I will be the first to admit that this piece was plagued with problems from the start. I never had the amount of time I wanted to work on it. My initial plan was far too ambitious. When I finally settled on a similarly-themed, but cut-down version of the piece, I ran into the issue of both lack of direction and writer's block. Even with the cut-down version, it quickly grew from a 1200-word jaunt into a much meatier 3300-word piece.
Despite my conquest of writer's block, I still can't help but feel I could have done better.
On the bright side, I did manage to piece together a WIP character concept from this story, one I hope to be able to make a viable character in time. It also serves as reinforcement that once again, everything will take longer than expected to complete and that multiple iterations and revisions result in a higher quality end product. It's also quite fun making up faux Russian words from bits of Slavic-sounding phonemes and Google-abused single word translations.
So without further ado, I present The Iron Saddle.
The Iron Saddle
“To be sure, it’s not the typical interview.”
Captain Fletcher gently set his empty pint glass down upon the wooden booth table as he spoke, nudging at it with his magic until it slowly wobbled and worked its way out of the milky pool of light cast by the faerie lantern above. The strikingly blue unicorn eyed the ruddy pegasus stallion across the table with a mixture of quiet curiosity and healthy suspicion. Astutely aware of his observer, the older stallion merely sipped his drink, a distinct aura of smug nonchalance—outright arrogance even—subtly coloring his demeanor.
“I expected a more formal setting,” the Pegasus said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were taking her out on a date.”
His salt and pepper mane and subtle wrinkles reflected his age, but his frame suggested much tougher military service than he currently occupied. The smooth solidity of his movements gave ample indication of his alertness and vitality. Old he was, but over the hill he was not.
“I keep my personal and my professional life very much separate, Colonel Ironwing,” Fletcher said flatly, turning his nose slightly at the implied snideness of the Colonel’s remark. “Furthermore, I’m the one conducting the interview. You’re just the babysitter.”
Fletcher glanced out the window as he spoke, idly watching the fluffy white flakes fall outside. The windowpanes were frosted over with condensation, blurring the already ethereal yellow glow of the gas lamps in the streets with crystalline iridescence. The unicorn twirled his empty pint glass with the soft violet glow of his magic, mindful of the chill outside. As if to underscore the thought, the aetheric tendrils reached out, gently adjusting the lay of Fletcher’s ushanka, scarf, and topcoat on the rack at their booth as they dried from their prior excursion in the snow.
“If by babysitter, you mean conscience, then yes, very much so,” Colonel Aristotle Ironwing replied without missing a beat. “Just remember that OPCENT takes accountability very seriously.”
“Then OPCENT needs to talk to the REIN spooks more often.”
“Just keeping you on your hooves, Captain,” the Colonel said, taking a sip of his drink before continuing. Fletcher bristled at both his detached indifference and the foul smell of Griffon liquor in the Colonel’s glass. “But I do insist that you just call me Aristotle. I’ve been out of the Army several years running.”
“Yes, of course,” the unicorn said, waving a hoof dismissively. “You told me on the airship here. But old habits die hard. It’s not every day I meet a full-bird.”
“Former full-bird,” the Colonel chuckled. “You know, Fletcher, you remind me a lot of my son Diomedes. He never hesitates to remind me that I’m over the hill. Of course, I never hesitate to show him that I’m not.”
Fletcher shook his head. It was hopeless. The old warhorse talked in circles. He was arguably more arrogant than Fletcher, but there was no denying that his wit was as sharp as ever. As much as Fletcher hated having an OPCENT watchdog looking over his shoulder, he was certain that Aristotle’s skills set might become useful later. But for now, having a snarky, wisecracking observer was going to be quite the thorn in his side.
“If you’re going to keep this up, I’m going to be another drink,” Fletcher tossed over his shoulder as he departed the booth for the bar.
The Iron Saddle Tavern was less a tavern and more a cozy hideaway for the middle-class citizens of Stalliongrad’s Island District. Atypical of establishments of its kind, the interior was spacious and airy. Private booths, tables, and sitting areas were illuminated by soft lightning divided by virtual cordons of shadow. The usual miasma of tobacco smoke was strangely absent, which was a cause for shock to many a working-stallion on his way up the corporate ladder.
A large fireplace with stone mantle adorned with Matroyshka dolls, wool ushankas, and miniature painted pewter replicas of Ostrov’s multicolor onion-dome spires stood in the center of the great room, warming the entire hall with its glow. Though a distinct, smokey pungency lingered in the hall, any hazardous smoke was directed up and away from the sitting area by iron ductwork.
