especially after Crystal and I talked at the hospital. I just knew you two were right for each other!”

Crystal giggled softly and replied, “Well I’m glad you were sure. I was really scared.”

“Love conquers all!” Cadence beamed.

Shining Armor laughed and just smiled. “Now, dear, you’re embarrassing them. Why don’t we sit down for lunch and then we can talk about a more appropriate subject? Something like politics?”

Crystal’s ears shot up at that and a look of uncertainty washed over her features just before she schooled her composure.

Cadence happily clapped her hooves together. “Oh, yes, politics! Come along, everypony!” She squealed happily as she led us to a small balcony that had been set up for lunch. Several serving ponies were there, waiting.

I smiled at her before saying, “I think we should discuss politics for sure. We’re all friends after all.” Lady Cadence didn’t know it but she’d saved me. The least I could do is play into her news.

“Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the crystal ponies recently held an election to decide who the new governor would be,” Cadence explained.

“I had not heard that,” Crystal replied cautiously.

“And who did they pick, dear?” Shining Armor asked.

“Me!” Cadence cheered.

Crystal’s hoof came to her chest as she looked relieved. “Oh my! Congratulations, that’s wonderful news! I didn’t even know you were running.”

Cadence giggled and shook her head. “I wasn’t! They wrote my name in. It was a huge surprise, but I’m extremely honored. So it looks like we won’t be going back to Canterlot soon. I’m going to be sworn in two weeks from Monday! And Shining is going to stay on as the Crystal Empire’s Provincial Guard Commander.”

Shining Armor hadn’t specified that he was setting up a provincial command. I’d assumed he’d meant only the castle and city when he offered me the position. “I imagine you’d make brigadier soon, then?”

“The selection list isn’t out yet, but I’ve been told my name is on it,” he replied matter-of-factly.

My name wouldn’t be on it for sure. I hadn’t made time for captain’s training. Nor had I completed any of the other steps necessary for a promotion. Which was fine, of course. It wasn’t a priority for me.

The aide to the Commander of the Crystal Empire’s Provincial Guard. That was starting to sound like an even bigger title. I put on a smile. “It seems like everypony deserves congratulations, then.”

Cadence nodded. “Yes! I think this all calls for a toast!”

We all raised our glasses: three with magic, and me with my hoof.

“To the happy couple,” Cadence said.

“To new adventures,” Crystal put in.

“To fresh beginnings,” Shining replied.

Then they all turned to me. Surely these of all ponies knew I wasn’t the sort to just come up with something. They just waited expectantly. My mind was blank. It wasn’t meant for this. I could recite every line of any Royal Guard manual I’d memorized, but I didn’t think any of that was what they were waiting for.

Silence lingered for a second too long and I smiled. “To remembering old friends regardless of where we go?”

“Yes!” Cadence cheered before we tilted our glasses back.

The rest of lunch was light-hearted and casual conversation. Crystal was practically glowing with happiness as she told stories about our time at Glimmer World. Even though she probably knew everything there was to know about the place, Cadence either was interested in listening or very good at pretending.

Midway through Crystal’s retelling of the PonyPult, Shining Armor stood and nodded at me to follow suit. He walked to the opposite side of the balcony and looked out at the city below. When I approached, he looked over at me.

“You’ll think about the position, right? It would be good for you… and your career,” Shining Armor said with emphasis that didn’t go unnoticed.

“I will, sir.”

His ear flicked and he pressed, “I mean really think about it. I know how you feel about Princess Luna, but this is a big opportunity.”

I nodded. “Yes, sir, I realize that more than you might guess. If I had any other job, I wouldn’t hesitate for an instant. I just…” How could I explain this? “Princess Luna and I. We’re…”

“You have a bond.” The way he said it told me he understood.

A small sigh of relief escaped me. “Yes, sir, exactly.”

With a chuckle, he patted me on the back. “I won’t take it personally if you turn me down. I’ll keep the slot open for a little while, but I can’t wait forever. You understand, right?”

“Absolutely, sir, I would never hold it against you.”

“Good stallion. When you get back, tell Sunny to come visit sometime. Maybe she’d like a change of pace.”

“By the time I get back, I have a feeling you might be right. She’s pretty close to Princess Celestia, though, so good luck with her.”

Shining Armor nodded and his expression shifted slightly. “Yeah, that is kind of why you two got those jobs despite being so new. Not to downplay your qualifications; you’re both excellent guards. It was just… something about you two and how you fit your respective princesses. It was like it was meant to be.”

That was something I’d heard before from Princess Luna. “I’m not sure I believe in destiny.”

He shrugged. “Me neither but, still. You two are different than the previous bunch. At any rate, keep it in mind and have a safe trip back.” He winked. “You take care of that mare. She’s too good for you.”

“Aren’t they all, sir?”

He grinned. “I know mine is too good for me. That is why we get along so well. You keep that in mind, too.”

“Will do. Thank you for seeing us, sir. We’ll be in touch.”

He waved me off and I returned to retrieve Crystal from Lady Cadence so that we could make our train. And so she didn’t get too attached to the palace… at least not until I’d made a decision.

When we returned to Canterlot, I saw Crystal to her door and left her with a kiss before hurrying to the palace. To my relief, I found it still in one piece. Not that I thought Sunny would have a problem running it a few days until Major Aegis or Captain Dancer returned. Things can happen to even the best of ponies.

Coming home from vacation was hard. I was only a few paces through the doors and already missing my days of leisure and luxury. Don’t get me wrong, though. I love the palace and my job, but it’s hard to go straight from lounging in a suite with my fiancée to, well, work.

My first duty was checking in with Sunny. I rounded a corner and knocked on her door, which slowly creaked open. The inside was pure chaos. Sunny’s desk was covered in stacks of paper, reports, and discarded take-out containers. So was her floor, actually.

Storm Rider was on the couch with a report in each hoof, his helmet off, and looking red-eyed. Sunny’s head was down, also with no helmet, and her mane was a wreck. She finally looked up and then smiled brightly… or maniacally. It was hard to know.

“Silent Knight! Thank the stars you’re back. I need you right now,” she said, coming out from behind her desk.

That was certainly not the greeting I expected. It would have been better received if it was from Crystal. “Hello to you, too…”

The mare hugged me and leaned in close to whisper, “It’s a conspiracy, you see. It is all a conspiracy to drive us crazy.”

Storm Rider nodded sagely at that.

“What is?” I asked.

“Major Aegis? Still sick! Took a turn for the worst, they say. Months of recovery. So they handed the palace over to Captain Dancer.”

Storm Rider snorted.

Sunny continued, “Captain Dancer, on his first day back, tripped and fell down the stairs. He broke two legs.”

“Allegedly!” Storm Rider chimed in.

“Allegedly!” Sunny repeated.

“He allegedly fell and broke his legs?” I asked in disbelief.

Sunny said, “I think they don’t WANT to come back. No, they just want me to handle it all.”

I peered into Sunny’s eyes. She looked a bit unhinged. “Why don’t you go talk to Vice Colo—”

“Vice Colonel Glamour?” she cut me off. “She says we’re doing a wonderful job and that this is how to make captain! Who wants to make captain?! I’m so glad you’re back. I have things for you to do. So many things.”

“So many things,” Storm Rider parroted.

I peered between the two crazy ponies but nodded. This was definitely the wrong time to mention I might be taking a new job. “Alright… well, I’m free until I have to pick up Princess Luna. What do you want done first?”

Sunny rushed back to the desk, grabbed a report, and then threw it to me. “Dragons!”

“Dragons?” I asked.

The mare rolled her eyes as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Yes, dragons. Get rid of them. The locals won’t leave me alone about them. Get rid of the dragons, Silent Knight!”

“Get rid of dragons? Are you serious?”

The look on her face said she was. She was also twitching a lot.

I held onto the report and took two steps towards the door. “Okay, Sunny… I’ll go get rid of the dragons. Bye-bye.”

I could always tell her I was getting married later… much later. Possibly after she’d been committed.

26. Five

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Orchid squeezed me tightly and then smooshed my face right in front of everypony else in the restaurant.

“I can’t believe you’re getting married! And so soon!” she squealed in delight.

I swatted at her hooves. “Engaged, Orchid, we’re just engaged. Married comes later. We haven’t set a date yet but yes, it was a little fast. I just know she is right for me.”

“Well, maybe it’s not too fast, actually. You two have been sniffing around each other for a while.”

My brow shot up. “Sniffing around?”

“You know what I mean,” Orchid said with a wink.

I didn’t.

She laughed, then wagged a hoof at me. “Anyway, I don’t know her well, but I know she is a doll. You treat her right!”

“I hear that a lot…” I peered at her. Orchid out of uniform was odd. She was also extremely pregnant now. “Is everything still on time?”

She nodded and settled her hooves over her belly. “Yes, we’re down to two months. This little stallion is wearing me down, too. Third or not, I’m not as young as I used to be. He’s been making studying a lot harder.”

I chuckled at that. “I see. About time some stallion stood up to you. Isn’t the birth going to mess up your training schedule?”

Orchid lightly flicked my forehead with a hoof. “I’ll remember that crack once he is born and I’m back in shape.” She shook her head. “No, I started early enough and I’m on an accelerated track. I should graduate, have the foal, do maternity leave, and start with a new position after.”

“And what position are you looking at?”

“Most likely, I’ll be in with the City Guard’s support company. Evidently, they’ve been understaffed for a while and the palace has been doing a lot of their work. I’ll be sure to come visit you, though.”

“I’m sure you’ll be running the place within a week. Those other warrant officers won’t know what hit them,” I teased.

The mare smiled and shook her head. “I’m not so sure about that. I’m learning, but honestly, there is a lot to this. I thought it would be easier. Still, it will be a better fit.”

With a shake of my head, I looped a hoof around her shoulders. “No, it will be a good fit. We’ll never quite be the same without you,” I said, hugging her tight.

“Aww, Silent Knight, don’t say stuff like that.”

I pulled back to look at her with my most serious expression. “It’s true.”

“Oh, I know!” she said, reaching into her bag and getting a kerchief to dab her eyes. “When you say it now, though, with all of these hormones, it makes me cry.”

I chuckled. “I’m sorry. Would you rather I be mean to you?”

She shook her head. “No, but you could take me for a dessert after lunch. Maybe buy me a cookie?”

With a feigned frown, I sighed. “Leave it to you to work me for an angle. Come on, let’s go over to Sunridge Sweets and get you a cookie.”

“And a milkshake,” she added.

“And a milkshake.”

“And maybe we stop for some vinegar chips on the way?”

“Anything else?” I asked, brow arched.

Orchid shook her head. I settled our bill and we headed out to go find a strange combination of foods for her.

The wind whipped along my body as I few east from Canterlot. Nova was tailing along behind me as we started to descend from the peaks of Alicorn Spire.

“I thought we were going to work out, sir,” Nova called to me.

“We are,” I replied over my shoulder.

“In case you missed it, we passed about six gyms, sir. Then the city.”

“I’m aware.” I pointed a hoof down at the small Equestrian Army outpost that was near Canterlot and started to drift towards it. Just before we reached the main gate, I made a hard left turn and landed in the nearby town that serviced it.

Nova looked around. “This is pretty far from home.”

“It is,” I said evenly before trotting over to a squat building and knocking on the door three times.

The door opened to reveal Steel Wings. “You’re late.” He then looked past me. “Who’s she?”

Nova didn’t give me any chance to answer. “The medic. I’m not a fan of your training practices and I’m here to make certain you play nice.”

Steel Wings snorted and looked at me. “Seriously?”

“Yes, seriously!” Nova interjected, getting right up in his face. “Listen here, Chief. I’m not afraid of you. I don’t care who you are. You put my commander in a cast and if that happens again I’m going to tell his commander.”

The older pegasus glared at Nova. She glared back. He then looked at me. I just shrugged and said, “Her way or no way at this point.”

“Get inside, both of you,” he growled before slamming the door behind us once we were through.

To my surprise, the chief had actually set up a nice training space. There was a big matted area, several training dummies, and some weights. To my further surprise, Tranquil Dusk and Crimson Dawn were standing inside.

“Hello, Silent Knight,” Dusk said politely.

“Dusk, Crimson,” I replied, nodding. “I guess the chief didn’t do a good job of dissuading you.”

Steel Wings snorted. “Their minds were made up before our first session. Don’t go blaming me.”

“Made up about what?” Nova asked.

We all looked her way and I replied, “To do this kind of training. I don’t think it’s right for them, but they’re old enough to make their own mistakes.”

Nova’s eyes narrowed. “And what kind of training is this, exactly?”

“More intense combat training,” I said quickly, making sure no other pony spoke.

Her expression didn’t soften. “And you’re going to do it here. Out of sight. And then what? Bring it back and teach the unit?”

I shook my head. “No, the unit doesn’t need this. They’re more than capable of defending the princess.”

“Versus… say… what is it you’re learning to do here?” Nova asked suspiciously.

The chief looked my way and then the room went cold. I cleared my throat and replied, “This is more offensive.”

Nova flicked her wings. “For what purpose?”

“Just to be prepared in the event we get in a situation like the one in Nordanver,” I said, telling a half-truth.

The pegasus mare looked at each of us. “So, the House Guard commander, an Army armsmaster, and two ponies I’m pretty sure are civilians… are just meeting far away from Canterlot in an unassuming building to train just in case.”

“To be prepared,” I repeated.

“And you brought me here and thought I’d buy that, sir?” Nova frowned. “If you were going to lie, why not just lie and not bring me?”

Steel Wings cleared his throat but I waved him off and replied, “You’d see the injuries and report it. I also agreed you could monitor the training. I don’t take giving my word lightly.”

“Commendable. So you just hoped that you could bring me along and I’d buy the preparation line?”

“It isn’t a line. We’re training to be prepared.”

“Prepared for what, sir?” Nova pressed.

Steel Wings cleared his throat louder and then stepped forwards. “The lieutenant and I have a mission and it is going to need a unit. A very specific unit with a specific purpose.”

Nova’s ears twitched. “And what kind of unit would that be?”

Chief walked closer and put on a firm face. “The kind of unit command knows we need but can’t bring themselves to create officially. The kind of unit normal ponies don’t need to know exists. The kind of unit that, if discovered, results in the loss of my status and the lieutenant’s pretty bar. The kind of unit that exists to do a job that simply has to be done.”

He’d used my line. It was a powerful one, or so I thought. All eyes were on Nova.

“What is the job?” Nova asked.

“Classified,” Steel Wings replied.

“Crabapples. Option A: You don’t tell me, I report it, and maybe stop this before you all do something stupid. Option B: You tell me and maybe I believe you enough to go with it.”

I nodded. “We’re working with Guard Intelligence. We—”

“Sir!” Steel Wings cut me off.

“She’s right, Chief, and we could use a good medic.” I shifted my attention back to Nova. “Intelligence is tracking the gryphon that tried to capture Princess Luna. They’re pretty sure it wasn’t a ransom plot. They think it was a politically motivated assassination attempt. We’d like to know what the motivation was and to make sure the involved parties can’t conduct a similar attempt in the future.”

She blinked in surprise. “You’re all Guard Intelligence?”

I shook my head. “No, we’re not. We’re working with them though. At least some faction within intelligence. Maybe the EIS. Either way my contact is pretty high up and I can’t name names.”

Her surprise turned into confusion. “Then this is sanctioned?”

Steel Wings laughed. “Nopony would ever sanction this sort of thing. No, intelligence will push us to do what needs to be done and if it goes south we’re easily written off as vengeance seeking vigilantes. Nice and tidy.”

Nova shook her head and looked at me. “But, sir… your career.”

“You don’t get to kill my ponies and walk away without repercussions,” I said flatly.

“So you’re going to go over there and capture him? That’s crazy,” Nova replied just as flatly.

“You’re right, which is why that isn’t the plan.”

Nova peered at me. “Then what is the plan?”

I shook my head. “Classified. You know more than enough to make your decision. Now you’re here to make sure we don’t hurt ourselves in our preparations. If anypony ever asks you what’s going on you don’t know enough for them to stop us and, more importantly, you were just doing your job.”

“And if I want in?”

My brow raised in brief surprise. “That isn’t why you’re here. Monitor training, make sure it is safe, and keep us healthy. I’m not looking to put more ponies in harm’s way.”

“Crabapples again!” Nova’s hoof stabbed at Tranquil Dusk and Crimson Dawn. “They’re kids. Civilian kids. They pass muster, but I don’t? Crabapples! Tell me they’re some kind of deep cover… whatever kind of ponies they are and I’ll budge, but otherwise I’m not falling for this line, either.”

Crimson Dawn’s nostrils flared. “We are not kids. We are adults in our society and in yours. It is our choice to help. Do not underestimate our abilities.”

Nova’s wings twitched. “Sir, surely you’re kidding me.”

“They’re scouts, Nova. They’re exceptional scouts too. We can learn a lot from them.”

“Fine, sir! They’re scouts. I’m a trained royal guard and a medic. You’re going to need a medic. Especially if this level of training is necessary for whatever it is you’re going to do exactly.”

“You’ll risk your career,” I countered. “You’ll have to mislead other ponies, including ones you care about.”

Nova frowned and then looked past me at the twins. “And you two, you’re really alright with all of this? Are all of your kind crazy?”

Tranquil Dusk stepped forwards and replied firmly, “We go where the Knight of the Moon goes.”

Nova blinked. “The what?”

I waved a hoof. “That isn’t important. They’re a little misguided, but I couldn’t talk them out of this. So now I just have to make sure they’re prepared and stay to their specific mission.”

The pegasus mare turned to Steel Wings. “Will you be vengeance-seeking vigilantes, or is this a by-the-book military operation?”

“There isn’t a book for this one. The lieutenant has been running it like an official operation thus far. He’s right, too. We’ll find out the political agenda to better serve the princesses but—”

“He doesn’t escape this time. He’s done, captured or dead,” I said sharply, cutting the chief off.

“And if I want to walk out right now and report all of this?” Nova asked, taking a step away from us.

“Your call. I wouldn’t think any less of you,” I responded.

She slowly eyed each one of us. “You’re definitely going to need a medic.”

What could I say to that? She was right. “Yeah, yeah, we are.”

Nova shifted. “There is no capturing this bird, is there? You’re expecting to kill him.”

I nodded.

There was a long pause before Nova released a short sigh. “Okay.”

“Okay?” I asked.

“Yes, okay. Not yay, not good, not hurray. Okay. I get it. I honestly do. You’re going to need a medic, period. So, no, I don’t want to go kill some gryphon, but I’ll make sure that—if that’s what you’re going to do—you’ll be fit when the time comes and that you’ll survive it. Okay?”

I nodded. “Okay.”

Nova wheeled on the chief. “And no more of this stress fracture, beat-them-up bravado junk. If you want these ponies to be combat-ready, they can’t have lingering injuries that could have been avoided. Safe training, or I’ll figure out some way to burn you and save the lieutenant. Are we clear?”

Steel Wings blinked and then his stern impression came back. He tapped his chief pin and then his armsmaster pin.

Nova glared and tapped her medic pin. “That chief pin doesn’t mean jack in this room. Nor does that armsmaster badge. You’re a nopony in here and I’m a doctor. The doctor says safe training or no training. Do you understand mister?”

His feathers were literally ruffled as he started to yell, “Now, listen here, you big-headed, fu—”

“Chief!” I cut in. “She’s right, again. If we’re running this like a real unit, then I’m the CO and you’re my advisor. No more hard stuff. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir,” he groused.

I turned to Nova and added, “And off the books or not, personal issues or not, you’ll respect the rank even if you don’t respect the pony. Clear?”

Nova flushed. It looked like she was going to argue, but instead she replied, “Yes, sir. My apologies, Chief.”

“Great, thanks.” Steel Wings rolled his eyes. “Now if we’re done with all of this touchy-feely stuff, we’re way behind. It’s time to get started.”

“Agreed,” I replied. “We’re all yours, Chief.”

Nova looked over at me. “One more thing. What are you calling this little operation?”

“We’re not,” I replied.

She raised one brow. “Shouldn’t we at least have a unit name?”

Crimson Dawn chimed in, “We should! Something that will strike fear into the hearts of our enemies. We could be the Wolverines!”

“What in Equestria is a wolverine?” Steel asked before spitting. “No, it has to be something less obscure. More official sounding. How about the Equestria Protection Society?”

Nova snorted. “That makes it sound like we’re official. We shouldn’t do that. Plus, others may want to join something like that.”

“Nightwatch,” came a soft voice.

“Listen here, the EPS would be a fine-sounding organization!” the chief shot back, missing it.

Crimson glared at them. “Wolverines aren’t obscure!”

“I actually agree with the chief that they are,” Nova replied.

My ear flicked and I turned to Tranquil. “Say again?”

The others fell silent and looked to the black-winged pegasus. “Nightwatch,” she repeated.

“Nightwatch it is,” I said. “Now, let’s get to that training.”

The condo that Crystal Wishes and Velvet Step shared was a sea of bridal magazines, color samples, and other wedding paraphernalia. Most of the stuff was left over from Raven’s actual wedding and their friend Horsey’s semi-pretend one. Now they were being repurposed for our wedding.

“I know I saw it in one of these. When I was looking for Horsey, I saw the dress and thought it was for me,” Crystal explained.

Velvet shrugged and replied, “I told you to mark them.”

“No, you didn’t! You teased me about planning my own wedding.”

“Actually, that does sound more like me. You still should have marked them!”

Crystal glared at Velvet and then went back to furiously flipping through magazines.

I’d given up looking for the dress she’d described. Without a doubt, I had found it six times, but every time I asked if this one was right both mares had told me no. I wasn’t even sure how Velvet could know! That was okay, though. It allowed me the time to take a nap. I’d been working days and training nights, and that was wearing me out.

Vaguely, I heard the sound of a hoof knocking against the door.

“Would you get that for me, please?” Crystal asked in my direction.

I shifted under the weight of fabric swatches and magazines. “Yes,” I replied as the bits and bobs fell off me and onto the floor.

Velvet giggled and tried to look innocent. Evidently, she’d been attempting to cover me up and out of existence. I made my way to the condo’s door and opened it without dignifying her actions with a second glance.

I found a light-yellow-cream-colored unicorn mare waiting and looking confused to see me. Her mane was impressive. It was brown with highlights that faded from purple, to pink in the middle, and blue at the tips and all done up in a really fancy style. A pony this classy had to be one of Crystal’s friends.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hi. I’m looking for Crystal Wishes… she still lives here, right?”

Looking over my shoulder at the wreck that had become of the condo, I shrugged. “I wouldn’t call this living, but yes. Please come in.”

The unicorn nodded and walked past me until she spotted Crystal and Velvet nestled in the middle of the maelstrom. “What is all of this, Crystal?”

Crystal looked up and then stared in horror. “Painted Wave! Our meeting! I’m so sorry. What time is it?” She looked at the clock on the wall. “I missed it. I’m sorry! We got so caught up in this… Please come in and have a seat.” She went to my sleeping couch and pushed the rest of the stuff unceremoniously off onto the floor.

The pony who I had now learned was Painted Wave smirked and settled on the couch. “It’s no problem. Cute door stallion, by the way.”

Then Crystal paused, looked at me, and frowned. “Wait, door stallion? Oh, no. That is just Silent Knight, my fiancé.”

‘Just Silent Knight,’ huh? Lovely.

“Oh, he looks like a keeper. Good help is so hard to find, after all.” Painted winked and looked at all the mess. “Getting married, then?”

Crystal and Velvet started to try to clean up. I went over to help. “Eventually,” Crystal said. “He actually just proposed a little while ago. I’m getting ahead of myself. I really am sorry you had to come all the way here because I was playing princess.”

“We’ll just call it research for the next book, okay?” Painted Wave said in amusement.

“Yes, please. Can we still have the meeting? The publisher is really on me about getting this all done. Would you care for some tea?”

Painted Wave nodded and methodically listed off her responses to the rapid-fire questions. “That’s why I dropped in. I have some great ideas to run by you. And tea would be lovely, thank you.”

Crystal handed twelve of Raven’s ‘idea books’ to Velvet, leaving little more than her hooves visible. “You remember Velvet, of course?”

“I do. It’s nice to see that she has gotten behind your books… and that she supports them,” Painted joked.

Crystal paused and then looked at Velvet. After a moment of thought, she laughed and waved a hoof. “Oh, you.” She then hurried off to make the tea and I took half of the books from Velvet so that she could see.

“What do we do with these?” I asked.

Velvet responded happily, “File them with the others!” She indicated to a bookshelf that was quite literally half full with the things. I headed over to put my share away.

“That is quite the library,” Painted Wave said as she watched us. “You’ll be able to have three different weddings and pick the one you like best.”

Three weddings. It was kind of funny but true: first Raven, then Horsey, now us. Eventually, anyway.

Velvet’s eyes went wide. “That’s a great plan! I’ll go tell Crystal!” She hurried off into the kitchen.

I sat in the mess and picked up some fabric swatches to look at. There were some good blue ones.

“How much of this do you have a say in?” Painted Wave asked idly.

“Me?” I blinked at her. “None thus far. You were right about me being the help, honestly.”

Painted Wave laughed and replied, “Well, there is a reason it is called MARE-iage.”

27. Silent Knight, Emissary

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Miley Hooves—my grizzled, experienced sergeant—kept her professional demeanor until we were alone in my office. As soon as the door closed, she then bounced around me in a circle and chanted, “You’re getting maaarried. You’re getting maaarried.” The bouncing shifted to a trotting circle. “Silent Knight and Crystal Wishes sitting in a tree K, I—WOAH!” The little mare tripped over her own hoof and face planted.

For the sake of her pride, I stifled my laugh and helped her up. “You okay?”

“—S, S, I, N, G!” she sang.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

Miley hugged me. “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!”

“Thanks, Miley. We’re just engaged, though. Eventually we’ll get married. Now, did you do the thing where you forgot to lead with the official business first?”

“Yes, sir!” she chimed happily.

I waited. She just smiled. Finally, I prompted, “And?”

“You have a meeting with Guard Intelligence.”

My ear flicked and I peered at her. “About what?”

“The dragons, sir.”

The report Sunny had given me was sitting on my desk. I picked it up and started to flip through it. “This is real?”

“Seem so, sir. Word around the palace is that you’re the pony that is going to fix it. You have a meeting to discuss how or maybe why. I don’t know, I was planning my kissing song. I hope you have a plan!”

Great. I was going to need to have a word with my sergeant about her priorities. Speaking of priorities… “Miley?”

“Yes, sir?” she asked.

“Please send Sunny a bouquet of yellow lilies,” I said with a serious expression.

Her head tilted. “But, sir, she’s allergic to them. They make her sneeze.”

With the report under my wing, I patted her on the helmet. “Follow my orders.”

She stiffened to attention. “Yes, sir!”

I left my office and the palace proper to head over to the Royal Guard Central Command building. This was the first time in a while I’d done so with a legitimate appointment. With all my exposure to the intelligence section, I’d gotten to know the place pretty well.

The pony at the reception desk stiffened to attention when I approached. “May I help you, sir? I haven’t seen you in a while.”

I shook my head. “I haven’t had a reason. Evidently, I have a meeting about the dragons.”

“Yes, sir. Third floor, office six alpha. The colonel is expecting you.”

My ear cocked. “Colonel?”

“Yes, sir. He’s expecting you.”

“I best not keep him waiting then,” I replied before heading up the stairs and through the halls. The designated office was closed so I knocked and waited.

“Come in,” called an unfamiliar, masculine voice.

The door opened into an office that felt more constrained than it actually was. The illusion of its seemingly small size was created by the fact that each wall was flanked by rows of high-security filing cabinets. The kind with combination locks that are capable of surviving hours in a fire.

There was little room to maneuver left or right, so I had to imagine the pony inside went over the chairs and desk as necessary. Which wouldn’t be too hard, considering he was a pegasus. A lavender pegasus with orange eyes and a dark mane.

A mane I noted that was well kept but not strictly to Royal Guard standards. He also wasn’t wearing armor, but instead a flight suit somewhat similar to the ones the Wonderbolts used. “Apologies, I was looking for the colonel. I must have the wrong office.”

The lavender stallion shook his head and waved me in. “No, you’re in the right place, Lieutenant. You’ll forgive me. We do things a little different here in guard intelligence. I’m Colonel Wing. You must be Silent Knight?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied before flapping my wings to hover over the back of the chair in front of his desk.

“You’ll be tackling the dragon problem. How up to speed are you on it?” he asked.

I held up the report. “Just returned from leave and received this. Before I left, however, I was briefed in most of the meetings. Back then it seemed almost like a passing joke. How did this end up in your lap?”

The colonel tapped his desk. “There was some concern that perhaps the dragons were enticed into moving our way and that this may be a plot that threatens all of Equestria.”

My body went a bit rigid and I almost dropped into the chair below me. “Sir? Is it?”

Colonel Wing shook his head and snorted. “No, not in the least. They just like the mountain and made themselves at home.” He picked up a smaller report and tossed it to me. “My findings and all of the information in that report distilled down into a more usable format.”

I half-caught it, bobbled it, and then actually caught it. What can I say? I was an offensive linepony in school, we never had to catch the ball. After flipping through it briefly I replied, “This is very thorough.”

“Thank you,” he said, nodding. “How’re you going to relocate them?”

I looked up and our eyes met briefly. “I’m going to politely ask them to leave, sir.”

The colonel cleared his throat and then nodded. “Alright, that is one tactic. Is there any more to your plan?”

“Not yet. Fly in, get a feel for the situation, adapt from there. I hear that worked in Ponyville.”

“Yes, well, if you’ll look at my report, you’ll see that this isn’t one dragon. It’s several. Some older, some younger. They seem to be nesting. You might want to leave sooner than later.”

My wings started flapping to move me back behind the chair. “Yes, sir, thank you. Should I be concerned that they’re going to eat me on sight?”

He shook his head. “There isn’t a high probability of that happening.”

Which meant that there was some probability of it happening. I saluted, which he returned, and made my way out. I settled onto the yard outside of the command building and started to flip through the colonel’s report. It was extremely concise and contained only what a pony would need to know.

“Well, there’s no time like the present,” I said to myself before leaping into the air. The dragons were getting set up in the caves of Alicorn Spire on the opposite side from where Canterlot was built.

Alicorn Spire was the largest mountain in Equestria. Possibly the world for all I knew. Considering an entire city was built on it, it had to be at least a contender for the top ten. The summit was so high that even pegasi like me had trouble breathing up there.

What most ponies didn’t know is that the mountain was home to all sorts of creatures besides ponies. They live on the surface, in the caves, and deep below the ground. These dragons, however, were a new feature.

I tapped my breastplate to activate the dark vision enchantment and proceeded deeper into the mountain’s interior. My path was based very loosely on the original report I’d glanced through before I realized how serious ponies were about this situation. Thankfully, I received some help. There was the scent of smoke… or something like smoke, so I just followed it.

Eventually, the cave expanded into a large cavern. It occasionally echoed with the sounds of… wrestling? Most of the growls and such were tiny and originated from small dragons. The larger ones merely watched.

“Pardon me, which dragon is in charge?” I called loudly.

Several sets of glowing eyes shifted in my direction and all of the activity stopped.

From the crowd, a large, black scaled-dragon approached. She—or possibly he—drew up to loom over me. “You are trespassing, little pony.” The voice sounded feminine. At least for a dragon.

This dragon was an amazing creature. Her belly had lighter purple scales that contrasted heavily against the thick black ones that covered her sides and back. The belly was one of the weak points. So were the eyes and mouth, at least according to the Knights of the Moon. In either event, they had talked about the aura of intimidation that adult dragons possess but, until you’re in it, you can’t describe it.

I was intimidated. Thoroughly.

But I still had a job to do, and these dragons had not been hostile. Clearing my throat to cover the fact I was having a hard time finding my voice, I finally said, “Forgive the intrusion, but I am not a trespasser. I am an emissary as outlined in the Treaty of the Three Princesses.”

The dragon’s eyes grew larger. “That treaty is over fifteen hundred years old.”

“There was no expiration date, as it was signed by three ageless rulers. I am an emissary and must be heard, else you will be in violation of the treaty agreed upon by Princess Tanit, Speaker of Dragons.”

A frustrated huff shot warm air all around me. “Speak, pony.”

Thank you, Moonlit Star, for giving me access to the Haven library! “I am Lieutenant Silent Knight, Commander of Princess Luna’s House Guard. Who do I have the honor of addressing?”

