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MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 2

By TheManFromAnotherTime
Created: 18th December 2020 12:48:02 AM

  1. "Everyday Life With Guardsmares"
  2. by The Man From Another Time
  3. themanfromanothertime@gmail.com
  4.  
  5. Written for the Royal Guard Mare thread on /mlp/
  6.  
  7. FAQ & Locations/Character List: pastebin.com/QH8Mwutm
  8. Character art: imgur.com/a/IEcnJ (characters in order of appearance; possible spoiler warning)
  9.  
  10. CHAPTER 2
  11.  
  12. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you don't really know what to feel right now.
  13. > Her Majesty Princess Luna of Equestria is here, in intimate company with your Very Important Pony (who isn't actually a pony), the Royal Engineer Anonymous.
  14. > Even though there's barely more than ten ponies in the room, you don't feel the royal *Presence* which has so awed every other pony lucky enough to meet her in private.
  15. > She's even been avoiding Anonymous' gaze.
  16. > And now she says she's here to apologize to him?
  17. > Though he retains his composure, the Royal Engineer wears a quizzical look.
  18. > "I'm afraid Your Majesty has me at a loss. I don't recall being inconvenienced or discomfited recently in any manner."
  19. > Luna smiles apologetically.
  20. > "Thou art too kind, to downplay things so. But surely thou dost not pretend to have suffered no embarrassments or disruptions since Monday?"
  21. > "No, Ma'am..."
  22. > Anonymous glances around the room, looking at you and the rest of the quaternion.
  23. > "... Unless they've been concealed from me?"
  24. > That last question was directed at you, and since you also aren't quite sure what Her Majesty is getting at, you shake your head.
  25. "No, sir!"
  26. > The Princess of the Moon briefly frowns in your direction, then turns to Sergeant First Class Ebonshield.
  27. > "Stellar Ebonshield, is this true?"
  28. > What, Her Majesty doesn't believe you?
  29. > You feel a little insulted, but as the batpony bows her head to answer, you realize that no, this is something else.
  30. > "Gracious Mother, there may have been some friction between members of the retinue of the Great Lord, but this has been kept out of the sight."
  31. > That statement seems to surprise Princess Luna, and she's taken aback by it.
  32. > And what a curious way of addressing the Princess in the first place...
  33. > "Oh... Well, in that case..."
  34.  
  35. > Shifting in her seat, Her Majesty turns to address you face-to-face.
  36. > As you look her in her dark turquoise eyes, you feel... something.
  37. > A tingling in the back of your neck.
  38. > "... We should address our apologies first to the forespony of thy quaternion."
  39. > She lifts an eyebrow ever so slightly, and the tingling feeling creeps up behind your head.
  40. > You feel a strange compulsion to introduce yourself.
  41. "Corporal Bound, Your Majesty."
  42. > The head-bow you give along with your name was automatic, but you feel like the answer itself was drawn out of you, almost pumped out of you, like water from a well.
  43. > And she's still looking your way.
  44. > But she shuts those captivating eyes of hers, and gives you a nod in return that fills you with warmth.
  45. > "Corporal Bound, thou hast our sincerest apologies for the disharmony and the awkwardness which were imposed upon thee..."
  46. > Princess Luna opens her eyes again, and almost the moment she does, the Royal Engineer's chambers feel like they've grown darker.
  47. > A cloud must have passed in front of the sun outside, you suppose.
  48. > Except you can still see light streaking in through the windows.
  49. > "... Perhaps an explanation for how this came to pass will put us back in thy good graces."
  50. > The far wall, above and behind the short partition divider, grows darker as she speaks, and almost reflexively, you swallow.
  51. > But Princess Luna returns her gaze to the Royal Engineer, and the shadows seem to recede.
  52. > He's still sitting there, his coffee-cup on its saucer in his hands, calm and straight-faced, but you can tell he's as confused as ever.
  53. > "... Anonymous, when our beloved sister told us that she had assigned thee a retinue of guards, we were absolutely furious. Not because we felt thou wert undeserving -- far from it! In truth, we had recommended that such an honour be bestowed upon thee some time ago."
  54.  
  55. > Pausing for a moment, the Princess of the Moon takes a sip.
  56. > "... We were upset, because at that prior meeting, we had also proposed that one of thy retinue should be a batpony. This proposal our sister had forgotten when the time had finally come."
  57. > It almost looks like the Royal Engineer wants to interject -- and it wouldn't be a surprise, because he has no idea of the significance of her first statement.
  58. > But your VIP merely shuffles slightly in his seat, waiting for Her Majesty to finish.
  59. > He'll probably have his explanation by the end of it, anyways.
  60. > And, for that matter, so will you.
  61. > "... She agreed that if thou shouldst require a fourth member, then that one may be as we had suggested, and we hastily made preparations to ensure that such a candidate be ready to enter thy service. But after issuing orders, we were pulled away to deal with other affairs, and only now, having returned, we find that thou hadst already made such a request, and that our servants did duly carry out their instructions in our absence, assigning you Stellar Ebonshield without us having had the opportunity to make proper introductions."
  62. > Sighing, Her Majesty looks at each of you guards in turn, before settling upon the Royal Engineer.
  63. > "... And for that, we are truly sorry."
  64. > There's a pause in the conversation, and then the Royal Engineer leans forward, placing his drink on the table before him.
  65. > "Your Majesty, I feel that there's still something I'm missing here."
  66. > Before he can elaborate, she interrupts.
  67. > "Yes, there is, and it is for this reason that thou wert the ideal subject for what is, we must admit, an experiment of sorts..."
  68.  
  69. > Once again, she scans the room.
  70. > "... Thou art unaware of the history surrounding batponies. Even the members of thy retinue, I wager, know only rumours and mythology, and the Royal Guard's orders enforcing their segregation from Equestrian society."
  71. > Nopony moves a muscle, which she takes as a confirmation of her statement.
  72. > "... It was our intention that you all should have received the truth first, before then receiving a batpony in your midst. That moment has passed, which is our regret, so we have come to make amends, and to hastily try to repair our error."
  73. > Fixing her gaze on the Royal Engineer once more, she continues, but, even though she's not looking at you, you can feel the tingling sensation at your nape again.
  74. > "... But it was also our intention to consult with thee before proceeding, as well. So, we ask thee, Anonymous, Royal Engineer of Equestria: if thou hast now any objections to taking on the batpony Ebonshield as thy servant, speak them, lest secrets be shared which cannot be taken back."
  75. > You can feel the sensation growing, and you almost, *almost*, want to answer Princess Luna's question yourself.
  76. > Shaking his head, the Royal Engineer shrugs his shoulders.
  77. > "I have no objections. Sergeant Ebonshield has demonstrated no flaws, as far as I am able to judge. But, if Your Majesty will excuse me, I feel as though I don't know what I'm getting into."
  78. > Another cloud passes in front of the sun, and this time it's the ceiling that seems to grow dark and distant.
  79. > But the colours in the room remain as vivid as ever, instead of turning grey with the sky.
  80.  
  81. > "Didst thou know into what thou wert getting when thou didst proclaim thy intention to 'industrialize' Equestria?"
  82. > The brilliant blue sky visible outside the windows turns a darker hue, and you can almost swear you see stars out.
  83. > Now, in the middle of the day?
  84. > Strange.
  85. > Stranger still, your VIP seems completely unfazed by the development.
  86. > "I had some idea, though I've been surprised on several occasions, and this with the task only beginning. But I believed, and still believe, in its purpose: improving the lives of everypony in Equestria."
  87. > You struggle to listen to the conversation, but you watch, unbelieving, as the starry dark sky bleeds through the windows, and begins to creep in along the ceiling of the Royal Engineer's chambers.
  88. > There's a motion in front of you, and you see Princess Luna's mane bob in the air as she leans forward.
  89. > "That belief is a powerful force, Anonymous. We ask thee to believe in our purpose as well, for it is nothing less than the rectification of a terrible and ancient sundering of Equestrian society."
  90. > Beside you, you hear a faint clinking of armour, and you see Specialist Sparkshower shuffling her hooves.
  91. > Although she's also trying to focus on what's happening in front of her, you see her nervously look up at the ceiling.
  92. > Even Glamerspear, across the room, is shooting glances upwards.
  93. > Only Ebonshield seems to be either ignorant or unconcerned of the newly-ethereal nature of the roof above her head.
  94. > You feel your attention being drawn away from the mystery and its impact on your squadmates, and back towards the two sofas and the coffee-table between them.
  95. > The Royal Engineer is nodding.
  96. > "Then I will believe, Your Majesty. Please, continue."
  97.  
  98. > A hum starts to become audible, though you can't place the source.
  99. > It's low, and it pulses in slow, rhythmic waves, like a force surrounding the chambers.
  100. > Princess Luna, joint ruler of Equestria, sits back up straight in her seat, and her ephemeral mane follows with the same lethargy as the sonorous noise.
  101. > "As Royal Guards, the ponies of your retinue are already keenly aware that anything they should learn about batponies is not to be shared. As a member of the Blue Council, we ask that you too, swear to secrecy in this matter."
  102. > Incredibly, with the ceiling disappearing into the sky, which is completely the wrong shade of blue for almost noon, not to mention being full of stars, *and* the humming noise now surrounding the room, your VIP finds himself able to casually gather up his drink and biscuits before replying.
  103. > "Your Majesty has my word."
  104. > With a startling snap, the hum ceases, and the ceiling disappears utterly, only for the walls to be consumed by the starscape as well.
  105. > You are now, for all intents in purposes, outside and under the night sky, though everything and everypony is as illuminated as if in a midday sun.
  106. > Except for Princess Luna, who glows with her own light, her blue coat radiant, her starry mane brilliant, her white crescent cutie mark blinding.
  107. > So captivating is the experience, that you have to consciously think to breathe.
  108.  
  109. Recommended background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dwbr9EL0UJM (Vangelis - 'Tales of the Future', from 'Blade Runner' [1982])
  110.  
  111. > The Princess of the Night speaks, and the stars above seem to echo her words like a chorus.
  112. > "You all know the story of our banishment and our return; it, like so much other history, is written into the very stones and glass of the palace of Canterlot. But like those other legends, many details have been omitted..."
  113. > Your sovereign looks wistfully up at the stars above, her eyes darting from one to the next, as if acknowledging old friends.
  114. > "... When we, in our bitterness, became Nightmare Moon and rebelled, we did not do so alone. Though most ponies shunned the moon, a few joined in our reverence for the night, and secretly preached our creed, growing in number until they were a force to be reckoned with. It was then that we struck, and they, calling themselves the League of Stars, followed us into rebellion and sedition. While we sought to wrest power from our sister through magic, they marched on the Castle of the Two Sisters, besieging its defenders."
  115. > Inexorably, your eyes are drawn to the heavens above, and you feel yourself fixating on one star after the other -- and you *know* in your heart as you jump from one to the next, that you are following Luna's gaze.
  116. > And the *stars* seem to know it as well, for they twinkle, one by one, as if presenting and introducing themselves.
  117. > "... In the end, we were defeated when our sister harnessed the Elements of Harmony, and our followers could not stand where we had fallen. We were banished to the moon, but to our followers, Celestia offered a choice: repent, and renounce our cause, or else join us in exile."
  118.  
  119. > You take a breath -- it feels like the first one you've had in minutes, even as the heavenly tour carries on.
  120. > "... Many turned back to the light of the sun, and the harmony of day and night. But some refused her amnesty, and they chose to follow us to the end."
  121. > The stars cloud your eyes, filling your vision, and it all culminates in an almost-blinding flash that forces you to shut them for a moment.
  122. > When you open them again, you find yourself free to look around once more.
  123. > Except that the stars have joined you -- falling from the sky like snowflakes.
  124. > There's a muffled gasp from nearby, and Sparkshower must be seeing the same thing you are, because her eyes follow the mysterious descending brilliance as well.
  125. > "... The League was made up of all three kinds of ponies -- earth, pegasus, and unicorn, for we had followers amongst all of them. Though faithful, none of them were suited to life on moon, harsh mistress that she is. So, with our final gasp of power, we prepared them, and rewarded them, blending their essences to erase all distinction, and creating a new race perfectly adapted to the eternal night that was our objective: the batponies. With only the briefest glimpse of what we had wrought, we collapsed into torpor, fated to slumber for a thousand years until prophecy decreed that we should awaken and renew our nightmarish quest."
  126.  
  127. > Collecting on the floor like brilliant flecks of dust, the stars tumble from the heavens in uncountable numbers, until the ground is as radiant as the heavens above.
  128. > And at the centre of everything, Princess Luna still stands out like a beacon, eclipsing all other sources of light.
  129. > "... While we slept, numb to the universe, these ponies built their lives on the moon. They were no longer the League of Stars -- they were the Children of the Stars, and we were their Mother. Their society was founded on one goal to the exclusion of all other considerations: preparing for the day when their creator would rise up, and lead them to triumph over the hated sun, and all of its 'prisoners' - Celestia, the other ponies, and all of Equestria."
  130. > You inhale, and you smell the cool air of the night, fresh and crisp.
  131. > The luminous star-dust comes rushing into your nose, as well -- but it doesn't irritate or make you sneeze.
  132. > Instead, it starts to make you glow, too.
  133. > "... The day finally came, not too long ago. And we did indeed rise up, full of fury and wrath, descending upon Equestria and triumphing over our sister. But while the Children of the Stars assembled themselves and made ready to be received as the guardians of a new order, we were defeated -- and the bitterness which had infected us was drawn out like poison from a wound."
  134. > All around you, everypony -- Sparkshower, Glamerspear, Ebonshield, Anonymous, even Luna's guards -- is glowing.
  135. > Luminous beings surround you, and you feel a profound and sublime sense of serenity and peace.
  136. > "... With that second summoning of the Elements of Harmony, the entire purpose of batpony society was upended; their creator -- their deity -- embraced the harmony that she had once sought to destroy. And a thousand years of their work suddenly came to nought."
  137.  
  138. > Princess Luna sighs, and although it's utterly impossible, it feels like she's looking everyone in the eyes at the same time.
  139. > "... Their confusion, their struggles, and their suffering, are our burden, for we bear responsibility. It is no easy task to argue against a thousand years of history, to lead them with us back into the light. And Equestria is an obstacle to be surmounted as well, for the ponies who witnessed the event passed down legends and myths about those who had betrayed them."
  140. > It doesn't feel like you're breathing any more.
  141. > It doesn't feel like you even *need* to breathe.
  142. > It feels like the force of Luna's will alone would sustain you.
  143. > "... That is why we need thee, Anonymous. An outsider, unburdened by prejudice. And a reformer, seeking to make changes to society in thy own manner. In this small way, by taking one of their number as a retainer, thou mayest help us to bring those outcasts back into the light."
  144. > The harmony you feel overpowers all mortal wants and needs.
  145. > You close your eyes for just an instant, but when you open again, the scene you've witnessed -- no, that you've *experienced* -- fades before you.
  146. > You draw in breath, shallow at first, barely even moving your lungs, but then progressively growing deeper and deeper.
  147. > The lights on the ground fade, until you can see the patterned carpet once more.
  148. > The creatures in the room fade, too -- more slowly than the ground, the brilliance living on a while longer, as if fuelled by their life-force.
  149. > The sky closes up, and the ceiling comes back into view.
  150. > Outside, the midday sun comes out again, the windows radiating its heat and warmth.
  151.  
  152. > And in front of you, Anonymous, the Royal Engineer of Equestria, finishes his coffee and puts the cup down, licking his lips and having apparently eaten his biscuits, all while you were having a transcendental experience in the intimate presence of one of your nation's immortal sorcerer-queens.
  153. > "I'll do whatever I can, Your Majesty."
  154.  
  155.  
  156.  
  157.  
  158. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and this is the quietest your whole squad has ever been.
  159. > It's no surprise, though, considering the profound effect Princess Luna just had on all of you.
  160. > How had Anonymous managed to just carry on a normal conversation after that?
  161. > Was he that focused?
  162. > Or had he not even been affected?
  163. > And what about her guards!
  164. > Were they inured to it after so many experiences?
  165. > The questions gnaw at your mind as you unwrap the hayburger in front of you.
  166. > Her Majesty hadn't had anything specific for him to do -- she admitted to having enough troubles of her own just trying to figure out how to sway the holdouts to abandon the old ways.
  167. > All she wanted from him -- and, by extension, from you, Sparkshower, and Glamerspear -- was to try Ebonshield out.
  168. > See if a batpony could work.
  169. > Despite your previous pessimism, now that you had some of her backstory at least, you thought that maybe it could.
  170. > With no clear direction, the Royal Engineer had given you an extended lunch and even cancelled the Sergeant's afternoon shift, saying it would be better served allowing you all to get to know each other.
  171. > It was a good idea, you had to admit, and Ebonshield immediately brought up the proposal for some joint training.
  172. > Not a bad idea, either, although at the time, your head was swimming so full of questions that you didn't imagine you'd get anything productive done beside pumping the Sergeant for all of the inside details about batpony society.
  173. > After all, now you were in 'the know' about them, and Luna left a lot of details unspoken, simply telling 'Stellar Ebonshield' that she could freely share with you anything she wanted.
  174. > But since she still couldn't show her face -- or her wings -- around the canteen without causing a ruckus, Anonymous had suggested just ordering something in.
  175.  
  176. > When you informed him the Guard wouldn't normally pay for that, he said to put it on his account.
  177. > "The Princesses have given me a salary, though I can't fathom what for, since almost everything I could want is already provided. We might as well use some of that for you all to say 'hello' to each other anew."
  178. > And he wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, not even to his order that you take an unheard-of *two-hour* lunch break.
  179. > "I'll send off the letter myself. The postmaster's not even outside the palace walls."
  180. > So here you all were, sitting around the card-table in the common area of your shared living quarters, with a STAGECOACH(TM) double-hayburger-with-fries combo in front of each of you.
  181. > And there's a thousand questions you could ask.
  182. > About batpony society, about her childhood, her training.
  183. > About what happened up there when the news hit that Nightmare Moon was defeated.
  184. > Even about the *moon* itself.
  185. > What was it like up there?
  186. > The only real problem was: where to start?
  187. > Across the table from you, the no-longer-quite-so-mysterious batpony is about to take her first bite of the sandwich.
  188. > "So do you or don't you drink blood?"
  189. > And that idiot, 'shoe-as-buck, lead-cone-on-her-horn, spellbound Specialist sitting on your right decides to open her mouth and let the words flow out without thinking.
  190. > "Lily!!"
  191. > Even Sparkshower, on your left, scolds her for the question.
  192. > You shake your head.
  193. "For buck's sake, Glamerspear."
  194.  
  195. > But the target of your admonishment remains unrepentant.
  196. > "What? Isn't this tell-all time? Come on, Sparks, don't tell me you haven't been wondering it, too?"
  197. > Sparkshower shies away from the steely-eyed Ebonshield, embarrassed.
  198. > "Well... maybe a bit."
  199. > With a raised eyebrow, the Sergeant takes a big bite out of her burger, chewing it noisily in Glamerspear's face.
  200. > "Specialist Glamerspear, are you worried that I am later going to sneak into your bedroom and bite you on your neck?"
  201. > Finishing the mouthful, she grins.
  202. > "... Or are you worried that I already *have*?"
  203. > That just gets her cut-eye from the unicorn, and she reels back, laughing.
  204. > When she's done, she wipes a tear from her eye.
  205. > "No, Specialist, batponies do not drink blood. We eat food like you..."
  206. > The Sergeant lifts one hoof in the air.
  207. > "... But I do not blame you for thinking this, because we ourselves have promoted this legend, in order to promote fear. Intimidation is a powerful ally, no?"
  208. > After some more squinting to see if she's about to spit back out the mortal cuisine, Glamerspear relaxes her expression and gives a perfunctory nod, before settling into her own meal.
  209. > But Sparkshower's not going to let her off that easily.
  210. > "I *told* you that you were being ridiculous!"
  211. > Glamerspear leans both elbows on the table as she tries to manage eating the greasy burger without the use of her telekinesis.
  212. > "I'm just making sure, is all! Princess Luna said that ponies who fought a thousand years ago passed down legends, didn't she? Who's to say which ones are true or not, if we don't ask?"
  213. > The armoured pegasus sighs and rolls her eyes.
  214. > "Well, how about the fact that there's no *vampires* at all, anywhere?"
  215. > The unicorn leans forwards.
  216. > "There could be. There's vampire bats, after all."
  217. > You've heard enough.
  218. "Those are *fruit* bats, Glamerspear. And they just make a mess of orchards and berry patches."
  219.  
  220. > With a mouthful of hayburger, and the sandwich precariously perched on hooves that aren't entirely used to having to *hold* things, she just shrugs.
  221. > After a few seconds, you're back to your own thoughts.
  222. > What to ask next?
  223. > "So what *do* you eat? On the moon, I mean?"
  224. > Once again, the conversation has been steered by the loudest and least-restrained among you.
  225. > Ebonshield wipes her mouth and puts her sandwich back down.
  226. > "Some things can be made to grow there. Potatoes, cabbage, fava beans, peppers... Mushrooms grow underground, as well."
  227. > Reaching into her box of fries, she holds one up for everypony to see.
  228. > "... But everything winds up tasting dusty if you eat them as they are -- dusty, and dry. On the moon, we have to put ground hot peppers on all of the things just to make them edible. In the food, the heat is all you can taste; in the kitchen, the spice is all you can smell."
  229. > She shakes her head.
  230. > "... Things here in Equestria are much tastier. Especially the potatoes! I did not know they could be so delicious until I first came here!"
  231. > Popping the fry in her mouth, she appears to genuinely savour it, then glances around the table at everypony.
  232. > "... Do not let any batpony tell you otherwise -- they are filthy lying *bastardos* like that, claiming that the spices make the food better. Foolishness; the seasoning is just to cover the poor quality of the food."
  233. > Then she shrugs and goes for another.
  234. > "... But when this is all you have, you get used to this. And the hot sauces here are, I admit, by comparison quite bland."
  235. > On your left, Sparkshower is listening with eager interest, trying to smile while chewing.
  236. > On your right, Glamerspear is nodding, her head slightly cocked to better hear while she eats.
  237. > Well, at least everypony's getting along so far.
  238. > Even if Glam started with some nonsense, at least it broke the ice.
  239. > And there'll be plenty of time to find out answers to the big questions.
  240. > "Okay, but what do you *drink*?"
  241.  
  242. > Oh boy, here comes another hard-hitting question.
  243. > "We drink water? There is ice beneath the surface."
  244. > Hopefully, Glamerspear is running out of oral questions.
  245. > "... We make some liquors from the vegetables and fermented as well, of course."
  246. > That gets the saltine's attention.
  247. > "Oh, yeah?"
  248. > "Certainly. Gin, whiskey, and the like, usually from potatoes, are common. If you want something stronger, a shot of 70-proof 'Maestro Cazador', with his herbs and spices, serves as an after-supper *digestivo*."
  249. > Your out-on-the-town unicorn seems impressed and intrigued.
  250. > "Hunh. I wonder if that last one mixes well."
  251. > Ebonshield shrugs.
  252. > "If you are interested, I shall bring you a bottle from the rookery, and you may try for yourself."
  253. > And now Glamerspear is smiling -- the first time she's done that with the Sergeant, as far as you know.
  254. > "Aw yeah, drinks at the barracks, that's what I'm talking about!"
  255. > You're not sure if that's a great idea.
  256. > Actually, you're pretty sure it isn't.
  257. > But maybe just once... after you've all had some good physical training together today, a few drinks together would be a good idea.
  258. > The unicorn licks her lips and leans forward again.
  259. > "... What do you think of Equestrian liquor?"
  260. > Ebonshield finishes another bite of the hayburger.
  261. > "I cannot say that I have truly sampled them."
  262. > The junior soldier raises a hoof in confusion.
  263. > "But you've gone out clubbing twice already?"
  264. > Your batpony shrugs her shoulders.
  265. > "Oh, yes, but I do not really care much for the drinking. I am there for the colts, darling."
  266. > Tapping a hoof to her chin, she reflectively looks up at the ceiling.
  267. > "... You know, that one from  the night previous may not have been charming in the morning, but he was *very* drunk when I brought him home, and I always appreciate when the colts are still young and do not have the troubles performing from the alcohol, yes?"
  268. > Over on your left, Sparkshower almost chokes on her hayburger, and you see her cheeks go red.
  269.  
  270. > But Glamerspear just leans back, turning up her snout.
  271. > "I prefer older gentlecolts myself. The ones who know how to handle their drink... and their mare."
  272. > Typical answer, for a self-professed saltine.
  273. > Well, at least they won't be rivals over a colt if they ever find themselves at the same club.
  274. > Hmm, unless it's a particularly charming young and wealthy noblepony.
  275. > Ebonshield smiles.
  276. > "Then you may have them, Specialist Glamerspear, and leave all the bashful young studs for me. I enjoy the challenge of 'breaking in' the wild ones."
  277. > Glamerspear snorts.
  278. > "Yeah, what's the 'wildest' you've had to tame?"
  279. > Oh, no.
  280. > You are *not* spending meet-and-greet-your-batpony-comrade lunchtime discussing colts.
  281. > "A gentlemare does not kiss and tell, Specialist."
  282. > Yes, exactly that; shut this conversation down, Sergeant.
  283. > "... But anyways, I always think more of the ones that got away."
  284. > Damn it.
  285. > The pegasus on your left, her wings unfolded, leans in with her burger in her hooves.
  286. > "Like who?"
  287. > Et tu, Sparkshower?
  288. > Ebonshield grins.
  289. > "Well, for example, yesterday I propositioned a certain charming, well-dressed, and well-mannered young gentlecolt who looked like he could take a mare hard against the wall, and then all the way up. The kind of colt you could take to bed three times in one night, and he still wants more, the poor starving *potrito*. The kind who chomps at the bit and bites at the reins when you hold him back, and whinnies loudly when you let him loose."
  290. > As you chew, Sparkshower's wings seem to stretch out a little further.
  291. > Really?
  292. > Just talking euphemistically about sex does this to her?
  293. > When you talked to her about saltines and salt-licks, should you also have mentioned the birds and the bees?
  294.  
  295. > Meanwhile, Glamerspear's also on a different edge.
  296. > "Hah! Where'd you meet this wonderstud, Sarge? And tell me you at least got his name!"
  297. > Coyly, Ebonshield shrinks into her shoulders, wrapping her wings around her.
  298. > "Of course I spoke with him. He was a good conversationalist. I wonder also if he also knows how to 'talk the pillow'. You know, the experience is so much better when they know what to say, yes?"
  299. > Glamerspear chuckles and nods, but Sparkshower just leans in.
  300. > "What's... What's 'talk the pillow'?"
  301. > Okay, the pressing need to have some serious conversation aside, this is actually pretty funny.
  302. > You look down at your burger to avert your eyes, and you have to put a hoof up to your mouth to hide your sucked-in-lips, as you try to avoid laughing.
  303. > And Ebonshield takes Sparkshower's hoof in hers, like an unrestrained aunt explaining sexual liberation to a foal.
  304. > It's priceless.
  305. > "Oh, darling. This is when a colt whispers the things sweet in your ear -- on the subject of what the two of you are going to be doing later, back in bed."
  306. > If Sparkshower's wings open up any wider, they're going to knock something over.
  307. > And if she gets any redder, she'll have to have the coat colour on her ID card changed.
  308. > "Uh... And this colt, he did that? Even though he, uh... 'got away'?"
  309. > Sparkshower's new aunt shakes her head.
  310. > "Oh, no, Specialist. He only *looked* and *sounded* like he could, in my head. But sometimes, the imagination is better than the real thing. Perhaps he would not have been so good at this. Alas that I could not find out the truth. But perhaps I will see him again. And perhaps if he is not so good, I can teach him."
  311. > As the wheels in Sparkshower's head turn, Glamerspear intrudes further into the centre of the table, laying out a demanding hoof.
  312. > "Okay, so what did he look like?"
  313.  
  314. > Ebonshield once again plays at being coy.
  315. > "If I tell you what did he look like, then you will know exactly who this is."
  316. > The more she denies the unicorn, the hotter Glamerspear starts burning up inside.
  317. > It's fantastic; the Sergeant has read her perfectly.
  318. > Just like with the chewing-out yesterday, she definitely knows how to handle ponies.
  319. > So this is the best entertainment you've had in weeks.
  320. > You reach for your grape soda and take a drink through the straw.
  321. > "So tell me who it is, already!"
  322. > Finally, theatrically rolling her vertical-slit eyes, the batpony rolls her shoulders and folds her wings back up.
  323. > "Our VIP, Anonymous."
  324. > You don't see Sparkshower's jaw drop, or Glamerspear's eyes go wide.
  325. > You're too busy spitting your drink all over the table.
  326. > Choking, you wipe your mouth with your hoof.
  327. > Sergeant Ebonshield looks at you with a wry smile.
  328. > "... Yes, this was his reply also."
  329.  
  330.  
  331.  
  332.  
  333. > You are Isabelle Coquette, bodyguard to Galloway Bitsmount, Esquire, and you don't like the look of all this.
  334. > True, it was still early in the afternoon, and a bright and warm early spring day.
  335. > But to meet somepony in an shadowed alley behind a boarded-up mill, down in the lower tiers of Canterlot near the docks?
  336. > And for nefarious ends, at that?
  337. > Well, it didn't exactly fill you with cheer.
  338. > You hadn't even been there when your charge had met this 'Granny Nag' contact.
  339. > All you had to go on was the description provided by him and his foremost teamster, Phillip Songwell.
  340. > Which, to be fair, was certainly distinctive.
  341. > It still creeped you out, though.
  342. > "Coquette, stop looking about as if we're up to no good."
