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MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 1

By TheManFromAnotherTime
Created: 2021-07-16 21:31:33
Updated: 2022-10-23 17:07:47
Expiry: Never

  1. "Everyday Life With Guardsmares"
  2. by The Man From Another Time
  5. Written for the Royal Guard Mare thread on /mlp/
  7. FAQ, Locations/Character List, and gag list:
  8. (spoiler warnings apply to both links)
  10. CHAPTER 1
  12. > You are Celestia, Princess of the Sun, and bowing before you are your little pony Chancellor of the Exchequer Purse Strings, and your rather larger not-at-all-a-pony Royal Engineer Anonymous, who together have just delivered their monthly report on Anonymous' plans to 'industrialize' Equestria.
  13. "Thank you for that update, Chancellor Strings and Engineer Anonymous."
  14. > The report being satisfactory, your give a gentle nod in acknowledgement.
  15. "... If there's nothing else, I would like a moment alone to speak with the Royal Engineer."
  16. > "Nothing at this time, Your Highness. I take my leave."
  17. > With another bow, Purse Strings nods his head and closes his enormous ledger with a resounding thud, then somehow wrangles it into the large saddle-bag strapped to his back, and exits the small Presence Chamber reserved for intimate meetings with your most trusted ministers and advisers.
  18. > The human, dressed in his black tailcoat and white shirt, with his elegant red Royal Engineer's sash visible, regards you with a questioning look on his face, still clutching the bundle of papers with his notes on them.
  19. "Anonymous. Your services to Equestria have not gone unnoticed. A growing number of members of the Court have come to appreciate your endeavours. As such, I have the privilege of bestowing on you one of the boons available to those who serve the Crown."
  20. > On cue, an earth pony guardsmare in officer's regalia enters the room, with three more guard ponies marching in line abreast behind her.
  21. > You motion with your head, and Anon takes a step back to turn and regard the new arrivals.
  23. > "ATTEN-SHUN!"
  24. > The officer clacks her hind hooves on the floor and salutes the two of you, and the three guards behind her do likewise.
  25. > "... PREE-SENT!"
  26. > Another hoof-clack, and the three guards sit their hindquarters down and thrust their chests out.
  27. > A moment passes, and Anon turns his head to look back at you.
  28. "One of the privileges granted to Very Important Ponies is a personal detachment of Equestria's finest. You may now enjoy security and dignity wherever your work may take you."
  29. > Anon nods in thanks.
  30. > "Thank you very much, Your Highness."
  31. > He seems a little surprised by it all, however.
  32. > You lean a little over and speak softly.
  33. "Is something wrong?"
  34. > "Well, I'm honoured, of course. But I didn't think there were any kind of safety problems in Canterlot serious enough to warrant *bodyguards*."
  35. > You chuckle.
  36. > His answer is typical of the pragmatic creature you know him to be.
  37. "You might be surprised. But you're right: security is only part of the reason for being assigned guards. It is considered a mark of dignity and wealth for Courtiers in Canterlot to have a retinue of bodyguards, whether needed or not. Normally, those who live outside the palace must hire their own. For guests of the Palace, such as yourself, as well as for recent arrivals who have not yet established themselves in the city, the Royal Guard provides a VIP honour guard service."
  38. > "I see. In olden times, we had similar customs where I'm from. Servants called Footmen were hired almost more as a display of wealth than any practical purpose."
  39. "I see. But I trust you'll find my Royal Guard useful as well as decorative. Lieutenant Violetta, if you would kindly introduce us?"
  41. > The officer-guardsmare salutes again and regards the pony at the end of the line.
  42. > "Specialist Sparkshower, PRE-SENT!"
  43. > A young pegasus mare with a cream-coloured coat and a brilliant-blonde mane takes a step forward and salutes the two of you individually.
  44. > "Specialist Sparkshower, reporting for duty, Your Highness! Sir! By the honour of the Royal Guard, I pledge my life in the service of your protection!"
  45. > Lt. Violetta nods, satisfied.
  46. > "SPC Sparkshower is a 19D Armoured Scout and has volunteered for VIP duty out of the 1st Pegasus Infantry Division. A swifter, quieter, and more diligent scout you won't find in the entire division."
  47. > Anon nods in acknowledgement, and the Lieutenant moves on to the pony in the middle.
  48. > "Specialist Glamerspear, PRE-SENT!"
  49. > Another young guardsmare, this one a pink-coloured unicorn with a teal-and-cyan mane, steps forward, and repeats the ritual introduction, after which Lt. Violetta presents her resume.
  50. > "SPC Glamerspear is a 14E Air Defence unicorn coming to you from the 108th Air Defence Artillery Brigade, and brings best-in-class abilities with magical shielding and telekinetic anti-air projectiles."
  51. > As if to put an exclamation point on that statement, the unicorn's horn glows and, for a brief moment, a translucent hemispherical defensive field flashes above her head.
  53. > After Anon acknowledges the flashy display and the equally flashy mare who performed it, it's time for the final member of the trio, an earth pony with a brown coat and chocolate-brown mane.
  54. > "Corporal Bound, PRE-SENT!"
  55. > The non-commissioned officer steps forward, with an experienced soldier's steady step and stern gaze.
  56. > "CPL Bound is an 11B Infantry veteran, and has served all across Equestria, from the Celestial Sea to the Luna Ocean. There's not a single danger situation she hasn't been in, and as the senior experienced VIP bodyguard and NCO of your detachment, will provide leadership to the other Guards on duty."
  57. > All three guards having been presented, you speak up.
  58. "Well, Engineer Anonymous, what do you think?"
  59. > "I think Your Majesty has overburdened me with her generous gifts. If a portal to Tartarus opened up in my chambers, I feel as though I needn't so much as draw closed my robes."
  60. > Before you can answer, Lt. Violetta puffs her chest out and speaks up in a proud voice.
  61. > "That's the idea, Sir!"
  62. > Everybody seems to share in a bit of an internal chuckle at the Lieutenant's gung-ho enthusiasm.
  63. > The human turns to you and lifts an eyebrow.
  64. > "A question, Your Majesty. I can't help but notice that all three Guards I've been assigned are mares. While in Court, you seem to constantly be surrounded by guard-stallions. Is there some significance to that?"
  65. > As astute as ever.
  66. > Little wonder Purse Strings speaks so highly of his attention to detail.
  67. "As a matter of fact, there is. As an escort of bodyguards is, as I've mentioned, as much for decoration as for security, it is the traditional custom for unattached VIPs to be escorted by guards of the opposite sex, the better to show off their... worthiness."
  68. > To avoid lingering on that obvious euphemism, and its implications, you continued on.
  70. "Lieutenant Temper Violetta commands your detachment from the VIP office of the Household Division. The members of your escort will be housed in the servants' quarters on the second floor, above your chamber."
  71. > "And am I to be escorted at all times?"
  72. > The Lieutenant pipes up.
  73. > "VIP Guard duty is performed for sixteen hours a day, from 0800 hours to 0000 hours, with a two-shift rotation. Three guards are assigned so as to accommodate regular Royal Guard duties and leave."
  74. "And if you have any more questions, you may direct them to the Lieutenant. She will also handle any scheduling or special requests you may have."
  75. > Recognizing this as a subtle cue that the presentation was now over, Anonymous turned to you and bowed once more.
  76. > "Your Majesty is overgenerous in her gifts. I shall redouble my efforts to bring scientific and industrial enlightenment to Equestria."
  77. > More zealous work from Anon wasn't what you'd had in mind by this ceremony.
  78. > He was a well-adjusted, down-to-earth creature, who'd quickly recovered from the shock at being transported to a completely foreign land and launched himself into useful work.
  79. > But his frenetic pace was unsustainable without strong bonds to Equestria and its people.
  80. > Eventually, unless he developed some lasting roots, he would burn himself out, and that would be a terrible waste.
  81. > The more you could get him involved in Court life, in Canterlot society, in Pony culture as a whole, the better it would be in the long run - even if it meant sacrificing his valuable time to frivolous pursuits.
  85. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and this is the most exciting day of your life!
  86. > You mean, after the other most exciting days in your life, like when you'd finished horseshoe camp and joined the Royal Guard for real, or even when you'd first arrived in the huge capital city of Canterlot!
  87. > And now, you've begun an assignment as a Very Important Pony bodyguard!
  88. > Well, except that the target wasn't exactly a pony, but that was beside the point.
  89. > The point was - now you were finally going to get a taste of the high society that folks around here lived and breathed.
  90. > Your mind started to swirl with all different kinds of fancy hoity-toity events you'd get to attend.
  91. > Attend as just a bodyguard, but hey, gotta start somewhere, right?
  92. > You're going to go to Royal Balls...
  93. > You're going to attend Gala openings...
  94. > You're going to see Masquerades...
  95. > "Listen, sparks-for-brains, if you're gonna have your head in the clouds, you might as well get your butt up there as well, so you don't block the doorway for the rest of us!"
  96. > Aw, sun-showers.
  97. "Sorry!"
  98. > You quickly hustle out of the way, into the small shared living space alloted to you and your fellow guards.
  99. > Having been pulled down out of your daydream, you put down your bag and survey your new home.
  100. > Furniture consists of a sofa with a pair of club chairs and a little breakfast-table to seat four.
  101. > Five doors surround you; four of them lead to identical bedrooms, the last leads to a small washroom.
  102. > One of your new squadmares, Glamerspear, is already poking her head into one of the bedrooms.
  103. > From what you can see, and assuming they're outfitted identically, you each get a wardrobe, dresser, writing desk, and twin bed with hoof-locker chest.
  104. > "Nice digs. Sure beats the barracks."
  105. > "The one on the far left is mine."
  106. > That's your squad leader, Corporal Bound, entering shortly after you.
  107. "At ease!"
  108. > Glamerspear turns around and mimics your parade-rest form.
  109. > Corporal Bound shoots you a disinterested look.
  110. > "Carry on."
  111. > Before the second word even escapes her mouth, Glamerspear is already back to poking around in the different bedrooms, apparently trying to figure out which of the identical ones is best.
  112. > "Specialist Sparkshower?"
  113. "Yes, Corporal!"
  114. > "First time out of your unit?"
  115. "Yes, Corporal!"
  116. > "First time bunking with anyone other than a bunch of other junior guards?"
  117. "Yes, Corporal!"
  118. > By now, Glamerspear has finished her inspection and is looking curiously at the two of you - but you keep your attention on the senior noncommissioned officer, just as you're supposed to.
  119. > "We're living together, Specialist. 'Parade Rest' is going to get old fast every time I need to use the mares' room."
  120. "Yes, Corporal!"
  121. > "Save it for when we're out of our quarters, Specialist. In here, we're all just guards. Understand?"
  122. "Yes, Corporal!"
  123. > The Corporal just shakes her head and shrugs her shoulders, trundling off to her chosen bedroom, duffel bag in tow.
  124. > There's a chuckle from one of the middle bedroom doors.
  125. > "Geez, Sparks, you sure can take a hint."
  126. > You turn to face your squadmare.
  127. > She looks a little older than you, but only by a few years.
  128. "I'm just following the Military Customs and Courtesies. We're still in the Royal Guard."
  129. > Using her telekinetic magic, she tosses her duffel bag into the room, and you hear it land on the bed with a *poomf*.
  130. > "Pssht, sure we are."
  131. > You furrow your brow.
  132. "We still have to go to reveille each morning."
  133. > Specialist Glamerspear starts to prowl around the living room, checking just how plush the sofa and chairs are.
  134. > "True."
  135. "We still have three drills a week."
  136. > "Also true."
  137. "So how are we not Guards, Specialist Glamerspear?"
  138. > "Because..."
  139. > In one swift move, she hops into the air and lands on her back, lying on the couch.
  140. > "... *We* get to be in *Society*"
  142. > At that, your expression relaxes, and you grin as you start to think about all the great ponies you're going to get to meet.
  143. > And the parties you'll get to attend!
  144. > And the stories you'll share with your new marefriends!
  145. "Yeah... Yeah we do."
  146. > Glamerspear waves a hoof at you.
  147. > "Aw, you're not so bad, Sparks. You can call me Glam, by the way."
  148. > Trotting over, you take her hoof and give it a shake, then hop up onto one of the chairs.
  149. > It's probably a far cry from anything a Lord or Lady gets to sit on, and it's no cloud, but it was way comfier than anything in the barracks.
  150. "Pleasure to meet you."
  151. > "So, what's your story, Sparks?"
  152. "Well, I'm from Berry -- that's a little town about two hours' train ride north of here."
  153. > "No offence, Sparks, but anybody can tell you're not from a big city. Or even a small city."
  154. > How did she know?
  155. > Guess you still have some country traits to shake off.
  156. > Especially if you want to fit in with high society in Canterlot!
  157. > "... But you're not from Cloudsdale? I thought that's where all the pegasi live."
  158. > At this, you start to beam with pride.
  159. "Most of them, sure. But my family's been living in Berry for generations. Us and the earth pony farmers who depend on us for the weather, we go way back, like one big team."
  160. > "*Swell*. And you've been in the Guard, what, like two-and-a-half years? Made Specialist recently?"
  161. > Another point of pride.
  162. > Hopefully you're not getting too rosy-cheeked about all this.
  163. "Actually, I've only served for a year and a half! I got early promotion for outstanding work during that recent Crystal Empire Incident."
  164. > Despite her cynicism, your squadmare seems suitably impressed.
  165. > "Neat. They don't let just anybody get VIP duty, so I knew you must have had something going for you."
  166. > You're not entirely sure if that was a compliment or an insult
  168. > "... What about me, you ask? WELL, I've been earning top marks in my brigade - Air Defence, in case you forgot - ever since I left 'shoe camp. I've been at this for five years, you know."
  169. > Glam shoots you a grin
  170. > "... So if you need any tips, rookie, you just let me know, ho-kay?"
  171. "I will! Thanks."
  172. > There's a moment of silence when neither of you can quite figure out what to say next.
  173. > It's all so much to take in at once.
  174. > Corporal Bound strolls out of her room; you manage to suppress the urge to shout 'At ease' once again.
  175. > "Sparkshower, you have first duty tomorrow. Glamerspear, you've got the afternoon. Until then, we've got the day off. I'm going to head over to the commissary to get some books and magazines. Either of you want anything?"
  176. "Oh! I'd love a copy of 'Canterlot Match'!"
  177. > Glamerspear tilts her head all the way back over the armrest to look upside-down at CPL Bound.
  178. > "I've got some bits in my duffel bag if you could get me the latest issue of 'Cosmoponitan'"
  179. > "Don't worry about the bits. It's my treat to get us all off on the right hoof."
  180. "Gee, thanks, Corporal!"
  181. > Corporal Bound gives you a defeated look.
  182. > "Call me 'Honour' when we're informal, Specialist. That's my first name."
  183. "Sure thing, Corporal Honour Bound! I mean... Honour."
  184. > "As you were."
  185. > The door is barely shut behind her when Glam speaks up again.
  186. > "There goes somepony who's been in the Guard for too long."
  187. > In the Guard too long?
  188. > Was such a thing even possible?
  189. "Why do you think that?"
  191. > "Well, duh, just look at her! And listen to how she talks! She's done everything already! There's nothing new under Celestia's sun for her."
  192. > It made sense, but it didn't seem like something very nice to be bringing up.
  193. > "... Well, if she wants something new and exciting, VIP duty is the right place, right, Sparks?"
  194. "Heh, yeah. Though if I'm being honest, just about everything is new and exciting to me around here."
  195. > "Aw, that's the spirit! And so what if we have to deal with a bit of a freak-show, right?"
  196. "Freak-show?!"
  197. > At your exclamation, Glamerspear dials back her enthusiasm quite a bit, and her ears go flat.
  198. > "Sorry. That was too harsh."
  199. > There's a pause
  200. > "... I meant our charge, this Anonymous guy."
  201. > You recall the formal title when you were given your marching orders.
  202. "Anonymous, By Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer."
  203. > "Yeah. Gotta admit it's a fancy title, though. And he may look a little weird, but if Princess Celestia puts up with him, he can't be all that bad."
  204. "I've only met the Princess once before, at graduation, but it seemed to me like she doesn't just 'put up with him'."
  205. > "Oh, you think so? Well, you're the Armoured Recon, I guess. Still, he's pretty funny-looking, right?"
  206. > Flipping over forwards onto her belly faster than seems possible, Glamerspear looks up at you with a grin.
  207. > "... Betcha never saw anything that walks around on two legs like that growing up in 'Berry', am I right?"
  208. "Well... there was a minotaur who lived just outside the town, near the forest."
  209. > "Oooooh! Was he all scary and mysterious?"
  210. > You shake your head.
  211. > This mare sure has an active imagination.
  212. > And she thought *you* had your head in the clouds?
  213. "No, he was just an old bull. He used to pick mushrooms in the forest and bring them to market. And the earth ponies would sometimes call him over when they needed help moving something real big."
  215. > "Bo-ring! Now, *Changelings*, those things are creepy. Hey -- you know what the difference between a young Changeling and an old Changeling is?"
  216. "No, what?"
  217. > Glamerspear rolls over onto her back again and thrusts her forehooves up into the air.
  218. > "You don't have to lead the old Changelings quite so much when you're shooting at 'em!"
  219. > She makes 'pew-pew' noises with her mouth and swings her forearms like she's hurling invisible spears up at the sky.
  220. > Which, to be fair, she's probably actually done.
  221. > Oh, thunderstorms, is this going to be an interesting assignment.
  222. > Still, though....
  223. > Canterlot society!
  224. > You're here at last!
  229. > You are Specialist Sparkshower, and it is about to be your first shift of VIP duty.
  230. > Time for a final check before you take up your post!
  231. > Armour: Polished to a shine, and securely fitted without being uncomfortable.
  232. > Helmet: Also polished to a shine and securely attached. Crest brush starched and firm.
  233. > Hoof-spats: Present, shiny, and well-fitted.
  234. > Wings: Preened.
  235. > Tail: Brushed.
  236. > Spear: In hoof.
  237. > Everything is a go!
  238. > With a deep breath, you reach up with your free hoof and firmly rap on the double doors to the Royal Engineer's chambers.
  239. > "Come in."
  240. > You push open the door and instinctively start to take in the details even as you introduce yourself.
  241. "Specialist Sparkshower reporting for duty, Sir!"
  242. > To your right, Anonymous is just getting up from where he was sitting at a dining table, wearing his suit pants and white shirt, with a napkin stuffed into his collar.
  243. > In front of him is a plate with a half-eaten bagel. Beside it, a glass of water, and a stack of papers.
  244. > The room is typical of the larger private chambers in this older wing of the palace.
  245. > To your right is is the dining area with a table for six and a china cabinet.
  246. > In front of you, just inside the doors, is a living area with an elegant sofa, three sitting chairs, a coffee table, and a buffet server on each side, partitioning the area off.
  247. > To your left, an office or working area consists of a large bureau desk covered in papers and books, several wooden filing cabinets, a pair of glass-doored bookshelves full of books and scrolls, and a pair of smaller desks with writing chairs.
  248. > "Oh, excellent. Welcome, Specialist."
  250. > You bow your head, still surveying the layout of the room.
  251. > The left wall is all windows, with heavy blue patterned curtains.
  252. > Prench doors behind the bureau lead out to a twenty-foot-deep paved patio that follows the building wall all the way around the corner.
  253. > A short wall of decorated wooden partition pieces separates off what is obviously the sleeping area at the rear of the room, and a door on the right leads to the washroom.
  254. > "... So, do you normally stand outside, or...?"
  255. > You instantly recall your Very Important Pony bodyguard training.
  256. "Sir! Typically, the bodyguards are posted inside the doors to a VIP's chambers, but may be dismissed outside as needed, such as for privacy."
  257. > Anonymous seems to accept this, and sits back down.
  258. > "I see. Well, by all means, take up your post in here. I'm just finishing breakfast."
  259. > You nod and close the door behind you, then sit down in front of them.
  260. > Meanwhile, Anonymous picks up a sheet of paper and continues to read it, munching on his bagel.
  261. > Having taken the coarse details of the room, you start to examine the finer details.
  262. > And what fine details they are!
  263. > The classical luxury surrounding you is almost overwhelming.
  264. > The carpet is a rich red with an elaborate floral pattern.
  265. > The furniture is mahogany wood, upholstered in blue with white embroidered check; and the table tops are all marble.
  266. > A stately lighthouse clock dominates the far side of the sitting area, while a number of gas lamps are neatly arranged on side-tables around the room, all with beautiful bulbous glass shades.
  267. > Oh, and the ceiling: An elaborate trim around the edges serves as frame for a wonderful floral plaster pattern.
  268. > You could get lost up there.
  270. > Still, it's all in keeping with the palace's general style.
  271. > When you were accepted for VIP duty, you were received in the Grand Marshal's palace chambers, and they were similarly decorated.
  272. > But that was just for a few minutes!
  273. > You get to be in this beautiful room for *eight* full hours!
  274. > You don't get to sit on anything, sure, but just being in the presence of such opulence is exciting.
  275. > And there are so many little details about everything to notice!
  276. > Over in the dining area, the Royal Engineer stands up again, pulling his napkin off and placing it on the table, then gathering up some his papers.
  277. > Without a second thought, he crosses the room to the office area and is just about to sit down at the great desk, before he looks up at you.
  278. > "I'm afraid your shift today will be a bit dull, Specialist. I'm going to be working on this treatise all day, and I'm not expecting any visitors."
  279. > This, too, was covered by the training.
  280. "Not a problem, Sir. It's all part of the job. And I did volunteer for this position."
  281. > Your charge seems to accept this answer, and sits down.
  282. > He picks up one of his pen-quills, and is just about to dip it in the pot of ink, when he pauses and looks up at you again.
  283. > "Did anything particular make you want volunteer for this work?"
  284. > Okay, now you were getting a bit into uncharted territory; training covered how to behave, but not how to answer personal questions.
  285. > What should you say?
  286. > Before you can figure how to answer, Anonymous shakes his head and dips his pen.
  287. > "... I apologize; that was a personal question and I shouldn't oblige you to answer it. Please forget I asked."
  288. > Part of you is relieved, but another part of you sort of wishes that he didn't drop it.
  289. > After all, conversation would pass the day.
  290. > But you knew that it would be inappropriate for you to occupy your VIP's precious time.
  292. > It was nice of him to be a gentlecolt about it, though.
  293. > You straighten your posture and lean your spear against your shoulder, adopting a pose you know you can comfortably keep for hours.
  295. > Four hours later, you are still Specialist Sparkshower, and you are more than halfway through your shift.
  296. > Since Anonymous started working, the only noteworthy activity was when one of the palace butlers, accompanied by a maid, arrived to clear away his breakfast.
  297. > Otherwise, it was just the Royal Engineer reading, writing, shuffling papers, flipping pages and occasionally standing up to get another book or bundle of papers.
  298. > Right now, your charge is standing and leaning over his desk, rearranging his documents.
  299. > By his manner, you can tell he's looking for something.
  300. > By the fact that he's scrabbling over the same areas again and again, you can tell he's getting frustrated at not finding it.
  301. > Anonymous mutters half under his breath.
  302. > "Where the devil did I put that book?"
  303. > Instantly, you recall an hour ago, when Anonymous got up to pour himself a glass of water from a carafe in the sitting area.
  304. > He'd had a book in his hands, and he'd put it down on the coffee table, amidst a stack of sealed scrolls.
  305. > You clear your throat.
  306. "That book, Sir?"
  307. > Anonymous looks up, and you point at the item in question.
  308. > He strides over and picks it up, instantly flipping through it to a certain page.
  309. > Satisfied, he looks up at you.
  310. > "How did you know which one I was looking for?"
  311. "It's the only book in the room not in a case or on your desk, Sir."
  312. > He turns and takes the measure of the area, as if verifying your statement, then faces you again, clutching the book.
  313. > "Armoured Reconnaissance, wasn't it?"
  314. > Your lips curl up into a smile
  315. "Yes, Sir."
  317. > The Royal Engineer shakes the book in acknowledgement.
  318. > "Sharp eyes. My thanks, Specialist Sparkshower."
  319. > He heads back over to his desk and continues to work.
  320. > It's such a small thing, getting a compliment like that for so trivial a task, but inside you're swelling with pride.
  321. > You volunteered for guard duty in order to get to know Canterlot society.
  322. > You want a life in the Royal Guard, maybe even trying to become an officer, and that means dealing with the upper crust.
  323. > Even your commander thought it was a good idea for you, though he regretted missing out on your abilities while you were on this assignment.
  324. > But if you can still put your talents to good use, even if it's just to help your VIP get their work done, that's all the better.
  325. > Even though it's only a few hours in to a three-month tour, you feel like this posting is going to work out just fine.
  330. > You are Specialist Glamerspear, it's four a clock in the afternoon, and you are lookin' good.
  331. > You'd deliberately taken the long route from your quarters to get downstairs, the better to show off.
  332. > That's right, everypony!
  333. > Take a good look, because *this* is no ordinary guardsmare!
  334. > If your special Telekinetic Specialist helmet, or the lightweight high-mobility banded armour instead of heavy solid plate, or the absence of a physical spear (as if you'd need one!), or elegant skirt for cushioning when you had to sit or lie down to hit targets way up there didn't make it clear enough, you made sure that your tail was impeccably groomed and your mane peeked just down low enough under your helmet to tease the fantastic hair underneath.
  335. > And, of course, one must show off the proper gait.
  336. > No slow shambling walk or "I'm late for duty" gallop for you.
  337. > Only the most prim and proper trot will do for showing off.
  338. > And just in case that didn't seal the deal, you'd even kept your magical 'umbrella' shield up at maintenance-level power the whole way, too.
  339. > Just as if you'd been in on alert.
  340. > That's right, colts: this unicorn isn't just gorgeous and proper, she's knows exactly how to use every part of her body.
  341. > But you don't let your satisfaction show.
  342. > You don't even let it show that you noticed anypony at all on your way here.
  343. > Especially not that stud-muffin Captain Mailedhoof, with the handsome silver hair.
  344. > He's married, but that didn't stop him from checking you out, from mane to hooves.
  345. > Yeah, a few more trots by his post like that and he'll be extending an invitation to the Officers' Club.
  346. > Just as a friendly way of getting to know a fresh face in the palace, of course.
  348. > That's what he'll tell everypony, anyways.
  349. > And maybe you won't even do anything with him...
  350. > After all, once you've gotten into the Officers' Club, then why settle for a Captain when you could find a salt-daddy Major or General with the means to really treat you right?
  351. > Ah, the challenging life of an aggressive saltine.
  352. > So many colts with sacks of bits burning holes in their pockets, looking for some fun to have on the side.
  353. > So hard to choose which one to make your new salt-lick.
  354. > With thoughts of Captain Mailedhoof in your mind (even if he's not *super* rich, at least he looks like he can buck real good; he could be worth a few trips around the quarter-mile, at least), you knock on the door.
  355. > It's time for work.
  356. > "Who goes there?"
  357. "Specialist Glamerspear, reporting for guard duty."
  358. > Sparkshower opens the door for you, and you both salute and exchange the ritual greeting.
  359. "By the glory of the Morning Dawn, I hereby relieve you at this post."
  360. > "By the peace of the Evening Dusk, I stand relieved."
  361. > She starts to leave, but you quickly lean over and whisper in her ear.
  362. "Anything interesting happen?"
  363. > "Oh, no. The Royal Engineer is busy with paperwork today."
  364. > Over on your left, Anonymous doesn't so much as look up from his desk as you shut the door behind you.
  365. > Oh, well.
  366. > More time to plan your 'infiltration' of the Royal Guard Officers' Club.
  367. > Heh.
  368. > Soon that won't be the only 'O Club' you'll be visiting.
  373. > You are still Specialist Glamerspear, and it's almost eight o'clock in the evening. Four hours to go until shift end.
  374. > Outside, it's drizzling rain.
  375. > The Royal Engineer has been working at his desk this entire time, like some kind of machine.
  376. > Well, isn't that the idea, from what you've heard?
  377. > He's supposed to know about all machines and such, right?
  378. > It would be interesting if it weren't so boring.
  379. > To your left, Anonymous leans back in his chair and stretches his arms above his head, yawning.
  380. > Looks like he's putting away his quill for tonight; part of you hopes that he's got dinner plans with somepony important.
  381. > But from the looks of things, that's not likely: he's already removed his jacket and started to undo his tie.
  382. > He turns toward the window and scowls.
  383. > "Damn, when did it start to rain?"
  384. > You're not sure if that was directed at you, but then again, there's nobody else in the room.
  385. "It started about an hour ago, Sir."
  386. > "Oh, did it? Drat. I was hoping to take a constitutional outside."
  387. > So?
  388. > Get an umbrella?
  389. > It's only drizzling.
  390. > Some Royal Engineer he is, if he can't handle some water.
  391. > "... Well, I suppose a little rain won't hurt."
  392. > He starts to unbutton his shirt, and walks over to the zig-zag hairpin-joint in the partition wall, entering the bedroom area.
  393. > "... You won't mind getting wet, will you, Specialist Glamerspear?"
  394. > Heh.
  395. > As if *you* allow yourself to get wet in rain.
  396. > Magical anti-missile shields: Necessary when angry griffons are hurling spears down like rain, but also useful against the regular, watery kind.
  397. "I don't get wet in the rain, Sir."
  399. > Anonymous reappears, but he's dressed in just... his white undershirt and undershorts?
  400. > His arms and legs are completely exposed, and they're almost completely bare of fur, just like his face.