Per the Knights of the Moon, it was not always necessary to fight and kill a dragon. Most were reasonable and preferred to remain alive. Negotiating with them was usually possible, but strict rules had to be followed. A deviation could be viewed as insulting or leave the dragon a loophole.

“You address Ragnhild, Matron of the Obsidian.”

I bowed deeply. “Matron Ragnhild, the common ponies of the city of Canterlot are wisely impressed by the presence of you and your brood. They, however, fear that living in such close proximity may lead to misunderstandings.”

Ragnhild settled into what I could only guess was meant to be a regal pose. Her head rose high, she squared her shoulders, and she settled back onto her hind end. “You are correct. Ponies are wise to be impressed by us. We are mighty, one and all. You should remind your ponies that this spire was home to dragons before it was home to ponies. We have decided to return and plan to rear our young here.”

“Our princesses know you are mighty and have deep respect for this. They too are mighty, and know that the mighty should resolve their differences with words instead of actions. Are you set upon this place, or do you simply seek a place where your young will be more easily protected?”

The dragon stiffened and her nostrils flared. “Our young are mighty! They are not helpless or in need of protection. We claim these caves because they are our home. In ancient times we lived here and choose to do so again. You will not find us so easily moved. Perhaps it is you and your ponies that should move to a more easily protected place?”

I’d made a mistake in suggesting that a dragon---any dragon—needed protection… even though that was likely exactly why this mountain was selected.

My mind raced with how to salvage this. “I recognize your claim,” I said and then wished I hadn’t. Another mistake. A huge one.

“You do?” Ragnhild replied, a toothy grin crossing her maw.

Come on, Silent Knight, there has to be a way out of this one. I quickly thought through a few things and decided correcting myself would be unwise. When it doubt, turn to flattery.

“Out of respect to you, Matron of the Obsidian, I take you at your word that the claim exists. Thus, I recognize it and do not refute it. To move my ponies would create a need to provide evidence prior to a formal agreement, if and only if that is what we agree upon.

“I would prefer, however, to negotiate a more amiable outcome for us all. You have only recently returned and have not settled in just yet. My ponies have built a great city and collected there in large numbers. It would take us quite a while to move, and would likely be disruptive to you.”

Ragnhild’s grin disappeared. I’d managed to talk my way out of that one but, at best, I was back to even on the scale that measured this conversation.

“You would propose that we just leave, because that would be easier than move your city?”

My head shook. “No, Matron Ragnhild. That would be disrespectful and unfair for me to suggest such. Our princesses would never stand for you to be treated inequitably. They, like I, have a great respect for you and all dragons. Thus, I wish to negotiate and provide you something of equal value for this land.”

The dragon returned to her regal pose and asked, “What, little pony, could you possibly offer that is equal to the value of our ancestral home? A mountain so tall that we can see all the world. An ancient home filled with the history of our kind. What do you ponies value as much as we value this?”

Yes, Silent Knight, what could you possibly offer a dragon matron? Dragons liked gold. The ponies of Canterlot might be willing to open their coffers if it made the problem go away. Gems, too. That was important.

Buying them off seemed unlikely, though. This felt like it was more about honor and respect. She’d asked a specific question: what did we value? Not what would we pay. What could be worth leaving here?

“Well, little pony?” Ragnhild angled her head to peer at me with one keen eye.

I had nothing. There was nothing to give the dragons. They wanted a place of honor. A mountain worthy of calling home. A safe place to raise their young. A place important to ponies that had history. If they were to give up their ancient home, we would have to give up something equally dear to us. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anything like that… except—

My mind started to race as the obvious option presented itself. Princess Luna would be deeply displeased with me, but she wasn’t around right then. I was the pony sent to complete this task. Alone. I needed to get the dragons out of Alicorn Spire without any trouble. No risk, no reward.

“I will offer you the seat from which Nocturna ruled. A mountain as glorious as this, as strong as this, and far deeper. A place where your young can grow and become even more mighty. Most important of all, a home free of ponies and their intrusions. I will offer it to you in trade for this location and one condition.”

Ragnhild’s breath caught and she paused to quickly regain her composure. Evidently, such a place was indeed valuable to the dragons. “What is your condition?”

“Nocturna’s keep must be kept intact and cared for. It is a precious site to the House of the Night and must be respected as such. And, on occasion, we must be allowed to visit it. The rest of the mountain, however, will be yours. Will you agree to this?”

“Do you speak for both Alicorn Houses?” the dragon asked, eyes focused and intense.

“Both will be satisfied with this, yes. Do you speak for all dragons?”

“I speak for all of the Obsidian, and the others will recognize this bargain out of respect. Silent Knight, Commander of Princess Luna’s House Guard, I accept your proposal.”

Once more, I bowed deeply to her. “Then it is agreed. Please prepare your brood to move. I shall return with the document and personally convey you to the location following the signing. If that is agreeable to you.”

“It is agreeable.”

“Then, with your leave, I shall inform the alicorns of the successful outcome of this negotiation and tell them of the wisdom and power of the Matron of the Obsidian.”

Ragnhild’s head bobbed and she replied, “You have my leave.”

Carefully, I backed away before turning and heading back to the palace. It was probably time I let Princess Celestia know I just gave away part of the nation.

Princess Celestia was staring at me. She’d been doing only that for at least two minutes. Just staring.

I stared back. She looked nice. She’d recently done something different with her mane. It had more pink in it than usual. That wasn’t important, though. What was important was that I’d just told her what I’d done and she hadn’t said a word yet.

Finally, her head tilted and she asked, “You just flew in there and negotiated with the dragons? And not just a small group of dragons, but the Matron of the Obsidian?”

“Yes, Princess. Command said to get rid of the dragons.”

Princess Celestia lifted a hoof and waved it, mimicking a flight. “Just flew right into a dragons’ roost.”

“Yes, Princess.”

“Alone.”

“Yes, Princess.”

“And negotiated with dragons for ownership of this mountain.”

“Yes, Princess.”

“Royal Guard Command says get rid of the dragons and you just fly in, by yourself, and get rid of the dragons,” she said, again.

“Yes, Princess.” I was so fired. Career over.

“Raven?”

Raven, who was off to the side and looking rather pale, replied, “Princess?”

“Please send a letter to Twilight Sparkle and tell her not to bother coming.”

“Of course, Princess.”

Princess Celestia shifted her attention back on me. “Silent Knight.”

Not Lieutenant? “Yes, Princess?”

“I’m surprised and have no idea what to say,” she stated flatly.

“Would you like my resignation, Princess?” I asked. “Would that make this easier for you?”

“Resignation? You think I’m going to sack you?” the princess asked in surprise. She laughed and shook her head. “No, I’m fairly certain you are going to get some kind of medal for this stunt. I have no idea what kind of medal, but I’m sure the Royal Guard will come up with something.

“I just didn’t know you were the negotiating type. If I’d wanted the place stormed I’d have sent for you. Negotiation? Not so much. Although, I will rethink that position in the future.”

The princess wasn’t going to fire me? That was a relief. “My understanding is that dragons are reasonable when dealt with in the appropriate fashion. Storming the place just seemed like the wrong strategy.”

“And how did you know how to deal with dragons?” she asked, one brow raised.

“I read a book,” I replied cheerfully.

Princess Celestia stood and chuckled at that. “I see. Well, why don’t we go make this official? We’ll sign the agreement and you can lead the dragons to their new home. Then you get to go pick up my sister from Haven and explain all this to her.”

Ah, so there it was. Sure, get a medal, but explain to the current ruling Alicorn of the Night that I’d given away her mentor’s home. Clever princess. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather do that yourself, Princess?”

“Nope!” she replied before illuminating the door handle with her magic and pushing it open.

Sunny Day squawked in surprise and jumped back. Evidently, she had been trying to listen in. Without a word, she bowed to the princess, flushed all over. Including her eyes. Except that was probably due to her lily allergy.

Princess Celestia strode by and nodded. “Lieutenant.”

I raced after her. At least until my back hoof was caught in Sunny’s magic. She tugged me to her and whispered, “What did you do?”

Quickly, I squirmed out of her magical grasp and started hopping in the direction the princess was going.

“I got rid of the dragons like you asked,” I whispered back before hurrying after the alicorn.

“You did what?!” Sunny yelled at me as I rushed off down the hall.

28. Relocating

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Equestria sped by beneath me as I streaked through the sky with my wings spread wide. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined I’d be doing this.

Ragnhild and her obsidian brood flew behind me, some sixty dragons in all. None were as large or impressive as her, but each were fearsome and awe-inspiring in their own right.

Except the broodlings. I would never say it out loud, but they were in no way threatening and bordered on cute. Many of them couldn’t fly and were riding on the backs of their parents or older siblings.

The tallest mountain in eastern Equestria was within sight and I slowed down to come alongside Ragnhild. “Matron of the Obsidian, we near our destination. The entrance is secluded and secure. Should you wish, you could use the gate that was constructed by the ponies of old.”

“We have little need for gates, but I thank you for this knowledge, Silent Knight,” she replied.

Midnight’s Peak loomed closer, and as it did, the hairs of my coat stood on end. The last time I was here, it had terrified me. The stained-glass visage of Nocturna seemed to reach into my very spirit. The dragon’s intimidation aura had nothing on it. With any luck, they’d be true to their word and leave the keep be.

It didn’t take me long to locate the main entrance and I swooped down to land in front of it. Ragnhild and the other dragons made a great circle around the peak before coming down to rest beside me.

“Remain here, my children. The pony and I shall go inside together to make certain it is as he says,” Ragnhild said before turning her attention to me. “After you.”

I largely suspected that if Midnight’s Peak wasn’t as I’d said, I wouldn’t be coming out. Thankfully, I knew I hadn’t lied, so I trotted into the cavernous opening without hesitation.

Despite the entrance’s size, Ragnhild did have to shuffle in. Her wings rubbed against the walls as she moved down behind me. This would be an excellent place to ambush an ancient dragon like her. By coming alone, she was showing the others that she had no fear.

Additionally, by putting me in the lead, she could easily punish any ambushers with her own brand of dragon breath. Obsidian dragons didn’t breathe fire. Instead they had a dark, burning miasma that, if inhaled, was immediately fatal. At least with a red dragon you could hide behind a shield. According to the Knights of the Moon, anyway.

We slowly wound our way deeper and deeper into the mountain until we came out into the grand cavern that housed the city of Midnight’s Peak.

Ragnhild walked through the opening, reared up on her back legs, and stretched her wings out wide. Her glowing eyes took it all in before falling to me. “Silent Knight, your word is true. This is a magnificent home, one that your ponies must have been loath to part with.”

“They did not wish to leave this most important of places, Matron. They did so, however, because they felt it was necessary. I hope you’ll find it to your liking.”

She nodded and started to walk down the street towards the central keep that rose high above the city. “Nocturna truly did more than rule from this place. It was her home and a place she loved dearly. Even now, I can feel her aura lingering here.”

I trotted behind her and asked, “Matron, did you know her?”

The dragon’s long neck shifted to turn back to me. “I did. I knew her when it was her turn to rule. Once she passed on the crown, we did not associate as much. She, like you, was an honest pony that always kept true to her word. I supported Tanit, Speaker of Dragons, in her decision to trust Nocturna and Solara. Not all dragon clans agreed in this.”

My head tilted. “Was there strife?”

“Yes, there was some. The Pearl and Amber clan leaders felt as I did,” Ragnhild explained. “The Sapphire and Ruby had reservations. In the end, all dragons accepted the word of Tanit. To do otherwise would be foolish.”

There was much I knew of dragons thanks to the Knights of the Moon. It was clear that even they’d had gaps in their knowledge, though, at least as far as the first books were concerned. “It’s good that a dragon as powerful as Tanit and ponies as powerful as Nocturna and Solara decided that peace was a better answer.”

Ragnhild nodded as the keep drew ever closer. She paused and said thoughtfully, “You know much for a pony so young. How is this so?”

“I am close to Princess Luna, Nocturna’s student, beyond simply being the commander of her House Guard. I have learned much of the House of the Night, though I fear there’s far more that I don’t know.”

We reached the keep and Ragnhild carefully pushed the main doors open, leaned down, and stuck her head through them to peer around inside. “You have many years yet to learn,” she said absently before adding, “In addition to our agreement, I give you my word that as long as I live, I will protect this keep.”

My ears flicked and I couldn’t help but ask, “Matron, I am deeply honored by this and please don’t take this as disrespect, but why?”

Ragnhild’s head came out of the keep and she turned to me. “The specifics of that business is my own, but suffice to say that Nocturna was generous with me, and though she may be gone, I always pay my debts in full.”

I bowed to her. “You are a most honorable leader and I shall tell others as such so that they may know it, too.”

The dragon regarded me a moment and then nodded. “You have my thanks. You have fulfilled your agreement in full. Return to your alicorns, Silent Knight, and tell them that I am pleased.”

“Yes, Matron. May you enjoy your new home for ages.”

Sunny Day glared at me as I watched Miley help Iridescence’s squad load up the chariot.

“Something on your mind, Commander?” I asked.

“Quit that! You know I don’t like it, and yes! You toss the palace in my lap, go on vacation, come back for days. DAYS, mind you! And now you’re leaving for three weeks.”

“You left out the part where I got rid of the dragons for you,” I pointed out.

She glared harder and waved a hoof at me. “I feel like I’m getting the short end of the stick here.”

“You’ve got seniority, Sunny. You know how this works. If you had to go pick up Princess Celestia from somewhere, I’d take over for you.”

The mare groaned. “You’re not picking her up. You’re going down there for three weeks and then bringing her back. Three weeks, Silent Knight! You’re the only lieutenant around here I can count on to get things done.”

I turned and lightly patted her on the side of the helmet. “Make me a list. When I get back, I’ll get it all done. Besides, I think Captain Dancer will be able to start back on light duty in another week or so. That should help, right?”

“Knowing my luck, he’ll break the other two legs,” she replied darkly.

“Don’t say that. Also, find some time to go visit Orchid. She’s going to have that foal soon.”

Sunny nodded and then sighed. “Have a good trip. I’m sorry to see you running off again so soon.”

“Well, this will hopefully be the last time for a while,” I replied absently before catching the briefest change of expression in Sunny. “Hey… are you alright?”

“What?” she asked, looking away.

“I asked if you’re alright.”

Sunny waved a hoof. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just worn out. There is too much going on. Go ahead and get out of here. The sooner you’re gone, the sooner you’ll be back.”

We stared at each other a moment and I thought about pressing her for more. It wasn’t my place, though, and she had Azurite.

“Alright, partner. Don’t go too crazy,” I said before heading off to join the rest of the unit.

The Royal Guard had built and occupied two outposts in between Canterlot and the nox pony city. They weren’t much, but they had a roof, a stove, and bunks to sleep in while somepony else kept watch.

It sure beat camping and made traveling much more bearable. Faster, even, since we were all more rested for the journey. We made it there in a record time of just under two days.

As we landed outside the main gate, Mountain Stone stood at attention. “Welcome to Haven, sir.”

The opening to the city was flanked by Cloud Lance and Battle Ready. All three looked pretty good, at least at first glance.

“Thank you,” I replied, hopping off the chariot. “Getting some sunshine?”

He nodded. “Yes, sir. It gets gloomy in there. No offense to the nox ponies, of course.”

I wasn’t going to blame him. Most ponies were accustomed to spending their time in the sun. “Understood, Sergeant. We’ll take it from here. You can get your ponies ready to leave first thing tomorrow.”

“Aye, sir. Thank you, sir!” he responded before turning, motioning to the others, and leading them back into the city.

Miley motioned to the sides of the door and commanded, “Night Frost, Solar Flare, first watch. The rest of you stay with the chariot. I want it unloaded before we all call it a day.”

Then she looked at me like a puppy, uncertain and eager for praise. She really could handle things like this. She just needed to believe that herself.

“You’ve got this well in hoof, Sergeant. Carry on,” I said and headed down into Haven. Miley didn’t need me to look over her shoulder. Plus, I wanted to see the princess.

When I reached the edge of the city, it looked exactly as I remembered it. The only real difference was that the nox ponies paid me little mind. There was no fear or apprehension anymore. That was a good thing.

I flew over to the Haven library and found Mixer standing guard outside with one of the nox watchponies. The unicorn straightened to attention and asked, “Time to leave, sir?”

“Just about. You’ll be relieved shortly. Is the princess inside?”

“Yes, sir,” he replied before turning with the watchpony to unlock the door.

“Good, thank you. Carry on,” I said before heading inside and shutting myself in.

The library was quiet, which was no surprise, and looked largely undisturbed. Willowy Tempest looked up from her spot on a large cushion where she had been reading by candlelight. That was new.

“Welcome to Haven,” she said softly.

Part of me wanted to simply nod and head back to the alicorn wing. That would have been rude, of course, and our relationship was already strained. My course changed towards her and I replied, “Thank you. Good book?”

She shrugged and replied, “It is an abridged history of Haven. Suffice to say, it’s very slanted towards their point of view. Still, I thought it would be an interesting read, and it is.”

“I bet. Are you ready to go home or does the darkness not bother you?” I asked, hoping I sounded less awkward than I did in my head.

Willowy snorted softly. “I’m not going to complain when it is time to go for sure. We rarely do much in the way of royal business, here and I’m missing my coltfriend.”

“You have a coltfriend?” I asked without thinking.

The mare narrowed her eyes and retorted, “What, you don’t think I can have a coltfriend?”

Stupid, honest mouth. We didn’t need this. “I meant I’ve never heard you speak of him, not that you couldn’t have one. You’re… gifted, I’m sure stallions love that.”

“Gee, thank you so much, Lieutenant.” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t discuss my private business at work, thank you very much.”

“That makes sense. I’m sorry, Willow, I legitimately didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I just don’t know anything about you, is all.” Slowly, I started to inch past her. “If you’ll excuse me.”

She kept her glare on but nodded. “Yeah, you go see Princess Luna.”

“Mmhm,” I replied before inching a bit more, keeping my front to her. Never expose your flank to an angry mare. Once I was sure I was out of projectile range, I turned and hurried down the central aisle and to the wing that housed Nocturna’s legacy.

When I reached the gate, I paused, suddenly overcome with nerves. What would Princess Luna look like? I hadn’t seen her in nine weeks. What if she was a different pony now? What if she was giant and scary like Nocturna?

That was a silly thought. Princess Celestia wasn’t giant and usually not scary. Besides, what did it matter? She would still be the same pony, right? At least no more different than normal. She wasn’t exactly the same pony as yesterday. Neither was I. Everything changes.

I put on my guard face and wandered through the heavy stone stacks.

“We still have much work to do, Luna,” I heard Moonlit Star say.

“Indeed we do, but we have time. It is only fair that I help Celestia rule. Many ponies are counting on me,” the princess replied.

Moonlit Star sighed. “More than you know, child. More than you know.”

It seemed unfair that almost everypony around Princess Luna seemed to know that she would face the nightmare forces once again. Even more so since I wasn’t sure Princess Luna knew. As I drew closer to the end of the row, I intentionally settled my hooves louder to the floor and caused my armor to clank.

The two stopped talking and, as I turned the corner, I found that both were looking my way.

Princess Luna lit up and smiled brightly. “Silent Knight! Welcome back to Haven.” Much to my relief, she was not a giant alicorn. She was, in fact, not much bigger than when I’d seen her last. Somewhere just slightly smaller than her sister.

I bowed and returned the smile. “It is good to see you, Princess. You look very well. You as well, Matron.”

Moonlit Star replied, “Thank you. I should let you two catch up. Silent Knight, when you can, please come see me and bring me news of my grandchildren.”

That was a conversation I absolutely did not want to have, but I nodded at her. “Of course.” I waited for her to be out of earshot before taking my helmet and saddlebag off.

“You’re looking well, Silent Knight. Have you been exercising even more?” the princess asked casually.

Without an answer, I crossed the small bit of floor between us and hugged her. Luna softly laughed and looped her hooves lightly around me, saying, “I missed you, too.”

I looked up at her and said, “I brought your earrings.”

The grand alicorn’s head tilted. “Earrings?”

Of course it was just a normal dream. A normal dream that set me back hundreds of bits for collectible earrings. “I bought you some earrings while I was on vacation,” I said, keeping the annoyance out of my tone.

“Oh, how sweet of you!” the princess replied before letting me go. “I’d love to see them.”

Pulling away, I went back to my bag and fished out the little black box with a silver Glimmer World seal stamped on it. Returning to the princess, I opened it up and showed her the set.

Per Dream Luna’s request, I had selected a pair of platinum earrings. The silver ones had looked too cheap and didn’t seem fitting for a princess. The charms that hung from the studs were shaped like crescent moons with a sapphire stone set between the points.

Princess Luna’s horn illuminated and lifted the exceedingly expensive earrings out of the box. “Silent Knight, these are astounding.”

“I’m told they’re collectible, Princess. Yours are uniquely numbered. There are only a few pairs like them in all of Equestria.”

“These look very expensive for a gift from your vacation.”

That was an understatement. I shook my head and smiled up at her. “Anything you give a princess should be fit for a princess.”

Without hesitation, the alicorn levitated the earrings up and set them in place. “How do they look?”

I peered for a moment, then nodded. “They look as if they were made for you and only you.”

Princess Luna smiled brightly and looped me into another hug. “You’re a wonderful friend. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome. There is a lot I want to tell you about, but I should go get settled first and allow you to get back to the training I interrupted. If that’s alright with you?”

“Of course. We’ll talk this evening and you can share all of your tales. Please send Moonlit Star back.”

“Yes, Princess,” I replied before collecting my helmet and saddlebag.

As I made my way towards the stacks, Princess Luna called, “Silent Knight?”

I paused and turned to face her. “Yes, Princess?”

She smiled. “I owe you an answer, remember? That answer is: yes, I once was.”

My lips turned up in a smile that all of my professionalism couldn’t keep away. She’d tricked me! But I couldn’t be mad. I was happy, actually.

Of course, now I had to figure out if I was going to ask her to reimburse me.

29. Guilt

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One perk of being in Haven was how quiet it was in general. Canterlot had a lot of hustle and bustle that, regardless of the time, you couldn’t really escape. It was one of the few things about home that I didn’t miss.

After a meal downstairs and a hot shower, I had settled on the couch in the suite to wait for the princess. The suite itself was unchanged from my last visit. It was still immaculately kept and appropriate for an alicorn of the night. The moonlight-themed tapestries and curtains were on prominent display and all of the furniture was covered in dark blue upholstery.

Much to my surprise, Princess Luna had settled Willowy in a different room and kept the smaller, second bedroom available for me. It was a nice gesture and would probably annoy her assistant to no end. I was completely alright with that, of course.

I went through all that I wanted to tell Princess Luna over and over again, trying to get it all straight. A lot had happened in nine weeks. It was going to be hard to know what to bring up first.

The door opened and I stood up and off the couch as the princess came inside.

“Good evening, Silent Knight. I see you found your room again.”

I nodded. “Yes, Princess, I appreciate you keeping it for me.”

“I could not imagine any other roommate.” She removed her satchel and slipped out of her hoofguards.

I remained standing and just watched, more or less. It was an old habit, standing in her presence. Plus, as friendly as we were towards each other, she would always be the princess and I would always show her due respect.

Princess Luna stretched her wings and then nestled on the large blue pillow that dominated most of the sitting area. “Now, what news do you bring me?”

Alright, Silent Knight, you’ve been through this several times. Tell her about Midnight’s Peak and then hit her with the engagement to disarm her. Or should I soften her up first with the engagement?

“Silent Knight?” Princess Luna was looking at me. I was doing that thing again where I stood in silence working out all of my options.

“Yes, Princess, I’m sorry. Would you like to hear about news of the realm or news of myself first?”

She drummed her forehooves on the floor while she thought it over. Finally, she replied, “I suppose I should hear news of the realm.”

Anger first, then. “Do you recall the reports crossing your desk about dragons arriving to Alicorn Spire? A few at first, and then more and more?”

“I do. Obsidian dragons, I believe? It was fine, I thought.”

“Yes, well, it was fine, when it was two or three of them. The mountain is certainly big enough. By the time I returned from leave, it was closer to sixty and they were looking to roost. Suffice to say, that the civilian leadership was getting quite upset and pestering the regional commander for a resolution as soon as possible.”

Princess Luna’s ears stood tall and focused on me.

No questions? Alright, then. “So Sunny Day, still in command of the palace, was run ragged. Regional command pushed it down to her. She asked me to get rid of the dragons. So… I did.”

The princess blinked. “Get rid of? You got rid of sixty dragons? Forgive me, Silent Knight, you are an accomplished warrior, but how did you get rid of them?”

Here we go. “Well, warrior skills didn’t come into play here. I took a page from the book of harmony and decided that it was better to negotiate. The dragons felt they had a valid claim to live in the Spire.”

“Is that so?” Her head tilted to one side.

I shrugged lightly. “That’s what their matron, Ragnhild, said.”

“Ah. I know of Ragnhild.” Princess Luna’s lips drew into a tight, thoughtful line. “If she says they have a claim, then it must be so.”

I cleared my throat and continued, “However, they were willing to move if I gave them something of equal value.”

“What could possibly be of equal value to Alicorn Spire?”

As plainly and as clearly as I could, I replied, “Midnight’s Peak.”

The princess’s breath caught and her eyes went momentarily wide. “What!” She took a deep inhale and forced herself back into her normal, calm state. Her ear twitched. A subtle tell. “And Celestia agreed it was necessary to trade it?”

“Well, no.”

“No?” she asked, brow furrowing.

“Yes. No. I didn’t consult her before I made the deal. Sunny said to get rid of the dragons. I was standing in the cave, alone, negotiating with their matron, and I had to think fast on my hooves. So, I made the proposal, she accepted, and Princess Celestia blessed it.”

I turned my head so that only one eye was facing her, and it squinted a bit as I waited to be hit with a pillow or some such equally safe projectile.

Instead, the princess just stared at me. She looked… broken. “You traded away Midnight’s Peak?” she finally asked in a quiet voice. “That was what you chose to offer? The dragons accepted and left?”

“Yes,” I replied, still bracing for impact. “Their matron swore that Nocturna’s keep would remain intact. I’m… I’m sorry, Princess.”

Princess Luna sighed and looked at her hooves. Her mane seemed less bright as she sat there in silence with a deeply complex series of emotions playing across her face.

Her shoulders heaved with another great sigh, her head slowly shaking from side to side. “Do not apologize Silent Knight. You were given a mission and you completed it. That is what you do. I just… wish I had been there to have my say in it. The idea of giving up Midnight’s Peak is... devastating. It was my home, after all.”

I turned back to face her, guilt welling in my stomach. She had tears in her eyes. “I didn’t know that.”

“Indeed, you did not. It was not something I had shared and probably should have.” She wiped the tears away with a hoof. Now, I wished she had been angry. Anger would have been easier to deal with.

“I shouldn’t remain attached to things like that if it means protecting my ponies. It was a barren town that you traded to reduce strife in our capital. It was a wise decision even if it was made in great haste.” She sniffled.

“Yes, Princess,” I replied before adding, “You may visit any time. I negotiated those rights.”

She half-smiled at me and nodded. “Of course you would. That isn’t really what I was worried about. Though it may be foolish, I imagined that one day, Midnight’s Peak would be restored to its former glory, that I would sit on Nocturna’s throne, and the nox ponies would thrive.

“That doesn’t seem likely, though. The nox ponies are comfortable in Haven, and even though her doors now stand open, few have ventured forth. Perhaps in a few generations…” She sighed and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter now. You did what had to be done. So be it.”

“I hope so,” I replied, now feeling a bit sick to my stomach. I’d given away something so important to the princess just to solve a problem quickly. Something I could never get back.

“Is there any other royal business?” the princess asked, her expression returning to one of even disinterest.

Torn from my thoughts, I replied, “Nothing of that level of significance, Princess. I dropped all of the smaller stuff off with Willowy so she can work through it and bring it to you.”

The alicorn nodded. “That suits me fine. Then you have news of your vacation? I am most pleased with my earrings, but I’m certain they were quite expensive. We’ll look to fixing that expense when we return home.”

That would be wonderful. Although, now it felt wrong, taking her bits after giving up her home. I’d been standing the whole time waiting to be dressed down.

Since our official business was concluded, I crossed the room and settled in front of her. Lightly, I rested my forehooves over hers.

“I’m really sorry,” I whispered.

She squeezed my hooves and shook her head. “You couldn’t have known. You completed the mission in front of you. That is what makes Silent Knight, Silent Knight. It is commendable, really.”

I wasn’t sure how to answer that. It was a fact. Guilt might weigh heavily on me for this, but I didn’t want it to ruin the evening. It had been so long since I’d seen the princess, and I wanted to tell her about so much more. Right then, I had to bring both our spirits up again.

“I proposed marriage to Crystal Wishes and she accepted,” I blurted, looking up at her.

Princess Luna gasped and whatever sorrow or regret she was feeling seemed instantly gone. She squeezed my hooves in hers and pulled me closer. “Silent Knight! You did so? You didn’t even hint to me you were thinking of such!”

“I wanted it to be a total surprise for her. If I’d told you, you may have found yourself in a position where you had to lie to her.”

The princess bobbed her head in a begrudging nod. “This is a huge step, Silent Knight. You two have not been dating that long. Are you certain about this?”

She was right, of course, which was secretly another reason why I hadn’t told anypony other than Runic prior to the proposal. Crystal and I had only been dating seven months or so, but we’d made up for a lot of lost time. We’d been pining for each other at least a year before that.

“I’m not certain about much these days, Princess. I’ve found myself stepping into things I never imagined I would, but I am certain I love her. Proposing is the only thing I’ve done lately I know was right.”

The princess’s grip on my hooves tightened as she smiled wide. “Well, that is certainly the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard you say. Crystal is good for you. I have little doubt that you two are right for each other. To be honest, I was worried you might move too slow. You are a cautious, calculating pony, after all.”

I chuckled at that and smiled up to her. “Thanks, I think. I just… well. After the cockatrice attack, when I thought she was hurt… or worse… I couldn’t imagine anything more horrible than that. Being apart from her, I mean. We’d waited so long already, and I wasn’t willing to wait any longer before making it clear to her how I really felt. I was worried that some other pony might swoop in.”

She leaned in to nuzzle my cheek. “Good for you, then. Though I doubt she’d cast you aside so easily, engaged or no. Have you set a date?”

“No, I really just wanted her to know how serious I was.” I shrugged. “I’d prefer to be married sooner than later, but I also want to make certain she gets the wedding she wants.”

Princess Luna nodded. “I understand. Well, you absolutely must allow me to hold a shower for you two.”

My ears flicked. “Do I have a choice?”

“No, not really.” She smiled.

“Then I most eagerly accept.”

The alicorn let my hooves go before looping her own around me to hug me close. “Huzzah! You’re getting married! Just think, mere weeks ago you were a foal. I think I like you better that way.”

My nose scrunched up and I tried to push her away. “That was a dream, Princess. I was a foal in a dream! Please don’t make me one again in my dreams tonight. I do not want that.”

“It could happen on its own, you know.”

I frowned up at her. “I’ll suspect you regardless.”

Princess Luna set her chin between my ears and huffed, “I shouldn’t have told you.”

“It speaks volumes that you did.” I paused a moment before asking softly, “Would you mind telling me something else?”

She let go and leaned back to look at me. “Of course. What do you wish to know?”

“Well… you were once a unicorn. Now you’re an alicorn. How did that happen?”

The princess’s nose wiggled. It looked for a moment like I was about to get the speech about how I didn’t need to know. Then she shrugged. “To be quite honest, I don’t have a clue.”

“Truly?” I asked.

“Truly. You see, when I say I was once a unicorn, I mean I was once a unicorn for a long time. I lived a full life.”

“In the stained glass, you looked young and beautiful. You were an old unicorn?”

Princess Luna set her hoof on my nose and pushed my head back slightly. “Thank you ever so much, Silent Knight. I was beautiful into my old age. So was my sister. Although… she passed around that time. I remember that.”

Carefully, I swatted at her hoof, but the silliness took a rather quick turn towards the serious. My ears folded back. “She died?”

“She did. And, I suppose, so did I.”

I didn’t like the thought of that. Not one bit. “And then?”