  343. > Apparently, your nervousness is showing.
  344. "Sorry, Mister Bitsmount."
  345. > Your employer, glancing sideways at you, nods his head at his more elderly employee.
  346. > "The same goes for you, Songwell. These ponies are professionals, from what I've heard. They won't be any trouble."
  347. > Then why are you here?
  348. > Actually, even if they *do* cause trouble, why are you here?
  349. > You're a bartender who had to occasionally serve as chucker-out for drunks and bums, not some kind of prize-fighter or military-trained bodyguard.
  350. > Your combat strategy exclusively revolves around heavy horseshoes and cold cocks.
  351. > And if that wasn't obvious to anyone serious from the way you moved, well, Bitsmount's idea of a 'guard outfit' would make it pretty clear.
  352. > This damn Prench maid outfit keeps riding up your flanks.
  353.  
  354. > You had to admit, it did a good job of showing off your plot -- but it crossed the limit of practicality, and skirted dangerously close to the edge of decency.
  355. > Really, you had to admit, you were just for show.
  356. > Much like Bitsmount himself, to be honest.
  357. > He seemed very confident he'd come up with a way to weasel out of his obligations to the state, but it could all crumble so easily.
  358. > And it's just a veneer over his unsavoury activities.
  359. > Oh, well.
  360. > It had all started so charmingly, when you'd had to give a colt a walloping because they'd gotten too hoofsy.
  361. > You were serving drinks at one of Bitsmount's big galas, and it turned out Galloway disliked the colt in question because he'd scooped up a mare before him.
  362. > So, he was pretty happy to see his drunken rival get their nose bucked in.
  363. > And he was all charm when he set his eyes on you.
  364. > Offered you a job as a bodyguard, with better pay than as a server.
  365. > There were some pretty obvious strings attached, but you were a big girl even then; you knew what he really wanted.
  366. > At least when he got bored of bedding you, he didn't fire you.
  367. > And he doesn't mind if you see anypony on the side, as long as you keep it discreet.
  368. > Like that stud George from a few nights ago.
  369. > Unf, that was a right and proper rutting he'd given you.
  370. > Had you worn out but still desperately thirsty for more, which in itself was pretty hot.
  371. > And although he had the look of a lecher, he'd been a gentlecolt about it, both before and after.
  372. > The next time Bitsmount travels to Canterlot, you should make sure to check if Mr. Mustang is in town with his entourage.
  373. > Assuming your employer escapes his forthcoming punishment, of course.
  374.  
  375. > Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you spot somepony who must surely be 'Granny Nag', at the far end of the alley, and coming this way.
  376. > She's exactly as she was described to you -- an elderly mare with milky-white eyes, grey hair, and old-fashioned noblepony's clothing in extremely poor repair.
  377. > If she looked any worse, you'd say she must live in the street.
  378. > But there was a kind of tidy to her that told you she had a bed somewhere.
  379. > Perhaps nothing more than a room in a boarding house, or a regular spot in a dosshouse.
  380. > And, as she approaches, you can see that her coat and clothes are ragged, yes, but still clean.
  381. > Not likely she would be able to manage that with just a hammock in a dormitory -- so, she had a boarding or lodging house at the very least.
  382. > Your employer has spotted her as well.
  383. > "There she is. Everypony act natural. Remember, I'm 'Eustace' and Songwell is 'Horace', and we're here to play cribbage."
  384. > The three of you all turn to face this contact into the black magic underground of Canterlot -- Bitsmount with confidence and a haughty air, Songwell with a heavy but determined heart, and yourself, with some trepidation about what, exactly your boss is getting everypony into.
  385. > 'Granny Nag', the decrepit old mare, walks up to where your group is standing.
  386. > For a blind pony, she sure came down that alley quickly.
  387. > Could it be an act?
  388. > Your employer opens his mouth.
  389. > "Good afternoon, Granny."
  390. > With a scowl on her face, she turns to look in the direction of his voice.
  391. > The scowl melts into a yellow-toothed grin.
  392. > "Oh, good afternoon, Eustace! And you too, Horace..."
  393. > She squints her cataract-filled eyes in your direction.
  394. > "... But who's this you've got with you?"
  395. > "Don't pay her any mind, Granny. She's just here to provide some protection. Can't be too safe in the streets these days, can you?"
  396.  
  397. > Granny continues to squint at you for a few seconds after he finishes, her wrinkled lips pursed together.
  398. > Then she licks them and turns away.
  399. > "No, no, no -- you're right Eustace, it's certainly dangerous out here at night like this."
  400. > At night?
  401. > She must be so blind she can't tell sunlight from moonlight.
  402. > Without another word, 'Granny' passes you all by, turns the corner, and heads down the side-alley, towards the back of the mill.
  403. > You hazard a glance at your employer and his other minion.
  404. > Songwell looks more nervous than ever, but Bitsmount just looks annoyed.
  405. > "Well, what are you waiting for, Coquette? Take the lead in following her."
  406. > With a deep breath, you trot away after your contact.
  407. > It only takes a few seconds to catch up with the shuffling geriatric, halfway down the alley.
  408. > Here, closer to the water-channel that powered this mill, you can still hear the creaking as its wheel turns pointlessly in the flow.
  409. > Just as you catch up with her, with the two colts close behind, she stops in front of a pair of cellar doors and, with a surprising strength for someone so old, pulls one of them open and hustles her way down it.
  410. > Stopping at the precipice, you can tell it's very dark down there.
  411. > There's a wet, musty smell coming up from the cellar, too.
  412. > Not to mention the somewhat disconcerting groan of old equipment as well.
  413. > "Come on, we haven't got all afternoon!"
  414. > Your employer is being his usual impatient self.
  415. > It's your job to see to his safety, though -- even in your limited capacity.
  416. > And this still smells wrong, but then again, where else are criminals against the state of Equestria going to hide?
  417. > In a gilt palace?
  418. > No, it's the cellar for the lot of you, and you resolve to push down the stairs into the darkness below.
  419.  
  420. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBE9qmucK7Y (Christopher Young - 'Hellbound Heart', from 'Hellraiser' [1987])
  421.  
  422. > But before you take the first step, there's a small flash of light, and a dash of sparks.
  423. > Granny Nag stands at the bottom of the cellar staircase, holding a freshly-lit candle in her mouth, and tossing a still-burning match on the floor.
  424. > "Here you are, dear. Come and take this from me, would you?"
  425. > Now that there's some light, you head down.
  426. > When you reach the bottom, she leans over and whispers in your ear.
  427. > "... Eustace, Horace, and I have been down this path so many times we know the way by touch alone, but a delicious little treat like you will want a little light to guide your way."
  428. > Taking the candle from her mouth, you watch as Songwell comes down after you.
  429. > "... Mind you close the door, Eustace! We don't want a draft!"
  430. > With a disgusted grunt, Galloway turns around and backs down the stairs, pulling the door shut with him.
  431. > He's not even at the bottom of the stairs and Granny is off again.
  432. > It's all you can do but to carry on after her, lest you lose her in the utter darkness of the mill's basement.
  433. > Songwell and Bitsmount both hurry up after you, sticking close to your candle-light in the narrow, wood-walled passageway.
  434. > Up above, the low grumbling of moving machinery continues, and you can hear a high-pitched whine as well.
  435. > Granny does indeed seem to know the way quite well.
  436. > But if the blindness was all an act, how can she see?
  437. > The candle barely casts enough light for you to see her rear hooves, let alone for her to see what's in front of her.
  438. > No, she must really be that crippled.
  439. > You press on, surprised by her speed.
  440. > She perfectly takes blind corners that leave even you butting your shoulder into the wall or nearly tripping over a piece of debris on the ground.
  441. > Damn, 'Granny' must have gone down this passage hundreds of times to have it memorized so well.
  442.  
  443. > Turning another corner, you see red dots in the distance, and they quickly scatter away from your candle-light in a distant cacophony of squeaking noises.
  444. > Rats!
  445. > Ugh, this is an awful place.
  446. > Thank Celestia it doesn't smell too bad down here, though.
  447. > Just the damp must of a basement by one of the canals.
  448. > That air doesn't seem to agree with Mister Songwell, and he explodes into a fit of coughing.
  449. > Bitsmount throws a hoof around his employee, and calls out ahead.
  450. > "Slow down a moment, there, Granny!"
  451. > But Granny Nag just keeps walking onwards, and with Bitsmount flustered by her single-minded determination, you drop back to help.
  452. > Taking the old teamster partially over your shoulder, you lead him forwards even as he continues his fit.
  453. > Eventually, after pulling a handkerchief out of his vest pocket, he chokes out an apology.
  454. > "Sorry. And thank you, miss."
  455. > You let him go and take the front again.
  456. > Why'd Bitsmount have to drag an old colt into this, anyways?
  457. > Oh, of course.
  458. > He's going to have Songwell take the fall for the mismanagement.
  459. > You sure hope he's going to at least pay him enough to retire on.
  460. > And what is with this basement expedition!
  461. > You must have trodden the entire square footage of the mill's floor by now.
  462. > Although... you hadn't noticed it at the time, but the machinery noises have gotten very faint.
  463. > In fact, they're little more than quiet echoes coming up from behind you.
  464. > You can't possibly be under the mill any more.
  465. > And the walls have gotten rougher and more angular.
  466. > Looking to your side, you see that they're hewn rock instead of wooden foundation walls.
  467. > A secret passage between buildings?
  468. > This must have taken a lot of work.
  469.  
  470. > At last, the hoofsteps in front of you come to a stop.
  471. > Granny Nag is standing at the end of another long corridor, waiting in front of some kind of hatch.
  472. > Leading the way, you join her at the front, your two subjects close behind.
  473. > "Would you help me with this door, sweetie? It's a bit too much for these old bones of mine."
  474. > Extending a hoof, she searches with it for a large circular crank handle built into the metal door.
  475. > When her hoof touches the circular rim, she pats it, as if to show it to you.
  476. > "... Just turn it clockwise, dearest."
  477. > Stepping forwards, you grab the cross-bars of the wheel and give it a tug.
  478. > It doesn't budge one inch.
  479. > Damn thing must be stuck solid.
  480. > Rearing up, you give it another try, throwing your shoulders into the task.
  481. > At last, there's a sharp creak of metal, and then the thud as the lock opens.
  482. > As you let go of the wheel, Granny Nag steps up and pulls open the door, revealing a small chamber inside.
  483. > There's a blue magical light-bulb built into the ceiling, too -- the first non-candle source of light you've seen in what must be a quarter of an hour, now.
  484. > And on the far wall of the small chamber, there's another hatch with a crank-handle.
  485. > Granny steps in ahead of you.
  486. > "Be a treat and close the door behind us, would you?"
  487. > You wave your head back at the followers, and they come up to enter before you, squeezing past in the narrow, rocky tunnel.
  488. > Then you're inside, and you strain to pull the heavy door shut.
  489. > The thing must weigh a ton!
  490. > How'd Granny manage to open it if she said she couldn't work the handle?
  491. > As soon as you shut it, the lock seems to re-engage itself, and by the time you turn around, your guidespony has already opened the other door, pulling the heavy hatch inwards.
  492. > There's light beyond it, so much more than even in this little metal antechamber that you're blinded by the brightness.
  493.  
  494. > Without waiting for you -- so much for sending in his bodyguard first! -- Bitsmount steps into the light.
  495. > "Now, this is more like it!
  496. > You step towards the light as well, still straining your eyes.
  497. > As you enter the room beyond, the bright blur fades into focus.
  498. > You find yourself in a large, domed room, ringed with columns, and amply lit by lights all around the perimeter.
  499. > Elegant white marble tiles line the floor and ceiling, and the walls are covered in dark brown wainscoting, with red patterned wallpaper, as if this was a palace ballroom and smoking room all rolled into one.
  500. > Dangling down from the peak of the dome, an enormous chandelier is suspended above the room, its eight arms stretching out into a great ring, with a circular ball of light at the end of each one.
  501. > No point in the candle any more, that's for sure.
  502. > Conveniently, there's a small table right by the door, and you put it down then blow it out.
  503. > Behind you, Granny Nag shuts the door, while ahead of you, Bitsmount and Songwell are staring up at the ceiling in awe.
  504. > "See what I told you, Songwell? These are professionals -- and professionals with a sense of taste, at that!"
  505. > "I'm pleased that our accommodations are to your liking, Mister Bitsmount."
  506. > Stepping out from behind one of the columns, a hooded colt walks to the centre of the room, where a small table has been set up, completely covered by a red woven rug.
  507. > Bitsmount steps forward as well, and you join your employer on his left, with Songwell on his right.
  508. > "Ah, our esteemed host. Good day to you, sir. I take it we find ourselves at last in the company of the 'Familia'?"
  509.  
  510. > The robed pony takes up a position on the other side of the rug-covered table, standing in front of it like a priest, with you three as supplicants.
  511. > Hmm, you can't make out any table-legs, and the designs on the tiles seem to converge in the centre.
  512. > Maybe it's actually a dais or altar?
  513. > "You do indeed, Mister Bitsmount. You may call me 'Isfet'. You have already met 'Granny Nag'."
  514. > He gestures a hoof at his associate, who comes up behind you.
  515. > Keeping his face obscured by the hood, 'Isfet' has a smooth, quiet, and steady voice.
  516. > It's almost menacingly gentle, and despite the luxurious elegance of this room, you feel even less relaxed than you did in the pitch-black tunnels that brought you here.
  517. > "... Now please, tell me: what can the Familia in Magicae do for you today?"
  518. > Bitsmount seems pleased by the introduction, but you really don't like the way that sounded.
  519. > Granny Nag takes up a position beside your host, and despite her apparent frailness, you're more suspicious of her, considering her demonstrated strength and questionable blindness.
  520. > Before your employer can open his mouth to explain his needs, Isfet holds up a hoof.
  521. > "... I joke, of course. The Family investigates any prospective client long before we make contact. Your requirements are known to us: you need to get away with lying at court."
  522. > Songwell gasps, surprised anybody could have figured it out.
  523. > Well, what else is a pony under investigation for safety standards violations going to be doing contacting practitioners of the dark arts, you silly old colt?
  524. > Bitsmount tips his hat.
  525. > "That's it exactly, sir. Myself and my foremost teamspony, Phillip Songwell, need assistance in resisting the dream-reading powers of Princess Luna."
  526.  
  527. > Granny Nag scoffs at that remark, but Isfet replies in his flat, moodless tone.
  528. > "Her Majesty's powers over the morphean realm are considerable, Mister Bitsmount, but there's little truth to be found in dreams. In order to lie at court, it's not this power in particular which should worry you."
  529. > He pulls out a pair of vials from beneath his robes, and lays them on the carpeted dais before him.
  530. > "... What you must worry about instead is their Majesty's Presence. It is not a thing which is obvious in an open setting, but..."
  531. > Lifting one of the vials, he holds it up in front of you three.
  532. > "... after you give your testimony in front of the crowd, you will doubtless be asked to speak with one or both of the Princesses in private. And it's there that they will work their magic on you."
  533. > All eyes are on the little thimble of liquid.
  534. > "... Their Majesties' Presence has the power to compel truth, awe or dominate the weak-willed, terrify the wicked, and cow the meek. To resist it, you will need this."
  535. > He reverently places the vial back down again.
  536. > "... All that remains is for the bargain to be struck."
  537. > Bitsmount narrows his eyes.
  538. > "How much, then?"
  539. > Isfet pauses slightly before responding.
  540. > "Half a million."
  541. > Songwell gasps again, and even Bitsmount inhales sharply, scowling.
  542. > For two tiny little vials, that's an enormous price tag.
  543. > Even a young pony like yourself could retire and live out the rest of their years in comfortable luxury for half a million.
  544. > Your employer takes a deep breath.
  545. > "That's quite a tidy sum, sir."
  546. > "It is, Mister Bitsmount. But from what we understand, you spend that much on parties at your country villa in a year or two..."
  547. > From underneath the shadows of the hood, you can make out the slightest hint of white teeth.
  548. > Was he grinning?
  549. > "... We suggest tightening your belt. After this incident, doubtless society will expect some humility on your part, even if your underling takes the blame."
  550.  
  551. > Galloway Bitsmount nods his head.
  552. > "Yes, well..."
  553. > He chuckles, but you can tell it's the forced laughter of somepony who knows when they're caught.
  554. > "... The fact remains that I don't have half a million bits on me at the moment. And I doubt you'll take a cheque."
  555. > The hooded figure bows.
  556. > "No, Mister Bitsmount. But we will convey the terms of the payment later, and the sum will be collected over time. It is, after all, in our interest as well as yours that this payment go unnoticed."
  557. > That sounds like a prelude to blackmail.
  558. > Your employer senses it, too.
  559. > "I see. So I am to entrust the accounting entirely to you? You'll forgive me if I have some reservations."
  560. > Again, Isfet bows.
  561. > "Mister Bitsmount, your concern that we may try to take advantage is understandable. But surely, as you were the one who sought us out, you have done your research beforehoof? We are artisans, sir, not gutter-mages. Our clients come to us because they know we are reliable and discreet. Our prices are dear precisely because we do not abase ourselves with extorting our customers."
  562. > Sighing, your employer nods.
  563. > "Yes, you're right, sir. I apologize for the remark, and I agree to your terms."
  564. > The robed colt waves one hoof in front of the vials.
  565. > "Then please, Mister Bitsmount. Take these, and imbibe the contents before you attend court. The effects will last for one full day only..."
  566. > Bitsmount reaches forwards.
  567. > "... But before you go, there is a small additional price for a first-time client such as yourself. A finder's fee, for our agent."
  568. > He indicates Granny Nag, and the thought of paying out even more sours Bitsmount's mood again.
  569. > Bit of a dirty trick asking for more for the guide, and even Songwell grumbles about that one.
  570. > Still, avoiding the dungeon is probably worth half a million, plus a little bit more.
  571. > "Of course. And how much is that?"
  572.  
  573. > Granny Nag looks him in the eyes with her milky orbs.
  574. > "Just enough for a few drinks, that's all, my dear."
  575. > The thought of spending any more time near the decrepit old mare disgusts your young noblepony employer, and he turns up his snout even as he tucks the vials away into his vest, pulling out his pocketbook in the process.
  576. > "Let's settle that account right now, then. I'd like to wrap this up quickly."
  577. > The elderly mare circles around the dais towards him as he begins to count out a few hundred bits' worth of bills.
  578. > With a sneer, he holds the cash out in front of her.
  579. > "Here, is this enough to see us safely back to the surface?"
  580. > Tut-tutting, she shakes her head.
  581. > "Oh, no, dear, I said a few *drinks*."
  582. > Bitsmount scoffs, but before he can do anything else, she snarls and lunges at him, knocking him backwards to the floor as she latches her mouth onto his neck.
  583. > Shocked, it's all you can do but to gasp and jump aside as she wraps her hooves around him, growling and hissing like a wild beast.
  584. > Beside you, Songwell wails as he stands apart, fixed in place.
  585. > And 'Isfet' just sits calmly in front of the table as before, motionless as this assault occurs right in front of him.
  586. > On the ground, your employer's limbs spasm, and he moans softly and repeatedly in-between unsteady breaths, unable to struggle against her.
  587. > What is she *doing* to him?!
  588. > That's when 'Granny' rears her head back.
  589. > Songwell's wail turns into a scream, and he backs up even more.
  590. > So do you when you see it, too.
  591.  
  592. > Her snout is covered in blood, and as you watch, transfixed by the horrific sight, she transforms before your every eyes.
  593. > Her milky-white orbs turn crimson red.
  594. > Her grey mane darkens to a shiny brown.
  595. > Even her clothes seem to knit themselves back into better shape.
  596. > She gets to her hooves, as swiftly as the fresh young mare she now appears to be, and Songwell bolts for the hatch, but 'Granny' just stares at you.
  597. > And she looks hungry for more.
  598. > "Time to give your Granny a drink, dearie."
  599. > You withdraw before her steady advance, while behind you, you can hear Songwell furiously trying to open the hatch.
  600. > Come on, have some resolve, filly!
  601. > Rearing up, you raise your forehooves and pray that whatever kind of monster she is, a heavy bronze horseshoe will still hurt.
  602. > That's when the lights around the perimeter start to fade out.
  603. > Oh, no.
  604. > "For the love of Celestia, help! Open this door!"
  605. > Songwell bangs desperately on the iron door as the chandelier lights fade, too.
  606. > The last thing you see before the darkness envelops the room completely is the two long, white canine fangs protruding out of 'Granny's' mouth.
  607. > "Don't worry, dearie. It won't hurt a bit."
  608. > You swing at the darkness, connecting with nothing but air.
  609. > Then you feel something at your neck, and black out.
  610.  
  611. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mv5Jvr2Fp48 (Nine Inch Nails - 'Quake Theme', from 'Quake' [1996])
  612.  
  613.  
  614.  
  615.  
  616. > "GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!"
  617. > *CRASH*
  618. > With a blood-curdling scream ringing in your ears, you wake up as Isabelle Coquette.
  619. > What just happened!?
  620. > Gasping, you look around.
  621. > You're in a well-lit, carpeted indoor corridor.
  622. > Wait, is that music you hear?
  623. > You turn around and look behind you.
  624. > A small dark red curtain separates you from the sound, and you hesitantly poke your snout into it.
  625. > What in Tartarus?
  626. > This is the West Side Theatre!
  627. > And it seems to be intermission time, because the music is still going yet everypony is getting out of their seats, a din of conversation hovering over the hall.
  628.  
  629. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bom174H_LuA (Andrew Lloyd Webber - 'Entr'acte', from 'Phantom of the Opera' [1986])
  630.  
  631. > You're standing in the corridor outside a private box seat, and in front of you sit Galloway Bitsmount, your employer, and Phillip Songwell, foremost teamster of Bitsmount silver mine.
  632. > And they look just as shocked as you are.
  633. > Bitsmount springs out of his seat, snapping to his hooves.
  634. > "What in blazes?!..."
  635. > Spinning around abruptly, he spots you peeking in through the curtain.
  636. > "... Coquette! How'd we get here?!"
  637. > You pull open the curtain.
  638. "Mister Bitsmount, sir, I'm sorry, but I have absolutely *no* idea. I just came to in the hallway."
  639. > Bitsmount just sputters.
  640. > Songwell pulls off his bowler hat and rubs his head.
  641. > "Songwell! Tell me you remember something!"
  642. > But the old colt just shakes his head.
  643. > "All I remember, sir, is meeting that gentlecolt for business. After that, it's all a blur -- though I recall a banging noise of sorts"
  644. > "Damn!"
  645. > With an exasperated sigh, your boss straightens his jacket and puts on his top hat.
  646. > "... I, too, remember meeting the colt, 'Isfet', and making the d-Goodness gracious, pray I still have them!"
  647. > Desperately, he digs around in his jacket pockets.
  648. > "... Ah, we have Cerberus' own luck! I've still got the vials, Songwell!"
  649. > Holding up the two tiny magic potions, Bitsmount starts to smile.
  650. > "... This must all be the work of our 'friends', I think. You don't run an organization like that without taking a few precautions."
  651.  
  652. > Glancing back towards the theatre, he nods to himself, grinning.
  653. > "... Clever of them to drop us here in a box, where anypony can see! I wouldn't be surprised if they had magical images of us here the whole time; a matinée performance in a publicly visible box seat -- excellent alibi!"
  654. > Turning to you and Songwell, he clops his forehooves together.
  655. > "... Well, what are you waiting for? Let's go!"
  656. > Too bad; you were kind of hoping to get to hear the second act.
  657. > Oh well.
  658. > Bitsmount wasn't big on theatrical shows.
  659. > With a satisfied smirk, your employer hustles you and Songwell out, cackling with glee about how the court appearance on Friday is going to go his way.
  660. > You're not quite so sure.
  661. > Dealing with sorcerers who can foil the Princess' powers, project images, wipe memories, and teleport ponies?
  662. > No good could possibly come of this.
  663. > Rubbing at your neck, which is strangely sore, you can't shake the feeling that something truly menacing lay behind what little you remember of their professional front.
  664. > And what kind of a name was 'Isfet', anyways?
  665. > It certainly wasn't Prench.
  666. > One thing was sure:
  667. > After your shift was over, you were definitely going to need a drink.
  668.  
  669.  
  670.  
  671.  
  672. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and you are *not* drunk.
  673. > Happy? Yes.
  674. > Buzzed? Sure.
  675. > Tipsy? Maybe.
  676. > It was kind of hard to tell, what with the way the room seemed to be bouncing up at down.
  677. > Or no, that was just Sparkshower in her chair.
  678. "Sparks, knock that off, you're making me dizzy."
  679. > Stopping, she looks up with a dopey grin.
  680. > "Sorry. This is, uh..."
  681. > Sparkshower emits a loud burp, clapping her forehooves to her snout and turning bright red.
  682. > After suffering a few seconds of embarrassment, she lowers her hooves.
  683. > "... Um... I was going to say, this pretty strong stuff."
  684. > You start to chuckle.
  685. > What a lightweight.
  686. > Couldn't she handle a few shots?
  687. > You'd only been at this for an hour, now.
  688. > Corporal Bound, that party-pooper, had shut down all Anonymous-related conversation after her spit-take, insisting on a change of topics.
  689. > Well, bully to her.
  690. > But when lunch was over and she'd gone back downstairs for the rest of her shift, after insisting that three of you should conduct exercises to Sergeant Ebonshield's satisfaction, she wound up coming right back up before you'd even gotten your armour on.
  691. > Apparently, the Royal Engineer had asked her how things were going, and when she said that you were all getting along well, he dismissed her for the rest of the day, saying to keep at it instead.
  692. > That was four hours ago.
  693.  
  694. > And somehow, you and Sparkshower had managed to convince Corporal Bound that *actually* the best team-building wouldn't be going for a gallop in broad daylight with somepony who wasn't supposed to even exist.
  695. > So instead, outside of a few brief shopping expeditions, you'd all mostly been hanging out in the quarters, swapping stories.
  696. > Mostly about stupid nonsense, so far.
  697. > 'shoe camp, life in Canterlot, things like that.
  698. > Things that didn't really offend anypony, and went well with booze.
  699. > On your left, Ebonshield giggles.
  700. > "'Maestro Cazador' *is* a strong alcohol. We usually only drink a little as an after-supper *digestivo*. But I think that the Specialist Glamerspear here has discovered a few combinations with potential certain."
  701. > Right you are, sarge!
  702. > You didn't exactly have a full bar's worth of supplies spread out on the card-table, but after you'd tried a sip of the moon-brewed liqueur -- served chilled, in a frosted glass -- you'd insisted on running out and grabbing some quick sundries to try mixing up some drinks.
  703. > A growler of 'Dragoon' Pale Ale, a jug of Baltimare orange juice, a litre of Grand Mare'ner orange liqueur, a magnum of Ambler's Tonic Water, a bottle of Griffinstone Gin, and a few other miscellaneous liquors that were worth trying but didn't quite work out.
  704. > And, of course, the essential additions: a measuring set and stir spoon, a drink shaker, a bucket of ice, and bag of lemons for zest.
  705. > It was all on your dime, but you didn't mind.
  706. > What else were you going to do with a pair of clamps on your horn anyways?
  707. > Physical training was pointless since you couldn't do the one thing you were supposed to -- shoot down airborne targets.
  708. > The chance to discover a new drink combination was all you had to look forward to until the fetters came off.
  709. "Okay, fillies, here's the next one..."
  710.  
  711. > You smile confidently at your latest concoction, yet this one is almost little embarrassing, given the ingredient.
  712. > The 'Maestro Cazador' is so bitter, so it should mix well with something so syrupy and sweet.
  713. > Well, it might be cheap and low-brow, but what guardspony hadn't chugged a few cans of 'Ripper' while out in the field?
  714. > Obviously you can't shake this mix up, so you crack open the soda pop and pour it into the mixing glass on top of the 'Cazador' already in there.
  715. > The ratio's about three-to-one -- you're just guessing, so it might wind up being too sweet or two bitter.
  716. > With a quick stir using the long-handled, thin drink spoon, you pick up the measuring cup and then pour out the four drink glasses, each already pre-loaded with a pair of ice cubes.
  717. > All eyes are on you as you're forced to use your hooves for this -- under normal circumstances, no unicorn bartender would condescend to that level, but that's where you're at.
  718. > Not bad, you didn't spill anything!
  719. > And then you quickly grab a knife and lemon and shave a twist of zest into each glass.
  720. "... Order up!"
  721. > You glance around the table as everypony reaches over to grab their cup.
  722. > Specialist Sparkshower leans over and shuts her eyes as she sniffs at the drink, then dips a tongue in for a quick taste.
  723. > She's almost looks afraid to drink any more.
  724. > Corporal Bound picks hers up and looks at it from underneath, as if to inspect the colouring.
  725. > But she doesn't drink, waiting for somepony else to try it first.
  726. > Sergeant Ebonshield -- or 'Eb', now, as she's asked to be called in casual company -- casually lifts the glass and takes a mouthful, savouring it in her mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.
  727. > She nods and pronounces judgement before taking another sip.
  728. > "Very sweet. I do not think that I would like this 'Ripper' drink on his own. But he mixes well with her -- they make a good couple together."
  729.  
  730. > That gives Sparkshower the excuse to try it, at first slowly and hesitantly, then quickly knocking back half the glass.
  731. > Bringing it back down again, she licks her lips.
  732. > "I like it!"
  733. > With a sigh, Corporal Bound, sitting across the card-table from you, picks up her drink, gives it a quick sniff.
  734. > Then she downs the whole glass in one gulp, almost slamming it back down on the table when she's done.
  735. > The mare in charge of your quaternion wipes her mouth with the back of her forehoof.
  736. > Frowning, probably more from the chill of the drink than the stiffness of the alcohol, she gives you a nod.