  401. > Freaky!
  402. > He's sporting some fancy sneakers though.
  403. > Still, you CAN NOT be seen walking through Canterlot Palace with someone dressed like THAT, no matter WHO appointed them to WHAT.
  404. > The Royal Engineer regards you with a quizzical look.
  405. > "Would you care to explain that, Specialist? I'm not sure I understand."
  406. > As if it was the most trivial thing in Equestria (newsflash: it was, because you're the best at this), you instantly summon up your anti-missile shield, in the form of a translucent magenta hemisphere stretching from your horn to just an inch above the ground.
  407. > "... Ah, yes, of course. Unicorn magic."
  408. > He walks over and picks up his glass of water, and with a swift jerk of his hand, sends the contents flying at you.
  409. > Of course, it splashes harmlessly against your shield.
  410. > "... I don't suppose you can make that large enough for two, can you?"
  411. > Hah.
  412. > That sounded like a cheesy come-on line you've heard before.
  413. "Sir, this soldier can indefinitely maintain an impenetrable shield over an area twenty-five metres in diameter."
  414. > He looks impressed.
  416. > Well, he should be!
  417. > Most other air-defence unicorns can only manage half that.
  418. > "Impressive. If you'll oblige me, I think that'll be more than enough. Let's head out through the balcony, into the gardens."
  419. > Oh, thank Celestia you don't have to escort him through the palace halls dressed like that.
  420. > If Captain Mailedhoof was still on duty (unlikely, admittedly), being seen with a gangly bipedal monkey-creature wearing silly white undergarments would have completely scuttled your 'O Club' operation.
  421. > Nobody else is likely to be out in the gardens at this time of evening, and in this weather, so your VIP can get his little walk in, and you won't even have to be seen with him.
  422. > Still, if this is going to be a regular occurrence, maybe you should see about trading shifts with Sparkshower.
  423. > After all, why take chances?
  428. > It's just after midnight, and you are Corporal Honour Bound.
  429. > It's late, and you should be asleep, but you figured you should stay up and see the end of both shifts.
  430. > You'd hoped nothing could go wrong on the first day, but with a naive young pegasus in one hoof, and a self-absorbed salt-licking unicorn in the other, anything was possible.
  431. > Sitting almost sideways in one of the chairs of the living room, you're just finishing off an article in this week's 'The New Equestrian' magazine.
  432. > Over at the breakfast table, Specialist Sparkshower is also staying up late, working through the issue of 'Canterlot Match' you bought her, with a quill and paper by her side.
  433. > That rag is by far the gossipiest of all the gossip magazines in Equestria, but she's actually using it to make notes on the who's-who of Canterlot society.
  434. > You have to admire the effort.
  435. > She's only recently arrived in the capital, after all, and in her own words, she wants to quickly get the grasp of the capital.
  436. > She's got the morning shift tomorrow, but she took a nap this afternoon to make up the sleep time in advance.
  437. > As you turn your magazine over to start the article on the other side, you can hear hoofsteps out in the carpeted hallway.
  438. > The steps stop outside the door to these quarters, and moments later Specialist Glamerspear slowly pushes the door open.
  439. > She's completely soaked; her coat is streaked with lathery white sweat deposits, and her mane is in desperate need of a blow-dry and brushing.
  440. > And she's got her helmet and armour floating beside her in a magical field.
  441. > Sparkshower puts down her magazine, a confused expression on her face, but the Glamerspear is speechless, just panting there in the entryway, her head hung low.
  443. > Looks like you might not be getting what you hoped for.
  444. > How did a unicorn with her telekinetic abilities manage to get wet in the rain?
  445. > Finally, with what seems like a supreme effort, Glamerspear reaches over and closes the door behind her.
  446. > She takes a deep breath and lifts her head up to face you two.
  447. > "Did either of you know that humans can *gallop* for EIGHT STRAIGHT HOURS!?"
  448. > Sparkshower's jaw drops.
  449. > "Anonymous went galloping for your entire evening shift?!"
  450. > It's as if the act of getting into a conversation reinvigorates the social-butterfly unicorn.
  451. > "No! It was only for an hour, which was impressive enough, but when I asked him if he was a champion athlete, he just laughed and said that one hour at that pace -- which he called a 'jog' although I had to GALLOP to keep up -- was nothing, and that real human athletes can do it all day long without stopping! Can you believe that?!"
  452. > Hopping out of her chair, the pegasus darts over to her fellow guardsmare and holds her forehooves out beneath the floating armour pieces.
  453. > Glamerspear's horn stops glowing and the field holding her stuff up drops -- and the stuff along with it, right into the pegasus' waiting forelegs.
  454. > The relief from getting to shut off that final source of exertion has a palpable effect on the poor junior unicorn.
  455. > "... Thanks, I needed that."
  456. > "No problem, Glamerspear. You go have a shower, I'll hang these up in your room."
  457. > "You're a real pal, Sparkshower. I owe you one."
  459. > That's the first time she's actually addressed the pegasus by her full name.
  460. > She must really mean it.
  461. > While Sparkshower flaps over into the unicorn's bedroom, Glamerspear trots over to the washroom.
  462. > In seconds, the curtain is drawn and the water is running full-blast, and you can hear a sigh of relief.
  463. > By the time Sparkshower's finished hanging up her comrade's armour and floated back out from the bedroom, the water's stopped again
  464. > And then there's the unmistakable deep-bass *shuuuuuuuuUUUUH-WOOOM!* of Glamerspear drying herself off with a WC-40 manoeuvre.
  465. > "What was that?!"
  466. > Clearly the pegasus hasn't been around many 'corn fields -- the lingo for all-unicorn regiments.
  467. "WC-40. Low-intensity modulated telekinetic blast. Unicorns do it in the field for drying off in a hurry."
  468. > "Why's it called WC-40?"
  469. > It's such an old yarn that it's a little surprising she's never heard it.
  470. > But then again, she is pretty green for a Specialist, and much of her time was spent actually deep in the field, rather than sharing tales back at barracks.
  471. "Because it takes practice. Get it wrong and you can wind up looking like a fur-ball, or worse. Usually newbies practice it outside until they can do it even if they're hung over and exhausted. The story goes that one rookie thought they'd mastered it and went for a shower in Water Closet #40. They got it wrong, and blew the place up."
  472. > "At Fort Horseshoe Bend?! I remember using Water Closet #40, that's the one next to the chow hall!"
  473. "And it's a newer building than the rest."
  474. > The rookie looks aghast at the idea that the latrine building might at any time have been exploded by a careless unicorn.
  475. "... That's how I heard it, anyways."
  477. > Meanwhile, Glamerspear has emerged from the shower, coat fresh and dry and mane well-brushed.
  478. > "Ahh, that's better! If I hadn't had to keep up that umbrella shield while *also* galloping around the rose garden like a madmare, I might not have gotten so beat, but I just don't know how he managed to keep going so fast for so long."
  479. > Sparkshower hovers over toward her and puts a hoof to her chin.
  480. > "Well, he's tall, so maybe for him it wasn't a gallop?"
  481. > Glamerspear waves her hoof dismissively.
  482. > "Oh, sure, I guess his 'jog' was more of a... canter. But even so, could you keep up a canter -- on hoof, mind you, not in the air -- for an hour, without breaks -- let alone eight hours?"
  483. > "No, but... He doesn't have any hair on his body, right?"
  484. > "Ugh, don't remind me. And let me tell you, he picked the WORST clothes to wear while exercising. Just these two pieces of plain white, baggy, short-sleeved cotton undergarments. I was lucky we weren't seen; it would have been *so* embarrassing!"
  485. > With a firm flap, Sparkshower hoists herself up into the air, almost touching the ceiling.
  486. > "Wait - if his skin is exposed, then he can *sweat* a lot easier than we can! And that means he doesn't overheat! So *that's* why he can keep going for so long."
  487. > The unicorn cocks an eye up at her.
  488. > "How do you figure that?"
  489. > Sparkshower drops from the air and lands with a satisfying thud.
  490. > "The non-pegasus ponies in Armoured Recon -- and even some of the pegasi, actually -- sometimes shave parts of their body when they know they need to do long-distance work on hot, humid days. It makes it easier to sweat and keep cool."
  491. > Glamerspear sticks out her tongue.
  492. > "Yech, gross! I believe you, but you're not going to find ME shaving my flanks just to keep up with some hairless monkey!"
  493. > The pegasus shrugs her shoulders.
  494. > "Maybe you could get out of morning Pony Physical Training if Anonymous goes for a run every night?"
  496. > Glamerspear smirks
  497. > "Oh, believe me, Sparks. I don't mind morning PPT. This flank doesn't keep itself toned, you know what I mean?"
  498. > Emphasizing the point, Glamerspear turns and taps her left buttock, adopting an exaggerated 'sexy pose' before relaxing into giggles.
  499. > Sparkshower starts giggling along too, and Glam saunters over to the couch, continuing.
  500. > "... And it's more interesting than just sitting in front of a pair of doors all day, right? But I *was* wondering if maybe you wanted to switch shifts? If he's going to make this a regular thing, anyways."
  501. > "Sure, I don't mind. But you said you cast a shield to block out the rain? What if it's raining tomorrow? I can't do anything for him like that."
  502. > Toppling backwards over the armrest, Glamerspear lies down on the sofa and brings a hoof up to her forehead.
  503. > "Ugghh, you're right. Now that he's gotten a taste of what The Glam can do for him, why would he settle for anything less?"
  504. > She drops her foreleg off to the side.
  505. > "... Maybe I could get him to go somewhere else to go for a 'constitutional' other than Princess Celestia's bucking rose garden? That's for pleasant tea parties or romantic evening strolls, not crazed hairless monkey galloping."
  506. > "But it is right outside his chambers. It's the closest open area outside."
  507. > "Ugh... Well, maybe I can *suggest* some better exercise fashion for him to wear. Something with a trim fit and maybe a pattern, at least."
  508. > You yawn and glance at the clock against the wall.
  509. > It's half past midnight.
  510. > Far past time for this 'shoe-camp-tier silliness.
  511. "Okay, fillies. It's after midnight, let's put the lights out. Figure out your galloping problems in the morning."
  512. > Sparkshower gives you a quick salute from where she's standing.
  513. > "Yes, Corporal."
  514. > Glamerspear lazily slaps her hoof against her forehead, still lying on the couch.
  515. > "Yes, Corporal."
  517. > You get up and turn off the main living room light.
  518. > Sparkshower yawns and stretches her wings, then heads for the washroom.
  519. > "Hey Sparkshower, don't take too long in there, or else I'll fall asleep out here."
  520. > The pegasus already has her toothbrush in her mouth.
  521. > "Uhhl buh dunn uhn uh munhut."
  522. > Putting the two junior Specialists out of your mind, you turn in for the night.
  523. > If a sweaty exhausted unicorn is the worst that this assignment can offer, it should turn out all right.
  528. "Specialist Glamerspear reporting for duty, sir."
  529. > It's the following morning, and you are Specialist Lilly Glamerspear.
  530. > Thank Celestia, Sparkshower agreed to switch shifts with you.
  531. > She's a real pal.
  532. > You definitely owe her for this, and for last night.
  533. > Probably start by getting her the next issue of Canterlot Match at the commissary this afternoon.
  534. > "Oh, good morning, Specialist."
  535. > Anonymous, your Very Important Pony, who isn't actually a pony, briefly looks at you from where he's hunched over his large writing desk.
  536. > As you shut the door behind you, he dips his quill in his inkwell and resumes writing.
  537. > "...I thought Specialist Sparkshower was assigned to service me in the mornings?"
  538. > *Service* him?
  539. > Heh.
  540. > You didn't know Anonymous well enough to know if he *meant* that as a double-entendre, but it didn't sound like it.
  541. "I traded places with her, sir. The original assignments can be restored if you have any objections."
  542. > "No, no objections. I just hope I didn't wear you out last night with all that cavorting about."
  543. > OK, *that* must have been...
  544. > No, he's still completely absorbed by his writing.
  545. > It's just his manner of speech.
  546. "Not at all, sir. I enjoy a good evening gallop through the garden."
  547. > Damn it, now he had *you* making Faustian slips.
  548. > You had to suck in the last syllable when you realized what you were saying.
  549. > Anonymous sets his quill to one side and looks up at you, with one eye cocked.
  550. > "Your tone, Specialist, leads me to believe that you do not entirely approve of my evening exercise regimen. Is there a problem?"
  551. > Ah, crap.
  552. > You bite your lip.
  553. "No, sir."
  554. > You try your best to get composed and in your position in front of the door, but he just blinks his eyes and continues to look at you.
  556. > "Please speak freely, Specialist. This isn't my native land, and I'm not familiar with your customs. I've been on my best behaviour, but it would certainly be of benefit to me to hear if I have made a misstep."
  557. > That's fair, you suppose.
  558. > But you do know how your big mouth can get you into trouble...
  559. > Ugh, trying to hold this in is tearing you up!
  560. > You decide to take a chance.
  561. "Well, sir, if you'd like my personal opinion, I don't believe that Celestia's rose garden is an appropriate place for galloping about like that."
  562. > Anonymous sits up and puts his quill to one side
  563. > "I see. And is there somewhere else you would suggest?"
  564. > Luckily, Sparkshower had given you the answer for this, too.
  565. > How did she manage to get the lay of the palace grounds so quickly?
  566. > Just pegasus things, you suppose.
  567. "Sir, Canterlot Palace's one-and-a-half-mile oval track is just behind the poplars lining the eastern boulevard."
  568. > "Really? Well, that will certainly do. Provided I'm allowed to use it, of course."
  569. "I can certainly make enquiries regarding that on your behalf, sir."
  570. > "Please do, Specialist Glamerspear. And thank-you."
  571. > He smiles and nods in your direction. Success!
  572. > You definitely owed Sparks more than a few issues of that gossip rag.
  573. > Anonymous reaches for his quill, and on a mad impulse you regret microseconds later, you take another leap of faith.
  574. "There *is* something else, I would care to suggest, sir, as a matter of decorum."
  575. > He pulls his hand back and leans back in his chair, elbows on his armrests and fingers clasped in front of him.
  576. > "If I had known that taking an evening jog could raise issues of decorum, I would have made more dedicated enquiries beforehand..."
  577. > Anonymous motions to you with an open hand.
  578. > "... Pray continue, Specialist Glamerspear."
  580. > He asked for feedback, but speaking honestly like this...
  581. > Well, it's not something that typically advances a pony in the VIP service.
  582. > VIP duty is supposed to be all about looking good and keeping your mouth shut, with maybe a little extra on the side, depending.
  583. > It's *not* supposed to be about awkwardly telling hairless monkeys that their exercise clothes are embarrassingly unfashionable - especially not if they're highly-placed members of Princess Celestia's court!
  584. > You swallow and stare straight ahead, avoiding his gaze.
  585. "There is the matter of your 'jogging' attire, sir."
  586. > Anonymous says nothing, and your words just hang in the air for a moment.
  587. > You lick your lips, and continue.
  588. "... It is undignified for a gentlecolt of your stature in the court to be seen in public in such an outfit."
  589. > You hear the creak of his chair as he stands up.
  590. > "Would it interest you to know that I arrived in Equestria in those clothes? Unintentionally, of course."
  591. > Welp, so long cushy VIP posting.
  592. > Back to boring standby duty at the barracks.
  593. > Hope you didn't just screw things up for Sparks & Honour; they don't deserve any backlash for your mis-step.
  594. > "...I just happened to be out on a jog when it happened. There was a thundershower in the forecast, but I thought I could get around the neighbourhood before it hit.
  595. > He's walking toward you.
  596. > Going to make your dismissal personal, you guess.
  597. > "... I remember a bit of growling in the sky, and quickening my pace. My home was just around the corner, you see. And then... All I remember is a clap of thunder, and a bright flash, and the feeling of my head hitting the dirt."
  598. > Jeez, he's really laying it in.
  599. > You don't just get fired, you get his life story, too.
  600. > It's like you've offended him, and his family, and his ancestors, and his gods, too.
  602. > "... So I guess you could say putting that outfit on again reminds me of home, a bit."
  603. > He starts chuckling.
  604. > "... Frankly, I'm more surprised that it wasn't torn to shreds by whatever ripped me out of my reality and into this one."
  605. > Anonymous, the Royal Engineer of Equestria, is standing just in front of you, and practically looming over you.
  606. > "... Anyways, I suppose you're perfectly correct and my cotton joggers are completely unfit now that I've taken up residence in this place's equivalent of Buckingham Palace."
  607. > Did he just *swear*?
  608. > What kind of palace has a curse-word name?
  609. > Wait, did he just *agree* with you?
  610. > "... So what do you suggest I wear, instead?"
  611. > The Royal Engineer, bipedal mostly-hairless monkey creature, is looking at you with an easygoing smile.
  612. > Wow, arrow bucking dodged.
  613. "Uh, well... Something with a pattern, at least?"
  614. > His expression switches to confused amusement.
  615. > You let out the breath you've been holding in for about a minute now.
  616. "... Listen, sir, your current outfit is very fashionable. Couldn't you get whoever made you that to make you some exercise wear as well? Something that's not quite so baggy-"
  617. > He immediately objects.
  618. > "It's just loose-fitting."
  619. "It's *baggy*, sir. And plain white simply won't do."
  620. > Anonymous pauses to get himself a glass of water from a carafe on the console table.
  621. > "Anything else?"
  622. "No, sir. And, I should say, sir, that if you exercise around the *outside* of the oval track, this soldier is more than capable of keeping pace with you using the inside lane."
  623. > He takes a drink and nods his head.
  624. > "Something to keep in mind for rainy days, certainly."
  625. > The Royal Engineer regards you with anticipation.
  626. "That's all, sir."
  628. > Anonymous nods.
  629. > "Excellent. I appreciate your candour, Specialist Glamerspear. I would greatly appreciate it if you continued to be candid with me in these matters."
  630. > He's going to take your advice, and he wants more?
  631. > Sweet!
  632. > Well, Princess Celestia didn't name him Royal Engineer for nothing, did she?
  633. > Makes sense he's got a good head on his shoulders.
  634. > "As we're already speaking candidly, I was curious about a few elements of your training, if you would care to indulge me."
  635. > This should be good.
  636. "Of course, sir."
  637. > "In your capacity as an air defence soldier, I was wondering how you dealt with spotting targets that might be set against a bright sky, or far away? After all, you can only hit something you can see, correct?"
  638. > You allow yourself to make eye contact with the Royal Engineer, and give him a nod.
  639. "Yes, sir. It's funny you should ask that given that we've just been talking about clothing..."
  640. > You bring one hoof up to the side of your head and point at your helmet.
  641. "... Perhaps you noticed that my helmet differed from those of Specialist Sparkshower and Corporal Bound? Besides the cut-out for my horn, of course?"
  642. > Anonymous leans in slightly to inspect your headgear, and you continue.
  643. "... This is a Martingale-Locksteed Mark III Air Defence Assisted Targeting helmet. With the push of a button..."
  644. > You depress the catch lever, and with a satisfying *snap*, two amber lenses slide out to cover your eyes, joining in the middle from their housings on the sides of the helmet, just behind your temples.
  645. "... the operator can activate a variety of lenses, appropriate for various sky conditions, and providing a two-times optical magnification."
  646. > After giving Anonymous enough time to inspect the first set of amber lenses (good for bright overcast days), you press the catch lever again and again, swapping out magnified amber lenses, then pink (dusk and dawn), then magnified-pink, then grey (clear sunny days), then magnified-grey, and then back to nothing at all.
  648. > The Royal Engineer seems impressed.
  649. > Well, he should be!
  650. > This is some sweet gear, and it's the latest model, too.
  651. > Of course, only a talented soldier like *you* was capable of making full use of it.
  652. > Two-times magnification was useless to the unicorns who couldn't get their shots to reach more than a hundred metres up in the air.
  653. > And that was the overwhelming majority of them in the battalion.
  654. > "Clever design."
  655. "Yes, sir. Furthermore, Air Defence soldiers never work alone, but are organized into batteries of three to five gunners and one spotter, equipped with a spotting telescope or pair of binoculars."
  656. > "Sensible. I'd love to see it in action."
  657. "Sir, firing exercises are held weekly at Fort Horseshoe Bend."
  658. > "I'll have to make the trip sometime."
  659. > He stands up straight once again, and grasps his hands to the breasts of his jacket.
  660. > "Well, Specialist Glamerspear, thank you for indulging my curiosity. And thank you again for the wardrobe advice; I'll see about placing an order for something more fashionable."
  661. > Looking him in the eyes, you give a salute.
  662. "It is a guard's duty to serve, sir."
  663. > The Royal Engineer gives you a small bow.
  664. > "And I appreciate your service, Specialist. Thank you."
  665. > With his water-cup in hand, Anonymous turns and walks back to his desk.
  666. > Well, how about that!
  667. > They told you when you signed up for this that VIPs are almost inevitably demanding, inconsiderate, stuck-up bucking assholes.
  668. > It didn't matter too much to you: the rewards were more than worth the potential suffering.
  669. > But assuming Anonymous follows through and wasn't just humouring you, it looks like you hit the jackpot!
  670. > Better ask Sparks to switch places again, because it looks like 'The Glam putting the moves on Captain Mailedhoof' is back on again.
  671. > After that brief roller-coaster of stress and relief, you settle in for a pleasant and likely uneventful eight-hour shift.
  672. > Oh, you're going to be my ticket straight to a Colonel or General a month from now, Mailedhoof.
  673. > Unf, and that croup of his...
  678. "Specialist Glamerspear, by the glory of the Morning Dawn, I hereby relieve you at this post."
  679. > It's the afternoon shift change, and you recite the ritual changing-of-the-guard call as Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, 19D Armoured Scout, presently of the VIP Section, Canterlot Palace Military Office, Household Division.
  680. > "Specialist Sparkshower, by the peace of the Evening Dusk, I stand relieved."
  681. > Before you, Specialist Glamerspear, 14E Air Defence, salutes you as she recites her half of the call-and-response.
  682. > Of course, no 19D has ever relieved a 14E in the field; this sort of exchange can only happen on by far the most unusual duty available to soldiers of any senior enlisted rank: serving as bodyguard to a Very Important Pony.
  683. > Your particular VIP, who isn't actually a pony, is over to your left, sitting at his large bureau and scribbling furiously away with his quill.
  684. > It's exactly how he spent the majority of your first shift yesterday morning.
  685. > Besides bouts of walking around looking for books or documents, of course.
  686. > Royal Engineer Anonymous looks up at you from his desk.
  687. > "Good afternoon, Specialist Sparkshower."
  688. "Good afternoon, sir."
  689. > You shut the door behind you, and you can hear Glamerspear trotting off in the distance.
  690. > From the direction of the sound of her hoofsteps, she's taking the long way back upstairs to your quarters.
  691. > Probably planning to strut by Captain Mailedhoof again.
  692. > "I had a little discussion with Specialist Glamerspear this morning. Apparently, she found a few of my habits unbecoming of my station."
  693. > She brought it up with him?
  694. > That was bold.
  695. > Your instruction was clear: VIP bodyguards were supposed to be seen and not heard.
  696. > But then again, Glamerspear struck you as a pretty bold pony.
  698. > "... I just wanted to mention that if you had any such similar advice, now or at any time later, I would be glad to hear it."
  699. "Yes, sir. Of course, sir."
  700. > Anonymous looks at you expectantly.
  701. > You shoulder your spear.
  702. "... Uhhh.... This soldier has no advice for you at this time, sir, as she has not yet witnessed anything she would consider unbecoming, sir."
  703. > Over at his desk, your charge chuckles
  704. > "I suppose you didn't see me do very much yesterday."
  705. > He pushes his chair away from his desk and stands up, walking over to the lighthouse clock in the centre of the room.
  706. > "... I'm afraid today doesn't promise to be much different, although I am expecting a visitor in an hour or so."
  707. > The Royal Engineer turns and strides back over to his writing desk.
  708. > "... Which reminds me: Would delivering a written message be within your duties in my service?"
  709. "Yes, sir! Of course, sir! This soldier is more than capable of hoof-delivering any notes on your behalf."
  710. > Courier duty in the Guard as a whole was considered pretty 'low' work, being usually little more than shuttling notes from one snooty officer to another.
  711. > But *VIP* Courier duty, on the other hoof, promised a wealth of excitement!
  712. > Rushing important government documents to members of the Court!
  713. > Fetching great tomes from the depths of the most arcane libraries!
  714. > Rescuing your VIP from social situations with quick deliveries of important sundries!
  715. > Maybe even... delivering a romantic letter to someone your VIP admires?
  716. > Sealed with a kiss, of course!
  717. > Oooh, the idea of that last one gets you giddy like a brisk sun-shower.
  718. > The Royal Engineer's voice interrupts your thoughts before they can run home with that idea.
  719. > "Your comrade made some recommendations as to my exercise wardrobe. Would you deliver this note to the Bridle Path Clothiers, in Poole Street? They're the tailors who've supplied the rest of my wardrobe so far."
  721. > While you were daydreaming of all the fancy kinds of letters you might deliver, Anonymous has somehow materialized in front of you with a folded piece of paper for you to deliver.
  722. > You take it and put it respectfully into a small saddle bag at your left hip, then turn and give a salute.
  723. "Shall I deliver this immediately, sir?"
  724. > "Yes, please do. I expect Purse Strings to be here soon to go over the ledger figures."
  725. "Of course, sir! And, since you asked, sir, I may say that it would be must unbecoming for you to receive him without your escort present, sir."
  726. > Anonymous arches his eyebrows at you.
  727. > "Oh, really? It seems there is more to your service than just protection and prestige."
  728. "Yes, sir! Once a VIP is known to be escorted by bodyguards, then for them to go un-escorted is a sign of informality and casualness. A courtly personage such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer might be offended you were becoming too familiar."
  729. > "Interesting."
  730. > You salute once more and reach for the door handle.
  731. > "... By the way, Specialist. 'Armoured Scout' is your formal job title, isn't it?"
  732. > You lower your hoof and turn back to your charge.
  733. "Yes, Sir! 19D Armoured Scout, formerly of the 1st Pegasus Infantry Division, 4th Armoured Regiment!"
  734. > "I was curious, what distinguishes an 'Armoured' Scout from any other kind?"
  735. > Like a summer gale, that question came a bit out of nowhere.
  736. "Uhh... Well, sir, an *Armoured* Scout is armed and armoured more heavily than ordinary scout ponies."
  737. > Describing your ordinary military service was one of the things you'd been told to prepare for in VIP training.
  738. > Apparently, VIPs sometimes like to hear of a soldier's particular training, or be regaled with stories of valorous combat.
  740. > The classroom MOS training comes rushing back, and you find yourself reciting your instructor's description almost word-for-word.
  741. "Whereas ordinary scouts are expected to either infiltrate the enemy lines by avoiding contact, or to retreat in the face of anything more than enemy scouting parties, an *Armoured* Scout team is expected to be able to break through enemy lines by overwhelming forward screening elements. Armoured Scouts can put enemy recon units to flight, force screens to retreat, work to disrupt communication lines, and make their way deep enough to reconnoitre the main enemy force."
  742. > You clang your armoured left hoof into your chest in the 'clashing salute' of the armoured divisions of the Royal Guard.
  743. "... Sir, you may have noticed that this soldier carries a bronze longspear, the heaviest and longest-reaching weapon in the Royal Arsenal. This soldier is also wearing a bronze cuirass in four pieces: backplate, breastplate, criniere, and croupiere. You may notice, sir, the epaulets built into the backplate to protect the base of the wings as well."
  744. > As you go over the parts of your panoply, you make sure to indicate them clearly to your VIP.
  745. > You also give him a moment to get a closer look, and the Royal Engineer seems genuinely interested.
  746. "... Additionally, this soldier is equipped with a full-coverage bascinet helmet with visor and chain aventail which attaches to the criniere. Armoured Scouts are also outfitted with four bronze sabatons and four two-piece greaves covering both front and back of the shins."
  747. > Presenting your equipment like this reminded you of inspection time back in horseshoe camp.
  748. > Except there wasn't a Drill Sergeant neighing spittle all over your face for a speck of dirt on your sabatons.
  749. > Instead, you only had the Royal Engineer standing before you, holding his chin in one hand and his elbow with the other.
  750. > He really does have long legs.
  751. > No wonder Glamerspear had trouble keeping up with him.
  753. "Thusly equipped, an Armoured Scout such as this soldier is capable of fending off any light advance unit the enemy can field, and is on equal terms with the armoured main elements of the enemy force."
  754. > "Fascinating. But all that equipment must weigh quite a lot, no?"
  755. "Sir, this soldier's loadout weighs in at forty pounds dead, which almost doubles an ordinary guardspone's twenty-five-pound load. But with extensive training comes familiarity with the equipment, and the Armoured divisions are considered the heavy-fighting elite of the Royal Guard."
  756. > "I see. Thank you, Specialist, for that lesson in armour and tactics. Now, don't let me keep you from delivering that note any longer, lest I find myself without an escort when the Chancellor arrives."
  757. "Yes, sir! Although I should say, sir, that if you found yourself in such a situation, at least one of my comrades upstairs is normally on standby duty for such service as well."
  758. > "Good to know, Specialist. See you back here soon."
  759. > You give another hearty salute, open the door, step outside, respectfully close the door behind you, and then spring into the air
  760. > Armoured courier message delivery, coming through!
  761. > Traffic, step aside!