“I just woke up. All of the old aches were gone and I was a foal again. Only now, I was an alicorn, and the details of who I was before were fuzzy. I’d lost much of myself. I am both the same pony and not. I’m afraid I wasn’t under Nocturna’s care long enough for it all to be explained to me. A lot was going on back then.”

I couldn’t imagine it, losing myself like that. Then I had a thought. “Is Princess Celestia really your sister? Was she the same sister?”

Princess Luna smiled. A warm, genuine smile that seemed to be filled with fondness and peace. “Without a doubt: yes. For as much of me that was gone, I remembered her. She was waiting for me, you see. The moment our eyes met, I was almost certain. Then she hugged me and all doubt vanished.”

“That is incredibly sweet,” I said softly.

The princess nodded and looped her hoof back around me. “Yes. We had been so close in life. Being reunited was just a miracle. Nocturna always told me that the bond Celestia and I shared was our most powerful gift and that, together, we would heal all wounds.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I knew it was important. There was likely a reason to pick sisters to be alicorns. Assuming picking was how it even worked.

I leaned up against the princess and settled in. It was good to be back at her side, even if it was potentially for a shorter period of time than I’d imagined.

“Luna?” I asked quietly.

She looked at me in surprise. I’d used just her name without being badgered to do so. “Yes?”

“I want to talk to you about something that has been going on with me. I’ve been a bit frightened to do so. Please just let me get it out.”

“Of course, Silent Knight.”

How do you explain to somepony you look up to that you’ve been working on a secret operative squad to ensure justice was served? What would she think of me? Still, maybe if she knew, we could work on it together. Possibly in an official capacity. Things could go differently.

Idly, I rubbed one hoof over the other. Keeping the secret of how I felt was starting to become overwhelming. Alastair had changed me, and I just couldn’t get past it. Nothing had been the same after that day. He loomed over me like a shadow.

“It is alright, Silent Knight, you can tell me anything,” she said in a gentle voice.

I could. I could tell her anything. Probably. Maybe.

No. I was Silent Knight. I always completed the mission. I couldn’t let her know that I was weak and that I was still living in the last engagement.

A royal guard should be able to handle something like that. Telling her would be foolish. If I did and we worked together, it would put blood on the hooves of a princess.

Not my princess. I was her ardent guardian. I could never allow that.

It would have been better to keep my mouth shut. Now, I was committed to telling Princess Luna something. A deep breath let me stall a bit longer before it clicked in my mind.

“Shining Armor offered me a job as his aide-de-camp and told me to really consider it. I told him I would, but I couldn’t imagine leaving my position… well… that’s really not true. It isn’t really the position that I can’t imagine leaving.” I glanced up at her meaningfully.

The princess blinked a few times in surprise. She then smiled and tugged me closer to her. “That is very sweet, Silent Knight. You should consider your career, though. You’re a young pony that will want to advance someday. I wouldn’t be much of a friend to you if I held you back.”

I frowned. “I never imagined I’d go much further than sergeant. My career is at a stage I never thought it would be. Plus… it isn’t like you’re going to retire or anything. I could spend my whole career with you.”

Princess Luna lightly stroked my mane. “You could. I do not want to see you go, if you want my honest opinion. However, I also do not want to see you give up good opportunities because we’re friends.

“You should seriously consider this and discuss it with Crystal. It may be the right opportunity. It may not be. Either way I would be sad to see you leave but I would most certainly not be upset with you. I’d be proud.”

I nodded “Thank you. That’s what I needed to hear. I’ll talk to Crystal about it and see what she thinks. I’m not keen on leaving Canterlot. This just… well, it came as a surprise.”

“Most assuredly. Well, I’m certain you’ll make the best choice.”

I nodded at her and silently hoped that was true.

Haven, like any city, had a rhythm. Even without the sun to guide them, the nox ponies lived a life separated into mornings, afternoons, and nights. I’d never understand how they kept up with it, but they did.

Moonlit Star and I typically saw each other in the mornings. That was largely luck on my part. When I approached her home, she was sitting on the front porch. I settled down in the rocking chair next to hers. “Good… I guess morning.”

The matriarch smiled at me and nodded. “Believe it or not, you can get a sense for it. There is a pattern even in the dark. The way the air blows in from above. How the heat comes through the stone. In time, you’d probably get to know it. For me, it is as obvious as it is to you when looking where the sun is in the sky.”

“Well, perhaps in time I’ll get the opportunity to learn. I imagine we’ll be spending a lot of days here.”

She rocked in her chair and said, “Perhaps so. I was surprised that you didn’t arrive with Luna. I’m also a bit saddened that my grandchildren did not return with you to at least visit. How are they?”

“Physically, they’re fine, fit, and healthy,” I said honestly.

“But?” the matron replied.

“They’re not walking the path I imagine you’d approve of, and they’re too stubborn to listen to me.”

Moonlit Star nodded and asked, “Should I be worried?”

I took a long breath and settled back into the chair. “I’m going to do my best to make sure they come out of their choices safely.”

“That is all you can do, Silent Knight. I should apologize. I put more on you than was fair. I just saw my grandchildren pulling away from what I believe in, and I thought that perhaps they’d listen to you. That was a foolish thing.”

I winced. “I haven’t been the best influence on them. They see too much of my work and I recently found out they’ve been following me in secret. They want to be like me.”

The mare shifted to look my way. “Oh? Guards?”

That would be a safe lie, but I couldn’t do it. “Soldiers.”

Her brow lifted. “Crimson I understand, but why Tranquil?”

“She’s afraid of losing him, so she has decided to go where he goes. I also think she has developed a belief that she owes me some debt of loyalty. I don’t know why exactly, but she is bent on being my shadow and helper.”

Moonlit Star reached over and set a light hoof over mine. “Silent Knight, I know you can’t make ponies do anything they don’t want to… but can you at least try and make sure they can get back up when they fall?”

“I’ll do my best, even if it means taking the blows for them. I’m hoping that when they get a taste of what being a soldier actually is, they’ll be so turned off they decide to go another path.”

“That seems like a wise enough course.” She peered at me. “Is there a lot of conflict still in Equestria?”

I shook my head. “No, ponies don’t get into battles much these days. Bad things still happen, but not so much that I’d be concerned by the two of them joining the Royal Guard.”

“Then perhaps guide them towards a career there and they’ll forget this soldier foolishness.”

“I’ll try.” That didn’t seem likely to work, but I’d at least make the effort.

Our conversation then turned to lighter things, such as the integration of Haven back into the Kingdom of Equestria. It was odd to view that as light, but by comparison, I was willing to accept it.

Eventually, it was time to get started on my day, so I stood up. “Thank you for the company this morning. I need to see to my ponies before the shift change.”

Moonlit Star nodded and rose as well, though with notably more struggle than me. “Of course. Thank you again, Silent Knight. Come visit me any morning. I enjoy your company.”

“Thank you, I’ll be sure to stop by again,” I said before heading back to the inn.

I arrived just in time to find Miley Hooves getting her morning coffee. As I trotted up to her, I said, “Sergeant, a word.”

“Sir?” she asked, stopping mid-sip.

“I don’t plan to sit here and look over your shoulder.”

Miley’s head tilted and she replied, “Okay? Thank you, sir? You’re telling me this, why?”

“I might seem scarce, is all. A single squad running security doesn’t need a meddling officer, and I have some business here in town to attend to.”

The little mare looked perplexed by that. “Business? You do business, sir?”

“An expression, Sergeant. My point is that, unless you really need me, this is your show. Understood?”

She nodded, although her expression was not one of total confidence. Not in her ability to lead, of course. She and I both knew that was fine. It was clear she wanted to know what business I could possibly have here.

That was information I didn’t intend to share, so we just stared at each other for a moment before she replied, “Understood, sir. Uh… sir?”

“Yes?”

Her ears wiggled. “Are we still going to play games together between shifts? You know, I went over to Crystal Delicacy before we left and picked up a bunch. Ruby Moon had a ton of suggestions, and I wanted to keep my guards occupied. It would be weird if you weren’t there.”

I smiled and lightly tapped my hoof against the side of her helmet. “Yes, we’ll play games. As if you had to ask. Now get to work.”

“Yes, sir!” she replied cheerfully.

Once she was gone, I left the inn and headed to the library. Princess Luna wouldn’t start her lessons for at least another half hour. For the next three weeks, she wasn’t going to be the only student in Haven.

While Miley kept an eye out for trouble, I intended to sequester myself away with the Knights of the Moon tomes. Thus far I’d been through the first two several times. They were for initiates, though, and there were at least eight more. The knowledge contained within had already proved valuable in the face of the dragons. It was going to prove invaluable in the face of gryphons.

After being admitted to the library, I returned the first two books and selected the next two. The spines were stamped with silver symbols of the moon. The third book bore almost a quarter while the fourth was near a half. A clever way to denote progress.

I needed to get the books, find a hidden place to train, and get through as much as I could in the time allotted. I settled books three and four into my saddlebags and headed out.

Firn Bristle was standing guard and looked my way curiously when I came back out so soon after going in.

I nodded at her. “Everything is in order for the princess’s arrival. Carry on.”

She nodded in return and then I took flight to look around the city for a great place to train. I wouldn’t need much more than a few square meters and some privacy. The tactics used by the knights were quite violent, and I wouldn’t want to frighten the locals.

The major problem I had was that no place in particular was known to me. If I lingered around somewhere new, ponies would notice. It would be best to go somewhere farther away from the center of town. Someplace that would potentially be vacant. Someplace like…

Moonlit Star’s house!

The matriarch’s house was secluded in comparison to the rest of the town and even had a small courtyard in the rear. It wasn’t large, but I didn’t need a lot of space and the stone wall that surrounded it would keep the curious away. All I had to do was coordinate my training with Princess Luna’s.

Steel Wings’s instruction had been educational, but it was strictly limited to combat. The Knights of the Moon went so much deeper and took a holistic approach to battle. They discussed the psychology of their foes, methods of dealing with them both diplomatically and physically, and historic accounts of the Knights’ deeds. It provided a much better picture.

I swooped down to the familiar home I’d visited mere hours before and landed in the courtyard. There was a stone bench inside, so I settled on that and opened the third book.

Take heart, for you are an initiate no longer. You see all that lurks in the darkness. Now you shall start the path to truly understand it and, with understanding, vanquish it.

30. On Edge

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The first week of the trip had languished in slow awkwardness. Once the excitement over my engagement was gone, Princess Luna had done a lot of moping in her suite. She had spent only a single evening playing games with us. Which, in turn, meant I couldn’t enjoy them since I knew I was the cause of her sadness.

Inflicting that sadness on a pony so close to me was excruciating. More than I could have imagined previously. I’d gotten accustomed to Princess Luna’s familial affection towards me. In fact, I craved it given how distant my own mother had been with her love. The love the princess gave me was starting to feel distant, too, and that frightened me.

The door to our shared space opened and Princess Luna wandered in looking tired. Her mane was tied back in a ponytail, her coat was mussed, and her eyes were red. It had likely been another double session.

“Good evening, Silent Knight,” she said absently as she walked past.

“Good evening, Princess. Another long session?”

She settled down onto the large pillow. “Yes.”

“Did you eat?” I asked.

“No.” It was short. She was being short?

“Would you like me to go get you some dinner from downstairs? I assume you need to eat if you’re training.”

“That would be fine,” she replied.

“What would you like?”

“Anything is fine.”

“Princess… are you angry with me?” I asked.

Princess Luna’s eyes focused and she looked over at me. “Angry? Why would I be angry?”

I crossed the small room and laid low beside her pillow. “Midnight’s Peak.”

The princess sat a hoof on my head. “I’m not angry at you.”

“I realize I haven’t seen you for nine weeks, but you’re not acting like yourself. I can’t say for sure, but I can only guess it started after I gave you the news,” I pointed out.

She sighed and shook her head. “I’m not angry. I’m sad. I’ve been… avoiding you for fear of saying something hurtful or foolish. What you did was good for our kingdom. I will come to terms with it in my own time.”

“Can I make it up to you somehow?” I asked hopefully.

“Could anypony make up to you the loss of your father?”

I winced and dropped my head.

The princess’s hoof followed me down and she groaned, “I’m so sorry, Silent Knight! This… this is what I meant. That wasn’t fair. They’re not the same at all. I’m going to be fine. It was just a stupid city. Ruins in an old, forgotten cavern.”

“It meant something to you,” I said weakly.

She sighed and nodded. “Yes, yes it did, and always will.” The princess then shifted her hooves to rest under my forelegs. She pulled me up from where I’d pitifully prostrated myself.

“You mean more to me, though,” she continued. “Far more, and I don’t want to let my temporary self-pity lead to more hurt feelings. I can plainly see that you regret doing what you did and the rational side of me knows it was the best choice given the situation. If I’d wanted to weigh in on it, I should have been back in Canterlot ruling. I am angrier with myself for being pulled in two different directions.”

I was surprised at the ease with which Princess Luna had lifted me. Evidently, me being adult-sized made little difference for the alicorn. “You shouldn’t blame yourself. You have to do this training. This is very important.”

“You’re speaking to the rational side of me, Silent Knight. She knows that. It is the emotional side that is struggling. There is no salve for that.”

Probably not, but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying. I sat my forehooves over hers and replied, “Even if you’re not mad, even if it was the right solution, I’m still sorry because it made you sad and that isn’t something I can protect you from.”

The princess softly chuckled. “Your duty is to protect my physical wellbeing. I believe the emotional is beyond the role.”

“As your house guard, sure. As your friend, however, I think there is more to do.”

“And what would you do?” she asked, brow arched in challenge.

What would I do? Yes, what would I do? I didn’t know what to do.

Well… when Winterspear was sad over Caramel Mint, I’d helped her. I’d gone to see her, I’d hugged her, and I’d told her I loved her. In the past, she’d known I loved her, but I’d not said or showed it. Not explicitly.

Princess Luna knew I loved her, though. Right? I knew she loved me. Although I’d never said it to her, either. At least I didn’t think I had. Not explicitly.

I smiled at her and shifted between her forehooves to more properly hug her as tightly as I could. “I love you, and I’d rather risk you saying something hurtful than to have you avoid me.”

The princess’s breath caught. Her hooves enveloped me in an equally tight hug as she whispered, “I love you, too, little stallion. If that is what you wish, then I won’t avoid you.”

“It is. I’m big enough to take it,” I replied.

Princess Luna leaned back to peer down at me. Her smile was soft and she just shook her head. “It is hard to see you that way, but I’ll try.”

That struck me as a little odd, but I dared not ask. Slowly, I drew back and said, “Now, let me go get you an appropriate dinner. I don’t know anything about magic, but I know working out. That requires food.”

“Very well. Find me something sweet for dessert, please.”

I smiled. “Of course, Princess.”

In a city without direct sunlight, it was amazing how time simply slipped through my hooves. Princess Luna spent most of her days in the library studying. I spent most of mine in Moonlit Star’s courtyard doing the same. During the evenings, we’d meet up with the guards and play a few games to keep morale up.

Morale, as far as the squad went, was high. The princess was still sad, and I still felt guilty, but with each passing day, time seemed to ease both of our ailments. It wasn’t long before the two of us were no longer passing ships in the night. We were almost back to normal.

To avoid thinking too much about what I had done, I kept my focus on the Knights of the Moon. It is amazing how much a pony can accomplish in three weeks when left to her own devices.

I’d repeatedly worked through both of the new books I’d borrowed and was still internalizing all of the knowledge. It was fascinating that ancient ponies would spend so much time and effort dedicating themselves to their profession.

Each book was thoroughly detailed and brilliant. High Marshal Moonglaive had been a genius and certainly ages ahead of his time. His training regimen could be followed without an instructor if necessary. It almost put the Royal Guard to shame. He’d ensured that as long as these books existed, so too could his order. They were a priceless treasure for certain.

I’d been so engrossed into the books that I’d been surprised when the princess announced it was time to go. Two more weeks had melted away. On our last day in Haven, I returned the third book, kept the fourth, and picked up the first and fifth. Moonlit Star, if she even noticed, didn’t seem to mind.

Now we were almost to Canterlot, and the princess and I were sitting together in the back of the lead chariot.

She looked over at me and asked, “Are we prepared for the Summer Faire in Ponyville? I’m looking forwards to that. I could use a happy change of pace.”

“Yes, Princess. The rest of the Guard will have been back as of a day or two ago. Once we’re home we’ll be one big family again. Just like normal. I’ve got everything settled out. The only business that is truly left is to promote Iridescence and find a sergeant for alpha squad.”

“Do you have any favorites?” she asked.

I lowered my voice so that the others wouldn’t hear us. “I think it is important she picks or, at least, has most of the input, since she will be the section sergeant. I do have some ponies in mind, yes, but I want to see where she is at.”

Princess Luna chuckled softly. “Shining Armor gave you the same test, did he not?”

“That he did.”

“You are wise to emulate him,” she replied before turning towards me. “I did not see you much during the day these last weeks.”

“I did not want to disturb your studies or hover over Miley. I kept myself busy.” Certainly not a lie.

The alicorn’s brow lifted and she asked, “May I ask with what?”

“Reading mostly. There is a collection of books by a pony named Moonglaive in the library. They’re fascinating.” Also not a lie, though not the whole truth.

Princess Luna’s eyes drifted off and then her brow furrowed. “Moonglaive? That name is familiar. Should I know this Moonglaive?”

That was something I had not considered when I set out to be vague about my activities. For all I knew, Moonglaive was alive when Princess Luna was a young alicorn, or perhaps a unicorn. “It is possible, Princess. It isn’t clear to me when he was alive. He doesn’t write about himself. He was a soldier, like me.”

“I see. Why am I not surprised that you would take interest in the books written by an ancient soldier,” she said with a smile. “No doubt getting all the more prepared for our next wargame.”

“I’m nothing if not predictable, Princess. And I most certainly do look forwards to a game. It has been a while since we’ve played. Most of my tactics have been utilized in Airship Armada against Runic these days. I’m a far better field commander than admiral.”

The princess grinned. “I’ll note that in your file. I should paint up some additional ponies.”

“That would certainly be fitting.”

“You could paint one of me,” came Willowy’s voice from behind us.

I turned to look back at her. “Assistants rarely take to the battlefield.”

“I go where Princess Luna goes,” she replied resolutely.

“I wish you two would be friends,” Princess Luna said. She then added, “I would be happy to paint a figure to look like you, Willowy.”

Willowy stuck her tongue out at me. “Thank you, Princess.”

Softly, I cleared my throat and muttered, “I’ll have to see if they have stats for civilian ponies that wander onto the field.”

“What was that?” Willowy asked with narrowed eyes.

“Nothing, nothing at all,” I replied before poking my head out of the window to watch Equestria go by. We were close to home now.

A few more hours went by before we were over Canterlot and making our landing at the palace.

“Welcome back, sir,” Iridescence said once we touched down in the courtyard and unloaded.

“Thanks, and I suppose welcome back to you, too. How was training?”

“Why don’t we talk about it in your office once we’re done here?” she replied.

That didn’t bode well. “Alright. Is everypony back and reported in?”

She nodded. “Yes, sir, we’re all back and ready for the faire.”

“Good.” I left her a moment to go over to where Miley was supervising alpha squad’s unloading. “Once the chariots are unloaded, you’re all on leave for the next thirty-six hours. Be ready for the faire. After that, a week of leave. Before you go, I want all of your talismans in my office. No taking them home!”

Miley perked up at that and shouted, “You heard the lieutenant. As soon as we finish this, we get time off! So hurry up!”

There was some chuckling but the guards did get back to it with additional vigor.

I let them be and headed towards the palace. “Come along, Sergeant,” I said as I passed Iridescence.

When we got to my office, I was stunned. My desk was covered in files. So was my chair and the floor in front of it. “What in Equestria happened in here?”

“I don’t know! It wasn’t me. Maybe Sunny? She’s been twitchy lately,” Iridescence replied.

Twitchy, that was a good way to put it. I checked out the first file on my desk. It was a Royal Guard record. Some stallion out of Cloudsdale.

I sighed. “Alright, I’ll figure out this mystery later. Close the door.”

Iridescence did so and then took her helmet off. Her magic then removed mine.

With a skeptical look I said, “If you failed, taking my helmet off isn’t going to spare you from my disappointment and stern language.”

The mare stared at me for a moment with a meek look. Then she cracked a smile and started bubbling, “It was amazing, Silent Knight! The whole place was held just miles from the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. Every night we went out together and just spent time as a couple.”

She swept closer and held her hooves to her chest as she continued, “No responsibilities, no little sisters, no princesses. Just us. Each day was a chance for us to really get to know each other, and it just clicked.”

“I’m glad,” I replied, still wanting confirmation that they had attended class.

Iridescence hugged me. “Thank you for setting it up. It was a wonderful gift. Silent Knight, it finally happened, she opened up to me. The wall she’d put up after Caramel Mint finally came down some. It was like we were a real couple instead of just… I don’t know, dating.”

“I’m still glad,” I repeated.

“We ate out, we relaxed, we swam, we made love on the beach.”

“What! Why would you tell me that?” I gasped as I pushed her back.

She turned red. “I’m sorry, I got carried away. Totally not appropriate. Still… thank you.”

I rubbed my eyes with my hooves, trying to get that concept out of my head. “You’re welcome. Now, please tell me you two actually went to class.”

“Of course we did! We both passed.”

“Thank goodness for that,” I replied before going to my desk and opening the top drawer. It was full of files. I opened the next one. More files. The bottom drawer I always kept locked, somehow not locked and full of files. “This is a joke,” I mumbled before digging around and finally finding the wooden box I was looking for.

I picked my helmet up, slipped it on, and offered the box to her. “Sergeant Iridescence, in recognition of the fact you successfully completed your Advanced NCO course, your time in service, and on your merits, I hereby issue you the field promotion to first sergeant. Congratulations.”

She smiled and accepted it. “Thank you, sir. I’m surprised you didn’t want to go through the standard process.”

“Who has time for that? I’ll take care of that later.”

Iridescence nodded, pulled her old rank pin off, and replaced it with the new one.

“Now, as your first official duty, I want you to find a new sergeant for alpha squad. Somewhere in this office is a list of names. Which technically means your first duty is to find the list. Then find the sergeant. Then the last duty.”

“What is the last duty?”

“Never, for the rest of my time alive, say the words ‘make love’ to me again in any context related to my sister.”

Iridescence grinned brightly and replied, “Yes, sir! Understood.”

“Good, now find the list in this mess and, while you’re at it, clean this up. I’m going to go fight with Sunny over making it,” I said before trotting around the mess and out the door.

“You’re taking advantage of this situation,” I heard her call after me. Yes, yes, I was. Rank has its privilege.

When I reached Princess Celestia’s wing and headed to the admin hall, I found Sunny’s door wide open but the office was pitch black inside.

“Sunny?” I called into the dark office. The unicorn lanterns were out and the shades had been drawn over the windows. “Hello?”

“No appointment, no commander!” came her voice from the darkness.

I took two steps in and said, “Sunny, it’s me. I’m back and here to help.”

The lamp on her desk flipped on, revealing a tired-looking yellow-and-orange mare. “Oh, Silent Knight. I remember you.”

My eyes rolled and I flipped the light on. She hissed at me. I grumbled, “Yes, you do remember me. I’m the pony that is going to take some of your workload. Assuming you’re not pretending to be so crazy that I relieve you for being unfit.”

“Is it working?” she asked.

“Not really.”

Sunny shrugged. “It was worth a shot. Glad you’re home.”

“Me too. What is the deal with all the files in my office? Is that something you need me to do?”

She blinked and looked confused. “No idea. That wasn’t me. But more importantly, you’re all set for the Summer Faire?”

“Looks like it, yes. Is there anything else?”

She waved a hoof. “There are a few things, but they can keep until after the faire. I started Iridescence’s paperwork for you. She’ll be on the selection list.”

That was a surprise. “Thank you. I went ahead and gave her a field promotion for now, but that will be a lot easier.”

“Yeah, it always is,” she replied.

I started to turn away before I remembered. “Hey, I don’t remember if I mentioned it when I got back, but Crystal Wishes and I got engaged. I was hoping, when it came around to the time to discuss a wedding, you’d lead the Arch of Sabres.”

Sunny’s head tilted and her eyes went wide. “First, let me say I’m flattered. Second, you just casually mention you’re getting married? Like it’s just this normal thing? No, you didn’t mention that!”

I shrugged. “Ponies get married all the time. You find the right pony, fall in love, get married.”

Sunny rubbed her forehead, muttering, “Oh yeah, it’s just that simple.”

That was sarcasm. Sarcasm from Sunny who is usually nothing but sugar and sunbeams. “Is something wrong?”

Quickly, she shook her head. “No, I’m really sorry, Silent Knight. I’m happy for you. I would love to lead the Arch. I’m surprised you’re asking me and not Russet, though.”

“Russet would be good, too, but he may end up in the wedding, and I also wanted to show you that I do actually appreciate you. And if you think she can get the sabre high enough, I’d like Azurite to be part of it too.”

Sunny stared at me and then burst out laughing. Really hard, in a kind of unhinged way. I closed the distance to her desk and peered at her.

The golden mare kept laughing and waved a hoof at me. “High enough…” She gasped. “Cause she’s short.”

Azurite was the littlest adult pony I’d ever seen. She was even smaller than Miley which said a lot. I didn’t want a sabre at eye level. “Yeah… I’m serious, though.”

Sunny kept giggling a while before finding her voice. “She’s a unicorn, Silent Knight. She’ll just levitate it.”

Ah, magic, right. I felt my face flush. “Or she could levitate it.”

That only set Sunny into another fit of laughter. It really hadn’t been that funny.

I waited for her to get some semblance of control before asking, “So you’ll do it?”

“Of course! I’ll need four more names, though.”

“Right, I’ll have to think on that. We have time, though.”

“Okay, well, if you come up short I’m sure we can find somepony that knows you well enough,” she said before grinning wide. “Come up short? Get it!”

She was starting to look looney, so I circled her desk and pulled her helmet off. She swatted at me the whole time.

“Quit it!”

“Just making sure you’re okay!” I said, pressing my hoof against her forehead. It was a normal enough temperature. Honestly, I didn’t do that great during the field medic portion of my training. Bandage a wound, sure. The other stuff, not so much.

Sunny gave me a light push and replied, “I’m fine. Just a bit punchy.”

“Alright, why don’t you call it a day? I’ll take over for you.”

“Yeah… you know what, that sounds good actually. I could use some sleep.”

I nodded and stepped out of her way. “That sounds smart. Maybe come in late tomorrow, too. I’ve got this.”

“Maybe I will,” she replied, heading for the door. When she got there, she stopped and looked back at me. “Silent Knight?”

“Yes?”

“Have you ever felt trapped?”

“Trapped? How do you mean?”

Sunny shrugged. “You know, like you make a decision, thinking it was the right one. Then you make another one based on that and then another and another. Eventually, you’ve made so many decisions you’re stuck on that path and there is nowhere to go but forwards. Do you know what I’m saying?”

Our eyes met and I stared at her a moment. Clearly, taking on both House Guards, the palace, and everything else was starting to get to her. Not that I blamed her. Princess Celestia was always busier than Princess Luna.

At the same time, I knew exactly what Sunny was saying. It seemed like that I was on a path with only one conclusion. It was something I was actively trying not to think about.

“Yeah, Sunny. I actually do,” I replied softly.

“It kind of sucks,” she mumbled.

My head bobbed in agreement. “Kind of, yeah. Might be for the best, though.”

“Might be. Might not be.”

Silence fell between us. She didn’t seem ready to leave and I wasn’t sure what to say to her. I finally smiled and offered, “You’re a really strong pony. You’ve been doing this longer than me and, in the face of everything, you’re always positive. If anypony can figure out how to escape the trap, it will be you. Just keep at it a little longer and I’m sure it will work out. Okay?”

“Okay. Thank you, Silent Knight. Really, I mean that.”

“Sure, Sunny. Get some sleep?”

“I will,” she said before letting herself out.

With Sunny gone, I decided to stay late to keep an eye on the palace. That, and if I was going to get any work done the next day, I had to figure out all of the files.

When I got back to my office, they were slightly sorted. A note was sitting on top that read, ‘Found the list, I’m going to delegate this to somepony else. Learning!’

That pony would be me. If I was going to work, I needed some semblance of order in my office. That meant getting these files where they needed to be, so I started to collect them, organize categories, and settle files into them.

From outside my office, I heard hoof falls. They were a little quieter than normal. Recognizing ponies I knew by how they walked was starting to become normal to me, thanks to Tranquil Dusk’s tutoring. These belonged to Steel Wings.

“Oh, sir. You’re back and in your office,” he said without the usual firmness in his gravelly voice.

“Yes, Chief, I’m back,” I said over my shoulder.

“I was hoping to talk to you before you saw this,” he muttered.

That gave me pause. I turned to look at him. “You did this?”

“Yes, sir. You said pull files. I pulled files. Uh… well, Crimson, Tranquil, and I pulled files.”

My ear flicked. “Chief, they can’t pull files. They don’t have any clearance to do so.”

“Yeah… so I sort of thought we didn’t want anypony knowing we were pulling files and looking at these ponies. You know, so they couldn’t track us. So we… well, you see, it was a mission.”

I closed my eyes. “Chief. Please tell me that you didn’t sneak into the archives, steal all of these files, and then hide them in my office.”

“Alright, I won’t tell you that,” he replied.

“Chief, this is a screw up.”

“I know, sir.” For once, his tone was humble. There was no cockiness or arrogance. Just the resignation that this was, in fact, a huge mistake. “We hid them here until you got back. We… well, I made this mistake. I’m not good at this sneaky stuff. I was hoping you’d know what to do.”

“Did you find any good candidates?” I asked as I tried to figure out how I was going to fix this.

“Yes, sir. Several, actually. I figured we could look at the mission plan and weed it down to a smaller group.”

“Alright. Any chance you’ve talked Crimson and Tranquil out of this?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m afraid Crimson’s head is full of fairy tale nonsense and hers is full of misguided loyalty. Talking can’t dissuade them. Those are the kind of ponies that get killed in this sort of thing so I’ve been riding them hard. Safely, but hard.”

“Good, keep that up. Where are the files for the ones you liked?”

He motioned to my filing cabinet. “There.”

I actually chuckled. “Of course. And the rest of these?”

“Hidden in plain sight. Nopony would be stupid enough to steal a ton of records and leave them out for everypony to see, and if anypony found them here you had a rock-solid alibi.”

That was very clever, actually. “Who came up with that?”

“As much as it pains me to say, Crimson. Not that I mind him having ideas. It is just… well, sir, he read it in a comic book. A comic book!”

“Of course he did. Alright, Chief, thank you for letting me know. I’ll sort this out. They’re not so much stolen as incorrectly borrowed. Keep up the training. I’ve got a busy few days and then I’ll join you.”

“Yes, sir. Good luck, sir.”

Good luck, indeed. I was going to need it.

The palace finally settled itself out just before sundown. It was a far longer day than I normally worked but it helped Sunny and I had a lot to do. The whole time, her question about being trapped kept trying to force itself to the forefront of my mind.

That was not what I wanted, so I just kept myself as busy as I could and hoped it would go away. Once all the work was done, it started to worm its way back up, so I had to move on.

On the way home, I stopped by Runic’s shop to see him. He was, not surprisingly, out with Miley, and Rossby wasn’t the kind of pony who liked to talk, so I just casually checked the drop, grabbed the information in it, and let myself out.

In the safety of crowded streets where nopony would pay a random guard any mind, I took a quick look through what Maya had left me. The first thing I saw was a piece of paper with crisp, nondescript typewritten letters on it.

Package is on the boat. Will personally observe it once it arrives and report when the best time to pick it up arises. Be ready.

My hackles rose. This was going to happen. Our mission was no longer the fevered dream of a broken, bitter pony. It was real. Alastair was going to be in Equestria, hiding out and thinking he was safe. After all, who would look for him here?

I shoved the documents into my saddlebags and started to march forwards. I needed to get to Crystal’s condo. She could calm the thoughts swirling in my head.

There was no way he’d surrender. This would be a fight to the death. I was going to have to face him and kill him.

I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted anymore. What right did I have to take these ponies with me and put them at risk? How could I live with myself if I got one of them killed? At least Lavender and the others had known the risks.

What I wanted was irrelevant now since the machine was already in motion. Maya had gone to great lengths to make this happen and Alastair was going to be here. All of the pieces were on the board, and there was a mission that needed to be completed.