  737. > "It's not for me, but I can see 'shoes sucking these down by the gallon on libo."
  738. > That was about the best praise you were going to get from your stern Corporal.
  739. > You taste the final product yourself.
  740. > It's as you imagined it would be: sweet and bubbly, but with the rich spice flavours of the liqueur mixed in.
  741. > And, of course, the sledgehammer of its alcohol is almost completely masked by the sweet soda.
  742. > Yeah, this'll get somepony drunk real fast.
  743. > It's gonna be the rage at the barracks as soon as they figure it out.
  744. > You pick up the bottle -- now emptied of all its delicious contents -- and take a closer look at what it is that you four have collectively polished off.
  745. > On the funny rectangular bottle's label, the words 'Maestro Cazador' appear beneath the drink's logo: a dragon's head, facing forwards, its two horns framing a crescent moon above it.
  746. > 'Master hunter', indeed.
  747. > That's what Eb said the name meant -- well, you'd have to be, to go after a dragon!
  748. > Taking another drink, you put the empty bottle back down.
  749. "Nice. I wonder if we can get around DADT to start seeing this in night-clubs?"
  750. > Honour scoffs loudly.
  751.  
  752. > Finishing the glass, you place it back down on the table and grin at her.
  753. "... What? You heard Princess Luna: she wants help integrating batponies into Equestrian society..."
  754. > You gesture at Eb.
  755. "... Wouldn't showing off what they've accomplished in the last thousand years, besides preparing to follow Nightmare Moon in the conquest of Equestria, help with that?"
  756. > Turning to your Sergeant -- both of her -- you smile and gesture with one hoof.
  757. "... Back me up here, Sarge."
  758. > You shake your head and blink your eyes, and the twin images coalesce back into one.
  759. > Damn, this stuff hits hard without noticing.
  760. > She's got her leathery wings hanging surprisingly loose, and she lets out a yawn as she stretches back in the chair.
  761. > "That is one idea, I suppose. I think perhaps there would be some confusion about the label..."
  762. > She points a hoof at the bottom, where it says 'Elaborado y embotellado por la Casa de Dagas Ciegas'.
  763. > Whatever that means.
  764. > "... This is 'Produced and bottled by the House of Blind Daggers'."
  765. > As she points out the words, she accidentally tips the empty bottle over towards you.
  766. > You chuckle as you reach over pick it up.
  767. "So? Spread the word around of what it means. Ponies will love that, having a little secret to learn about it. Plus, the translation makes it sound bad-ass."
  768. > Imagining hip young colts & mares enjoying the new drink -- what to call it, though?
  769. > 'Ripper' and 'Master Hunter', hmmm...
  770.  
  771. > Your train of thought is interrupted by the Corporal.
  772. > "What's the 'House of Blind Daggers', Sergeant?"
  773. > You shake your head.
  774. > Of course she's trying to dig into life on the Moon.
  775. > As if that mattered!
  776. > Ebonshield is in Equestria, now.
  777. > Let Luna deal with the ponies still hanging out up there.
  778. > But your Sergeant humours her pointless question.
  779. > "The House of Blind Daggers is one of the Great Houses of the Children of the Stars -- one of the feuding realms on the Moon. They control the cities in the Mar de Vapores -- the Sea of Vapours."
  780. > Sea?
  781. > On the Moon?
  782. > Sparkshower beats you to the question.
  783. > "There's *seas* on the Moon?"
  784. > Ebonshield shakes her head immediately.
  785. > "No. This is an ancient name; before anypony had even gone to the Moon, they thought that the dark areas must be seas or oceans. But they merely have more iron in the soil, which is better for growing things, and for mining. So, most batponies live in and around and underneath the areas we still call 'seas', 'lakes', and such."
  786. > You're still trying to think of a good drink name, when the Corporal continues this boring talk about the Moon.
  787. > "I still can't believe anypony really lives up there."
  788. > With all this liquor in you, you are *not* in the mood for a history lesson -- or worse, a solar-system travel guide.
  789. "I still can't believe Sergeant Ebonshield here *propositioned* the Royal Engineer."
  790.  
  791. > Sparkshower chokes a little on her drink, being the lone straggler who hadn't yet finished her cocktail.
  792. > The Corporal instantly rolls her eyes and starts to lay into you.
  793. > "Glamerspear, for Celestia's sakes, I told you-"
  794. > Ebonshield leans forward and interrupts her.
  795. > "Actually, this is something I wished to discuss..."
  796. > That stops the Corporal in her tracks.
  797. > With her forehooves planted on the chair, your Sergeant leans forward even more, showing off quite a lot of tuft on her slim body.
  798. > Not that you're intimidated or anything.
  799. > "... Is the provision of such hospitality not the custom in Equestria?"
  800. > Wow, how old is this mare?
  801. > She really is old-fashioned.
  802. > Sparkshower is wide-eyed, and you snicker, leaving it up to the Corporal to answer.
  803. > "No, Sergeant, it isn't -- not for a long while, now..."
  804. > Honour trails off, so you noisily clear your throat.
  805. > At least be honest with the alien batpony mare!
  806. > Sighing, she continues on.
  807. > "... Which is not to say that it doesn't happen. But it's not the standard; certainly not in the Royal Guard."
  808. > Your Corporal shrugs her shoulders.
  809. > "... In private service, things can be different. There can be expectations, and mercenary guardsponies of both sexes do have to be careful."
  810. > Ebonshield nods her head, her shoulders still gathered forwards like a little foal -- or like a real mare trying to squeeze together her tuft to make it stand out.
  811. > She's got the moves, all right.
  812. > No wonder she didn't have any trouble picking up a colt at the club -- despite the wings and the accent.
  813.  
  814. > Then again, some colts might think the accent was exotic and sexy.
  815. > If they could even hear her over the music.
  816. > Heh, body language sure goes a long way in a place like that.
  817. > You lift an eyebrow and lean over towards her.
  818. "So, how'd it go down, anyways? Stick out your tuft? Brush your shoulder up against his leg? Get him to 'accidentally' bump into your plot?"
  819. > She giggles like a schoofilly.
  820. > Wow, is this her nightclub act?
  821. > "Oh, no, nothing like this. Since I assumed he knew about this guard's duty, I simply asked him outright if he had selected one of us to bed."
  822. > There go Sparkshower's wings.
  823. > And Corporal Bound's got her head in her forehooves.
  824. > You're tempted to join her.
  825. "Geez, you don't waste time."
  826. > She shrugs her shoulders and leans back in the chair.
  827. > "Not when I think that the colt knows what they are doing, no. Why play games?"
  828. > You grin.
  829. "Because games are fun, you silly Sergeant! Which gives me a great idea, actually..."
  830. > Quickly, you clear your mixers out of the way, making room in the centre of the table.
  831. > The bottle of 'Maestro Cazador' is empty, anyways -- no more mixing for now, unless Eb goes and grabs another one from the batpony barracks under the mountain.
  832. "... Since we're all feeling a bit 'happy' now, and since we're supposed to be, y'know, 'building camaraderie', how about we make a game of it?"
  833. > You place the empty bottle on its back in the centre and give it a quick tap.
  834. > It spins in place.
  835. > Perfect.
  836. "... I say we spin the bottle and play a little 'truth or dare'."
  837.  
  838. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNUeUVZwbe0 (Ian Carey featuring Mandy Ventrice - 'Let Loose', Brad Holland mix [2011])
  839.  
  840.  
  841.  
  842.  
  843. > "Seriously, Glamerspear? 'Spin the Bottle'? Just how fresh out of horseshoe camp are you?"
  844. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and everypony's a critic.
  845. > What a surprise, your dour Corporal is trying to shut down your fantastic team-building idea.
  846. > Seriously, after all the booze you just poured into her -- and everypony else -- she can't loosen up a bit?
  847. "Come on, Corporal. You told Sparks on Monday that you needed more information about everypony in the quaternion. This is just a fun way to get it, that's all!"
  848. > She rolls her eyes at you.
  849. > "You know damn well I meant *tactical* information, Glam."
  850. > Before you can reply, or she can protest further, Sergeant Ebonshield speaks up.
  851. > "Excuse me? This 'spin the bottle', what is she? And 'truth or dare'? I do not know these."
  852. > Corporal Bound slacks off as you lean in and give the bottle another hoof-tap with a grin on your face.
  853. "Oh, it's easy, Sergeant. You spin the bottle, and whoever it winds up pointing at when it comes to a stop, you get to ask them a question that they have to answer truthfully..."
  854. > After freewheeling around a dozen times, the neck of the empty 'Maestro Cazador' points at Sparkshower.
  855. "... If they don't want to answer, then they have to do something on a dare instead! Here, let me show you."
  856. > With one confident hoof planted on the table, and another held in the air, you turn to face your pegasus comrade.
  857. "... Specialist Sparkshower!"
  858. > Artemis was looking a bit concerned before, but your enthusiasm seems to have infected her.
  859. > "Yes, Lily?"
  860. "You're a pretty well-built pegasus, if you don't mind me saying it, with a good pair of wings on your back and some serious power in your shoulders, so I've been wondering..."
  861.  
  862. > Apprehension creeps back onto her face, worried that you're going to ask something lewd.
  863. > Well, of course you are!
  864. > That's the whole point of the game!
  865. > You're just not stupid enough to *start out* with that.
  866. "...How come you chose to go 19D Armoured Scout instead of 11BX Air Interception?"
  867. > The simple, straightforward question about her Military Occupational Speciality (MOS) code hits her like a light slap.
  868. > "Oh! Well, uh, my physical came back with excellent scores for vision and hearing, and I aced the memory test, too..."
  869. > You lean over, as if expecting more, and Sparkshower shrugs, a little embarrassed.
  870. > "... And, to be honest, I was always more interested in the idea of flying ahead and conducting reconnaissance than I was in the idea of participating in a big confusing battle."
  871. > She shrinks a little further into her seat, her forehooves at her sides, and winds up doing the same schoolfilly-tuft-out-front pose as Eb just a few seconds ago.
  872. > Except she really *is* a somewhat shy young mare, whereas Sergeant Eb is old enough to know better.
  873. > "... Plus, there was a really big signing bonus for pegasi going into 19D. The Royal Guard really doesn't get a lot of airborne armoured soldiers."
  874. > Satisfied with her answer, you sit back down and wave at Sparkshower.
  875. "See, Sergeant? It's as simple as that!"
  876. > Rubbing your forehooves together for a moment, you shrug as then spread them open again.
  877. "... Of course, if Specialist Sparkshower *hadn't* answered, well, then she'd have to take on a suitable dare instead. But since she did, now she can spin and ask a question of her own."
  878. > With an excited smile, Sparkshower starts bouncing in her seat again, leaning forward and lifting a hoof to give the bottle a solid tap.
  879. > However, the batpony narrows her eyes down to tiny slits.
  880. > "This does not seem to me like a game where the questions are usually about such simple things as this."
  881. > The booze hadn't dulled her mind any, clearly.
  882.  
  883. > Before you can quell her suspicions, Corporal Bound answers in your place.
  884. > "That's because it isn't. Usually all the questions are about colts."
  885. > What a party pooper.
  886. > Having poured herself half a glass of the orange juice mixer, your Corporal drops in a couple of ice cubes from the bucket.
  887. > But the batpony Sergeant just smiles.
  888. > "Oh, excellent. I was worried that this would be boring."
  889. > Sparkshower starts giggling, holding both hooves up to her snout.
  890. > Aw yeah, the Sarge gets it.
  891. > Across the table, Corporal Bound pauses, then silently reaches for the gin and brims her highball with it.
  892. > Gin 'n' juice, huh?
  893. > Somepony knows when she's beat.
  894. "With your permission, O Corporal?"
  895. > Honour just shakes her head at you with a disgusted look on her face, then takes a healthy gulp of her cocktail.
  896. > "Whatever."
  897. > "Yay!"
  898. > Bound's dismissive acceptance is enough for Sparkshower, who instantly leans over and bops the bottle so hard that it almost goes spinning off the table.
  899. > "... Oops!"
  900. > Luckily, it comes to a stop just a few inches away from the edge.
  901. > And it's pointing at Sergeant Ebonshield.
  902. > All right, let's get some juicy dirt on the bat-winged moon-creature, Sparks!
  903. > "Hmmm, what to ask..."
  904. > Tapping one hoof on her chin, Sparkshower stares up at the ceiling.
  905. > Sergeant Ebonshield gracefully pushes the bottle back into the centre even as she gathers herself up, adjusting her back-combed hair and folding her hooves on top of each other on the table.
  906. > "... Oh! I've got it! Sergeant: you know that my first name is Artemis, and Lily's is... uh, Lily, and the Corporal's first name is Honour, so how about you tell us yours?"
  907. > Seriously, Sparkshower?
  908. > You wasted your spin on *that*?
  909.  
  910. > Resisting the urge to give a death-glare to your pegasister, you instead await the Sergeant's reply, a pleasant smile on your face.
  911. > There's plenty of spins left in the bottle, after all.
  912. > And if Corporal Bound keeps pounding back drinks like that, maybe she *will* get in on the action.
  913. > Ebonshield extends her wings and wraps them around her body, putting on a pouty face.
  914. > "A first name is a very private thing to a batpony, and I do not know if we are acquainted well enough yet..."
  915. > Fooled by the obvious act, Sparkshower looks disappointed.
  916. > "Awww."
  917. > Chuckling, the Sergeant leans forward and taps Sparkshower's hoof.
  918. > "I am joking, darling. My name is 'Purity'; and I am pleased to meet you."
  919. > The smile returns to Artemis' face, and she gives the Sergeant a hearty hoof-shake.
  920. > "All right!"
  921. > Purity Ebonshield, huh?
  922. > With a brother named Marcos?
  923. > Kinda strange, but then, it's not like you know a lot of batpony names to compare against.
  924. > "¡Bueno! Now, the bottle, she is my turn to spin, yes?"
  925. > You nod.
  926. > Hopefully the Sergeant will liven up this with the next try.
  927. "Go for it, Sarge!"
  928. > Sparkshower starts bouncing excitedly in her chair again, tapping her forehooves together as Purity sets the bottle twirling mostly in place.
  929. > It comes to a stop pointing at you.
  930. > "¡Vale! Specialist Glamerspear, you know that I am a predator of the night, so you will answer me straightaway this very important question:"
  931. > Speaking quickly, she taps her hoof on the table for emphasis.
  932. > This is sounding interesting.
  933. > "... Which are the *discotecas* the most superior in the city at which I may find the young eager colts full of energy and vigour?"
  934.  
  935. > Sparkshower snorts and starts laughing in her hooves.
  936. > Even you have to chuckle a bit at this one.
  937. "Uh, well, have you tried 'The Stables'?"
  938. > "Sí, this is where we found the gentlecolt last night. And we have tried also the 'Tapestry'."
  939. > Those are two of the better ones, although Tapestry lost some of its appeal for real youngsters when the management cleaned up the place and raised the cover charge as a result.
  940. > You have to think for a minute.
  941. "Well, I'm guessing you don't want to snipe the junior enlisted guards, what with DADT and all, so that puts 'Charlie's' off the menu. If you don't find 'The Stables' to your liking, then I'd check out 'The Mad Ox' or 'Earthquake' -- 'Earthquake' is a bit grungier but the drinks are cheaper so the kids like it."
  942. > "Excellent, very good. I will try them soon, yes!"
  943. > Since she seems satisfied with your answer, you glance around the table.
  944. "Alright, so it's my spin again. Everypony ready?"
  945. > There's a clunk noise across from you, and Corporal Bound slaps her empty glass on the table.
  946. > She just chased all those 'Maestro Cazador' drinks with nearly a half-pint of gin.
  947. > That *has* to be doing something to her.
  948. > Before take your turn, she stares you in the eyes and reaches out herself.
  949. > Pushing, rather than tapping, she turns the bottle around in circles, making 'whoosh' noises with her mouth, as if the bottle really was spinning.
  950. > And the whole time she's staring at you.
  951. > Finally, she brings the bottle to a stop, the mouth pointing straight away from you, and directly at her.
  952. > "Looks like the bottle's made its choice, Specialist. What'll it be?"
  953. > Okay... this is kind of weird.
  954. > You glance left and right, but in neither of your other two comrades' confused faces do you find any answers as to the unusual behaviour of your quaternion's junior Non-Commissioned Officer.
  955. > All you can really do is just shrug and try to laugh it off.
  956. "Hah... Okay, Corporal, if you say so. Hmmm..."
  957.  
  958. > Well, if she's going to carpe-the-lagenam like this, you should take advantage of it.
  959. > Ask her an actual, tough, penetrating question.
  960. > Nothing lewd -- the ice is still thick on that one, and you don't feel like being the one to break it.
  961. > How about something a little bit personal?
  962. "So the Royal Engineer said he'll get us all tickets to the Grand Galloping Gala, right? And even an extra one for Sparkshower's coltfriend, yeah?"
  963. > You give a little head-nod towards Artemis, who smiles and starts to bounce again in her seat.
  964. "... Which set her all a-tizzy. And Sergeant Batwing over here..."
  965. > You give the same head-nod in the other direction, but all it gets you is a raised eyebrow in response.
  966. "... Well, she was real appreciative of the offer, too. But you, Corporal, you played your cards pretty close to your tuft."
  967. > With a sly smirk, you lean forward and place a hoof on the table, looking up into Honour's eyes.
  968. "... I wanna know how getting to go to the Grand Galloping Gala with Lord Anonymous makes you *feel*. Is it just another mission? Or does something about it actually excite you? The dancing, the food, the company, the pageantry? Maybe you're apprehensive, about what you'll wear or how you'll look? Do you regret not asking for a second ticket for your own partner? Or does something even terrifies you, like having to mingle with all those high-society nobleponies?"
  969. > Straightening up, you shoot a glance at your other two comrades, who are all ears to your cunning line of inquiry.
  970. "... What's the strongest sensation it makes you feel? Let's hear it, O tight-lipped Corporal of ours."
  971. > Looking at you with firm eyes nonetheless slackened by all the alcohol she's imbibed, Corporal Bound takes her time in replying, which just leaves everypony on edge.
  972. > "I'd say there's a mixture of feelings."
  973.  
  974. > Her response just sets you off.
  975. "Minotaur-dung! I'm sure you do have a mixture of feelings. But I know damn well that you feel one more than you feel any other. And the question was, which one is it?"
  976. > That was pretty aggressive of you.
  977. > Probably the booze talking more than anything else.
  978. > But your outburst doesn't seem to have affected the Corporal in any significant way.
  979. > She just keeps staring at you with her cool eyes, blinking them once as she licks her lips, then sucks on them in thought.
  980. > Once again, it's slow going before you get a response.
  981. > Everypony seems to hold their breath until the Corporal opens her mouth and gives you your answer.
  982. > "Apprehension."
  983. > Sparkshower immediately starts bouncing in her seat again.
  984. > "Oooooh, me too! I've got to find a dress! And I've got to finish writing that letter to Huckleberry!"
  985. > You roll your eyes.
  986. "Calm down a second, Sparks. Corporal -- Apprehension about *what*?"
  987. > But Honour just shakes her head at you.
  988. > "One spin, one question, Specialist. You asked for the strongest sensation. That's it."
  989. > She smiles.
  990. > "... Next time, you should be more careful with your phrasing."
  991. > Damn!
  992. > She got you on that one.
  993. > Scoffing, you sit back.
  994. "Alright, fine! I'll I guess it's your turn to spin, then."
  995. > Once again, she leans over and just pushes the bottle around itself, making the same 'whoosh' noises with her mouth.
  996. > And she's staring at you again.
  997. > You think you have a pretty good idea where the bottle is going to wind up.
  998. > Sure enough, after three or four spins, she brings it to a halt facing in your direction.
  999. > As with last time, you force out a chuckle.
  1000. "I'm feeling a little manipulated here, heh."
  1001. > After glancing semi-nervously around the table, you gather up your smugness, put on a coy smile, and look your sloshed Corporal in the eyes.
  1002. "... So, whaddya want to know?"
  1003.  
  1004. > Letting go of the bottle, she lifts an eyebrow.
  1005. > "I want to know what you did to be named a Centurion of the Order of the Ram."
  1006. > Inhaling sharply, you go a little pale.
  1007. > That's a bit of a whopper.
  1008.  
  1009.  
  1010.  
  1011.  
  1012. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and by Celestia, you were going to get something juicy out of this little game of secrets.
  1013. > 'Joint training' your plot; this was literally fillies sitting around the table getting drunk.
  1014. > An sport at which, you had to admit, you were already well ahead of the pack.
  1015. > How many drinks was it, now?
  1016. > Eight -- or was it nine? -- different experiments with that 'Maestro Cazador' dragon-head stuff from the freaking *Moon*.
  1017. > Plus a tall glass of gin and juice.
  1018. > Damn.
  1019.  > You hadn't hit the sauce this hard since way back when you were just an E-1 Private Recruit, fresh out of horseshoe camp.
  1020. > And, even as the front of your head starts to bang, something in the back is craving more.
  1021. > You reach over to get your hooves on the bottle of Griffonese vodka.
  1022. > 'Naród', huh?
  1023. > At least Glamerspear has good taste in hooch.
  1024. > Speaking of your unicorn squadmate, she's recovered from her shock at your question, and is now busy trying to deflect it.
  1025. > "My appointment to Centurion? Come on, Corporal, that's a matter of public record. Anypony can look it up in the Official Rolls of the Order. You don't need to waste your spin on that."
  1026. > You're not in the mood to drink the vodka neat.
  1027. > Not yet, anyways.
  1028. > Casting your eyes around, you spot a bottle of vermouth, as yet mostly untouched.
  1029. > Perfect, you can have a vodka martini, and if that doesn't hit the spot, chase it with a real gin one afterwards.
  1030. > As you grab the shaker and set to work appeasing the back part of your brain while killing the front, you shut down Glamerspear's babbling.
  1031. "I want to hear it from your mouth, Glamerspear."
  1032.  
  1033. > As you blend the two alcohols with a vigorous working of the shaker, she chuckles awkwardly.
  1034. > "Why? Heh, I mean, what am I gonna say you couldn't find out in a book?"
  1035. > Paying her no attention, you brim your highball glass with the stiff cocktail.
  1036. > "... You do seem to love books, after all, what with the way you've had your snout buried in Anon's all this time."
  1037. > Picking up the glass, you wonder if maybe you should take things a little slower.
  1038. > It's a reasonable thought.
  1039. > But you haven't quite reached the point of 'happy', so you take a far bigger gulp than would be polite in anything other than private company.
  1040. > Anything faster, and you'd be chugging it down.
  1041. > That word brings back some memories -- and not good ones -- so as soon as the sting passes by your throat, you cringe and take another sip, almost choking from the strength.
  1042. "I don't want to look it up in a book, Specialist. I want you to tell me-"
  1043. > Shaking your head to clear the rush, you fix her in your gaze.
  1044. "... Because I want to know why you tried to keep it hidden."
  1045. > Your statement hits her like only the truth can.
  1046. > On your right, Ebonshield licks her lips and nods at the shaker.
  1047. > There's still plenty left inside, so you gently slide it over to her.
  1048. > Sparkshower on the left is still bouncing intermittently, but she keeps looking quizzically between you.
  1049. > So Glamerspear didn't tell her about the medal after all?
  1050. > That just cements your position.
  1051. > But the horn-shackled unicorn, curls her shoulders inwards and tries to laugh off your question, the metal cone on her head bobbing as she feigns innocence.
  1052. > "Me? Try to keep it hidden? That's prepppa-prepo-...preposterous!"
  1053.  
  1054. > Looks like she's not as heavweight as she thought when it comes to booze.
  1055. "Don't mino-dung me, Glamerspear. The Lieutenant didn't even mention your award when she introduced you to us -- or to the Royal Engineer. Your ex-colfriend was shocked to hear about it. And I've never seen you wear medal until today. You're the most private Centurion I ever head of."
  1056. > She looks left and right, hoping for allies against your assault, but Purity is just sitting back, looking completely at home with her vodka martini, while Artemis is wearing the same dopey smile, apparently eager to hear the story.
  1057. > Finally, Glamerspear just scrunches up her face.
  1058. > "Maybe I'm just a private person, okay? Maybe I don't like to flaunt it."
  1059. > Okay, that was so pathetic you actually laugh out loud.
  1060. "Pffft, haha, yeah right! Of course you'd like to flaunt it, Lily..."
  1061. > Using her first name for emphasis, you plan a hoof under your chin and slouch over sideways.
  1062. "... You're a flaunter. You can't help it. So I want to know why you don't flaunt *this*. How come you wore it today for Princess Luna?"
  1063. > She blinks and shrugs.
  1064. > "She's a Sovereign of the Order. It's expected for members to wear it in the Royal presence."
  1065. > You lean forward with a smirk.
  1066. "Except so is Princess Celestia, but you didn't wear it when we were first presented to Her Majesty and the Royal Engineer."
  1067. > "All right, all right!"
  1068. > With a sigh, she realizes the gig is up, and reaches for the shaker in front of Ebonshield.
  1069. > Looks like it's vodka martinis all around the table.
  1070. > If Sparkshower wants in, that is.
  1071. > "Ooh, what's that drink called? I want some!"
  1072. "It's a vodka martini, Sparkshower. Take it slowly."
  1073. > "Alright!"
  1074. > The bouncy pegasus pushes a clean tumbler forward, and Glamerspear fills it halfway before taking the same for herself.
  1075. > Taking a sip, your unicorn gunner seems to deflate.
  1076. > "Okay, fine, you want to hear it, I'll tell you..."
  1077.  
  1078. > Lifting her head, Glamerspear shrugs.
  1079. > "... I earned it during the Changeling Invasion. My group, the 86th Honourable Artillery Company, part of the 79th Anti-Aircraft Brigade, was set up just inside Canterlot city limits, on the outer ring of the middle tier."
  1080. > She glances around the table.
  1081. > "... You were all around for the Invasion, right? Canterlot was on high alert; I don't know if they told you guys what was going on, but they sure didn't tell us. It was just 'vigilo confido' -- keep watch and stay ready, for whatever."
  1082. > With her snout still halfway in her drink. Sparkshower pulls the glass away and licks her lips.
  1083. > "I don't think anypony really knew what was coming, Lily. I was flying recon and, although we were in the wrong grid to catch the Changelings coming in, all we had to go on was that there had been unusual activity in the far reaches of Equestria. And then of course, there was the wedding..."
  1084. > She trails off, and Glamerspear resumes.
  1085. > "I guess that's it. Weird stuff at the border, plus a big-ticket Royal Canterlot wedding..."
  1086. > Glamerspear shrugs again, taking a sip of her drink before continuing.
  1087. > "... I was one of three on shield duty -- no conjuring spears for me that day, unless I needed to swap in with one of the gunners. Anyways, with the big city shield up, courtesy of the soon-to-be Prince, I was running at maintenance levels, just keeping things warm up here..."
  1088. > She gestures at her horn, still shackled with cold iron and encased in a protective medical cone.
  1089. > "... in case anything happened. Which, of course, it did."
  1090.  
  1091. > Pausing for another sip, she lifts her eyebrows.
  1092. > "... Our position was the only one that held out and kept firing during the whole engagement. There's a news photo of the aftermath -- Changeling bodies, hundreds of them, poked full of holes by AAA spears, piled up in a neat circle around the central shield radius, as if we were trying to build a wall out of corpses. The official kill number assigned to our company was a little over three hundred, but the same report acknowledges it may have been more than twice that, since it's known that the other four batteries in our defence zone were all knocked out within the first minutes of the assault, whereas ours kept firing for the whole half-hour."
  1093. > Everypony is hanging on her next word, but Glamerspear just blankly stares at her glass, looking somber.
  1094. > "... We were a 'cornfield' company -- all unicorns, you know -- so as the gunners or other shield-casters went down, the spotters stepped up and kept up the work. Even the officers jumped in and poured on the fire. The other two shield-bubbles collapsed under the storm, but I managed to extend mine enough to cover our fallen and keep up the firing. By the end, when the invaders got blasted out of the city, the whole Company was either worn-out or knocked-out, though my shield stayed operational until relief found us..."
  1095. > She looks up, face still impassive.
  1096. > "... Took out over three hundred of theirs for zero losses of our own. Almost everypony in the Company was in line for a ribbon at the very least, and since most of the work was done under the cover of my shield, that's why I got awarded the Silver Ram."
  1097. > Sparkshower has her hooves on her cheeks, elbows on the table and a look of wonder on her face.
  1098. > Even the stony-faced Ebonshield looks suitably impressed.
  1099. > And it was a good story, but there's still something that doesn't add up.
  1100. "Sounds like you really deserved it. So why don't you wear the medal more often?"
  1101.  
  1102. > You let a smirk creep back onto your face.
  1103. "... And if you want colts like Captain Mailedhoof fawning over you, that's a sure ticket for it."
  1104. > Rather than take the compliment or react to the playful ribbing, Glamerspear just sighs.
  1105. > "Because I don't remember a *single thing* about the whole day..."
  1106. > She lifts her eyes.
  1107. > "... Everything I told you, I only know because that's what other ponies in the 86th told *me*! The ones who kept fighting until the end said I was the one who kept the shield going under the withering assault of all those Changelings. Our spears kept firing for half an hour, and everypony in the 100-unicorn Company wound up needing medical treatment for exhaustion or for first- or second-degree manaburn, but I woke up almost a month later in the infirmary with no memory of what had happened."
  1108. > You see her suck in the edges of her mouth.
  1109. > "... Tartarus, I only know for certain I was on shield duty because it's written on the duty sheet for that day!"
  1110. > Glamerspear mashes her left hoof into her chin and cheeks, roughly massaging herself.