  766. > It's a little after five o'clock in the afternoon, and you are still Artemis Sparkshower.
  767. > To your left, Royal Engineer Anonymous is sitting at his desk, with Chancellor of the Exchequer Purse Strings sitting in front of him.
  768. > Since he arrived, they've just been reading numbers together; Anonymous will call out a numbered line...
  769. > "Okay, next, line three-hundred-and-twelve: one million, three hundred and forty-seven thousand, two hundred and sixty-eight"
  770. > ... and then Purse Strings will reply...
  771. > "Line three-hundred-and-twelve: one million, three hundred and forty-seven thousand, two hundred and sixty-eight. Correct."
  772. > This exchange has been going on for half an hour so far.
  773. > The Chancellor's own bodyguard has been at her charge's side the whole time, dressed in light armour and serving more as a valet, handing him various books and scrolls with numbers on them.
  774. > Since all the numbers have just been 'line such-and-such', it's as clear as a black storm-cloud to you.
  775. > All you can make out is that it's some kind of accounting.
  776. > It reminds you of the kind of work the intelligence officers do with your scouting reports, but these numbers were on a whole other level.
  777. > Line thirty-three, whatever it was, was over ten *billion*.
  778. > Imagine having to count that many enemies in a field!
  779. > You don't think ten billion Changelings could even fit within your field of view.
  780. > And ten billion *dragons* could probably cover all of Equestria.
  781. > "Okay, last one: line three-hundred-and-thirteen: forty-six."
  782. > That was by far the *smallest* number the Royal Engineer has said since this had started.
  783. > "Line three-hundred-and-thirteen: forty-*seven*. I think you have last year's number there, Anon; there was a singular addition this year so far."
  784. > There's a shuffling of papers as the Royal Engineer flips over to another book.
  786. > The Chancellor has been addressing him as 'Anon'.
  787. > So much for him possibly being offended at Anonymous appearing to be overly familiar!
  788. > "I wrote down that I got it from... last year's census. Okay, corrected: line three-hundred-and-thirteen is forty-seven. And that's that!"
  789. > With an exhausted whinny, Anonymous puts down his quill and rubs his eyes.
  790. > Purse Strings closes the book in front of him and, smirking, passes it back to his bodyguard.
  791. > "Nothing quite like some book-balancing to close out a week, eh?"
  792. > The Royal Engineer yawns and chuckles in reply.
  793. > "Not my idea of a relaxing Friday afternoon. Still, it had to be done."
  794. > The elder statespony lets out a roaring laugh.
  795. > "That's the spirit, my foal! But really, though, a young colt like you -- you ought to get out and *do* something on a fine night like this! Why, I don't believe you've left the palace since you were appointed to this position!"
  796. > Anonymous rolls his head to one side.
  797. > "That's not true. I visited you at your house. And I must've toured a hundred facilities around Equestria..."
  798. > Purse Strings tuts even as he helps his bodyguard pack up the rest of his papers and books.
  799. > "Oh, come now. You know I meant besides work. Go visit the waterfalls! Browse the shops! See a show!"
  800. > Turning, the Chancellor points a hoof at the Royal Engineer.
  801. > "... Why, I'll tell you right now, Lady Strings and I saw the latest production at the Sardinia Theatre last week, and we absolutely loved it! Another operatic comedy by that brilliant duo, Gallop & Stallion, called 'The Magician'. Fantastic show; spectacular, really."
  802. > Leaning back in his chair, Anonymous looks a little sceptical.
  803. > "A musical? But won't I have trouble getting tickets on short notice?"
  804. > Purse Strings shakes his head dismissively.
  805. > "Oh, hardly. It's been playing for weeks and weeks. Nearly at the end of the run. When we went, they were still neighing in the streets for last-minute purchasers when the doors opened for seating."
  807. > The Royal Engineer places his fingers together and looks over in your direction.
  808. > "Well, what do you think, Specialist? Would you care to comment on The Right Honourable Chancellor and Under-Treasurer of Their Majesties' Exchequer's recommendation?"
  809. > Before you can answer, Purse Strings glances over at you and speaks first.
  810. > "Ah, yes. I forgot you'd joined the little club of Very Important Ponies earlier this week. If you go, you'll want to try to get a box seat."
  811. > "I will? Why?"
  812. > Purse Strings seems hesitant to reply, so you pipe up.
  813. "Sir! In theatres and at other such performances, it is customary for a VIP's escort to stand guard in the hallway or, if the subject is in the general seating, against the wall of the nearest aisle."
  814. > Anonymous raises his eyebrows and glances over at the Chancellor, who nods in agreement.
  815. ".. However, unless attending in the company of numerous fellow VIPs with their own escorts, or if one is a foreign plenipotentiary, it is considered uncouth and overly pompous to have one's bodyguards present in the audience room."
  816. > The Royal Engineer leans forward in his chair and places his elbows on the desk, his hands clasped together and pointing at you.
  817. > "I'm attending a show, and you have to either stand far away at the edge of the room, or preferably take up a post behind a curtain in the hallway where you won't even be able to see the performance?"
  818. > Everypony in the room nods back at him, yourself included.
  819. > Anonymous scoffs.
  820. > "... I'm sorry, but that's just ridiculous. Even if I were genuinely threatened, it sounds like you might easily be too far away to intervene..."
  821. > He turns to the Chancellor and shrugs his shoulders, spreading his arms.
  822. > "... Can't I just buy two tickets and have Specialist Sparkshower sit next to me?"
  823. > Purse Strings' eyes go wide, and he stammers.
  824. > "Uh, err..."
  825. > His bodyguard noisily clears her throat, and the Chancellor regains his composure.
  826. > "... Well, I suppose you could, if the mare doesn't object..."
  828. > You're a little confused about the awkwardness you just witnessed.
  829. > After all, the Royal Engineer's suggestion actually sounds like a neat idea!
  830. > Imagine, guards sitting next to their VIPs, ready to leap into action at a moment's notice!
  831. > Plus this way you would get to enjoy the show as well!
  832. > How considerate of the Royal Engineer!
  833. > And how fortunate for you to have such a generous charge!
  834. > You realize that Purse Strings is looking you up and down with a critical eye.
  835. > "... Of course, she can't be dressed like *that*. Theatre seats aren't built to accommodate *armour*, after all."
  836. "Oh, well, I have a dress I could put on instead! If The Royal Engineer was serious about the offer to see a musical performance, I mean!"
  837. > Anonymous looks pleased.
  838. > "See, Purse? You're making a treasury out of a change-bag."
  839. > Purse Strings opens his mouth like he wants to say something, but seems to reconsider, and just shakes his head as he heads toward the door.
  840. > The Royal Engineer gets to his feet and pulls his dinner jacket off of a coat-rack in the corner, and looks over at you.
  841. > "... Your break for supper is just about now, anyways, isn't it, Specialist? I'll order some food myself and expect you back here, ready to go to the theatre in, oh, say, an hour and a half?"
  842. > He *is* serious!
  843. > Hooray for clear skies and puffy clouds!
  844. "Yes, sir! One-and-a-half hours, absolutely, sir!"
  845. > You pull open the door for the Chancellor, and he turns around just before leaving and gives a short bow to the Royal Engineer, who also returns it with a smile on his face.
  846. > Closing the door after his bodyguard follows, you're giddy with glee.
  848. > Oh, just wait until you write back to Berry about this!
  849. > Seeing a fancy big Canterlot musical production in your own seat, how about that!
  850. > Anonymous tugs on the servants' bell-pull by the dining table, and a few moments later the butler arrives to take his order.
  851. > Once he's done, the Royal Engineer picks up his newspaper and gives you a nod of dismissal.
  852. > You respectfully bow and exit backwards out the door.
  853. > As soon as the door is closed, you book it upstairs with a huge smile on your face.
  854. > Just wait until Glamerspear and Honour hear about this!
  859. > You are still Specialist Sparkshower, and it's been a little over half an hour since you blew out of Anonymous' chambers like a summer gale.
  860. > Unfortunately, neither Specialist Glamerspear nor Corporal Honour Bound were upstairs in your quarters just then.
  861. > You didn't have time to wait around, so you'd bolted for the barracks' dining hall instead.
  862. > Besides, it was a fair bet that they would be there.
  863. > No dice, though; and you'd even quickly flown up to the top of the hall to get a good look around!
  864. > You dined alone as a result, but you were so excited that you could barely taste the usually outstanding Friday evening grub.
  865. > Finally, after a return trip across the castle grounds, you were back at your quarters, just above the Royal Engineer's chambers.
  866. > Time to get dressed up for the big show!
  867. > Without coming to a stop, and certainly without touching your hooves down on the ground, you reached out and swiftly jerked the door handle even as you flew forwards, bowling your way into the room, and careening off the hallway wall.
  868. > (And probably leaving a nice set of hoof-prints on the wallpaper).
  869. > "WHOA!! Easy there, jeez!"
  870. > Looks like you've found one of your compatriots!
  871. > Glamerspear was so shocked by your dynamic entrance that she practically jumped off the sofa.
  872. > With a huge grin on your face, you come skidding to a touchdown in front of her.
  873. "Oh, hey Glamerspear! Guess what just happened!"
  874. > "Somepony dared you to drink a whole tray full of shots in the canteen? I don't know, why else are you bouncing off the walls like that?"
  875. > You shake your head vigorously.
  876. "Nope! Royal Engineer Anonymous is taking me out to see a musical at the Sardinia Theatre, and he's buying me a ticket to sit next to him!"
  877. > Glamerspear's eyes go wide.
  878. > "Whaaaaat! Seriously?!"
  879. > You nod your head, also vigorously.
  880. > She smiles and cocks a hoof at you.
  881. > "... Oh my gosh, *jea*-*lous*!"
  883. "Yeah, I'm going to wear a dress and everything!"
  884. > You immediately start for your room.
  885. "... We're leaving in less than an hour, so I've got to get ready!"
  886. > Glamerspear looks after you with a grin on her face.
  887. > "Wow, filly, you sure don't waste time! Way to bag yourself a hot ticket on short notice!"
  888. > 'Hot' ticket?
  889. > Oh, she must mean the 'hot' *show* ticket.
  890. > Bounding into your room, you leave the door open as you rummage through your closet.
  891. "Yeah, isn't it great?"
  892. > You'd left the door open, and Glamerspear peeks in at you around the doorway.
  893. > "Well, you know, you're not the *only* one who struck gold today. I passed by Captain Mailedhoof again-"
  894. "I know! I heard you walk over there when I relieved you!"
  895. > Whoops, that wasn't too polite of you to interrupt her.
  896. > All this excitement is going to your head a bit.
  897. > Better cool things off.
  898. > There's still plenty of time before the show, after all.
  899. > "... Right, and this time he actually came over and *spoke* to me! Said he'd seen me 'around' and wanted to say 'hello'. Heh, but you know what that means, don't you, filly-friend?"
  900. > As you grab the hangar you were looking for, a question springs to mind, and you peek around the corner to speak face-to-face.
  901. "Oh, right - I was going to ask. Isn't Captain Mailedhoof *married*?"
  902. > Glamerspear just laughs.
  903. > "Oh, sure, he's married, but that won't stop him from 'saying hello', you know what I mean?"
  904. > You sure do know what she means!
  905. > Although she did kind of put a weird emphasis on 'saying hello' there.
  906. > Still, she must just mean that Captain Mailedhoof is one of those lucky colts whose wife isn't so suspicious of him that he can't say hello to a mare in the street!
  907. > Or in the palace, rather.
  908. > Aww, he must be a real swell guy.
  909. "Yeah, I do know! That's great for you!"
  911. > Glamerspear takes a step forward and leans up back against the side wall of your closet.
  912. > "Aaaaaanyways, I'm thinking it won't be long before we can go get some drinks together in the Officers' club, and then, well, things'll proceed naturally, won't they?"
  913. > As she trails off, she raises one of her eyebrows and smirks at you.
  914. "Sure, I get it!"
  915. > You don't really get it.
  916. > So you change the subject instead.
  917. "... I can't wait to get back after the show and write a letter to my coltfriend back in Berry about tonight!"
  918. > It looks like you've lost Glamerspear.
  919. > Her nose is all scrunched up and her eyes have gone wide again.
  920. > She knows about coltfriends, right?
  921. > Well, it doesn't matter, because you've found your dress!
  922. "... And here's what I'm going to wear tonight, check this out!"
  923. > Grabbing the hangar hook in your mouth, you swoosh it out in front of you, taking to the air and spreading it out with your hooves.
  924. > Glamerspear seems to be struck speechless.
  925. "... It's my cotillion ball dress from my last year in Berry before I joined the Royal Guard! And it still fits!"
  926. > Your roommate seems to be struggling for words.
  927. > She probably just hasn't seen traditional clothing this finely-made before!
  928. "... Isn't it pretty? My grandma made it, and she's practically an alicorn with a sewing needle!"
  930. > Finally, after getting back down on all fours, Glamerspear seems to find the words.
  931. > "It's got... puffed sleeves."
  932. > SHE NOTICED!
  933. "YEAH! Aren't they GORGEOUS? I was voted as Queen of the Ball! I got a tiara and everything!"
  934. > The unicorn's mouth hangs open, and she's got one hoof up like she wants to say something, but all that comes out is gibberish.
  935. > "Wow, uh... Err..."
  936. > Poor filly! She must be overwhelmed from all the excitement of a new friend in Captain Mailedhoof and your 'hot ticket' to the show tonight!
  937. "Anyways, even though I've got three-quarters of an hour, I want to make sure I look just right, so I'm going to jump in the shower, if you don't mind?"
  938. > She still seems unable to put together two words.
  939. > "O... kay... Su... Sure."
  940. > You lay the dress down on your bed and set to work on removing your armour.
  941. > Glamerspear backs slowly out of your room and closes the door.
  942. > Oooh, this is going to be so much fun!
  947. > It's quarter to seven, and you are Specialist Glamerspear, lying on the sofa and reading 'Cosmo'.
  948. > Sparkshower just went trotting daintily out the door on her way to Anonymous' chambers.
  949. > ...
  950. > You utter a silent prayer to Celestia that, for your comrade's sake, nobody important spots her and the Royal Engineer together.
  951. > At least not while she's wearing that horribly unfashionable dress.
  952. > PUFFED SLEEVES, are you bucking kidding me?!
  953. > Those went out of fashion DECADES ago!
  954. > And you couldn't say anything about it!
  955. > You might have a big mouth, but you're not going to light the fuse on a grenade full of trouble and drop it at your own hooves.
  956. > After all, you know what mares are like when they realize they don't have anything nice to wear right before a big event.
  957. > But you *definitely* need to take her out dress shopping if she manages to get Anonymous into her saddlebag.
  958. > After all, you don't want word getting around that you're working for a VIP with a taste for unfashionable mares!
  959. > And WHAT was that about having a coltfriend back in Berry?
  960. > And she's going to TELL him about her new salt-lick on the side?
  961. > Does he have some kind of cuckolding fetish?
  962. > Geez, country ponies sure are kinky weirdos...
  963. > Wait 'til Honour Bound gets back and you tell her about this.
  964. > It'll wipe that detached expression from her face for sure.
  970. > Hanging on the wall of your shared living room, a plain round clock tick-tocks its way past midnight.
  971. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and since you have the morning shift tomorrow, you are up way past your bedtime.
  972. > But Glamerspear's story about Sparkshower getting taken out to a show by her newly-acquired salt-lick, the Royal Engineer, was beyond belief, and you needed to find out what was going on for yourself.
  973. > The pink gossip herself was up, too, lounging on the sofa and reading another fashion magazine, 'Pride Bazaar'.
  974. > She said she wanted to see if Sparkshower returned at all -- or if she was going to wind up spending the night with your VIP downstairs.
  975. > In her own faux-scandalized but obviously amused words, "If Sparks bagged the boss this quickly, maybe she's the kind of mare to buck on the first night, too!"
  976. > Sparkshower, however, didn't strike you as a typical saltine.
  977. > Not like Glamerspear, who seemed to fully embrace the role.
  978. > It takes one to know one, though, and Glamerspear certainly was convinced, but you wondered if the unicorn wasn't perhaps projecting onto the pegasus.
  979. > If it was true, then so be it; it didn't really concern you either way.
  980. > Based on the play schedule as published in the Thursday edition of the Canterlot Star, the Royal Engineer and his escort ought to be arriving back at the castle just around now.
  981. > Assuming he didn't take her for some kind of afters, of course.
  982. > "I'm telling you, Corporal, it'll be one in the morning and they won't be back yet, believe me."
  984. > Glamerspear clearly has her own ideas about their schedule and itinerary.
  985. "Uh-huh."
  986. > You barely lift your eyes from the book in your hooves.
  987. > Your professed indifference does nothing to temper Glamerspear's insistent curiosity.
  988. > She lays her magazine down on her chest and puts one hoof up to her lips.
  989. > "I wonder if she had to lead him into it at all. I guess I've only met him twice, but I've got a good sense for these things, and I never got the sense that he was even interested in ponies that way."
  990. > You don't dignify that train of thought with an answer.
  991. > You just pray to Celestia that somepony comes to deliver you from the foolishness of young guardsmares.
  992. > Just then, you make out hoofsteps on the carpet outside.
  993. > Glamerspear must have heard them too, because she jerks her head towards the door, a look of excited anticipation on her face.
  994. > Slowly, the door-handle turns, and then the door opens inwards.
  995. > Specialist Sparkshower cautiously pokes her head into the room, and seems surprised to see you both there.
  996. > "Oh, hello! I wasn't sure if you might be asleep, so I didn't want to wake anybody up."
  997. > She abandons her attempt at stealth and steps right in, still dressed in her cotillion ball-gown with its puffed sleeves.
  998. > It is outdated, just as Glamerspear said, but not so far out of style that it would be embarrassing; certainly not at the theatre.
  999. > As soon as the pegasus shuts the door behind her, the unicorn launches right into the questions.
  1000. > "So? How did it go?"
  1001. > Patience was clearly not one of her virtues.
  1002. > But the object of her questioning doesn't seem to mind her vice at all, because Sparkshower's face explodes into a smile like the fantasy is starting all over again.
  1003. > "It was AMAZING! Oh, gosh, the costumes, the orchestra, singing, it was all fantastic! And the story was great!"
  1004. > "Yeah? And how were the seats?"
  1005. > "OH MY GOODNESS, THE SEATS!..."
  1007. > There's a kind of disturbing chain reaction of enthusiasm going over at the sofa.
  1008. > "... When we got to the theatre, the colt in the box office said that the main floor and mezzanine were sold out; all they had left was the balcony and boxes, so Anonymous decided to get us BOX SEATS!"
  1009. > Glamerspear pumps her hoof like she's working a cash register.
  1010. > "Nice! Big spender, cha-ching! And did he take you out for dinner, too?"
  1011. > Sparkshower covers her mouth and giggles like it's a silly question.
  1012. > You're not yet convinced one way or the other about the nature of the evening's escapade, so the giggle could mean anything.
  1013. > "Oh, no, I'd already had dinner when I ran into you here before I got dressed."
  1014. > Glamerspear scrunches up her face as if the evening had just been ruined.
  1015. > "Aw, he didn't buy you dinner? What a cheapskate!"
  1016. > Sparkshower is still grinning with her mouth but her laugh in reply seems a bit forced.
  1017. > Suddenly, Glamerspear's face lights up.
  1018. > "... No, wait, that's BRILLIANT, Sparks! I see it now!"
  1019. > She taps a hoof against her temple.
  1020. > "... Colts can't tell you're thirsty if you don't let 'em lead you to water."
  1021. > Sparkshower still looks like she's forcing the smile a bit.
  1022. > "... You've really got this down pat, Sparks. I'm impressed. But we've gotta get you into a new outfit before your next evening out -- using Anonymous' bits, of course."
  1023. > And now the forced smile is gone.
  1024. > "What? Why would-- I mean, granted, he was very generous tonight buying me a box seat, but why would he buy me a new dress?"
  1025. > Now it's Glamerspear's turn to laugh.
  1026. > "Oh, Sparks, you poor, innocent, young mare..."
  1028. > She puts one hoof on Sparkshower's shoulder, but the pegasus looks bewildered.
  1029. > "... The *game* isn't just about fancy nights out! Not for the ones you want to hold on to, at least. You're worth so much more -- and a proper colt should know how to treat a lady, after all."
  1030. > Sparkshower shakes her head, brow furrowed.
  1031. > "I'm--- I'm sorry, Glamerspear. You've lost me. I'm not sure what we're talking about any more."
  1032. > Glamerspear removes her hoof and laughs even harder.
  1033. > "Come on, Sparks! I'm talking about the game! You're a player, aren't you?"
  1034. > It's gotten to the point where the mare in the dress is rubbing her own shoulder uncomfortably.
  1035. > "I... I don't think so? What game?"
  1036. > Your pink-and-cyan unicorn takes a step back, raising her voice and lifting up her forehooves in exasperation.
  1037. > "*THE* Game! You know, some wealthy so-and-so has a partner but wants a little fun on the side, no strings attached. Or maybe a certain single VIP has needs they need 'serviced', but aren't looking for a commitment. So along comes a bodyguard, one of Equestria's finest, swishing their tail with that won't-ask-won't-tell attitude. So, the wealthy pony buys a few gifts for the guard, takes them out for dinner and a show, and they have some fun together, and mum's the word, wink-wink nudge-nudge."
  1038. > Sparkshower looks horrified, but Glamerspear still seems to think that this must all be a joke, and she gets right in the pegasus' face about it.
  1039. > "... Come on, you can't tell me you didn't know!"
  1040. > Sparkshower's eyes dart left and right like she's looking for a way out, but there's no escaping reality.
  1041. > "I... I didn't know! Oh, tornadoes and hurricanes..."
  1042. > Glamerspear's just had her mind blown, and Sparkshower starts to pant uncomfortably.
  1044. > "You're serious!! You didn't know?! Why else do pretty young things like us even sign up for VIP duty in the first place! Except for the perk of being able to play the *game* -- whether with our assigned VIP or with any other high-placed pony else we happen to meet -- what is there even to this bum job? It's just a dumping ground for tired, old grumps who are fed up with the regular guard life!"
  1045. > You took a little offence to that last pronouncement.
  1046. > But you had to admit that she wasn't wrong.
  1047. > Meanwhile, Sparkshower seems to be on the verge of tears.
  1048. > "I didn't know! I... I have a coltfriend in Berry!"
  1049. > As Sparkshower covers her face with her hooves, Glamerspear arches her eyebrows and laughs off that last statement like it was the most ridiculous thing in Equestria.
  1050. > "Mare, please! You're in the *game* now, filly, and you bagged a big one! The Royal Engineer has got bits for days! What more could you possibly want? You've hit the jackpot!"
  1051. > No longer on the verge, Sparkshower really is actually crying.
  1052. > In-between sniffles, she uncovers her face, looks up at Glamerspear with a miserable expression on her face, and defiantly shouts out a reply.
  1053. > "I'm... I'm not some... SOME *WHORSE* FOR SALE LIKE YOU!"
  1055. > Oh, buck.
  1056. > Glamerspear looks like she's just been slapped across the snout, hard.
  1057. > But Sparkshower just sits down, puts her face in her hooves, and starts to bawl her eyes out right there.
  1058. > Conversation over.
  1059. > Speechless, the unicorn takes a step back, and, finding no words worth saying nor actions worth taking, furrows her brow and sulks off to her bedroom, walking right around the sobbing pegasus and closing the door behind her.
  1060. > Moments later, Sparkshower, still blubbering, gets to her hooves and scurries into her own room.
  1061. > In the brief seconds as she passes you by with her face uncovered, you can see that her eyes are shot red, and that the hair on her muzzle is soaked with tears.
  1062. > Even with the door closed, you can still hear muffled lamentations.
  1063. > With a sight, you replace your mark and shut the book in front of you, then place it on the side-table.
  1064. > Time for some unpleasant work.
  1066. Suggested background music: (Jesper Kyd - 'Sanctuary', from Assassin's Creed 2 [2009])
  1068. > You're in front of Sparkshower's door, and behind it you can hear her uninhibited sobbing.
  1069. > Lifting up one hoof to knock, you also place the other on the door handle.
  1070. > There's a time for politeness.
  1071. > This isn't that time.
  1072. > You knock as you push down on the handle, swinging the door open inwards.
  1073. > Inside, Sparkshower is sitting on the floor in the middle of her room, leaning over onto her bed, her face in her hooves.
  1074. "At ease, Specialist."
  1075. > From the bed, the sobbing instantly stops with a gasp.
  1076. > But she still struggles up to assume 'parade rest'.
  1077. > You close the door behind you and walk up to the despondent pegasus.
  1078. > Her snout is smeared with mucous and tears, her mane is a complete mess, and it looks like she got two steps into unzipping her dress down the back before giving up.
  1079. > Now, it just hangs loosely off her shoulders and forelegs.
  1080. > Although she's holding her mouth shut tight, you can see her trying to blink back tears, and her breathing is staccato and irregular.
  1081. > With another sigh, you sit down in front of her and spread your forehooves wide to receive her.
  1082. "... Carry on."
  1083. > Almost before the words are out of your mouth, she collapses into your waiting embrace and resumes bawling.
  1084. > Giving her a moment to settle in, you start to gently pat her on the back.
  1085. > The tears show no sign of stopping anytime soon, so you look around the room.
  1087. > The bed's top blanket has a wet spot from where she'd buried her face, but it's probably dry underneath.
  1088. > Across from the bed, on the writing desk, you spy a hairbrush.
  1089. > Leaning over without losing your distressed specialist, you snag the hairbrush and slip your hoof into its strap.
  1090. > Then it's a matter of slowly manoeuvring Sparkshower over so that you can whip back the covers and hop up to sit on the bed, gently transferring the care of her head from your shoulder to your lap.
  1091. > And now, the waiting game.
  1092. > Holding her head in one hoof, you use the other to slowly brush her mane, teasing its tangles back into shape.
  1093. > As her curls are tamed, so too does her mood calm.
  1094. > Eventually, with her mane flowing freely, she's no longer crying.
  1095. > Just... breathing slowly, with a runny nose.
  1096. > There's a tissue-box on the nightstand, and you lean over to pluck a hoofull of them out of the dispenser, before offering them into the waiting hoof of your charge.
  1097. > Lifting her head from your lap, Sparkshower sits up and takes her time to completely clear her nose, even shuffling over and grabbing a few more tissues herself.
  1098. > At last, tears done and nose clear.
  1099. > A far cry from being done, but a good first step.
  1100. > You grab the edge of the covers and pull them back, and Sparkshower slowly clambers up to sit beside you, her wings folded and head hung low.
  1101. > There's a long wait while she just sits there staring at the floor, but, eventually, she opens her mouth.
  1102. > "Is... Is it true what she said?"
  1103. "Some of it, yes."
  1104. > Her lower lip starts to quiver, and you sense a retreat to more tears, so you put one hoof on Sparkshower's far shoulder, and draw her back to leaning on your shoulder.
  1105. "... The 'game' is real."
  1106. > You feel her shake her head against you.
  1107. > "But how? How can... How can colts cheat on the pony that they love like that?"
  1108. > Glamerspear dropped a lot of knowledge on her in a short time, but it was incomplete.
  1110. "A lot of reasons. Maybe the love has gone. Maybe the relationship was a lie from the beginning. Maybe they're bored. But it's not just colts; mares can take partners on too."
  1111. > "They can?"
  1112. "It's about power and money, Sparkshower, not gender. It takes bits to afford a semi-permanent companion on the side."
  1113. > "Oh."
  1114. "There are even married couples here in Canterlot, public figures where both are seen in public more often with their 'saltine' of the month than with each other."
  1115. > No response to that; just more deep, slow breathing, so you continue on.
  1116. "... You can probably find a few in your 'Canterlot Match' magazine."
  1117. > "We never had anything like this in Berry."
  1118. > Now it's your turn to shake your head.
  1119. "Then maybe it's something only the big-city ponies get up to. Or maybe even in Berry there were a few who did it, but they kept it discreet. Here in Canterlot, it's so common that nopony bats an eye at it in public."
  1120. > She seems to press her head more heavily into your shoulder, so you give her mane another gentle brush.
  1121. "... This isn't always the magical city it's made out to be."
  1122. > Sparkshower stares straight ahead, and you can see eye-to-eye in the small mirror that hangs on the opposite wall, above the writing-desk.
  1123. > "I always thought that friendship was magic."
  1124. > You sigh and pull her close.
  1125. "Maybe it is. But *love* is something else."
  1126. > You give her hair another brush-stroke.
  1127. > "But what about Anonymous? Do you... do you think he plays the 'game'?"
  1128. "I suppose that depends on what happened earlier tonight."
  1130. > Her mouth hangs open, like she can't believe what's just happened to her.
  1131. > "We went to the theatre, saw the musical, and then came home."
  1132. "Did you talk at all?"
  1133. > "Not really. We talked a bit on the way there. But he was quiet during the show. And we didn't talk much on the way home, either."
  1134. "What did you talk about?"
  1135. > "The best way to the theatre. The stuff in the playbill -- the history of The Sardinia, the actors and composers. After the show, the costumes and the best songs. He said it reminded him of a particular kind of show from his world."
  1136. "Did he talk about himself at all?"
  1137. > She shakes her head.
  1138. > "No."
  1139. "Did he talk about *you*?"
  1140. > Again she shakes her head.
  1141. > "No."
  1142. "He never commented on your mane, or your dress, or your tail, or your eyes, or anything like that?"