How could I explain that to the princess, or Crystal? That this mission was necessary? There would be no way they could understand. Princess Luna would be so disappointed in me. And Crystal… I couldn’t think about what she would say.

By the time I reached the door to her condo, I was wound up tight. Too wound up to think straight. My hooves trembled with a mix of rage and anxiety. Couldn’t I just walk away, get married, and have a quiet life? Why couldn’t I? Hadn’t I earned it?

That wasn’t what Knights did though. That wasn’t what Stratus would have done. Always put the mission first, Son. Never give up until it is complete. On the battlefield only one pony gets to walk away. Alastair doesn’t get to walk away. Not this time. Not again.

Calm down, Silent Knight. I stood outside the condo and tried to take long, deep breaths. They weren’t helping. None of the things the doctors had taught me in the hospital helped. What did they know, anyway? A soldier is tough. A soldier is hard. They don’t survive something like that and then get weak. They get stronger from the experience. Focus on the mission, soldier!

I tried to drive the swirl of emotions deep within me. Bury them for later. It wasn’t working, though; all I could see was the smug look he’d given me when he’d broken my wing. He’d killed my ponies. He murdered them. He murdered Alton and his own kind, for what?

“FOR WHAT?!”

My hoof slammed against the decorative column outside of Crystal’s condo. The plaster shattered under the force. How could I consider backing out? This wasn’t vengeance or revenge. No, not in the least. This was retribution! Righteous retribution and justice!

I stood there panting. All I could see through the haze of pain in my foreleg were the flag-draped coffins. No turning back. No turning around. There was one path. One path left. One pony walks off the battlefield and Alastair was no pony. He was a monster that loomed over me.

To my side, I heard a soft gasp. “Silent Knight. Are you okay?”

Crystal was in her doorway, a look of shock and confusion on her face. And something else. The worst possible thing: fear.

My jaw was clenched tight. I hadn’t realized it. Our eyes met and the anger started to drain out of me. I could never look at her and be angry. “I…”

More of the plaster on the column gave in to gravity and fell to the floor.

I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I was angry. It was a stupid thing to do. I’ll pay for it.”

Crystal held out a hoof to me. It trembled slightly. “Okay. It’s okay. Come inside. You can tell me what’s wrong.”

No, I couldn’t. She’d never understand. Crystal wasn’t a warrior and she was certainly a better pony than this. She deserved a better pony than this.

I took her hoof and let her lead me inside. My head fell. Maybe she wouldn’t notice. Maybe she would never figure it out and we could stay together.

That would certainly be the preferable path but, like Sunny, I was trapped. There was only one way left to go.

31. The Summer Faire

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“Silent Knight, I asked if we are ready to go?”

I heard Princess Luna’s voice, but my mind was elsewhere.

Steel Wings and I had pulled the files of almost twenty ponies to interview for our mission. Missives had gone out that sounded official and classified. I still hadn’t figured out how to fix the problem of getting those files back to where they belonged. Instead, I’d just worked on my battle plan.

Regardless of how busy I was, we had to leave the city to go to Ponyville. I didn’t have time for this nonsense.

“Silent Knight?” Princess Luna called.

I blinked a few times as I came back to full awareness. “Apologies, Princess. Yes, we’re all ready. Two squads went in advance with Iridescence. By your order, we’ll go.”

She peered at me. “Are you well, Silent Knight?”

“I am, Princess. I’ve just got a lot on my mind.”

“A wedding will do that,” she replied with a smile.

I nodded. “That is true.” The wedding was the least of my worries. I motioned to the door. “After you, Princess. Your chariot awaits.”

Together, we left the palace with the remaining squad. It was a short flight, especially compared to the one to and from Haven, and we arrived in Ponyville before the main festivities had begun.

After disembarking, Princess Luna smiled mischievously and rooted through her saddlebag. From it, she produced a T-shirt and slipped it on.

“You’re really going to wear that, Princess?” I asked as I read it.

Princess Luna had commissioned the royal tailors to make this garment just for her. It read: ‘Blame My Sister.’

She smirked. “What? You don’t think it is funny?”

Night Frost laughed and said, “Forgive the lieutenant, Princess. He is just—and I mean this with all due respect—being a stick in the mud.”

Slowly, I turned to look at him. Our eyes met and his went wide with panic.

“Apologies, sir! Princess, the lieutenant is being a… uh… a stick in the mud. No! I mean he is concerned with how Princess Celestia may feel!”

I nodded.

Princess Luna waved a hoof at me. “I think it is clever, Silent Knight. Besides, I want to blend in today.”

Good luck with that. “Yes, Princess,” I replied.

We turned towards the town and I spotted Iridescence making her way over to us. She took one look at the princess and chuckled. “Clever.”

“Silent Knight doesn’t approve,” Princess Luna replied.

“I’m not surprised.” My new first sergeant then looked to me. “Everypony is in their positions, sir. The town is safe and ready for the princess to enjoy the faire.”

There was little worry that Ponyville would be dangerous for the princess. After all, Twilight Sparkle and her friends protected it. It seemed foolish to bring the whole unit and keep them busy.

“Good work, Sergeant,” I said. “I want you to go ahead and relieve Miley and her squad. Let them enjoy the faire until lunch. She can then take over personal security and Night Frost will take over town security. We’ll let Mountain Stone and his bunch have some time to enjoy the faire at that point. You may as well knock off until lunch, too. You can take over for me after.”

Iridescence nodded. “Thank you, sir, I’ll let them know.”

Princess Luna started heading towards the crowd. “Come along, Night Frost, let’s go show off my shirt!”

I waited for them to get out of earshot before I looked over at Iridescence. “I happen to know Winterspear is a sucker for the soft, stuffed pony dolls. Our father wouldn’t allow her more than one, and even that he was loath to suffer. Winning one for her would be viewed as a very sweet gesture.”

Iridescence nodded softly and then looked around. When she seemed certain nopony was looking, she levitated my helmet up and kissed my cheek. “You’re a sweet, soft stallion under all that metal. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now, I need to get to the princess. See you at lunch.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

I hurried off after Luna and caught up to her just in time to hear her declare, “Citizens of Ponyville! Behold, your Princess of the Night! I have returned in this time of happiness to enjoy both fun and merriment. I desire to participate in your games but your princess lacks a partner. Who will volunteer?”

The princess was kind enough to remember I was on duty and not insist that I be her partner. For some reason, that also made me a little sad. Only for a moment, though, and I couldn’t help but secretly laugh at the misfortune as she pointed at a random pony to join her. It was somewhat funny being on the other side of it.

“You look most fit and healthy!” the princess declared. “You shall increase our chances of winning! Will you be my partner, please?”

Her partner was to be a big red earth pony that looked extremely sturdy. He was so large, in fact, I’d be willing to bet he could give Mountain Stone a run for his bits.

The stallion stood in silence, looking surprised. He finally shrugged and nodded. Princess Luna looped a hoof around his and dragged him off to the seven-legged race. We followed behind. The princess gave her hoofguards to me for safe keeping and put her mane up in a ponytail.

From that point on, the pair competed in a myriad of events, taking first place in a majority of them. A myriad might be an exaggeration, but it felt that way at least. I will admit that watching the princess and her teammate compete against Miley Hooves and Mountain Stone in a pie-eating contest was fun. Not regulation, but fun.

I was helping the princess clean the pie off her face when one of the local ponies brought her a list for the official faire scavenger hunt. She was rather excited about it, and the big red stallion beat a hasty retreat when her back was turned. I chuckled and followed along with her.

“This is such fun, Silent Knight! It is exactly what I needed right now. We should have more festivals like this.”

“Of course, Princess,” I replied. “It is good for morale.”

She laughed and asked, “Good for morale? You mean having fun?”

I nodded.

Princess Luna laughed again and patted me on the back. “Very well. What should we do next? This scavenger hunt is so… passive.”

I thought about it a moment. “Carnival games?”

“Verily! We shall win the largest prizes!”

“Perhaps go a little easy on these ponies, Princess. They’re not accustomed to your level of skill.”

“Oh, very well,” she replied, and we made our way over to the ring toss. “How do we play?”

I picked up a ring and set it on my hoof. “You have to toss it onto the bottles without using magic. If you land it on the neck of a bottle, you win.”

“That seems all too easy!” Princess Luna said. I just smiled and watched quietly. Ring after ring hit bottle tops and bounced away. “Cripes! This is impossible!”

“It just needs a little finesse, Princess,” I replied.

She glared at me. “Perhaps you would care to demonstrate?”

“I’m on duty, Princess.”

Princess Luna advanced on me, a group of rings levitating in her magic. “Oh no, little stallion. You will not hide behind your duty!”

The rings grew closer and I swallowed. I retreated until I backed into a pony. “Sorry,” I mumbled. The rings bumped into my cheek repeatedly. It was clear I would not escape this demonstration, so I reached out to take one.

Narrowing my eyes, I centered the ring onto my hoof and tossed it. It flew in what seemed like slow motion until it hit the top of a bottle, bounced up, hit another bottle, flipped twice, and finally landed on the neck of a bottle halfway across the booth.

“Winner!” the pony behind the counter cheered.

Princess Luna and I stood there stunned. I looked up to her and asked, “Why don’t you pick a prize?”

The princess’s eyes narrowed as she looked at me. I shrugged. It had been pure luck, but I wasn’t going to tell her that.

She sighed and pointed at a hat. “How about that?”

“Seems perfect to me,” I replied. The pony brought it down and handed it to the princess.

Since it was an earth pony hat, the princess just balanced it on the tip of her horn. It was light blue and white and read rather proudly, ‘Best Pony.’ That seemed right to me.

We played several more games to a varying degree of success until it was finally lunch time. The princess and I shared a quiet meal and after we were done, I excused myself.

With Iridescence taking over for me, I could spend time with Crystal Wishes. She’d come to Ponyville to see an old friend of hers. While I waited by a delicious-smelling funnel cake stand, I watched Princess Luna from afar. She was having so much fun that it was easy to almost forget I could have lost her.

I swore an oath to protect her. No matter what, I was going to fulfill that duty to the very end.

Alastair would never hurt another pony again.

“Hi, Silent.”

The sweetest voice broke through my thoughts and I looked over to see its owner. Crystal Wishes stood there with eyes that were soft and a little wary but still full of love. I couldn’t help but smile. “Hey. Ready to have some fun?”

After my little destructive outburst, Crystal had questions. She wanted to know why I’d gotten so upset. I didn’t want to explain. I couldn’t explain.

It was clear that she wanted to bring it up again, but thankfully she seemed to understand. Instead, she asked, “What should we do first?”

“I’m not sure. I think I saw an artist booth over there,” I suggested. “We could have a portrait made. That would be different.”

Crystal nodded. “Alright, let’s head over there.”

We walked together in silence. When we arrived, I realized I was mistaken: it wasn’t portraits, but instead caricatures. I glanced at her. “This might still be fun?”

The unicorn giggled. “Yes, it is. How about I go first and then we can get one of your grumpy face?”

“I’m not grumpy,” I protested.

“Uh-huh.”

“You think all royal guards are grumpy.”

She winked. “I might.” Then she went and spoke to the artist to get started.

I stood nearby and kept an eye on the crowd. Off duty or not, I was still going to be certain everything was safe. It also afforded me a few minutes to reflect on what was happening in my life.

I hadn’t properly told my mother that I was getting married. I’d barely spent five minutes to tell Winterspear and Iridescence. That probably looked suspicious.

“Silent Knight! Hi! Hello!” came a small, familiar voice.

I looked around in confusion, torn from my thoughts.

“Down here!”

Azurite was standing next to me below eye level with a strangely familiar pegasus stallion behind her.

“Warrant Officer Azurite,” I said. “Hello.”

The stallion and I made eye contact and we nodded at each other. He was a subtle shade of blue and bore a far darker blue mane and tail. I was positive I’d seen him before.

“Just Azurite today! I’m off duty.” She looked at me and then at the pegasus. “Oh yeah! This is my stallionfri—my spec—my Soarin.”

Soarin. That was it. The Wonderbolt. I’d never seen him out of uniform or face-to-face, not really. He’d been in the palace a few times and we’d seen each other in passing.

He laughed and offered me a hoof. “I’m Soarin. Nice to meet you. Although I feel like I’ve heard your name before, other than from Azurite.”

My expression stayed even. The idea of a Wonderbolt knowing my name was off-putting, simply because the reasons for it were not things I was eager to be famous for. Being the House Guard commander was just my job, and the reputation I’d earned from my actions in Nordanver was just my duty.

“I’m not sure how that would be,” I replied before waving it off. “Of course, I imagine most ponies know your name. You’re one of Equestria’s most amazing flyers.”

Soarin shrugged. “I just give it my all. Anyway, are you working all day?”

I shook my head. “Not today, actually. Once lunch time hit, I left my section sergeant in charge and met up with my fiancée to enjoy the faire.” I motioned over to Crystal Wishes.

She was sitting still while the artist did his thing and my eyes lingered there a moment. She looked so perfect. A mare like her should have ponies making paintings of her every day.

“Wow! She’s pretty hot!” Azurite blurted out.

I turned back just in time to see Soarin loop a hoof across her middle and tug her back. He chuckled and said, “Easy tiger, she’s spoken for.”

Azurite was with Sunny. At least I was almost positive she was. Sunny had been exceedingly busy, though, so maybe it hadn’t worked out. Not that being with Sunny didn’t mean she couldn’t look.

I blinked. “Thank you?”

No sense getting upset about it. If Crystal was going to fall for a mare, it would be Velvet. On that topic, what was Azurite doing there with Soarin?

Before I could really think it over, Soarin tugged Azurite a bit. “Well, we’ll let you be. Have a good time at the faire. Nice to meet you.”

Azurite chirped, “Bye!”

“You do the same. Have fun,” I called after them.

That was odd. Although, most things involving Azurite were odd. So actually, that was normal. Besides, she was a sweet and straightforward pony. She was also a genius when it came to paperwork.

In fact… she was the kind of pony I needed right then.

I shifted to follow them before I heard Crystal call after me.

“Silent Knight, what was that about?”

That brought me to a halt. I turned and looked back at her. “Oh, nothing. I work with one of them at the palace. They were just saying hello. How is your portrait going?”

“Just fine, so don’t wander too far. You’re next, mister.”

Orders from my mare. Orders that would be followed. I waited for my turn and actively tried to not look grumpy when the artist drew me.

He was a caricature artist, however, and I ultimately looked quite grumpy. Crystal seemed to delight in that fact.

The two of us spent the rest of the day together and, as the sun started to ease lower in the sky, we checked in on Princess Luna. She was completely worn out, so I had Iridescence and Miley escort her back to the palace.

Crystal and I sat on a blanket just outside of the town square, watching the townsponies mingle. She looped a hoof over mine and said, “I’m going to say something snobby and I hope you won’t judge me for it.”

“Who am I to judge you?” I asked.

She giggled and shrugged. “I really enjoyed this… but it was no Glimmer World.”

That was an understatement. I nudged her shoulder with mine. “I don’t think anypony would have an issue with that remark.”

“Yeah… still, they worked so hard on this. It was great.”

“It was. The princess had a good time. That is important.”

Crystal nosed my cheek. “Yeah. So, while I have your attention, can we talk about the other night?”

A chill ran down my spine and it took all of my self-control not to stiffen. “What about it?”

“You were really upset. You put a hoof through a column and then you didn’t say more than three words for the whole evening. Is something wrong?”

She might understand. Just tell her. “Crystal, I—”

“Yes?”

No, she couldn’t understand. How could she? What was I going to say? ‘You see, dear, I’m going to risk everything to go stop the gryphon that almost killed me. I see his face, I hear his voice, and I feel him looming over me’?

“Silent?” she whispered. There was no judgment in her eyes as she looked at me.

I sighed. “There are parts of my job… ugly parts, I guess. I can’t share them with you. Some things will always be…” What? What would they be?

“Classified?” she offered.

Quickly, I nodded. Too quickly. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Oh.” She dropped her head slightly. “I guess I can understand that. I just… I want you to know that I’m happy, Silent Knight. I really am. It’s just that sometimes you feel distant, then the other night you were angry. Not just angry, really. Furious? That was new. At least for me.”

“I am sorry about that, really. You shouldn’t have seen it. It won’t happen again.”

She looked at me. “You’ll never be angry again? That seems unlikely. Or do you mean I won’t see it again?”

“I mean—” I meant that I’d hide it better. How could I say that? “I don’t know what I mean. Just… I’ll try not to bring work home. It isn’t fair to you.”

Crystal softly kissed my cheek. “Well, if you do, remember that I’m marrying all of you. Not just the part after work hours.”

“Yes, I know.” She didn’t know about the bad parts she would be marrying, though. That seemed dishonest on my account, but I couldn’t imagine losing her. Besides, the part of me after work hours was the better part and I could keep that for her.

Crystal was staring at me with concern. It was time to change the subject. I cleared my throat. “Shining Armor offered me a job.”

“Oh?”

With a nod, I replied, “Yes, a really great offer, actually. I mean… it isn’t like being the commander of a House Guard, but there is advancement in a huge way and I’d be around him again. We’d have to move to the Crystal Empire, though.”

Crystal’s head tilted and she asked, “Do you want the job?”

“I want the job, but I don’t want to leave Princess Luna,” I explained. “I also don’t want to uproot you without much notice.”

Crystal grinned. “I wouldn’t mind. I can write from anywhere, and it is only a train ride away. The other part is a tough decision. Why don’t you think it over? Whatever you decide, I’m behind you. Both prospects sound great. Is that helpful?”

“Of course,” I lied. It wasn’t helpful at all because it left the decision in my hooves. I shifted and offered her a hoof. “Why don’t we go dance? I’d rather have some fun than dwell on a work problem. Okay?”

“Far be it from me to turn down a chance to dance with you… but if you do need to talk, you can talk to me. Alright?”

“Alright,” I replied.

“Put the medal on, sir.”

“I’m not wearing the medal, Chief.”

Steel Wings fixed me in his gaze and repeated, “Put the medal on, sir.”

“I said no.”

“Listen here. We’re about to take a huge chance by talking to ponies about the Nightwatch. We need to impress them and make this seem far more legitimate. Now, I get your objection. I really do. I’ve lost ponies before, too, but let me tell you one thing and I want you to listen.”

He grabbed my chin and forced me to look him in the eye. Rage immediately flared inside me and it took a lot of effort not to shove him away.

“If I’d been your commanding officer, I’d have put you in for that medal, too. You earned it when you chose not to leave your CO on the battlefield. You earned it again when you gave it all up to protect your unit and your VIP. Having it does not cheapen the memories of those ponies that died. So, sir, put the medal on… and keep that killer’s look when they come in.”

He let me go and sat back.

It was hard to keep my breathing even with so much anger in my chest. As much as I hated to admit it, he was right.

I reached into my bottom drawer, pulled the small medal out, and affixed it to my armor under my rank pin. It seemed ostentatious even though this one was meant to be worn at all times.

Within an hour, the first candidate arrived and was seen into my office. My guards didn’t ask any questions. This was just one royal guard visiting another. That happened all the time.

Chief and I sat there looking over the pony on the other side of my desk. She was extremely fit and looked more than capable. That, of course, was no surprise. She’d been a Royal Guard sergeant for a few years out west and had dealt with all kinds of trouble. Including the gryphon kind.

That wasn’t what interested me the most, however. Autumn Wind was a weather pony turned guard and that was the kind of experience I needed for my plan.

“Do you know why you’re here, Sergeant?” I asked.

“No, sir. I got the confidential letter and came out immediately.”

Chief looked her over and asked, “Tell me what you see?”

“Pardon?” Her brow furrowed.

“What do you see?” he repeated.

Autumn looked around and then replied, “An armsmaster and a House Guard commander. No reason for those two ponies to be in the same office. Normally, anyway.”

“Normally?” I put in.

“You’re an odd pair. No real overlap in the chain of command other than at the very top. He certainly wouldn’t be protecting the princess. You don’t need that sort of skill to subdue ponies. At the same time, you normally don’t have the House Guard in combat, but clearly the lieutenant has seen it,” she explained, motioning to my medal.

“That is fairly observant,” Chief replied, a little smugness in his voice. “What does this tell you?”

“That, most likely, I’ve attracted the attention of some sort of intelligence group.”

I leaned back in my chair. “A reasonable assumption. Is that a problem for you?”

Autumn seemed to be considering that for a moment before she shook her head. “Generally, no. Depending on what this group might be doing.”

“Hypothetically speaking, what sort of thing would you be against doing?” I asked.

She shifted uncomfortably. “I wouldn’t want to do anything that would hurt other ponies.”

“That won’t be a problem. Anything else?”

“What does this sort of thing do for a pony’s career?” she asked.

Chief and I exchanged glances and then I looked her in the eyes. “If we are successful, absolutely nothing. Nopony will ever know about it. You’ll never get a medal. You just have the knowledge that you carried out something difficult.

“On the other hoof, if we fail, this has the high probability of ruining your career. Hypothetically speaking, if that were to happen, I’d shoulder all the responsibility, but it would probably not be enough to save you.”

Her eyes got large and she seemed like she wanted to bolt out of the room. “Those are horrible odds. Why me?”

“I can’t elaborate too much, but your file was an excellent read. You’re perceptive, a decent enough guard in the physical department, and a talented weather pony. Why did you leave the weather service?” I asked.

Her cheeks turned bright red. “I was chasing a stallion, sir.”

Chief’s brow went up and I blinked. “You joined the Guard to follow a stallion? How did that go?”

“Not well.”

“Why did you stay, then?” Chief asked.

She smiled and shrugged. “I got in and even after he and I didn’t work out, I still loved it. Guards make a difference.”

“That they do,” I said before looking at Chief. He gave the slightest of nods. I returned it.

I set her file aside and looked her square in the eyes. “Sergeant, I think you’re right for this mission. Again, I can’t elaborate, but I’ll say it will likely put blood on your hooves for no reward. It also means giving up your evenings and weekends while still maintaining your normal duties. Would you like to come on board?”

Autumn looked from one of us to the other and said, “It seems like the smart answer is to say no and walk out of here right now.”

“It is,” I agreed.

“Any chance I can think it over?”

I shook my head.

She frowned. “Is it going to matter? I mean… is this important? Are we saving Equestria?”

“It does matter and yes, it is important, but unfortunately no. We’re not saving all of Equestria. We might—and I should stress might—save some pony lives down the line. Those are the facts, and I won’t sugarcoat it or suggest this is more than it is.”

The mare’s eyes flicked left and right, as if she was going over letters on a page. “You make a compelling case for me to say no. I respect your honesty, sir. This is probably the stupidest move I’ll ever make in my career, but for some reason I’m going to say yes. Yes, I’m in.”

I stood and offered her my hoof. “Welcome aboard. Chief Wings will brief you.”

After several more interviews, Chief Steel Wings and I called it a day. At least as far as the Nightwatch was concerned. I still had to do my duty and I’d heard a great rumor that I wanted to share. I trotted over to Princess Celestia’s wing to do some intelligence sharing.

I knocked on Sunny’s office door. It was open but she was face-down on her desk. “Sunny? Hello?”

She sat up quickly and wiped her eyes. They were red. “Silent Knight. What can I do for you?”

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah, fine. Just tired.” She avoided direct eye contact. “What do you need?”

“I came to give you some good news. Major Aegis was just released from the hospital. He’ll start light duty next week. You can go back to just running the House Guard. Russet should be home soon, too, actually.”

Sunny nodded. “Great.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked, coming over to her desk.

“I said I’m fine, Silent Knight. Is that all?”

It wasn’t. “Have you ever written the goodbye letter?”

The golden mare’s head tilted as she peered at me. “It doesn’t come up too often anymore but sure, I’ve written goodbye letters. Kind of like thank you notes.”

“No, Sunny. The goodbye letter.”

Realization dawned on her and her ears stood up. “What? No! Silent Knight, that’s so morbid! I don’t think I’m going to go out one day and get killed. What is going on with you lately?”

I shifted and pulled an envelope from my saddlebag. “Before I got engaged, I didn’t worry about this sort of thing. My family knows Guard life. They’d understand. Crystal wouldn’t, though. Sunny, if something happens to me, can I rely on you to give this to her?”

Sunny recoiled, pushing a hoof against the letter as I offered it to her. “No! Silent Knight you’re being—whatever it is, just stop being it.”

“Sunny, please.” I pushed the letter back at her. “Please?”

Golden magic slowly encircled the envelope and lifted it away from my hoof. Sunny opened her desk drawer, dropped it inside, and then slammed it. “Fine. Since I know nothing is going to happen to you, I’ll accept it. I promise that on the off-chance I’m wrong, I’ll deliver your morbid letter to Crystal.”

“Thank you,” I said before turning to leave.

“Silent Knight…”

My hooves came to a stop and I looked back. “Yes?”

We stared at each other a moment and then she shook her head. “Nothing. Have a good night.”

32. Harmony, Planning, and Ponies

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Steel Wings and I sat in my office going through more interviews. They were going better than I’d anticipated.

My brow arched. “Are you certain you don’t want to hear more before you make up your mind?”

The dark blue pegasus shook his head, his close-cropped silver mane barely moving. “No, sir. That armsmaster pin and Celestia Cross tell me all I need to know. Count me in.”

Silver Flare was, to put it bluntly, a brawler. He’d spent his whole career volunteering for anything dangerous or where there might be a fight. As such, he’d be in more fights in seven years than most ponies saw in a thirty-year career. He was good in that regard. His other skills, unfortunately, weren’t as sharp, so he’d never advanced past guard first class.

Steel Wings shrugged. “Works for me. You’re in for a whole mess of trouble, son.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time, Chief,” Silver replied with a very cavalier tone.

“Alright, you’re in,” I said. “You’ll coordinate with Chief Wings. Return to your normal duties. You know the drill.”

“Yes, sir!” he replied before stiffening to attention. We exchanged salutes and he left.

“I like that one,” Chief said.

I snorted. “I’m sure you do.”

“Alright, that is a weather pony, a medic, a fighter, two scouts, an armsmaster, and you. What’s left?”

“Acrobatic flyer,” I replied.

Chief frowned at me. “Are you ever going to share all the details of this plan with me?”

“As soon as I have my flyer. Otherwise the plan is a wash.”

Chief nodded and then looked at the files piling up. “What about these? I thought you were going to fix this.”

I waved a hoof. “I am. I have a plan for that, too. Don’t worry about it. Just worry about getting those ponies safely in peak condition.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

After several less successful interviews, I was hoping I had finally found the right pony. Blur, the stark white pony sitting across from us, had suspicion written all over his face. He would, most likely, end up on a Wonderbolts team someday, providing I didn’t get him injured or killed.

“I’m not sure why intelligence would want me,” Blur said.

“We’re not intelligence,” I corrected.

He shrugged. “The point still stands, sir. I’m not sure why whatever this is would want me.”

“You’re one of the best flyers the Navy has,” I explained. “You also have experience as a trainer. I’m looking to leverage that knowledge and talent.”

“I don’t know, sir. This looks like a rough deal. I’m not one of those guys who are all bravado. I went through the training, but I’m not much of a fighter. That one dust-up was just a fluke.”

That dust-up was between him and three gryphons. He’d out-thought and out-flown them. Blur had used the terrain to his advantage and ultimately took out all three. That wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t hoof-to-claw fighting, but it was well executed.

“I don’t really buy that, sailor,” I said.

Chief grunted. “Me neither.”

Blur shifted and broke form to rub behind his neck. “It isn’t like I beat them or anything.”

“You used your natural advantages to subdue them. We don’t care if you can’t swing a sword, nor would we ask you to. We’ll be playing to your strengths, not trying to make you into a soldier.”

“I don’t know, sir. I’m looking forwards to a career as a Wonderbolt, and you’ve already said this could ruin those chances.”

“Yes, I’m afraid that is true,” I replied. Then I set my hooves on the desk.

This was not who I wanted to be, but I was running out of time and I needed a flyer. Desperate times, desperate measures.

My voice lowered with careful precision. “But is that really all you want to do? Be a show pony? Don’t get me wrong, I respect the Wonderbolts, but at the end of the day, you need to ask yourself what is going to make the most difference. We’ve got a legitimate threat to Equestria in our borders.”

I saw Chief’s eyes twitch ever so slightly in surprise. We hadn’t tried to convince anypony to join us.

“I… uh… well, sir.” Blur swallowed. “I suppose if you’re mostly looking for a trainer and a flyer, I could spare the time. If you really mean the bit about no swords and such.”

“I do. I can say you won’t be out of a fight but you won’t be in the thick of it. We’ve got ponies for that.”

Blur nodded and then replied, “Alright, sir. Count me in, I guess. When do we get started?”

“Tomorrow night. Chief will give you the details.”

After the door closed behind Blur, Chief looked at me. “So, you have your team, then. Now, what’s the plan?”

I tucked Blur’s folder back into the file cabinet and locked it. “I promise I’ll give you all the details soon. I have one more thing to take care of.”

He snorted and one ear flicked. “You make a lot of promises, Lieutenant. I just hope you’re able to make good on them. For your sake.”

I straightened up to look at him. “Are you threatening me, Chief?”

“Me? Threatening? Never.” He stepped forwards to crowd me and lowered his face to mine. “Just hoping you remember that this is bigger than you.”

A part of me wanted to clock him right in his smug face. The other part of me was afraid he knew I was having doubts.

I shoved past him to wait at the door. “See you tomorrow night, Chief.”

I could feel his stare boring into the side of my head. I didn’t look at him. Finally, he snorted and trudged out of my office.

“Better be good,” he muttered as he passed me.

Once he was gone, I locked my office and hurried to leave the palace. I had to secure an important piece of the puzzle and hope it didn’t arouse suspicion.

As normal, when I walked into the Phial and Filly, Rossby was behind the front desk reading a book. He regarded me with complete indifference. I nodded to acknowledge his lack of acknowledgement. It was our thing.

I almost went to the drop location on pure instinct but navigated my hooves to the backroom door instead. Strangely, I was met with only darkness.

“Runic?” I called.

“I’m here,” he replied.

“Where is here?”

“I’m not sure. Is it dark or did I blind myself?”

Just one time, I’d like to come back there and have it be normal. “It’s dark, but I can’t promise you that you haven’t blinded yourself.”

“Fair enough. Flip the switch.”

After a pause, I said, “I’m not embarrassed to say I’m too afraid to do that.”

There was some movement in the darkness. Something glass fell over and shattered. “Oops. Hope that was empty! Don’t worry, it’s totally safe. I fixed that wire.”

Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and go. My hoof found the switch and flipped it up. The main lights didn’t come on. Instead, a bunch of red ones along the back wall lit up.

“Close enough,” Runic said from the back corner of the workshop. “How did I get all the way over here?”

Rossby leaned in from the storefront. “Even odds say when you blew up whatever it was near this side, it threw you back there.”

“Ah, that makes sense,” Runic replied before heading my way. “Welcome back, Silent Knight!”

Briefly, Rossby and I exchanged glances, and then I turned back to my cousin. “Thank you.”

Runic smiled. “How did it go? Was she surprised?”

“Completely. I was afraid for a moment she was going to say no. She was just stunned is all, I guess.”

Runic grabbed me in a tight hug. “Yay! Congratulations!”

I was more than happy to return the hug just as tight. “Thank you, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

He let go and shrugged. “I doubt that, but still. Are you ready for our big day tomorrow?”

What was happening tomorrow? Was it his birthday? No, not yet. My birthday? “Tomorrow?”

“Yeah, the entitling of the Harmony. Remember?”

The airship! I’d completely forgotten. That was my last possible priority. “I—” When I looked at Runic, his eyes were filled with glee. I really didn’t have time, but this might be our last—No, focus. I could spare an afternoon for family. “I am. Should we meet here?”

“That works for me.”

“Great. I’ll be here. Say, do you have any more of those immolation potions Miley used over in Nordanver?”

Runic nodded and went over to the shelf. “Absolutely. I don’t think we should bring them, though. I wouldn’t want to mix airships and immolation potions.”

It took a lot of effort to keep my expression and tone even. “Oh, no, I don’t want them for that. They were extremely useful, so I thought they should be part of my kit. Can I have some? Twenty or so?”

My alchemist cousin dumped out one of his shampoo crates and filled it with potions, then repeated the process with a second. “Here you are!”