  1111. > It looks like she's trying to hold back tears.
  1112. > Snorting loudly, she waves the other hoof up aimlessly and then drops it to the table.
  1113. > "... So yeah, I don't like to flaunt it..."
  1114. > Glum and dejected, your manaburning unicorn stares down at the middle of the table.
  1115. > "... Just doesn't feel right to be proud of something you're not sure if you really did or not."
  1116. > You're at a loss for words.
  1117. > Sparkshower reaches out a hoof and silently places it on top of Glamerspear's.
  1118. > There's a few tears welling up in the unicorn's eyes, but she quickly wipes them away.
  1119. > With a sniffle, she lifts her head up.
  1120. > "... Alright? So who's next? Let's make this party happy again."
  1121. > She forces a smile and playfully waves off Sparkshower's hoof of support, but you still wonder about something.
  1122. "Hold up. Why did you wear it for Luna?"
  1123.  
  1124. > Grinning, she rolls her head around and playfully bounces her forehooves on the table.
  1125. > "Hey, one spin, one question, right?"
  1126. > She sniffles and wipes another tear away.
  1127. "Come on. Eight days ago you wouldn't wear it for Princess Celestia. What was happened today?"
  1128. > Sighing, she bangs her hooves on the table, more loudly this time.
  1129. > "Jeez, you don't give up, Corporal. Okay, you want to know what happened? *THIS* happened!"
  1130. > She points both hooves up at her horn.
  1131. > "... This stupid cone and this stupid set of shackles, alright? *That's* what happened..."
  1132. > Shrugging, she continues.
  1133. > "... I can actually *remember* the fight with Kilfeather, and I figured, well, if I could manaburn myself so badly gunning him down, maybe I really did do what they said I did. Most unicorns can only overload themselves so far, passing out when they've barely gone over their limit. To do what I did on Saturday, I would have had to go something like ten times over my normal. But I did."
  1134. > She gathers her hooves up around her drink.
  1135. > "... So, maybe I did keep the shield going, enlarging it to cover the other gunners, and holding it steady. Maybe I really did wind up in a coma from covering my comrades, and not from anything else. Maybe I really do deserve the Silver Ram. That's why I wore it today. And it's why I was thinking of maybe wearing it more often."
  1136. > She looks at you, almost as if asking for your approval, and you nod slowly.
  1137. > Sparkshower pipes up, louder than she ought to be -- but that's probably the booze at work.
  1138. > "I think you *should* wear it more, Lily! I think it looksh good on you! I bet Princess Luna shaw it and thought it looked good on you, too! I bet even Anonymoush noticed how shmart you looked! You should wear it next time you're on duty, and I bet you he'll shay something about it!"
  1139.  
  1140. > Even Ebonshield gets in on the hugbox.
  1141. > "Yes, I think this also. You must wear the medal for your Capitán Mayedhoof, to show him your calidad superior!"
  1142. > Glamerspear starts to chuckle, playfully batting away the praise, semi-drunkenly mispronounced and mistranslated as it was.
  1143. > You sigh and roll your head over to the batpony Sergeant.
  1144. "You know Captain *Mailedhoof* is married, right? Glamerspear is the 'other' mare."
  1145. > "¿Ah, sí? Then he must have an eye for gorgeous young mares of outstanding capability and excellent character."
  1146. > That gets Glamerspear's cheeks pretty rosy, and she tries to scoff off the praise.
  1147. > "Okay, seriously. Someone spin the damn bottle. I like attention as much as the next filly-"
  1148. "I'd say *more* than the next filly."
  1149. > She shakes her head around in surrender.
  1150. > "-Fine, I bucking *LOVE* attention, okay? I'm an attention-whorse, alright? I love attention more than everypony else in Canterlot put together, that good enough for you?"
  1151. > Smirking, you nod and finish your vodka martini.
  1152. > Glamerspear waves Ebonshield and Sparkshower towards the middle of the table.
  1153. > "...Now, somepony take my turn and give me a few moments to pull myself together, okay?"
  1154. > Somepony goes for the bottle, but you're not paying attention.
  1155. > Your drink empty, you reach for the gin.
  1156. > Time to compare the vodka-based knock-off with the original recipe.
  1157.  
  1158. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5wlxT9ygtY (Major Lazer - 'All My Love' (feat. Ariana Grande & Machel Montano, remix)
  1159.  
  1160.  
  1161.  
  1162.  
  1163. > You are the Sergeant Purity Ebonshield, and this is a pleasant evening spent with your comrades of the cuaternio, but she could be better.
  1164. > Leaning forward slightly, you glance around the table.
  1165. "I am obligated to say: this is a party entertaining, but for my tastes, she has too much alcohol and not enough *colts*."
  1166. > Corporal Bound snorts and takes another sip of her gin martini.
  1167. > Specialist Sparkshower, her head resting on the table, smiles and suppresses a laugh.
  1168. > The unicorn Glamerspear shrugs her shoulders.
  1169. > "Blame that on the rules on VIP assignment duties, Sarge."
  1170. > With a smirk, she rolls her head towards you.
  1171. > "... Anonymous is a single colt, so he gets a little herd of mares to escort him around."
  1172. "This is what I am referring to. Why is this the case?"
  1173. > "You know why, Sergeant."
  1174. > With an unsubtle lift of her eyebrow and a forward tilt of her head, her meaning is obvious.
  1175. > But they told you that escorts Equestrian no longer do this!
  1176. "I do not comprehend..."
  1177. > You turn to Corporal Bound.
  1178. "... You said that providing companionship was no longer a requirement of VIP guards, Caporal Honor."
  1179. > The alcohol is causing you to slip into your native tongue.
  1180. "... Ehh, Corporal Honour."
  1181. > The Corporal puts down her drink.
  1182. > "I did say that. But I also said that it still happens."
  1183. "And therefore because this still happens, thus only mares are provided for the colts single, and only colts provided for the mares single? But to do this seems to me to only invite such trysts to continue."
  1184.  
  1185. > She shrugs.
  1186. > "You're not wrong. It is weird to still assign guards by sex in this day and age. I think there was a motion in court to change the rules a while back, but it was defeated."
  1187. > Glamerspear snickers.
  1188. > "Yeah, it was defeated -- and I heard that Princess Celestia threatened to *veto* it."
  1189. > Honour narrows her eyes.
  1190. > "I remember that she spoke out against it; the debate was in the newspapers. She said the VIP duty system was an important part of our tradition and culture, and worth preserving. But I don't remember her threatening a veto."
  1191. > The unicorn giggles.
  1192. > "The Princess of the Sun speaks out against a proposal, and you don't call that a veto? There could be a motion to declare that the sky is blue, and if she came out and said it was actually pink, enough would follow her that the motion would fail."
  1193. > Corporal Bound sits back.
  1194. > "I suppose that's true."
  1195. > Leaning towards Glamerspear, you probe further.
  1196. "*Is* this function an part important of the tradition and the culture Equestrian? I would have thought my proposal would not have provoked such a reaction if she was."
  1197. > The pink unicorn rubs her hooves together.
  1198. > "Eh, if it was anypony else -- and then also if you weren't a batpony, of course -- you might have gotten yourself a new lover. Although the Corporal probably would still have choked on her drink, because it was still a very forward move to make on your first duty shift. Around here we like to take it a little slower."
  1199. > You have noticed just how slow the love is in Equestria.
  1200. > They shamelessly wasted their time, but then again, they had not been living on a thousand-year schedule divine.
  1201. > That made for certain expediencies in batpony culture.
  1202. > And you were expedient even compared to your fellows.
  1203.  
  1204. > Raising her hooves up, Glamerspear continues on, a smirk creeping back onto her face.
  1205. > "... But as to the 'tradition and culture', I've heard some thing about that as well..."
  1206. > Corporal Bound snorts.
  1207. > "This should be good."
  1208. > The unicorn just ignores her.
  1209. > "*I* heard that Princess Celestia spoke out against it because she didn't want to lose her personal stable of colts."
  1210. > The Corporal silently shakes her head and rolls her eyes.
  1211. > "... She *is* a single mare, after all, and she gets a whole Company of the Household Division to herself."
  1212. > Ignoring the naysayer, Glamerspear glances at you and Sparkshower.
  1213. > "... You've seen them, right? The 1st Regiment of Life Guards, Her Majesty's Own Troop of Ponies, might just be the finest studs in Equestria -- strong topline, balanced conformation, good set to their hock."
  1214. > Those were certainly the qualities physical most desirable in a stallion, regardless of the breed.
  1215. > Sparkshower speaks up, her head still lying on the table.
  1216. > "Well, shouldn't Her Majesty be guarded by the best-looking ponies? They're there for pomp and ceremony, after all"
  1217. > Glamerspear leans over.
  1218. > "Sure she should. But why not mares as well as colts?"
  1219. > Before the pegasus can say anything, the unicorn points a hoof at her.
  1220. > "...-I'll tell you why: because she *enjoys* her colt-candy."
  1221. > You see the wings of Sparkshower creep open slowly, and she lifts her head up off the table.
  1222. > "'Enjoys'?"
  1223. > Glamerspear just smiles and keeps silent.
  1224. > The innuendo is obvious.
  1225. "You are suggesting that the Princess Celestia beds her guards."
  1226.  
  1227. > She wiggles her eyebrows.
  1228. > "Not just me. Rumours get around; anypony who keeps their ears open has probably heard one."
  1229. > Spreading her hooves wide, she gestures towards Honour.
  1230. > "... Why, I bet our dismissive Corporal has one version she could share."
  1231. > With a sigh, the target of the gesticulation nods her head.
  1232. > "Yeah, I have."
  1233. > Really?
  1234. > You raise an eyebrow in curiosity.
  1235. > Everypony looks expectantly over at the Corporal, who licks her lips before speaking.
  1236. > "... I've heard rumours she bucks around with her guardscolts on a pretty regular basis. And I've also heard that Her Majesty is a 'giver'."
  1237. > Really!
  1238. > How appropriate for the kind Princess of the Sun to be generous in bed!
  1239. > The young Sparkshower narrows her eyes, not quite comprehending.
  1240. > "What's a 'giver'?"
  1241. > Turning away from Honour, you look over at the adorable little chica.
  1242. "Darling, this is a lover who takes more satisfaction in pleasing their partner, than from obtaining pleasure themselves."
  1243. > The cream-coloured pegasus nods.
  1244. > "Oh..."
  1245. > The nodding stops.
  1246. > "... How would she do that?"
  1247. > You can think of a few ways, but you turn back to the Corporal, wondering if there is more detail to the rumour.
  1248. > Honour licks her lips again.
  1249. > "Oral sex."
  1250. > With a smile, Sparkshower nods quickly.
  1251. > "Ooooooh! Colts like that!"
  1252. > Glamerspear leans in close to Sparkshower, wearing a smirk.
  1253. > "Oh yeah, Sparks? 'Puddin'' likes it when you go down on him?"
  1254. > Instantly, the cream coat turns red.
  1255. > "I-Maybe! That's between me and my coltfriend, Lily!"
  1256.  
  1257. > Feigning innocence, Glamerspear leans back.
  1258. > "I was just curious about your technique, that's all."
  1259. > The pegasus furrows her brow.
  1260. > "My... technique?"
  1261. > You are amused to watch the poor little filly be teased in this way, but you hope the more experienced mare does not take things too far.
  1262. > "Yeah, you know. Do you stick with... *licking*? Or does your repertoire include *sucking* as well?"
  1263. > Those young cream-coloured cheeks get rosier every time Glamerspear emphasizes one of the verbs critical.
  1264. > "... Can you take his whole *length* in your mouth? Do you let him *finish* in there? And if you do, do you *swallow*?"
  1265. > Her eyes as wide as dinner plates, Specialist Sparkshower is struck silent by these enquiries.
  1266. > They are reasonable questions, of course, but the poor little potra is obviously not used to talking about this subject.
  1267. > On your left, Honour speaks up.
  1268. > "You don't have to answer her, Sparkshower. Glamerspear is just trying to bait you."
  1269. > That gets a frown from the unicorn.
  1270. > "Bait her into *what*? We're all adult mares here, Corporal. Artemis doesn't have to share anything she doesn't want to..."
  1271. > She turns back to look at the embarrassed pegasus.
  1272. > "... But if she *does* share, then maybe she can learn a thing or two."
  1273. > This has probably gone far enough; you will put your hoof down as well if Glamerspear presses further.
  1274. > "Uh... I... I'm not sure I want to talk about this right now."
  1275. > You shoot a telling glance in the direction of the unicorn, but she pays you no attention.
  1276. > The nerve!
  1277. > "That's alright, Sparks. Sorry for putting you on the spot like that. Perhaps the Corporal has heard what technique Princess Celestia prefers?"
  1278. > At least she retreated.
  1279. > Honour smiles.
  1280. > "I'm very happy to report that I *haven't*. I only heard that she gives it, and reportedly, very well."
  1281. > Glamerspear continues on immediately.
  1282. > "Well, *I've* heard that the Princess isn't a giver at all -- she's a *taker*."
  1283.  
  1284. > You laugh.
  1285. "Oh, now this is the información most juicy."
  1286. > Turning sideways in her chair, Glamerspear leans on one elbow.
  1287. > "I've got a friend in the infirmary-"
  1288. > "No surprise considering how much time you spend there."
  1289. > Apparently, the Corporal could not resist poking in a ribbing of her own, based on the recent revelation about the past of the Specialist Glamerspear.
  1290. > Shooting a few metaphorical daggers from her eyes, the unicorn continues.
  1291. > "ANYWAYS- this friend tells me that every few weeks they have to treat a guardscolt of the 1st Regiment of Life Guards for *pelvic* fractures. And the colt *never* wants to speak about how they were injured."
  1292. > Honour lifts her eyebrows, dismissive.
  1293. > "Pelvic fractures."
  1294. > "That's what I said."
  1295. > "What's that supposed to mean, Glamerspear?"
  1296. > "Isn't it obvious?"
  1297. > The Corporal just shakes her head and looks off, apparently tired of these games.
  1298. > Tilting your head back, you smile.
  1299. "I think I know. The Princess of the Sun is quite large, is she not? Compared to an average pony, at least -- or even an above-average pony, like those of the Household Division."
  1300. > Glamerspear nods and smiles.
  1301. > "Exactly. So the story I've heard going around is that Her Majesty doesn't give, she *takes* -- and since even the biggest guardscolt couldn't mount her without a stepladder, she climbs on top."
  1302. > Sparkshower claps her hooves to her snout.
  1303. > "Ohmygosh! That must hurt!"
  1304. > Glamerspear starts to chuckle, so you reassure the pegasus.
  1305. "I am sure Her Majesty makes every attempt to be gentle, Specialist."
  1306. > Having ended her laughing fit, Glamerspear wiggles her eyebrows.
  1307. > "I'm not. My friend in the infirmary says those 1st Regiment colts show up with bruises all the time."
  1308.  
  1309. > On your left, Corporal Bound scoffs.
  1310. > "That's nonsense. The ponies in the Household Division train harder than almost anypony else in the guard. Those bruises are from rough work in the field."
  1311. > Glamerspear shrugs.
  1312. > "Maybe. I'm just sharing the rumour I've heard -- about Princess Celestia, anyways. I've heard different rumour about Princess *Luna*."
  1313. > She looks at you, and you lift an eyebrow.
  1314. "¿Ah, sí? What have you heard?"
  1315. > The unicorn purses her lips.
  1316. > "Oh, I'm not sure if I want to spread stories about the 'Mother-of-Stars' in the company of one of her 'Children'. Wouldn't want to give offence, after all."
  1317. > Cabron!
  1318. > She is quite the tease, is she not?
  1319. > You shake your head and smile.
  1320. "You do not care about offending me, Specialist Glamerspear. I think instead that you would be happy if I were embarrassed by what you have to say -- and you would be disappointed. The Mother-of-Stars may be a divine entity to her children, but she is still a mare with the needs of a mare. There is no shame in her satisfying these needs; or do you think that unicorn children are delivered by mail-pegasi?"
  1321. > The teaser wobbles her head and gives you a wry smile.
  1322. > "Okay, you got me, Sarge. I'm not just an attention-whorse, I'm a shit-disturber, too."
  1323. > She chuckles and turns to the rest of the table.
  1324. > "... I've got some actual details about Princess Luna. Once a month, the rumour goes, she picks a colt from among her own escort, and takes them in bed. But the *how* is where it gets interesting."
  1325. > She pauses, waiting to make sure that she has the attention of everypony.
  1326. > When it is apparent that she does, she continues.
  1327. > "... Instead of non-vaginal sex, or mounting them on top, Princess Luna prefers to be mounted herself, in the usual fashion."
  1328.  
  1329. > Sparkshower narrows her eyes.
  1330. > "But Princess Luna is almost as big as Princess Celestia!"
  1331. > "True, she's too tall for them."
  1332. > Even the Corporal cannot resist poking at the rumour.
  1333. > "You're going to say she has them climb up a ladder."
  1334. > Glamerspear breaks out into a wide smile, nodding.
  1335. > "Not a *ladder*. The rumour I've heard is that her chambers have been equipped with a system of... slings and harnesses."
  1336. > That just confuses everypony else at the table, yourself included.
  1337. "¿Qué?"
  1338. > "What?"
  1339. > "Huh?"
  1340. > Waving her hooves around in the air to aid her description, Glamerspear elaborates.
  1341. > "Slings and harnesses. She and her chosen colt strap themselves in, then a system of pulleys, mounted in the ceiling, lifts them into the air so that they can buck, comfortably, at the right height, with no risk of a broken pelvis."
  1342. > Several seconds pass in silence.
  1343. > Then Corporal Bound bursts out in laughter.
  1344. > Pounding her hoof on the table, she doubles over forwards, convulsing so hard she almost chokes.
  1345. > Sparkshower, her brow furrowed, is suppressing her own chuckles.
  1346. > But you just nod.
  1347. "This sounds reasonable to me."
  1348. > Corporal Bound lifts her head up from the table, still dying of laughter, and just stares at you.
  1349. > Even Glamerspear turns to you, her eyes wide.
  1350. > You shrug.
  1351. "What?"
  1352.  
  1353. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydrtF45-y-g (Salt-N-Pepa - 'Let's Talk About Sex')
  1354.  
  1355.  
  1356.  
  1357.  
  1358. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and your head is starting to spin a bit.
  1359. > It's almost time to call it quits.
  1360. > Lily really pushed her first mixed drinks with Purity's moon-liquor, so it was hard to say 'no'.
  1361. > Once that bottle was empty, though, you tried to set a pace for yourself.
  1362. > With a watchful eye on the clock, you'd targeted no more than two full "drinks" per hour.
  1363. > But Honour, on your right, had forged right on ahead, and the rest of the table followed.
  1364. > That made it hard to keep it slow.
  1365. > In the end, you had to lay your head down on the table, more as a signal that you needed a break than actually being overcome by the liquor.
  1366. > You were starting to feel a bit sleepy, though.
  1367. > Alcohol was a sedative, after all -- you learned that in basic first aid.
  1368. > And occasionals like you didn't have the tolerance of regular drinkers, as it was becoming apparent that Glamerspear and Bound both were.
  1369. > Lily was really slurring her words, and you could see her eyes lose focus now and then, while Honour was acting very emotional.
  1370. > Like that outburst of laughter earlier -- what was that about?
  1371. > She's had so many drinks, she might not even remember it tomorrow, so you might never know.
  1372. > You really hadn't pictured the Corporal as somepony who 'hit the bottle', but the evidence was right there.
  1373. > Sergeant Ebonshield was holding her own, and you knew she drank a bit, though she was taking it almost as slowly as you were.
  1374. > The buzzing feeling in your head starts to pulsate a bit, and you close your eyes for a moment to recover.
  1375. > Well, at least you were a fully-grown adult, now, with an understanding of what you were doing.
  1376.  
  1377. > Not like when you were a young teenager alone with your best fillyfriend at her house in Berry, and she accidentally doled out blackcurrant wine for you both to drink in the nice sitting-room -- instead of the raspberry cordial she'd been told to use.
  1378. > To be fair, they looked pretty similar.
  1379. > And the bottles were unlabelled!
  1380. > It was hardly her fault.
  1381. > You'd noticed the strange taste, but neither of you had recognized the mistake.
  1382. > But your parents sure had later that night; they'd accused poor Hannah of trying to poison you, and forebade you to see her again.
  1383. > All because she'd poured you three glasses -- because you kept asking for more! -- while she herself had only had one.
  1384. > You don't remember much of it, but your drunken state must have been pretty obvious.
  1385. > The whole episode caused quite a spat between your two families.
  1386. > It was almost two months until you were allowed to visit her at her green-gabled farmhouse again.
  1387. > You shake your head, rubbing your cheek against the table.
  1388. > Why are you daydreaming about a teenage misadventure from eight years ago?
  1389. > It must be the alcohol.
  1390. > Definitely time to stop drinking.
  1391. > Just then, Honour pushes a glass towards you.
  1392. > "Here, Sparkshower. Drink this."
  1393. > Uh-oh.
  1394. > You lift your head and inspect what she's given you.
  1395. > It's another tall tumbler full of a clear liquid.
  1396. > More of that Griffonstone gin?
  1397. "What is it?"
  1398. > You look at the Corporal, struggling a bit to keep your eyes open.
  1399. > "It's water. Drink that up and I'll pour you another to follow it. You don't want to feel rotten in the morning."
  1400. > Oh...
  1401.  
  1402. > Corporal Bound has a jug of water and is pouring out water for everypony.
  1403. > That's considerate of her.
  1404. > "Glamerspear, can you--Hey, Glamerspear!"
  1405. > As she passes a glass to Ebonshield, she tries to get Lily's attention, but your unicorn comrade seems to have nodded off.
  1406. > "Huh-wha?"
  1407. > Oh good, she's not completely gone.
  1408. > How late *is* it?
  1409. > You struggle a bit to focus on the clock.
  1410. > Goodness gracious, it's after ten!
  1411. > Glass of water, and then bed.
  1412. > Now that she's awake, the Corporal barks orders at her.
  1413. > "Go and get your saltines."
  1414. > Lily's eyes are still crossed, and it takes her a moment to straight them out.
  1415. > When she does, she cocks an eyebrow and squints, curling up her lip.
  1416. > "My... saltines? *I'm* a saltine."
  1417. > "I'm not talking about *that* kind, Glamerspear. I mean those salted crackers you keep under your bed."
  1418. > Glamerspear loudly bangs her hoof on the table -- or tries to, at least, but her limbs are too ropey and limp for her hoof to have much of an impact.
  1419. > "Who says I've got... Who says I'm hiding snacks?"
  1420. > Oh, this explains the noise you sometimes hear from her room.
  1421. "Is that what I've heard you munching on late at night?"
  1422. > Frowning so hard her eyes close almost shut, she squints in your direction, patting her chest.
  1423. > "I- Nooooo, that's... I wouldn't, Sparks! I've gotta... gotta keep up my fillyish figure."
  1424.  
  1425. > Having emptied your glass of water, you push it over to the Corporal without even looking.
  1426. > She duly fills it up again, even as she carries on her argument with the Specialist.
  1427. > "I've never met a unicorn soldier who didn't keep a snack stash. Something about needing the extra electrolytes to fuel your horns. Just stop talking and go get them, okay? Everypony needs to drink water and eat something salty now if we're going to avoid having hangovers tomorrow."
  1428. > In response to the latest command, Glamerspear actually does get to her hooves.
  1429. > "O... Okay. Fine. If it'll avoid hangovers. But I'm telling you I don't have any saltines..."
  1430. > She's a bit wobbly on her legs, and she lets out a huge yawn, but then she heads off towards her bedroom.
  1431. > "... I'll be right back with my saltines."
  1432. > Across the table from you, Ebonshield chortles, shaking her head with a smile.
  1433. > "Still no colts have joined our party, alas... Oh, well, at least the Corporal Bound is taking the very good care of her soldiers with this 'first aid' for we drunkards."
  1434. > Honour finishes her own glass of water, then sighs.
  1435. > "The things you learn the hard way as a young, dumb, wide-eyed and eager Private fresh out of horseshoe camp, Sergeant."
  1436. > The Sergeant nods knowingly.
  1437. > "Indeed."
  1438. > Glamerspear comes stumbling back into the common room, with a bag of salted-tops crackers in her mouth.
  1439. > She drops the bag on the table, and then struggles to get back into her chair.
  1440. > With your Corporal busy on water duty, you reach out and open the bag, giving a neat hooffull of saltines to everypony at the table.
  1441. > You have to prod Glamerspear back awake to get her to actually eat hers, though.
  1442. > Surprisingly, as soon as you poke her, she takes the whole stack and dumps them right into her water glass, aggressively mashing them up with the cocktail stirring spoon.
  1443. > Then she chugs the brownish sludge in one huge gulp.
  1444.  
  1445. > "Okay. I'm Rehyz-... rehyw-... rehydrated and muhelectrolytesisreplenish'd. Bedtime now."
  1446. > Without another word, she rolls out of the chair and heads to her room once again.
  1447. > Ebonshield watches her head off.
  1448. > "She has done that before, I think."
  1449. > Honour nods.
  1450. > "They all do that -- unicorn guardsponies, I mean. They call it the 'salt shaker', because they usually shake the drink up with their telekinesis."
  1451. > Eww.
  1452. > That's kinda gross.
  1453. > You just munch on your own allotment.
  1454. > Hmm... they're a bit stale.
  1455. > Maybe the water-dunk idea isn't that crazy.
  1456. > But no, you'll stick to keeping drinking and eating as two separate activities.
  1457. > Corporal Bound nods in your direction.
  1458. > "Okay, Sparkshower, how are you holding up?"
  1459. "I'm alright, Corporal."
  1460. > "Good. Drink as much water as you can and eat another hooffull of saltines and you'll be fine. I'm going to bed."
  1461. > She gets up, and Ebonshield stands up after her.
  1462. > "I, likewise, shall retire. This has been a most pleasant evening in friendly company. I think we shall start tomorrow freshly-shod."
  1463. "Good-night, Sergeant."
  1464. > "Good-night, Specialist. And do not ignore the instructions of the Corporal; I, too, share her experience in these matters."
  1465. "I won't, Sarge."
  1466. > In another minute, you're all alone in the common-room, with three shut doors around you.
  1467. > Taking the instructions to heard, you eagerly chomp down on as many crackers as you can manage, washing them down with generous amounts of water.
  1468. > Surprisingly, the buzzing does seem to fade a bit.
  1469.  
  1470. > Something to remember if you're ever in this situation again, you suppose.
  1471. > At least you didn't have to learn the 'hard' way like the Corporal and the Sergeant.
  1472. > You've heard stories.
  1473. > It's unpleasant -- and messy.
  1474. > Taking a deep breath, you let out a burp.
  1475. > Okay, that's enough.
  1476. > You don't want to make yourself sick to your stomach in the other way.
  1477. > Time for bed.
  1478. > Heading to your room, you can hear Glamerspear already snoring loudly on the other side of the wall.
  1479. > At last the afternoon and evening went well.
  1480. > And Corporal Bound seemed to not actually be too drunk after all.
  1481. > She shouldn't have any trouble with the morning shift -- and if her preventative instructions worked, you'll be awake to back her up as well.
  1482. > Now that the newest member of your quaternion has been 'properly' introduced, you'll be able to perform properly as a team!
  1483. > Lily and Honour didn't seem to have any problems getting along with the batpony Ebonshield this evening.
  1484. > As you climb into bed, yawning, you wonder what will happen next.
  1485. > Didn't Ebonshield say she wanted to instruct Anonymous in combat?
  1486. > That should be pretty interesting.
  1487. > You shut your eyes, and, despite the buzzsaw from next door, you're instantly asleep.
  1488.  
  1489.  
  1490.  
  1491.  
  1492. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you're galloping a little bit late.
  1493. > And you've got a bit of a headache.
  1494. > Yesterday's drinking party was such a dumb idea.
  1495. > How did Glamerspear manage to talk you into it?
  1496. > In your head, you go over the arguments she'd used.
  1497. > One, Ebonshield couldn't be seen outside.
  1498. > A reasonable point at face value, but the batpony Sergeant had been given unrestricted access to go as her duties required, or as she pleased while not on duty.
  1499. > Whoever signed that order -- probably on the explicit instructions of Princess Luna -- knew she might be seen.
  1500. > And they either wanted that to happen, or weren't concerned if it did.
  1501. > So why should you try to keep her under wraps?
  1502. > The answer was: you shouldn't.
  1503. > That master-key pass of Ebonshield's all but spelled it out: your quaternion mustn't consider concealing her in your tactical decision-making or shift assignments.
  1504. > So, no, upon further reflection the argument didn't hold water.
  1505. > What else had Glamerspear said?
  1506. > She thought you should all talk together and get to know each other before going out on manoeuvres.
  1507. > That wasn't a bad idea, though it was hardly the way things were usually done in the Royal Guard.
  1508. > First day of horseshoe camp categorically did *not* include relaxed, well-lubricated socializing before getting down to gruelling physical training.
  1509.  
  1510. > The superior approach was hard to judge; there were advantages and disadvantages to both.
  1511. > Probably, for well-trained and experienced guards like yourselves, some socialization wasn't a bad idea.
  1512. > Still, it wasn't a great point in favour.
  1513. > Especially not with booze involved, which brings you to the third thing that Glamerspear had said:
  1514. > She wanted to try that 'Maestro Cazador' liquor.
  1515. > That was just a personal request, and it was hardly going to sway you.
  1516. > All in all, three pretty poor arguments.
  1517. > But if they'd been so weak, why had you gone along with it?
  1518. > You knew why, and it had nothing to do with Glamerspear, her little thesis, or Sparkshower's eager championing of both.