The bar itself was set by a standard hardwood counter, polished and varnished to a sheen, but still showing plenty of nicks and dings from the wear of biersteins, shot glasses, tumblers, eating ware, and less than sober patrons’ hooves. Row upon row of liquors and flavorings lined the back wall of the bar, sporting fare from as far away as Aquellia and Unyasi. Less harsh spirits occupied their own rack in the corner, housing dandelion wine from Solstice Heights and Garden Gait’s famous Riesling, as well as more arcane brews from Canterlot proper.
But while the foreign liquors were plentiful, the local fare took center stage: a poster for Stallianoya, the finest in all Stalliongrad, fit for a princess but strong enough for the working-stallion, so the slogan went. A smattering of half-empty bottles labeled with less prominent brands peppered the center stand. Finally, the taps with faded labels running to kegs of various local and imported brews occupied the center of the counter, standing watch over patrons eager for some time off.
All of this passed quietly under Fletcher’s watchful eye as he slid onto one of the cushions at the counter and idly tapped his hoof on the counter. The bar was run by a grizzled-looking hippogriff who tended to patrons’ requests with speed, efficacy, and a certain elan that could only come from a native Stallian well-acquainted with his drink.
“Barkeep, Caballo’s and tonic, easy on the tonic,” Fletcher said, ordering his old standby of gin and tonic in the native tongue.
Hearth’s Warming Eve. OPCOM Central had insisted he make the trip up to Stalliongrad on Hearth’s Warming Eve. Holiday pageantry, décor, and Stallian spirit seemed to permeate the very air, much like the falling snow outside. The captain had largely tuned out the hustle and bustle of the city, preferring instead to focus on the task he had been given. Having been trained as a marksman, focusing was his specialty.
Despite this, Fletcher found it difficult to concentrate. Stalliongrad was an evocative city. Everywhere a pony went, there were sights, sounds, smells, textures, and in some venues, tastes. To a unicorn, it was even more scintillating; the very aetheric ley lines seemed different, especially in the Island District, the gleaming jewel in Stalliongrad’s crown.
Further compounding the matter was time. It had been five years since his last visit. Five years since the last tour and five years since the grand game that Fletcher played had fundamentally changed. Despite the passage of time, there were still memories here—some good, some bad, all powerful.
“I would recognize that terrible accent and that equally terrible choice of drink anywhere.”
Fletcher smirked. The voice was immediately familiar. Speaking Common thick with the Stallian accent, the mare’s speech was husky and weathered but fully of vitality. Pink-coated with violet and teal-streaked mane and tail, Master Sergeant Novaya simultaneously oozed femininity and embodied the tough fighting spirit of the Stallian Guard. Her cutie mark, a blue gentian flower superimposed on an eight-pointed star exemplified the fusion of both to a tee. Curvy, but far from portly, Novaya was able to take her share of hardships right alongside the stallions of the VSS elite.
“You haven’t changed one bit, Novaya,” Fletcher chuckled.
“Nor have you, Fletcher!” the pink unicorn laughed heartily. “You don’t look a day older than you did on your last tour here!”
“You flatter me, Sergeant,” Fletcher replied, plinking a few bits on the counter for his gin drink.
Before he knew it, Novaya embraced him, lifting him off the cushion and squeezing him in a big bear hug as she stood. Fletcher blustered for a moment before he realized his social faux pas. The captain returned his friend’s embrace, kissing her once on each cheek as was customary for greeting close friends and family.
“Have you forgotten the greetings already?” the pink unicorn laughed, slipping back into Stallian.
“It’s been a while, I admit,” the captain said, sheepishly fixing his rumpled mane with a hoof as he steadied himself on the ground. “Cut me some slack.”
“Only after vodka, my friend! Barmen, Stallianoya! Davai!”
The two unicorns shared a laugh, with Novaya quickly chatting up the bartender as he went to retrieve a fresh bottle of vodka from the ice box—warm, friendly smalltalk; the kind that the Order team and ISU ponies all enjoyed in the tavern after a mission or drill. The barkeep worked swiftly, returning with two shot glasses, each filled to the brim with Stalliongrad’s finest spirits.
“Only the finest in all Stalliongrad...” Novaya said, taking her glass from the barkeep and floating it in the air between them.
“... for the finest in all Stalliongrad!” Fletcher finished the toast, knocking his glass against Novaya’s before downing his share of the local firewater.
Fletcher’s eyes watered and his throat burned at the taste. Stallianoya had a harsh flavor with a shockingly smooth texture, akin to drinking a razor blade. Its pungency was that of rubbing alcohol, but thankfully with a sweeter finish owing to its peculiar distilling process. The captain hacked and hemmed at its intensity, choking on the fumes as Novaya clapped him on the back with a hoof.