  1143. > She takes a moment to think, and licks her lips before answering.
  1144. > "Well, when I first went downstairs after getting ready, he asked 'Are you all set?', and I said, 'Yes, sir. Am I dressed well enough?', and then he answered, 'Looks good to me, Specialist.' I remember he smiled when he said it."
  1145. > She smiles, too. But then the smile disappears in the context of the greater worry.
  1146. > Time for the big question.
  1147. "Did he touch you?"
  1148. > Sparkshower scrunches up her eyebrows and looks up at you, like she almost doesn't understand the question.
  1149. > "Touch me?..."
  1150. > She starts to shake her head, and doesn't stop.
  1151. > "... No... No, he never touched me at all..."
  1152. > You can see tears start to well up in her eyes again.
  1153. > "...What does that mean?"
  1155. > Reaching out, you put your hooves on her shoulders and try to give her a reassuring smile.
  1156. "I think it means that he was a perfect gentlecolt tonight, and didn't think of your evening out together as anything other than him simply going to the theatre with his bodyguard by his side."
  1157. > She sniffles, and a tear escapes one eye, slowing winding its way down her face.
  1158. > You brush one hoof against her face to wipe it away.
  1159. "... Remember: the Royal Engineer doesn't know how our society works. He isn't from Equestria. He isn't even from this world."
  1160. > Shrugging, you shake your head at her.
  1161. "... Maybe they don't do this on his world. Maybe love really is magic there, and lovers don't cheat on each other like they do here."
  1162. > You lift your hooves off her shoulders only to rest them firmly down again, looking her in the eyes.
  1163. "... So don't listen to what Glamerspear said about Anonymous. I don't think he meant your night out like that at all."
  1164. > Another sniffle, this one hopefully final.
  1165. > "Are you sure?"
  1166. > You keep your gaze fixed on her eyes.
  1167. "I could be wrong. But I don't think I am. If it makes you feel better, when I'm on duty tomorrow, if a convenient opportunity arises, I'll discretely ask him about last night."
  1168. > "If... If it's convenient, sure. And discreet."
  1169. > You nod, and she takes a deep breath, sitting up straighter as she does so.
  1170. > She's far from happy, but at least it looks like the crisis is over.
  1171. > Sparkshower brushes her hoof across her muzzle, wiping away the gunk around her mouth, and then licks her lips.
  1172. > "... How did you learn about this... game?"
  1173. > Ah.
  1174. > And there's the question you'd hoped to avoid.
  1176. > Like an unwelcome guest, you can feel sour memories knocking at the back of your mind.
  1177. > The door is firmly shut, but they seep through cracks around the frame, like a chill wind in the dead of winter.
  1178. "I loved somepony very much. And I thought they loved me like I did them. Even though they could get angry, and mean, I thought it was just something we had to work through, as lovers do."
  1179. > Now it's your turn you swallow back a tear.
  1180. "... But it turned out they didn't love me like I thought they did. And the few bits I was earning and sharing all with him... were going to other mares that he was keeping on the side."
  1181. > Sparkshower's eyes go wide, but at this point she's had them scrunched up so much that they're barely back to their normal size.
  1182. > "I'm sorry."
  1183. > You remove one of your hooves from her shoulder.
  1184. "Don't be. You didn't make him behave that way."
  1185. > "But... I'm sorry it happens at all."
  1186. > And you remove the other hoof.
  1187. "You didn't make Equestria this way, either."
  1188. > You take a deep breath.
  1189. "... Just be thankful you learned about it like this, as a misperception, rather than by actually getting hurt."
  1190. > "What about Glamerspear? Does she... know she's hurting other ponies?"
  1191. "I'm sure she knows that ponies on the other side sometimes get hurt. But she doesn't think she's doing anything wrong."
  1192. > You shrug.
  1193. "... And maybe she isn't -- she isn't forcing anypony to do anything. She's not even initiating anything. All she does is make herself available."
  1194. > Sparkshower listens, but she looks like she's a hundred miles away.
  1196. > You pretty quickly figure out where that must be.
  1197. "... Is it true you have a coltfriend in Berry?"
  1198. > She looks over at the writing-desk.
  1199. > There's a candle, a quill, a seal with a stick of wax, and a neat stack of blank writing paper and empty envelopes.
  1200. > But leaning up against the wall, there's a solitary pair of post-marked envelopes, their flaps cut open, with letters folded up inside.
  1201. > "I write to him every week. But he... he doesn't write back so often, or so regularly."
  1202. > Weakly, she motions towards the two opened letters.
  1203. > "... We talked about me taking the VIP assignment the last time I was on leave. He was supposed to come find work here when I was posted to Canterlot..."
  1204. > She trails off.
  1205. > Dealing with one problem has worn you out tonight.
  1206. > You don't have the energy to deal with another, probably bigger one -- like the trouble a long-distance coltfriend can be.
  1207. > All you can do is offer platitudes.
  1208. "That's not very nice of him. But don't give up. Things could still turn around. And even if things go wrong, the last thing you're going to want is to be second-guessing whether it was your fault..."
  1209. > You get down from the bed and turn around to face her with a remorseful expression.
  1210. "... Believe me on that count, Specialist."
  1211. > She nods, and gives a weak smile.
  1212. > "Yes, Corporal."
  1213. > You head for the door, but before you open it, you look back over your shoulder at her.
  1214. > She's still staring at her letters.
  1215. "By the way, Sparkshower..."
  1216. > She looks up at you.
  1217. "... That was a very mean thing you called Glamerspear earlier. She doesn't trot the streets looking for a quick fix like that. You should do something about what you said, when you're feeling up to it."
  1218. > Sparkshower says nothing, but she watches as you leave.
  1219. > Closing her door, you head to the washroom to get ready for bed.
  1221. Suggested musical interlude: (Major Lazer - 'Be Together (feat. Wild Belle')
  1226. > You are Artemis Sparkshower, and you have had a rude awakening to the reality of social life in Canterlot, and Equestria as a whole.
  1227. > It's after midnight, and Corporal Honour Bound left your room a few minutes ago.
  1228. > The paltry few letters you've received from Huckleberry Pudding, your coltfriend, felt even paltrier than usual.
  1229. > You feel a compulsion to sit down at your desk and read them over one more time.
  1230. > But if you do that, you'll probably wind up working yourself into tears again.
  1231. > And the time for tears is past, because you have an apology to deliver.
  1232. > At least if you want to get a decent night's sleep tonight.
  1233. > With newfound purpose and energy, you get off the bed and finish removing your dress, gently laying it on the bed for now.
  1234. > You take a deep breath.
  1235. > Yes, you can do this.
  1236. > Quietly leaving your room, you walk two steps over to Glamerspear's door.
  1237. > You knock twice.
  1238. > Nothing happens.
  1239. > On the other side of the common room, you can hear the Honour Bound in the washroom, brushing her teeth.
  1240. > Moments pass, and then from inside Glamerspear's room you hear a loud metallic squeak that slowly trails off.
  1241. > "Come in."
  1242. > Her voice is flat and her speech slow.
  1243. > Pressing on the handle, you quietly push open the door.
  1244. > Glamerspear is sitting in a swivel chair in front of the writing-desk.
  1245. > Her head is hung low and she's slumped over in the chair, with a glum look on her face and her forehooves on the seat in front of her.
  1246. > Without glancing up at you, she reaches out one of her hind legs and pushes against the desk, sending her into a slow spin.
  1247. > The chair squeaks loudly as she turns around one more time.
  1248. > You shut the door behind you and take another step in.
  1249. "Is it okay if we talk?"
  1251. > She shrugs, and slowly kicks out her hoof again, spinning the chair one more time with another squeak.
  1252. "... I wanted to apologize for what I called you earlier."
  1253. > Again, the swivel chair slowly creaks to a stop.
  1254. > Glamerspear lifts her eyes up to look at you, although she keeps her head pointed down.
  1255. "... I'm sorry. You're not what I said you were."
  1256. > She takes a deep breath and looks back down at the ground.
  1257. > "Yeah, well..."
  1258. > You can see her roll her tongue around in her mouth, like she's chewing something over.
  1259. > "... I guess it's really my own fault in the first place."
  1260. > Finally, she lifts her head to look at you.
  1261. > "... I'm the one who made *you* feel like you were something you weren't, first. And I'm sorry about that, too."
  1262. > She straightens up a bit in the chair, and you take another step closer.
  1263. "Honour explained things to me a bit more."
  1264. > "Yeah..."
  1265. > She nods at the wall next to her bed.
  1266. > It's the one her room shares with yours.
  1267. > "... I couldn't make anything out, but, you know, I figured."
  1268. > Glamerspear turns her chair a quarter away from you and lays her forehooves out on the writing-desk.
  1269. > "... It didn't make sense the way I said it, really. But when you first told me, I just couldn't believe it was anything but that."
  1270. > She turns her head and looks up at you.
  1271. > "... VIPs don't treat us to anything unless they want something in return. That's just the way things are."
  1272. > Leaning forward, she lays her head on the desk and starts to scratch at its surface with a hoof.
  1273. > "... Except when they aren't, I guess."
  1275. > The wooden, scuffed-up writing-desk seems to have her complete attention, so you take a moment to look around her room.
  1276. > Her wardrobe is so stuffed that the doors don't close fully, and you make out several slips of expensive-looking fabric poking out below the left door.
  1277. > Piled on top of her dresser are two roughly-treated jewellery-boxes also full to bursting, drawers half open, leaking pearls and chains of gold and silver.
  1278. > Sitting between them is a jewellery-stand adorned with feathered fascinators and other small head-pieces.
  1279. > The bed is made, but the sheets are ruffled and loose.
  1280. > Pieces of her armour lie neatly on top of her hoof-locker.
  1281. > Her desk is clear save for a single item.
  1282. > In an open box lined with dark blue silk, sits a silver medal attached to a white-and-blue ribbon.
  1283. > The medal depicts an ancient-style helmet, in silver and finely detailed, with a pair of large ram's horns curling out from the front.
  1284. > It's the badge of a member of the Order of the Ram, the Equestrian Royal Guard's highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
  1285. > That it's made of silver marks the bearer as a Centurion, the middle of the three ranks of the Order, and the highest available to an enlisted soldier.
  1286. > It's hard to reconcile the kind of bravery needed to earn that medal with the dejected pony before you.
  1287. > Suddenly, as if she's at last come to some kind of realization, Glamerspear snaps back up in her chair and swivels it to face you again.
  1288. > "Let's make a deal, Sparkshower."
  1290. "A deal?"
  1291. > She motions for you to come over, so you step up to her chair.
  1292. > "It's simple: We each promise never again to make the other pony feel like they're something that they're not."
  1293. > Glamerspear holds out her hoof.
  1294. > "... What do you say?"
  1295. > You smile and reach out your own.
  1296. "Deal."
  1297. > Shaking hooves, she starts to smile again.
  1298. > "Great! Then we're friends again, okay?"
  1299. > That's good.
  1300. "Yeah."
  1301. > She nods, satisfied.
  1302. > "Cool. Since we're friends, I'm going to let you know that my first name is 'Lily', and you can use it all you want."
  1303. > You can't help but file a complete mental note about her.
  1304. > It's the recon training.
  1305. > Specialist Lilly Glamerspear, 14E Air Defence, Unicorn, Centurion of the Order of the Ram.
  1306. > French-pink coat. Teal-and-Cyan mane. Teal eyes.
  1307. > And now her cutie mark makes sense.
  1308. > It's a glittering green spear-tip with a lily-blossom at the base.
  1309. "Mine's Artemis."
  1310. > "Pleased to meet ya', Artemis. But I might still call you Sparks if that's okay with you?"
  1311. "Sure! I like that nickname."
  1312. > As you shake hooves on a first-name basis, the misery of the past hour washes away.
  1313. > Yet, something still nags at the back of your mind.
  1314. > A curiosity that you can't quite suppress.
  1315. "... We can still talk about things, though? *These* kinds of things, I mean?"
  1316. > Glamerspear shrugs her shoulders and scrunches her mouth up into a wry expression.
  1317. > "As long as we don't break the deal, sure..."
  1318. > She pushes against the desk once more to spin her chair, but this time she hops out as it comes around full circle, winding up almost uncomfortably right in front of you.
  1319. > "... Why, you curious?"
  1320. "A... A little bit. I mean, Honour filled in some of the gaps, but not everything."
  1321. > "Okay, but if we're going to go into that, I want to know how I got tonight so wrong. How about a little quid-pro-quo?"
  1322. > That's only fair.
  1323. > And sometimes you can learn more from questions than you can from answers...
  1324. "All right. You ask your questions first."
  1326. > Glamerspear smiles at you.
  1327. > "Aww, ain't you sweet, Sparks..."
  1328. > She playfully paws at your shoulder.
  1329. > "... Buck, I really read you wrong, didn't I? Anyways, tell me how Anonymous asked you to go to the theatre with him; was it just you and him?"
  1330. > You shake your head.
  1331. "No, the Chancellor was with him, and so was the Chancellor's bodyguard. Actually, going out was the Chancellor's idea. He accused Anonymous of not having left the castle since he became the Royal Engineer."
  1332. > Now it's Glamerspear's turn to scrunch up her face and shake her head.
  1333. > "Ah, see? That's a big tell right there. Your usual salt-lick type goes out every weekend at the very least, if not every night of the week! At least to his favourite gentlepony's club. But when did he ask you to wear a dress and sit next to him?"
  1334. > You instantly recall the details of the conversation.
  1335. "Well, the Chancellor brought up that he'd want to get a box so as not to appear overly ostentatious, then I explained to him a guardpony's place in a regular show, and he said that it was ridiculous for me to be so far away *and* not even get to enjoy the performance."
  1336. > The unicorn arches her eyebrows and you see her eyes darting left and right like she's having trouble seeing something run by her.
  1337. > "I mean, I guess he's not wrong. Sticking a guard in the hallway doesn't help anybody; it doesn't even show off. But being the only one in the audience with a guard at the wall makes you look like a pompous donkey; that's why nobody does it. The whole deal makes a lot more sense when it's a big gala and everypony's got their escorts lining the aisles."
  1338. > Suddenly, she snaps her head up and looks straight at you.
  1339. > "... Wait, the Chancellor was *there* when he asked you out? Wow, that must have been awkward."
  1340. > She forces out a laugh.
  1341. > "... I mean, picking up a new saltine is one thing, and taking them out is another, but I can tell you, filly, the picking up part is strictly done in private."
  1342. "Oh."
  1344. > That would explain why it felt like the Chancellor and his guardsmare had wanted to say something, yet remained silent.
  1345. > Glamerspear sighs and shakes her head.
  1346. > Walking over to her bed, she casually bats the back of her chair, sending it squeakily spinning around and around.
  1347. > "If you'd told me all that..."
  1348. > She clambers up into bed and rolls out onto her back.
  1349. > "... Well, I might have still been pig-headed enough to say the same things, I guess."
  1350. > Reaching over, she grabs the other bed-pillow and tosses at the hoofboard, then nods you in its direction.
  1351. > "... Your turn now, Sparks. Whatcha wanna know?"
  1352. > You climb up and take your spot on the far end of the bed.
  1353. > What to ask?
  1354. > There's really just one question that matters.
  1355. "Why do you do it?"
  1356. > Glamerspear giggles.
  1357. > "Geez, straight to the big one, huh?"
  1358. > With another sigh, she looks aimlessly up at the wall behind her, pawing at it with a hoof.
  1359. > "... I mean, I like the attention, and I like the gifts, and I like getting to go places I couldn't normally go..."
  1360. > She looks back down at you and shrugs.
  1361. > "... but I guess I really I do it because I don't feel like settling down. And I don't mind knowing I'm the 'other' mare."
  1362. > You find it a little hard to understand how anypony could *not* want to find the love of their life and settle down forever...
  1363. > But if that's how she feels, well, you suppose what she does makes sense.
  1364. > Still, though.
  1365. "You've never... fallen in love?"
  1366. > She chuckles.
  1367. > "I've *thought* I was in love, but I usually turned out to be wrong. And if I find myself falling for my salt-lick, well, that's my cue to end it there. Wouldn't be fair to try to turn that relationship into the other kind -- not for any of the three ponies involved."
  1369. > The unicorn points a hoof at you.
  1370. > "... Which is not to say I don't *like* the colt I'm with, though. I mean, I gotta like them or else I won't let it happen, ya know? They don't just pick me, I pick them too."
  1371. "Like with Captain Mailedhoof?"
  1372. > "Sure. He's cute, and I figured him for a player when I first saw him at the swearing-in ceremony for the latest 'shoe-camp graduates assigned to the Castle. We'll see where it goes, though."
  1373. "Have you ever been with anybody... famous?"
  1374. > Now she really giggles.
  1375. > "Come on, Sparks! A mare doesn't kiss and tell!"
  1376. > Aw, you were hoping she had some interesting stories.
  1377. > Suddenly, she bursts into giggles.
  1378. > "... Kidding! 'Sisters before misters', right? OK, so this one time..."
  1379. > Yay, storytime!
  1384. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, tucked into bed and half-asleep.
  1385. > By the foalish giggles coming from three doors over, you don't have to worry that the other two members of your squad are going to have trouble reconciling this argument.
  1386. > One thing was certain, though: this was by far the most bizarre bodyguard assignment you'd ever had.
  1387. > By all accounts, the Royal Engineer spent most of his day doing paperwork.
  1388. > Yet on day one he'd sent home his unicorn drenched in sweat.
  1389. > And on day two his pegasus had collapsed in tears.
  1390. > What prospects did tomorrow hold for you, his earth pony?
  1391. > Only time would tell.
  1396. > It's just before eight o'clock in the morning, and you are Corporal Honour Bound.
  1397. > The other two soldiers in your little squad were still fast asleep when you'd gotten up this morning and trotted off for a quick breakfast in the chow hall.
  1398. > And they were still asleep when you returned and got dressed for duty as well.
  1399. > Glamerspear must have kept Sparkshower up pretty late telling stories about her various salt-licks.
  1400. > Maybe she'd even veered into war tales and shared how she'd earned herself the silver horns of the Order of the Ram.
  1401. > That medal had certainly caught your attention when you'd all moved in.
  1402. > There'd been all that grumbling and cussing coming from her room as she'd struggled to fit her sizable wardrobe into the meagre storage furniture of her bedroom.
  1403. > How had she even fit it all into her duffel bag in the first place?
  1404. > Unicorn magic?
  1405. > Whatever the reason, it took her almost an hour to unpack.
  1406. > By the time she'd finished, you were already back from the commissary and reading a magazine in the easy chair.
  1407. > But when things had finally calmed down, you'd looked over into her room and watched her place the Silver Ram on her writing-desk as the final piece.
  1408. > It was a little surprising that Lieutenant Vi hadn't mentioned it when she'd introduced the Specialist.
  1409. > Actually, the Lieutenant hadn't really mentioned any of your war records.
  1410. > Maybe she'd just decided to keep things simple for an alien Royal Engineer with little knowledge of Equestrian history.
  1411. > Or maybe Celestia had simply asked her to keep the ceremony brief.
  1412. > It had been an extremely short introduction, overall.
  1413. > Your typical VIP liked to hear the Lieutenant extol the virtues of each guard and relate every combat action they'd been in.
  1414. > The better for the VIP to know to have the guard themselves repeat the same stories for guests on command.
  1416. > The more decorated and veteran the guardspony, the greater the prestige for the socialite VIP who liked to show off.
  1417. > But so far, the Royal Engineer did not seem like that kind of VIP.
  1418. > A bit of a wasted opportunity for a Centurion of the Ram, upon reflection.
  1419. > Somepony else would have made better use of her prestige.
  1420. > You found yourself standing before Anonymous' door, and reached up to knock.
  1421. > Based on Glamerspear and Sparkshower's reports, you fully expected him to be in the middle of either breakfast or paperwork at this hour.
  1422. > "Enter!"
  1423. > The reply from within seems muffled, distant, and maybe even a bit curt.
  1424. > You worked the handle and push open the door.
  1425. "Corporal Bound, reporting for duty, ..."
  1426. > The Royal Engineer is nowhere to be seen.
  1427. "... Sir?"
  1428. > A half-eaten croissant and an unfolded newspaper sit on his dining-table.
  1429. > Anonymous calls out from the far side of the movable partition wall that divides off the private area of his chambers.
  1430. > "Don't get comfortable, Corporal! I'm just getting ready to go out."
  1431. > He sounds upset.
  1432. > You hope this has nothing to do with last night.
  1433. > Could Glamerspear's original read have been right after all?
  1434. > Anonymous strides out from behind the partition, wearing his dress pants and adjusting the cuffs of his shirt.
  1435. > "... It's absolutely appalling, isn't it?"
  1436. > You allow yourself to blink in confusion.
  1437. > This can't be about the theatre, could it?
  1438. > The Royal Engineer sits down on the sofa and slips on his shoes, bending over to tie them.
  1439. "Sir?"
  1441. > He nods towards the newspaper.
  1442. > "Haven't read the news? Take a look for yourself."
  1443. > You step over to his dining table and peek at the front page.
  1444. > The headline reads, 'ALL CLEAR AFTER BITSMOUNT SCARE'.
  1445. > Apparently, there was a tunnel collapse in the Bitsmount silver mine yesterday afternoon.
  1446. > But the story explains that the miners were trapped for less than three hours before a special Royal Guard emergency team got them out, safe and sound.
  1447. > So why does Anonymous sound so upset?
  1448. "I don't understand, sir."
  1449. > You turn around to face the Royal Engineer, who's already standing over at his desk, hurriedly scrabbling through his papers.
  1450. > "The mine collapse, Corporal. Doesn't it shock you?"
  1451. > You shake your head in confusion.
  1452. "Mines do sometimes collapse, sir. And the article says nopony was hurt."
  1453. > Anonymous continues to look down at his papers while he speaks to you.
  1454. > "There are forty-six active--"
  1455. > He abruptly stops and tilts his head, then reaches over and lifts up a paper on his desk, looking down at the leger-book underneath.
  1456. > "... forty-*seven* active silver mine shafts in Equestria. The five shafts at Bitsmount account for *half* of all mine collapses recorded in the past two years."
  1457. > He stops, as if that settles the issue, but you have no idea where he is going with this.
  1458. > You look back at the newspaper and try to read it for clues.
  1459. "The article mentions a tremor was felt just before the collapse. Isn't it just an unstable region?"
  1460. > Still going through his papers, the Royal Engineer answers you.
  1461. > "A reasonable assumption. But there are seven mine shafts just outside the town with different owners. They produce less valuable ores, probably due to tapping weaker veins, but none of them have had a single collapse since they opened."
  1462. > The Royal Engineer looks up at you with a stern expression.
  1463. > "... Bitsmount has had ten tunnels collapse in the past two years alone."
  1465. > You're still not quite sure where he's going with this.
  1466. > But his apparent willingness to indulge you curiosity is surprising and refreshing.
  1467. > Anonymous grabs a portfolio and stuffs the papers he's gathered into it.
  1468. > "Do you know what the greatest day-to-day operating expenses of a mine are?"
  1469. > He holds up one finger.
  1470. > "... The first, at least for a large mine, is wages."
  1471. > Putting down the portfolio, he turns around and grabs his suit-jacket from the coat-rack in the corner, slipping it over his arms.
  1472. > "... But the second-greatest is *timber*."
  1473. > Striding over to a mirror on the wall beside the door, he pulls a necktie out of his pocket, flips his collar up, and begins to tie it.
  1474. > "*Timber* is what shores up mine shafts against collapse. *Timber* is the first thing a mine-owner can skimp on to save costs, using weaker cuts of inferior wood, or instructing the workers to spread out the supports too thinly to be safe. And according to last year's public accounting records, the *timber* loads going into Bitsmount mine are out of all proportion with the amount of silver hauled out of there."
  1475. > His tie made, the Royal Engineer pauses and stares at himself in the mirror with a look of concern on his face.
  1476. > It's almost a scowl.
  1477. > "Here in Equestria, you have the luxury of unicorn magic to dig miners out of collapses before they can suffocate or die of thirst or even drown in flooded tunnels. But back in my world, greed and poor safety standards killed them by the hundreds."
  1478. > The Royal Engineer looks over at you.
  1479. > "... I've made it my goal to industrialize Equestria, and it will take a lot of sweat and hard work. But there are about to be a lot more mine shafts in Equestria, digging out coal and iron, and I won't let you ponies pay for that in blood."
  1481. > He's serious.
  1482. > You're a little impressed.
  1483. "If you think Bitsmount is skimping on supports, sir, then what are you going to do about it?"
  1484. > The Royal Engineer walks back to his desk and picks up his portfolio, then glances at the lighthouse clock in the middle of the room.
  1485. > "Day Court begins in an hour, but Princess Celestia hears from members of her privy council from now until then. I'm going to ask her to issue me a warrant of inspection for the mine, and a summons for the mine's owner, Galloway Bitsmount, to appear for an inquest at Day Court."
  1486. > Brushing himself off, he makes final adjustments to his outfit.
  1487. > "... Then we'll arrange transportation, get the mine plans from the archives, get the land survey and some tools from ordnance, visit a few other palace departments for some sundries, and with luck we'll be off there first thing to deliver the writ tomorrow morning."
  1488. > OK, now you're more than a little impressed.
  1489. > This is the sixth Very Important Pony you've been assigned to as a bodyguard since you decided to enter the service.
  1490. > You've escorted visiting dignitaries, barons and counts, accomplished magicians, even a retiring General of the Royal Guard.
  1491. > The rich and famous of Equestria and beyond.
  1492. > But it sounds like the Royal Engineer is the first one who won't be spending all his time idling around with his social equals, sipping bourbon and smoking pipes.
  1493. > He's forgotten something, though.
  1494. "It almost sounds a little dangerous, sir."
  1495. > Anonymous, Royal Engineer, looks at you and lifts a single eyebrow.
  1496. "... You'll want to arrange for all three of your bodyguards to accompany you tomorrow."
  1497. > He nods.
  1498. > "I'll contact Lieutenant Violetta first thing after we speak to Her Majesty. Let's go."
  1502. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and holy buck, how is the chow hall so damn busy on a Saturday for lunch?
  1503. > Seriously, it's like the palace barracks doubled in population overnight.
  1504. > Why are all these ponies even here?
  1505. > Most of them should have Saturday off!
  1506. > It's a good thing you have a pegasus recon battle-buddy who can zoom up to the ceiling, spot the only free table left in the room, and then dive-bomb down to one of its chairs to reserve it for you.
  1507. > And it's a good thing for Sparkshower that *she* has a unicorn battle-buddy who can easily grab both plates while she's holding the seats.
  1508. > Flight-plus-telekinesis combo team for the win.
  1509. > Now your immediate problem is how to route through the crowds over to the far side of the room, where Sparks is eagerly awaiting her omelette.
  1510. > Scanning the room, you decide to try picking your way around the crowded outside edge, even though it skirts the busy buffet line.
  1511. > At least there's a bit of room to manoeuvre there.
  1512. > But before you can set off, you hear a soft colt's voice from behind you.
  1513. > "Attention on deck, Specialist."
  1514. > He's so close you can almost feel his breath against your ear, and the shock almost makes you drop the field that's holding the two lunch-trays up in the air.
  1515. > Or maybe it's not the shock from the proximity, but from recognizing the speaker.
  1516. > And he is an officer, so you snap to attention, staring straight ahead.
  1517. > You hear a chuckling in your ear.
  1518. > A white pegasus with a brilliant blue mane steps around in front of you with a grin on his face.
  1519. > "Hey, Lil'. Long time no see."
  1520. > Lieutenant Valiant Kilfeather, 11FX Air Superiority.
  1521. > Your ex.
  1522. > You don't say a word.
  1523. > Val cocks his head at you.
  1524. > "Aw, come on, Lil'. No love for ol' Val?"
  1525. > You answer immediately, toeing the line of proper conduct towards an officer.
  1526. "No, sir."
  1528. > "No? Shame. We used to have something together, Lil'. Whatever happened?"
  1529. > Keeping your magical concentration to balance the lunch trays is easy.
  1530. > It's keeping your composure in front of this bucking asshole that's hard.
  1531. "You ruined it, sir."
  1532. > The pegasus officer is unfazed by your pronouncement.
  1533. > He just looks at you with that smile of his.
  1534. > Friendly on the surface, you know it for the sneering smirk of superiority it really is.
  1535. > "So quick to lay the blame, Lil'. But I don't remember being the one who walked out on a good thing."
  1536. > So he wants to hear you spit it out?
  1537. > Fine, then!
  1538. "No, you're just the one who tried to force me into something I didn't want to do."
  1539. > Lieutenant Kilfeather feigns ignorance.
  1540. > "What, you mean that thing with the colts from the squadron? Oh, come on, Lil'. It's not like you wouldn't have enjoyed it..."
  1541. > His expression darkens and he leans in right in front of your face.
  1542. > "... Besides, the way I hear it, these days you'll spread 'em and wink for anypony with two bits to rub together."
  1543. > Bucking BASTARD!
  1544. > It takes everything you have to suppress jamming a telekinetic spear straight up his nose right then and there.
  1545. > Instead, you just your narrow your eyes and clench your teeth.
  1546. > Val just stares at you, watching you simmer.
  1548. > When he's had enough, he leans back and laughs.
  1549. > "... Hahaha! Oh, *at ease*, soldier! Foal, I can still rile you up, huh? Maybe there's still something there, after all..."