As I pondered how concerned I should be with how easy this was, I instead shifted my focus to something more important than my cousin’s naivety. “Random question.”

He beamed. “My favorite kind!”

“Would these still burn in the rain? Not like a little rain. I’m talking torrential downpours.”

Runic nodded proudly. “You bet! Not forever, mind you, and not as long as if things were dry, but yeah. They’ll absolutely burn in the rain. Oh, do you need them to burn underwater?”

“What?”

“Do you need them to burn underwater? Is that a requirement?”

I shook my head. “No, that’s okay.”

“Okay good, because they probably won’t burn underwater. I mean, they definitely won’t.”

“Good to know. See you tomorrow?”

“You bet!”

Next on my agenda was the Canterlot University Research Library, which thankfully was only a short flight away. When I touched down on campus, there were still a few students coming and going. The building never closed but the pony I was looking for wasn’t there all hours of the day.

The library was quiet, as per usual. For an institute as busy as Canterlot University, the building was almost always empty. That suited me fine. I approached the circulation desk and spotted Ley Lines flipping through a magazine with mild disinterest.

“Pardon me,” I said softly.

The unicorn mare looked up, her green and blue mane falling to the side. “Lieutenant? What can I do for you?”

“How is your early Equestrian?” I asked.

She looked at me, her brow arched. “Extremely good. Why?”

I flipped my saddlebag’s flap open and pulled out the first Knights of the Moon tome, setting it on the counter. “This is an ancient warrior text. To my knowledge, only one exists and its value is immeasurable. I need it hoofcopied. No spells.”

Ley Line’s eyes went big. Carefully, she took the blue, silkbound book and opened it to read the first page. “Where did you get it?”

“A town called Haven.”

She glanced up at me. “I’ve never heard of it.”

I smiled. “And perhaps someday you will. Can you help me?”

“Well… hoofcopying isn’t what we normally do…” She grinned wide. “But this seems like a stellar opportunity. I can do it for you.”

“Thank you,” I replied. Then I set my hoof on the book. “I must emphasize that it is the only one. Can I trust you with this?”

She pulled it closer to her almost protectively. “You can count on me, Lieutenant! I promise. You’ll get it back in exactly the same condition. Although…”

“Although?” I repeated.

“I feel a fee is in order.”

Of course. “Name it.”

“When you come to pick it up, you tell me about Haven.”

Was that all? I could do that. Ponies needed to start learning about Haven, anyway. “Agreed. How long will it take?”

She looked at the book and seemed to judge it by size. “Probably a while. I’ll find you.”

Early in the morning, Runic and I flew together to the airship yards north of Canterlot. I’d seen them at a distance, but I’d never spent any time near them. The sheer scale was impressive. Jet Ventures operated three massive construction berths, several medium ones, and tons of small ones.

Airship construction was the perfect example of pony collaboration: earth pony technology, pegasus cloud manipulation, and unicorn magic. It was one of the things that made Equestria so strong.

“Would you look at her,” Runic said, awestruck as we approached. “She is a beauty.”

“Yes, she is,” I replied as my eyes drifted over the ship.

The Harmony floated effortlessly in berth one. For her hull, the designer had chosen a dark wood that had been stained and then polished to a high-gloss sheen. Airship hulls are typically not shaped like their ocean-going cousins. The bow is tapered for better wind resistance, but the rest of the hull is often far more angular with only the slightest curve at the bottom.

While still retaining some semblance of masts, they also trade their sails for one massive primary balloon and a number of smaller rescue balloons. The Harmony had eight to ensure that, if the main failed, the massive vessel would slowly descend while staying level.

The primary balloon was long and cylindrical in shape. It rested gently atop three masts and was held in place by thousands of yards of rigging.

Last, but not least, the keel of the ship bore two giant propellers that would push the Harmony forwards, though I imagined not very fast.

Runic looked at the grandstands near the side of the vessel and asked, “Do you want to get a seat down there or go for a pegasus special?”

“I bet the pegasus special will be better. What do you think?”

“We’ll need to be fairly close to hear, but yeah, let’s see if we can find a cooperative cloud.”

Together, we scoured the area for a cloud big enough to hold us both. Runic eventually found one and together we awkwardly maneuvered it into a good vantage point. Never underestimate how hard it is to move a cloud. Weather ponies make it look easy. It isn’t. By the time we’d gotten the disobedient thing settled, the entitling ceremony was starting.

A pony stepped up onto the grandstand and made his way over to the podium. “Ladies and gentleponies, on behalf of Jet Ventures and Eminence Enterprizes I want to thank you for being here today. Please give a warm welcome to the Chairpony of Jet Ventures, Mr. Jet Ship.”

The crowd broke out into loud but very polite stomps. This was, after all, a classy affair and seemed to be geared towards the elite. After all, the average pony couldn’t afford to just cruise around in a stateroom.

The original pony stepped out of the way and another joined him on the podium. He was in a pristine tuxedo, had a smooth, ‘all business’ mane, and a short-cropped tail, both a faded blue with aged, greying streaks. His coat was light slate grey and even at a distance, I could see his piercing orange eyes.

“Friends, I am so thrilled to be here today. When my father started this company so long ago, most ponies thought the skies were the domain of the pegasi only. He went from building small, single-pony airships to many of the designs we know as standard today. This, however, he could have never imagined!”

Jet Ship motioned to the Harmony and the crowd once again stomped politely.

Once the noise had died down, he continued on, “This new class of airship is the most modern, the most safe, and the most luxurious in existence. With a capacity to comfortably transport two thousand guests and seven hundred crew, more ponies than ever will know the joys of this kind of entertainment.”

He then smiled, leaned across the podium, and added, “And as chairpony of the board, I am obligated to mention that we’re starting to book for the maiden flight today. Be sure to see your travel agent.”

The crowd chuckled. Runic rolled his eyes.

“Now, without further ado, I want to invite to the stage a pony that had a huge hoof in making this possible. In fact, without him, I doubt we’d be here today. Ladies and gentleponies, President of Eminence Enterprizes, Mr. Eminence!”

A unicorn rose from the front of the crowd and made his way up and onto the grandstand. He was tall, lean, and wore a perfectly tailored tuxedo. Beneath it, his coat seemed to have been made of spun gold. His mane was perfectly groomed and light blue. He walked with confidence.

“That’s Iridescence’s dad,” I said absently.

Runic looked over. “Oh yeah? She sure doesn’t act like the daughter of one of the richest ponies in the world.”

“No, she doesn’t.”

When Eminence reached the podium, he shook hooves with Jet Ship. “Thank you, Mr. Ship. You’re too kind. I am just so happy that I can be a part of such a monumental moment in pony history. I’ve always believed very strongly in reaching for the heavens, and you have not disappointed. It is an honor to stand here next to you.”

Jet Ship nodded and motioned to where the Harmony floated mere feet from them. “Then shall we entitle this ship together and set off into the heavens?”

“By all means,” Eminence replied.

Together, the two ponies walked to the edge of the grandstand where an attendant offered them a bottle of champagne attached to a ceremonial ribbon. They each set a hoof on it and pushed it together. The bottle hit the hull, burst open, and the crowd went wild.

Eminence spoke up, “We entitle you TMS Harmony. May you sail the skies for many years to come.”

“I really want to get onto that ship,” Runic said, standing up.

My hooves got hold of his tail. “You’ll have to buy a ticket like everypony else.”

“Just a peek!” He started tugging me across the cloud.

I held firm. “No, I do not want to have to explain to Miley how you got arrested with me right here.”

Runic stopped and looked back at me. “She’d be very angry.”

“I bet!”

“Mostly at you. You should have stopped me,” he said.

“I am stopping you!”

Runic peered. “Are you?”

“Yes!”

“Aww… fine.”

Night had fallen and I stood on a cloud, looking at the line of ponies standing at attention. It was an odd bunch for sure. They were the right ones for what I had in mind, though.

“Thank you all for coming. Tonight is our first dry run. We’re going to practice this plan over and over until we know it without thinking. Every night, every day of the week. We will have the element of surprise on our side. We also have a lot of other advantages.”

I turned and looked down at the small, white ring Chief and I had painted on the grass far below us. From up here, it looked no bigger than a bit. It was large enough to hold three ponies in reality.

“Each of you has a special talent that made you suitable for this mission. We’re going to play to each of your strengths. Our target tonight is that ring below. For now, Blur, this is your show.”

Blur cleared his throat, looking a little uncomfortable. “Yes, sir. So, I brought everypony some goggles, you’re really going to need them.” He started handing the pairs out and the team put them on.

Nova’s head tilted. “Why goggles?”

“Well, and I mean this delicately, the LT is somewhat crazy but I think this part of the plan is really going to work. The goggles are for safety and that is what we’re all about. Safety first. Right?” He looked over at me uncertainly.

I nodded. “Right. Alright, Nightwatch, put the goggles on and come to the edge of the cloud here. Blur is going to run us through a few maneuvers, but it is the last one I want you to pay the closest attention to.”

Tranquil’s black-feathered wings flapped and she bounced to the edge of the cloud. “I think this is going to be fun.”

It seemed wrong to think of this as fun. We were preparing for taking lives. My stomach twisted at the thought, but I didn’t correct her. Perhaps that was a mistake. One of many.

Every night, we got together and went through the drills. My body would scream with aches at the end of it, but it was one heck of a workout. Nova kept us all in check, but Blur had a way with instruction that motivated everypony to keep going.

The only real problem was the impact it was having on my personal life. Once again, after training, I arrived at Crystal’s condo… late for dinner. The physical strain I could deal with. The looks she’d give me like she was the one in pain, however, were a different story.

A shower would have been nice, but I thought less late and smelly was better than really late and clean. We’d see how that played out. I knocked at her door three times.

The door opened, revealing Crystal in her bathrobe. “Wow, to be honest I expected you later.”

Well, she didn’t look mad or sad tonight. That was a good sign. “I didn’t want to be that late this time.”

She smiled. “The work of a royal guard is never done. You look a mess. Should I be concerned you’re cheating on me?”

My ears shot up. “Never! This sweat was earned the natural way. Through exercise.”

“Well then, come on in. I’ll heat up dinner. You have to eat if you’ve been working out that much.”

I walked inside. “That is true. Although, I’d love a shower. You could join me.”

Crystal softly giggled and gave me a shove. “Most nights I’d say yes, mister, but you’re on your own tonight. I’m in my pajamas.”

“Fair enough. I won’t be long,” I replied before hurrying off to her bathroom.

True to my word, I took as quick of a shower as I could. When I settled down to eat, a thought struck me and I looked around. “Where is Velvet?”

Crystal blinked and looked around as well. “You know, I’m not sure. She’ll turn up.”

I shrugged. That was true. Velvet tended to do her own thing. “Do you have any plans this Wednesday? That play you were talking about is going to be stopping through town on a road show. I thought you’d like to go.”

“Three Stallions and a Foal?”

“The other one,” I replied.

“Swift Times at Manehatten High?”

I shook my head. “No, the other, other one.”

“Flankspeare in Love?”

“That is the one! Would you like to go?”

Crystal nibbled on her lower lip. “Wednesday? They’re not here any other days?”

“One day only. We could drop everything and go,” I said hopefully.

“I’ve got Fancy Pants’s fall line showing. Only a few ponies were invited. It’s a sneak peek at what he’ll be debuting later his year. I’m already committed, I’m sorry.”

“That’s fine. We’ll just make some time another day,” I replied, turning back to my dinner.

This was the second time in as many weeks that some of Crystal’s events had taken her from me. Of course, I could never say anything. I was usually coming in late. Although, my stuff was mostly work related. Hers was just—

“My mother has pretty much demanded to meet you.”

“Pardon?” I looked up.

Crystal idly tapped her hooves together. “My parents. We’re getting married at some point. They want to meet you before the wedding.”

“Oh, well sure. That seems reasonable. You’ve met my mom. When?”

The unicorn grinned sheepishly. “Tomorrow?”

I looked up at her.

Her grin fell and she looked guilty. “I’m sorry, you’ve just been so busy at work, I put off telling you. If we cancel, she’ll think I’m hiding you.”

“No, tomorrow is fine. After work at least?”

She nodded. “Yes, but your regular hours.”

“Yes, dear,” I replied before looking back down to the food.

Well, this was going to be interesting.

33. Crystal's Parents

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Winterspear and I sat quietly on a bench watching Dot run around the park with some of her friends… or random fillies she’d just met. I wasn’t sure. Either way, they were having a lot of fun.

Winterspear glanced at me. “So… you went to propose and you thought you’d just do that without telling your dear, sweet, beloved sister in advance?”

“I wanted it to be a complete surprise and I didn’t want everypony to be in a position where they had to sit around, lie to her, and grin secretly.”

My sister’s nose wiggled and she frowned. “That almost sounds like a good excuse.”

“It is how I wanted it. It’s just an engagement. You’re going to be completely involved with the wedding when we get there.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m not sure I like the idea of this mare taking you away from me,” Winterspear said absently.

“You know Crystal. She isn’t just some mare,” I replied.

Winterspear grinned. “I know. I’m just being contrary. It would have been nice to know but I understand completely. It isn’t like I told you before…” She frowned.

“You dated Iridescence?” I asked.

She shook her head. “That, too, but I was thinking about Caramel Mint, actually.”

I slipped a hoof around her shoulders and tugged her close. “Don’t worry about her.”

“I’m not actually. For the first time in a very long time, I’m not.”

“Good. I guess that means you’ve moved on. Right?” I asked.

Winterspear nuzzled against me. “I guess so. Have you moved on?”

“What?” I almost gasped. How could she even think that? “From Iridescence? Of course!”

“No. From your wounds. From what happened over there. Iridescence says you’re keeping strange company and don’t think I haven’t noticed the odd hours… or that you’re working out or practicing all of the time. Even more than usual for you.”

“Oh,” I replied before I shook my head. “No, I haven’t moved on yet. I can’t get past it. Not yet, anyway. I see him sometimes. Like he is still around. I feel like… like I failed in my duty.”

My sister nodded. “That’s okay, Silent Knight. It really is. That sort of thing takes time, and if exercising or whatever helps you, it’s fine. You’ll get past it, I believe that. If you need somepony to talk to, though, you know you can talk to me. You’re not a failure. You got the princess away. That is the priority.”

I squeezed her tightly and without thinking replied, “I know. I just wish he was dead.”

Winterspear’s ears shot up but she looped her hooves around my middle. “He hurt you, you want to hurt him back. I can understand that. You can’t… I mean, he’s gone, right? He’s over there. You don’t have the power to do anything. The gryphons will handle it.”

“They won’t… and it isn’t just about hurting him back. I’m supposed to remove any threat to Princess Luna. External or internal. That’s my job. Not theirs,” I said resolutely.

She sighed and nodded. “Okay, you’re probably right about the gryphons. Try not to think about that.”

“I try to, but I can’t switch it off. It just happens over and over in my head. I don’t understand why he gets to attack the princess, kill my ponies, and yet I have to suffer. Tell me why we’re the ones that must suffer?”

My sister shook her head. “I can’t, I’m sorry.” She lightly stroked my cheek and then shrugged. “Try to think about something worse.”

That took me by surprise and I looked at her. “Something worse? What are you talking about?”

The mare smiled mischievously. “You get to go home and tell Mom about this engagement and explain why you thought it was okay to just send a letter.”

“What do you mean? I’ve been busy! A letter was better than nothing.”

Winterspear shook her head. “Nope! You should know better.”

“I should not!” I protested.

“You best go tomorrow. The longer you wait, the worse it will be,” she said.

“Great, thank you. I feel so much better now.”

Winterspear smiled. “It’s what I do.”

Dot ran over and said, “Winterspear, I think I’m played out. Plus, the girls had to get back to their school. Lunch is almost over. Shouldn’t we be leaving or something?”

“Well, all of the cool fillies’ parents let them come in from lunch just on time instead of early,” Winterspear said teasingly.

The filly blinked. “I guess we could stay out a little longer… but you have to play with me. Silent Knight, too. Everypony else is gone.”

“What are we playing?” I asked.

“Tag!” Dot chimed but then she held up a hoof. “But you can’t use your wings. That isn’t fair.” She then looked at me. “And you have to crawl. Stallions crawl.”

“Crawl?”

“Yup! You’re too big and fast. Winterspear knows how this works,” the filly said before tapping Winterspear with a hoof and running off. “You’re it!”

“She’s awful willful,” I said.

Winterspear shrugged and smiled. “I think it makes her fun.” She then reached out and pressed her hoof against my nose. “You’re it. And remember: stallions have to crawl!”

Chief Steel Wings was staring at me like I was insane. “I don’t think this is a good idea, sir. You’re basically letting the ponies we stole these files from know we stole them. That seems like the last thing we should do.”

“This is the best way I know to resolve this. There isn’t really another path for getting them back into the archive that doesn’t go through one of the pony resources sections. I happen to know this PRO really well, and she owes me a favor.”

Chief shook his head and grumbled. “I hope it is one huge favor. Fine, but I still don’t like it.”

I snorted and leaned back in my chair. “You don’t like anything. When she gets here, just stand over to the side and let me do the talking. She scares easy and I don’t want you running her off. You catch more ponies with sugar than you do vinegar. Besides, we didn’t steal these files. We improperly accessed them.”

He snorted and went back to the chalkboard to continue studying the plan I’d been developing. It was pretty much done, and our nightly dry runs were turning out to be very well orchestrated. Now we were just tweaking the tiniest of details to get the most out of everypony.

It wasn’t long before there was a knock at my office door. “Come in,” I called.

It opened very slowly and when there was just enough space Azurite poked her head inside. She looked around. First at me and then at chief. When she spotted him, she stared for a while and then looked up. “Reporting as ordered, sir.” She already looked nervous.

“Thank you for coming up, Azurite. I’ve got a lot of files here, and they need your special touch,” I replied and directed her attention at the stacks against the wall. “Would that get your attention?”

She blinked in surprise. “Yes, sir.”

Chief marched the distance between him and Azurite to thrust a list of names at her. He eyed her with wary suspicion but didn’t say a word.

I didn’t want to give Azurite any room to ask questions, so I ordered in my best lieutenant voice, “Return the file of every pony on that list back to the archive.”

“Yes, sir.” Her eyes darted between me, Chief, and the piles. “This seems, um. Pretty simple. Sir.”

I nodded. “Indeed. Unfortunately, there is a slight catch: these files were pulled…”

Come on, stupid honest mouth. Don’t fail me now.

“Inappropriately.” That worked. It wasn’t a lie. “We need them to be put back where they belong without it looking like they were accessed.”

Azurite’s head tilted as she looked up with a curious frown. “What for, sir?”

“Classified,” I replied mostly out of habit. “I need this done quickly, but don’t let it impact your normal work. When you’re done, destroy the list and do not log the request. Am I clear?”

She squirmed. A squirmy Azurite was never a good sign. “Does Lieutenant Brook know about this, sir?”

Chief looked at me with narrowed eyes. He wanted to take charge, but I wasn’t going to let that happen. Especially not to a friend.

My head shook. “No, and I’m afraid he isn’t going to. This is… above him. Since you’re doing this on my authority, I give you my word that I’ll say I coerced you if anypony finds out.”

“Coerced?” Her ears stood straight up and her eyes went wide. “Um, that makes this sound kind of not good? Bad? Unethical?” She squeaked, “I mean, outside of protocol, sir.”

“Not unethical, no. Just a stretch of protocol. I don’t want anypony knowing who is on the list, or that their file was pulled. For their safety. If I make an official request, it gets logged, and the list goes into the record. I’m just ordering you to break the documentation chain.”

I could see the gears turning in her little head. They were working overtime. My gut told me that they weren’t working in my favor.

Finally, she blurted, “I’m sorry, but I can’t, sir! I just got my good pony award, and I really like it, and I want to keep it. If I do this then I’m doing a bad thing and I don’t want a bad pony award!”

Azurite was a good pony. Everypony knew that. Besides, I was pretty sure there was no such thing as a bad pony award. I got up from my seat and walked around my desk, hoping a little looming might convince her to change her mind.

“Am I coercing you, Warrant Officer?” I asked, keeping my tone even.

She flinched. “It kinda feels an awful lot like coercion right now, yes. And your scary friend, the Chief Warrant Officer. He’s super scary. He’s definitely coercing me. With his scary eyes.”

I glanced over my shoulder. Chief was, in fact, staring daggers at her. I looked back down at Azurite and pressed, “So, you’ll do it?”

“Um.” She wrung her forehooves. “Um, no?” Her ears flattened and she babbled, “If I do it without reporting you, and somepony finds out, they’ll say I should have reported you. Whether you coerce me or not. And even if I don’t get a bad pony award, it’ll go on my record as a black mark for questionable behavior.”

She started to curl inwards, and her voice got quieter. “Plus, um, you’re usually a nice pony and I don’t think you’d ever actually hurt me, so it’d be a really big lie to say I was coerced, even if I am very, very scared right now.”

My eyes turned on Chief again. He was practically seething, and honestly, I was starting to feel the same. Why couldn’t Azurite just do this? Why did she have to fight me on it? I wasn’t asking a lot. She was the best at paperwork. There was no way she’d get caught, and even if she did, the risk to her was minimal.

And that was when I realized that I was angry at Azurite for being a good, honest pony. The kind of pony I was supposed to be. My anger cooled and I found myself strangely proud of her for standing up to me, especially with me looming over her and Chief glaring at her.

“You’re right.” I patted her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry. Okay, we’ll follow procedure. Please feel free to report me, too.”

“Sir,” Chief cut in with a low growl.

I raised a hoof to stop him. “No, she’s right. If I had wanted this done quietly, I should have just done it myself instead of letting it get out of hoof.”

He sneered. “The mission, sir. We don’t have time for nonsense. Just—”

“We’re not burning ponies. Not like this.” I gave Azurite my attention again. “My apologies, Warrant Officer. Please handle my request how you normally would. I promise I won’t be mad at you for reporting all of this to Lieutenant Brook. In fact, I encourage you to do so.”

“Yes, sir.” She backed away from us without turning away. Proper defensive form. “Thank you, sir.” As soon as she was out the door, she took off in a panicked gallop.

As soon he slammed the door shut, Chief groused, “Well, that could have gone better! You should have let me rough her up a little. She knew you’d never do anything. Me, on the other hoof… Well, she was afraid of me.”

“We aren’t going to rough up Azurite,” I replied absently as I changed a few things on the board.

“She’s going to report us. This seriously puts the mission in jeopardy.”

I rubbed two lines off with my hoof and drew slightly different ones as I replied absently, “Uh-huh.”

“Sir! I don’t think you appreciate the level of danger we’re in now.”

I set the chalk down and turned to him. “Chief, there is nothing we can do. It is out of our hooves. Either she reports us, or she doesn’t. Either Brook does something about it, or he doesn’t. If I had pushed any harder, it would have looked far more suspicious.

“We can’t control it, so right now, we need to focus on this. We are almost out of time. The package will be here soon, and we need to be ready to move when the word is passed to me. I’ve got too many other things on my mind to worry about whether or not these files are going to ruin us.”

“Yeah? Anything else I need to know about?” Steel Wings asked.

I chuckled and replied, “I’m meeting my future in-laws tonight, so you’ll be running the drills.”

“You poor pony. That is always the worst part.”

My brow raised. “You’re married?”

“Was. Was married. Three times. None of them stuck, though.”

That wasn’t exactly a surprise. Steel Wings was a coarse pony on a good day. That would be an incredibly rude thing to say out loud, so I just replied, “Sorry to hear that.”

He shrugged. “That is how it goes. Soldiers don’t get to lead that kind of life, Silent Knight. I’d have thought you’d have learned that lesson from your father.”

A chill ran along my spine as I turned back to the chalkboard. Steel Wings was wrong. Things didn’t have to end up like they did with him, or my father. A smarter pony should be able to figure out how to do both.

I wanted to be that smarter pony.

Crystal Wishes’s parents lived in the nicest neighborhood in Canterlot. That was little surprise since they were well-off ponies financially. Despite that, bits were never their primary concern. Social status was more important to them, and they were very rich in what Crystal called ‘social capital.’ That meant ponies cared about what they thought and said.

We walked up to the house which, while large and expensive looking, paled in comparison to the manor that Iridescence grew up in. In fact, when viewed that way, you could call their house modest. It was two stories, made of light gray brick, and situated on a medium-sized lot.

Crystal nervously knocked on the door and then turned to make certain my armor was perfect for the sixth time. I had insisted on wearing it. Crystal wasn’t sure that the Royal Guard part of me was a perk, but she relented. I compromised and left my helmet at home.

Unbeknownst to her, however, I had my service sword concealed. You could never be too careful.

The door opened and Crystal said, “Hello, Mother… we’re here. This is Silent Knight. Silent Knight, this is my mother, Upper Crust.”

The mare standing in the doorway was exactly what I expected a high society mare to look like. Not a single hair or thread was out of place, from her smooth blonde coat to the blue sweater tied around her neck in a way that looked casual but I was certain wasn’t really.

Though I wouldn’t say it out loud, I was glad that Crystal didn’t inherit her mother’s idea of beauty. If she wore as much makeup as Upper Crust did, I’d never be able to kiss her without coming away smeared with it.

I bowed my head politely and said, “It’s a pleasure, ma’am.”

Upper Crust took one look at me, tipped her nose up, and replied, “Charmed. Do come in.”

Crystal went in first and I followed along behind her. The house was decorated with all sorts of knickknacks and art. Most of the items were the sort of baubles you bought and just set out to fill space. I never minded an empty home. These ponies, however, seemed to be afraid of inches of empty space.

“Please, sit down,” Upper Crust said, offering us the couch.

It was a fancy couch that didn’t look exceedingly sturdy. Crystal settled onto it and I followed suit very carefully by sitting towards the middle. The weight of a pegasus stallion in full armor is heavier than you might imagine. The couch held up and Upper Crust levitated in some tea. She started serving as a grey unicorn stallion came down the stairs.

Like Upper Crust, he was perfectly put together like he’d just stepped out of a magazine. His short black mane had a little bit of curl to it that was probably due to some expensive product. He also had a sweater tied around his neck. Was there some significance to it? I wasn’t sure.

Unlike Upper Crust, there was warmth in his voice as he said, “Welcome! You two are a little early. Forgive my late greeting.”

Crystal stood up and the couch rose from the floor ever so slightly on the side she had previously occupied. I stood to let it settle back down.

“Silent Knight, this is my father, Jet Set.”

I approached the unicorn and offered a hoof. He took it and we shook. He had a solid, firm shake that demanded respect. I hoped he felt the same about mine. “Nice to meet you, sir.”

“A pleasure,” he replied before going to sit by Upper Crust.

Crystal returned to the couch and I did the same but exactly in the center. We then all sat in silence while tea was served.

Jet Set said, “I understand you’re a royal guard. What…” He paused in thought. “What sort of guard are you? Your armor isn’t like the ones I see out on the street.”

“Very perceptive, sir. I’m the commander of Princess Luna’s House Guard. Our armor is unique and matches her livery. We ensure the princess is protected at all times and remove threats to her wellbeing. That differs from city guards you see in the streets. They are responsible to keep the peace,” I explained.

“Oh, capital! That means you’re an officer, right? Do you personally protect the princess?”

“I am, yes. A lieutenant to be specific,” I replied and then went on, “I do and I don’t. Previously I directly protected her by standing guard and the like. Now I supervise the ponies that make up her whole protection detail.

“As the commander my duties fall more along the lines of coordination, scheduling, combat readiness, and similar duties. That and working with her assistant. Though I’m still directly responsible for her safety.”

“And management!” Jet Set said. Upper Crust gave him a look.

Upper Crust asked, “And does that mean long, strange hours and traveling away from Canterlot with the princess?”

“It does,” I replied honestly.

Upper Crust pressed, “That seems like that would make for a difficult home life.”

“Mother…” Crystal Wishes cut in.

“What?” she replied. “I’m just pointing out that he’ll be in and out at all hours. He has a duty. Isn’t that right?” She looked directly at me.

“You are correct.”

Crystal got flustered and waved a hoof. “Oh, it isn’t that bad! He doesn’t come home late too often.”

Both of the older ponies’ eyes shot to Crystal. Upper Crust sniffed. “Pardon?”

My unicorn companion froze in place and was trying to figure out her next move. Before she could, I cut in, “I live with my sister Winterspear. She and Crystal are good friends and are often left waiting on me for dinner and such.”

“Oh, I see… Do you keep late hours?” Upper Crust asked.

“It would be fair to say I do. Princess Luna’s schedule is not quite opposite of Princess Celestia’s, but we start later in the day and leave later in the evening. Sometimes I stay over to handle minor problems or additional responsibilities. Typically, I am home after moonrise.”

“I see…” Upper Crust repeated in a tone I wasn’t sure I cared for.

Jet Set cleared his throat. “So, Silent Knight. Being a royal guard… Is that the family business?”

“More or less, yes, sir. The Royal Guard or the Equestrian Army. My sister is a guard, my father was a guard and a soldier. My grandfather as well. My understanding now is that the Knight family has been in some form of martial service to the crowns for longer than we have records.”

“That is dedication. Great… fidelity there,” Jet Set said, clearly working up to something. “And your parents are alright with you marrying a unicorn?” And there it was.

“Dad!” Crystal squeaked suddenly. “That isn’t appropriate!”

“What? Honey, I was just asking a question. Not everypony is okay with… mingling.”

“Mingling!” Crystal gasped.

I just shrugged and reached over to pat her shoulder. “To be honest, sir, we haven’t discussed it. I didn’t give them advanced notice of the engagement, so my mother doesn’t know much more than what I put in a letter. As far as my father... he would probably be upset that I was spending time on love instead of my career and wouldn’t notice she was a unicorn.”

“Oh… I see. I’m sorry to hear that,” Jet Set said. He sipped his tea and mumbled, “That isn’t going to make the wedding awkward.”

I shook my head. “In this case, no, sir. I’m afraid he passed recently.”

Crystal’s eyes went a bit wide and that pretty much killed the entire conversation. We sat in silence for a while.

A silence that was broken when Upper Crust looked me dead in the eye and said plainly, “You seem too rough for my little girl. You’re so much larger than she is.”

“Crystal is tougher than you might imagine. A trait no doubt earned through the way she was raised. I commend you on that.” That was what polite ponies call a backhoofed compliment. Crystal taught me that.

“Well I never! I—” Upper Crust started.

“Dinner!” Jet Set threw in quickly. “It is time for dinner. Shall we?”

Dinner was awkward and relatively quiet. I didn’t say much and Crystal spent most of the time forcing small talk with her father while avoiding her mother altogether.

“Have you made big plans for your birthday, dear?” Jet Set asked.

Birthday? Then it dawned on me. Crystal’s birthday was just about two weeks away. I hadn’t even thought about it because I’d been so wrapped up in work. That was the sort of mistake my father used to make.

“No, I don’t want a big show this year,” Crystal replied. “Silent Knight has been busy and of course my schedule is full. I’ve been working myself pretty hard. Deadlines, you know.”

Upper Crust sighed. “Oh, I wish you would write something different. How long are these tawdry romance novels going to be popular?”

“They’re not tawdry, Mother! I won an award for my first one. The princess reads my books!”

“And that makes it okay?”

Crystal shot back, “If it is good enough for Princess Luna, it should be good enough for a pony like you!”

“Like me? What does that mean?”

Jet Set cleared his throat and asked, “Silent Knight, do you smoke cigars?”

“No, sir.”

He stood up and motioned with a hoof. “You do now. Come with me.” It was an order but it had a note of pleading in it. I stood to follow him but paused.

“Excuse me, please,” I said before leaving with him. Not that either of the mares had noticed. They were busy staring daggers at each other.

We went out onto the back porch and I heard Crystal raise her voice. Jet Set closed the door hurriedly, muting the sounds of the two mares arguing. He sat in a big comfortable chair and offered me the one across from it.

I settled into it just as he gave me a cigar, lit it for me, and then did the same for himself. He puffed on it a while.

The cigar tasted awful and the smoke from the end tickled my nose. I did my best not to sneeze, cough, or in any way look unstallionlike. I’d survived worse.

Jet Set finally spoke. “I hate my mother-in-law. I do. Hate is such an awful word, too. She isn’t even a bad pony. Actually, she is a pretty good pony. We just… disagreed on what was best for Upper Crust.” He looked directly at me for a moment. “Do you think you know what is best for my little girl?”