  1519. > It was Her Royal Majesty Princess Luna.
  1520. > All the way into the evening, Her Majesty's overwhelming Presence had stuck with you.
  1521. > Had you tried to drown it in liquor?
  1522. > No; if anything, you'd drunk in celebration, toasting the experience.
  1523. > It was an awkward thing to do, after so long spent away from both the bottle, and from believing in the magical benevolence of Equestria.
  1524. > You still felt like you'd only wandered out of the shadows into the penumbra, but the light was visible, at least.
  1525. > Like Luna's falling stars, you felt enveloped by the noble ideals you'd once believed in.
  1526. > Yes, things were not as good as they should or could be, and there were bad ponies out there, but the experience had reminded you that the ones at the top were veritable fountains of purity.
  1527. > The briefest splash of Princess Luna's presence was like drinking from that same fountain, and it left you feeling spiritually refreshed and cleansed.
  1528. > Though you'd had to drag yourself to get there, and forced yourself to imbibe, too.
  1529.  
  1530. > And not without some missteps along the way, like getting into a ridiculous discussion of the Princess' bedroom affairs.
  1531. > Shaking your head at Glamerspear's filthy, unrestrained mind -- which you had to admit, you sometimes shared -- you round the final corner and make a bee-line for the Royal Engineer's chamber doors.
  1532. > You put matters of motivation, metaphysics, and your own personal demons out of your head.
  1533. > The Royal Engineer was a creature of the material world, after all.
  1534. > While you'd been having a religious experience that had rekindled your faith, he'd sipped coffee and eaten biscuits.
  1535. > But that had been enough for Princess Luna, so -- especially now, after the experience in her Presence -- it was enough for you.
  1536. > And it was good for Equestria to have somepony grounded in physical reality.
  1537. > Even if he didn't always understand the nuances of what was going on around he, at least he had the intellect and wits to make good decisions.
  1538. > It was a little surprising that the Princesses had named him, an alien, to the Privy Council, but you could hardly disagree with that decision now, after seeing him at work.
  1539. > Full of confidence that every problem -- even the ones you didn't know about -- would be solved by your immaculate Sovereigns and their most trusted advisers, if only given enough time to deal with them, you knock on the door, and then enter when bidden.
  1540. "Corporal Bound report-"
  1541. > You freeze in shock at the scene before you.
  1542. "...ing... for... duty."
  1543. > Stammering out the last words, you look over the Royal Engineer's chambers.
  1544. > Everything is -- well, no, not everything, but certainly quite a lot of things are -- *different*.
  1545.  
  1546. > The movable, panelled room divider wall, which previously stretched across the middle of the room and separated the 'public' areas from Anonymous' bedroom and private areas has been pushed back a good six or seven hooves.
  1547. > His bed must still be on the diminished far side, but it's what's on the near side that's changed.
  1548. > The two enormous glass-doored bookcases are gone, a single thinner one standing their place, and gone too are all but one of the filing cabinets, as well as the two writing-desks.
  1549. > His bureau is still there, in front of the windows, and the sitting-room and dining-room as as you remembered, but now the room is dominated by a series of wooden tables which stand in front of the partition-wall, and in-between his bureau and the sofa.
  1550. > A few of them have wide sets of drawers underneath as well, and the table-tops are covered in an incredible array of tools, instruments, materials, and equipment.
  1551. > He's completely swapped out his writing setup for a veritable laboratory.
  1552. > Sitting in a wooden swivel-chair, with a spool of copper-coloured wire in one hand and a pair of tweezers in the other, your Very Important Pony turns to face you.
  1553. > "Good morning, Corporal. Is something wrong?"
  1554. > Over top his usual clothes, he's wearing a thick white smock with sleeves, like a cross between a butcher's apron and a surgical gown.
  1555. "I... When did you have your room refurnished, sir?"
  1556. > Anonymous turns to regard the workbenches as if seeing them for the first time.
  1557. > "Oh, this? I had it taken care of yesterday afternoon, while you were all out getting to know each other."
  1558. > Closing the door behind you, you step inside and lick your lips.
  1559. "You didn't move things around yourself?"
  1560.  
  1561. > The Royal Engineer smiles.
  1562. > "Goodness, no. I bundled up my notes and rough drafts, and some clerks from the archives came and hauled them off on trolleys for safekeeping. While they were at it, I had some movers in to relocate the dividers, take old out the pieces of furniture I didn't need, and bring in the new ones that I did. The actual tools and matériel were brought up from storage -- I've been ordering bits and pieces over the last few months and having them stashed until I was done with the book."
  1563. > He nods in the direction of a tall bronze cylinder.
  1564. > "... A few of the pieces, a miracle of providence, arrived just this morning. I'm hoping the rest will arrive soon, so I can really get down to business."
  1565. > Smiling, he holds up what he has in his hands and gestures at the table.
  1566. > "... Would you like to see what I'm working on?"
  1567. > As it happens, you wouldn't.
  1568. > You take a deep breath, and, although you shut your eyes for a moment, you resist the urge to bring one hoof up to your bridge.
  1569. "Sir... Are you telling me that you had dozens of ponies in here -- in your *personal* chambers -- yesterday, without even *one* of your bodyguards present?"
  1570. > The warm smile on his face is accentuated by a raised brow.
  1571. > "Yes? Is that a problem? They were all trusted palace servants."
  1572. > Stepping forward, you sigh -- and it's not from being tired.
  1573. > There's a genuine anger and sense of disgust behind it that surprises even you.
  1574. "Remember what I said about allowing yourself to be outnumbered, sir? After Mister Mustang's visit? Have you forgotten about that?"
  1575. > His smile fades a bit, though it's still there, and he's still trying to sound friendly.
  1576. > "I do, but surely-"
  1577.  
  1578. > You cut him off, walking past the living room furniture to stand at the far end of his table, in front of the chicane entrance to his bedroom area.
  1579. "Surely *nothing*, sir. Trusted servants of the palace or not, everypony knows you have been assigned a guard detail. If they see you in the middle of the day without an escort, even in the privacy of your own room, or in the security of the castle hallways, it will cause a disturbance."
  1580. > Now he lowers his hands, too.
  1581. "... Someponies might take offence and feel that you're being too informal. Others might think that your own house is in disorder -- that you're having an argument with your guards, or that you don't think much of them, or who-knows-what else."
  1582. > Still smiling, Anonymous shakes his head.
  1583. > "But... up until a little over a week ago, that's exactly what I was doing..."
  1584. > He shrugs.
  1585. > "... Although, I admit, while writing that book I hadn't had much occasion to receive visitors or to walk the halls."
  1586. > Perfect, just perfect.
  1587. > Your VIP has been an anti-social hermit up until now; never having had the chance to learn the rules of society, even if only by some kind of... osmosis.
  1588. > It's not supposed to be your damn job to teach him!
  1589. > Especially not when you *do* tell him how to behave, and he ignores you anyways!
  1590. "It doesn't matter what you were doing before. You have guardsponies, and you're expected to use them -- use *us*. You *must* remember that."
  1591. > Casting his eyes about the room, he shakes his head and chuckles.
  1592. > "When you put it that way, having guards almost sounds like an inconvenience."
  1593. > WHAT?!
  1594.  
  1595. > "... Though you've certainly be-"
  1596. > He carries on speaking, but you're through listening, so you talk right over him.
  1597. "An *inconvenience*, sir? Her Majesty Princess Celestia herself bestows on you one of the highest honours anypony in Equestria can receive, and it's an *inconvenience*?"
  1598. > Your outburst silences him, and he stares at you, dumbfounded.
  1599. "... That's what you think?? Was Her Majesty Princess Luna's visit also an *inconvenience* to you?"
  1600. > You wave an angry hoof at the garbage piled up on his tables.
  1601. "... And is that why you sent us away in the afternoon? Were you worried we would be an *inconvenience* while you let dozens of ponies trot all over your chambers as if you -- and they -- owned the place?"
  1602. > That same angry hoof pivots around to point at Anonymous, By Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer of Equestria.
  1603. "... You don't own the place, *sir*. You're an outsider, an alien, a visitor to Equestria, and you're here at the pleasure of its Princesses. So you had better treat the gifts they've given you with some damned respect!"
  1604. > Your voice has grown into a shout, your face a visage of fury.
  1605. "... I won't serve somepony who doesn't respect the Sovereigns of Equestria or the gifts they bestow, *inconvenient* or not! So you can stay right here, and I'll go get you somepony who will!"
  1606. > Trembling with rage and wearing a snarl, you turn on your heels and nearly charge at the door, practically battering it open, and then slamming it shut behind you.
  1607. > It's only when you're halfway down the hallway that your ears catch up with what your mouth had been doing.
  1608.  
  1609. > The realization hits you like a sledgehammer, and you shut your eyes as you head up-stairs.
  1610. > What the buck got into you?
  1611. > You just threw a tantrum at your VIP, cussing them out and refusing service.
  1612. > If Lieutenant Violetta didn't flay the very hide off your back, then at least she was certainly going to see you kicked out of the VIP service, probably issued with a reprimand, maybe busted down to Specialist, and possibly even dishonourably discharged from the Royal Guard.
  1613. > Congratulations, Honour.
  1614. > You may just have thrown your career away.
  1615. > With these thoughts weighing heavily on your mind, you push open the door to your quarters.
  1616.  
  1617.  
  1618.  
  1619.  
  1620. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and you are *not* hung over.
  1621. > You do, however, have a headache.
  1622. > And you're a bit groggy.
  1623. > Plus, your mouth is awfully dry.
  1624. > Not to mention how hard you're finding it to concentrate right now.
  1625. > What were you thinking about again?
  1626. > Oh, right.
  1627. > The aftermath of yesterday's drinking party was this: you felt like crap.
  1628. > And somehow Sparkshower, despite being a lightweight who couldn't tell a vodka martini from a regular one, looks like she's doing just fine.
  1629. > What the hay is that about?
  1630. > She didn't drink *that* much less than you, did she?
  1631. > Or is it because she ate half a box of saltines afterwards?
  1632. > YOUR saltines, specifically.
  1633. > How the heck did she even know where to find those under your bed?
  1634. > Damn thieving pegasi, fluttering in and grabbing whatever they want.
  1635. > And how is she just sitting there, fully dressed in her armour?
  1636. > At least she left her helmet off.
  1637. "I don't know how you can wear that stuff all the time, Sparks. Doesn't it weigh like a hundred pounds?"
  1638.  
  1639. > She looks up from her paper and quill.
  1640. > "My armour? No, it's only about forty."
  1641. > That sounds pretty heavy to you.
  1642. "That sounds pretty heavy to me."
  1643. > She just shrugs.
  1644. > "I've gotten used to it; it bothered me a bit in the beginning, after horseshoe camp, but now I don't mind it at all. I'm so used to it, sometimes I almost feel undressed without it."
  1645. > 'Undressed' without forty pounds of bronze on you, yeah right.
  1646. > You glance at her piece of paper.
  1647. "Still trying to write that letter to your coltfriend?"
  1648. > Sparkshower nods, frowning at her task.
  1649. > "Yes... It's a little tricky coming up with the right words."
  1650. > You nod, understanding her predicament a bit.
  1651. "What kind of colt is he?"
  1652. > She looks up at you sharply, a flash of concern and fear in her face.
  1653. > What's that about?
  1654. > Oh; did you get to talking about her coltfriend last night, maybe?
  1655. > That would probably do it.
  1656. > Hopefully you didn't say anything too intrusive.
  1657. > You just smile and nod.
  1658. "... I mean, what does he like? What's he into? Books, music, culture, you know?"
  1659. > Artemis softens her frown.
  1660. > "Oh... Uh, well... He's kinda... traditional, I guess?"
  1661. > You keep nodding.
  1662. "He likes things plain and simple?"
  1663. > "Yeah, I suppose."
  1664. "How does he feel about big cities like Canterlot?"
  1665. > You see one side of her lip kinda curl up.
  1666. > "I don't think he's a fan of them."
  1667. "Prefers the quiet of the countryside, huh?"
  1668. > "He seems to, yes."
  1669.  
  1670. > You pause for a moment.
  1671. > She just sits there, motionlessly holding the quill.
  1672. > Licking your lips, you lean towards her.
  1673. "So how are you going to get your traditional country colt to come to the biggest, most extravagant party this big city throws?"
  1674. > Sparkshower slouches in her seat, as if defeated by your question alone.
  1675. > "I don't know. I just want him to come for a few nights, but I can't think of the right words!"
  1676. > She looks pleadingly up at you.
  1677. > "... But he's got to come! I asked Anonymous for two tickets! He's got to! And it's the chance of a lifetime!"
  1678. > That it is, but you know the old saying:
  1679. > You can lead a colt to a water, but you can't make 'em drink.
  1680. "How about you try being specific? The Gala's a big event. What do you want him to do the most?"
  1681. > Your junior comrade takes a deep breath and pushes herself back up in her chair.
  1682. > Licking her lips, she puts her forehooves on the table, and you see some colour creep back into her cheeks.
  1683. > "Well... I'd really, really, *really* like to dance around one of the great Maypoles. With a ribbon in my mouth, my partner by my side..."
  1684. > She smiles, looking up and waving her hooves around, as if she was actually there.
  1685. > "... We'd weave our ribbons together, and then circle around the Maypole, wrapping our pair around it, encircling the other ribbons and being encircled in turn..."
  1686. > Hmm, if he's a traditionalist, well, it sure sounds like she is, too.
  1687. > The Maypole was at best a secondary feature of the G-G-G; a relic from a time long ago.
  1688. > "... Maybe that sounds a bit foalish, but it's something I've always wanted to do, ever since I was a little filly, even before I knew what having a coltfriend meant."
  1689. > Okay, that's kinda adorable.
  1690.  
  1691. > You nod your head at her.
  1692. "So talk about that, then. Tell him you want to tie a ribbon around the Maypole with him. It's kinda romantic, in a traditional kind of way -- and you said he's a traditional colt, so..."
  1693. > Trailing off, you shrug, and she nods.
  1694. > "Yeah, that's a good idea. I'll do that. Thanks, Lily!"
  1695. > Well, at least one pony in this quaternion woke up in a good mood.
  1696. > Sergeant Ebonshield's not even awake yet; maybe she's still trying to adjust to working daylight hours?
  1697. > Just as Sparkshower starts to put the quill to paper, the hallway door flies open.
  1698. > Corporal Bound comes hustling right over to the card-table.
  1699. > "Sparkshower, I need a favour."
  1700. > Instantly, the pen is out of Artemis' hoof, and you can see her hold back an automatic salute.
  1701. > "Yes, Corporal? Is everything all right?"
  1702. > Up close, you get a better look at Honour.
  1703. > She's sweating?
  1704. > And she looks nervous.
  1705. > What just happened?
  1706. > She's been on duty for all of ten minutes, by your reckoning.
  1707. > "I need you to cover my shift. I'll make it up to you whenever you want."
  1708. > Huh?
  1709. > Is she hungover even worse than you are?
  1710. > Not that you're hungover.
  1711. > Nooo, not hungover.
  1712. > But you are a bit... y'know... hung... over.
  1713.  
  1714. > Not like Sparkshower, next to you, who's pert and attentive.
  1715. > "Uh... Sure, Corporal, I can do that! Are you feeling sick or something like that?"
  1716. > In an uncharacteristic hurry, your Corporal nods and books it straight for her room.
  1717. > "Yeah, something like that, Artemis. And thanks."
  1718. > Huh, she doesn't usually use first names, either.
  1719. > The sharp closing of her door is usual, though.
  1720. > What's going on here?
  1721. > You ponder the question as Sparkshower scrambles out of her chair and straps on her helmet.
  1722. > "I guess the letter has to wait for now. Thanks for the advice, though, Lily!"
  1723. > In your present sluggish state, you barely have time to wave her off before she's out the door.
  1724. > Now this is some strange stuff.
  1725. > Too bad you're not in any kind of brain-state today to deal with it.
  1726. > The door to Sergeant Ebonshield's quarters opens, and a very drowsy-looking batpony pokes her head out, squinting in the morning light.
  1727. > "Specialist, was that the Corporal returning just now?"
  1728. > She's whispering, so you get up and walk to her door, whispering back.
  1729. "Yeah, Sarge. She just asked Sparkshower to cover her shift. She might be sick."
  1730. > Rubbing her eyes with both hooves, your quaternion's most recent addition yawns and then shakes her head.
  1731. > When she's done, she's no longer squinting, and looks almost more awake than you are.
  1732. > What the Tartarus is this?
  1733. > Did everypony get less drunk than you?
  1734. > Besides maybe the Corporal, you suppose.
  1735. > The wall-clock softly chimes half past the hour, and you're suddenly reminded of your daily appointment.
  1736. "... Uh, Sarge? I have to report to medical in fifteen minutes for a horn-checkup. Are you able to back Sparkshower up?"
  1737.  
  1738. > She nods, staring at Honour's door.
  1739. > "Yes, I am awake. You may go."
  1740. > You follow her gaze.
  1741. "Should I bring the Corporal with me, maybe? She didn't actually *say* she was sick; it was just sort of implied."
  1742. > Ebonshield inhales sharply, tilting her head back.
  1743. > "No. Go to your appointment. Leave the Corporal to me; I will check up on her shortly."
  1744. > You nod.
  1745. "Sure thing, Sarge."
  1746. > You head for the door, hopeful that the medics will be taking off your spellbinders this morning, so you can get back to work.
  1747. > It's probably because of your temporary unemployment that you suggested that drinking party yesterday.
  1748. > If it was a mistake, and you're pretty certain it was, at least you feel a little more comfortable around everypony else now -- including, you grudgingly admit, the batpony outsider.
  1749. > Hopefully they feel the same way, too.
  1750.  
  1751.  
  1752.  
  1753.  
  1754. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8f_hDms7yI (Justin Bell - 'Spires', from 'Tyranny' [2016])
  1755.  
  1756. > You are Sergeant First Class Purity Ebonshield, and you are now fully awake.
  1757. > Glamerspear left for her appointment medical almost one hour ago.
  1758. > While Corporal Bound has remained in her room, you have had a shower, gotten dressed, and even had a hot meal from the staff kitchen.
  1759. > Nopony had taken any notice when you had strolled into that basement room.
  1760. > Perhaps the morning was still too early for them to observe your unfeathered wings, or perhaps you simply looked like you belonged there.
  1761. > Or, perhaps they had seen your kind before and simply did not care.
  1762. > There were rumours that some members of the Night Guard had been violating their morning curfew, and sneaking themselves late-morning snacks before returning to the mountain rookery.
  1763. > Whatever the case, travelling all the way into your dining room usual just for breakfast, when you needed to be on station to support Sparkshower, was obviously not feasible.
  1764. > You had taken simply a quick serving of some hot porridge in a bowl with a secure lid, and eaten this back in the communal area of your quarters.
  1765. > If nothing else, the sound of your spoon clattering against the bowl would let the Corporal know you were up and about.
  1766. > But she had not stirred from her room.
  1767. > Was she truly sick?
  1768. > Hmmm...
  1769. > Walking in very quickly, speaking firmly and emotionally, and going straight to the bedroom rather than the washroom or even the infirmary...
  1770. > These were not things that somepony physically ill would do.
  1771. > No, this is most certainly a kind of problem most different.
  1772.  
  1773. > And Corporal Bound has had an hour to stew by herself, so now is the time to stir the pot.
  1774. > Pushing your bowl away, you get up and head for her door.
  1775. > With one tufted ear leaned up to listen, you knock softly.
  1776. "Corporal? This is Sergeant Ebonshield. Are you all right?"
  1777. > You can hear the creaking of bedsprings, the rustling of sheets, and then hooves on carpet.
  1778. > "Yes, I'm all right."
  1779. > The hoofsteps almost reach the door, and you pull away so as not to reveal that you were listening.
  1780. > Even though she is just on the other side, she does not open the door or say anything else.
  1781. > Is she going to hold the door closed against you?
  1782. > That would be surprisingly childish.
  1783. > And you are not in any mood to try to force your way in, anyways.
  1784. > You decide to stick with diplomacy.
  1785. "Your comrades are concerned for you. May I come in?"
  1786. > Even without listening closely, you can hear her take another step forward.
  1787. > "No..."
  1788. > The handle rotates, and Honour Bound pulls the door open.
  1789. > "... I'll come out."
  1790. > You look the Corporal over.
  1791. > She has shed her helmet and her sabots, but not the rest of her armour.
  1792. > There are no signs of any illness, though.
  1793. > You point with a wing towards the living room.
  1794. "There is a pot of the coffee fresh on the table. Would you like some?"
  1795. > The Corporal nods, and while you turn to get the mugs and the bottle, she slowly makes her way to the sofa, sitting down as if bearing on her back a weight most heavy.
  1796. > You remain impassive as you serve the drinks and take your own seat in the club chair.
  1797.  
  1798. > She lifts her cup and sips the hot drink, and you watch her carefully.
  1799. > The earth pony in charge of your quaternion is hunched forward, staring down through the table before her at something a thousand yards away.
  1800. > Hmm, but she looks resigned, not afraid -- like a child who knows they have done something wrong, and are merely waiting for the sabot to drop.
  1801. > After she has had some of her coffee, you speak up.
  1802. "I hope you can forgive the 'Maestro Cazador' for cancelling your shift this morning. She is a very agreeable liquor when drunk in moderate quantities."
  1803. > That brings a small smile to the face of the Corporal, but she shakes her head, still staring at that imaginary far-away thing.
  1804. > "My hangover's not that bad. And it wasn't yesterday's drinking party that ended my shift."
  1805. > You take a sip of your own coffee.
  1806. > Appreciating this strong drink was an acquired taste, and you have not acquired this quite yet.
  1807. > The beverage is so bitter alone, and drinking her neat is a bit of a struggle for you.
  1808. > Still, you persevere -- the Corporal is known to take hers 'black', after all.
  1809. > And you can tell that she *wants* to talk about this morning, so you get straight to the point.
  1810. "What happened?"
  1811. > Honour takes a deep breath.
  1812. > "I refused him service."
  1813. > Shadows, that is cryptic.
  1814. > Leaving the question of 'why' behind, you cock an eyebrow and decide to first focus on the denouement.
  1815. "And so he dismissed you?"
  1816. > She shakes her head.
  1817. > "No. I trotted out, saying I'd get him somepony else."
  1818. > You nod.
  1819. "I see..."
  1820. > Trailing off, you give her a moment before you get to the root of the problem.
  1821. > Surprisingly, she speaks first.
  1822. > "Sergeant, yesterday during the audience with Her Majesty Princess Luna, did you *notice* anything?"
  1823.  
  1824. > That is a question most curious, with several possible answers.
  1825. > But you feel certain you know to what she is referring, and so you chuckle, stretching your wings a little.
  1826. "You mean, did I notice the that the roof and the walls of the room ceased to exist, that the day turned to the night, and that the stars rained down like dust from the sky above?"
  1827. > Smiling, you nod.
  1828. "... Yes, I did notice this."
  1829. > The Corporal, still hunched over, looks curiously up at you.
  1830. > "Have you been in Her Majesty's presence before?"
  1831. > You nod again.
  1832. "Sí, I have."
  1833. > Her eyes narrow.
  1834. > "Many times?"
  1835. "Yes, many."
  1836. > She sits up a bit, and licks her lips.
  1837. > "How did it make you *feel*?"
  1838. > Very curious questions indeed.
  1839. > Is this discussion not supposed to be about what happened *this* morning, and not the morning of *yesterday*?
  1840. > You take a moment to think your answer over before replying.
  1841. "It made me feel..."
  1842. > Inhaling deeply, you try to remember specifically how the presence of the Mother-of-Stars affected you most recently.
  1843. "... Content. Gratified, perhaps."
  1844. > Those were emotions common, but yesterday was different, sharing the Mother's Presence with those who were not her Children.
  1845. "... I felt assured of the plans of Her Majesty, and the role I was playing in them."
  1846. > Corporal Bound nods her head.
  1847. > "Is that how you felt the first time?"
  1848. > You cannot help but chuckle again.
  1849. "Oh, no. The first time, I was completely enthralled..."
  1850. > That is not quite accurate, but this is the best you can manage with the vocabulary at hoof.
  1851. > You shrug.
  1852. "... Her Presence is still awesome even now, of course -- repetition does not diminish the experience -- but since I expect the Presence, I can maintain my wits."
  1853.  
  1854. > Honour puts a hoof up to her chin, looking away again.
  1855. > "Do you know what I felt? Pride."
  1856. > She nods to herself, then turns back to you, squinting.
  1857. > "... More than anything else, once the experience was over, I felt *proud* of what I do. *Proud* to be in the Royal Guard. *Proud* to be guarding a Very Important Pony. *Proud* to be serving Princess Luna, and by extension, all of Equestria."
  1858. > The Corporal looks away and takes another sip of her coffee, then shakes her head.
  1859. > "... I haven't felt proud of what I do in a long time."
  1860. > She glances in your direction.
  1861. > "... Are you planning to stay in the VIP service once this assignment is over? Find another VIP?"
  1862. > You laugh awkwardly.
  1863. "So far I have no complaints, but I think that for a batpony, this is a one-time opportunity only."
  1864. > "Yeah... You'd better finish that 'VIP Service Training' course ASAP, though."
  1865. "And why should I do this?"
  1866. > Her reply is matter-of-fact, and devoid of the emotion you know must be present.
  1867. > "So you can take charge of this quaternion."
  1868. > Oh, so you are going to have *this* conversation also?
  1869. > Well, you may as well get this out of the way.
  1870. "Why should I wish to take charge?"
  1871. > She looks up, and you think she is about to say 'because I'll be gone', but instead she pauses and looks askance at you.
  1872. > Yes, she has picked up on your innuendo.
  1873. > "What do you mean, why? Those were Lieutenant Violetta's orders."
  1874. > Deciding to still play a few games with her, you stretch out a wing, wrap him around forwards, and nonchalantly scratch at him with a hoof.
  1875.  
  1876. "Corporal, how long have you been in the Service VIP?"
  1877. > "A year and a half."
  1878. "And you have served many different VIPs?"
  1879. > "Six of them, so far."
  1880. "No doubt you have had to deal with many different situations in this time, yes?"
  1881. > She nods.
  1882. > "Yes."
  1883. "More than those for which you were trained?"
  1884. > "Sure."
  1885. > With a sigh, you put your wing away as if you had fixed whatever imaginary problem had been there.
  1886. "And how exactly are a few hours in a classroom going to make me your equal?"
  1887. > Before she can reply, you shake your head and continue on.
  1888. "... No, Caporal. I will not attend the training of the Service VIP. I will instead make the excuses to the Majordomo Violetta, and follow somepony with experience in the Service VIP -- somepony who *also* has lived in Equestria for all of her life."
  1889. > Smiling, you shrug.
  1890. "... I will of course be happy if she does, when appropriate, permit me to speak the advice."
  1891. > She mutters a reply.
  1892. > "You might not have a choice."
  1893. > This depression of hers is starting to become irritating!
  1894. > She forces you to take a circuitous route to the truth.
  1895. > You are able to follow the path, to be certain, but what a nuisance!
  1896. "Ah, yes? Because the Majordomo Violetta will remove you for the refusal this morning? The refusal for the reasons unspecified, except that perhaps they have something to do with the pride?"
  1897. > Then again, there is something amusing about unravelling a mystery.
  1898. > She opens her mouth to say something, but you cut her off.
  1899. "... We have avoided together this subject for a few minutes; let us continue to avoid this for a little while longer, and see where we are taken."
  1900.  
  1901. > The Corporal chuckles, and a smile -- a genuine one -- creeps onto her face.
  1902. > She seems to relax a bit, the tension partially relieved.
  1903. > There is a long way still to go, but thing will be better for her if she reaches the end in this manner.
  1904. > "How old are you, Ebonshield?"
  1905. > Ahh, there is a question very loaded.
  1906. > She thinks you have no ambition, perhaps?
  1907. > That you must be an old nag, to so easily be broken to her reigns?
  1908. > Not true, but your answer is not likely to change her mind.
  1909. "This summer, I will be forty-three."
  1910. > Honour exhales sharply, shaking her head.
  1911. > "Tartarus. You're old enough to be my mother, though you don't look it."
  1912. > Scoffing, she raises her eyebrows.
  1913. > "... But forty-three's a bit old for a Sergeant First Class."
  1914. > You nod in agreement.
  1915. "Yes. As I told the Majordomo: the Night Guard has no such rank system, so 'Sergeant First Class' was simply chosen as the most appropriate. We knew that you were a Corporal, and I did not wish to greatly outrank you, nor appear to lie very obviously."
  1916. > She seems to accept this, tilting her head back to finish her coffee cup.
  1917. > "Fair enough. And if I hadn't asked, I might not have thought differently."
  1918. > As she reaches over to grab the coffee-bottle, you smirk.
  1919. "And how old is my would-be daughter the Corporal, then?"
  1920. > Corporal Bound pours herself a second cup, more energetically than when she first sat down.
  1921. > "I 'celebrated' my twenty-fourth birthday just before this assignment."
  1922. > She blows on her drink to cool the brew, but far more forcefully than necessary.
  1923. > "... As if I had anything to celebrate."
  1924. > Suddenly, she shakes her head and puts the coffee down.
  1925. > "... Sorry. I don't mean to be so negative, I just..."
  1926. > The Corporal grits her teeth, and you can tell she is holding back tears.
  1927.  
  1928. > You could prompt her to continue, but you know she will do so, in her own good time.
  1929. > So, you sit and wait.
  1930. > A couple of thin wet streaks do appear on her cheeks, despite her attempt to fight thems.
  1931. > Casually, she lifts a hoof and wipes them away.