  1550. > You relax your posture and permit yourself to actually look him in the eyes instead of staring straight ahead.
  1551. > "... But I'm not here to pine after bygones, babe."
  1552. > Almost through clenched teeth, you barely manage not to snarl at him.
  1553. "Why *are* you here, *sir*?"
  1554. > He arches his eyebrows and wobbles his head, not yet answering you, so you motion around the room with your head.
  1555. "... This is the *enlisted* mess hall, after all."
  1556. > Val beams a wide smile.
  1557. > "Oh, as for that, well, Lil', let me clue you in on something about the officers' mess."
  1558. > Drawing in close, he wraps a hoof around your shoulder.
  1559. > You suppress the urge to hurl.
  1560. > "... Friday lunch in the officers' club? Good."
  1561. > He leans over further, arching his eyebrows.
  1562. > "... Friday dinner? Great."
  1563. > The air fighter gets in even closer and speaks in a hushed, conspiratorial tone.
  1564. > "... Friday *after*-dinner? Fan-bucking-tastic, you dig?"
  1565. > Val lets go of your shoulder and stands up straight again.
  1566. > "... But as a result of that, Saturday breakfast is so under-attended that the staff don't even put in the effort. And Saturday lunch isn't much better."
  1567. > He looks around the room and waves a hoof.
  1568. > "... Why, I can see at least three dozen officers who were smash-bucking-drunk in the officers' club last night, and are now grabbing lunch -- probably breakfast, for them -- here in the enlisted chow hall, going incognito so as not to bother anypony."
  1569. > Stepping around back in front of you, he nods his head in the direction of a table full of other pegasi.
  1570. > "... That's why I'm here with the squadron..."
  1571. > Looking you up and down, he grins again.
  1572. > "... But that's not why I came over to say hello."
  1573. > This pony sure loves to hear the sound of his own voice.
  1574. "So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit then, sir?"
  1576. > Val takes a deep breath and tilts his head back, licking his teeth.
  1577. > "Well... I was just wondering about your cute little pegasus friend over there in the far corner."
  1578. > Oh, buck no.
  1579. > You have to shut this down as soon as possible.
  1580. "She's not your type, Sir."
  1581. > The lieutenant's face turns pouty.
  1582. > "C'mon, Lil. Why don't you *carry on* calling me 'Val'? Or 'Icepone' at least. Let's try to stay friends, huh?"
  1583. > The obvious emphasis is your cue to relax even your 'parade rest' position.
  1584. > But if he thinks allowing you to call him by his nickname or his call-sign is going to ingratiate him to you, he's dead wrong.
  1585. "I said she's not your type, *Val*."
  1586. > He licks his lips and turns sideways to be able to look over at Sparkshower.
  1587. > Through the crowds, you can see her sitting there with a contented look on her face, scanning the ponies around her like she's on a recon mission.
  1588. > "No? Soft, cream-coloured coat... Pretty hay-coloured hair... Big, beautiful blue eyes. Mmmm...."
  1589. > Val glances back at you.
  1590. > "... I do love the filly-next-door type."
  1591. > The thought of this pegasus taking advantage of your new best friend Sparkshower sends a chill down your spine.
  1592. "Whatever you want, I'm not doing it."
  1593. > Val puts a hoof up to your lips, and you scrunch up and recoil in disgust.
  1594. > "Sh-sh-shhh! Don't jump the gun on me, Lily..."
  1595. > You push his hoof out of your face, but he goes on talking.
  1596. > "... I'm not asking you to set up a date, or even introduce me. Nothing like that."
  1597. > He takes a step forward towards you.
  1598. > "... All I want you to do, is go bring her that omelette you've got floating around up there before it gets cold, and just... point me and the squadron out to her."
  1599. > Val rolls his head forwards and lifts his eyebrows at you.
  1600. > "... She's probably heard of us, you know. Just let her put the names to faces, that's all."
  1601. > You cannot believe he is seriously asking this.
  1602. "You want me to sell out my squadmate? That's pretty low, even for you, Val."
  1604. > He puts two hooves up and pouts his lips.
  1605. > "Whoa-whoa-whoa! 'Sell out'? C'mon, Lil'. I'm just asking you to let her know about some of Canterlot's finest air superiority fighters, that's all. She is new here, isn't she?..."
  1606. > Lowering his hooves, he raises his eyebrows.
  1607. > "... But since you mentioned 'selling', well, maybe I can make it worth your while..."
  1608. > He grins.
  1609. > "... Like, say, maybe an invitation to one of the aforementioned Fantastic Friday nights at the Officers' Club?"
  1610. > You're through listening to him.
  1611. "No, thanks, Val. I've got my own ticket."
  1612. > You set off to leave, only to hear him call out softly after you.
  1613. > "What, you mean Captain Mailedhoof?"
  1614. > Whipping around, you see Val sitting down and nonchalantly inspecting one of his hooves.
  1615. > "... Be a real shame if someone talked you down to him. He's very sensitive about his social appearance, you know."
  1616. > What the buck! This bucking bastard!
  1617. > You can barely stop yourself from loudly shouting back.
  1618. "You're blackmailing me?"
  1619. > Luckily, over the din of the chow hall nopony could have heard you even if you had yelled.
  1620. > Val shakes his head and smirks.
  1621. > "No, no, not blackmail. Black-*ball*, maybe."
  1622. > The smirk turns sinister.
  1623. > "... Or I guess *blue*-ball in your case."
  1624. > That's it! You've had enough!
  1625. > You turn around and leave him there, still grinning at you.
  1627. > Pushing through the crowd, you head straight for Sparkshower.
  1628. > Valiant's got you so riled up, you just plough through the gaps between the tables with a menacing scowl on your face.
  1629. > Somehow, you make it over to where your squadmate's saved a table without knocking anybody over.
  1630. > "Hey, Glamerspear!"
  1631. > The little time it took to get over here hasn't dulled your anger any, but you inhale deeply, put a smile on your face, and try not to take it out on her.
  1632. "Hey, Sparks, order up!"
  1633. > You lower the two trays out of the air and gently place them on the table, then take your seat.
  1634. > Even with Val's words still ringing in your ears, the scent of a nice hot plate of the chow-hall's finest does much to soothe your anxieties.
  1635. > He wouldn't really trash-talk you to Captain Mailedhoof, would he?
  1636. > "Boy, it sure is busy in here, isn't it?"
  1637. > Across from you, Sparks is already digging in, still glancing around at all the new faces.
  1638. "Yeah."
  1639. > If he *does* start trying to wreck your chances with one salt-lick Captain, who's to say he won't start blabbering about you to everypony?
  1640. > Would he do that?
  1641. > He definitely had the capacity for it.
  1642. > But you doubt he would bother keeping it up for long.
  1643. > 'Icepone' was strictly interested in short-term advantage.
  1644. > "Do you think the crowd has anything to do with Day Court?"
  1645. > While you've been ruminating over your past and future, Sparkshower's managed to figure out the present.
  1646. > It takes you a second to comprehend her words, but when you do, you nod your head and grin.
  1647. "Aw, of course! I forgot that Day Court runs on Saturdays from now until the Grand Galloping Gala."
  1648. > Turning around, you take in the crowd.
  1649. "... Yeah, they must need another two hundred guards on duty just to manage the line-up. Sometimes it can go all the way outside, ya know."
  1651. > Just then, you catch a glimpse of Val at his table with his little entourage of pegasi air fighters.
  1652. > As if sensing your attention, Val looks in your direction, grins, and nods his head.
  1653. > Suddenly it feels a bit warmer in the room.
  1654. > It must just be the press of all these ponies.
  1655. > Returning to your plate, you immerse yourself in your lunch once more.
  1656. > A thought occurs to you.
  1657. "You know what this means, right?"
  1658. > Sparkshower shakes her head at you.
  1659. "... It means every single noblepony will be avoiding the palace like the plague. Heck, when Day Court runs like this, lots of 'em get out Friday afternoon and don't come back until Monday."
  1660. > Jamming a fork in your food again, you take another bite.
  1661. "... They don't want to be around a huge crowd of 'common' ponies if they can avoid it."
  1662. > "Wow."
  1663. > Driven by some compulsion, you glance sideways towards Val's table again.
  1664. > He's still there. This time he doesn't turn to look at you.
  1665. > One of his cronies must have just told a roaring joke, because everypony at the table suddenly bursts into laughter.
  1666. > They manage to be so loud that you can actually make them out over here.
  1667. > Looks like there's at least five of them together.
  1668. > "Who's that you keep looking at over there?"
  1669. > Buck, busted!
  1670. > Now it really feels like someone's got the heat on.
  1671. > You turn back to look at Sparkshower, feeling guilty.
  1672. > She's got that inquisitive, bright-eyed look her face again.
  1673. > ...'Big beautiful blue eyes'...
  1674. > You shudder.
  1675. > And then you decide.
  1676. "That table of pegasi over there has the 1st Canterlot Air Wing sitting at it."
  1677. > Sparkshower's eyes go wide, and her mouth drops open.
  1679. > You pause to let it sink in for a moment.
  1680. > Your comrade looks like she's just had Celestia personally show up to her birthday.
  1681. > "Holy thundershowers! Are you serious!?"
  1682. > You nod your head.
  1683. > "... Wow! The 1st Air Wing... Those are the finest fliers in the Guard!"
  1684. > Suddenly, she looks a little embarrassed.
  1685. > "... I mean, besides the Wonderbolts. But Wonderbolts aren't regular fighters like them!"
  1686. > An idea comes to mind, and you lean in, looking over at the table and pointing with one hoof.
  1687. "Yeah, well, don't let it get out, but... I used to hang with them a bit."
  1688. > Sparkshower only barely contains her excitement enough to take another bite of her omelette.
  1689. > "Cool!!"
  1690. "You see the one in the middle with the brilliant blue mane? That's Valiant 'Icepone' Kilfeather, the wing commander. He used to be my coltfriend."
  1691. > And the omelette almost comes right back out of her mouth.
  1692. > "REALLY!? Wow! What's he like?"
  1693. > Bingo.
  1694. > Time to reel her in.
  1695. "Well, he's clever, well-dressed, likes to be the centre of attention, knows how to party..."
  1696. > You turn to her with a deadpan look.
  1697. ".. And he's about fifteen pounds of armour and twenty pounds of charm, wrapped around a hundred pounds of pure, full-strength, unadulterated, psychopathic *creep*."
  1699. > The words take a half-second to register, but when they do, Sparkshower furrows her brow and quickly looks back at you.
  1700. > You reach up and forcefully turn her head back towards Val.
  1701. "Keep smiling like everything's fine, Sparks..."
  1702. > It takes her another half-second, but she starts smiling towards the table.
  1703. "... Because everything *is* fine as long as everybody around him does exactly what he tells them to. And his ability to have fun and live the high life is part of what made me want to play 'the game'..."
  1704. > Leaning in even more, you turn to face your ex with a smile on your face.
  1705. "... But the minute anybody turns him down, things get ugly. He made me do some things I regret, and when I refused to do something that I would have *really* regretted, he got violent."
  1706. > Val glances in your direction, and smiles when he sees both of you looking back.
  1707. "... He doesn't give a buck about anypony but himself. So, unless you're looking for a quick gallop in the garden-"
  1708. > You sit back up.
  1709. "-Actually, no, even if that's all you wanted, you can do way better, Artemis. So please, keep smiling, turn away, and then promise me you'll stay away from him?"
  1710. > She does as you ask.
  1711. > You sigh.
  1712. "... Now let's just finish our lunch and get out of here."
  1713. > "Sparkshower! Glamerspear!"
  1714. > What the...
  1716. > Lieutenant Temper Violetta trots up from behind you.
  1717. > Instantly, Sparkshower has a hoof up in salute.
  1718. > You raise your own hoof and turn around in your seat.
  1719. > She's carrying her own lunch-tray as well.
  1720. > "Carry on, Specialists! Sorry to interrupt you gentlemares at chow-time, but I figured you'd want to know."
  1721. > Both of you lower your hooves and relax again.
  1722. "Know what, Ma'am?"
  1723. > "New orders for tomorrow! The Royal Engineer is undertaking a mission to Bitsmount. All three of you will accompany him for the entirety of the voyage, under Corporal Bound's leadership."
  1724. > Now what was going on?
  1725. > "... You'll be taking a coach first thing at dawn. Understood?"
  1726. > The two of you spoke in unison.
  1727. "Yes, Ma'am"
  1728. > "Yes, Ma'am."
  1729. > "Good. Now I've got to find a seat somewhere in this zoo."
  1730. > Sparkshower cocks an eyebrow.
  1731. > "Uh, Ma'am, why *are* you eating in the enlisted mess hall, anyways?"
  1732. > Temper Vi scrunches up her face as she looks around for a seat.
  1733. > "Because Saturday breakfast & lunch in the Officer's mess is just reheated Friday dinner."
  1734. > Your commanding officer shakes her head in confusion.
  1735. > "... No idea why. Friday dinner's a good meal before a pony turns in, but I'm not looking to see the same food when I wake up first thing on a glorious Saturday morning, I can tell you that."
  1736. > She resumes her usual stern demeanour.
  1737. > "... Be team players and don't tell anypony about me being in here, would you? Wouldn't want to cause a scandal."
  1738. "No, ma'am."
  1739. > "No, ma'am."
  1741. > The lieutenant gives a curt nod and then trots off to find a free seat.
  1742. > Huh, guess Val wasn't lying about the food situation over at the officers' mess.
  1743. > Does that mean he wasn't lying about the threat to your social life?
  1744. > Well, either way, there's nothing more to do on that front, now. You've made your choice.
  1745. > You're growing confident it was the right one as you get back to your lunch.
  1746. "Come on, let's hurry up and finish so we can get out of this over-packed barn."
  1747. > Sparkshower nods as she digs back in.
  1752. > The lunch rush is over and you are Val 'Icepone' Kilfeather.
  1753. > A blond-maned pegasus with a moustache saunters over to your table and sits down.
  1754. > "She trashed-talked you, Ice."
  1755. > Callsign 'Applewood', he's one of the Lieutenant Junior Grades under your command.
  1756. "She trash-talked me, huh?"
  1757. > After you'd seen that cream-coloured young beauty walk in with Lily Glamerspear, you were interested.
  1758. > When she dive-bombed one of the few remaining tables, you sent him over to grab as close a seat as he could, intending him to hold it for you.
  1759. > Just in case the talk with Glamerspear went better than you expected.
  1760. > Applewood smiles softly.
  1761. > "Yeah, Val. I guess she didn't want to leave bygones be bygones."
  1762. > You shrug.
  1763. "Ah, well, what are you gonna do."
  1764. > Over on your right, 'Duck', another junior Lieutenant on your squadron, speaks up.
  1765. > "Whaddya mean, 'what are you gonna do'? I thought you were gonna talk to Captain Mailedhoof about that mare?"
  1766. > Across the table, Lt. 'Joker', your second-in-command, laughs.
  1767. > "Have you *met* Mailedhoof, Duck?"
  1768. > It's a little quieter in the lunch room, so he leans in a bit, and everypony else leans in with him.
  1769. > "... That colt's so eager for salt, you could tell him a mare's coming over to chop off his dick, and he'll get all excited and ask if she's cute."
  1770. > Everypony starts giggling, and Joker keeps going, a huge grin on his face.
  1771. > "... I'm serious, that dude can't keep it in his sheath. Drives his wife nuts."
  1772. > You shake your head and take a sip from your drink.
  1773. "Yeah, sorry, Duck, I'm afraid that was a bluff so big it belongs on a damn map."
  1774. > You look over at Applewood.
  1775. "... Hear anything else interesting?"
  1777. > He shrugs.
  1778. > "A little. They're under Violetta, working bodyguard duty for the Royal Engineer."
  1779. > Duck furrows his brow and pipes up.
  1780. > "Wait, that hairless monkey colt? I heard about him."
  1781. > You look over.
  1782. "Yeah, what've you heard?"
  1783. > Duck just stares back.
  1784. > "Uh... that he's, uh... Y'know, the Royal Engineer?"
  1785. > Joker starts giggling and just shakes his head.
  1786. > After a long silence, Applewood continues.
  1787. > "Well, I also heard Violetta say they're all heading over to Bitsmount tomorrow at dawn."
  1788. > Your ears perk up.
  1789. "Bitsmount, huh?"
  1790. > "Yeah. Must be going to inspect the place after that tunnel collapse, I guess."
  1791. > The tactical air defence map of Canterlot materializes in your mind's eye.
  1792. "The only way to Bitsmount is over the Hobble river..."
  1793. > You lick your lips.
  1794. "... And the closest way over the Hobble river is Newstirrup bridge."
  1795. > Everypony else at the table is looking over quietly at you.
  1796. > You ignore them while you put the pieces together in your head.
  1797. > Newstirrup bridge, the only way up to Bitsmount.
  1798. > And the Royal Engineer was a member of the privy council.
  1799. > That means, hairless monkey or not, he was technically a member of the noble class.
  1800. > Yeah.
  1801. > Yeah, it could work.
  1802. > You put a hoof on the table and start to grin.
  1803. "Gentlecolts, if you've got a clear schedule for Sunday, what with us all being on libo, I have a plan that'll get us some fun, some glory, some action..."
  1804. > You bob your head to the side.
  1805. "... And maybe something extra for your fearless leader."
  1806. > Around the table, everypony looks interested.
  1807. > You put your hoof in the centre of the table.
  1808. "... All I need to know is, are you with me?"
  1809. > Without much delay, the whole squadron's got their hooves on top of yours.
  1810. > Joker looks at you with a big grin on his face.
  1811. > "Ice, we're your wingponies, anytime."
  1812. > You smile right back.
  1813. > The best part of this plan is that it's going to work out great even if it doesn't get you exactly what you want.
  1814. > That's the best kind.
  1816. Suggested interlude music: AC/DC - Let Me Put My Love Into You
  1821. > It's almost seven o'clock, and you are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower.
  1822. > You've been waiting, fully armed and armoured, for almost three hours now.
  1823. > Where had Corporal Bound gotten off to with the Royal Engineer?
  1824. > His chambers had been empty when you'd come down to report in for your shift at four.
  1825. > Glamerspear had no idea what was going on, and not even Lieutenant Violetta could unearth their location after you'd gone to her.
  1826. > With the crush of public visitors to the palace for the seasonal weekend Day Court, keeping track of people was almost impossible.
  1827. > The only thing anypony seemed to be able to figure out was that they hadn't checked out of the palace, and that they'd been visiting various palace departments throughout the day.
  1828. > It seemed likely they were probably still off in some deep library or store-room, since Anonymous was supposedly on some kind of scavenger hunt for various items.
  1829. > After six o'clock had come around, Lieutenant Vi had told you to just wait around in the upstairs quarters for Corporal Bound to relieve you.
  1830. > And so you'd just been here, waiting, ready to leap into action once your team leader returned.
  1831. > The door's open, and you hear more hoofsteps approaching.
  1832. > It was probably just some other servant making their way somewhere.
  1833. > You were starting to go a little bit crazy from all the various other ponies walking by.
  1834. > Suddenly, Corporal Honour Bound walks in, still in her armour, with her collapsible short-spear holstered on her back.
  1835. "Corporal! Is the Royal Engineer downstairs? I'll report in for duty right away!"
  1836. > Honour closes the door behind her.
  1837. > "Don't bother, Sparkshower. Evening shift is cancelled for today. We've got an early morning tomorrow."
  1838. > Your shift is cancelled?
  1839. > You're almost a little disappointed.
  1840. "Okay. Lieutenant Violetta told us about the field day tomorrow."
  1841. > Honour walks into the washroom and gets herself a glass of water.
  1843. > You see her paw at the straps of her helmet to lift it up off her brow.
  1844. > There's a lot of sweat underneath there.
  1845. > Refilling her cup, she takes another drink.
  1846. > She must be tired.
  1847. "Where were you, Corporal? I was supposed to relieve you three hours ago."
  1848. > Corporal Bound scratches behind her neck.
  1849. > Looking over at you, you can see a contented smile on her face.
  1850. > That's something you haven't seen before.
  1851. > "Sorry for dropping out of contact, Sparkshower. The Royal Engineer was galloping all over the palace, and rather than try to coordinate tagging you in, I decided just to stick with him."
  1852. > Is she smiling at the satisfaction of a job well-done?
  1853. > You can understand that.
  1854. > Honour takes a deep breath.
  1855. > "... I haven't even had anything to eat since before my shift started."
  1856. > What?! She didn't even get a lunch break?
  1857. > That's one of the three most important meals of the day!
  1858. "He didn't even invite you take lunch with him?!"
  1859. > She laughs.
  1860. > That's another new one.
  1861. > "No, he never stopped for lunch himself."
  1862. > An eleven-hour shift, with no lunch break.
  1863. > And she's smiling and laughing about it?
  1864. > Earth pony magic, you suppose.
  1865. > Endurance and strength are the natural qualities of that species of pony.
  1866. > She starts to undo the straps around her criniere.
  1867. > "... He's a real workaholic. No wonder he managed to wear out Glamerspear."
  1869. > You shake your head.
  1870. > The creaking of your helmet visor reminds you that you still have your armour on.
  1871. > You don't need that any more, so you start to pull it off as well.
  1872. "What did you even do that whole time?"
  1873. > Corporal Bound leaves the washroom and stops in the common room, disrobing alongside you.
  1874. > "Mostly visiting various departments and ministries, getting documents and tools for tomorrow's mission. What with Day Court today, there were a lot of lineups to deal with."
  1875. > Midway through removing her flanchard, she furrows her brow.
  1876. > "--Especially over at the supply depot. Seemed like somepony was putting together a last-minute field operation for a whole platoon, and they were going all-out on requisitions."
  1877. > Honour shrugs.
  1878. > "... Anyways, it's got nothing to do with us. Where's Glamerspear?"
  1879. "She got tired of waiting for you to get back about half an hour ago, and left to go flirt with Captain Mailedhoof and then get dinner. She's probably at the mess hall by now."
  1880. > "Let me just hop in the shower and then we'll join her."
  1881. > You nod.
  1882. "Here, I'll put away your gear, Corporal."
  1883. > "Thanks, Sparkshower."
  1884. > Honour gives you a smile and heads back into the washroom.
  1885. > Gathering up her armour pieces, you open the door to her apartment and hang everything up on the little wooden armour-rack she's got set up in the corner.
  1886. > Then you head to your room to stow your armour as well.
  1888. > Returning to the common area, you sit on the sofa and pick up Glamerspear's copy of Cosmoponitan.
  1889. > The cover features a slinky photograph of Sapphire Shores.
  1890. > 'Catching Up With The Princess of Pop'
  1891. > Wow, those striped socks really do something for her flanks.
  1892. > 'What to Do When Your Colt Gets All Quiet'
  1893. > That one hits a little too close to home.
  1894. > 'The Best Workout For Your Teats'
  1895. > What?!
  1896. > That's a thing?
  1897. > 'Clop Tips So Hot You'll Get Turned On Just Reading Them'
  1898. > Oh, my.
  1899. > These big-city magazines sure are scandalous.
  1900. > Even your 'Canterlot Match' magazine had some racy articles in it.
  1901. > ... Maybe you'll ask Glamerspear to borrow this later.
  1902. > As you put the magazine back down on the coffee table, you hear Corporal Bound turn off the shower and get out.
  1903. > Waiting for her to dry off, you mind starts to wander to Glamerspear's pronouncements yesterday.
  1904. > There's still something that Honour never really explained to you.
  1905. "Corporal? Can I ask you a personal question?"
  1906. > She opens the door, still towelling off her head, a friendly look on her face.
  1907. > "Sure, Sparkshower, what's on your mind?"
  1909. > You lick your lips.
  1910. "What Glamerspear said yesterday, about why most guardsponies sign up for VIP duty... is it true?"
  1911. > The smile disappears.
  1912. > "You mean about them all being players or else, how'd she put it..."
  1913. > The words come instantly to mind.
  1914. "'Old grumps who are fed up with the regular guard life'."
  1915. > Honour pauses for a moment.
  1916. "... Sorry."
  1917. > She shakes her head at you.
  1918. > "Never apologize for providing accurate intelligence, soldier."
  1919. "Yes, Corporal."
  1920. > Walking back inside the washroom, she hangs up her towel on the rack.
  1921. > "But to answer your question... She's not completely right, but she's not far from wrong, either. I wouldn't say her two reasons are even the majority, but it's true that many veterans who are tired of the do-nothing routine of the Royal Guard sign up for VIP duty hoping to get eventually hired out as private bodyguards."
  1922. > Returning to the common area with a bundle of hair-ties, she sits down next to you and starts to bundle up her mane.
  1923. > "... Myself included."
  1924. "Oh."
  1925. > "The truth is, I've been bored of the Guard since shortly after leaving 'hoof camp. I joined the VIP service a year and a half ago because I wanted to get out into the private service."
  1926. > Her mane finished, she sets to work on her tail as well.
  1927. > "... But from my experiences so far, being a private bodyguard is probably just as bad, if not worse. You get treated like dirt, you mostly stand around doing nothing or trotting around looking impressive for airhead nobles, and you have to keep your personal life a complete secret from your employer -- they want to think, and they want everypony else to think, that you're some hot single at their beck and call."
  1928. > You shake your head.
  1929. "That doesn't sound very fun at all."
  1931. > "No. But I have to admit, today wasn't like that. Galloping around with the Royal Engineer, actually doing things, gave me some hope that maybe there are some good postings out there."
  1932. > Pausing in her work, you see her smile again.
  1933. > "... He clearly doesn't think of us as 'decorations' like most VIPs. He told me what he was doing. He asked me for advice. He gave me actual work to do. It felt like we were actually working on something important *together*."
  1934. > She lifts her eyebrows and looks up at you.
  1935. > "... And you should have heard the way he talked with the Princess -- you can tell they really respect each other."
  1936. > Bending back over, she finishes tying up her mane.
  1937. > When it's done, she hops off the couch with an energy that you haven't seen in her since you first met three days ago.
  1938. > "... Now come on, let's hit the chow hall. I'm starving."
  1939. > Yay, dinner!
  1940. "Okay!"
  1941. > As you leave your quarters together, you look over at the leader of your detachment.
  1942. > It really seems like her day, though tiring, cheered her up.
  1943. > If *one* pony could have a good time trotting around the palace doing actual work with Anonymous, what's it going to be like tomorrow when all three of you are helping him out?
  1944. > Think of the things you'll accomplish together!
  1945. > Dinner first, then bed, and then out into the field.
  1946. > The recruitment slogans are starting to come true after all.
  1947. > Equestrian Royal Guard: It's Not Just a Job, It's An Adventure!
  1949. Suggested interlude video: (US Navy TV advertisement from 1981, "Navy. It's Not Just a Job, It's an Adventure")
  1954. > It's an hour after dawn, and you are Corporal Honour Bound.
  1955. > The royal carriage you're in has been trundling along since daybreak, pulled by two earth ponies.
  1956. > From their quiet idle chatter to each other, they seemed to be enjoying themselves in the brisk spring morning air.
  1957. > Right now you're on a country road in the low farmlands just to the East of Canterlot.
  1958. > Beside you sits Anonymous, the Royal Engineer.
  1959. > Despite the sway of the carriage, he's somehow managing to keep his concentration reading a book about land surveying.
  1960. > Yesterday, Princess Celestia offered to allow him to make use of one of the royal *flying* carriages.
  1961. > He'd politely turned it down, suggesting that it would be better to show up in a more 'standard' carriage, rather than make it obvious that this trip was by the direct authorization of Her Royal Highness.
  1962. > You had to agree.
  1963. > A flying carriage pulled by two or four pegasi was something which would cause a stir anywhere outside of Canterlot.
  1964. > Or Cloudsdale, you supposed.
  1965. > As Anonymous had explained to you, the idea was to start with the mine inspection, under the pretext of examining the damage, and to only deliver the summons if there really was evidence of Galloway Bitsmount's criminal thrift.
  1966. > But as a result of that decision, plus the dearth of train service on Sunday, you had to deal with the somewhat nauseating rocking motion of the carriage.
  1967. > "Ugggghn."
  1968. > Specialist Glamerspear, riding outside of the coach on the rear box seat, was clearly having the worst of it.
  1969. > She was mostly managing to keep it under her helmet, despite the occasional audible moan or groan.
  1970. > For now, it was worth suffering since the two earth ponies were hustling you all along at a healthy clip.
  1971. > Once you reached the foothills just before Bitsmount, however, it would probably be faster and more comfortable for her to just get off and walk.
  1973. > The third member of your detachment was somewhere up above, high in the sky.
  1974. > Upon reflection, it was pretty incredible how long she could stay up there with all that armour on.
  1975. > You hadn't really had the opportunity to work with too many pegasi from the armoured corps.
  1976. > Earth ponies made up by far the bulk of that group in the Royal Guard, and even unicorns were more common than pegasi.
  1977. > With a loud *clap*, Anonymous shuts the book in his lap, and sighs, closing his eyes.
  1978. "Everything all right, sir?"
  1979. > He folds his hands on top of the book.
  1980. > "Just second-guessing myself, Corporal. If I'm wrong about what's going on, this trip could wind up being a waste."
  1981. > This was a change.
  1982. > Yesterday he'd seemed so certain.
  1983. "Even if it's not corruption, sir, surely after a collapse, an inspection is warranted?"
  1984. > "Oh, there's no doubt it's warranted. I'm just concerned that I've projected the greed and deceit of my world onto this one.."
  1985. > The Royal Engineer opens his eyes and turns to look out the window at fields going by.