“No, sir, I don’t, but I know she does. She was raised well enough to know right from wrong, good from bad, and what makes her happy. There is no doubt in my mind that she is capable enough to make her own decisions.”

Jet Set bobbed his head at me lightly. I guess that was an appropriate answer. “I was always told that the ponies in the Royal Guard were dense jocks who couldn’t string together a coherent sentence. Clearly that isn’t true. I’m glad I don’t listen to idle gossip.”

Putting a bit of levity into my tone, I replied, “I did play hoofball at Canterlot Academy.”

Jet Set puffed and said, “Indeed? Pretty rough stuff. I was a polo stallion, myself.”

I nodded at that.

After a moment, he asked in a low voice, “Is your job dangerous?”

“More than most ponies would guess,” I replied.

He shifted and looked at me. “Does Crystal know that?”

I shook my head. “She knows in her head, but not in her heart. In my opinion, anyway. Then again, I was badly injured not long ago. The doctors weren’t sure I was going to make it. She was the one that primarily cared for me when I was in the hospital and if she was frightened by that experience she never let on. She is a tough pony.”

“You seem like an honest stallion. I like that. Honestly, I do.” He smiled but it didn’t seem like his heart was fully in it. “I would just hate for her to be so deeply in love and then have her heart broken.”

“I would never do that to her. My intentions are noble. I can promise you that she isn’t some filly that I’m just… playing with. I’m not that kind of pony, sir.”

“I have no doubt about that, son. Forgive me, that isn’t what I meant. It would be out of character for you to play with her feelings or cheat on her. I can see that by just talking to you for a few minutes. You’re committed. That is part of the problem, I think.”

He took a deep breath and tapped his cigar against the edge of the chair. “There is a big difference between our world and yours. And I’m not talking about unicorns and pegasi here. I don’t go in for that purity nonsense. I’m talking about guards and not guards. You’re obviously a serious pony with integrity and ethics.”

Jet Set fixed me in his gaze. Our eyes locked and he pushed on, “Unfortunately, I can also see that you’re an honorable and committed pony. The sort of pony that would give his life without a second thought to do his duty. Not a moment’s hesitation. Some crazy unicorn throws a fireball at Princess Luna and you just jump in front of her.”

His hooves banged together suddenly, startling me. “Just like that. Boom. Gone. You took an oath and you don’t plan to renege on it once you marry Crystal, do you?”

Words escaped me. I had, in fact, taken three oaths. To the Royal Guard, to the princess, and to protect my subordinates as an officer. All I could do was shake my head no. He was right.

He slowly settled back in his seat. “Well… maybe you should think about that. I mean seriously think about it. Marriage is an oath, too, son. Once you’re married, you can’t be careless with your life. It isn’t solely yours anymore. You share hers and she shares yours. Everything you do with it impacts her, whether that was your intention or not. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“Yes, sir.” I saw it all too well. Crystal sitting next to me in the hospital time after time… or worse, me going out one day and never returning. Suffering just like Mom had.

I didn’t say anything else. The weight of the moment was too heavy to recover from so we just sat quietly smoking cigars while our respective mares battled in the house.

Committed. That was suddenly a very powerful word.

34. Visitors

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The flight to Cloudsdale hadn’t taken me long. In fact, I’d probably made it in record time. My physical condition was at its peak and Blur had been teaching us a whole lot about flying. Things that as a pegasus I should probably have known but never thought about. In either event I found myself standing outside of my parent’s door far sooner than I’d intended.

Winterspear had suggested I go and talk to our mother. She was right. Not for the exact reason she’d suggested, but she was right.

I knocked three times. It wasn’t too long before the door opened, and my mother blinked up at me. “Silent Knight. Well, then, you decided to come yourself instead of sending another letter?”

So perhaps she was a little mad. “May I come in?” I asked.

Mom stepped out of the way and nodded. “Of course. I’m shocked you didn’t come in uniform.”

As I walked past her, I replied, “I didn’t think the armor was necessary. Dinner rolls typically don’t do a lot of dama—” The whole house was different. The walls were freshly painted, the furniture was new, and nothing was in the same place. The original furniture had not moved an inch after my father had lost his sight. Now it was gone and the replacements weren’t where the old ones had been.

The door closed and Mom patted me on the shoulder. “Close your mouth, Silent Knight. I redecorated.”

“I can see that,” I replied before making my way into the now foreign house. “How’re you?”

She smiled and shrugged. “Doing well enough I suppose. I was surprised but happy to hear my youngest got engaged.”

I settled down onto a large brown chair. It was stallion-sized and designed for larger pegasus frames. Canterlot furnishings were usually designed with unicorns in mind. That meant small or, as they called it, elegant. “I’m glad you’re happy. I was going to come and tell you. I just sent the letter so that you wouldn’t hear second hoof before I could.”

“Oh, I understand,” she replied, sitting opposite me. “Still, there are some things a mother wants to hear face-to-face.”

I sheepishly grinned. “If you make me a list, I’ll do better next time.”

My mother’s eyes narrowed and my heart skipped a beat. Then she smiled. “I’m not used to you being smart-mouthed. You used to leave that for your sister.”

“She’s a bad influence. You should totally punish her.”

“Oh, I think we both know you’re too old for me to swat you on the flank with a wing.”

I shrugged. “You could try.” Looking around again, I changed the subject. “The house looks great. You’ve clearly gone all out.”

Mom nodded and then shook her head. “I had to. Everything reminded me of him. I’d see the ottoman and cry. I’d walk by his chair and cry. It was all a constant reminder that he was gone.”

I rubbed the back of my neck. It was awkward to know how upset she was. “Mom… why don’t you come live with us? I’m not just offering out of some sense of duty. I would like it if you were there.”

“You’re a sweet colt,” she said, reaching over and setting her hooves on mine. “I know you mean it and I’m grateful. I’m not ready though. Not yet. Pegasi are meant to live among the clouds. Perhaps when I get a little older or when you have some foals, I’ll consider it.”

We held hooves and I shifted. “Mom, we’re just engaged. We’re not talking foals yet. I don’t even know if Crystal wants foals.”

My mother snorted. “Oh, that filly is going to want foals, Silent Knight. You bet your commission on that. One day she’ll be following her regular routine and then the next day it will be foals, foals, foals.”

“Thank you for putting that thought in my head, Mom. Besides, Winterspear is older than me. Shouldn’t you be leaning on her for foals first?”

Mom’s brow shot up. “Really, Son?”

“What?”

“You may not have noticed, but your sister likes mares.”

“So? They can adopt.”

“That is true, but the waiting lists are massively long, and they already have a filly. I’m not sure they’ll want another after raising that one. Dot is sweet but she is a hoofful. Plus, there is nothing quite like a newborn foal.”

A smile cracked my lips before I chuckled. “Yes, she is. Fun though. She just has a lot of spunk. She also really likes you and I’m certain Iridescence and Winterspear could use the advice of an experienced mother.”

Mom blinked at that and looked over towards the mantel. Several pictures were there. Most I recognized. The one of my father alone in his armor was absent, though. “Mmhmm, spunk just like Winterspear. Now, when is the wedding?”

“Mom, we’re just engaged. We haven’t set a date.”

Mom shrugged. “Crystal Wishes is a fancy unicorn. You think she isn’t already planning? I want to know if I should be ready to fly down there at the drop of a hat. I’ll need a dress, and that takes time.”

“I… I don’t think you should worry about that. It won’t be for a while,” I said, looking towards the door.

My mind swam with the thoughts of what I had to do soon. The words that Jet Set had given me. My own self-doubts about whether I was meant for Crystal. I had wanted her to know how serious I was. Maybe that had been unfair and selfish. I had taken an oath, though, and it was time to remove a potential threat to the princess.

My mother’s hoof found my chin and she pulled me back to face her. “Why, Son? Why won’t it be for a while?”

Our eyes met. She took one deep look into mine and her breath caught. She grabbed my hooves in hers. “No… No, Son. No. How dangerous?”

“Mom, I can’t—”

“Silent Knight, don’t you dare tell me it is classified or that you can’t tell me about it. I’m your mother and I’ve seen that look before. I’ve seen it too many times in this house and I won’t be lied to again! How dangerous?”

“Dangerous,” I replied.

“Then send somepony else,” she said flatly.

“I can’t, I’m the commander.”

My mother’s hooves tightened on mine. She held onto them as if she intended to never let go. “Send somepony else, Son.”

“You know I can’t do—”

“I know I had to watch my husband recover in a hospital bed a dozen times! I know that half of those times they told me he was going to die. I’ve already stood vigil over your bed once and I don’t know that I can stand to do it again. I’m running out of strength,” she snapped. Tears welled in her eyes and started running down her cheeks.

It was unsettling. My mother almost never cried and, when she did, it was with a reserved and quiet dignity. It broke my heart. I stood, pulling my hooves free of hers so that I could loop them around her in a tight hug.

She clutched me and buried her head against my neck. I just held her as she wept. There was likely nothing I could say short of a lie that would be right and I did not intend to start lying to my mother.

Getting older can be tough, seeing your parents in a different light. I never imagined my mother as a regular mare. One with feelings like this. One that needed to be protected. I softly nuzzled her ears and squeezed her tightly. We were not a hugging family but Canterlot had changed that. At least for me.

Mom sniffled and leaned back a bit. Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment and she wiped her eyes.

Lightly, she tapped my chest with her hoof. “He looked just like you when he was your age. I was madly in love with him, too. I didn’t care that he was a soldier. The first time he came back hurt, my world shattered. It blindsided me and I didn’t know what to do. I told myself I had to get tougher. Tough like him. So I did.”

“You did what you had to do,” I said softly.

Mom shook her head. “I let him be too tough on you and Winterspear. Especially Winterspear. I wanted you ready for when he didn’t come back. Maybe if you didn’t like him, it wouldn’t be as bad. I’m so sorry. I never should have allowed that. He was blind, but I was the one that was too stupid to see.”

My jaw worked, but I didn’t have anything to say to her.

She sat a hoof on my mouth. “It’s okay. It’s okay. When do you leave?”

“Soon.”

“When you get back. WHEN. You come see me. I don’t want a letter. You come see me.”

I nodded. “Okay, I’ll come see you when I get back. I promise. You can’t tell anypony or write—”

“I’ve been doing this longer than you, Son. I know. When you come back, we’ll discuss what I’m going to wear to your wedding.”

“Sure. We haven’t picked colors, though. I like blue.”

Mom nodded. “You always have.”

“Yeah.”

She pulled away and said, “Let me make you dinner. Is zucchini still your favorite?”

My hoof trailed lightly along hers as she did so. “Very much. Any way you want to make it.”

“Well, you’re in luck. My friend Cloudy was down at one of the farms near Ponyville recently and brought a whole bunch back. Go set the table and I’ll get it started. I suppose it is time you start telling me more about Crystal Wishes.”

“Sure, I’d love that.”

I sat quietly at my desk going through the unit’s paperwork. It was all completely mundane and I was already going to miss dinner time. Crystal was going to murder me but this had to get done. Leave forms, shift assignments, and a few notes from Iridescence about how she was struggling with finding a replacement sergeant.

There were plenty of excellent candidates, but she was indecisive of whom to choose. That was alright. It was up to her to find the right pony. If she needed guidance I’d be here, but it was a good test for a section sergeant.

It was also something I didn’t want to focus on right then. There were too many things going on in my head. The water was muddy. Before I’d met Crystal’s parents, I was certain she was the only thing right in my life. I still believed that, but I wasn’t sure I was the right thing for her life.

After seeing what being married to my father had done to my mother, I wasn’t sure I wanted that for my own mare and foals. Being a royal guard was all I knew and I couldn’t imagine trying to do something else. If I wasn’t one, who was I? Nopony.

My head hurt, so I tried to focus on the tasks at hoof. Finish the paperwork, finish the unit work. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have to worry about making a decision. Command would replace me.

Well… if there was a command. Sunny had something going on and she was barely paying attention to her own duties, much less mine.

“Sir?” Sogni was standing in my door.

“Yes?”

“Sorry to interrupt. I was leaving for the night but ran into a courier. He had a certified package for you but no pass past the lobby. I signed for it officially. He seemed okay with that.”

That was technically not how it worked, but if you couldn’t trust a royal guard, who could you trust? “Oh, thank you. Just drop it in my inbox,” I said, focused more on the task.

The stallion walked in and cleared his throat. “He said it was time sensitive, sir.”

I chuckled and turned to the next form. “Everything is, Sogni, didn’t you know that? How can anything be a priority when everything is?”

“I understand, sir, but he seemed to really stress that this was extremely time sensitive. He said if I couldn’t bring it right to you, right now, he couldn’t leave it with me.”

Frustration bubbled up in me but I hid it. Sogni was being diligent and it wouldn’t do to react negatively to that. It was the kind of behavior that should be encouraged. “Very well.” I reached out for it. “I’ll open it right now.”

He set the over oversized envelope into my hoof. I tore the top open and reached inside. The only thing in it was a small piece of paper folded over once.

“Anything important, sir?” Sogni asked.

It was. Not officially though. “Yeah. I’ll have to deal with this. Thank you for bringing it up. How is that husband of yours?” I set the missive aside casually. Of course. Today of all days.

“He’s fine. Still getting his hooves under himself. He’s taken on a lot but he is doing exceedingly well with it. Probably better than most ponies and certainly better than me.”

I chuckled and replied, “Aren’t we all. Say Sogni, do you ever worry that you shouldn’t be with a pony that isn’t in the guard? You know, that he won’t understand?”

Sogni’s head tilted and then he shook it. “No, sir, hadn’t really considered that. I’m not sure that should play into love.”

“Valid point,” I replied before looking back to my paper work. “Alright, you’re already late. Don’t keep him waiting any longer. No sense in both of our special ponies being upset. Dismissed.”

“Yes, sir, thank you, sir. Oh, and sir?”

“Yes?”

“Ponies that know me call me Div. You can call me Div, if you like.”

I nodded at him. “Thank you.”

Once he was gone, I picked up the note from Maya again, read it once more, and then set it in my metal waste basket. From my bottom drawer I pulled out one of Runic’s immolation potions. Carefully I pulled the stopper out and dripped one single drop into the basket. The note burst into flame and within a second it was as if it had never existed.

Then I went back to my paperwork. I had to get this done. It all needed to be neat and tidy. The way all of my work was done. Otherwise ponies would have questions. Finish this task, move on to the next.

I turned over another sheet and started on the next one.

“Knock, knock. Shylent Knight… Do you shmell toast?” Sunny said from my doorway, her speech was a little off.

“Toast? No.” At least, I didn’t think the burnt paper smelled like toast. “What can I do for you?”

Sunny walked in. She was out of armor and her saddlebag was crooked across her back. “You should be osh duty,” She said.

“The papers on my desk disagree. I guess you’re done for the day?”

She nodded. “Yeah. I am.” There was no cheer in her tone. No typical Sunny teasing. She pressed, “You should be osh duty right now. Can those papers wait for a little while?”

“I really don’t think so. They need to be done—” I caught her expression. A pained one with the tiniest glimmer in the corners of her eyes.

“Shylent Knight, can thish please wait? I really need a friend right now and you’re the closhest pony to that here.”

“Yeah, Sunny… okay. Just let me lock up, okay?”

She nodded and stepped out of my office. I quickly scooped all of the papers into their various files and locked them in my filing cabinet. As I turned to the door, I paused, took the little time necessary to remove my armor, and tossed my helmet onto the chair across from my desk.

After locking up my office, I asked, “Where to?”

“Obshervation tower?” Sunny suggested.

“Sure,” I replied and we went together to the highest tower in the palace. The one I’d been in when the changelings had attacked. It offered the most amazing view of Equestria that a ground-bound pony could hope for.

Sunny slumped onto the balcony that surrounded the outside. She pulled open the flap of her saddlebag and revealed several bottles of what looked like cider. Really hard cider. Two levitated out; one flew to me, the other to her.

“I shcrewed up,” she said before starting to drink.

I settled beside her and took a sip of the cider. My eyes crossed the moment I did. I can handle a hard cider, but this was something special. “Sunny, I’m sure you didn’t. We all make little mistakes. I—”

“Could you jush shut up and listen?” she said.

I nodded.

“I shcrewed up. I got in my own head and shcrewed everything up. Do you know I pretty much had everything going for me? Things were great but I jush couldn’t shee that. I wash sho concerned that I wash trapped that I did everything I could to eshcape it and got exactly what I wanted. Only that ishn’t what I wanted. It washn’t what I wanted at all.”

She took another long pull from the bottle. Tears started to run down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Sunny,” I replied before taking another sip from mine.

“It didn’t used to be like thish. I just focushed on the job and short of messed around when I washn’t doing that. Do you know what I mean?”

I thought I did, but I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to answer. “Focusing on the job I get, yeah.”

“You would. You knew what you wanted and you got it. I wish I was shmart like you.”

“I, uh… Sunny, I’m not so sure you should be comparing yourself to me right now. I’ve been making a lot of mistakes lately. Some professional and some personal. I don’t know what to do.”

She looked over at me and sniffled. The golden unicorn’s cheeks were streaked with the fine lines her tears had followed down. “Oh?” is all she said before levitating another bottle out of her saddlebag.

My nose wrinkled at the smell of the cider, but I took a long drink of it. “Yeah. I don’t know that I’m doing the right things. I’m trying to live up to the oath, but there is just so much more to it, Sunny.

“When you get out of the Royal Guard Academy, you swear an oath to uphold the law and to protect the innocent. Then when you join the House Guard, you swear to stop any threat and give your life for the princess. That all seems so easy when you’re young, but as you get older it isn’t so black and white.”

The wind whipped across the tower. Despite it being summer, this high up it was bitterly cold and biting.

“They get you when you’re young sho you don’t think about that sho much,” Sunny whispered before downing the rest of her second bottle and retrieving a third.

“Yeah…” I trailed before finishing mine. The unicorn mare levitated another to my grasp.

“I don’t know how to fix thish,” Sunny said.

“Me either. I’m trying so hard to do what I think is right and I just keep messing up. Everypony around me keeps telling me that guards can’t have everything. It is the job or everything else, and I can’t stop being a guard, Sunny. I don’t know how to stop. I don’t know anything else. I see a threat, I have to stop it.”

To punctuate my point, the wind tore against us and nearly blew me over. Sunny shifted closer to me. “You can’t be someshing you’re not, Shylent Knight, but you alsho can’t let others tell you what you are.” She squirmed. “I’m cold.”

“Do you want to go inside?”

She shook her head and leaned against my side.

I looped a hoof around her shoulder and then shielded her with my wing.

“Are you really consherned that you’re going to be killed?” she asked me softly.

“I already almost was once. Iridescence, too. Aren’t you? You could be here today but tomorrow some deranged unicorn could throw a fireball at Princess Celestia. Are you telling me you aren’t going to step in the way?”

“Without a thought… so that she may live,” she whispered.

“Me, too… how do you explain that to a regular pony? That you’d leave them without thinking to save your princess, even though you supposedly love them? They don’t understand us. They can’t. How can we reconcile that?”

Sunny’s head shook slightly and nestled in closer against me.

“I’ve made a mistake,” I said bitterly. How could I put Crystal through that? She loved me and I loved her… but not enough to put her before the princess and my oath. She deserved better, a stallion that would put her first. One that would jump in front of her. My vision blurred with tears.

Sunny set a hoof against my chest. “Ish okay,” she whispered.

I looked down at her and our eyes met. Hers were big and there was a look in them that I’d never seen before.

My eyes were locked with Sunny’s and my heart started to beat faster. I trembled. Possibly from the cold, but likely not. Something was different. Sunny wasn’t being a royal guard. I think she was being a mare and I hadn’t really noticed she was one before.

We held onto each other and stared. Two ponies in the same place with similar problems. I guess similar. I wasn’t sure why Sunny was upset but then I’d been vague too.

The wind whipped across the tower once more and her breath caught. She clung tighter to me. Her eyes dropped.

“Careful, Shylent Knight, we’ve already made enough mishtakes,” she whispered.

I blinked away my tears. “What?”

“Come on, even you can shee that we’re having a moment. Two kindred spirish alone with their problems? Together on thish tower. This ish the kind of moment that ends in kisshing and regret. It sounds like you already have enough of that, though.”

My ears shot up. Crystal deserved better than a pony like me but even still I couldn’t imagine cheating on her. “Sunny, no… I. You’re beautiful but that wasn’t—”

She set her hoof on my mouth. “I know. I know. Just shtop at you’re beautiful. A lesser mare might get mixed shignals.” Letting my mouth free, she looped her hooves around me and hugged tight. It felt more like a royal guard hug, which was okay.

I relaxed and hugged her back. “Come on, Sunny, stop teasing me. You’d never do that to Azurite.”

The mare stiffened in the embrace and her chest heaved in a sudden sob. She shoved herself away from me and snapped, “What do you know? You don’t even really know me!”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“No, nevermind. Jush… I’m shorry. I didn’t mean… look, I’m shorry,” she whispered before wiping her eyes. “Beshides, I should know better. You’re a nice, honesht pony. You didn’t even know we were having a moment. You’d never do that to Crystal Wishes.”

I just stared at her, unable to say a word. What had just happened?

She slowly pressed back against me, so I held her and shook my head. “That may be true, but it doesn’t really make a difference, does it? With this job and all the time gone. The missions and the risk. Sooner or later, she’s going to figure out what I really am.”

Sunny let me go long enough to look me in the eyes again. “And what is that?”

My eyes fell and I replied, “An empty suit of armor.”

35. Lights Out

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The note had been crystal clear: meet in the alley behind the Phial and Filly Alchemist Supply at half past ten. My pity party with Sunny had almost made me late, but eventually we’d gotten right. Well… right enough to part ways.

This meeting was going to be different. We’d never met face-to-face before and I suspected we never would again. This was the end game.

I’d flown in to make it difficult for anypony to follow me. Paranoid, sure, but at this point I couldn’t be too careful, and a pegasus diving straight down from the clouds was a tough thing to spot and even harder to trail. I was committed. Nothing could stop this now. It was far too late for that.

Finish the mission. Remove the threat. Serve justice.

The alley itself was shrouded in shadows. There was a door to the shop back there, but Runic had long since bricked it up on the other side. He preferred the side entrance or the door through the storefront. Both were more visible. He didn’t want ponies sneaking in from the dark alley to steal his rock collection.

It wasn’t long before reality rippled briefly and a cloaked figure stepped from the shadows. Slowly it drew back its hood, revealing the fact that she was a unicorn mare. A familiar unicorn mare who I’d barely ever paid attention to.

“I should have caught on it was you,” I said softly.

Miley’s friend Val smiled. “You’re good, Silent Knight, but not that good. I’ve still got a lot of years on you when it comes to the trade.”

“Perhaps, but I should have noticed how you were frequently in the store before or after a drop.” I shook my head. “Would you care to elaborate on who you really are?”

“Equestrian Intelligence Service, Deputy Director responsible for the Nordanver Division. I’ve had my eye on them since before you put on that armor.”

My ear flicked and I frowned. “This complicates things.”

“This doesn’t complicate anything. It will be our little secret. After today you’re just Silent Knight and I’m just Val. Cousins, acquaintances, friends, whatever it turns out to be.”

I nodded. “One more lie in a lifetime won’t be the end of me.” I eyed her before asking, “You’ll forgive my curiosity, but why get involved in this?”

“I’ve several reasons. The simplest, believe it or not, is because we’re family. Runic would do anything for you, and I would do anything for Runic.”

“I can appreciate that but risking your career for family is pretty extreme,” I replied.

She shook her head. “This is a real black eye for my division. We had knowledge of Alastair’s ties but were blindsided that he’d try something so brazen, reckless, and stupid. Besides, would you do any different?

“This is in my wheelhouse, for the most part. You’re the pony risking your career and misappropriating guards to make sure that justice is served for three ponies that aren’t related to you. At least we’re family and we have to protect the family. All of the family. You’re sworn to protect her.”

The point was far more than fair. I just nodded and replied, “Yes, I am and I will. I would do the same thing again.”

“And so would I. That isn’t the only reason though.” Her expression turned gravely serious. “I was there. You probably don’t remember the support ponies from the local embassy that helped Princess Luna with all of the paperwork, but I was one of them.”

She shifted with a discomfort I recognized: the pain of remembering. “Princess Luna accidentally left behind a document and I volunteered to gallop down and give it to her. By the time I got there, it was too late. I had to watch, virtually helpless.”

Val’s hooves trembled in what I could only imagine was anger. “Me, a veteran EIS operative, sat nearby and powerless while our princess was in danger and our ponies died. Surprised, outmaneuvered, and unprepared. I never saw it coming. I have to make good on that, Silent Knight. I wasn’t going to sit here and do nothing. So when you started sniffing around, I knew we could make this happen together.”

I wanted to reach out and set a hoof on her shoulder but, in truth, I barely knew Val. Until recently, I didn’t even know we were family. “I understand. Then it’s time to close this book. You have enough information? Do we need him alive?”

Her eyes narrowed. “No, we don’t need him and I doubt you could get him alive. Besides, we have nowhere to hold him that won’t raise too many questions. Gather up anything physical he has and leave it for me in the usual way but otherwise don’t worry about it.”

‘Don’t worry about it’? What a callous way to talk about ending someone’s life. But who was worse: the callous talk, or the pony with the sword?

“Then can I assume by the fact we’re meeting face-to-face that it is time?”

She nodded. “I’ve been watching them myself. Guard Intelligence lost him when I got him on the ship. No pony of record knows he ever got here. That ship was bound for the island kingdom of Eybarmir, officially, but the captain and I had a deal.”

Val offered me a map from the folds of her cloak. “I kept an eye on them as they moved about. They’re playing up the gryphon traders angle to make the rapid migrations make sense. I guess they got comfortable though. They’ve finally settled in a place that is far enough away from any village. I highly recommend moving soon, if not immediately. They might be settled, but they also might still move. Are you ready?”

The hairs of my coat stood on end as I accepted the information. I tried not to let the trepidation in my heart bleed into my expression. “Yes, the team I’ve assembled is the best shot we have at this. We’ve been training almost every evening for over a month. The ponies I chose are all experts at what they do and the plan is solid. Especially for an ambush. We’re ready.”

“Good. If anypony can do it, it’s you.”

Why me? I just nodded. “Thank you. For everything.”

“It truly is my pleasure, Silent Knight. Go show them the consequences of committing acts of war. Good hunting.”

Without another word, I leapt into the air and flew as fast as I could to the palace. Once I arrived, I put on my usual officer appearance and went down to housing.

Crimson Dawn was sitting in the common room reading a comic book as I approached. His eyes shifted over to me and he slowly rose.

“Lights out,” was all I said before turning and heading off to the next station.

Time was of the essence, but after ensuring all parties had received the message, I had just enough to spare to handle one final task. Probably the most important one. I landed in front of Crystal Wishes’s building and hurried up. I stopped outside the door and took a deep breath. It was time to say goodbye without it being obvious.

After letting myself in, I called, “I’m home.” My voice trembled and I knew it. I didn’t want to do this, but I had to.

Crystal wandered out of her bedroom and replied, “Welcome home. You’re late and your meal is cold.”

She was irritated, and she had every right to be. I’d been neglecting her a lot. She deserved so much better than this.

I forced a bright, fake smile. “Sorry… work stuff like usual.” I paused and lowered my eyes. I had to tell her some truth. She deserved at least that much.

“Actually, it isn’t all work stuff. A friend at the palace was in a really bad way. That set me behind on my work, which still isn’t resolved. I’ve got to get back to it, but I wanted to at least drop by and apologize. I’m sorry, Crystal. I know this isn’t what we discussed for your birthday.”

The mare wandered over and kissed my cheek. “Well, aren’t you considerate. Your job is your job. What is this one all about? A new initiative? Some Haven trip dropped on you at the last minute?”

The smile on my face held and I tugged the mare into a hug. “Classified,” I replied in my best teasing tone.

“Isn’t it always,” Crystal said with a fake pout. “Fine, fine. Go be a hero. Should I expect you for breakfast?”

A hero, sure. No, nopony would be calling me a hero for tonight. Taking lives didn’t make you a hero. This was the other side of the soldier’s coin. Sometimes battles weren’t fought out in the open. Sometimes your foe wasn’t even ready.

To ambush a princess when you’re not at war is how you start one. To ambush the original ambusher back? That’s just combat… and Alastair was about to get a craw full of combat. He’d been running for a year while I’d prepared. A whole year’s worth of training, learning, growing. And it would probably all be resolved in less than ten minutes.

I brought my focus back to the mare looking up at me with irritation still in her beautiful face. “Call it brunch. I think my morning is going to be packed.”

She smiled, and it seemed more sincere. “Okay, brunch it is.”

We kissed and I lingered in the embrace. Our eyes met and it took a lot of effort not to tell her goodbye. Instead, I whispered, “I love you, Crystal. I really do. More than anypony I’ve ever met. I’m truly sorry that I have to go, but I do have to. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

She flushed and nuzzled her cheek to mine. “I love you, too. It’s alright, Siley, I knew you were a guard when I fell for you.”

Did you? Did you really know what that meant? Reluctantly, I pulled away and moved to the door. She watched me go and said, “See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” I replied. Hopefully that was true, but tomorrow or the next time… sooner or later it was going to end. I couldn’t do to her what Stratus did to Mom. Not to Crystal.

When the door closed behind me, my expression darkened and I hurried down the hall. I got into the stairwell and slumped for a moment. A surge of emotions hit me all at once: sadness, anger, bitterness. This was what it really meant to be a soldier. Soldiers didn’t get to have nice things so that other ponies could. Soldiers had to walk away from their loved ones to go do what had to be done. To do what other ponies couldn’t.

I wished I’d been good at anything other than being a soldier, but I wasn’t. That wasn’t who I was. It was always going to come down to this.

My eyes fell on my cutie mark: a sword and a moon. Crystal’s talent was bringing joy through the written art. What was mine? War. How was that fair? What sort of horrible pony’s talent was war?

I stuffed all of my feelings deep into my core. Focus and the cold calculation that my father had taught me took their place. Composure in the face of anything. That was what my father had given me. He’d made me a soldier and that was all I knew how to be.

That’s enough pity. Get it together, Silent Knight. There is a threat to Princess Luna. A threat to good ponies. You’ve got a mission to lead and ponies counting on you. You can’t change who you are. Harden up, soldier. Bury it or they’ll be burying you beside Lavender and the others.

Get the job done, Son. The Guard comes first. You swore an oath. That is all that matters.

Clouds are an excellent base of operation in general. They obscure you when you’re on top of them and they’re only reachable by a minority of beings. The higher you go, the harder it is to see you. The trade-off is that the air gets thinner and that makes it harder to breathe. Suffice to say, the air was extremely thin.

Autumn Wind landed beside me. “The cloud cover is set, sir. I pushed it in slow and careful just like we planned. The moon is blocked out completely and it is pretty dark under there.”

“Excellent. Go ahead and give me the torrential rain. I want as many of those camp fires extinguished as possible. Be sure to activate your charm before going below the cover,” I ordered.

Each member of my team wore a necklace and charm enchanted by Princess Luna. They’d been made for her Guard to use in Haven. This repurposing was necessary. Seeing in the dark was another advantage in our favor.

“Yes, sir!” she replied before hurrying off. It wasn’t five minutes before I could sense the change below. It would be a miracle if any of the fires survived that sort of storm.

Tranquil Dusk landed lightly beside me. “Sir.”

“How many?”

“By my count, twenty-four,” she replied.

“More than I’d have thought. All soldiers? Any chance that some are civilians or aides?”

Tranquil shook her head. “No, sir. They might be posing as merchants but they all have weapons and armor. I counted three times. Twenty-four soldiers, weapons, armor.”

“How many sentries… and is he there?”

“Six, and yes. Based on the description you gave me, I saw him myself. He’s in the big tent in the middle.”

Something crawled up my throat like bile, but somehow darker. I felt ice in my veins. “Well done. Fall in.”

As she went to the others, I turned and approached the assembled group of ponies. It was an odd mix. Two nox pony civilians, an armsmaster, a reluctant medic, a weather pony, a navy flyer, and a brawler that just liked a good fight.

All pegasi. The plan had required that. For the last few weeks, we’d run through the operation over and over to ensure every detail was perfect. If we weren’t doing that, we were training with Steel Wings and Silver Flare. This group of ponies had more knowledge in combat arts than most guard veterans of ten years. That was what having an armsmaster bought you.