“You are going soft, tovarishch!” she chortled merrily in her native tongue. “Barmen! Another ro--”
“Stop, stop, no!” Fletcher coughed, waving the barkeep off. “As much as I’d love to, I can’t afford to drink. I’ve a meeting in half an hour.”
“A meeting?” Novaya mused, resting an elbow on the counter, propping her head up with a hoof, listening with great interest. Her entire demeanor changed, acquiring a new one akin to a school filly intent on picking up the latest gossip at the school cafeteria. “Skazhite. Tell me. I am listening.”
“OPSEC,” Fletcher responded flatly. Operational Security was important. Not that ISU-143 would poach his assets, but there was comfort in keeping standard operating procedure in--
“Oh I see how it is,” Novaya laughed, pressing her nose against Fletcher’s. “It is fine, magyosha, you can tell me all about your little adventures in Stalliongrad!”
Fletcher stared at Novaya for a moment, puzzled. The use of a pet name colored what Fletcher had assumed would be a conversation about their professions with a distinctly more personal tone. The shift was both jarring and perplexing. Unless--
The realization hit him like his hoof upon his face. “It’s not a date, Novaya!”
The pink mare looked at him quizzically, waving her hoof motioning to the patrons around the room. “Of course it is a date! This is where you bring a mare on a date, comrade. And on Hearth’s Warming Eve, no less!”
“It’s business, Novaya,” Fletcher sighed. “Canterlot wants it done yesterday.”
“Business is for the barracks and the bedroom!”
Fletcher sniffed at Novaya’s mock consternation and her equally jagged joke. The warm feeling in his belly had finally subsided and the cold austerity of his task had returned. Why of all times to run into her did it have to be now? Fletcher liked Novaya as a friend, but she was the embodiment of everything Stallian and sometimes—make that a lot of the time—it was not what Canterlot would call professional.
“It’s an interview, Novaya,” Fletcher said, leaning in to speak with her. “Building assets. Making connections. You know how it goes.”
“I am a Molot, tovarishch-kapitan,” Novaya said. “I am not of the Keepers. I leave the secrets and lies to the Strazha.”
Molot, the local name for Novaya’s unit, ISU-143 of the Stallian Guard, had a fierce reputation as the fighting elite of Stalliongrad’s guard forces. Translating roughly to “sledgehammer” in common, the name was highly appropriate for a guard detachment that spent much of its time searching airships, apprehending criminals, and seizing contraband. She brings a bit of the one-four-three with her wherever she goes, Fletcher mused. But Strazha would probably hate her guts.
“Canterlot does things differently, Novaya,” Fletcher said.
“So it seems,” Novaya remarked quietly. The pink mare paused for a moment to drain the full shot glass that had just been placed there by the bartender. Before the bartender could move on, however, Novaya caught the hippogriff’s claw with her hoof, flatly issuing in Stallian, “Just give me the bottle.”
The hippogriff nodded, going to fetch the bottle of Stallionoya while Novaya turned back to address Fletcher. “How is marefriend Cadenza then? I remember her picture made all the stallions in the One-Four-Three jealous!”
Fletcher frowned, mentally facehoofing at where the conversation was going. Yes, baring your soul to a friend, especially one who you had not seen in a long time, was customary. But Cadenza’s departure was still very much an event that he preferred not to revisit. Why did Novaya have to ask now of all times?
“Yes about that…” Fletcher trailed off, exaggerating the tone of disapproval in his voice and hoping that Novaya would get the hint.
“It’s a long story, lemaya,” Fletcher said, doing his best to redirect the conversation. He even resorted to the local diminutive for a unicorn mare, hoping the personalization would lend weight to his words. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not here to trouble you.”
“Don’t give me that, Fletcher,” Novaya said, the mock scowl returning to her voice. “You need to—”
“I DON’T.” Fletcher snapped.
Novaya was clearly taken aback, recoiling at the sudden increase in volume. Even above the usual chatter of the bar, Fletcher’s voice seemed to linger, drawing wary glances from the bartender and several of the patrons at nearby tables. Fletcher bruxed his teeth. This was not what he had planned, but it seemed the only way to get through Novaya’s bullishness.
“I don’t need to talk about it,” he said emphatically, looking the mare dead in the eye. “Forgive me for being blunt, but Cadenza is very much a sore spot that I would prefer not to address at this time. Do I make myself clear?”
“Fletcher—” Novaya started.
“I thought I was dropping enough hints for you, but apparently not,” Fletcher cut her off. “Am I not making myself clear? Am I sending the wrong signals in Stallian?”