  1986. > "... Equestria seems like such a friendly and honest place by comparison."
  1987. > You couldn't be sure if his assessment was made because he simply didn't know about the hidden flaws of Equestrian society, or if his home-world really was that bad.
  1988. > Either way it wasn't very encouraging.
  1989. > You wondered if you should say something.
  1990. > Before you could make a decision, however, there was a flutter of wings above, and Sparkshower appeared next to you in the window, gliding along your side of the carriage, her bronze armour glinting in the morning sun.
  1991. > "Corporal! There's some unexpected activity going on at the bridge up ahead."
  1992. > Activity? On a Sunday?
  1993. "What kind of activity, Specialist?"
  1995. > "I counted six pegasi and eight earth ponies milling about the bridge area. Two of the earth ponies were on the road, barring the bridge with spears. Eight camp and two large pavilion tents have also been set up in the neighbouring field. They've got three large wagons as well. Everything's flying Equestrian Royal Guard colours, Corporal."
  1996. > The Royal Guard? Conducting operations on a weekend, so close to Canterlot?
  1997. > Could something bad have happened?
  1998. "They're barring the way across Newstirrup bridge?"
  1999. > "It seems that way, Corporal, or at least they're controlling it."
  2000. > Anonymous leans over.
  2001. > "Should we find another way across the river, Corporal?"
  2002. "Sir, Oldstirrup bridge is about an hour's ride further East, and we'll have to double back to get on the road to Bitsmount. I wouldn't advise it."
  2003. > He shrugs.
  2004. > "Well, maybe they're just securing it against some other threat, and we'll be allowed across anyways."
  2005. "That would be my guess, sir."
  2006. > You turn back to Sparkshower.
  2007. "How far are we from the bridge?"
  2008. > "It's just over the next hill, Corporal Bound. Should I get back in the air?"
  2009. "Yes, but stay within earshot."
  2010. > She salutes noisily, clanging her sabot into her helmet, before flapping herself up and out of sight.
  2011. > As the carriage pitches back to climb the hill, you lean ahead to get a better view out the front window.
  2012. > All you see is dirt at first, but then the carriage dips forward as it crests the rise, and you can make out the subjects of Sparkshower's report.
  2013. "They're flying Equestrian Royal Guard banners, all right. And a lot of them, too. It even looks like they've decorated the sides of the road with ribbons and pennants."
  2014. > The Royal Engineer pulls back the side curtain and leans up against the side of the carriage wall to peer ahead out the window.
  2015. > "Sounds like somepony's throwing a party."
  2016. > The carriage rolls along undisturbed, passing the decorations and coming alongside the tents.
  2018. > Eventually, though, it draws to a stop as the draft-ponies find the way still barred by two guards.
  2019. > You can hear some kind of discussion going on outside, but it's too faint to make out.
  2020. "Excuse me a moment, sir."
  2021. > Anonymous nods, and you open the door and quietly exit the coach.
  2022. > What was a discussion seems to have gotten a bit heated.
  2023. > "Look, buddy, we've got a carriage to pull, here! What do you care who's inside? This is a public road, fer Celestia's sakes!"
  2024. > The guardpony shakes his head and stands his ground.
  2025. > "Sorry, sir. I have my orders. Nopony passes without identifying themselves. No exceptions."
  2026. > You clear your throat, and both spearponies turn to size you up.
  2027. "In the name of Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, clear the way for the Royal Engineer of Equestria."
  2028. > The two guardscolts look at each other.
  2029. > "The Royal Engineer?"
  2030. > "Better go get the L-T."
  2031. > After a quick nod, the one on the right nods, then dashes off towards the tents and pavilions in the nearby field.
  2032. > "Just a moment, while we clear your passage with our commanding officer."
  2033. > Your carriage-pullers don't seem very impressed.
  2034. > "Now you goofballs are gonna get it!"
  2035. > "Yeah, barring the way for a member of the Royal Court, geez!"
  2036. > But the guardspony stands resolute, spear still barring the way.
  2037. > There's a loud fluttering of wings accompanied by a hurried gallop.
  2039. > Six pegasi, dressed in light Equestrian Royal Guard armour, quickly land on the road before your carriage, accompanied by the spearpony on hoof.
  2040. > One of them, a white pegasus with a brilliant blue mane, speaks up loud enough for everyone to hear.
  2041. > "My name is Lieutenant Kilfeather, and I'm in charge of the situation here. If the Royal Engineer wishes to cross Newstirrup bridge, let him stand forth!"
  2042. > Your eyes narrow.
  2043. > The uniforms appear genuine.
  2044. > And you feel like you've heard the name 'Kilfeather' before.
  2045. > Behind you, you hear the carriage door open, and Anonymous climbs out and steps up beside you.
  2046. > "By Appointment To Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, I am Anonymous, Royal Engineer of the Court of Equestria."
  2047. > Lieutenant Kilfeather smiles.
  2048. > "It gives me great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Sir..."
  2049. > He steps forward, looking Anonymous in the eyes.
  2050. > "... But you shall not pass Newstirrup bridge without either giving battle or rendering up a token of your cowardice...."
  2051. > Instantly, you reach for your spear, pulling its two pieces out of the holster on your flank and snapping them together in one clean motion.
  2052. > Kilfeather completely disregards your move to arm yourself, and returns back to his assembled group of pegasi, who now hunch down into an aggressive posture.
  2053. > Even the spearponies turn their weapons on you.
  2054. > "... For *this* is a 'Pas de Sabots' -- a 'Passage of Hooves', Sir -- and no noblepony may pass without honouring the ancient rites of this hastilude!"
  2056. Suggested interlude music: (Hans Zimmer - 'Show Me Your Firetruck', from 'Backdraft' [1991])
  2058. Suggested reading: (Wikipedia - Pas D'armes)
  2063. > The Royal Engineer folds his arms in front of his chest.
  2064. > "I'm afraid I haven't been introduced to this particular custom. Would you care to elaborate?"
  2065. > Lieutenant Kilfeather places one hoof on his chest and gives a shallow bow.
  2066. > "Certainly, Sir, I will happily rectify your ignorance of this topic..."
  2067. > Anonymous allows the insult to pass unchallenged, the expression on his face impassive, almost stern.
  2068. > "... The 'Pas de Sabots' is an old custom of the warrior nobility, one of the ritual combats allowed even in peacetime, along with the more familiar Tournament. In a 'Pas de Sabots', a group of honourable warriors take it upon themselves to size an important bottleneck on the road -- such as a bridge, city gate, or mountain pass. Commoners are permitted free travel, but any noblepony wishing to go by must first challenge the holders to combat. A victory over the pass-holders ends the event in a triumph and allows the noble to go on their way; otherwise, the pass holds, often piling up with battered soldiers ready for a second round when more of their fellows arrive. A feudal noble who declines the challenge is compelled to leave behind a token of their cowardice, to be recovered later by someone with a greater sense of chivalric honour than themselves."
  2069. > The pegasus nods to his entourage, who relax from their battle stance.
  2070. > Even the two spear-wielding guards lift their weapons up out of the way.
  2071. > "... Besides that, the rules of combat are up to the challenger; we are honour-bound to accept any reasonable proposal. As the 'tenants' of this pass, we must also provide armaments to any noble who would challenge us but happens to find themselves without weapons. And we will freely share our supplies of food and water with any brave enough to take up the sabot that we have thrown down."
  2072. > Kilfeather sits down in front of his squadron, wearing a haughty smile.
  2074. > Beside you, the Royal Engineer shuffles his feet and considers his response carefully.
  2075. > In the back, you can hear Glamerspear start to clamber off of her seat to join you.
  2076. > Sparkshower must surely be about to land, as well.
  2077. > Anonymous unfolds his arms, placing one hand on his hips and showing the other to the bridge-holders as an open palm.
  2078. > "Thank you for the explanation, Lieutenant. It sounds like you have undertaken a magnificent enterprise, and I wish you luck. However, I am compelled to point out the fact that I am not a member of the warrior feudal nobility of Equestria. I therefore ask that you allow me to pass unmolested."
  2079. > The Lieutenant grins.
  2080. > "Not a member of the feudal nobility? No, sir, I think that you are..."
  2081. > He points a hoof at the Royal Engineer.
  2082. > "... You are a member of Princess Celestia's *privy council*, sir, which by ancient custom must consist exclusively of trusted nobility. When Her Majesty the Princess appointed you to the position, did she not declare you 'Lord Anonymous, Royal Engineer', before the Day Court?"
  2083. > Anonymous places his other hand on his hips.
  2084. > "I believe that she did, yes. I was told it was an ancient title, and would not be used in normal circumstances."
  2085. > Kilfeather spreads his forearms.
  2086. > "See? Though an honorific, the time is not long since past when we would be compelled to address you as 'Lord Engineer', and likewise 'Lord Chancellor', et cetera."
  2087. > You see the Royal Engineer smile.
  2088. > "Well, if I am a noble, sir, then I must point out that I am no *warrior*-lord. And I think the same could also be said of the Chancellor, since you brought him up."
  2089. > One of the pegasi giggles at that little joke, before getting a stern glance from Kilfeather.
  2090. > "If he were here, sir, we would challenge the good Chancellor as well. But if you are not a warrior-lord, then why do you travel with soldiers under your command?"
  2092. > Glamerspear slowly walks up on your other side, and you hear the beating of wings as Sparkshower starts to hover on the far side of the draft-ponies.
  2093. > "... It would seem, sir, that Her Royal Highness has not only ennobled you, but provided you the retainers that a noble of your station rightfully deserves. And if you feel unable to fight in person, then there would be no shame in sending your house-warriors to do battle in your name."
  2094. > The Royal Engineer inhales deeply, apparently considering how to reply.
  2095. > As the seconds wear on, Glamerspear shakes her head and loses her patience.
  2096. > "This is such a load! What's your game, Valiant? Nobody's staged a 'Pas de Sabots' in a century or more!"
  2097. > Valiant Kilfeather.
  2098. > Now you remember where you'd read his name.
  2099. > It was on the front page of the Royal Guard Times less than a year ago, and given your current situation, it's not an encouraging memory.
  2100. > "Ah, there you are, Glamerspear. You're right -- the 'Pas de la Fleur Fanée', the last one on record, was a hundred and thirty-seven years ago..."
  2101. > Before she can retort with 'See?!', he continues talking right over her.
  2102. > "... But the laws to permit such chivalrous acts are still on the books."
  2103. > Glamerspear growls and points an angry hoof at the tents and pavilions.
  2104. > "Laws shmaws! You must've had to pull some pretty big strings to get this all thrown together in such a hurry!"
  2105. > Valiant smiles and shakes his head.
  2106. > "Oh, no, not at all. You'd be surprised how eager the supply depot officers were to help out. During this period when Celestia holds Day Court on weekends, every noble pony who can get out of Canterlot does so, to avoid the influx of plebeians into their 'sacred' city..."
  2108. > Turning around, he gestures at the bridge.
  2109. > "... Newstirrup bridge happens to be the fastest way to and from a number of noble estates. So I found some *very* receptive ears when I suggested that a 'Pas de Sabots' timed for 'society' returning to Canterlot would humiliate a number of high-and-mighty gentleponies who thought themselves too good to mingle with the peasantry..."
  2110. > He turns his head up and looks at Anonymous.
  2111. > "... Absolutely all of our papers are in order, sir. You're welcome to inspect them, if you wish. And this event has the full sanction of Major-General Hoofstrong herself."
  2112. > The Royal Engineer glances down at you.
  2113. > You can see him rolling his fingers against his palm in thought.
  2114. > "As it happens, Lieutenant Kilfeather, I happen to be pressed for time and on urgent business. If you will not allow me to pass without satisfying your ritual, then I must ask what the price for my 'cowardice' would be."
  2115. > Kilfeather puts on a friendly smile.
  2116. > "Oh, sir, well... First of all, let me say that I doubt very much if you will suffer any social consequences for a surrender. After all, nopony would expect your small VIP detail to fight against Canterlot's finest air defence squadron. But as for tokens of surrender, let me think..."
  2117. > He puts his hoof up to his chin and feigns as if he's considering something new.
  2118. > It's so obviously an act that you almost wonder why he even bothers with it.
  2119. > Perhaps he just likes to hear himself talk.
  2120. > "... Well, traditionally the tokens are something martial, but not essential for personal defence. So, for your cowardly refusal to face us, we will take..."
  2121. > He points at Glamerspear.
  2122. > "... Her fancy helmet..."
  2123. > She growls.
  2124. > He swings his hoof to point at Anonymous.
  2125. > "... One of your fine white gloves, sir..."
  2126. > And then he swings his hoof all the way over to point at Sparkshower.
  2127. > "... And *her*."
  2129. > Sparkshower gasps.
  2130. > "Me?!"
  2131. > Before anypony can say anything else, Glamerspear explodes next to you.
  2132. > "HER?! Why you low-life, dirty-dealing, foal-of-a-b*"
  2133. > Anonymous looks down at you and shakes his head with a stern expression, so you elbow her in the flank.
  2134. > She takes the hint and shuts up.
  2135. > The Royal Engineer clears his throat.
  2136. > "I'm sorry, I must have misheard you. Are you proposing to take a *hostage* in exchange for my submission?"
  2137. > There's the briefest flash of a grin on Valiant's face, directed at Glamerspear, but then he composes himself again.
  2138. > "Hardly a hostage, sir. We have established ourselves quite comfortably here, and she will stay as an honoured guest among her own kind -- valorous pegasus warriors, just like her. Over the next few days, she will bear witness first-hoof to our courageous fight to hold the bridge against all comers..."
  2139. > He places one hoof on his chest, his voice dripping with sincerity.
  2140. > "... She will share in our triumphs and our revels as if a member of my own squadron; after all, it was not *her* who declined our challenge..."
  2141. > Lowering the hoof, Valiant regards the Royal Engineer with disdain.
  2142. > "... And clearly, a cowardly lord afraid of battle has no need for such a large retinue of bodyguards, and can do without one of them for a few days."
  2143. > Again, Anonymous pauses to consider his options.
  2144. > As he does so, an earth pony trots up from the tents, holding a large stick in his mouth.
  2145. > Valiant steps aside and directs him to plant it in front of the bridge.
  2146. > It takes the pony a bit of struggling to drive it in, but he manages to get it set up like some sort of a fence-post.
  2147. > Something about that staff looks familiar.
  2149. > The haft is extremely thick, and decorated with red and white ribbons.
  2150. > A half-circle plume of bushy red hair sits at the peak, above a golden medallion.
  2151. > You can't quite make out the design on the golden disk at this distance.
  2152. > Glamerspear recognizes it before you do.
  2153. > "Hey! That looks like one of the totems from the MXP Games!"
  2154. > Valiant raises an eyebrow.
  2155. > "That's because it *is* one of the totems from the MXP Games. We've taken the liberty of borrowing it."
  2156. > His answer only sets Glamerspear off again.
  2157. > "Oh, so conning the ponies at the supply depot wasn't enough, now you're stealing magical artifacts right out of the Champions' Hall?"
  2158. > "Not at all..."
  2159. > He nods his head at the pegasi behind him, and they all gather around the totem.
  2160. > "... You're looking at the winners of last year's Grand Mêlée."
  2161. > They adopt the same pose as that front-page Royal Guard Times photograph you remembered earlier.
  2163. > It was one of the more dominant victories of the whole tournament.
  2164. > And at the Grand Mêlée, the final and most important event of them all, no less.
  2165. > Anonymous sighs.
  2166. > "I beg your pardon, Lieutenant, but I feel I'm missing something again. 'MXP Games'? Is that anything like the 'Equestria Games'?"
  2167. > Valiant strokes the totem adoringly.
  2168. > "A little, sir. Where the Equestria Games involve tests of athletic and acrobatic skill, the MXP Games are a test of *martial* prowess."
  2169. > He continues to faun over the magical staff, so you speak up.
  2170. "Totems like that one are used at the Games to make sure nopony gets seriously injured. It projects a magical protective field onto the competitors."
  2172. > The Lieutenant nods at you, then turns to your VIP.
  2173. > "Thank you, Corporal. You see, sir? We're not barbarians. You may challenge us without fear that anypony will even get hurt..."
  2174. > He tilts down his head to look at you all from underneath his brow.
  2175. > "... Though if you do, then you'll certainly be walking away in pain and with quite a lot of bruises."
  2176. > The Royal Engineer looks like he's had enough.
  2177. > "I see. You've made your point, Lieutenant. I will confer with my escort."
  2178. > By the tone of his voice, it wasn't a request.
  2179. > Anonymous waves Sparkshower over, and you all walk away from the bridge, passing the carriage as you go.
  2180. > It doesn't take Glamerspear long to pipe up again.
  2181. > "You *can't* hand over Sparks to these *goons*, sir! This is all about her, you understand? Valiant, that scumbag, tried yesterday to get me to set her up with him!"
  2182. > The Royal Engineer cocks an eyebrow.
  2183. > "Oh?"
  2184. > "Yeah, and when I turned him down, he tried to *blackmail* me into doing it!"
  2185. > "Interesting. I was *going* to suggest that I try to bargain him down for our surrender, but if what you say is true, then it sounds like we won't be able to leave here without giving up Specialist Sparkshower."
  2186. > Glamerspear just grumbles an acknowledgement.
  2187. > Still floating in the air, Sparkshower pipes up.
  2188. > "But... is that so bad?"
  2189. > Once again, your unicorn squad-member goes ballistic.
  2190. > "WHAT?! SPARKS, you have no idea what that bastard is capable of!"
  2191. > There's got to be a reason for this anger of hers.
  2192. > Not to mention her familiarity with the Lieutenant.
  2193. "So why don't you tell us?"
  2195. > She shoots you a fiery glance, then relaxes her expression, looking sheepish.
  2196. > "We used to date. And like I told Sparkshower yesterday, when I didn't want to do something he wanted -- which was *crazy* and *disgusting*, by the way, and would have *actually* reduced me to a you-know-what that I got called two nights ago -- he got violent and tried to force me into it!"
  2197. > The Royal Engineer squints at her.
  2198. > He doesn't even have the full details to know exactly what she's talking about, but he looks properly concerned about it.
  2199. > "... And yesterday he tells me Sparkshower's caught his eye? I'm not letting that happen to somepony else!"
  2200. > Sparkshower speaks up for herself.
  2201. > "But, Glamerspear, that can't possibly happen *here*! There's all these witnesses, and the whole thing is supposed to be a 'noble endeavour'! If it came out that they took a hostage and then abused her, it would ruin their reputation. What's the worst that they could do?"
  2202. > The unicorn shakes her head.
  2203. > "You don't want to know the worst, Sparks..."
  2204. > Taking a deep breath, she concedes Glamerspear's point.
  2205. > "... But you might be right that they won't try anything here and now. We'd been going out for a while before he pulled anything crazy on me. I still say we fight, though!"
  2206. > Anonymous stops and leans over.
  2207. > "Can we win, though?"
  2208. > Glamerspear sits down and pounds one of her forehooves into the other.
  2209. > "You bet we can, sir! I can swat those pegasi like flies."
  2210. > Sparkshower also lands down.
  2211. > "I don't know..."
  2212. > "WHAT?! Sparks, you-"
  2213. "Come on, Glamerspear, let her speak her mind before you shout her down."
  2215. > That nets you a grumble and a dirty look from the unicorn.
  2216. > But Sparkshower looks genuinely concerned.
  2217. > "The 1st Canterlot are the best air superiority fighters in the whole guard... They can fly faster and turn tighter than anypony else..."
  2218. > The base of her spear rests firmly on the ground, but the hoof that's holding it is hesitating, and up in the air past Anonymous' head, you can see the tip wobble with uncertainty.
  2219. > Looks like Lieutenant Kilfeather's intimidation tactics worked.
  2220. > She's genuinely afraid.
  2221. > "... I think I'd rather just go with them than waste everypony's time with a fight we can't win. At least that way I become their hostage without any bumps or scratches."
  2222. > Glamerspear closes her eyes and shakes her head like she can't believe what she's hearing.
  2223. > You sigh.
  2224. "You're in charge here, sir. What's your decision?"
  2225. > Anonymous pulls off his hat and sits down cross-legged on the ground.
  2226. > The difference in height is actually startling.
  2227. > If he walked on all fours, would he really be that much taller than any of you?
  2228. > Regardless, it's strange having to actually look down at his face for a change.
  2229. > "I hear one vote for 'fight' and one vote for 'surrender', Corporal. But I haven't heard your vote, yet."
  2230. > You shrug.
  2231. "I'm a non-commissioned officer, sir. You give the orders, I see them carried out."
  2232. > "Well, I'm not a soldier at all, Corporal. I've never even *seen* a pony fight, let alone sparred with one of your kind. Maybe I'd actually be a reasonable opponent for them, but I doubt they have any weapons or armour that would fit me, and I don't want to show up to Bitsmount with injuries. So let me tell you how I see the situation, and then you, with your experience in these matters, will give me your decision on what we are going to do."
  2233. > He places his top-hat in his lap.
  2235. > "We can fight, surrender, or *turn around*. All things considered, I would rather not leave Specialist Sparkshower in the hands of these unscrupulous ponies. But I can't afford the two-hour detour each way if we take another road to Bitsmount; it will cut short the inspection of the mine, and the carriage and several of the very valuable pieces of equipment I've borrowed are due back today. To keep them overnight would be a public embarrassment and a betrayal of several important ponies' trust."
  2236. > Brushing some of the trail-dust off of the felt, he continues.
  2237. > "... But on the other hand, if we have to leave Specialist Sparkshower here, then, as she says, better to do it without whatever injuries that 'totem' will allow her to sustain."
  2238. > The Royal Engineer looks up at you.
  2239. > "... As I see it, it all comes down to one thing, Corporal. Can you think of a way to beat them?"
  2240. > He's gotten to the heart of the matter, that's for sure.
  2241. > *Is* there a way to beat them?
  2242. > You look at Glamerspear.
  2243. > She's ready to explode with anger.
  2244. > You're almost surprised her horn isn't already glowing, ready to project her magic at the first sign of trouble.
  2245. > A measure of her self-restraint, you suppose.
  2246. > Then you turn your eyes to Sparkshower.
  2247. > She's encased in almost fifty pounds of armour, but mentally you can tell she's not quite ready.
  2248. > Her experience with combat so far has probably been in engaging weak screening units or avoiding action entirely.
  2249. > Not in duelling a foe explicitly trained to dominate the skies.
  2250. > And then you lean back out of your little huddle-circle, and look over at the bridge.
  2251. > The six cocksure pegasus colts.
  2252. > The elite of the air defence force.
  2253. > The champions of what was once called the Grand Tournament of Equestria.
  2254. > But they're boisterous, boastful, and maybe they can be lured into doing something foolish.
  2255. > And the terms of the challenge are: anything reasonable, they have to accept.
  2257. > So can you come up with something reasonable that you can *win*?
  2258. > You close your eyes and think for a few moments.
  2259. > When you open them again, you find that Anonymous hasn't lifted his gaze from you.
  2260. > It's a powerful, penetrating look, that speaks to the intensity of his convictions.
  2261. "I've made my decision, sir..."
  2262. > Glamerspear perks up, and you hear Sparkshower suppress a gasp of anticipation.
  2263. > You turn to each of your subordinates in turn, and try to project the Royal Engineer's own aura of command.
  2264. "... We will *fight* them."
  2266. Suggested interlude music: (Kenny Loggins - 'Danger Zone', from 'Top Gun' [1986])
  2271. > Glamerspear pumps her hoof in the air.
  2272. > "Awright! Let's get 'em!"
  2273. > Before you, Anonymous leans back and seems to relax his expression a bit.
  2274. > "What's the plan of attack, Corporal?"
  2275. "We'll challenge them to three one-on-one duels, best two-out-of-three..."
  2276. > You look over at Sparkshower.
  2277. "... That way only *two* of us need to win a fight."
  2278. > The colour seems to have drained from her face.
  2279. > That's not good.
  2280. > Turning to Glamerspear, you raise an eyebrow.
  2281. "We'll take them on all at once so there's no pressure from momentum. Glamerspear, you're an anti-air defence specialist; challenge them to a duel in service equipment with no restrictions."
  2282. > Your unicorn teammate grins.
  2283. > "Oh, I am going to *sweep* them from the air!"
  2284. > Lifting your hooves, you play with one of your light brass sabots.
  2285. "I'll demand a duel without the use of any equipment at all. They'll think they have the advantage because of their wings, but I'll profit more from their lack of armour."
  2286. > Back to Sparkshower, she's not looking any better.
  2287. "Sparkshower, you'll ask for a fight in the air with service equipment..."
  2288. > You lean over and put a hoof on her shoulder.
  2289. > She's actually shivering in her armour.
  2290. > That's really not good.
  2291. "... All you have to do is fly as high and as far as you can. They can out-turn you and fly faster than you, but they'll tire more quickly. Play the long game..."
  2292. > Sparkshower is facing you, but it feels like she's looking straight through you.
  2293. > You bring your head closer and try to get her attention.
  2294. > That's when you notice that there are actually tears coming from her eyes.
  2295. > Better try to shut this down fast.
  2297. "... Soldier! Trust in your equipment and you will be victorious, do you understand?"
  2298. > The shivering doesn't stop.
  2299. > "Y-Y-Y-Yes, Corporal!"
  2300. > You squint at her.
  2301. "I didn't catch that, Specialist?"
  2302. > "YES, CORPORAL!"
  2303. > That was *not* a confident, or even a composed response.
  2304. > It was almost a terrified scream.
  2305. > And now she's shivering so hard you can all hear her armour rattling like a box full of empty tin cans.
  2306. > You shoot a worried glance at Glamerspear.
  2307. > She just looks concerned and shrugs her eyebrows, in a 'What do you want *me* to do?' kind of look.
  2308. > Sparkshower clearly hasn't seen real combat.
  2309. > There isn't enough time to solve her confidence issues, and anyways it doesn't matter.
  2310. > Glamerspear should win easily, and you've got an excellent shot.
  2311. > Sparkshower can lose, though you'd prefer if she doesn't get hurt.
  2312. > Anonymous gets on his feet but stays low, squatting down with the rest of the group.
  2313. > "Specialist Sparkshower, I apologize for the interruption, but something has just piqued my imagination. May I ask you a question about general tactics in the Equestrian Royal Guard?"
  2314. > The fresh and apparently-unrelated line of conversation seems to calm her down a bit, and she stops chattering quite so hard.
  2315. > "Sir?"
  2316. > The Royal Engineer affects a theatrical air and gestures up at the sky.
  2317. > "Tell me, Specialist: If an enormous dragon were to attack Canterlot right now..."
  2318. > He points over at Kilfeather's squadron.
  2319. > "... Is *that* the force the Guard would send up to defeat it?"
  2320. > With some hesitation, Sparkshower looks over towards her feared enemies.
  2321. > "No, sir."
  2323. > "No? Could you explain to me why not?"
  2324. > The heavily-armoured pegasus swallows, and you can tell it's to hold back actual crying.
  2325. > Her nose is running, too.
  2326. > "Well, sir, as an air-superiority squadron, they're focused on high-energy turning fights against comparably-sized enemies. They're lightly armed and lightly armoured so as not to compromise their air handling. Without heavier equipment, against a big dragon..."
  2327. > She turns back to Anonymous.
  2328. > "... they'd only be useful as harassment."
  2329. > The Royal Engineer leans in almost awkwardly close to your nervous pegasus.
  2330. > "Specialist Sparkshower..."
  2331. > She inhales sharply, holding her breath.
  2332. > Anonymous loudly and forcefully bangs his knuckles against her enormous brass breastplate, twice, leaving them pressed against her armour when he's done.
  2333. > He clearly enunciates every word of what comes next.
  2334. > "... *be* the dragon."
  2335. > There's a long delay while Sparkshower just looks down at the fist held against her plate.
  2336. > Her eyes dart from the fist, to Anonymous' face, to the fist, and then back again.
  2337. > "Be the dragon... Yes, sir. Thank you, sir!"
  2338. > That's sounding a little better.
  2339. > Not much, but a little.
  2340. > Anonymous just nods, then removes his fist and stands up.
  2341. > You watch her eyes nervously follow him up.
  2342. > Seems like this is as good as it's going to get.
  2343. "Okay, let's get back in there."
  2344. > Everypony starts back towards the bridge.
  2346. > On your right, Glamerspear is wearing a smirk like she's going to enjoy this.
  2347. > Just ahead of you, the Royal Engineer dusts his trousers and jacket off, then dons his top hat once more.
  2348. > He even pulls on the white gloves he had hanging out of his jacket-pocket.
  2349. > And on your left, you can hear Sparkshower repeatedly muttering under her breath.
  2350. > "Be the dragon... Be the dragon... Be the dragon..."
  2351. > If a mantra helps get her through this, then all the better.
  2352. > The bridge is less than fifty yards away, and the walk back goes quickly.
  2353. > Lieutenant Kilfeather is still posing with his squadron, blocking the bridge a few yards beyond the 'borrowed' MXP totem.
  2354. > "Well, *Lord* Anonymous, what shall it be?"
  2355. > Anonymous raises his hands and adjusts his gloves, pulling them on tightly and then balling his hands up in to fists.
  2356. > There's a disturbing cracking noise as he squeezes his knuckles.
  2357. > An intimidation tactic of his own?
  2358. > There's no visible reaction from the air-superiority pegasi with the obvious air of superiority.