I’d also found them protection. Very little of the armor matched other than the fact we’d all applied weapon-black to the shiny parts and hidden the local badges. The suits were cobbled together from spares, retired pieces, and similar secondary sources. Mismatched armor was better than no armor.

There was a pregnant silence. They were staring at me with resolve but trepidation. Anypony that wasn’t afraid before a fight was no pony I wanted at my side.

I cleared my throat and shattered the stillness. “You know why we’re here. You all have reasons you decided to do this. Some personal, some professional. Either way, I want to thank you for your hard work getting to this point. This is what we’ve been waiting for.

“The details behind this mission have been kept from you, but you have a right to know before making your final decision. The gryphons below have attacked ponies. Worse than that, they killed royal guards. Make no mistake: they will kill you if you give them chance. Don’t give them that chance.”

The ponies looked at me in surprise and then to each other. If I’d told them that before, they’d most certainly would have been influenced in our favor, but I’d wanted them kept in the dark. It ensured they weren’t swayed by loyalty to Equestria, that they joined of their own free will.

Knowing now, though… that would put fire in their bellies when it was needed most.

“This is something we’re going to succeed or fail at, and nopony will ever know. There will be no parade or medals. There won’t even be a note in your file and, to be quite honest, chances are if this goes bad, we’ll be hung out to dry by Intelligence. Does anypony want out? This is your last chance. If you go, nopony will think any less of you.”

There was no movement in the rank. Seven determined faces stared back at me. Nopony would be leaving. I knew that, but I had to ask. I had to give them one more chance to escape. One more chance for me to mitigate the guilt should one fall.

“Take heart. You are a fine group of ponies. You know this plan, you know your role, you know how to fight and, most importantly, you know you’re coming. Those poor bastards below just think it’s raining.”

Steel Wings chuckled and shook his head at me. “Let’s just do this already.”

“You’re right. Enough words. Time for action.”

I slipped the goggles over my eyes and tightened my hoofguards. Following a soft tap to my breastplate my night vision kicked in. “Once we’re done, we go our separate ways as agreed. The Nightwatch will be disbanded and there will be one less threat out there. If anypony is questioned related to this, I expect you to give up nothing. Keep the secret as long as doing so doesn’t lead to anything illegal or dangerous. If it gets to that point, your final order is to give me up but none of the others. Are we clear?”

There was a quiet murmur of agreement. I moved to the edge of the clouds and looked down.

The other pegasi did the same. It was time to live up to the oath. No hesitation, no question. Remove the threat to the princess. Get justice for the slain.

“No quarter. Lights out.”

I leapt off and angled myself at the small camp below. The others followed hot on my tail.

Our trajectory was almost straight down. A maneuver that Blur called the meteorite dive. That was his contribution: training us to fly like him and give our quarry virtually no warning of our arrival.

My body shook from the speed and force behind the dive. Like stars falling from the heavens, we set upon the camp.

It was almost pitch black and the rain pattered off my armor. The sound wouldn’t be obvious to anyone below and in a minute, it wouldn’t matter either way. Some of the larger tents were glowing. They were the sort that could afford a fire inside. My target was in the largest one.

The ground grew ever closer at breakneck speed and I pulled up to avoid slamming into it. There was a more suitable landing area: one of the sentries. Just as Blur had taught, I angled up, spread my wings wide to slow down, and put all my hooves towards my foe. My course brought me into a direct collision with him and, as he cried out in surprise, I permanently silenced him with a perfectly placed strike to the throat.

Blur shot past me and dropped immolation potions on some of the larger tents just as Autumn Wind streaked lightning across the sky with some well-timed weather manipulation. The makeshift dwellings were set ablaze while Blur pulled up and disappeared into the night. Cries of surprise and panic erupted from the camp as the gryphons tried to figure out what was going on.

I took a quick look around. Steel Wings was to my left, standing over the bodies of two gryphon sentries. Silver Flare was on the right and finishing off a third. His eyes quickly darted up.

“We’re under attack!” one of the gryphons managed to shout before the brawler put him down with a crossbow shot. Still, it had been enough to get the survivors moving. Most were unarmored, but a few managed to salvage their weapons from the tents and join the fight.

The melee started properly at that point. The element of stealth was lost, but the damage had been done. We still had surprise and dark vision on our side. They were still shocked to find themselves thrust into a battle. To their credit, the gryphons leapt to the defense and engaged my ponies as best they could.

Steel Wings roared a challenge and threw his shoulder against the nearest gryphon, tossing him aside with ease before dancing close to another and dispatching him in a whirl of flashing steel. The hoofblades he’d selected were messy but extremely effective. Nothing to hold, nothing to drop. I almost pitied any gryphon that went up against the armsmaster. The title is not earned lightly.

One of the other soldiers closed in on me. He was unarmored and swung a claymore wildly. I rolled under the sloppy attack and drew my blade in one fluid motion. Quickly, I struck across his middle. He crumpled over and I flipped the blade around and drove it down, finishing the job.

In the haze of battle, I heard Risky Storm cry out in pain. Not Risky… Crimson. Risky was dead. This was Crimson. I scanned the camp and saw him holding his forelegs up to block the savage blows of a large gryphon. As I shifted to aid him, Silver Flare appeared out of nowhere and tackled the attacker, knocking him clear of the nox pony.

Nova was on Crimson a moment after, dragging him out by the collar of his armor. I shifted my attention back to the battle at hoof just as Blur zipped by once again and tossed immolation potions directly on a group of gryphon soldiers that had huddled together to create a phalanx with their spears. It was a horrific sight and the smell was sickening. It dramatically cut their numbers, however.

I put the sound of their screams out of my mind and moved towards the largest tent in the camp, the only one that wasn’t burning. The sound of the battle behind me was already starting to die out. These gryphon soldiers just weren’t prepared to deal with a well-prepared attack force that included an armsmaster, less so from an ambush. Certainly not both. I took another quick glance back before my attention returned to the tent in front of me.

Almost on cue, Captain Alastair burst out, a sword in his claw. Light poured out from behind him and he took a moment to survey the situation. For a second, it looked as if he was going to run. That would have been wise.

Then his eyes fell on me. Pointing a jagged talon in my direction, he screeched, “You!”

My heart skipped a beat and rage welled up inside me. Without a word or battle cry, I galloped at him. This time he thought better of taking it on the chin and leapt out of the way, swinging his sword at me. It skidded across the back of my armor.

Sloppy, Silent Knight. Don’t let anger make you stupid.

I wheeled back and rose on my hindlegs. Our swords banged together with a deafening clang as I blocked the gryphon’s next blow. He’d overextended, so I swung my right forehoof and caught him hard in the shoulder. It sent him three steps back and I pressed the advantage.

The advance had been timed too soon, however. It was another sloppy move on my part and Alastair made good use of it. He brought his sword down heavily against mine. So hard that it rattled my foreleg and knocked the weapon from my grasp.

“Hah!” he breathed as he swung wildly to try and finish me off. He was getting way ahead of himself.

Alastair’s blade went wide as I slipped forwards and under the arc. The hilt and his claw landed heavily on my flank but I had gotten where I’d wanted to: past him and slightly to the side. I wrapped both hooves around his wing and snapped it. He shrieked in pain and kicked me forcefully away. No escape now.

My landing was heavy and awkward but I managed to roll and get to my hooves. “That was for Risky,” I growled at him.

He didn’t respond with words so much as with angry, guttural sounds. The gryphon charged forwards, swinging his sword at me once again. Mine was on the other side of him and I had little chance of reaching it and less time to act. To my left, I spotted a camp chair and grabbed it just as his blade sank into the wooden seat and buried itself there.

With a quick twist, I wrenched the sword from his grasp and sent it and the chair flying. Then I caught a balled-up claw right in the cheek. Thankfully, I was a smart enough pony to wear a helmet. Even with the protection, the sheer force snapped my head to the side and stars briefly filled my vision.

The gryphon snarled in pain from the impact of his unprotected fist against the metal helmet and reared up onto his hindlegs, giving me time to recover. I leapt onto him and started to land hoof blows against his forearms as he brought them up to block. Each heavy thump pushed him further back and the normally yellow scales were turning dark from the pummeling.

Alastair shifted and tried to catch my hoof. I let him. The anger had subsided. This was business now. With my hoof in his claw, I grappled with him and held on. He hit me twice in the chest with his loose claw, but that was alright.

I yanked the captured one towards me. Then I brought my other hoof down just above its mate, breaking his forearm before shoving him back. “That is for Starry.”

“Shut up about your stupid little ponies!” he shouted, cradling his broken claw and backing up.

I walked casually forwards. He was outmatched. I’d dedicated myself to this moment. He’d been running scared. “You’ve lost. Surrender.” The words rang hollow.

Alastair cast a shadow across me as the firelight danced in the tent behind him. I was sick of it looming over me and my life. One path left.

“Surrender? Hah! Maybe I should just so that you stupid ponies have to explain all of this! My grandfather is the king. How do you think he’ll respond to this attack on his kin? He’ll have your hide!”

His eyes flicked to a spear nearby. He took a step towards it. “Grandfather will have your stupid princess’s hide. He’ll have you flay—” The word was interrupted by a strangled gasp.

The sword Runic had made for me had struck true, finding the gryphon’s heart. Always carry a backup. I used the force of the blow to push him onto his back and stepped over him. With both forehooves on the hilt I pinned him down. Our eyes met and he stared at me in shock and disbelief.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you said after ‘surrender, hah’. Besides, you’d never surrender to a pathetic pony like me.”

Then I leaned in closer and whispered, “And this is for Lavender.” I gave my blade a heavy twist.

Captain Alastair wheezed and reached up at me with his one good claw. In the darkness, as his final breath escaped, I swore I could see a swirl of black and purple smoke go with it. Then the lights went out. With a grunt, I pulled my sword free, retrieved my primary, and went into the tent.

Even with the battle still going outside, I had to make sure we didn’t miss any evidence of what these gryphons had been up to. I secured every missive, scroll, and note I could, leaving nothing unsearched. Content that everything was in my possession, I ducked back out of the tent.

Without warning, I was blindsided by a heavy blow to the shoulder, the force of it knocking me over. My armor had spared me most of the damage, but I was completely disoriented as I scrambled to get my sword up to fend off any further attacks. A brute of a gryphon loomed over me, standing on his hindlegs with a great axe held high. My blade would do little to stop that.

A blur of motion caught my eye and Tranquil Dusk leapt from the darkness onto the gryphon’s back. With more of a yelp than a war cry, she drove her short blade into his neck. He roared in pain, dropped the axe, and clawed at the nox pony clinging to him. The two struggled before he stumbled, tripped, and they went down together.

I was back on my hooves in an instant. My heart started beating faster. Gryphons had extreme advantages once the fight went hoof to claw. Especially one so big against an untested fighter like Tranquil. I pounced on them and knocked her off his back and clear of the fight.

The gryphon struggled under my weight and managed to batter me with a few elbow strikes. It took all of my effort to keep him on his belly. I just had to hold him down. Just hold him a few seconds more. The wound to his neck was savage and the fight drained out of him. Once he had stopped moving, I got up and went to check on Tranquil. Visibly, she looked uninjured, but she was shaking. Her eyes were locked on her blood-covered hooves.

“It’s okay. You’re going to be fine,” I whispered.

“I… I killed him,” she stammered.

“Don’t focus on that right now, we still have to get out of here.” I looked around and spotted Nova. She was standing over another fallen gryphon. She saw Tranquil and her expression darkened. I waved her over.

“Get Lavender out of here,” I ordered as the pegasus medic arrived. I wouldn’t leave her behind again. Not this time.

Nova looked at me in confusion but she looped her forehooves around Tranquil and nodded, “Yes, sir.”

The sounds of battle had given way to the hammering of rain on the remains of the tents and the ground. I took stock of my surroundings and found no further gryphons standing. Chief was walking the battlefield checking the bodies and finishing off the barely living.

“What’s the count, chief?”

Steel Wings said with confidence, “Twenty-four bodies. All accounted for, sir.”

Blur and Autumn Wind landed beside me and Silver Flare came out from behind a burning tent. His helmet was mangled, and the right half of his face was bloodied.

I hurried over to look at him. He held up a hoof. “I’m fine, sir. Let’s just finish up here.”

“Alright,” I replied and looked to the others. Given the circumstances, they all looked pretty good. Just determined faces now. Words seemed inappropriate, so I just gave them all a nod of thanks.

I took a deep breath and looked around. The camp was near silent outside of the patter of the rain all around us. All eyes were on me. “Burn it. Burn it all.”

Steel Wings and I stood together in the palace basement locker room while Nova was tending to Crimson Dawn. His right foreleg had been broken in the melee, but he’d kept going despite the medic’s objection. It was admirable, but it had made the injury worse.

Tranquil was physically fine. However, there are other wounds besides the ones you can see. I didn’t imagine anypony knew that better than me. Mine were raw; whatever mending I’d accomplished had been undone in an instant.

Now I could see those same wounds all too clearly as the mare stood in front of a sink washing her hooves for the twelfth time.

“Thank you for everything, Chief,” I said quietly, briefly turning my gaze away from the other three.

He nodded. “It has been a long time since I’ve gotten to cut loose like that. I think I worked out my aggression from the last war.”

I just quietly shook my head.

“Well, sir. May we never meet again?” He offered a hoof.

“May we never meet again,” I repeated, taking that hoof and shaking it firmly.

Steel Wings looked to the other three, offered a polite salute, and left.

My attention shifted back to Crimson. One thing at a time. “How bad is it, Nova?”

“He’ll walk again, but we need to get him to the hospital sooner rather than later. It isn’t a clean break. He may have a limp. It’s hard to know.”

Crimson, who was clearly in a lot of pain, said with a shaky voice, “I’ll be fine. Just do what you need to for Tranquil. Besides, we can’t answer questions about this.”

I walked over and patted him on the back. “Don’t worry about the questions. This was a training accident. We can’t be too careful about this.” My gaze flicked up to Nova. I hadn’t seen it before, but there was blood under the rear plates of her armor. “Get him admitted and taken care of. Make sure somepony looks at that cut on your flank too.”

“What about Tranquil? And with all due respect, I think you’re close to shock yourself. You called Tranquil Lavender out there.”

I ignored the last part and replied, “I’ll look after Tranquil. She’ll be right behind you. As for me… one patient at a time, Nova.”

She looked at me and then nodded, helped Crimson up, and said, “Lean on me.” He did so and they left together.

Tranquil washed her hooves again, staring at them. I came up next to her and turned off the water.

She trembled. “I can’t get the blood off.”

Her hooves were spotless. Rubbed a bit raw, but spotless.

“This is not a life for ponies,” I said softly, shifting my wing around her.

She turned to me. Her eyes met mine and welled with tears. “I killed him. I’ve made a huge mistake.”

I looped my forehooves around her and she leaned against my chest. Softly, I stroked her back and whispered, “I know. I’m so sorry. I wish I could have talked you out of this. You’re going to be fine, though. You saved my life and now you know this isn’t for you. This is not what you’re meant to do.”

“But how do I get the blood off?” she sobbed.

My ears folded back. I didn’t have an answer. The blood never comes off… or at least it hadn’t yet for me. It would be hard. Especially for a sensitive pony like her. “Tranquil, taking a life is not something that just goes away. It’s… I don’t know… like a stain on the spirit.”

She winced and I quickly added, “At least take solace in knowing that the life you took was not a kind or benevolent one. And the action was just. You took one life to preserve mine. Thank you for that. It is going to be tough for a while. Very tough, but you’re strong and you’ll get through this.”

Her head ducked and she whispered, “I don’t know what to do now.”

“You should go to the hospital and look after your brother. Focus on that task. Once that is done, try to get some sleep. One task at a time. One focus. Tomorrow, I’ll take you to a pony that helped me some. I know you’ll like her.”

She nodded and pulled away. “Okay… One task. I’ll go after Crimson.” She hesitated. “Do you really think this pony can help me?”

“I do. I’ll come get you right after lunch,” I replied.

“Alright,” she responded before wiping her eyes and hurrying out.

That was when I started washing my hooves. The blood never comes off. Not off my hooves or off the sword that Runic had given me in friendship. I’d used it for its intended purpose, but it still felt wrong. I’d wiped it down already, but I could still sense Alastair’s blood on it.

I pulled open the locker that was assigned to me and tossed the sword inside. I couldn’t stand to look at it. Runic had made it to keep me safe. An object of defense. My hooves started to shake.

To try and calm myself, I took a deep breath and then collapsed onto the bench that ran along the center of the locker room. For the first time, in a long time, the weight of unfinished business was gone. Alastair could never get at Princess Luna again. He’d never kill another house guard. It was done.

It pained me to see the others worse for the wear. More than I thought it would. When Crimson had cried out, it had sounded like Risky. I’d seen Lavender’s face in Tranquil’s when the gryphon died. It wasn’t enough to stop me in the moment, but now it felt suffocating.

It was a small mercy that no pony died. I’m not sure I could have handled that. I still wasn’t over Lavender, Risky, and Starry. They were gone, though. All three of them were still dead and they’d died on my watch. Three dead on my watch and now more injured. That was going to weigh on me.

As far as Alastair went, in truth, I felt no guilt, no remorse. One less threat out there. At the same time, I didn’t feel happy or even justified. The weight of my ponies was there. All I felt was a brief relief that it was over. The gryphon no longer loomed. I’d put the job first, conducted a dangerous operation, and came out of it again. This time. Perhaps not next time… but this time I’d managed to survive again.

Not that I should be surprised. Isn’t that what Knights do? Isn’t this all we do? My eyes closed and I tried to focus on the next task. Sleep and then work like nothing ever happened. Hide the pain, hide the wounds, and hide the doubt.

Toughen up, Silent Knight. Toughen up.

36. The Truth

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It was the middle of the night and I was sitting quietly in my office, catching up on my paperwork. After the battle, I’d been unable to sleep and going home didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Potentially waking Winterspear up and explaining what I was doing coming home so late seemed like a bad idea. If I didn’t show up, she’d just assume I was at Crystal’s place. If I didn’t show up there, Crystal would assume I was at work.

When did misleading ponies become so easy?

The handle of my office door jiggled and then turned before Princess Luna stuck her head in. “You are here. Mountain Stone mentioned he saw you heading to your office. You’re up awfully late, Silent Knight.”

I rose immediately and replied, “As are you, Princess.”

She smiled. “I am the Alicorn of the Night.”

“And I am the commander of her Guard. Is everything alright?”

Princess Luna nodded. “All is well. I couldn’t sleep and was curious why you were here. Why are you here?”

“I’m in the same situation. I was working on a project really late and my mind is spun up. I’ll sleep tomorrow. Would you care to sit?” I asked, motioning to the small couch that sat against the wall opposite the door.

The princess nodded and did so. “What project? I don’t recall seeing anything on your docket. I certainly haven’t asked for anything. Although, on that topic, I will want to return to Haven soon.”

I came around my desk and settled next to the princess. I took my helmet off and set it aside. “It was this whole crazy thing I’ve been working on for about a year. I believe it helped improve your security. Still, it’s been busy, but I think I’m done with it now. I’m ready to get back to the day to day.”

Princess Luna looked at me curiously for a while without comment. It seemed as if she was inspecting my face or perhaps my eyes. It was hard to say, but I kept silent. When I was not forthcoming with anything additional, she shrugged. “You have not given me a date for your wedding shower.”

“That is true,” I said softly as I brushed my hoof along the arm of the couch.

The alicorn’s wing looped around me and pushed my chin up. “Is something the matter?”

“I don’t know… some ponies got into my head. The prevailing thought is that soldiers can’t really have normal lives. Then I talked to Crystal’s father. I was thinking that I might not be right for Crystal.”

The princess’s breath caught and she shook her head. “You’re just having cold hooves.”

My head shook. “No, that isn’t it. I know she’s right for me. I don’t have any question about that. It’s the other way around that concerns me. I don’t think she understands what it means to be married to a royal guard. How do I pick between being a royal guard and a husband?”

“Why do you believe you have to choose?”

“I want to be fair to Crystal. She really loves me but I’m not always thinking about her. If somepony tried to hurt you, I’d get in the way without thinking about her. If you were tied to a train track and the only way to save you was to throw myself in front of the train to stop it, I would. The oath comes first.”

Princess Luna shook her head. She softly stroked my cheek with her hoof. “Why do you think I was so insistent that you become the commander of my Guard? Without a doubt, you are quite qualified, but when you almost died, it was nearly too much for me to bear. I wanted you in a safer position.”

What was she talking about? She’d insisted I received my position? No. I’d earned it. Right?

My nostrils flared as the realization set in. Of course I hadn’t. Knights were just grunts. I should have suspected she’d been behind my commission.

I pushed her hoof from my cheek. “Why?”

The princess froze in place. “I’m sorry, Silent Knight. I should have told you sooner. Back when you were hurt, I made it clear to Shining Armor that I didn’t want you directly in harm’s way any longer. He said you’d never stand for it. We argued. He insisted. We finally compromised on sending you to the officer’s academy.”

“You—You recommended me for this so that I wouldn’t get hurt again?” I asked as emotions swirled inside me. It was a mix of confusion and sorrow. Anger, rage, and bitterness.

“Yes, I did! He didn’t, though,” she hurriedly continued. “He assured me you’d be safer, but also that you were the right pony for the job.”

Slowly, I stood from the couch. “I’m not sure if I should be furious or touched.”

I really wasn’t sure. Before, I’d only doubted if I was right for Crystal. Now I wasn’t sure if I was actually right for this job, something I’d never even considered before. Russet had been passed over because of me. He’d lost because the princess didn’t want to see me injured again. Was I good for anything after all?

Princess Luna stood. “I would be far happier if you were touched, but I’ll understand if you’re angry. We should have told you the whole truth, but I knew you’d refuse. That is why I sent Shining Armor.

“Don’t blame him. Blame me. He did as he was ordered but make no mistake, we did not interfere in the academy. You did that all on your own. Just as you’ve led this unit all on your own. You are the commander and you will be a good husband to Crystal Wishes.”

I slipped my helmet on. It cooled the burning in my chest just enough so I could speak. “Yes, Princess,” I said softly. “Would you mind excusing me? I am touched that you care so much about my well-being. So much so that I know I’d later regret saying anything rash now.”

She reached a hoof towards me but then quickly nodded. “Yes, of course.”

I left my office and slipped down the hall, barely noticing as the various guards snapped to attention at my passing. When I reached the small gym in the basement, I tore my helmet off and hurled it against one of the heavy bags.

Work hard, earn everything yourself. Nopony will give it to you. That’s what Dad had said. I guess he was wrong about that, too.

My anger finally subsided after a solid two hours of working out, allowing me to arrive at Crystal’s condo right before lunch. I knocked three times and mulled over the questions that still lingered in the back of my mind.

So, the princess was trying to protect me as much as I was trying to protect her. Unfortunately, that was never going to work. A VIP can’t be worried about her bodyguards. That could cause them to make poor decisions in a moment of crisis. It clouded their judgment. I didn’t know what to do about it. One problem at a time, though.

The door opened and Crystal peered at me. “You’re early. I wasn’t expecting that.” She stepped out of the way.

“Occasionally I’ll get it right,” I replied as I walked in.

“You’re lucky I was already cooking.” Her voice was laced with irritation that she was doing a poor job of hiding. “I hope you’re hungry.”

I nodded and took my helmet off. Crystal gasped when I did.

“What?” I asked.

“What? What!” she exclaimed. Her magic encircled a small hoof mirror and levitated it over.

My cheek was a little black under my coat and the bottom of the eye above it was slightly swollen. I hadn’t noticed. I doubted most ponies would, but of course Crystal would.

“What happened?”

Lightly, I touched it. It didn’t really hurt. “I got hit last night. I had a helmet on and didn’t notice.”

“You got hit?” Now, her voice was full of concern. I almost preferred the irritation. That, I at least deserved. “Who hit you?”

I looked at her and she rolled her eyes.

“Classified, right. Sit down. Do you have any other injuries I should worry about?” she asked as she went to the kitchen.

I regretted preferring irritation as I settled at the table. She seemed more miffed than usual, but that wasn’t surprising. I missed her birthday for reasons she’d never understand, and I never wanted her to. “To the best of my knowledge, no.” It was dumb, but just in case there was something else involved, I asked, “Is everything alright?”

“Yes!” she replied as she came back, two plates held in her magic. “I just don’t like you getting hurt.”

“I’m not really hurt, it is just a bruise. What is for lunch?”

The plate landed heavily in front of me. Today, I was being treated to shell noodles and broccoli. Not my favorite, but certainly high up on the list. “This looks great.”

“Thank you.” She sat down across from me.

“So…” I started. She still seemed angry. Change of subject time.

“So?”

I asked the first thing that came to mind. “Were you aware that Princess Luna sent me to the officer’s academy so that it was less likely that I would get hurt?”

Crystal blinked and the anger she was harboring seemed to ease again. “I was not. Who told you that?”

“She did. Evidently, she was very upset by me being injured and wanted to remove me a step from having to directly protect her. She convinced Shining Armor to go along with it.”

Crystal swallowed and looked down at her food. “You… You don’t look as upset as I imagine you’d be.”

My jaw tightened instead of allowing the self-deprecating smile I wanted to give. “The heavy bag in the gym would probably disagree. I didn’t want to miss your birthday and then show up angry the next day.” The smile made its way through. Barely. “I’m really trying here.”

She nodded and lightly forked at her food. “I’m sorry, honey.”

“Yeah… so I’m thinking about turning that job offer down.”

Crystal looked up. “Why? It was a good offer, wasn’t it?”

“A very good one. Possibly too good to be true. Perhaps he feels bad for having gone along with the princess. I don’t know. Not to mention I’d have to uproot you and leave all of our friends. It doesn’t seem like the time is right.”

The mare set her fork down and looked over at me. “Why don’t you… I mean… Before you make a decision. Before you decide… just let this sit first. You’ve been on edge lately and this is probably making it worse. Shining Armor can wait a little longer. I don’t want you to have any regrets.”

“That is good advice,” I replied before poking at my food. Then I pushed the plate away. “I’m sorry. Now I’ve ruined your birthday twice with my job.” I shook my head and chuckled as I realized why this all felt so similar.

This was the life my mother, sister, and I had lived. “It turns out I’m just like him anyway.” The words elicited anger as they passed my lips. Rage bubbled up in me and threatened to spill out again.

“I didn’t know him… but I don’t think so,” Crystal said softly. “I don’t think he was the kind of pony to do all the nice things you do. Yes, your job tends to keep you wrapped up, but I don’t feel less loved.”

We’d see how she felt after I missed the next birthday and the next and the next. When I wasn’t there when she needed me, or when I was in the hospital again.

Provided the princess ever let me get near danger. After all, I was apparently just a kept little stallion.

I stood and said, “I should go. I should definitely go. I’ve got to go look in on a pony that was hurt. May I come see you tonight?”

Crystal looked at me curiously and then nodded. “Of course.”

“Great, see you then,” I said before hurrying out of her condo. When I was in the street, I threw my wings out and leapt into the air.

My flight over to Canterlot Memorial Hospital was a quick one. I’d put as much anger into the motions as possible, trying to wear myself out. When I dropped down in front of the building, Tranquil Dusk pacing outside the entrance. She was attracting a lot of attention, too, since most ponies still hadn’t seen a nox pony before. Nor should they have.

“Tranquil, is everything alright with Crimson?” I called before gently taking her by the hoof and pulling her to the side of the door.

Tranquil followed along and, when stopped, she looked at me. It was as if she hadn’t noticed who I was at first. “He’s fine. They said he’d heal completely. He seems fine. Like nothing happened. I’m not fine. Things happened, Silent Knight. So many things happened. He’s fine. I’m not fine.”

Soldiering was not for everypony, and it was all too clear to me now I’d been a fool for not stopping the whole operation just to keep Tranquil and Crimson safe. This was my mistake and now I had to do what I could to help.

“You’re right, things did happen. Let’s get you taken care of, alright? Come with me?”

“We’re going to get help? I need help.” Hope and desperation were in her voice.

“We are. Stick close,” I said, forcing confidence into my voice. A confidence I didn’t feel. The only difference between me and Tranquil was that I knew how to bury the feelings she was expressing.

Together, we flew to the Canterlot Temple Grounds. Tranquil remained so close our wing tips practically touched. As we landed outside the gates, she marveled at the architecture, her woes momentarily forgotten. “This is the walled garden. The one we could not follow you into.”

“It is,” I replied, turning to see that the large red doors were already cracked open. Exemplar Ferrel stood in the gap, watching us.

“Exemplar, I see you were expecting us,” I said flatly. Her actions rarely surprised me anymore.

“At least one of you,” she replied.

Today was not the day to figure out her cryptic messages. I didn’t have the patience and I didn’t like the look the mare was giving me. “This is Tranquil Dusk. She is in need of your help.”

Tranquil stepped forwards and said, “If you please, ma’am. I recognize you from when you came to Haven. You’re a scion.”

The exemplar slightly inclined her head. “So those of your town call me. Here, I am Exemplar Ferrel and it is my duty to help any pony that seeks it. You need only be willing. Please, come inside.”

Tranquil Dusk looked back at me a moment and I just nodded. Without another word, she walked through the gates and into the garden.

When I turned to leave, the exemplar’s voice drifted after me. “Are you not coming too, Silent Knight?”

My hooves froze, but I didn’t turn around. “Me?”

“Of course. You need help too, do you not? You carry the pain of those lost and those that might yet be injured.” The words were plain and without judgment, but they still stung. “You doubt yourself and your place. Your wounds are many and the salve you seek is inside.”

“Our last conversation was tense, Exemplar. I don’t wish to further burden you. Help Tranquil, that’s all I ask.”

“Was it?” she asked before sighing softly. “It wasn’t what you hoped for, was it?”

The words rang familiar. My breath caught and a chill ran through my core. “What did you say?”

“You’ve completed your mission. You’ve reached what you thought was the end of your path. The nox ponies helped you. And, yet, the path stretches on further into the horizon, does it not? From this point on it will only be harder to go it alone.”

She’d lied to me back in Haven. Her little proclamation. Her special knowledge. Her talent.

“I thought you weren’t aware you said those things,” I practically growled.

“I wasn’t. Now I am. The nature of my talent has been changing since you came into my life and placed me in proximity to these important events. It is because of you I was in the presence of the Alicorn of the Night. It was because of you I journeyed to Haven and met the Scion of the Night. It was because of you I discovered the nox pony scroll that carried most enlightening secrets.” Her voice twisted into one of sincere confusion. “Can’t you see what you’ve done?”

I shook my head and finally turned to look at her. Her face was as impassive as always, but her eyes looking not through me. She was looking directly at me.

“The path is so much longer still. I told you before, you aren’t ready for the real trial yet. Why don’t you come inside, Silent Knight? Allow me to help prepare you. Allow me to share the burden. The board is being set and the sisters will need all of their pieces if they are to prevail.”

Pieces? How appropriate. I felt like a pawn lately rather than the knight I’d always thought I was.

“No. No, thank you… and… I want you to stay away from me.” I took two steps back. I didn’t want to hear this today, or any day. Destiny, paths, premonitions. It was all superstitious nonsense. “Please. Just help Tranquil. She deserves it. She is a good pony.”

Her eyes glazed over, but her expression otherwise remained the same. “If that is your wish.”

“It is. Goodbye, Exemplar,” I said before leaping into the air.

She called after me, “Until next time.”

In the past, I’d found her quirkiness somewhat endearing, even when it was frightening. Now it just made me feel worse. She knew things she shouldn’t. As if she could tell me what was going on. As if she knew! She didn’t know anything.

I flew up into the clouds and found a heavy one floating by. It served as a great place to hide, which I planned to do for a little while.

When the anger finally subsided, I realized there was something important I still needed to do. Thankfully, I wasn’t far from Cloudsdale. I can’t explain how pegasi know where it is since it drifts over Equestria, but all I had to do was fly and I just knew.

Cloudsdale had always been a little isolated from the rest of Equestria. Pegasi could visit any unicorn or earth pony town, but it was extremely difficult for them to visit us. That was likely the reason our kind built it so many generations ago. There was safety by being on the high ground and above the concerns of those below.