Novaya did not avert her gaze as he thought she would. Instead, she merely put her hoof on his and maintained eye contact. Fletcher sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. Novaya had always been transparent. Boisterous, vocal, always wearing her heart on her saddle; it was just the way she was. It made her ideal for the one-four-three; the ponies under her command trusted her, her quarry feared her. Tetushka, the younger ones called her—Auntie Novaya.
Looking back into her eyes, Fletcher could see the wounds that his piercing remarks had left. By profession, Fletcher was not a sentimental stallion. He was the bridge between the military and the spies. He guided the things that went bump in the night. An operator such as himself could not afford sentiment and silly frivolous pursuits. Yet, here he was.
“I’m sorry, Novaya,” he said flatly, his ears drooping slightly, “that didn’t come out the way I wanted it to.”
His apology hung in the air, suspended in space like a single wind-borne flake caught in the currents that ran through the streets of Ostrov’s forest of glass and steel. The moments stretched uncomfortably. Surely, she had heard him? Surely this would end with neither a cold shoulder nor a hoof to the face? Finally, Novaya broke the silence, drawing an ever so soft sigh of relief from Fletcher.
“Listen, magyosha,” she said softly. “I am not trying to be insensitive or mean-spirited. I am just trying to cheer you up. That is what friends do, is it not?”
She was right. Friends—comrades—looked out for their own. It wasn’t just the military way of doing things, it was the Equestrian way. Fletcher suppressed a frown. Had he really forgotten? Had it really taken 5 years of service with V Order for him to realize his own shortcomings?
“You are always so serious, so focused,” Novaya continued. She spun Fletcher around, draping her front leg over his shoulder as she pointed with her free hoof out the nearest window. “You need to learn to enjoy yourself. This is Equestria! Look outside! It is a land of magic, a land of opportunity!”
Again, Novaya was right. The fluffy flakes were not the only things dancing in plain view. The strains of a
“I know that things have happened in your life that you are not happy with, and I would be a bad friend to say that such things will never happen again,” she said, turning them back to face each other. She firmly placed both her front hooves on his shoulders. “But no matter what happens, I am always here for you. I am happy and proud to be your friend and comrade.”
Novaya’s words gave Fletcher pause. On the one hoof, he was genuinely moved by her show of emotion and camaraderie. On the other, his cheeks were very obviously burning at what would have been an embarrassing display of sentimentality in other circles farther south. But this was Stalliongrad. What did the spooks in Canterlot care? Fletcher embraced Novaya.
“Thanks, Novaya,” he whispered. Novaya chuckled softly before Fletcher finally released her from his embrace. “Listen, I’ll probably have a day or two to spend in Stalliongrad after I finish the interview and paperwork. We need to catch up. Five years is far too long.”
“That would be wonderful, Fletcher.” Novaya said, finally cracking a smile. She nuzzled his cheek. “But for now, I go. You have business to attend to!”
“Yes, business,” Fletcher echoed. “Business that involves neither the barracks nor the bedroom!”
“That is the spirit, magyosha!” Novaya laughed as she slipped off the bar cushion, sweeping her remaining bottle of Stallionoya into her saddlebag while simultaneously plinking down enough bits to cover the both of their drinks. “I expect to hear from you tonight!”
“Tonight?” Fletcher caught himself blustering again, but smoothed it out with a confident smirk. “Tonight it is, Novaya.”
The pink unicorn winked at Fletcher before slipping away amongst the tables and the fresh patrons entering the Iron Saddle. For what seemed like an eternity, Fletcher continued to watch the door, even though he knew Novaya was long gone. He almost didn’t notice the ruddy red warhorse arriving at the bar, taking up the seat that Novaya had just vacated.
“Has she melted your cold heart?” the Colonel asked with his trademark nonchalance.
“Who said that only Windigos ran in my veins?” Fletcher retorted with a smug grin.
“Nopony,” Aristotle chuckled. “I was just concerned that you had forgotten you were a pony before you were an instrument of the state.”
“I am both, Aristotle,” Fletcher said, being careful to address the Colonel without his rank. “That is a duality that I can and must live with. I just needed a reminder of what I’m fighting to protect.”
“Never forget it.”
“I can assure you I won’t,” the captain replied, downing the remnants of his gin and tonic. “Now come. Verity will be here any minute. I need you back at the booth.”
Nodding, Aristotle slipped away, returning to the booth with refilled pint glass, leaving Fletcher to wait for his charge alone. Business would always be business. Operations would always be operations. But behind the business, behind the operations, behind the Shroud, were ponies. Sometimes, even Fletcher needed a reminder of that, a reminder that could only come from a friend.