  2359. > "My bodyguards shall challenge three of your number to one-on-one duels; two victories out of the three shall carry the day."
  2360. > Kilfeather nods in approval, grinning.
  2361. > "Excellent! I accept, with one condition: If you do not sweep us in all three matches, we will consider ourselves entitled to continue our 'Pas de Sabots'."
  2362. > Unlike earlier, Anonymous' reply is instantaneous.
  2363. > Clearly, he's had the time to think this through.
  2364. > "I accept your condition with one clarification: If we win without a sweep, you shall allow us to pass unhindered upon our return voyage today."
  2365. > The Lieutenant laughs, and a few of his crew chuckle along with him.
  2366. > "Ah, clever! So perhaps you are a *warrior*-lord, after all!"
  2367. > Turning to the ponies behind him, he pumps his hoof in the air repeatedly, and the little crowd starts to cheer, clap, snarl, and roar with excitement.
  2368. > He spins around back to face the four of you.
  2370. > "... Yes, We accept! Carriage-bearers, retire yourselves to our tents, and Royal Engineer, let your bodyguards step forth and issue their challenges!"
  2371. > Your two carriage-pullers shoot each other a glance, then slowly walk the coach back and take the side-path off of the road, into the fallow field with the squadron's colourful tents.
  2372. > You pause to consider your squad.
  2373. > On your right, Glamerspear looks ready to shoot every one of the pegasi down, if given the chance.
  2374. > To your left, even Sparkshower has found her nerves again and wears the proper steady gaze of a soldier.
  2375. > You make the first move, stepping up past Anonymous, to just in front of the totem.
  2376. > With an air of disdain, you look over Kilfeather's squadron before uttering your curt pronouncement.
  2377. "Hooves only, no armour, first submission."
  2378. > Most of the squadron-members arch their eyebrows and look at each other with amused expressions, saying 'Ooooh!', which then devolves into general excited hooting and hollering.
  2379. > One of them steps forward and sways his shoulders with a grin on his face.
  2380. > "Well, all right! Cool foxy filly wants to turn this mêlée into a real brawl, huh?!"
  2381. > He's a young colt; but big for a pegasus; huge, even.
  2382. > His coat is light red, and his blond mane is cut high-and-tight.
  2383. > Coming right up in front of your snout, he almost towers over you.
  2384. > "... Little fox, I'm gonna smash you good."
  2385. > You just give him a cold stare, as you reach down and start to pull off your sabots.
  2386. > That just sets his companions off again, with cat-calls mixed in with the hooting.
  2387. > He turns and gives them a confident grin, but starts to undo his armour as well.
  2388. > Lieutenant Kilfeather's laugh rings out.
  2389. > "All right, who's next?"
  2390. > Behind you, Glamerspear shouts out as she charges up to the challenge line that you've established.
  2391. > "That'll be *ME*! Fight in service equipment, with no holds barred!"
  2393. > She hunches down, swivelling her neck left and right like a snake looking to strike.
  2394. > "... Come on, which of you airborne pests is ready to get turned into an ugly smear on the ground?!"
  2395. > Again, laughter from the assembled pegasi.
  2396. > Kilfeather's roar rings louder than the rest.
  2397. > "Oh, so Miss Air-Defence thinks Canterlot's finest are easy targets, does she?"
  2398. > Glamerspear just snarls right back.
  2399. > "Yeah! Changelings, Griffons, or Pegasi; you're all just bugs to be squashed, to me -- and I've got a fly-swatter bigger than even your ego, Val!"
  2400. > He laughs it off, and, in the blink of an eye, dashes forward with one quick pump of his wings.
  2401. > If the move impressed Glamerspear, she doesn't show it.
  2402. > "Your fly-swatter's got nothing on my moves, Lil'. So I'll take your challenge, and that's two!"
  2403. > Now it's all on Sparkshower.
  2404. > Eschewing Glamerspear's quick entrance or your steady walk, she takes to the air and slowly flaps her way forward.
  2405. > Reaching the totem, she doesn't land.
  2406. > "I proclaim a clash of storm-fronts... in service equipment."
  2407. > She sounds confident as she issues the traditional pegasus challenge for a duel.
  2408. > But she doesn't try any of the emotional theatrics like Glamerspear.
  2409. > Or like you, if you're being honest.
  2410. > After all, your cold stare is a calculated move, too.
  2411. > The lack of excitement from Sparkshower seems to carry over to the opposing side as well.
  2412. > Just one pegasus makes any noise at all, chuckling loudly.
  2413. > "Oh-hoo-hoo! A 'clash of storms', eh? Like it's a rainy day in Cloudsdale? Big talk for a little pegasus!"
  2415. > A purple-coloured pony with slicked-back green hair takes to the air and flies up slowly to meet her.
  2416. > "... Or maybe it's just a big joke? I'm laughing, after all!"
  2417. > Amused with his own words, he continues to giggle to himself.
  2418. > By now, you've removed all your equipment, and so has your oversized opponent.
  2419. > Kilfeather looks down the line and speaks up.
  2420. > "Very well; the challenges have been made, and met! Competitors, touch the totem together and identify yourselves to receive its protective blessings, then retreat twenty paces until the Lord Anonymous does us the honour of declaring the start!"
  2421. > You reach out at the same time as your foe, but he speaks first, leaning in over the invisible line that divides the two teams.
  2422. > "The only name you need, little foxy filly, is my call-sign: 'Duck'. Which is what you oughtta do when I come flapping for you, by the way."
  2423. > Your voice is flat as you reply.
  2424. "Corporal Honour Bound."
  2425. > There's an almost musical hum from the golden medallion, and the red-coloured hairs at the totem's peak suddenly wave as if by a gust of wind.
  2426. > You can feel a kind of electrical energy envelop you, making your hair -- body and mane -- briefly stand up on end.
  2427. > Duck's short mane scarcely moves, although his puffed-up coat makes him look even larger.
  2428. > As you both retire, Glamerspear and Kilfeather step up.
  2429. > Once again, the air-superiority team-member speaks first.
  2430. > "Lieutenant Valiant 'Icepone' Kilfeather, wing commander, First Canterlot Air Defence Wing, and Leader of Kilfeather Squadron, Winners of the MXP Games Grand Mêlée."
  2431. > Glamerspear leans in close, baring her teeth.
  2432. > "Specialist Lily Glamerspear, Centurion of the Order of the *bucking* Ram!"
  2433. > That's a visible shock to Kilfeather, but he takes it with a smile.
  2434. > "Well, well... Went and became a war hero, did you, Lily?"
  2435. > "That's right, Val. Want to give up now before I do to you what I did to the Changelings?"
  2436. > He licks his lips.
  2438. > "Mmmm, 'fraid not, Lil'. You're about to get a harsh lesson in tracking hard targets."
  2439. > Their exchange complete, both of them retire to the start lines, and it's the turn of Sparkshower and her still-giggling opponent.
  2440. > Almost simultaneously, pegasi reach out and touch the staff.
  2441. > But both remain silent.
  2442. > All anypony can hear is the beating of their wings.
  2443. > It's a somewhat disturbing contrast.
  2444. > Sparkshower, with an armour load of more than three times that of the lightly-equipped air-superiority pony, not to mention carrying a long and very bronze spear versus just his sabots, almost appears to be struggling to stay in place.
  2445. > Each beat of her wings lifts her several hooves up into the air.
  2446. > And in-between those intervals, she drops like a stone back down again.
  2447. > By comparison, the purple pegasus before her almost seems to be effortlessly soaring in place, barely flapping his wings at all.
  2448. > After several moments in silent challenge, at last, he leans forward.
  2449. > "Well? Aren't you going to tell me your name, little filly?"
  2450. > Sparkshower just stays silent, staring him in the eyes.
  2451. > He starts to giggle again.
  2452. > "... Come on, bold and brassy! Speak up!"
  2453. > Again, she says nothing.
  2454. > He blows a raspberry, annoyed.
  2455. > "... Thhbbbbt! Oh, fine then, I'll go first, party-pooper. You can call me 'Joker', and I'm the Lieutenant second-in-command of this bunch of fun-loving colts, hee-hee-hee!"
  2456. > And he's back to the obnoxious giggles again.
  2457. > Sparkshower still stays quiet.
  2459. > Only when he's laughed himself silent again, does she speak up.
  2460. > "I'm the *dragon*."
  2461. > Before he can react, she quickly jerks her head forward in a nod, and the visor of her bascinet-helmet snaps down to cover her face with a resounding 'clang'.
  2462. > That sets the non-participating pegasus crowd off again, amused by her display of defiance.
  2463. > But 'Joker' doesn't seem to be laughing any more.
  2464. > "The 'dragon', huh? I'll get your real name by the time I'm done with you, don't you worry, filly-girl."
  2465. > He leans forward like he's trying to peer behind the eye-slits of her full-face helmet, but you doubt he can see anything.
  2466. > Perhaps out of frustration, he spins his hind legs forward and uses them to kick off the totem, quickly pushing back the required distance.
  2467. > Sparkshower just slowly backs up, flap by flap, until she's level with you and Glamerspear.
  2468. > Both lines of battle are now drawn.
  2469. > Behind you, you can hear the Royal Engineer's boots against gravel as he adjusts his position to clear the way
  2470. > Then you hear him clear his throat.
  2471. > "Gentleponies, conquer your fears and you will conquer the enemy..."
  2472. > That's a good line.
  2473. > Especially for Sparkshower.
  2474. > "... Remember: No interfering with the other duels. Spread yourselves out at the earliest opportunity. We will go on the count of 'three'. One... Two... Three!"
  2475. > As soon as the count is spoken, 'Duck' comes thundering at you, hooves held forward.
  2476. > You immediately roll to your left, letting him fly by.
  2477. > While he circles around for another pass, you take a measure of the starting positions.
  2479. > To your left, Sparkshower has immediately taken off into the air away from you, pursued by 'Joker', who overshot her initial position.
  2480. > On your right, Glamerspear already has her defensive shield up and his galloping back and to the right, trying to put herself in the centre of the largest open area around.
  2481. > Kilfeather is climbing straight into the air, opting to gain altitude right off the bat.
  2482. > Good.
  2483. > That just leaves you with 'Duck'.
  2484. > Time for you to show him your moves.
  2486. Suggested interlude music: (Christopher Gorden - 'The Battle', from 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World' [2003])
  2491. > You barely have time to get back on your hooves, before Duck comes around for another pass.
  2492. > Again he charges straight at you, hooves held out in front of him.
  2493. > You turn to face your enemy, hunched down, presenting the smallest target while also staying ready on your hooves.
  2494. > At the last second, you once again roll out of the way of the attack, your shoulder connecting with the hard packed earth and mixed gravel of the road.
  2495. > One thing is for sure: You're not going to look like a pristine Canterlot VIP's bodyguard when this is over.
  2496. > "C'mon, get her, Duck!"
  2497. > "Yeah, end it quick, Ducky-o!"
  2498. > Over by the bridge, the rest of Kilfeather's squad starts to cheer on their closest champion.
  2499. > Said champion immediately takes a break from making charging passes at you to acknowledge the crowd.
  2500. > "Ha-ha! First I gotta warm her up, guys!"
  2501. > It's a welcome breather for you.
  2502. > You take a few steps towards the left side of the road, glancing over at the ditch.
  2503. > It's a nice, soft shoulder down into some tall grasses, and then up again into a fresh field of alfalfa sprouts.
  2504. > That'll do perfectly.
  2505. > "... Heads-up, foxy filly!"
  2506. > This time, Duck comes in at you in the middle of a ninety-degree banked turn, his belly towards you so as to kick out with all four of his hooves.
  2507. > Since his lower wing needs room to to extend, he comes in to high up, and so you don't have to do much more than crouch down to avoid his attack.
  2508. > "... Yeah, get down in that dirt, you filthy nag!"
  2509. > That sends the bridge-guards into another bout of laughter.
  2510. > "Hey, Duck, you big stud, you better take that mare before she gets too dusted-up!"
  2511. > "Nah, Reiner, Ducky-o likes 'em down 'n' dirty, ha-ha!"
  2512. > Your opponent climbs up into the air for what is probably going to be a power-dive down.
  2514. > Still not what you need him to do.
  2515. > Kicking over, he completes his loop and comes hurtling down at you as if a pendulum in full swing.
  2516. > But another tricky last-minute roll seems you clear out of his way.
  2517. > Duck climbs up again for another looped-pass.
  2518. > Come on, you jerk -- get down and rush me on my level.
  2519. > Watching the pegasus climb, you wonder how things are going for your two comrades.
  2525. > You are Lily Glamerspear, and holy moley, is shooting at your abusive ex-coltfriend ever cathartic.
  2526. > It would be even better if he would come down close enough for a solid hit, but this is pretty good already.
  2527. > Presently, you're just taking pot-shots at Val while you canter around in the fallow field East of the road, trying to find the perfect vantage point on the rolling hills.
  2528. > Somewhere with a nice commanding view of the area, and no nearby bushes or trees to interfere with either your line-of-sight or your line-of-fire.
  2529. > 'Icepone' is way up in the sky already, and he's a receding target.
  2530. > When you'd seen him start climbing, you shut off your shield and started conjuring the magical spear-tips, sending them hurling towards him in bursts of three.
  2531. > As your ex recedes from view, you stop firing and bring your shield back up with a personal radius and moderate strength.
  2532. > Can't let him get the drop on you while you're still setting up, after all.
  2533. > And can't waste all of your energy on shielding -- you won't win anything that way.
  2534. > Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a 'perfect' spot in the area; everything's either too close to thick cover or on the downslope of one of the larger terrain features.
  2535. > You'll just have to settle for staying in the middle of the open field, relocating as necessary to obtain a good shot.
  2536. > Speaking of good shots, you give a quick double-tap on the side of your helmet to extend the high-magnification sunglass shades.
  2537. > Now, where's the damn spotter with the targeting info?
  2539. > Oh, right.
  2540. > You're not part of a battery this time.
  2541. > OK, time to reacquire your own quarry.
  2542. > There are quite a few clouds in the sky, which is both bad and good.
  2543. > Good, because the sun will occasionally be shaded, making it easier to look up.
  2544. > Bad, because that gives Val something to hide behind and circle around with.
  2545. > Your shield doesn't help, either, giving everything a purple tint.
  2546. > Double-tapping on your helmet a few more times, you cycle through the filter modes, trying them all to find an appropriate one.
  2547. > Ugh, this is the worst part of your job.
  2548. > Where did that bastard get to?
  2549. > Suddenly, there's a crackling noise behind you, and you can feel your shield shudder as something crashes into it.
  2550. > Except it's not some-*thing*, it's some-*pony*.
  2551. > "Heads-up, Centurion!"
  2552. > Val's somehow managed to sneak up on you, ramming his hooves straight into your shield-bubble.
  2553. > Pfft, as if that's going to do anything.
  2554. > He gives one final swipe at your protective field with an armoured horehoof.
  2555. > "... Tag, you're it!"
  2556. > With that, he shoots up into the sky again.
  2557. > You drop your shield and prepare to fire.
  2558. > But the bastard heads straight for the sun, barrel-rolling as he goes.
  2559. > The best you can do is squint and send a few more barely-aimed harpoons his way.
  2560. > If he's going to keep using that trick, better keep your helmet in magnified darkest-tint mode.
  2561. > And there's no sense in staying in one place so he knows exactly where you are all the time.
  2562. > With a quick double-check that he's still climbing, you quickly gallop across the field, setting yourself up against a large thicket.
  2563. > Once you back up against it, you bring your shield up once more.
  2564. > Maybe a little cover will help you out after all.
  2566. > "I spy, with my little eye, something that starts with 'L'!"
  2567. > Searching the sky, you can hear him, but you can't see him.
  2568. > "... Loser!"
  2569. > Suddenly, Val pops out from around the bush, crashing his hooves into your shield once more as he flies by at tremendous speed.
  2570. > Damn, you actually felt the impact that time. He must really have been going fast before he struck.
  2571. > This time he doesn't climb up, but instead turns to your right, following the terrain.
  2572. > Instantly, you lower your shield and send a dozen more telekinetic spear-shots his way.
  2573. > But, firing at full flank, your shots either crash into the earth or wink out of existence a hundred metres past your target as all of them miss.
  2574. > Damn it, the magnified optics are too zoomed-in for you to draw a steady bead on the bastard!
  2575. > Better switch back to just unmagnified tinted, as soon as this volley is done.
  2576. > Val cuts through one of the dividing rows of poplar trees, passing beyond your sight once more.
  2577. > Oh, right, better bring your shield back up!
  2578. > And relocate again... Damn it.
  2579. > As you scurry to your next sniping-post, to await Val's next move, your thoughts turn to your companions.
  2580. > Hopefully, Sparkshower is doing okay.
  2581. > Sending her up against Icepone's wingpony?
  2582. > Talk about a trial by fire.
  2583. > Or, by ice, you suppose.
  2588. > You are Artemis Sparkshower, and right now, all you can think about is the sound of your own breathing.
  2589. > Visor down, legs clenched tight up against your body, spear held close.
  2590. > You just have one target: the cloud cover.
  2592. > "Heeeeeeeeeeeeere filly-filly-filly-filly-filly!"
  2593. > 'Joker' crashes his hooves into your flank armour once again, and it's all you can do not to shriek out in terror.
  2594. > You're rattled around inside your plate, but a second later he's gone again, zooming off to your other side.
  2595. > Just gotta keep flapping and heading up.
  2596. > Once you get to the clouds, he'll have trouble finding you, and you can relax a bit.
  2597. > "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaanypony at home in that tin can?"
  2598. > Another loud metallic 'klank' against your side-plate, and you feel the wind pulled from underneath your wings as Joker not only strikes your armour, but pushes you down with his legs.
  2599. > "If you're not going to answer, maybe I should just keep knocking, whaddya say, huh?"
  2600. > He kicks again, and you can feel him lay his forehooves on your shoulders.
  2601. > No! That's not good at all!
  2602. > Rolling over onto your back, you lash out with two of your own hooves, only to catch nothing but air as he extends his wings and uses them like air-brakes to fall back behind you.
  2603. > "Oh, so there *is* somepony at home after all! Well, hidey-ho, neighbour, ha-ha-ha!"
  2604. > You roll back upright and continue heading to what you hope will be your safety zone.
  2605. > Halfway there, now.
  2606. > "Ah-ah-ah! Get your head out of the clouds, little filly!"
  2607. > This time, Joker doesn't attack your flank, but comes crashing down straight onto your back, sending your wings upright as the air goes whistling by.
  2608. > You dare a glance down, and see the ground getting closer with horrifying speed.
  2609. > He's got his hooves on your backplate and is just pushing straight down!
  2610. > You've got to do something!
  2611. > For a few seconds, all you can do is just breathe.
  2612. > Then you remember that you've got a spear.
  2614. > Kicking its length forward with your hind legs so that you're holding firmly in your forehooves, you once again roll over to strike your tormentor.
  2615. > This time, just air-braking isn't enough, as the extra reach from your spear catches the purple pegasus' green-coloured tail, slicing a healthy chunk of it clean off.
  2616. > "Whoaa! Close shave, hoo-hoo!"
  2617. > Joker hovers in place and twists his head to see his missing lengths of hair flutter their way down to ground.
  2618. > Bringing the spear back under your control, you complete the roll and resume your upward course.
  2619. > "... Ah, well, I needed a haircut, anyways, hee-hee!"
  2620. > You can't let him get a drop on you like that again!
  2621. > As much as you want to head straight for the clouds, ignoring everything around you, you can't.
  2622. > He can out-climb and out-turn you, and he can even over-power your own wings if he puts his mind to it.
  2623. > You've got to keep your wits and use your spear to keep him from taking advantage of you too much.
  2624. > Although they were terrifying, his initial 'boom-and-zoom' hoof-slashes, didn't much alter your course or hurt you.
  2625. > It's when he thought you wouldn't hit back at all that he started to get work in.
  2626. > So you need to make him think he can't get away with that.
  2627. > But if you're going to be swinging your spear as a preventative measure, you're going to need to be able to see him.
  2628. > That means coming out of your safe shell, and raising your visor.
  2629. > It's a scary thought, but upon reflection, he can't get at your face without you seeing him anyways, and you can always snap it back down again.
  2630. > With some trepidation, you reach a hoof up and quickly move it out of the way.
  2631. > And then you turn your head to look behind you.
  2632. > Joker is hot on your tail.
  2633. > He grins when he sees your face.
  2634. > "Hey, there, neighbour! Dropped the veil, did ya? Ooh, lucky me! Lucky-lucky-lucky!"
  2635. > Should you make another sweep with your spear?
  2636. > He seems to be keeping his distance for now.
  2637. > And you don't have the agility to swing while still climbing.
  2638. > Better to just stay the course for now.
  2639. > But you keep your eye on him.
  2640. > What you've had so far was just a warm-up.
  2641. > Hopefully, Glamerspear and Honour can win their fights so that this battle doesn't even matter.
  2646. > You are Corporal Honour Bound.
  2647. > Covered in dust, with two aching shoulders.
  2648. > And your legs are starting to get a bit tired, too.
  2649. > "Geez, this is like watching mares mud-wrestling."
  2650. > "Yeah, except there's just one, and boy is she really getting into it."
  2651. > "Anypony else have a hard-on?"
  2652. > "Don't tease me, Applewood."
  2653. > The laugh squad over at the bridge is still enjoying the show.
  2655. > But, as you get to your hooves once more, all you care about right now is getting Duck to make just the right pass at you.
  2656. > He *has* to be getting tired of these high-climbing loops by now.
  2657. > He should at least be getting dizzy.
  2658. > "Wooo! I'm startin' to feel a little high-and-dry from all this nothin' I'm gettin'. Ya keep blue-ballin' me down there, foxy-filly!"
  2659. > Oh, thank Celestia.
  2660. > "... How about we try something fresh for a change?"
  2661. > Sweeping into a banked descent, Duck comes down to skim the ground, circling around wide to size you up.
  2662. > Come at me across the road, you big idiot, come on...
  2663. > "... How about some alfalfa to go with all that gravel you've been eating?"
  2664. > Finally.
  2665. > With you on the West side of the road, up against the embankment and the ditch, Duck comes charging at you from across the Eastern field.
  2666. > He's even got his hind legs kicked out behind him, rather than tucked up under his body.
  2667. > This is it -- you're not going to get a better shot at him than this.
  2668. > "Smash her right into that mud, Duck!"
  2669. > "Yeah, c'mon, get her in the ditch!"
  2670. > The cheers only steady his aim right at you.
  2671. > Once again, you turn to face him head on, but this time, you're crouched down as low as possible on your forehooves.
  2672. > You can see him adjust even further down so that he'll be level with the road when he strikes.
  2673. > In the blink of an eye, he's almost on you, and you spring your trap.
  2675. > Shoving with your forelegs, you flip yourself into the air and over onto your back.
  2676. > As your butt connects with the edge of the road and you start to roll backwards down the embankment, you can feel his approach carried on the wind before him.
  2677. > That's when you kick out with your hind legs as hard as you can, your hips still just barely resting on the elevated roadway.
  2678. > Just as his head peeks over the edge of the road at you, you feel your hind legs connect with his lower torso.
  2679. > You push in as deep as possible into what feels like soft flesh, not hard ribs.
  2680. > Nor the hard armour that *would* have normally been there, had he not taken it off as part of the challenge.
  2681. > The transferred momentum from his charge sends you careening down into the wet ditch.
  2682. > Dizzied and with a few bull rushes blocking your view, all you can do is pray to Celestia you got him.
  2683. > Luckily, the bridge chorus clues you in almost immediately.
  2685. > "Oh, BUCK, man!"
  2686. > "Holy mother of Faust!"
  2687. > "DAAAAAAAMN!"
  2688. > Struggling to your feet, you see that they've all got one hoof up to their mouth in shock.
  2689. > The other is clutching their own groin in sympathy.
  2690. > You turn around.
  2691. > 'Duck' is lying on his side among the alfalfa plants, moaning loudly and clutching his privates with both forehooves.
  2692. > "Ugnnnnnnnnnn... Ohhhhhhhhhhh.... My baaaaaaaaalllllssssss... Buuuuuuuuuckkkkkk...."
  2693. > You take a deep breath to settle yourself, then walk over to the injured pegasus.
  2694. > He's actually crying.
  2695. > Looks like you nearly blew right through the protective field.
  2696. > His coat still looks a little electrified, though.
  2698. > Between tears, he groans in pain.
  2699. > "Buckin'.... crazy cheap-shottin' mare.... Damn' beast outta Tartarus..."
  2700. > Reaching down, you forcefully turn him over on his back, exposing his belly and face.
  2701. > You raise one hoof high into the air.
  2702. "Hey..."
  2703. > At the sound of your voice, he opens his eyes.
  2704. > You swipe down at his right temple.
  2705. "... Duck!"
  2706. > He doesn't even have time to blink; the instant you connect, the lights go out cold.
  2707. > There's a crackle in the air, and you feel the totem's protective field drop around yourself.
  2708. > Over at the bridge, Kilfeather's goons are shaking their heads in disbelief, muttering amongst themselves.
  2709. > You just head straight over to your armour and start to put it back on.
  2710. > Standing just where he'd been when the fight started, Anonymous tips his hat to you, a sly smile on his face.
  2711. > "Nicely done, Corporal."
  2712. "Thank you, sir."
  2713. > Turning, he faces the fallow field to the East, where Glamerspear has fired off another noisy barrage that failed to connect.
  2714. > "Now, let's see if we can make it *two*."
  2719. > You are Lily Glamerspear, and this is the most frustrating fight you've ever been in.
  2720. > Every time you relocate, Val seems to find a new way to ambush you.
  2721. > Sit in the middle of the field?
  2722. > He breaks your line of sight by climbing up into the clouds, or diving behind a hill, or circling around one of the wooded areas.
  2723. > Then, while you're going crazy trying to re-acquire, he seems to find the perfect direction to break cover and ambush you again.
  2724. > If you take up a position at the edge of the field, next to the tree-line, hoping to isolate his approach vectors?
  2725. > Well, then he manages to cut through the forest itself, dodging trees to slam into your shield from behind.
  2726. > If a bunch of trees won't stop him, how about using a thicket of bushes as cover?
  2727. > He can't blow through those, but he still finds a way to sneak above or around them and strike.
  2728. > Regardless of where you take up a firing position, the pattern remains the same.
  2729. > He strikes and then retreats.
  2730. > You drop shields and launch a volley.
  2731. > He dodges the volley and breaks your line-of-sight.
  2732. > You grumble, raise shields, and relocate.
  2733. > He manages to figure out exactly where you are, and figures out a new way to sneak up on you.
  2734. > Wash, rinse, repeat.
  2735. > Not even the Changeling invasion was this infuriating!
  2737. > Mind you, the Changelings were a lot more dangerous.
  2738. > There were enough of them that it was actually a serious threat to your shield.
  2739. > With just Val banging on your projected force field, he was clearly playing the long game, hoping to wear it out slowly.
  2740. > Or hoping you would make a mistake, like forgetting to raise it, allowing him to clobber you.
  2741. > It's true that all the shooting and shield-swapping had taken a toll.
  2742. > Your reserves of mana were considerable, after all, but not unlimited.
  2743. > But it was mental frustration, not magical exhaustion, that was really wearing on you now.
  2744. > "C'mon, Ice, she's sitting under that tree like a rotten apple full of worms!"
  2745. > And Val's goon squad wasn't helping.
  2746. > The only solace you had at the moment was the fact that Honour Bound had clearly won her fight.
  2747. > There'd been a burst of gasps and horrified hooting from the spectator squadron, and then you'd seen Honour Bound stand up without her opponent anywhere in sight.
  2748. > Running these battles simultaneously was still a good idea, but it looked like momentum had a role to play anyways.
  2749. > If you can get even one or two rounds to connect with 'Icepone', things would look even better!
  2750. > "Wakey-wakey, sleepy-head!"
  2751. > Damn it!
  2752. > You feel two hooves connect with the top of your shield, which now has the consistency less of a solid brick wall and more of a firm bouncy bubble.
  2753. > A *tough* bouncy bubble, but still.
  2754. > The bastard actually dove straight down towards the lone tree, and found a path through its branches to strike at you from the one direction you had thought safe!
  2755. > Aha, but he's made a mistake!
  2757. > You're so low to the ground that he couldn't translate that vertical descent into horizontal speed after his attack.
  2758. > He's accelerating away from you, but he started from almost a complete stop.
  2759. > This is the perfect time to strike.
  2760. > You take your time to line up the shot, then fire a satisfyingly long eight-round burst!
  2761. > Keeping him in sight, you watch your bolts travel towards him.
  2762. > Time seems to slow down as they hurtle forwards.
  2763. > Come on, come on...
  2764. > It doesn't even look like he'll be able to dodge them!
  2765. > Suddenly he rolls his body towards you and swipes out with his right forehoof.
  2766. > Your jaw drops.
  2767. > He batted the spear-tips away with his sabot!
  2768. > The ultimate humiliation.
  2769. > Val gives you a cheeky salute.
  2770. > "You tossing garbage my way, Lily-baby? Try harder next time!"
  2771. > HOW!?
  2772. > Oh, buck, you forgot to drop your shield before firing!
  2773. > Bucking thing interfered with your own shots, slowing them down so that he didn't even *have* to dodge!
  2774. > That bucked-up bucking bucker bucked your bucking bullets!
  2775. > Seething, you look for a new hiding-place.
  2777. > You've got to get your head screwed-on straight again, or else you'll keep making mistakes like that.