  1932. > "... I got into this racket -- the Royal Guard, I mean -- with too much optimism for my own good. When the boring, stupid reality hit, it hit hard."
  1933. > She sighs again, relaxing further as the tension is exhausted.
  1934. > "... Pretty soon, I wanted out. I learned that the VIP service was the best way to have work lined up after End-of-Active-Service, so I went for it. And as much as I tried to lower my expectations, the pointlessness of the job far outstripped them."
  1935. > Honour licks her lips and picks up the coffee-cup, taking a quick sip before lowering the mug back down to the table.
  1936. > "... You know Anonymous is the first VIP I've ever had who said more than two words to his guards? Most VIPs don't even acknowledge we exist. We all walk in saying, 'Corporal So-and-so reporting for duty', but eventually it gets to the point where you don't even get a nod or grunt in response, so you don't even bother saying hello any more. You just quietly show up and sit by the door and look impressive, while the VIP goes about their pointless bullshit -- and I do mean pointless bullshit. Bureaucrats sitting behind desks don't get VIP bodyguards, which is a shame, because I could at least respect a bean-counter. That's what I thought Anonymous was, in the beginning."
  1937. > She pauses again -- pauses on the subject of *Anonymous*, you note -- so you decide to lead her along.
  1938. "What kinds of VIPs *do* receive Royal Guards?"
  1939. > That sets Honour on a roll again.
  1940. > Despite her tight-lipped demeanour, she really can be quite talkative when in the mood.
  1941.  
  1942. > "Well, your typical single male VIP is a wealthy playcolt with a healthy disregard for anypony but themselves. They're a noble who's too young to have their own household yet, but are attending court anyways, or maybe they're in the military service; either way, they're pretentious and utterly useless. I almost hope Kilfeather gives their like a solid bloodying with his 'Pas de Sabots' on that other bridge."
  1943. > After another sip -- again, putting the cup all the way down on the table, instead of holding in her hooves; a sign of nervousness? -- she gives a wry smile.
  1944. > "... Foreigners? You might think a foreign ambassador would have some manners, and they do, but they also come with or hire their own guards. The VIP service gets the visiting dignitaries who don't have their own travelling retinue, and they're basically the equivalent of the locals who would have received bodyguards here, so it's all the same, except they're even more likely to treat other ponies like dirt because it's not their country, after all."
  1945. > She sighs, and looks like she wishes to spit.
  1946. > "... It honestly made me wonder why Princess Celestia even bothered with the whole setup."
  1947. > You empty your cup, and slowly place the vessel down.
  1948. > Honour notices this, and grabs the bottle to pour you another, but you wave her off.
  1949. > Then she looks lost in thought once more.
  1950. > This time you give her a shove rather than a gentle push.
  1951. "And you thought that the Royal Engineer, despite being a 'bean-counter', would be much the same?"
  1952. > Your question seems to put her on guard, and she licks her lips, glancing sideways at you.
  1953. > "Yes."
  1954.  
  1955. > She goes on, but she still cannot bring herself to look you in the eyes.
  1956. > "... But he's not. He's doing things, doing *work*. Writing a book about his own world's science & industry, number-crunching with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, bringing in greedy miscreant landlords to face justice, getting his hooves -- hands, I mean -- dirty building who-knows-what contraption, though I'm sure it's wonderfully useful. I'll even give him credit for having the backbone to stand up to Kilfeather; most VIPs would have surrendered Sparkshower and gone on their way."
  1957. > You nod, agreeing.
  1958. > To be honest, you knew almost nothing about the work of the Engineer Royal.
  1959. > You had heard a little through Sparkshower when she had discussed the 'Pas de Sabots', but the pegasus herself knew few of the details.
  1960. > And anyways, there was no need that you should think highly of Anonymous; the Mother-of-Stars thought highly of him, and that was enough.
  1961. > But of course there was harmony in finding yourself thinking as Her Majesty did.
  1962. > Honour finishes her second cup before continuing.
  1963. > "... Working for him was just barely starting to make up for all the terrible VIP's I'd had to serve. And then Princess Luna visited yesterday."
  1964. > She pauses, not to collect herself -- but for the emphasis, and she looks straight at you again.
  1965. > "... It was enthralling, as you said. And it was gratifying, and contenting, and assuring, as well. She made me feel good about my job again. And she made me feel good about *myself*, too."
  1966. > Now the Corporal stalls once more, and you can easily guess what the next subject is to be.
  1967. "But Anonymous this morning has done something to make you feel bad again."
  1968. > You see her suck her lips in, and she shakes her head slowly.
  1969. > "Yesterday, while we were up here drinking, he had teams of workponies in his chambers, moving furniture, taking out documents, and bringing in tools and other materials."
  1970. > Hmm, is he not allowed to do what he pleases in his own room?
  1971. "This is not permitted?"
  1972.  
  1973. > She grimaces, as if speaking the next words physically hurts her.
  1974. > "Strictly speaking, no. There's supposed to be somepony with him as an honour guard whenever he's alone or in public company. Technically, he doesn't even have permission to dismiss us as he did -- we're supposed to have full responsibility for our schedule, and it's our heads if he's ever unguarded. But I was so stirred up by Luna's visit, when he said he'd do fine alone in the afternoon and evening, I didn't even think to ask him if he had any plans."
  1975. > Ah, yes, the frustration most classic: to be angry at the self for allowing another to abrogate your own responsibilities.
  1976. > "... What he did yesterday... it's not actually that big of a deal, though this morning I made like it was."
  1977. > The plot, she thickens!
  1978. > You resist the urge to put on a sly smile.
  1979. > But you cannot resist the urge to ask an amusing question.
  1980. "If we suppose that the Royal Engineer had a guest most private in his chambers, or visited the same somewhere else, during the working hours... ?"
  1981. > The Corporal gets your meaning.
  1982. > "If we can't stay in the room, then we're supposed to stand watch outside the door."
  1983. "Of course."
  1984. > There is another awkward long pause as Honour works herself down into seriousness again.
  1985. > "He joked about the arrangement as well. Said he'd always felt safe walking around the palace halls anytime of day. I said that what he did before was irrelevant. And then..."
  1986.  
  1987. > She sighs.
  1988. > Here you are, the root of the problem.
  1989. > You almost hold your breath in anticipation.
  1990. > "... He said having guards almost sounded like 'an inconvenience'."
  1991. > She shrugs.
  1992. > "... I don't know why, but that word just... stung me. He was joking when he said it, I'm sure, but it still hurt -- hurt my *pride*, my *honour*, my *self-respect*."
  1993. > Once again, she turns away from you, unable to carry on speaking to your face.
  1994. > Definitely this is something to get used to, the way these Equestrians like to talk at a distance.
  1995. > Things are so much clearer when speaking muzzle-to-muzzle!
  1996. > "... Everything wonderful that Princess Luna had built up yesterday came crashing down. And it was as if all the positive things I'd thought about him snapped right back into the negative. He was just another arrogant, self-centred, miscreant VIP, undeserving of the Princess' grace."
  1997. > One last deep breath, and she looks up at you.
  1998. > "... I told him as much. And now I'm upstairs."
  1999. > Corporal Honour Bound lifts her forehooves up in the air and then lets them drop down beside her.
  2000. > "... But probably not for long. As soon as he reports the incident to Lieutenant Violetta, I'll be out of here, one way or another."
  2001. > So that is all, then.
  2002. > To you, she is perhaps overreacting, but then again, what do you know of the VIPs Equestrian?
  2003. > Heh, except that Anonymous is just as alien here as you are, if not more so, what with not having any hooves, and not having grown up anywhere *near* this world.
  2004. > Though he has been free to walk around for longer than you have.
  2005.  
  2006. > You are about to say something reassuring, when there are hoofsteps at the door, and this swings open without a knock.
  2007. > Both of you look up as Specialist Glamerspear enters the room.
  2008. > She still has the metal cone around her horn.
  2009. > "Oh, hey Corporal. I'm just getting back from medical."
  2010. > Honour nods at the head ornament.
  2011. > "Still spellbound?"
  2012. > The unicorn does not look pleased.
  2013. > "Yeah. They said it'd be another day or two."
  2014. > She pauses, looking the Corporal up and down, looking in her direction as she closes the door.
  2015. > "... How 'bout you? Are you alright?"
  2016. > Honour shuffles slightly in her seat.
  2017. > "I'll be fine."
  2018. > Glamerspear does not look as if she believes the Corporal, but she declines to press the question further.
  2019. > "Good. Well, since I'm still basically off-duty, unless anypony needs me right now, I figured I'd go do some laps in the field..."
  2020. > The unicorn shrugs.
  2021. > "... I mean, what the hay, this junk on my horn gets me a pass on PPT, but I'd still better stay in shape, right? I'll be back after lunch."
  2022. > "Sure."
  2023. > Before Glamerspear can turn around and head out, you hear hoofsteps in the hallway, and there is a knock at the door.
  2024. > Hmm, Sparkshower would not bother knocking.
  2025. > Looking over at Corporal Bound, you see a look of serious concern on her face.
  2026. > Could this be Lieutenant Temper Violetta, already here to scold or dismiss her?
  2027. > A very quick turnaround if so.
  2028.  
  2029. > Unaware of the concerns of her Corporal, Glamerspear casually pulls the door open.
  2030. > There is a clean-cut young pegasus colt standing at the door, with a violet cap and matching tunic.
  2031. > "Delivery for a Corporal Bound?"
  2032. > "That's me."
  2033. > On the sofa beside you, the recipient looks completely confused.
  2034. > She is so lethargic that she does not get up, even as the pegasus is already reaching into his saddle-bag for the delivery.
  2035. > He delicately hoofs over a loosely-wrapped conical package to Glamerspear.
  2036. > "Here you are. Have a nice day."
  2037. > With a smile and a tip of his hat, he departs.
  2038. > Glamerspear shuts the door again, then walks over to the sofa and chairs.
  2039. > "Special occasion today, Corporal? Did you have a birthday without telling us?"
  2040. > The Corporal just shakes her head, still confused.
  2041. > Glamerspear puts the delivery down in front of Honour, who slowly reaches forward and pulls on the bow-knot of string holding the package together.
  2042. > Once so loosened, a large flap of the wrapping paper naturally unfolds itself.
  2043. > Inside is a nice bouquet of colourful flowers, and they instantly fill the room with the fresh smell of spring.
  2044. > Honour stares at them, more confused than ever.
  2045. > Her reaction just seems to amuse Glamerspear.
  2046. > "OOOOH, looks like somepony's got an admirer! What's it say on the card?"
  2047. > There is indeed a small white card visible just underneath the rest of the packaging, and the Corporal picks this up in both hooves to read out loud.
  2048. > "With sincerest apologies, Anonymous."
  2049. > ¡Guau!
  2050.  
  2051.  
  2052.  
  2053.  
  2054. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and things are just about to get interesting.
  2055. > The unforeseen arrival of flowers from the Royal Engineer, and the regretful note accompanying them, had completely stupefied Corporal Bound.
  2056. > Ordinarily, you would have been all up in her face with questions about it, but this time you'd taken it slow.
  2057. > She didn't look in much condition to answer.
  2058. > From the shared reaction of the Sergeant and the Corporal, they had probably already discussed what happened this morning.
  2059. > And the delivery had been so unexpected as to strike both of them dumb.
  2060. > You'd even had to point out -- after a *very* long and awkward silence -- that the flowers ought to be put in a vase.
  2061. > Not that the Corporal had one, of course.
  2062. > It wasn't exactly on the Royal Guard's standard Table of Allowances.
  2063. > A canteen would do in a pinch -- you'd used one yourself on a few occasions, when dealing with particularly flirtatious or romantic salt-licks.
  2064. > But it was a bit... 'field-tent chic'.
  2065. > Luckily, the small buffet server in the living room area had a second copper water-jug in it.
  2066. > It was perfectly sized to hold the bouquet, and you'd remembered somepony telling you that copper vessels kept flowers fresh for longer.
  2067. > Something about the metal?
  2068. > Whatever.
  2069.  
  2070. > In short order, the sweet-smelling bundle was sitting pretty on the coffee table, adding a little colour to your otherwise pretty humble servants' quarters.
  2071. > And since neither Sergeant Ebonshield nor Corporal Bound had been in any kind of talking mood, you'd let them be, going to do your PPT exercises as previously planned.
  2072. > Yeah, your horngear got you a few funny looks in the training fields.
  2073. > The damn cone kept bouncing around, clonking into your helmet.
  2074. > And the shackles jangled heavily with every hoofstep you took.
  2075. > That was the price of wrecking one of your creepy exes, though.
  2076. > And the medical attachments were going to be with you for just a few more days.
  2077. > Hopefully.
  2078. > Your Pony Physical Training routine taken care of, you'd gotten lunch, returned to to your quarters for a quick shower, and then started on some more of that ancient 'De Magia Unicornis' treatise.
  2079. > That was three hours ago.
  2080. > While Ebonshield had retreated into privacy, before leaving to begin her shift, Honour had remained in her stupor, shuffling idly between her bedroom and the sofa, still half-wearing her armour.
  2081. > She'd spent a lot of time staring at the flowers.
  2082. > And a lot of time just staring at the wall in her room.
  2083. > It wasn't just boredom, though.
  2084. > You could tell she was on edge about something.
  2085. > Heck, she even flipped through the issues of 'Cosmoponitan' and 'Canterlot Match' scattered on the coffee-table.
  2086. > Not with any real interest, just as something to do.
  2087. > That big book penned by the Royal Engineer, though, was conspicuously absent from her idle reading activities.
  2088. > There was definitely something going on, and as soon as Sparkshower got back, you were going to get some real dirt on this situation.
  2089.  
  2090. > The clock on the wall softly ticks away the minutes.
  2091. > You spy the Corporal glancing up at it as well, and you know she's waiting anxiously for the shift change as well.
  2092. > It's ten after four; Sparks should be up any second now...
  2093. > There's the unmistakable *clomp* noise of four hooves in heavy sabots touching down just outside your quarters, and then the door opens.
  2094. > Specialist Sparkshower walks right on in, a smile on her face.
  2095. > "Hi, Honour! Hi, Lily -- Oh, good, you got the flowers! Aren't they pretty?"
  2096. > Instantly, the Corporal bolts upright and scrambles to her hooves, more animated than you'd seen her all day.
  2097. > "You knew about them?!"
  2098. > Sparkshower laughs off the question with a playful giggle.
  2099. > "Well, of course, Corporal! I was on-duty with the Royal Engineer when he bought them."
  2100. > As the armoured pegasus pulls off her helmet and heads to her room, your brown earth-pony Corporal moves to intercept.
  2101. > "What happened? What did he say? What do they mean??"
  2102. > Artemis pauses in front of her door, her smile turning to amused confusion.
  2103. > "I don't understand, Corporal; don't you like the arrangement? I helped him a little bit with the choice, you know! I thought they were really pretty when we left the store."
  2104. > Honour shuts her eyes and sighs, and you get the sense that she really is exhausted.
  2105. > That's probably as much from the late night full of drinking combined with whatever happened this morning, as it is from the tension of waiting until Sparkshower came back with fresh news.
  2106. > When Honour opens her eyes again, she takes a deep breath and focuses on Sparkshower.
  2107. > "Could you just tell me what happened when you took over my shift?"
  2108. > The golden-maned pegasus nods.
  2109. > "Sure, Corporal..."
  2110.  
  2111. > She shrugs.
  2112. > "... It's not really complicated. I reported in, and the Royal Engineer asked how the quaternion was doing. I said we were all getting along well since yesterday. He said that was good, and he asked if you were all right. I said that you seemed to be. Then I asked him what had happened."
  2113. > Honour can't keep her calm, and leans in towards Sparkshower.
  2114. > "How did he answer?"
  2115. > The mare just shakes her head and smiles.
  2116. > "Just that he'd said something mean which had upset you. And that he wanted to apologize. He asked me if I thought flowers and a card would be appropriate. I said I thought they would, and then we went straight out to a really fancy flower-shop - Eliza's Efflorescences in Floral Street, near the Royal Opera House. They had a huge selection of fresh spring flowers; the salespony was recommending roses for an apology-bouquet, but they weren't really in season. I suggested the daffodils and the tulips, and Anonymous agreed, and he picked out some nice crocus and bluebell, too, then the salespony finished it with-"
  2117. > Honour cuts her off.
  2118. > "That's all he told you? That he'd said something which had upset me?"
  2119. > Sparkshower almost looks disappointed she didn't get to finish describing all the flowers in the bouquet.
  2120. > "That's all. I didn't want to pry into the details..."
  2121. > She frowns and looks down at the ground.
  2122. > "... Though, I didn't think the Royal Engineer would ever say something upsetting. He seems like a real gentlecolt..."
  2123. > With pleading eyes, Specialist Sparkshower looks up again at Corporal Bound.
  2124. > "... You'll accept his apology, won't you, Corporal? I wouldn't want to have to leave such a nice VIP, or to break up our team, especially not now when we're really getting along so well!"
  2125. > Honour looks the same way she did when the flowers first arrived -- stunned, with a glazed-over look in her eyes.
  2126.  
  2127. > It takes a second before she shakes herself out of it.
  2128. > "Yeah, Sparkshower. I'll tell him I accept his apology tomorrow morning during my shift."
  2129. > This pleases the pegasus.
  2130. > "Oh, good! Okee-dokee, I'm going to get changed and have a quick rinse before dinner."
  2131. > Corporal Bound gives your comrade a half-hearted nod, and from across the room you shoot an approving glance in her direction as well.
  2132. > As Artemis heads into her room with a smile on her face, the Corporal slowly plods towards her own door -- right next to the card-table where you're sitting.
  2133. "Corporal."
  2134. > Failing to get her attention, you try again, leaning over and speaking more loudly.
  2135. "CORPORAL?"
  2136. > With a snap, she looks up at you, wordless.
  2137. > Geez, she's really out of it.
  2138. "Are you all right?"
  2139. > Frowning, Honour licks her lips.
  2140. > "Yeah, I think so."
  2141. > That was hardly confidence-inspiring.
  2142. > And she's supposed to be in charge of the quaternion like this?
  2143. "O-kay... And are you going to tell Sparkshower and me what *really* happened this morning?"
  2144. > Ah, the familiar dispassionate, vaguely disapproving gaze returns to the Corporal's face.
  2145. > It's a welcome sight, and a grin grows on your own mug.
  2146. "... I didn't ask earlier because it seemed like you needed some time to figure something out. Since we share the same professional relationship with the Royal Engineer, I figure we ought to stay on the same page, right?"
  2147. > There's a moment where Honour tenses up, annoyed at your prying into her private affairs.
  2148.  
  2149. > Then she relaxes again, nodding.
  2150. > "Tomorrow, after my shift."
  2151. > It'll have to do.
  2152. "Sure thing. You going to come to dinner with us?"
  2153. > She steps into her bedroom just as Sparkshower emerges, stripped of her armour, and heads into the washroom.
  2154. > "Yeah. Holler when Sparkshower's done with her shower."
  2155. > Two doors close, and you're left alone in the living room.
  2156. > You turn back to your book, but you don't have the energy for heavy theoretical reading right now.
  2157. > Whatever happened this morning, it seems like Anonymous considered himself at fault.
  2158. > But the way Honour was behaving, either he didn't just *say* something outrageous, but actually *did* something outrageous...
  2159. > Or else he wasn't the one with anything to apologize for.
  2160. > Hrm.
  2161. > If Ebonshield really did get the full story out of Honour while you were in medical, then who knows what she could be telling Anonymous right now while she's working the evening shift...
  2162.  
  2163.  
  2164.  
  2165.  
  2166. "Specialist Sparkshower, I relive you."
  2167. > "Sergeant Ebonshield, I stand relieved."
  2168. > You are Stellar Purity Ebonshield, and you have just realized that you forgot to ask yesterday if there was some kind of ritual exchange you should be conducting during shift changes.
  2169. > Thankfully, Sparkshower has rolled along with your more ordinary instruction.
  2170. > The young pegasus gives you a cheerful smile as she passes out of the room.
  2171. > She was deceptively sharp, that pony.
  2172. > With a little more experience under her saddle, she would do very well.
  2173. > As you settle into your place in front of the door, you survey the scene before you.
  2174. > Things were as the Corporal Bound described: the study of the Engineer Royal had been partially transformed into some kind of workshop.
  2175. > A thankfully clean and neat kind, at least.
  2176. > There was no smell of the oils as in a smithy or the strange herbs as at an alchemist shop.
  2177. > Instead, there were simply a series of workbenches, covered in what to you appeared like nothing more than scraps of metal and various tools.
  2178.  
  2179. > "Good afternoon, Sergeant."
  2180. > Anonymous, the Royal Engineer, has turned around in his stool to face you.
  2181. > The white smock he wears over top his suit has a couple of small oil blotches, but is otherwise pristine -- a testament to the cleanliness of his working environment.
  2182. > You close your eyes and give a respectful bow.
  2183. "Good afternoon, Great Lord."
  2184. > Raising your head again, you find that your VIP is still looking expectantly in your direction.
  2185. > His thoughts are obvious.
  2186. "... There is a matter I should like to discuss, if the Great Lord can spare time for his humble servant."
  2187. > Anonymous turns slightly to put down the strange device he was holding in one hand.
  2188. > "By all means, Sergeant."
  2189. > You take a few steps forward into the room.
  2190. "In regards to the matter I raised two days ago, as to the Great Lord's relationship with his guardsponies."
  2191. > The eyes of the Royal Engineer go wide, and you see his cheeks go beet red.
  2192. > This is a bit mean of you to tease him this way, but you cannot help yourself.
  2193. > And besides, you are educating him.
  2194. > Anonymous raises his hand, holding up one finger, and start to babble as only a colt can.
  2195. > "Now, Sergeant, I'm worried that you may be misconstruing my action here..."
  2196. > Now standing comfortably in front of him, you feign ignorance.
  2197. "Which action is that, Great Lord?"
  2198. > Instantly, the Royal Engineer's panic disappears, and he looks at you askance, concerned that he's misunderstood you.
  2199. > Well, he has of course misunderstood your actual intention, but he certainly fell right into your trap.
  2200. > "I was referring to the flowers I had delivered to Corporal Bound. They did arrive upstairs, didn't they?"
  2201.  
  2202. > Lifting your eyebrows, you pretend to act surprised.
  2203. "Oh, *that* action. Yes, Great Lord, the flowers arrived shortly before lunch-time."
  2204. > You leave it at that, as if that was all there was to it.
  2205. > There is a pause awkward, before Anonymous prompts you to continue.
  2206. > "Er, and did the Corporal... say anything?"
  2207. "Of course, Great Lord. She had a great number of things to say..."
  2208. > Taking a deep breath, you glance away momentarily.
  2209. "... But I should not wish to steal her words. The Great Lord will be pleased to hear them from the mouth of the Caporal herself tomorrow morning."
  2210. > Furrowing his brow, Anonymous looks down, fidgeting with his hands for a second, before looking up, somewhat confused.
  2211. > "But... does she accept my apology?"
  2212. > Allowing yourself a few more theatrics before getting to the real point, you once again appear indifferent.
  2213. "Accepts? Why yes, Great Lord, I believe that she does."
  2214. > A warm smile fills the face of the Royal Engineer once more.
  2215. > "Oh, good. I didn't want to think that she'd be leaving my service over my amateur failure to understand Equestrian culture."
  2216. > Taking a breath of relief, he waggles his finger and shakes his head.
  2217. > "... Heh, you had me worried there for a moment, thinking that she had taken it the wrong way."
  2218. > Oh, this is an opportunity altogether too good to pass up.
  2219. > One more little teasing prod won't hurt.
  2220. "Which way is that, Great Lord?"
  2221. > The smile disappears, and the frown returns.
  2222. > "Well... When you said you wanted to talk about my 'relationship' with guardsponies, I thought you were, er... talking about..."
  2223. > He trails off a bit, seeming to have difficulty finding the words.
  2224. > These Equestrian colts and their inability to speak straight!
  2225. > Then again, the Royal Engineer is not truly Equestrian.
  2226. > Though you get the sense that the society he comes from is probably closer to the culture local of the surface, in her taboos and sensitivities, than to the culture of your people on the Moon.
  2227.  
  2228. > You once again make an exaggerated motion with your head.
  2229. "Ahh... The Great Lord thought I was implying that the elegant bouquet had been treated as a romantic gesture. I can assure the Great Lord that this was not the case..."
  2230. > Relieved, the Royal Engineer deflates himself, slouching in his chair, and looking away.
  2231. "... It would have needed at least a box of chocolates as well to be considered as such."
  2232. > Anonymous pauses, blinks his eyes, and then looks back at you with a critical eye.
  2233. > He pauses to look you over.
  2234. > "Sergeant, I have the distinct impression that I'm being toyed with."
  2235. > You smile.
  2236. "Yes, Great Lord. I trust it has been edifying as and entertaining also."
  2237. > That was a risky admission, but there is a relief -- and a confirmation of what you had observed of the Royal Engineer -- when his critical eye is replaced with a wry smile.
  2238. > "Alright, Sergeant, that'll do."
  2239. > He turns to get back to your work, so you speak up.
  2240. "I beg the forgiveness of the Great Lord, but there *is* actually a matter I wished to discuss in seriousness -- that of arranging for the training in combat."
  2241. > Anonymous returns to face you, a somewhat wary look on his face.
  2242. > "And? I already agreed, didn't it?"
  2243. > You give a courteous bow.
  2244. "Indeed, and I have already begun to make preparations. However, there are some details to discuss. Firstly, there is the matter of the panoply of the Great Lord..."
  2245. > He lifts an eyebrow.
  2246. "... Without the equipment proper, conducting the training is both inappropriate and dangerous. Yet, as the Great Lord is not any kind of pony, such equipment may be difficult and expensive to procure. Knowing this, does the Great Lord still wish to proceed?"
  2247.  
  2248. > The Royal Engineer considers for a moment, then shrugs.
  2249. > "I have a personal stipend from the Princesses; I suppose I might as well spend it. This stuff..."
  2250. > He looks over and waves at the table full of tools, wood, and metal.
  2251. > "... doesn't count against it -- anything related to my actual business is expensed directly from the Royal Treasury. I suppose a suit of armour and a weapon are reasonable uses of my allowance, given the circumstances..."
  2252. > Anonymous turns back to you.
  2253. > "... I still don't think I should have to fight, but as you made clear on Tuesday, that may be inevitable, and I agree it's better to be safe than to be sorry. The nobility of Equestria are, on some level, still expected to be defenders of the realm, and I suppose I *am* a kind of noble, after all."
  2254. > A commendably logical answer; you bow in acknowledgement.
  2255. "Excellent. I shall make the necessary arrangements with the full confidence of the Great Lord. However, as I myself am somewhat of a stranger here, I should also require the services of Specialist Sparkshower in this quest. Does the Great Lord know if his schedule would permit the absence of *two* members of his quaternion for much of a single day -- perhaps even tomorrow?"
  2256. > "You mean do I know if I'll be having any visitors? Hmm..."
  2257. > The Royal Engineer gets to his feet and walks over to his writing-desk.
  2258. > Once there, he flips through a small appointment-book.
  2259. > "... I don't have anything *scheduled*, but things do sometimes come up at the last minute..."
  2260. > He looks up at you from the desk.
  2261. > "... How about I make the decision in the morning, will that work?"
  2262.  
  2263. > You nod your head.
  2264. "The Great Lord is most reasonable."
  2265. > Anonymous walks back towards the workbench.
  2266. > "All right. Was there anything else?"
  2267. > Shaking your head, you give a salute.
  2268. "No, Great Lord. That was all I wished to discuss."
  2269. > He nods, and you head back to the door to take up your post.
  2270. > "Sergeant?"
  2271. > You turn, to find Anonymous standing next to his stool, leaning one hand on the seat while the other is planted on his hip.
  2272. > "... Are all batponies teases, or is it just you?"
  2273. > Ah, flattery!
  2274. > You smile as you turn around and sit down in front of the doors.
  2275. "As the Great Lord will doubtless meet more Children of the Stars in short order, having been charged with a quest by the Mother-of-Stars herself, I trust that he shall be able to decide that issue for himself."
  2276. > The lips of the Engineer Royal wrinkle up into a knowing smile, and he nods at you, then sits down with a chuckle.
  2277. > Settling in to your evening shift ensuring the safety of your VIP extradimensional, you do sincerely hope that Corporal Bound comes out of her stupor and manages to return to duty.
  2278. > While true that the sitting in front of the doors, watching somepony scribble the words or tinker with the tools can be quite mindlessly dull, for her to leave would be a waste of what seems to have already been, and promises to continue to be, a most interesting assignment!
  2279.  
  2280.  
  2281.  
  2282.  
  2283. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and it hasn't been an easy night.
  2284. > Yesterday, you'd woken up tired, a bit hung over, still shaken by previous morning's religious experience, and regretful of the subsequent afternoon full of nonsense.
  2285. > Today, the hangover and the religious fervour were gone, but the exhaustion and regrets had so increased as to more than made up for the absence.
  2286. > While you were off getting drunk, your Very Important Pony, who wasn't actually a pony, had violated the arcane Equestrian social contract for those granted the noble privilege of a private Affinity -- the right to maintain their own armed retainers.
  2287. > And when you confronted him with that violation, unintentional or not, he'd made a joke that seemed to you as denigrating the entire system.
  2288. > This had upset you so much that you had refused him service, all but cussing him out as you left.
  2289. > The reasons for your actions were... complicated.
  2290. > And they were certainly not worth getting into now, as you head towards his chambers once again.
  2291. > Lack of self-control aside, everything that you had done was bad enough as it was.
  2292. > But then, your VIP had taken the inconceivable step of sending his apologies.