I wandered through the familiar cloud city, looking at all of the notable landmarks. The arena, the rainbow factory, the weather station, the royal guard campus, the open-air market, and all of the other staples of pegasi life.

My visit wasn’t really about sightseeing or ruminating on pegasi culture, though. I’d returned to keep my promise to my mother… I just wasn’t ready to face her. Keeping my composure had been increasingly difficult today.

Little things had been setting me off for a while now, but I thought getting rid of Alastair was supposed to stop that. I thought getting rid of his shadow would get rid of the darkness. Yet there was still anger in my head and heart. Why?

Eventually, my hooves took me to my mom’s house. I’d have said my parents’ house, but nothing about it was the same anymore. Not that I minded. Sometimes change was a positive thing.

Mom was out front, her back to me, while she was fussing with small planter boxes that rested on the clouds that made up our yard.

“I didn’t realize you gardened,” I called from the street.

My mother stopped what she was doing and turned towards me. She smiled brighter than I’ve ever seen. To be honest it was nice but also somewhat frightening. “Your Crystal Wishes suggested I find hobbies. I’m trying gardening. I’ve managed to kill every zucchini, squash, tomato, onion, and flower so far.”

“We can’t all be good at everything,” I replied.

She dusted her hooves off and walked over to hug me. “I think the only thing I’m good at thus far is reading those romance novels your little mare writes.”

I hugged her back and chuckled. “Well, I’m sure you’ll find something soon.”

“Perhaps… so it’s done?”

“It is.”

“Anything else on the horizon?”

“No, ma’am. It’s done and over. Time to get back to being a regular guard.”

She nodded and kissed my cheek. “It is better that way. I won’t have to worry as much.”

“Yeah,” I said softly. Protect the stallion from the world. I pushed the thought away and squeezed her. There was another reason I’d come to visit, though. I needed a few answers. “Mom, can we talk about Dad for a minute?”

It was hard not to notice her go a bit rigid. She softly breathed out. “I suppose so. What about him?”

“You told me once that when he got back from the war, he wasn’t the same.”

“Yes.”

“I’m…” I felt my wings tremble before the rest of me started to follow suit. “Mom, I’m scared that I’m going to turn out like him. I’m starting to have a temper like he did… and I struggle to focus on things other than my work. I don’t want to be him. I don’t want to do to Crystal what he did to you, but I don’t understand how to avoid it.”

My mother’s hoof found my chin and she tipped my head down to force me to look into her eyes. “Silent Knight, you are not your father. You’re never going to be like him, either… temper or not. I know you’re strong, but don’t think I can’t see you’re sensitive under there.”

“You say that, but can you really know? I’ve never gotten angry like this in the past. I’m worried I’m going to ruin my career or my relationship. Maybe both.”

She shook her head. “You won’t. Silent Knight, as much as I am pained to admit this, you were made for this job. Your father didn’t put that cutie mark on your flank. You’ll sort this out and your career will be fine. And that little mare is so committed to you. She’ll understand. You just need to find a way to cope.” Her eyes narrowed, just slightly. “A healthy way.”

Committed. Why did that word keep coming up? Why did she have to use it?

“How?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I don’t know, Son. I’m sorry that I don’t. Stratus never talked about it with me. He just dealt with it in his own way, which I think we can agree was the wrong way. You’ll have to find your own method or the right ponies to help you. The Royal Guard has grief counselors. I’ve been seeing one.”

“What?” I asked, a bit too much surprise in my voice. Mother looked ashamed and I quickly added, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

She gave me a soft smile. “It’s okay. When Stratus died, the Veterans Affairs ponies came to me. I told them to go away at first, but they were persistent. They said it was part of their process. It isn’t so bad. I go once a month to talk to a pony. Perhaps you can look into something like that at Canterlot.”

“Maybe,” I replied. Maybe not, too. Probably not. Okay, definitely not. “Well… I can’t stay long but, assuming you haven’t stopped shopping in the hopes you’d be able to grow your own food, I could eat.”

My mother eyed me. I wasn’t sure if she was going to let me get away this time. Finally, she nodded. “I have some things. Why don’t you go inside?” Her ear flicked. “Don’t let me forget that I packed a box for you. Things you should have.”

“What kind of things?”

Her expression turned soft. “Some of your father’s things. They’re meant for you. Just take the box. You can look through them when you’re feeling better.”

Meant for me? I doubted it. Few things were. “Sure. I can do that.”

Sunny sat in the chair next to me doing everything she could to not look miserable. I didn’t feel much better but hid it better. That isn’t to say I’m good at that, but ponies are used to me looking blank. As long as I wasn’t shouting or throwing my helmet, I was fine.

Sunny, on the other hoof, was always happy, so when she didn’t look happy, it read as ‘off’, even if she looked as blank as me.

We’d been summoned to Vice Colonel Glamour’s office with little notice. Glamour had been Shining Armor’s executive officer. She was now in command of the House Guards, the Palace Guard, and the City Guard. Despite that, command hadn’t awarded her the title of Captain of the Canterlot Guard and they’d put a lot of subordinate commanders like Major Measure in place to decentralize the role.

It wasn’t so much that they didn’t have faith in her specifically. They just didn’t think anypony could do what Shining Armor had.

“Do you think we’re going to be relieved?” Sunny asked suddenly.

It was a valid question. Any of my night time activities could get me relieved of duty. I’d stretched my mandate to the extreme and created a potential incident between Equestria and Sudramoar. On the other hoof, Sunny had been slipping, especially since the night on the tower, but I doubted anypony other than me would notice.

“I think you’re fine,” I replied.

“It isn’t like her to send for us on short notice.”

“That is true, but I still think you’re fine.”

Sunny half smiled and teased, “You said ‘beautiful’ the other night.”

I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“Just trying to liven our spirits.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. I’m in a mood.”

“You’re always in a mood,” she muttered and fell back to a blank expression. “Let’s just leave and go dancing.”

My brow arched. “Well, then we’d be relieved for sure.” That was assuming the princess’s pet stallion could even be relieved. I snorted as irritation surged within me and I stood up. There was only one way to find out. “Actually, why not? I might as well enjoy myself before they take my bar. Let’s go.”

“Wait, what?” Sunny stood up with me. “Seriously?”

Before I could answer, the door to Vice Colonel Glamour’s office opened. “Lieutenant Day, Lieutenant Knight. Come in, please.”

I started to follow behind the vice colonel, but Sunny set a hoof on my chest to stop me. “Were you really going to leave?”

“You’ll never know,” I replied before heading into the office.

Sunny glared and followed along with me.

“Have a seat, you two,” Vice Colonel Glamour said as she moved back behind her desk.

It occurred to me that I’d never actually been in her office. She hadn’t taken Shining Armor’s space. That still remained vacant.

Glamour’s office was larger than mine and the entire back wall was one big window that looked out into the city. The desk was not one of the generic ones the Guard issued, either. It was custom built and stained in a dark color. The rest of her furniture matched.

On the side walls, she had open shelving that were all filled with personal effects and awards. Most of them were gold, which seemed appropriate for a pony named Glamour.

I settled into the chair and tried to get a read on the vice colonel. She didn’t seem upset or spun up. In fact, she seemed pretty even.

Like many Canterlot unicorns, Glamour was somewhat petite when compared to a pegasus like myself. Her coat was a rich cream color and her mane was a mix of subtle pink and white. Usually she kept it up in a ponytail and it wasn’t uncommon to see her without her helmet.

I also rarely saw her work out at the gym, because that was never her focus. Glamour was not a swordspony. She’d advanced through her superior intellect, dedication to her duty, and extreme talent for martial magic. I’d never seen it, but there were many rumors about that last part. Scary rumors about hugely destructive spells.

Sunny eased in next to me. “We come when we’re called, ma’am. What can we do for you?”

“I’m certain you’ve noticed that your company commander’s post has been vacant for a while.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sunny said. I bobbed my head in agreement.

“And that didn’t really seem to make any difference to you two. You both had a turn running the whole palace and did it well. Sunny, you shouldered that burden for a long time and things kept going. I’m proud of you.”

Sunny didn’t outwardly react. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“No thanks are due,” she replied. “Back to your company. We’re not going to fill that post.”

They weren’t going to fill it? That didn’t make any sense. Unless… No. Seriously, no. Not after what I just found out.

“Ma’am? What about Lieutenant Rook?” I asked pointedly.

Vice Colonel Glamour smiled at me. “Ever the loyal guard. Astute, too. Russet is going to need to find a new post. I’ll see to it personally that he is placed, but I’m afraid there isn’t going to be a company command anymore. It was an unnecessary level of bureaucracy.”

Sunny looked over at me. “Ma’am, who would we report to, then?”

“Me, just like you previously reported to Colonel Armor. Not that I really expect you to need me for anything other than your pony resources responsibilities. You’ll continue to take your direction directly from the princesses you protect. There is little sense in having Princess Celestia task me to task you. We all know she goes directly to you anyway.”

She then turned to me. “And you. I don’t even know about a quarter of the things you do. Princess Luna is always tightlipped about what she asks for or where you are… or where she is, for that matter. All I know is she is thrilled with you and the section you’ve built. If you want to keep going out and discovering ancient pony settlements, you do that.”

The vice colonel turned to look out her window. “Major Measure’s reports on you two were laughably empty, so why pretend anymore? So long as the princesses are happy, I am happy. Obviously, all promotions and such need to go through Command, but it is time to face facts and simplify the workflow. Which brings me to my next point.” She looked over her shoulder. “Sunny.”

Sunny stiffened in her chair. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Your name is going to be on the selection list. We were in a crisis, and you stepped in and handled it. You kept your normal level of excellence for your section and you also ran the palace. Well done.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I uh… I don’t really want to leave my unit, though, so if you could maybe take my name off the list?”

I blinked and looked over at Sunny in surprise. I understood her reasoning, but she’d more than earned the promotion.

“Don’t be concerned. Captains have led sections before, usually as a punishment, but I doubt anypony would see it that way. Not in the House Guard. You’ll keep your unit. Congratulations.”

Sunny visibly relaxed. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“And Silent Knight, I’d have put you on there, too, if you’d completed your captain’s training. As far as I can tell, you haven’t even registered for it.”

I shook my head. “I haven’t, ma’am. I didn’t want to be promoted out of my unit.” That, and who had time for it? How had Sunny managed to go?

“Well, that is no longer a concern, so I expect you to do it. I realize some commanders might sign off on a promotion without it, but I won’t. Some bureaucracy exists for a good reason. Take the classes or remain a lieutenant.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.

“That is all then. I’m glad to have you both here. You’re dismissed.”

We stood together and then walked out. “Congratulations, Sunny,” I said softly once we were far enough down the hall.

“Meh,” she replied.

“Yeah…”

Sunny bumped her shoulder to mine. “Let’s go have that dance now, alright?”

“Okay, but in your office with the door closed.”

She snorted. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were making a pass at me.”

“But you know me better.”

“I’d like to,” she replied, wiggling her ears. The words were from the Sunny I knew, which made me smile… briefly. The tone wasn’t the same, though. It was new Sunny’s tone.

“Crystal would not approve.”

“Well, I’m bigger than her. What is she going to do?”

I almost made a crack about Azurite but the last time I’d done that it had soured my partner’s mood, so I shrugged. “She has this friend who’s pretty scrappy. Maybe together they could do something.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “And you’d let that happen?”

“I’m smart enough to know not to get between mares when they’re fighting. That’s how ponies get killed.”

“Oh, so you’re not as dumb as you look.”

I didn’t answer that. I didn’t want to think too much about how dumb I really was. Instead, I just smiled at her, then parted ways at the first cross-section of halls to head back to my office.

It was finally time to send a letter. I knew it was a mistake as I got out the pen and paper, but it had to be written. I had to do this. I couldn’t allow Shining Armor to offer me a position I didn’t deserve.

Thankfully, Glamour had unwittingly given me the perfect opportunity.


To Col. Shining Armor, Crystal Empire Province Garrison, commanding
From Lt. Silent Knight, Princess Luna’s House Guard, commanding

Sir

I have given your offer a lot of thought over the last few weeks. It truly is a generous one that tempted me. At this time, as much as it pains me to write, I don’t believe I am ready to move away from my current command and you deserve an officer that is.

Please accept my deepest gratitude for the offer and know that while this may not be the time, if another position opens in the future, I would truly consider it if offered. I very much hope to serve with you again one day.

In the meantime, there is some growth left here for me and, as you know, I am attached to Princess Luna. And, as I’m sure you’re also aware, she is very attached to me. It is not yet the time to separate myself from her, even if that isn’t the best thing for my career.

If I might be so bold, I would like to recommend Russet Rook for this position. He will be completing ALS soon and is more than a capable officer. Canterlot Command is not going to persist with the Unified House Guard. We will be returning to the original organization that existed prior to your reassignment.

Russet is going to come home and find out he has been displaced completely. That just isn’t right in my opinion. He’ll need a good position to fall back on and I can think of none better. He is a good officer and my career advanced to the detriment of his. Please consider him.

If, by any chance, you happen to be near Canterlot soon I would appreciate it if you visited. I’m struggling with some things and I think the clarity of an outside view would be beneficial.

Sincerely

Silent Knight

I sighed as I folded the letter up and slipped it into the envelope. Russet genuinely deserved a chance after being ousted for me. This would be my opportunity to square our books.

At least that would be something good to come out of all of this.

37. A Surprise Package

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Saturday nights were, in general, intended to be a date night for Crystal and me. In the past, I’d missed several due to my evening activities, but now that the mission was complete, I was free.

However, Crystal wasn’t free, and that was frustrating. She was out somewhere being a Canterlot socialite and I was home alone.

When Winterspear and Iridescence realized I was unfortunately available, they had begged me to watch Dot so they could finally have their own date night. I’d agreed because I’d have been a monster not to. What was I going to do? Besides, I was sure I could handle one filly.

As the evening wore on, I wasn’t sure I could handle a filly. Fillies are scary on a good day.

Dot whined and looked up at me with a pout. “You’re doing it wrong.”

“I’m coloring in the lines,” I replied.

“Yes, but you’re using blue! She’s supposed to be green. Haven’t you read the books?”

What books? “Oh… I like blue, though. Does she have to be green?”

“Yes!”

I set the blue colored pencil down and picked up the green one.

“No!” Dot chimed.

I tried not to frown. “But it’s green.”

“Not that color green!” She took that pencil from me with her levitation spell and slipped a different one into my hoof. “Now do it right.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled before starting to carefully color the pony with the appropriate color of green.

Dot was working on the pony’s mane. It was grey. She looked up at me for a moment before looking back at the book. “So, you’re going to marry Crystal Wishes?”

“Yup, I am.”

“Do you have a flower filly yet?”

I shook my head. “No, I don’t suppose we do.”

“Can I be the flower filly?”

Iridescence had been working on this with Dot. Not the flower part, the difference between may versus can. “I’m sure you can do the job, yes. I think you meant may you be the flower filly.”

Dot groaned. “May I be the flower filly?”

“You’ll have to ask Crystal. I think that’s a fine idea, though.”

“So she is the boss?”

“Uh-huh.” When it came to the wedding, she sure was.

“Are mares always the boss?”

“Usually. At least in my experience. My bosses are all mares.”

Dot nodded thoughtfully. “Who is the boss with Winterspear and Iridescence? They’re both mares.”

That was not the question I was expecting. Filly sitting was turning out to be more perilous than I’d guessed. “I think they’re partners.”

“Oh. That makes sense. So, if I marry a stallion, I’ll get to be the boss?”

“I have no doubt that you will be,” I replied while I hid a smirk.

After a moment of thought, Dot declared, “I guess I’ll marry a stallion. Since I like to be the boss.”

My ear flicked. “Just because you want to be the boss?”

“Yes. No.” Dot sighed. “I don’t know.”

I set my pencil down and peered at her. “What does that mean?”

Dot peered at me like I was an idiot. Maybe I was. “Luminescence likes mares. Opalescence likes mares. Iridescence likes mares. They all like mares. I like mares, too, but just as friends. I’m weird.”

“I don’t think you’re weird. You’re still pretty young. Maybe you’ll grow up to like mares?” That was probably the stupidest thing I’d ever said.

Dot set a hoof on my nose and shook her head. “That is sweet, but no. I know I’m weird.”

The conviction in her voice made me a little sad. “I don’t think you’re weird. It is perfectly natural for a filly to like colts. Crystal Wishes likes stallions. My mother likes stallions. My friend Miley likes stallions. Remember her from Runic’s birthday party?”

“Yes… Yes, but my sisters don’t.” Dot’s gaze dropped to the page. “That makes me different. I’m different enough from them already.”

“Dot… I—” That hit me right in the gut and my heart ached. What do you say to a filly that feels like that? This was out of my league. “Dot, have you told Iridescence about this?”

She shook her head.

“You should, that is what sisters are for. For what it’s worth, I like you just how you are. Whether you like colts, fillies, or both.”

Dot smiled and hugged me tightly around the neck, momentarily cutting off the oxygen to my brain. Her technique was surprisingly good. I looped my hooves around her and carefully repositioned the filly so that I wouldn’t pass out.

She nuzzled me and said, “You’re awfully nice for a pony that looks grumpy all the time.”

“Why does everypony say that?” I asked.

“Because you look grumpy. Don’t you look in the mirror?”

I shook my head. “I try not to.”

“Oh… well maybe if you did, you’d know. I like it when you smile.”

“I suppose I would.” I looked down at our half-finished work. “Would you like to finish the coloring book?”

Dot shook her head. “No. Not really. Can we go fly?”

I gave a pointed look. “‘Can’ we go fly?”

“May we go fly?” she asked with a roll of her eyes.

I stood up, a hoof still around her. “Yes we may!”

I stood out on the palace lawn watching work ponies carefully refurbishing the outside of Princess Luna’s wing. There were all sorts of plans for the inside. New stained glass, bigger quarters, and even a small audience chamber. That way the princess would have her own throne room.

It was fitting for a princess even though I was still cross with her. The rational part of me knew I’d earned my bar, but the other part had doubts. Was I really the right stallion for the job?

“Sir! Sir! Sir!” Miley shrieked as she galloped across the lawn towards me.

My heart sped up and adrenaline surged into my system. I fell into my combat stance and looked around for signs of danger. None seemed evident, but Miley was not a pony to cry timberwolf.

Miley slid to a stop right in front of me. “Sir! I… I—achoo!” She sneezed right into my face. All over my face!

“Miley!” I shouted.

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” She started wiping my face.

I swatted her hoof away. “What is the alarm? The job, Sergeant!”

The little brown mare shifted and flushed. “Oh! Right. Orchid is in labor. Her foal is coming. We have to go. We have to go right now.”

I blinked and then wiped myself off with a hoof. My heart was still racing in my chest and I knew I had to stay calm. Miley was just excited and yelling at her wasn’t the right thing to do. I forced a smile and nodded. “That is good news. We can’t just go, though; we’re on duty. When Mountain Stone relieves you, we’ll go. Alright?”

“Aww… but the foal could come any minute!” Miley whined. When I glared her, she squeaked and held up a hoof. “Okay. Can I at least go tell Princess Luna?”

“Yes, but if you sneeze in her face, I’m busting you down to guard 3rd class. Next time use a tissue or something. Were you raised in a barn?”

Miley huffed. “If I knew it was coming, I wouldn’t have sneezed on you, sir! I’m sorry. I’m going to go tell the princess.”

“Dismissed…” I said to her flank as she galloped off. So much for discipline. I turned back to where the ponies were assembling what would ultimately be a crane. It was going to be really tricky to secure a wing with holes in it. Iridescence and I would need to talk about that.

To nopony’s surprise, as soon as Miley delivered the news, Princess Luna ordered her entire House Guard to the hospital. There was some surprise, however, when Princess Celestia did the same.

Not every house guard could just up and leave, but it sure felt like every single one of us was packed into the Canterlot Hospital maternity ward’s waiting room. Somewhere in the room was Mr. Orchid, or so I was told.

Miley’s armor rattled as she practically vibrated with excitement. I set a hoof on the top of her head to keep her still. “Easy there. We’re going to be here a while and you’re still on duty, Sergeant.”

There were two entrances to the waiting room and one back into the medical area. Storm Rider had stationed two guards at each door. So had Iridescence. That meant four ponies, two in gold and two in violet, securing each door.

Beyond that, each princess had two guards lingering within hoof’s reach. Add in both commanders, both section NCOs, and every other random guard, and this would either be the best or worst possible time to attack.

Princess Luna and Princess Celestia seemed to be amused by the whole situation. They were sitting on the floor playing Go Fish. I guess Princess Celestia wasn’t as big into games as her sister.

Sunny pushed her way through the sea of gold and violet armor to stand beside me. “This is ridiculous.”

“Yes, yes it is,” I replied.

“Have you seen Milton?” she asked.

“Who’s Milton?”

Sunny blinked and then rolled her eyes. “Her husband! Mr. Milton Orchid!”

Milton was his name? What kind of name was that? I’d always called him Mr. Orchid. I shook my head. “No, but word around the potted plant is that he is here somewhere.”

“Unbelievable. He must be livid,” Sunny said before turning towards the door to the medical area.

It opened not long after and a pony wandered in wearing scrubs. “By Celestia!” he exclaimed when he saw us all.

“I’m here!” Princess Celestia chimed cheerfully.

The doctor froze. His forelegs twitched and it seemed like he was trying to decide whether or not to bow.

Sunny waved a hoof in front of him. “Doctor. Focus.”

He blinked and then shook his head. “Yes. Sorry. I’m thrilled to announce Equestria has its newest citizen. Both mother and foal are well.”

The room erupted in cheers and hoof stomps.

Miley bounced up and down eagerly. “Yay! Can we go see them?”

I held up a wing between her and the door. “Maybe we should let Mr. Orchid go see them first?”

The doctor nodded. “That would be customary. Although, I’ve never had a princess in the waiting room before.”

“Two princesses,” Princess Luna corrected as she stood up.

The doctor paused before responding, “A new record, then.” He looked around the sea of armored ponies. “So… where is the father?”

“Here! Over here! Excuse me, please.” It was faint and very little progress seemed to be made in him getting across the room.

I just chuckled, stood to my full height, and shouted, “Make a hole!”

Almost immediately the guards cleared the way between me and Mr. Orchid. We’d never met before but, considering he was the only non-princess pony without armor, I assumed it was him. He was a fit-looking earth pony with a greying blond mane and light brown coat. All in all, fairly plain.

He made his way over and nodded. “Thank you. I’ll just go check on Radiant. I’m sure she’ll be excited to hear that the entire Royal Guard is here. Thank you all for coming!”

“Right this way,” the doctor said, leading Mr. Orchid off.

Miley squirmed. “I want to go first! I love foals. I was there when three of my sisters and three of my brothers were born!”

Sunny snorted and looked over at me with a brow raised.

I took the cue and suggested, “Perhaps we should let the princesses go first, Miley?”

“Aww… I guess so. I’m just so excited! I… ah… I… ah—”

Sunny grabbed my shoulders and shoved me between herself and Miley. Her reaction was lightning fast.

“—choo!”

I’d been used as a shield just as the small earth pony sneezed… right on me… again. “Miley!”

“I’m sorry, sir!” she squealed.

“Get a mask!” I shouted. “Don’t you dare go sneeze on that foal!”

“Yes, sir! I’m sorry, I’ll get a mask,” she said hurriedly before disappearing into the sea of armor so I couldn’t yell at her anymore.

My glare shifted to Sunny. She shrugged and grinned. “Better you than me.”

“Thanks, partner. Good to know you’re looking out for the right pony,” I groused.

“You’ve got a better constitution.”

Sure I did. I turned to the sea of ponies and called, “Listen up, everypony. I realize you’re all excited, but I don’t want to overwhelm Radiant Orchid. We’re going to visit her in shifts. The princesses and their personal guards will be after Mr. Orchid—”

“Milton,” Sunny corrected.

“After Milton. Then me, since she was my section sergeant. After that, we’ll work down the list. Lieutenant Day will go last so she can ensure the Princesses return safely to the palace. Right, partner?” I asked, looking over my shoulder at her.

“Captain-select Day, and yes, that is fine,” she replied before poking me with a hoof.

“I want to go fourth,” I heard Miley squeak from the ground.

“Not without a mask!” I practically yelled back.

The door behind me opened again and the doctor poked his head out. “With all due respect, could you please keep it down out here? You’re upsetting the foals and parents. They’re not used to royal guards shouting in the hospital.”

My ears pinned back. “My apologies.”

“Quite alright,” he said. “The family is asking for the princesses.”

“That’s us!” Princess Celestia called cheerfully before Princess Luna slapped a hoof over her mouth and hissed, “Shhh!”

The two then trotted through the crowd and back past the door. They had four guards with them, but at that point I couldn’t tell which ones.

It wasn’t long after that my turn came and I was ushered back to visit Orchid and her newest foal. She was sitting up in her hospital bed, holding a bundled-up colt in a blue blanket. From what I could see, he was the spitting image of his father. Other than the eyes. The eyes were all Orchid.

“Well, it is about time Mr. Orchid got a colt. Where is he, anyway?” I asked softly, looking around.

“He was pretty spun up having sat in the waiting room with two princesses and a small army. I sent him to my mother’s to get the girls and come back a little later.”

“Ah, smart. What did you decide to name him?”

The mare stroked the foal’s mane and replied, “Star-Lavender Storm. We’re going to call him Star.”

The breath I’d been taking caught in my throat and it felt like somepony hit me in the gut. I just nodded a moment and smiled, doing what I could to remain neutral.

Orchid reached out and set her hoof on mine. “It’s okay. I think about them, too. This is one way I’m dealing with it.”

“Yeah…” I whispered, closing my hoof around hers. “He’s beautiful.”

“He is. He’s going to be just like his father, though. I just have a feeling. Which is good. We don’t all need to be guards. How’ve you been?”

“I’ve been well. Busy, but well. Things have slowed down dramatically. We still haven’t found a new sergeant and, by we, I mean Iridescence. Maybe give her some sage advice when she comes through?”

The mare chuckled softly and lightly poked my nose. “I don’t work for you anymore.”

“No, but I’d consider it a favor.”

“Sure, sure. Do me a favor?”

“Anything for you, ma’am,” I said teasingly.

“Come visit me at work. I get lonely there. It isn’t like being in a protection detail; I spend most of the day alone in an office. I could use the company.”

That was an easy favor. “Absolutely. When do you start back?”

Orchid settled back on the bed and pulled Star closer to her chest. “In a week on light duty. I’ve got some important cases that I don’t want to reassign. Pony resources is all about relationships, especially in my department.”

My brow arched. “How so? Aren’t you working the City Guard files?”

She shook her head. “No, there was an opening here. I’m a caseworker for the Guard. It’s emotional, but I really feel like I’m making a difference.”

Caseworker for the Guard? All of my muscles went momentarily tense. “Seems right up your alley.” Was she going to try to get me to talk to her? No, she wouldn’t do that… would she? “Well, I’ll come see you soon. As much as I’d like to stay awhile tonight, there are a lot of ponies waiting.”

She grinned. “So I’m told. Alright, come see me sooner than later, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied before heading out.

Princess Luna sat across from Willowy Tempest in silence. The two had not spoken in an hour, too consumed with the game of chess they were playing. The princess had summoned me an hour before that and had yet to tell me why.

Willowy, conveniently, had distracted her. The joke was on her, though; I liked standing guard. I liked standing guard a lot. So I did, which was clearly making Ironclad a bit uncomfortable. It wasn’t every day that your commander stood guard next to you.

Princess Luna shifted her unicorn priestess. “Check.”

That seemed to frazzle Willowy. She blew a few strands of her mane out of the way and quickly moved a pegasus knight to block the path between her princess and Princess Luna’s priestess. It was a foolish move. A stop gap in the best of cases.

The princess shifted a rook down the board. “Checkmate.”

“How did I not see that!” Willowy protested, then scrunched up her nose. “Shall we play another round, Princess? I’m getting better at this.”

Princess Luna’s horn illuminated as she started moving the pieces back. “Your instinct was to defend from the immediate threat instead of the looming one. I suppose we have time for another game.”

“Great!” Willowy replied, getting her side of the board ready.

Ironclad and I briefly exchanged glances, and I shrugged before turning my eyes forwards to look off into nothingness.

I wasn’t sure how long I continued to stand there, but they were several turns into the second round when the door opened and Princess Celestia came through. “Luna, a minute if you please.”

From her chair, Luna looked up and nodded, “Of course. We can play again later, Willow.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I just received the most curious of letters,” Princess Celestia started. The letter in question was levitating in her golden magic. “It is from King Kronson of Sudramoar. It seems his grandson Garrard has gone missing. He was last known to be working in Nordanver. He wanted to know if we knew about him as, evidently, he feels he is not receiving much help from King Ranald.”

Princess Luna’s head tilted. “Garrard? He is asking us about Garrard?”

“Captain Alastair,” I blurted from my spot near the door. I’m not sure why. Guilt?

Princess Celestia turned around in surprise. “Silent Knight! I didn’t see you there.” It seems I still had the ability to blend in. She fell silent and looked to Princess Luna, the surprise shifting to concern.

“How do you know the association between those names, Silent Knight?” Princess Luna asked, looking my way.

What a stupid thing to have said. I took a deep, measured breath. “I used my favors to get a look at the Guard Intelligence reports after the incident. I was… I guess you can say aiding them. At least, until they threw me out for being overzealous about it. Forgive me, Princess, but I have not found it easy to let bygones be bygones.”

Princess Celestia rolled the letter up. “I’m not certain how to respond. This complicates matters dramatically. The reports heavily suggest this gryphon is one and the same, and that would make him a criminal.”

“Agreed,” Princess Luna said. “Perhaps respond that we do not know the whereabouts of this Garrard but may use our influence with Nordanver to urge their authorities to find him?”

“They’re not going to find him,” I thought—no, wait, I said that. Aloud. Shut up, stupid honest mouth!

All eyes fell on me and Princess Celestia’s brow furrowed. “Why do you say that?”

“The intelligence work I saw was exceptionally thorough. Alastair is wanted for acts of war and the murder of gryphon soldiers. Presumably, the Nordanver security forces have been looking for him for quite some time and have failed in that pursuit. If they can’t find Alastair, they can’t find Garrard.”

Princess Luna’s eyes never left mine as I spoke and it was a struggle to keep my composure. My stomach was churning with a mix of trepidation and anger.

Silence filled the room a moment before she responded, “I cannot fault this logic. Does King Ranald know of this connection?”

“I cannot say, Princess,” I replied. “It was deemed better to deny him the knowledge so that he may have plausible deniability. I’m uncertain what occurred after I was removed from my position.”

Princess Celestia shook her head. “This is a dangerous topic. If, and I must stress, if, Alastair and Garrard are one and the same for certain, then that casts blame on his king. Would a member of the royal family act so foolishly on his own for financial gain? That makes no sense.”

She was right: it didn’t. Garrard had probably acted on orders. I’d left all of his papers in the drop for Maya. I’m certain she and I would have some idea of what was going on soon, but we couldn’t share it.

“Silent Knight, you have clearly followed this,” Princess Celestia said. “I think a further analysis must be done. You will be the liaison between Guard Intelligence and the crowns. I don’t want this to turn into an even more sensitive international incident.”

That was a situation I couldn’t get myself into. “Princess, I don’t think that I can do that objectively. I have already been thrown out once and my personal feelings will impact my work. You need a pony with better clarity for this.”

Both princesses looked at me curiously. I took a deep breath and kept still. That was a good enough reason to bow out of this, right? Better than the truth that I didn’t want to put myself in a position to commit fraud. If the princesses were following this, then I needed to fly very, very low on the radar.

Princess Luna finally looked to her sister. “Perhaps he is right. Silent Knight is already biased by what he has read and seen. There is also likely animosity between him and the Intelligence section. Anypony that was there that day would be equally biased. Sunny Day would be better suited to this.”

“Very well,” Princess Celestia replied. “I’ll respond as discussed. It is time that you and I looked even closer into this incident.”

“Agreed,” Princess Luna replied.

Princess Celestia nodded and turned to leave. She paused to look at me. “You look comfortable standing there.”

“Life is simpler here, Princess.”

She smiled and nodded. “Indeed.”

Once Princess Celestia was out of the room, Princess Luna stood up. “Willow, I think a rematch shall have to wait. Would you be a dear and round up all of my notes for the shower and then take them to