  2778. > And then he'll really have you.
  2779. > Which'll put everything on Sparkshower.
  2780. > Not saying she couldn't do it, but you'd rather not get her in that position.
  2781. > Besides, these bucking bastards deserve to be cleanly-swept by your crew!
  2786. > You are Artemis Sparkshower, and right now, all you can feel is the sound of your own heart pounding.
  2787. > Calculating that you were going to limit your counter-attacks, Joker had started to repeatedly attack you from above.
  2788. > Never quite striking long enough or hard enough that he would be forced to stay in your reach.
  2789. > Still, you couldn't let his attacks go unchallenged.
  2790. > And since you didn't know when, if ever, he was going to come in long enough to give you the chance to counter-strike, you had decided to be proactive.
  2791. > That meant using alternating banked turns to climb, and working your longspear for all it was worth, thrusting and slicing whenever Joker approached.
  2792. > You were keeping him at bay, and you'd nearly reached the cloud cover, but the effort was exhausting.
  2793. > "Ooh, we're getting awfully close to those nasty-looking clouds now, aren't we? But don't worry, I'll make sure we don't reach them!"
  2794. > At least dodging the considerable reach of your weapon had kept him mostly quiet until now.
  2795. > Besides the inevitable laughter and giggles every time he got a blow in or narrowly avoided your own, of course.
  2796. > Twisting your head around as you change tack to a left bank, you crane your neck back to see what's coming next.
  2797. > This time, he's opting to attack from outside your bank.
  2798. > You ready your spear against his charge.
  2800. > But instead of striking your armour and tasting your spear, he dives low underneath you.
  2801. > It's all you can do to just relax your muscles as he blows through your lower wing, dislodging a few feathers as he goes.
  2802. > All his strike really accomplished is interrupting your banked turn and dropping you a few hooves down.
  2803. > But attacking a fellow pegasus' wing, in a formal duel?
  2804. > That's beyond the pale, especially for a distinguished member of the Royal Guard!
  2805. > Or, perhaps it was just an honest mistake?
  2806. > Maybe he dived only to avoid your spear at the last moment?
  2807. > "What's the matter, filly? Everypony knows that dragons don't have feathers, ha-ha-hee!"
  2808. > He's serious!
  2809. > After all the terror he's caused you, is this fight just one big joke to him?
  2810. > As he circles around, you bank over again to the right, keeping your thickly-armoured back to him.
  2811. > In Cloudsdale, deliberately attacking a wing is grounds to immediately halt a duel with a loss to the instigator.
  2812. > But you're so far up and away from everypony on the ground it's doubtful any of them would have seen that.
  2813. > Except maybe Glamerspear, with her fancy magnifying optics.
  2814. > If she was even looking this way.
  2815. > Which she probably wasn't.
  2816. > No, it was just you all alone up here with this... this... this miserable, dishonourable, shameful excuse for a Guardspony!
  2817. > You find that your fear of facing a formidable foe has been replaced with something else:
  2818. > Righteous anger.
  2820. > Glamerspear was right!
  2821. > Valiant and his squadron *were* just a bunch of uncivilized thugs!
  2822. > Well, you knew just how to deal with that!
  2823. > It would mean taking even longer to reach the cloud cover, but by making sure to hold your wings lightly when he moved in to strike, you could avoid him doing any serious damage.
  2824. > Tucking them in would be even better, but Joker moved so quickly that it would be risky proposition.
  2825. > If you tucked them in too early, you'd lose more altitude.
  2826. > If you tucked them in too late, your muscles would still be taut when he struck, and he might actually injure you.
  2827. > No, keeping them loose was the best way to approach this engagement.
  2828. > And although Joker was sinking to despicable means, perhaps this was a good sign, after all.
  2829. > After all, it's just as Drill Sergeant Mareline Tandem taught you, way back in Pegasus Individual Armour Training:
  2830. > 'When an enemy decides to attack your wings, it's because they have given up trying to penetrate your armour.'
  2831. > Does that mean Joker is starting to give up?
  2832. > You sure hope so.
  2837. > "What's wrong, Corporal?"
  2838. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and right now you are watching Specialist Glamerspear fail.
  2839. > You shake your head.
  2840. "It's Glamerspear, sir. I should have known this would happen."
  2841. > Beside you, the Royal Engineer is watching the air-versus-anti-air duel with concern.
  2842. > "I can see that things don't seem to be going her way, but could you explain to me why?"
  2843. > You turn up to face him.
  2844. "Specialist Glamerspear is used to working in a *battery*, sir. Her helmet doesn't have the magnification needed to keep track of Lieutenant Kilfeather beyond her maximum firing range."
  2845. > There's more shouting from in front of you, so you look away from your VIP.
  2846. "... And all that galloping around she's doing is pointless, though I can see why she thinks she has to do it."
  2847. > Out in the field, Glamerspear sends another failed volley after a retreating 'Icepone'.
  2848. "... She needs somepony who can keep eyes on target, to call it out, and to tell her when to shield and when to fire."
  2849. > Over at the bridge, the peanut gallery chimes in on the latest exchange.
  2850. > "Glam keeps throwing out the spam!"
  2851. > "Yeah, except this meat's gone rotten, haw-haw!"
  2852. > "Go, Ice! Dodge that trash!"
  2853. > Squinting as you watch Lieutenant Kilfeather make his way off into the distance once more, you barely notice Anonymous' footsteps as he walks away from you.
  2854. > In ten seconds, the pegasus is completely beyond visual range.
  2855. > It's almost impressive that Glamerspear has been holding it together so far.
  2856. > In her place, you would probably be going nuts by now.
  2857. > "Excuse me, gentlecolts!"
  2859. > Over by the bridge, Anonymous speaks out loudly, and the remainder of Valiant's squadron all turn to face him.
  2860. > You hope he's not about to provoke something foolish.
  2861. > "... May I take it from your behaviour that providing verbal support to the duellists is within the rules?"
  2862. > Most of the pegasi, and both earth ponies, look like they barely understood what he meant.
  2863. > The rest wear a look of disgust.
  2864. > 'Applewood', the one with a moustache, shoots a glance to his compatriots before speaking up.
  2865. > "Yeah, sure, 'm'lord'. You go ahead and provide all the 'verbal support' you want."
  2866. > Anonymous tips his top hat.
  2867. > "Capital, gentlecolts; my thanks."
  2868. > He's walking back your way.
  2869. > Strange. Does the Royal Engineer expect you two to form a two-pony rival cheerleading team for Glamerspear?
  2870. > More distracting voices is probably the last thing she needs right now.
  2871. > Anonymous points at you as he gingerly makes his way down the embankment, heading towards the tents.
  2872. > "Corporal, tell Glamerspear to set up a firing position as close as possible to the road here, and order her to *stay put*."
  2873. > That's when you realize that he's not heading for the tents, he's headed for the *carriage*.
  2874. > Maybe he's got something back there to help out.
  2875. > Glamerspear's got her shield back up again and is looking around for a new place to set up.
  2876. "Specialist! Hey, Specialist!"
  2877. > Can she not hear you under that fancy helmet of hers?
  2879. > Her head swivels around to you, and she starts trotting your way.
  2880. > Pointing one hoof at the nearest little peak in the fallow farmer's field, you cup the other one to your mouth.
  2881. "Set up on that hill and await further instructions!"
  2882. > She nods, and breaks into a gallop towards the indicated position.
  2883. > OK, so that's step one.
  2885. > Over at the carriage, Anonymous is hunched over the luggage-box at the back of the coach, digging through the various surveying equipment for which the two of you had hunted almost all day yesterday.
  2886. > As Glamerspear takes up her post, her shield raised, she looks over at you, expectantly.
  2887. > It's all you can do but to hold up a hoof as a sign for her to wait.
  2888. > At last, you can see Anonymous trotting back towards you, a large, heavy-looking metal object slung over his shoulder.
  2889. > It's a pair of enormously large, strange-looking brass binoculars.
  2890. > You remember that; it was one of the most troublesome items to acquire yesterday.
  2891. > What was it called again?
  2892. > Something about 'range'.
  2893. > A 'Coincidence Rangefinder', that's what it was.
  2894. > Some kind of device for determining how far any object was, even if its size wasn't known.
  2895. > All you really knew was that the Royal Engineer had spotted it in a supply catalogue, he had insisted that a pair be lent to him.
  2896. > The palace depot commander tried to stonewall him, saying it was an extremely precious piece of equipment, normally used only on boats, and anyways they didn't stock such items in the palace.
  2897. > Your VIP hadn't relented, looming over the commander and waving Celestia's writ.
  2898. > In the end, two of the depot underlings had wound up having to gallop halfway out of the city, all the way down to the riverside naval depot, to get it for him.
  2899. > At the time, you hadn't asked what it was for, since Anonymous had sent you to collect a few items from the palace warehouse shelves personally.
  2900. > Right now, all you can tell is that it looks very, very heavy.
  2901. > Anonymous struggles up the hill to come up beside you.
  2902. "Wasn't there a tripod with that, sir?"
  2903. > "Yes, but I'm too tall for it, and anyways the mount was designed for naval gunnery and won't allow me to look straight up."
  2905. > Hefting the huge thing off of his shoulder, he gently places it down on the ground and crouches down to get a solid grip.
  2906. > "... Let me know if you see him before me, Corporal."
  2907. > Both of you start to scan the sky, searching for Lieutenant Kilfeather.
  2908. > And Glamerspear is out there searching for him, too.
  2909. > His last two strikes were from down low, and he escaped from down low last time as well.
  2910. > Something tells you that this time he'll be using the cloud cover.
  2911. > That's when you spot him.
  2912. "There, sir, two o'clock, very high!"
  2913. > He follows your hoof to where Icepone is coming in for another attack run.
  2914. > At this distance, he's on Glamerspear in seconds, crashing into her shield while she was looking completely the other way.
  2915. > Anonymous stands up again with the enormous device in his hands.
  2916. > He has to swing his arms just to bring it up to his eyes, and you see him lean back from the weight of it.
  2917. > You doubt he'll be able to hold it very steady, or for very long.
  2918. > There's a ticking noise while he twists a ring on the right barrel, following Kilfeather's retreat up into the sky.
  2919. > Eventually, the pegasus is completely out of your sight, although Anonymous still seems to be following him.
  2920. > Seconds stretch out as you wait for the next step.
  2921. > That's when Anonymous bellows out a command in a voice louder than all the drill sergeants at Fort Horseshoe Bend put together.
  2924. > Glamerspear turns to face you both, and the look on her face is one of utter confusion.
  2926. Suggested background music: (Jan Dusek and Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer - 'This is War', from 'ArmA 3: Malden' [2017])
  2928. > You shoot her an angry glare and point out North with one hoof, then sweep out seven o'clock with the second.
  2929. > She seems to get it, reorienting her body with the polar axis and scanning the sky behind her for her target.
  2931. > He's still way beyond visual range, but Glamerspear still has her shield up.
  2932. "Sir, you'll want her to lower her shields until he gets too close."
  2933. > "SHIELDS DOWN!"
  2934. > Out in the field, the unicorn's shield instantly drops.
  2936. > You hear the Royal Engineer grunt as he takes a step to rotate in place.
  2937. > He rolls his shoulders and tries to brace himself.
  2939. > "Naw, naw, EIGHT O'CLOCK, yeah! EIGHT O'CLOCK, RANGE: YOUR BUTT!"
  2940. > "Six o'clock!"
  2941. > "Twelve o'clock!"
  2942. > Over on at the bridge, the rest of Kilfeather's squadron have cottoned on to what the Royal Engineer is doing, and are trying to run interference.
  2943. > They're loud, but even if they all worked together as a chorus, you doubt they could match the lungs of the Royal Engineer.
  2945. > This must be it; he's on the deck at a thousand metres and popping up to gain some elevation before the final dive.
  2947. > As loud as Anonymous is, there's no way Kilfeather should have any idea he's been spotted.
  2948. > When he gets a little closer, maybe he'll even think he's hit the jackpot, what with Glamerspear's shield being down.
  2950. > That announcement is followed by another groan.
  2951. > Anonymous' arms are starting to shake under the weight.
  2952. > But it looks like Glamerspear's spotted her target.
  2953. > There's something funny going on above her head, though.
  2954. > Where there should be three or four waiting magical spear-tips, you can see twenty.
  2955. > And more are popping in to join them.
  2956. > Is she all right?
  2962. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and how in Equestria can one creature be so loud?
  2963. > You're not so much hearing the Royal Engineer as you are feeling his voice somehow echo inside your skull.
  2964. > Some kind of magic?
  2965. > Either way, thanks to him and those goofy big binoculars, you're finally drawing a bead on Kilfeather on his way in.
  2966. > At this range, he's still little more than a spec, but it's a spec that's getting bigger by the second.
  2967. > This is it, he's trying for a medium entry into a dive, circling around where he thinks you don't see him.
  2968. > A three-round burst won't be enough.
  2969. > Four rounds won't do.
  2970. > Even five is just too few.
  2971. > There won't be any targets after this one, so you break the normal rules of engagement and pour every drop of energy you've got left into this volley.
  2972. > It's got to be one, single, glorious alpha strike to end the fight in one fell blow.
  2975. > Five hundred metres is your maximum effective range.
  2976. > Should you fire when he hits the limit?
  2977. > Or take a chance and wait until he's closer and it'll be even harder for him to dodge?
  2978. > He can close a hundred metres in the blink of an eye.
  2979. > You settle on four hundred -- at that range, he'll just barely have gotten a decent look at you, while he'll be a decent target in your optics.
  2980. > Meanwhile, for ammunition, all you can think is 'more, more, more', loading up spear after spear.
  2981. > You don't even want to look up; there are probably thirty or more rounds up there ready to go.
  2983. > Any second now...
  2984. > Your breathing becomes laboured and your vision starts to blur.
  2985. > You blink rapidly to clear the haze, but it doesn't go away.
  2986. > And the haze is... purple!
  2987. > Oh, buck, are you manaburning yourself?
  2988. > "FIVE-FIFTY!!"
  2989. > Wait... just how many rounds did you load?
  2990. > You don't dare break eye contact with your target for even a second.
  2991. > But you start to feel a crushing weight on your back.
  2992. > "FIVE HUNDRED!"
  2993. > The physical consequences of severely overloading your horn don't matter right now.
  2994. > You'll deal with the manaburn blowback after you get this shot off.
  2996. > "FOUR HUNDRED!"
  2999. Required watching: (Centurion C-RAM engages mortar on test range; go full-screen and fast-forward to 0:40)
  3001. > In your magnified targeting view, you watch what must be *thousands* of spear-tips go hurling towards Kilfeather.
  3002. > You're completely deafened by the effect, and you can feel your stomach turning from the manaburn recoil.
  3003. > Oh, you are going to feel bad in a second or two.
  3004. > But not as bad as Valiant probably feels right now.
  3005. > Hundreds of rounds fly around him, but hundreds more thunder home, crashing into his body and armour.
  3006. > In the blink of an eye, his sabots are pounded straight off of his hooves.
  3007. > He can barely get his forelegs up in time to cover his face, before his criniere is shredded and his helmet goes tumbling off.
  3008. > Meanwhile, what were a glorious pair of feathered wings have been replaced with nothing more than two fleshy stalks and a white puff of smoke.
  3009. > More telekinetic rounds slice up the straps of his pectoral piece and send it hurtling off behind him.
  3010. > Now it's the sheer weight of all those spear-tips, blunted by the protective field of the MXP totem, as he's involuntarily spun sideways by their cumulative impacts.
  3011. > And the tail end of the biggest anti-air barrage Equestria's ever seen slams into his left flank, utterly destroying his flanchard armour.
  3012. > Something desperately wants to escape from your insides.
  3013. > You swallow it back down to see things out.
  3014. > It only takes a few seconds for Valiant 'Icepone' Kilfeather to drop to the ground, and he goes down hard.
  3015. > What little remained of his armour plating goes careening off as he tumbles sideways through the field, like a barrel flung from Canterlot's highest peak.
  3016. > Finally, he comes to a stop, and he doesn't get up.
  3018. > YES!! Got you, you sucker!
  3019. > Uh-oh, your friend from down below starts knocking again, and you keel over forwards.
  3024. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and, with your hooves held to your ears, you are watching your victorious unicorn comrade puke her very guts out.
  3025. > Holy Celestia, how can one pony even have that much inside them?
  3026. > Did she eat the *entire* buffet at breakfast this morning?
  3027. > But at least she's still standing.
  3028. > Mostly.
  3029. > What's more important, that enormous volley, which was probably loud enough to be heard all the way back in Canterlot, seems to have utterly annihilated Lieutenant Kilfeather.
  3030. > The humour squad over at the bridge all collectively have their jaws on the ground in shock.
  3031. > To your left, Anonymous is flat on his back, knocked over by the report of Glamerspear's incredible attack.
  3032. > Cradling the immense coincidence-rangefinder binoculars, he struggles to his feet, then slings them over his shoulder.
  3033. > The Royal Engineer takes a moment to survey the scene of carnage and sickness before him.
  3034. > "Corporal, are you absolutely certain that 'totem' is protecting everypony?"
  3035. > You nod.
  3036. "Believe me, sir, things get just as brutal during the MXP Games, and nopony winds up away with anything worse than aches and pains. Although, I've never seen a unicorn suffer third-degree acute mana poisoning under its effects before..."
  3037. > You keep your eyes on Glamerspear, making sure she's okay.
  3038. > After throwing up more than enough to fill up what would surely be Equestria's most disgusting swimming pool, you watch her finally catch her breath.
  3039. "... It must be working, because under normal circumstances, she'd be in so much pain that she wouldn't be able to stand up."
  3040. > Taking a deep breath of exasperation, Anonymous lifts his hat and wipes his brow.
  3041. > "Well, that's two. Let's see if Sparkshower can make it three. In the meantime, I'm going to put these bloody things away before I damage them."
  3043. > Slowly, he trudges off towards the edge of the road.
  3044. "Sir, you might as well call the carriage back. We've earned the right to continue on our way, at least."
  3045. > "Good idea, Corporal."
  3046. > Hefting the heavy weight up further on his shoulder, he puts two fingers up to his mouth and blows a sharp whistle.
  3047. > Down by the tents, your two carriage-pullers look up, see him beckoning them back, and then start to hitch themselves back up to the coach.
  3048. > Out in the field, you see Glamerspear wipe her mouth with a hoof scarcely cleaner than what she was wiping.
  3049. > Well, that's two of you covered in muck, now.
  3050. > All things considered, you came out light with just some bruises, dust, and mud.
  3051. > Glamerspear's going to need to park herself in the Hobble river for a good long time to get rid of that.
  3052. > Now that she's done, though, she doesn't head for the shore.
  3053. > Instead, she goes galloping straight towards the tip of the enormous, smouldering gash that the defeated Lieutenant Kilfeather has torn in the ground.
  3054. > Looks like she took off too fast and too soon, because she hunches over again and gives a little encore performance.
  3055. > And then she's off again, paying no heed to what her body is trying to tell her.
  3056. > Once she reaches Kilfeather, you see her horn light up.
  3057. > That's an extraordinarily risky manoeuvre after what has just happened, but it seems she's all out of sick for now.
  3058. > And besides, all she does with it is pick up some piece of his armour that landed a few metres away.
  3059. > It's his helmet -- completely wrecked, and twisted into an almost unrecognizable form, but the little remaining bit of the decorative brush gives it away.
  3060. > Glamerspear slowly walks back towards the road, holding her prize.
  3061. > For a pony whose face, neck, chest, and hooves are covered in barf, she looks unbelievably pleased with herself.
  3063. > You turn to look at Anonymous, who is looking up at the Western sky as he waits for the coach to return.
  3064. > Just how far up there did Sparkshower and Joker get?
  3065. > Will you even be able to see them from down here?
  3070. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you are so close to the clouds you can already feel the mist.
  3071. > But as a result, Joker has redoubled his efforts to stop you.
  3072. > Trying to smash your feathers wasn't enough; now he was attacking your wing-arms themselves.
  3073. > But even as he managed to evade your counter-attacks, the fight was not going his way.
  3074. > When he struck at the outer edge of your wings, your relaxed posture meant that he did no damage.
  3075. > When he struck at the base at your wing-shoulders, all he got was a hoof-full of your armoured epaulets.
  3076. > "Golly-gee, little-filly. We're almost in the clouds, how about that?"
  3077. > Another slam attack from below is easily deflected by the thick greaves on your forelegs, and Joker goes darting off to the side as you poke your spear in his direction.
  3078. > "... You'd better spit out your name before we get up in there, or else how are we going to play hide-and-seek?"
  3079. > Joker's frustration was obvious from his voice.
  3080. > And from the manner of his flight, too.
  3081. > Gone were the big boom-and-zoom attacks.
  3082. > Now he was using short controlled flaps to dodge your spear attacks and get inside your guard.
  3083. > But once he got there, his strikes, no longer backed up by much momentum, were even more ineffective than before.
  3084. > And, though it certainly startled you at first, you were through being terrified by this miscreant scum.
  3085. > As Joker darted in, and then ducked away from your spear once again, backing off to find a new angle, a loose puff floats by and gives you pause.
  3086. > If he's no longer a threat, do you even need to hide in the clouds?
  3087. > Wouldn't it be better to invite him to keep up his pointless attacks, and tire him out more quickly?
  3088. > True, there's the threat to your wings, but so what?
  3090. > Your position in the Royal Guard required you to maintain class 'A' flight skill with a minimum of a level 7 endurance rating, and at your last examination you beat that and scored a 10!
  3091. > And an A-10 like you was supposed to be able to make it back to base on just half a wing.
  3092. > What good was Joker's required AAA flight skill doing him now? And his MOS only required level 5 endurance rating.
  3093. > You were tired and terrified in the start, trying to gain altitude as quickly as possible, but now, taking things more slowly had left your wing-muscles feeling far more comfortable, despite the sting from the earlier effort.
  3094. > Meanwhile, Joker was looking pretty ragged.
  3095. > He could still turn on a ten-bit-piece, but only at slow speeds.
  3096. > Joker circle-strafes around in front of you, sizing you up.
  3097. > Even as you watch him warily, spear held close, something else catches your eye behind him.
  3098. > Something big, and dark, and very puffy.
  3099. > And wet!
  3100. > That pillar-shaped cumulonimbus cloud was raining, over there!
  3101. > You wouldn't mind a little shower to cool down right now.
  3102. > As brisk as the air was at this altitude, you had taken off your caparison to avoid damaging it in the fight, and the sun, when it shone through the clouds, really warmed up your armour.
  3103. > But maybe there's somepony up here with you who could use a taste of what that cloud had to offer as well.
  3104. > Joker seems to have given up on his rapid-fire-hits tactics for now; he's just continuing to circle you threateningly.
  3105. > Is he worn out, or just waiting for a moment to strike?
  3106. > You decide to check which it is, and make a move towards the rain-cloud.
  3108. > Looking over your shoulder, you can see him following behind you, but it doesn't look like he's ready for another attack quite yet.
  3109. > Maybe this is really it?
  3110. > Is he actually tired?
  3111. > "Oh, are we turning it into a race now, little filly? Alright, I'm game!"
  3112. > Not so tired that he won't stop talking, apparently.
  3113. > Well, maybe that's enough, though!
  3114. > Pumping your wings, you raise the stakes, and your speed.
  3115. > Time for this nightmare to end!
  3117. Suggested background music: (Cheap Trick - 'Mighty Wings', from 'Top Gun' [1985])
  3119. > Holding your spear close, tip forwards, you accelerate towards the towering column before you.
  3120. > Behind you, Joker is close on your tail, wearing a grin.
  3121. > Is he enjoying the thrill of the chase?
  3122. > Good!
  3123. > Get in close, 'Joker', because it's time to show you what a real airborne warrior can do!
  3125. > There's a mighty rumble from the cloud before you, like a groan of anticipation.
  3126. > Perhaps sensing that something's not right, Joker starts to hang back.
  3127. > Is he afraid to dive into a storm?
  3128. > Some pegasus!
  3129. > Did he never even serve with AWACS, the Airborne Weather And Climate Service?
  3130. > Either way, having him stay back won't suit your plans at all!
  3131. > You call back over your shoulder.
  3132. "You want my name, 'Joker'?..."
  3133. > Flapping your tail like a lure, you hold your spear up high.
  3134. "... Well, come and get it! ..."
  3135. > Lowering your weapon again, you power towards the cloud.
  3136. "... Or are you all build-up and no punch-line?"
  3137. > That certainly got his attention.
  3138. > He grits his teeth and powers forward after you.
  3139. > "Oh, I'm going to get your name, little filly!"
  3140. > In just a few seconds, he's right behind you again.
  3141. > "... You want to get to that cloud? Alright, let's go!"
  3142. > Perhaps as an intimidation tactic, he bats at your tail.
  3143. > "... In there, nopony will be able to see what I'm going to do to you, ha-ha-ha!"
  3144. > Just keep coming, buster, and you'll get what's coming to you.
  3145. > The pillar of thunderous rain looms closer.
  3146. > It won't be long now.
  3148. > Everything depends on making the perfect turn.
  3149. > You grip your spear tightly and tuck your legs in, reducing your moment of inertia.
  3150. > Another grumble from the storm-cloud, and this time it's deafeningly close.
  3151. > But this time, Joker pays the warning signs no heed, enraged by your taunt.
  3152. > As the first stray puffs of misty clouds start to pass you by, you tuck your wings in, reducing your speed.
  3153. > Your pursuer matches your move, holding back rather than overshooting you.
  3154. > Is it a lingering fear of the storm-cloud?
  3155. > Or is it because he knows he can't do a darn thing to your armour?
  3156. > Either way, after you fly through another big poof-ball cloud, breaking his line-of-sight, you suddenly power forward again.
  3157. > All you need is to get a little bit ahead of him...
  3158. > As soon as he passes through the cloud, he sees the distance you've opened up.
  3159. > "Oh, so it's stop-and-go tricks in the clouds? I'm gonna come over there and make you scream your name for me!"
  3160. > Now!
  3161. > You splay your wings wide and bank over into a sharp 180-degree turn to face him.
  3162. "My name..."
  3163. > Seeing his chance to strike at your unprotected face, Joker lunges forwards.
  3165. > As you come about, you thrust your spear at him.
  3166. > At the apex of your swing, you let go.
  3167. > Instantly reacting, he swings one of his forehooves to bat away the now-unattended weapon.
  3168. > But just before his sabot connects, he notices that you *also* kicked out behind you.
  3169. > And his eyes go wide, his face turning to horror.
  3170. "... is ARTEMIS SPARKSHOWER!"
  3171. > As your hoof connects with the cloud behind you, his sabot connects with your spear.
  3172. > -- The spear whose metal shaft is still poking a solid five hooves into the storm-cloud proper.
  3173. > Agitated by your kick, the towering column of water and electricity lashes out in anger.
  3174. > And the closest conduit is none other than Joker, thanks to your metal lightning-rod of a weapon.
  3175. > Sparks crackle below you, and you shut your eyes, anticipating what's to come.
  3176. > There's a furious crash and a deafening thunderclap, both accompanied by a blinding flash of light.
  3177. > When you unclench your eyes, Joker is rocketing backwards away from you, hurtling towards the ground in a flaming fireball.
  3178. > Yeah, take that!
  3179. > Before it can fall too far, you duck down and grab hold of your weapon once more.
  3180. > Holy thundershowers, did you just win?!
  3181. "Woooooo!"
  3186. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and there's a fireball headed for the alfalfa field in front of you.
  3187. > Oh, you pray that isn't Sparkshower.
  3188. > Just before it crashes into the ground, the flames burn themselves out, and you catch a glimpse of purple.
  3189. > That's not Sparkshower.
  3190. > Coming in at a forty-five-degree angle, the smouldering remains of Kilfeather's second-in-command slam into the field before you with a gritty thud, throwing up an enormous plume of dirt, gravel, and greenery.
  3191. > "That's three for three."
  3192. > Beside you, the Royal Engineer has traded the massive naval-issue coincidence-rangefinder gunnery binoculars for a simple pair of light reconnaissance ones, and he saw the whole thing in close-up view.
  3193. > He turns up to the sky, where something golden and shiny is descending after Joker.
  3194. > "... And here comes Specialist Sparkshower. She appears to be unharmed."
  3195. > "Awright, nice one, Sparks!"
  3196. > Behind you, Glamerspear pumps a soggy hoof in the air, and crams another saltine cracker in her mouth.
  3197. > After taking Icepone's helmet as her personal trophy, she'd dived into the Hobble river for a bath, and then raided the supply tents for salty snacks to replenish her electrolytes.
  3199. > Anonymous walks away from the carriage, towards the bridge, and the two of you follow after in a right echelon, leaving Sparkshower's original spot in the 'V' open.
  3200. > By the time you're standing before the totem, and what remains of the air-defence squadron, Sparkshower's returned with a huge grin on her face, taking up her airborne position.
  3201. > "Well, gentlecolts, I must say, for my part it's been an honour and a privilege to participate in this ancient Equestrian martial tradition..."
  3202. > Sullen and shell-shocked faces stare back at him.
  3203. > "... I'm sure that my retainers feel the same way."
  3204. > You don't say anything, but behind you on your right, Glamerspear spits out a cracker and pipes up.
  3205. > "Yeah! We were in it to win it! By Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer *LORD* Anonymous and his Equestrian Life Guards!"
  3206. > Sparkshower chimes in right after her.