  2293. > And according to Specialist Sparkshower, he had done so sincerely and with genuine remorse.
  2294. > It was numbing, and you'd spent nearly the whole day sulking about.
  2295. > At night, actual sleep seemed to be merely brief punctuation marks between the twisted dreams of a confused mind.
  2296. > Now it's morning, and although the panic has gone, the dread remains.
  2297. > Not a dread of the long-term future -- unless you had seriously misread things, it was clear that the Royal Engineer didn't want you to leave his service, and that he wasn't about to have you disciplined or dismissed.
  2298.  
  2299. > Which was not to say that it might not still happen without him intending it, but you generally felt that your career were safe, at least.
  2300. > Instead, like a filly giving a presentation in school, you were filled with the puerile dread of just what to say.
  2301. > You round a corner, and Anonymous' white double doors loom in the distance, on the left side, near the end of the hallway.
  2302. > He was owed an apology, that was an absolute minimum.
  2303. > But he deserved so much more than that.
  2304. > When you had made this brief trek downstairs yesterday, you had been musing about the batpony Ebonshield's part in your quaternion.
  2305. > Now the subject was your own role.
  2306. > You weren't a highborn noble, schooled from birth in the intricate details of court life.
  2307. > You'd known a little bit from popular culture and basic schooling, the same as anypony else.
  2308. > Princesses and Princes, Lords and Ladies, bowing and kneeling, Sir-ing and Ma'am-ing.
  2309. > Plus a general respect for the power of the institution of nobility.
  2310. > In spite of Sergeant Ebonshield's opinion, the VIP training classes did do a respectable job of filling in many of the gaps.
  2311. > And you had spent one-and-a-half years in this specialized service, picking up most of the other details along the way.
  2312. > But you weren't in any position to be teaching anypony anything about it, were you?
  2313. > You pause, standing on the wide ribbon of red-and-cream carpet that lay on top of the palace's checkerboard-pattern floor, staring at the doors ahead and to your left.
  2314. > Anonymous couldn't have known anything about the social contracts of this world when he'd arrived here.
  2315. > Yet, he'd not just survived, but thrived, reaching the loftiest halls of power in the matter of a few months.
  2316. > Was it really all down to determination and a bit of luck?
  2317.  
  2318. > You considered your own situation.
  2319. > Yes, you were just a Corporal, the lowest position of any actual leadership in the Guard.
  2320. > But you had come from a pretty low station in life, knowing nothing of noble pleasures and luxuries.
  2321. > Now you were in the exclusive VIP service, with decorated guardsponies in your charge.
  2322. > And travelling among the rich and powerful of Equestrian society -- J. P. Mustang, the Privy Council, even Her Majesty Princess Luna in person.
  2323. > You used to think you hadn't made much of your life, and maybe you *had* squandered some of your potential.
  2324. > But, in this moment of reflection in one of Canterlot Castle's calm, quiet, hallways, you realize that you hadn't done that badly, after all.
  2325. > And the key was not to go on wasting yourself.
  2326. > You consider what Princess Luna asked of Anonymous yesterday.
  2327. > He'd known nothing of batponies, not even the legends and myths.
  2328. > He barely even knew *Equestrian* history and culture.
  2329. > But when Princess Luna tasked him with helping her repair a thousand-year rift with creatures who had been sworn to domination over all Equestria, he didn't flinch.
  2330. > He'd finished his biscuit, put down his coffee, and calmly, collectedly, said he would do whatever he could.
  2331. > Was that confidence all it took?
  2332. > You decide that it was.
  2333. > You knew enough about noble traditions.
  2334. > And Anonymous had shown himself more than willing to listen.
  2335. > Fate hadn't refused him an expert social teacher when it had assigned Sergeant Ebonshield to the quaternion.
  2336. > Fate had simply acknowledged that *you* were the expert.
  2337. > You just had to rise to the challenge.
  2338. > You *will* rise to the challenge.
  2339.  
  2340. > Lifting your head and taking a deep breath, you seem to inhale confidence itself.
  2341. > As the experience with Princess Luna two days ago filled you with faith in the nation as a whole, this simple conclusion after a restless night now fills you with a kind of boldness that you haven't felt since you first joined the Guard.
  2342. > No longer dreading the colt on the other side of the doors, you proceed forwards once again.
  2343. > Yes, you will take charge of the Royal Engineer, guiding him through the shallow waters of noble society.
  2344. > You will show him the truth that Princess Luna reopened your eyes to see:
  2345. > That in Equestria, good ponies work together to achieve great things.
  2346. > Because friendship truly *is* magic.
  2347. > Brimming with courage, and allowing a determined smile to creep onto your face, you knock on the door.
  2348. > "Come in."
  2349. > Yesterday, you opened this door full of confidence that the Princesses could solve all the world's problems, with the help of their trusted lieutenants such as the Royal Engineer.
  2350. > Today, you open it with the self-assurance that *you* number among them, as well.
  2351. "Corporal Bound reporting for duty, Sir!"
  2352. > Anonymous is sitting on a stool in front of the workbenches, hunched over some contraption.
  2353. > He turns around and looks up at you, and all the words you had ready in your head melt away in an instant.
  2354. > Unlike all the scenarios your mind had managed to dream up last night, he wasn't cold or angry.
  2355. > His usual warm, friendly smile was there, but it was heavily suppressed by an apprehensive caution.
  2356. > And he looked tired.
  2357.  
  2358. > "Good morning, Corporal."
  2359. > You swallow, unable to reply.
  2360. > Where did the words go?
  2361. > They were on your tongue just a moment ago.
  2362. > It would almost be easier if he *was* angry with you!
  2363. > Closing your eyes for a moment, you open them, lick your lips, and paw at the ground with one hoof.
  2364. > All you have to do is apologize for yesterday.
  2365. > Why is that so hard?
  2366. "Sir, I... uhm..."
  2367. > Pull yourself together, Honour!
  2368. "... About yesterday, sir..."
  2369. > You trail off again, unable to string together enough words to form a sentence.
  2370. > As you stand, slack-jawed and empty-mouthed, Anonymous gets up from his seat, slowly wiping his hands on his apron.
  2371. > "I'm sorry for what I said about your services yesterday, Corporal. I do really appreciate the help you've given me, and the work you've done."
  2372. > Damn it, *you're* supposed to be the one apologizing, not him!
  2373. > But you're still held mute.
  2374. > "... And I'm sorry for acting without having consulted you in matters of social obligations."
  2375. > He shrugs and shakes his head, remorseful.
  2376. > "... I'm afraid I just don't have a head for these sorts of things. I hope you can forgive my mistakes."
  2377. > Oh, sweet Celestia, this is all wrong!
  2378. > You start shaking your head.
  2379. "No--No, sir, you-..."
  2380.  
  2381. > Take a breath, Honour.
  2382. > The words start to come back into your head.
  2383. "... You don't have anything to apologize for, sir. *I'm* sorry; for refusing you service, for insulting you as I did yesterday."
  2384. > You look up and meet his eyes, confidence returning.
  2385. "... You didn't deserve what I said to you. Having some movers in without your escort won't set any tongues wagging. I overreacted, and it was very unprofessional of me. For that, and for more, I apologize, sir."
  2386. > Rubbing his hands together, he spreads them open in front of him.
  2387. > "But I *did* blunder, Corporal. I didn't consider the situation I'm in."
  2388. > This damned, humble gentlecolt!
  2389. "Sir, seeing you safely through Equestrian society is *my* responsibility, and it's my fault for not being proactive."
  2390. > "Come now, Corporal, you can't anticipate everything I might do. Surely, I'm at fault for not asking before acting."
  2391. > Guh!
  2392. > Is he seriously arguing with you while you're trying to claim responsibility?!
  2393. > You try to project the calm confidence of a veteran.
  2394. "No, sir, *I'm* at fault for not asking before leaving. I may not be able to anticipate everything you might do, but you certainly can't anticipate what might be socially unacceptable according to the rules of noble society."
  2395. > Sitting down, you clasp your forehooves together, pleading.
  2396. "... Please, sir. I'm the guardspony in charge of your VIP quaternion, and this is my cart to pull. I erred in leaving you alone without guidance or without asking you your plans. I erred in scolding you for what was my own mistake. I erred in refusing you service..."
  2397.  
  2398. > Your face brightens as you think of a good way to wrap up.
  2399. "... In fact, sir, the only mistake you made was in sending me flowers and an apology card when you hadn't actually done anything wrong."
  2400. > A wry, uncomfortable smile appears on his face, and he shrugs awkwardly.
  2401. > "I, uh -- I just thought it was the right thing to do, that's all..."
  2402. > He spreads his hands and then clasps them together again.
  2403. > "... I hope they brightened things up, at least."
  2404. "They did, sir..."
  2405. > As you lower your hooves, your mind drifts back to the memory of when Glamerspear had unwrapped that sweet-smelling colourful bouquet in front of you.
  2406. "... It, uh, was actually a really sweet gesture."
  2407. > Now why in Tartarus did you go and say that out loud?
  2408. > It was supposed to be internal thought only!
  2409. > You can't really piece together why your lips decided to utter what your mind was thinking, and you find yourself blushing, awkwardly.
  2410. > "I, uh..."
  2411. > The Royal Engineer, appearing thankfully not to have noticed your suddenly-rosy cheeks, fidgets with his hands some more as he glances around.
  2412. > Nodding his head, he shoves his hands into his pockets.
  2413. > "... Certainly I accept your apologies, Corporal. So, er, where do we go from here?"
  2414. > Oh, thank goodness it's back to business again.
  2415. > The flush feeling subsides.
  2416. "Well, sir, it would be appreciated if you informed me -- or whoever comes on duty -- of your plans for the day."
  2417.  
  2418. > Anonymous seems equally pleased to be talking about ordinary matters once more.
  2419. > "Of course, of course..."
  2420. > With a sigh, he seems to settle back into his usual posture.
  2421. > "... Sergeant Ebonshield mentioned that she would like to go in campaign with Specialist Sparkshower to try to find me some arms with which to conduct training today, provided I wouldn't be having any occasion to call on them. So far, my schedule is free but for one event, and -- correct me if I'm wrong -- I understand that when attending court, only a single guard may attend somepony, even if they have been granted a full quaternion?"
  2422. > You nod.
  2423. "For open court, yes, sir, just one of us. May I ask what your interest is there today?"
  2424. > He lifts an eyebrow.
  2425. > "Galloway Bitsmount will publicly answer the charges against his mine operations this morning."
  2426. > Now that *was* something.
  2427. > You nod once more.
  2428. "I understand, sir. Shall I let the Sergeant know she's free to head out, then?"
  2429. > The Royal Engineer gives you a slight bow.
  2430. > "Please do. Court is in an hour, but he's not scheduled to appear until ten o'clock."
  2431. "Yes, sir."
  2432. > Giving a salute, you pull open the door and head back upstairs.
  2433. > Finally given a brief moment alone, you collect your thoughts.
  2434. > That went well.
  2435. > Just, not really any way that you had imagined it would.
  2436. > Anyways, that was enough reflection for now.
  2437. > It was time to focus on the task at hoof.
  2438. > You wondered what Ebonshield had in mind for Sparkshower?
  2439.  
  2440.  
  2441.  
  2442.  
  2443. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lW4xkMCkXrI (John Phillip Sousa - 'Semper Fidelis', performed by "The President's Own" United States Marines Band)
  2444.  
  2445. > You are Lieutenant Temper Violetta, and as you sip your morning coffee, it's another glorious Friday in the Royal Guard.
  2446. > A week in the Royal Guard was like a day in Celestia's own presence.
  2447. > Every meal a feast!
  2448. > Every paycheque a fortune!
  2449. > Every formation a parade!
  2450. > Praise Celestia, you LOVE the Royal Guard!
  2451. > And what better way to start the day off than with paperwork?
  2452. > The neat stack of sheets in your out-box was, if you allowed yourself a small boast, a testament to the organization of the Guard, and a shining example for others to follow.
  2453. > It was true, the platoons in the VIP Service were larger than usual, owing to the general lack of combat action seen by their members, and this generally resulted in additional paperwork required, but any officer who couldn't handle a few more pencils to push had no part in your Guard, at least in your books.
  2454. > And they should count themselves lucky to be in the VIP Service, too!
  2455. > With its enlisted ponies having been recruited from among the best soldiers in the main Guard, heavily vetted, comprehensively instructed, and thoroughly drilled, incidents of misbehaviour were rare.
  2456.  
  2457. > Why, just this morning in the Officers' Mess, a junior lieutenant from an ordinary infantry regiment was bemoaning that it was only Friday, and already this week they had doled out *four* non-judicial punishments for disorderly conduct, found *three* of their soldiers tossed in the drunk tank overnight, and been forced to send out search parties to find two ponies Absent Without Official Leave.
  2458. > Poor colt came from an impoverished noble family, and hadn't been able to afford more than the most basic of infantry platoons for his commission.
  2459. > You almost felt sorry for him.
  2460. > But there *was* a reason the purchase of commissions was slowly on its way way out, after all.
  2461. > Soon, the Royal Guard's officer corps would be composed entirely of trained professionals like yourself.
  2462. > That'll be a welcome change, though it'll take some time to get there.
  2463. > There were still plenty high-born ponies in expensive posts who looked down upon any officer who wasn't a gentlepony and hadn't paid their way into the Guard.
  2464. > Nopony would ever question their loyalty to the Crowns, of course, but it wasn't an ideal situation.
  2465. > That Lieutenant Kilfeather of the 1st Air Wing, for example, staging a 'Pas de Sabots' -- what a scandal!
  2466. > He wasn't noble-born, but as an officer, he had the rights of a noble when it came to such ancient customs.
  2467. > And now the gentry -- both within the guard and without -- were calling for his head.
  2468. > All while the rest of the guard merely tried to tread a careful line between the old-style feudal system and the new-style meritocracy.
  2469.  
  2470. > You shake your head as you stare down at the draft report in front of you.
  2471. > 'TO: LT-COL BELLE, CHIEF OF STAFF, JUDGE ADVOCATE GENERAL'
  2472. > 'SUBJ: OFFICIAL COMPLAINT REGARDING THE CONDUCT OF LT. VALIANT KILFEATHER & 1ST AIR WING'
  2473. > 'RE: VIOLATION OF UNIFORM CODE OF MILITARY JUSTICE, ART. 80, 88, 116, 127, 128, & 133
  2474. > It'd taken you all week to collect evidence, pore over the UCMJ, and write everything up.
  2475. > Now your official complaint was sitting before you; having read it and re-read it and re-read it again, all it needed was your signature.
  2476. > Blast it, if he had done anything wrong, this was *way* beyond your pay grade.
  2477. > But a VIP under the protection of one of your quaternions -- and therefore, under your protection, too -- had legitimate grievances.
  2478. > And if Kilfeather really had moved the Pas de Sabots in violation of official permission, not to mention demanded a *hostage* as coward's payment, then everything he and his guardsponies subsequently did constituted felonious acts.
  2479. > As troubled as you were by the notion that an outright criminal could be the wing leader of the premier Air Superiority wing of Equestria, the idea that he might get away with it was even more troubling.
  2480. > Resolving yourself to the correct action, you lean forward and sign the first and last pages, then initial the ten pages in-between, and gather them all up into a manila envelope.
  2481. > This really is the best you can do; now it's up to the JAG to decide to prosecute.
  2482. > Either way they decide, unfortunately, it's likely to lead to an embarrassment for the Guard.
  2483. > With that dealt with, you hope that's the last of your troubles for today.
  2484. > As you pick up your coffee-cup and lean back in the chair, tired, but satisfied with a morning's proper work, there's a knock at the door.
  2485. "Come in!"
  2486. > The door opens, and the very embodiment of trouble stands, saluting, in the doorway.
  2487.  
  2488. > "Majordomo Lieutenant Violetta, may we have a moment of your time?"
  2489. > Dressed in her full Night Guard regalia, including that enormous cloak they all seem to wear, the batpony 'Sergeant' Ebonshield is flanked by Specialist Sparkshower, also fully armoured and saluting, though thankfully unarmed.
  2490. > You don't think she could fit that enormous polearm-spear in your office, anyways.
  2491. "What is it, Sergeant?"
  2492. > You glance between the two ponies -- the one, a loyal servant of the Crowns in her glorious bronze armour and white caparison, the other a complete unknown forced upon you by someone with an awful lot of clout, dressed in black leathers and fabrics that only seem to enhance her natural terrible presence.
  2493. > Not that you were intimidated, of course.
  2494. > The day a Royal Guard was in any way scared by some misfit pony-of-the-night was long off.
  2495. > But you just knew in your heart she was going to cause trouble.
  2496. > "Majordomo, in light of the recent incident at the Bridge of New Stirrups, the Great Lord Royal Engineer whom we have the distinguished privilege to guard has requested that we provide him with the training in the *combat*."
  2497. > What?
  2498. > Of all the crazy things she could have trotted in here and said, this was by far the craziest.
  2499. "Combat training? Sergeant, he's a bureaucrat, not a soldier."
  2500. > She obsequiously bows to you in a display of what is almost certainly false humility.
  2501. > "If she pleases the Majordomo, according to the rules of Equestria, a member of the Privy Council must by definition be invested as a Lord, and therefore may be called upon by the Crowns to serve in the times of war."
  2502. > You shake your head.
  2503. "Ridiculous! It may be in the books, Sergeant, but nopony is going to treat him as having the obligations of the gentry."
  2504. > She bows her head again.
  2505. > "With respect, Majordomo, Lieutenant Kilfeather treated him as exactly such, hence this request."
  2506. > You nod.
  2507. "I know, Sergeant..."
  2508.  
  2509. > Tapping on the manila envelope, you lean forward.
  2510. "... And I'm about to send off a report that will hopefully see the Kilfeather put in his place for that misconduct. I don't expect anypony else will repeat his mistake."
  2511. > Specialist Sparkshower seems to brighten up at the thought, and you give her a reassuring nod.
  2512. > Trying to abduct a bright young pegasus mare like her for his own nefarious ends!
  2513. > 'Icepone' wasn't just a scoundrel, he was downright cold-blooded.
  2514. > The batpony keeps talking.
  2515. > "That is most gratifying, Majordomo; however, the Great Lord was most insistent. I was unfortunately unable to dissuade him from this course of action."
  2516. > You sigh and shake your head.
  2517. > Typical VIP behaviour.
  2518. > As soon as they get guards, they need to show how they don't really need them.
  2519. > It was a running private joke amongst the officers of the VIP service the only VIPs who didn't request combat training as a way to 'prove their worth' and one-up their guards were those who had actually served in the military.
  2520. > You look up at the batpony.
  2521. "All right, Sergeant. So he wants combat training; give him some light stuff and leave it at that..."
  2522. > Leaning back, you tilt your chair and shrug your shoulders.
  2523. "... I can tell you from experience that VIPs tend to get tired of it pretty quickly, anyways. I don't imagine you'll have to indulge him for more than a handful of sessions."
  2524. > Rather than take the instruction and leave, the batpony stands where she is, bowing again.
  2525. > "Thank you, Majordomo, but we have not come merely to ask the permission this morning. We have rather a more interesting question: The Royal Engineer has also requested that the combat training be conducted in the *armour*, and as he is not a pony, one imagines that the normal equipment depot will be unable to provision him."
  2526.  
  2527. > Hum.
  2528. > That *was* an interesting problem.
  2529. > Even when VIPs had in the past requested combat training in armour, they had all been ponies.
  2530. > It was a trivial matter to loan -- or often, outright sell or gift -- them with a set of equipment from the Royal armoury.
  2531. > The only other kind of VIP was visiting dignitaries, and none of them were likely to make the same kind of request.
  2532. > Even worse, Anonymous was a 'human', according to his file sheet, and that wasn't even a known creature in Equestria.
  2533. > He'd have to get the armour custom-made -- also not unusual in and of itself, since many gentleponies liked to get themselves a suit of customized bespoke armour along with the purchase of a commission in the Guard.
  2534. > But custom-made, custom-fitted armour for an alien that wasn't anything like a pony in shape?
  2535. > That was a tall order.
  2536. > He didn't even have hooves!
  2537. "Hmm... If you're asking me if I know where he can get custom work done, I'm afraid that I don't..."
  2538. > As you ponder the situation, a candle flickers on in your head.
  2539. "... But I know somewhere you could find somepony who *might*."
  2540. > Flopping your chair forward, you grab a fresh sheet of paper and a quill and begin to write.
  2541. "... Princess Mi Amore Cadenza's Regiment of Auxiliaries. Heard of them?"
  2542. > You glance up to find the Sergeant shaking her head.
  2543. > Specialist Sparkshower, however, speaks up.
  2544. > "Ma'am, isn't that the one composed of minotaurs and griffons and such?"
  2545. > Good head on her shoulders, that one.
  2546. > Hopefully she can keep the Sergeant in check.
  2547. "That's right, Specialist. The Princess-Cadenza's will actually take any creature who's willing to swear allegiance to the Crowns. They even take in foreigners, and honourable service bestows citizenship."
  2548.  
  2549. > You finishing scribbling, sign the paper, and rock a blotter over everything.
  2550. "... If anypony in the Guard is going to know where to get custom armour, it'll be them."
  2551. > Rolling up the letter, you flick your desk-lighter on in order to melt wax for the seal.
  2552. "... This is a letter of introduction; they're quartered outside of Canterlot proper, in the fort protecting the satellite village of Newcastle-upon-Mare, to the South-East. Ask for the Officer of the Watch when you get there, and present them with this."
  2553. > With the letter sealed, you pick it up and hold it out towards Specialist Sparkshower, then suddenly yank it back.
  2554. "... Er, you're not planning on going as well, are you, Sergeant? Could be a bit... awkward."
  2555. > Mercifully, she shakes her head.
  2556. > "No, Majordomo. I do not wish to cause a disturbance. Specialist Sparkshower will go alone. I have another duty to perform for the Great Lord."
  2557. > The relief is visible on your face as you hoof the scroll over to Sparkshower.
  2558. "What's that, then?"
  2559. > "Majordomo, I must find for the Great Lord a place suitable for the training of combat. I am given to understand from Specialist Sparkshower that the Royal Guard trains exclusively out-of-doors, in the fields designated?"
  2560. > You nod.
  2561. "That's right."
  2562. > The batpony bows again.
  2563. > Foal, they really do love bowing, don't they?
  2564. > "I hope the Majordomo will understand that to train in such a public, open space seems like a most improper proposal for a Great Lord such as the Royal Engineer. Is there no indoor training facility available whatsoever?"
  2565. > Hmm, a fair point, you suppose.
  2566. "I understand your objection, Sergeant, but I'm afraid there isn't anything like that suitable for more than just some very basic physical exercises. Nobles who want to learn how to fight before commissioning into the Royal Guard generally rent out or already own a private enclosure, like the quadrangle of a villa."
  2567.  
  2568. > Ebonshield bows again, and it's actually starting to get on your nerves a bit.
  2569. > "Thank you, Majordomo. Although I would have preferred to make use of an official Royal Guard facility, I do have another option available that I shall investigate. Now with the permission of the Majordomo, may we retire?"
  2570. > You nod, and as they turn to go, you pick up your mug of coffee and take a sip.
  2571. > Something in the back of your head wonders about something Ebonshield just said, and you call out just as she passes the door, having allowed Sparkshower to exit first.
  2572. "Oh, just out of curiosity, what's this 'other option' you've got, Sergeant?"
  2573. > The batpony twists around to face you.
  2574. > "Majordomo, there is a training room under Canterlot mountain, in the Night Guard Rookery."
  2575. > As she speaks the final words, you start to choke as the lukewarm coffee goes down the wrong pipe.
  2576. > "... It is a most private place, and the Great Lord shall not be disturbed."
  2577. > Sputtering and retching, you double over as the batpony just stands there, clueless.
  2578. > "... Are you all right, Majordomo? Can I render assistance?"
  2579. > Unwilling to deal with any more of her nonsense, you shake your head and wave her off with one hoof, as you clutch the other in front of your snout.
  2580. > In the time it takes you to recover, she salutes, spins, exits, and closes the door.
  2581. > Leading the Royal Engineer into that den of vipers!?
  2582. > Bloody Tartarus!
  2583. > And you had your orders -- you couldn't do a damn thing about it!
  2584.  
  2585.  
  2586.  
  2587.  
  2588. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and it's good to be flying again!
  2589. > Not that you don't fly all the time, of course, but this is the first time you've gone past Canterlot's city walls since...
  2590. > Well, since Saturday, actually.
  2591. > And it's only Friday.
  2592. > So, not even a week.
  2593. > But it still feels like a long time!
  2594. > You're a recon pony, after all -- training to roam far and wide, seeing all you can see.
  2595. > Being cooped up just doesn't quite suit you.
  2596. > And a lot can change in a week.
  2597. > There's a lot more flowers out now, for one, to say nothing of the leaves sprouting out everywhere.
  2598. > Farmponies are all out, too, busy planting -- though they were probably doing that last week, too.
  2599. > From the looks of things, half the ponies of Newcastle-upon-Mare are out in the fields, working as seasonal farmhooves.
  2600. > Not that the village itself is empty -- there's plenty of ponies out and about on the streets.
  2601. > And there, at one edge of the village, is the Royal Guard bastion -- a rectangular raised plateau with pointed corners for raking cannon-fire, and topped with four long barracks buildings.
  2602. > Tipping down, you aim to land at the main gate.
  2603. > There's a nice big open field in-between the buildings, but you can't land there.
  2604. > It's impolite to bypass the front door, for one.
  2605. > Even though it's a Royal Guard facility, and you're a guardspony yourself, you're still a visitor.
  2606. > For two, the airspace above the fort proper is restricted, and if you passed over it at low altitude they might send somepony up to intercept.
  2607.  
  2608. > Hmm...
  2609. > And it's a regiment *entirely* composed of non-ponies?
  2610. > Who knows what your possible interceptor would be.
  2611. > As your armoured hooves touch down with the gate just ahead of you, you hear a bugle sounding assembly inside.
  2612. > It doesn't sound like it has anything to do with your arrival, though -- it was a parade call, not an alarm.
  2613. > Ahead of you, an iron gate in a stone gatehouse stands open, with a pair of guards flanking it, each of them standing in front of a small guardhouse painted with angled stripes.
  2614. > And, sure enough, neither of them is a pony -- they're both *diamond dogs*!
  2615.  
  2616. Strongly recommended background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nMvKV_LC4c (Teri Mason Christian and Nathan Wang - 'Drinking with Boos', from 'Return to Zork' [1993])
  2617.  
  2618. > "Halt and, uh.. *indemnify* yerself!"
  2619. > The shorter sentry on the left takes a step forward, pointing his truncheon at you.
  2620. > His companion almost jumps from hearing the command, and has to reach up to lift the brim of his helmet out of the way of his eyes.
  2621. > When he finally lays eyes on you, he starts nodding at his guardsmate in support.
  2622. > "Myeah! Identificate yerself immeda-immun-er, right now, introoda!"
  2623. > You halt and give a firm salute.
  2624. > Despite their difficulties in communication, these were still Royal Guards, after all.
  2625. "Specialist Sparkshower, Equestrian Royal Guard, Canterlot Palace Military Office, 3rd Company, 2nd Platoon."
  2626.  
  2627. > The two diamond dogs exchange glances like they can't believe what you've just told them.
  2628. > If they're surprised that a pegasus in bronze Royal Guard heavy armour and wearing a Royal Guard caparison is from the Royal Guard...
  2629. > Glamerspear would probably have a snide comment to make here right around now.
  2630. > After having considered each other for a few moments, with a silent exchange of grimaces, shrugs, and various shakes of the head, the shorter one turns to you again, still brandishing his truncheon.
  2631. > "You... uh... Got any immigration papers, Speciesist Sparkleshow?"
  2632. > He's not going to salute you back?
  2633. > A bit rude, and out of uniform, but oh well.
  2634. > Just as you start to lower your hoof to go pull out Lieutenant Temper Vi's scroll, the bigger diamond dog clears his throat.
  2635. > "Psst! Hey, Snuffy, you gotsa salute!"
  2636. > 'Snuffy' looks over at his companion to find that one already giving you a firm, if somewhat off-angle, salute.
  2637. > "Oh, right!"
  2638. > Scrambling so hard he almost leaps into the air, Snuffy snaps into an equally awkward, though well-intentioned, salute of his own.
  2639. > The two dogs seem quite happy to stand at attention, posed like statues, as you drop your salute and retrieve the scroll.
  2640. "I'm looking for the Officer of the Watch. These are my orders from Lieutenant Violetta, platoon commander."
  2641. > You hold it out, but they're apparently far too busy still standing at salute.
  2642. > Looking back and forth between them, you get the feeling that saluting is the one thing that has been drilled incredibly well into them.
  2643. "... Erm, gentlecolts? My papers?"
  2644. > To gain their attention, you wave the scroll around a bit, and the bigger dog's eyes seem to go wide as dinner plates underneath his helmet.
  2645. > Not that you can really see them well with how his helmet is once again leaning too far forward, partially obscuring his vision.
  2646. > Hmm, if the guards here don't have well-fitted armour, that doesn't bode well for finding good equipment for your alien VIP.
  2647.  
  2648. > The smaller dog, 'Snuffy', whose helmet seems to be altogether much more properly fitted, tilts his head down to look at your scroll.
  2649. > Then he snaps his head to his left to look at his larger companion.
  2650. > The large diamond dog is... muttering something under his breath?
  2651. > Straining your ears, you can just barely make out what he's repeating.
  2652. > "... Lootenant says I mustn't fetch da stick. Lootenant says I mustn't fetch da stick. Lootenant says I mustn't fetch da stick..."
  2653. > Is he sweating?
  2654. > It's not even very warm out today.
  2655. > "Hey, Dilly! It's not a stick, okay?"
  2656. > 'Dilly', the larger diamond dog, lifts his helmet up properly and looks down at you.
  2657. > He seems to visibly deflate, relieved that the cylindrical object you were waving around wasn't a stick after all.
  2658. > Snuffy nods his head in your direction.
  2659. > "... Fetch it and bring it ova here, why don'tcha?"
  2660. > That sets Dilly off again
  2661. > "But the Lootenant says I mustn't fetch da stick!!"
  2662. > Snuffy rolls his eyes.
  2663. > "Dat's not a stick, silly-Dilly! Dat's a *scroll*! You can fetch dose! Lootenant said it was okay, okay? Just don't go slobberatin' all over dat!"
  2664. > "Oh boy!"
  2665. > Bounding forward with gleeful enthusiasm and unnerving speed, in one great leap Dilly is standing in front of you, panting amiably and holding out his paws.
  2666. > You drop the scroll into his waiting arms, somewhat worried that it may come back to you the worse for wear.
  2667. > Maaaaaybe it would have been better to violate protocol and drop right into the fort's quad, after all.
  2668.  
  2669. > With another impressively great leap, Dilly is at Snuffy's side and hands the scroll over.
  2670. > As Dilly turns to watch you, now menacingly clutching his nightstick, Snuffy pulls open the scroll sideways and seems to struggle to figure out which way is up.
  2671. > "Er..."
  2672. > He looks up at you, waving the paper in the air.
  2673. > "... Wat's all dis say, den?"
  2674. > Oh, brother.
  2675. > They don't even come this slow back in Berry.
  2676. "It's a letter of introduction. I'm to report to the Officer of the Watch."
  2677. > The looks on their faces, it's as if you just swooped down and started talking Griffonese to them.
  2678. > Which you can do, and it might have had the same effect.
  2679. > You try to helpfully lead them on.
  2680. "... Do you know who the Officer of the Watch is? Could it be 'the Lieutenant'?"
  2681. > That last word was the magic one, it seems like, and they both exclaim simultaneously.
  2682. > "Da Lootenant!"
  2683. > "Da Lootenant!"
  2684. > The two diamond dogs face each other.
  2685. > "She needsta see da Lootenant, Snuffy!"
  2686. > "I know she needsta see da Lootenant, dat's wat da letter sez, Dilly!"
  2687. > Snuffy rolls the paper back up and pokes Dilly in the chest with one paw.
  2688. > "... So go gives her this back, and takes her to go see da Lootenant!"
  2689. > Dilly appears taken aback by this command.
  2690. > "What? Me? You go, Snuffy! I'm on guard dooty! I gotsa guard the gate!"
  2691. > Angrily waving your letter of introduction around in the air, Snuffy retorts.
  2692. > "I can't go, Dilly! I'm on guard dooty too! You go -- dat's an orda, Private!"
  2693.  
  2694. > Dilly reaches up and adjusts his helmet.
  2695. > You catch sight of a *very* loose chin strap.
  2696. > That's probably the cause for his vision issues.
  2697. > Maybe the armour's not badly-made after all -- just badly-used.
  2698. > Meanwhile, the argument continues.
  2699. > "Hey, you can't orda me, just 'cause I'm a Private, Snuffy! Because you'se also a Private, Snuffy!"
  2700. > "I'm orderin' you, Dilly, because da Lootenant said I'm da senior Private in charge, dat's what he saids. So you go take her to see da Lootenant!"
  2701. > As the two Privates continue bickering amongst themselves, you step forward and clear your throat.
  2702. "Privates, perhaps you could simply *point* me in the direction of da Loo-- of *the* Lieutenant? I can make my own way, and you can guard the gate."
  2703. > Private Snuffy and Private Dilly look down at you from where they're reared up on their hind legs, grabbing each others' collars and waving paws in each others' faces.
  2704. > There's a long gap where neither of them says anything, but their heads slowly turn to face each other once more.
  2705. > "Dat's not a bad idea."
  2706. > "Yeah, dat idea's not bad."
  2707. > Immediately getting back down, Private Snuffy hands back your scroll of paper, not too much the worse for wear.
  2708. > "Da Lootenant's in building 'C-as-in-Charlie', on da second floor, in da Coynel's Office all day, on account of da meeting he's got with da Coynel. So you can find him dere, wit da Coynel, in da Coynel's Office, on da second floor of 'C-as-in-Charlie' building..."
  2709. > Great!
  2710. > "... Needs me to repeat dat?"
  2711. > Absolutely not!
  2712.  
  2713. > You take back your scroll and give another salute.
  2714. "No, I've got it. Thank you, Private Snuffy."
  2715. > At the sight of your salute, both of them snap to attention, scrambling like scared kittens.
  2716. > And they stay posed like statues even as you lower your own hoof and head past them inside.
  2717. > Passing through the gate, you head inside.
  2718. > You do hear one last remark from the Diamond Dogs outside, though.
  2719. > "Psst. Hey Dilly, she's gone inside, we don'ts gotsa salute no mores!"
  2720. > "I said I ain't takin' orders from you, Snuffy! So don't tries ta gives me orders! I'm salutin!"
  2721. > You are definitely glad to be inside.
  2722. > Now, where is building C?
  2723.  
  2724.  
  2725.  
  2726.  
  2727. > You are still Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and this incredible!
  2728. > Who knew there were this many non-ponies serving in the Royal Guard?
  2729. > Diamond Dogs, Griffons, Minotaurs...
  2730. > Even Dragons!
  2731. > Just young ones, barely bigger than ponies, but still.
  2732. > And those were just the species you recognized!
  2733. > There were more that you couldn't even put names to.
  2734. > Like those big, hairy, horned cow-like guards.
  2735. > Or the couple of big cat-people walking around on their hind paws.
  2736. > There was even a kennel with a pack of Timber Wolves in it -- Timber Wolves!
  2737. > Who in Equestria was comfortable with keeping Timber Wolves as pets?
  2738. > You had no idea.
  2739. > It was astounding that such a cornucopia of creatures had all assembled together to serve Equestria.
  2740. > And, actually, a little heartwarming, too.
  2741. > You felt proud to know that your nation had welcomed them and allowed them to serve the greater good, providing them with a roof over their head, food in their bellies, and meaningful work to do.
  2742. > Although the work *could* sometimes be a bit dull, you supposed.
  2743. > Not to mention downright dangerous if war actually broke out!
  2744. > Still, though -- it must be better than wherever they had come from.
  2745. > Otherwise, why else would they have left?
  2746.  
  2747. > After gawking your way through the courtyard, you'd managed to find building 'C' and step inside.
  2748. > Actually, it wasn't fair to say you were the only one doing the gawking.
  2749. > You'd earned quite a number of stares as well.
  2750. > They weren't exactly *un*friendly, but among other strange glances, the way a cluster of dragons had twisted their long necks around to look in your direction was a bit unsettling.
  2751. > The soldiers here didn't seem to get a lot of pony visitors, you supposed.
  2752. > Though did spot a pegasus officer marshaling a troop of Griffons, so there were clearly some around.
  2753. > Maybe they were just curious about what you were here for.
  2754. > To be perfectly honest, you weren't exactly sure what that was.
  2755. > Talk to the Officer of the Watch, present your papers, ask them where they have the armour made for the soldiers here in the Princess Mi Amore Cadenza's Regiment of Auxiliaries, and then what?
  2756. > Speaking of the Princess, there's her official portrait hanging on the wall, at the top of the central staircase.
  2757. > It must be pretty recent, because she's depicted wearing the crown of the Crystal Empire.
  2758. > At the top of the switchback stairs, you're faced with a window in the building's front wall, and the hallway stretches out sideways.
  2759. > You glance in both directions; there's nothing interesting to your right, but on the left, two griffons appear to be standing guard outside a room with double doors.
  2760. > That's *probably* the Colonel's office.
  2761. > You head in that direction.
  2762. > As you approach, an older-looking Griffon wearing a polished iron breastplate, a blue beret, and a richly-decorated red vest, looks in your direction and holds up a taloned hand.
  2763. > "Halt, soldier Pegasus! Vat is your bizness hyere?"
  2764. > Stopping, you hold out Lieutenant Violetta's letter with one hoof and give a firm salute with the other.
  2765. "Specialist Sparkshower, Canterlot Palace Military Office. I'm looking for the Officer of the Watch."
  2766.  
  2767. > The older Griffon narrows his eyes, but steps forward and snatches up your scroll, giving it a quick glance.
  2768. > Unlike with the Diamond Dogs at the front gate, there's no doubt that he's able to read it.
  2769. > "The Ofitser of the Vatch? This iz not the offiz of the Offitser of the Vatch. This iz the offis of Leytnant-Colonel Percheron, komandir of the 1st Batalon."
  2770. > His Griffonese accent is thick, but perfectly comprehensible.
  2771. > You maintain your salute.
  2772. "I was told at the gate that the Officer of the Watch, a certain Lieutenant, could be found here."
  2773. > The Griffon's eyes narrow further, and you can hear him snuff through the fixed nostril-holes in his beak.
  2774. > "Vait here."
  2775. > Keeping your scroll, he turns around knocks on the door, and you drop your salute.
  2776. > From inside, you hear a female voice speak in a haughty Equestrian accent.
  2777. > "Enter!"
  2778. > The Griffon looks at his partner and nods in your direction, then pushes open the door and enters, closing it behind him.
  2779. > Geez, this is a lot of trouble just to find out where armour gets made.
  2780. > That armour on the first Griffon definitely wasn't regulation-issue.
  2781. > With what looked like gold filigree, you guess it was probably something he brought with him when he came to Equestria.
  2782. > The other Griffon looks you up and down, then raises a clawed hand up, as if imploring you to wait.
  2783. > He's a lot younger than the other soldier, and his armour is made up of bronze segments, exactly like the normal Guard outfit.
  2784. > You've half a mind to just ask him where he got it, rather than continue to disturb the *battalion commander* about this business.
  2785. > Obviously, the Diamond Dogs at the gate had bee mistaken about where you should go.
  2786. > And now you're interrupting the Lieutenant-Colonel's important meeting!
  2787.  
  2788. > But there's really not much else to do except soldier on.
  2789. > Not unless you feel like branching out of Armoured Recon and into actual espionage, doing some Pony Intelligence (PONINT) work to figure out the supplies situation around here.
  2790. > With the prevalence of non-ponies, this is probably one of the few places in Equestria where you'd have trouble covertly blending in.
  2791. > As you ponder just what the next step is going to be, the door opens.
  2792. > The older Griffon's peeks around the corner, and points into the room.
  2793. > "Inside, pliz."
  2794. > Somewhat nervous at the prospect of having to deal directly with such a senior officer, you step inside.
  2795. > The Battalion Commander's Office is a large, elegantly-furnished room, standing out distinctly from the fairly modest hallways of Fort Newcastle-upon-Mare's 'Building C'.
  2796. > There's a huge red carpet covering almost the entirety of the hardwood floor, and a set of large leather club chairs in the centre of the room.
  2797. > To the left, an elegant gilt fireplace screen in the shape of a peacock's feathers catches your eyes, standing in front of a roaring fire.
  2798. > On the right, a marble-topped buffet server bears a number of exotically-shaped decanters and bottles of what was surely alcohol.
  2799. > In one of the club chairs sits a young, thin Earth Pony colt, clutching a tumbler of brown liquid in his left hoof and an unlit cigarette in the other, with one eyebrow cocked in your direction.
  2800. > And just a little beyond him, the Lieutenant-Colonel herself, another Earth Pony, is reclining in a high-back chair, a burning cigarette in a holder in her mouth.
  2801. > "Spetsialist Sparkshower, Colonel."
  2802. > With that introduction from the Griffon, you salute the officers in the room.
  2803. > The Lieutenant-Colonel pulls the holder out of her mouth, then nods at the pony in the club chair, a wry smile on her face.
  2804. > "Well, Lieutenant, I think you owe Specialist Sparkshower here an explanation."
  2805.  
  2806. > That immediately sets the young colt off, and he opens his big eyes wide.
  2807. > "Owe her an *explanation*? Colonel, this is *exactly* what I've been trying to tell you! Training these creatures... these *dogs*, it's just impossible!"
  2808. > The Lieutenant gets to his hind hooves, waving around his cigarette and drink, his eyes almost bulging out of his head.
  2809. > "... They can't understand the simplest of directions!"
  2810. > Taking a swig, he puts down his drink, places the cigarette in his mouth, and crosses the room to stand in front of the fireplace, leaning on the mantle.
  2811. > With an exasperated snort, he leans over and uses a table lighter to start his cigarette.
  2812. > Then he takes a moment to compose himself, brushing his mane down with one hoof.
  2813. > Finally, he lets out an awkward laugh.
  2814. > "... Huh-huh! I tell them that Lieutenant Cheesewright is the Officer of the Watch for today, and that I'm not to be disturbed as I'll be in conference with Lady Percheron all day, and what do they do?"
  2815. > He flings one forehoof in the direction of the door, where the Griffon guard and you still stand.
  2816. > "... Those bumbling buffoons send someone looking for the Officer of the Watch right here!"
  2817. > From behind the desk, the Colonel taps the ash off of her cigarette in a glass tray.
  2818. > "Bertie, you're becoming hysterical. Sit down and finish your drink."
  2819. > Lieutenant 'Bertie' puffs his cheeks out and exhales sharply, then crosses back to his seat at a trot, plopping himself down in the plush chair with an inelegant grace.
  2820. > After a moment, he looks up at the Colonel, who gives him a telling look.
  2821. > With another sigh, he picks up his drink and takes another sip.
  2822.  
  2823. > That seems to calm him down, and the Colonel leans forward in her chair, placing her forehooves on the desk.
  2824. > "... It's as I've been trying to tell you, Bertie. You've simply got to find yourself a good leader among your company. Promote the cleverest one to Sergeant, make them your right-hoof-colt, and they'll keep the rest of them in line."
  2825. > Lieutenant 'Bertie' rolls his big eyes around and replies almost under his breath.
  2826. > "The cleverest Diamond Dog? Might as well try to find the cleverest turnip."
  2827. > That earns him a scowl from the Colonel, and she loudly taps her hoof on her desk.
  2828. > "Now that's enough, Bertie. You're an officer of the Royal Guard; you need to put on a good example for the soldiers under your command."
  2829. > As he starts to shrink into his seat, she continues to lay into him like a mother admonishing a child.
  2830. > "... You've got a whole company of Diamond Dogs that you've left leaderless; no wonder they're galloping around like a bunch of confused puppies!"
  2831. > The Lieutenant sheepishly takes another sip of his drink, and the Colonel continues.
  2832. > "... I know you didn't choose to serve here, but you earned it when you made yourself unwanted in your last Regiment. Be thankful the circumstances were ambiguous enough that the Board didn't cashier you out."
  2833. > Lieutenant-Colonel Percheron takes a deep breath, then picks up her cigarette and takes a long draw of it.
  2834. > Once she's composed herself, she gives one final rebuke to the Lieutenant.
  2835. > "... If you want a chance at a fashionable Manehattan posting again, you're going to have to work for it -- so you'd better shape up, or else you'll never ship out of here with your gentlecolt's pride intact."
  2836. > Having completed her tongue-lashing of the impertinent Lieutenant, the Lieutenant-Colonel turns to you, returning your salute.
  2837. > That's your cue to finally lower your own hoof.
  2838.  
  2839. > "... Now, Specialist, I believe we've delayed your mission for long enough. You may have wanted the Officer of the Watch and wound up at the Battalion Commander's Office, but you're already here, so we might as well address your inquiry from..."
  2840. > She picks up your letter and a pair of reading glasses on her desk, holding them in front of her snout as she looks it over.
  2841. > "... Lieutenant Violetta. Something to do with our procurement procedures here in Princess-Cadenza's? And step forward, please."
  2842. > You nod and walk past the Griffon soldier, standing in front of the Colonel's desk, with the Lieutenant just beside you.
  2843. "Yes, Ma'am. I'm looking for information about where your Regiment sources its arms and armour."
  2844. > Lieutenant 'Bertie' sits upright in his chair and interjects.
  2845. > "Why? Are we being audited??"
  2846. > Replacing her glasses on the table, the Colonel looks annoyed at his interruption.
  2847. > "Lieutenant, I am speaking with the Specialist."
  2848. > With a sheepish look on his face, the Lieutenant sinks back into his chair.
  2849. > "Sorry, Auntie."
  2850. > From behind the large desk, you see a look of frustration in the older mare's eyes, and her lip curls up imperceptibly.
  2851. > "Lieutenant Woodhouse, I am *not* your Auntie Percheron when we are in the presence of other soldiers. I am Lieutenant-Colonel Countess Bashara Percheron. Is that understood?"
  2852. > Lieutenant Woodhouse nods and, duly chastised, retreats deeper into the plush brown leather.
  2853. > "Yes, Colonel. My apologies."
  2854. > Lieutenant-Colonel Percheron pauses to let the lesson sink in, then turns back to you with a friendly smile on her face.
  2855. > "Do go on, Specialist. What do you want to know?"
  2856. "Colonel, I'm currently serving in the Very Important Pony section, and Lieutenant Violetta has sent me to inquire about an armourer comfortable working with non-pony physiology. We have an alien VIP under our protection looking to commission some work."
  2857.  
  2858. > After listening attentively, the Colonel takes a draw on her cigarette, blowing the smoke out of her nostrils, her ears flicking momentarily.
  2859. > "I see. Out of pure idle curiosity, Specialist, what manner of creature are you protecting, exactly?"
  2860. "A 'human', Ma'am. Sort of a bipedal, hairless monkey, just under six hooves tall."
  2861. > Once again, Lieutenant Woodhouse can't resist opening his snout.
  2862. > "Guh! I shouldn't like to meet that creature down a dark alley."
  2863. > But his aunt pays him no attention, probably fed up with having to put him in his place so many times already.
  2864. > "Interesting. Pardon my curiosity, Specialist Sparkshower. We don't get a lot of pony visitors here in Fort Newcastle-upon-Mare. Certainly not pegasi trotting about in heavy armour."
  2865. > With a smile on her face, she glances out the large window behind her.
  2866. > "... We're taking the Peregrines -- that's the nickname of the 1st Battalion, *my* Battalion, on account of the high number of Griffons posted here -- out on combat exercises with an ordinary regiment this weekend, and I daresay the sight of you prancing over here in your full regalia must have made some of the soldiers think we'd be up against the Valkyries."
  2867. > The Valkyries were one of the most prestigious groups in the Royal Guard -- an entire Armoured Airborne battalion composed entirely of Pegasus mares.
  2868. > It was a bit flattering to have anyone presuppose that you must have come from that elite group.
  2869. > Lieutenant-Colonel Percheron looks over your shoulder at the older Griffon, still standing just inside the doors.
  2870. > "... First Sergeant, would you summon up one of your soldiers to escort the Specialist here to our armaments supplier in the village?"
  2871. > With a nod and a salute, the Griffon turns and saunters back out the door, and you can hear him bark out orders in Griffonese, commanding the other guard to go fetch someone.
  2872. > You can't quite make out the name, however.
  2873.  
  2874. > Lieutenant Woodhouse eyes you warily, and clears his throat.
  2875. > "I say, Specialist -- and if you're done with your questions, Ma'am..."
  2876. > He receives a nod from the Colonel, and continues.
  2877. > "... What does your alien VIP want with armaments?"
  2878. "He's looking to receive some combat training from his escort, Sir."
  2879. > The Lieutenant's eyes go wide, and he scrunches up his snout, his ears perking up.
  2880. > "Combat training? What does your VIP do, then? Is he some sort of mercenary?"
  2881. > You shake your head.
  2882. "No, Sir. He's the Royal Engineer of Equestria."
  2883. > Lieutenant Woodhouse chortles.
  2884. > "I should think that rather begs the question, Specialist. What could the Royal Engineer of Equestria possibly need with combat training?"
  2885. "Sir, he's been challenged once before. His quaternion, myself included, defended his person and his honour, but he expressed an interest in being able to defend himself as well."
  2886. > Woodhouse juts his head forward on his neck and flattens his ears, scarcely able to believe what you're saying.
  2887. > "Someone challenged the Royal Engineer?! Absurd! Next, you're going to tell me he was accosted by that lowborn Lieutenant whatsisname during that 'Pas de Sabots' of his at that bridge this week."
  2888. > You clear your throat awkwardly.
  2889. "I'm afraid that's exactly it, sir. Lieutenant Kilfeather challenged him at Newstirrup Bridge."
  2890. > The Lieutenant gawks, mouth agape, at this apparently shocking revelation.
  2891. > Long before he can recover, the Colonel speaks up.
  2892. > "I thought the 'Pas de Sabots' was at *Old*stirrup Bridge."
  2893. > Oops.
  2894. > You forgot that Kilfeather relocated after you defeated him.
  2895. > And the matter of his 'Pas de Sabots' was still delicate -- Lieutenant Violetta was only just now filing papers to the Judge-Advocate-General about it!
  2896.  
  2897. > Kilfeather's actions directly pitted the nobility against the Royal Guard.
  2898. > And here you were, in the presence of noble officers of the Royal Guard!
  2899. > Which side were they on?
  2900. > What should you say?
  2901. > The Lieutenant-Colonel Countess is waiting for your answer.
  2902. "Er..."
  2903. > You can't lie to an officer, especially not a Colonel.
  2904. > You'll just have to tell her the truth.
  2905. "... Yes Ma'am, but he was originally at the Newstirrup Bridge."
  2906. > The Colonel takes a pull on her cigarette, blowing the smoke out of her nostrils.
  2907. > "A 'Pas de Sabots' is not ambulatory, Specialist. It is properly held in one place and in one place only..."
  2908. > She plucks the spent roll out of its holder, and stubs it out in the ashtray.
  2909. > "... But I can see the question has made you uncomfortable. I take it this is still a rather sensitive matter?"
  2910. "Yes, Ma'am."
  2911. > She gives you a reassuring nod.
  2912. > "Then I shan't inquire further."
  2913. > Pulling a fresh cigarette out of a box on her desk, she affixes it to her holder, then lights it using a packet of matches on her desk.
  2914. > After taking in another draw, she leans reflectively back in her chair.
  2915. > "... Lieutenant Kilfeather is, of course, not of noble blood, however. As an officer, he is considered a gentlecolt, and therefore entitled to make use of such ancient traditions. And in the course of his 'Pas de Sabots', he has embarrassed a great number of noble ponies who have declined to serve Equestria in the manner demanded of their high birth."
  2916.  
  2917. > Woodhouse pipes up with a grin on his face.
  2918. > "I'll say! The Bees' Club has been positively a-*buzz* with ponies deriding the nerve of that colt."
  2919. > The Colonel licks her lips and pulls the cigarette-holder out of her mouth.
  2920. > "Nerve's an admirable characteristic in an officer, Bertie. You should remember that."
  2921. > Another haughty chuckle erupts out of the Lieutenant.
  2922. > "Huhuhu! Come now, Auntie, surely you aren't suggesting that-"
  2923. > Before the Colonel can admonish him once again for the informal term of address, there's a knock at the door.
  2924. > This time, the Griffon Sergeant enters without being bidden, and trailing behind him is another Griffon -- a young hen, dressed in standard Royal Guard banded bronze armour, with a short red cape hanging on her shoulders.
  2925. > You step aside, and at a wave from the Colonel, the two of them approach her desk and stop to salute.
  2926. > The First Sergeant nods and indicates the newcomer.
  2927. > "Prive-yate Fyirst Clyass Featherhooves, Colonel."
  2928. > Colonel Percheron looks the Private in the eyes and nods in your direction.
  2929. > "Private Featherhooves, meet Specialist Sparkshower. You're going to show her to our blacksmith in town."
  2930. > The young Griffon turns to salute you, and you give her a salute in return.
  2931. > Time to impress!
  2932. "Zdravstvuyte, Yefréytor Featherhooves!"
  2933. > Lieutenant Woodhouse's jaw drops open, the Colonel arches an eye in surprise, and even the Sergeant blinks and swivels his head ever so slowly in your direction, his piercing eyes seeming to regard you in an entirely new light.
  2934. > But the young Private just lowers her hand and smiles.
  2935. > "You speak Griffonese very well, Specialist Sparkshower. But I was actually born here in Equestria."
  2936. > Darn it!
  2937. > You wasted the moment in showing off your Griffonese; she speaks Equestrian with no accent whatsoever.
  2938.  
  2939. > Private First Class Featherhooves turns to address the Colonel.
  2940. > "... With your permission, Colonel?"
  2941. > Percheron nods, and the two Griffons lead you back towards the door.
  2942. > Just as the Sergeant opens it, the Colonel calls out to you from the far side of the room.
  2943. > "Oh, and Specialist?"
  2944. > You turn to face her, standing at attention.
  2945. > She's still sitting in her chair, holding her cigarette with a sly look on her face.
  2946. > "... If you ever get tired of the VIP service, please get in touch with me, would you? We could use someone with linguistic talents and an eye for detail around here. I promise I can make it worth your while."
  2947. > Well, that's interesting.
  2948. > You don't really know how to answer that, so you stick to the basics.
  2949. "Yes, Ma'am."
  2950. > She nods amiably.
  2951. > "That'll be all, Specialist."
  2952. > You exit the Colonel's quarters, getting a strange look from the Sergeant as you follow Private First Class Featherhooves downstairs.
  2953. > Featherhooves...
  2954. > What a strange name for a Griffon!
  2955. > They don't have any hooves, after all.
  2956. > You'd like to ask her about it, but Griffons are also notoriously reserved with outsiders.
  2957. > Maybe you'll get the opportunity to ask on the way to this blacksmith of theirs, but first you'd better do a better job of introductions...
  2958.  
  2959.  
  2960.  
  2961.  
  2962. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and this has been an awkward walk.
  2963. > Anonymous, beside you, hasn't breathed a word since you left the grand reception hall, where Celestia had held morning court.
  2964. > And yet, there *was* something important to talk about.
  2965. > Still, you follow your VIP's lead and refrain from initiating anything yourself.
  2966. > Maybe he has a reason to keep his thoughts to himself for now.
  2967. > The Royal Engineer's chamber doors are straight ahead, and you scurry in front of him to open the doors, saluting as he walks past you.
  2968. > As he hangs up his jacket, you push the doors shut behind him.
  2969. > The moment the latches click together, you hear a voice from behind you.
  2970. > "Well, Corporal, what do you make of all that?"
  2971. > So, he was just waiting for privacy?
  2972. > More than reasonable, given the circumstances.
  2973. > Collecting yourself, you turn around.
  2974. > Anonymous is standing with one hand in front of his mouth, and the other holding his elbow.
  2975. > You shake your head.
  2976. "I don't know, sir. It didn't feel right."
  2977. > He nods.
  2978. > "Yes, I was certain that it must have been Bitsmount who was responsible for the poor state of safety at the mine, not his teamster Songwell. And their story was certainly dramatic, almost theatrical..."
  2979. > Frowning at the floor, he lowers his hands.
  2980. > "... But I suppose stories sometimes are, here in Equestria. And the Princesses believed it, even after going away to consult in private."
  2981. > The frown turns from concern into confusion, and he looks up at you.
  2982. > "... Nobody would lie to the Princesses, would they? From what I've seen, Equestrian ponies almost worship the very ground that the Royal sisters walk on."
  2983.  
  2984. > Before you can answer him, he lifts his eyebrows and carries on.
  2985. > "... And even if someone *would* lie to the Princesses, could they possibly get away with it? I've only known Their Majesties for a short time, but I can't imagine that sorcerers who've lived for over a thousand years are easy to fool, unless the liar is exceptionally talented. And surely the Princesses must be able to use their magic to suss out truths."
  2986. > That brings up an important question you've been meaning to ask, actually.
  2987. > But first, you should answer Anonymous' questions.
  2988. "Bitsmount sure *looked* guilty when you served him with the warrant last week, Sir."
  2989. > Anonymous' expression softens.
  2990. > "Gauging someone's reaction is a black art, Corporal, especially in intimidating circumstances. We had him surrounded by three armed ponies; a tall alien, too. Even an innocent pony might have felt guilty in that scenario."
  2991. "If he wasn't guilty, then why did he send J.P. Mustang to try to talk you out of the prosecution?"
  2992. > The Royal Engineer shrugs.
  2993. > "Because he knows J.P., and because J.P. knows me? It wasn't a very ethical act, but he was entitled to make use of the resources at his disposal."
  2994. "Well, what about the delay? You served him with papers on Saturday, and we know he arrived in Canterlot on Sunday. Why wait five days to present himself at court?"
  2995. > Turning around, he waves dismissively and goes to put on his work-apron.
  2996. > "The writ gave him two weeks to sort out his affairs and show up, and he only took one. I'm sorry, Corporal, but while these actions of his are certainly are suspicious, they don't prove that he was the mastermind behind the unsafe working conditions. Ponies at the mine did admit to us that orders for the wider timber spacing had come down 'from above', but the story that Bitsmount was simply a hard master who wasn't paying attention to details, while Songwell was the one who made the actual decision, does fit the facts at our disposal."
  2997.  
  2998. > As he ties the apron behind him, he faces you, looking a little disappointed.
  2999. > "... At least we brought the violations to light. Nobody ever got actually hurt, so I wasn't expecting a harsh sentence even if he had admitted to it. I was only interested in making sure this didn't happen again."
  3000. > You nod.
  3001. "I'm sure it'll make the national papers tomorrow, Sir. By next week, half the ponies in Equestria will consider themselves experts on mine support placement."
  3002. > That gets a laugh out of your VIP.
  3003. > "Yes, it does always seem to go that way, doesn't it?"
  3004. > Shrugging, he sits back down on his stool.
  3005. > "... I suppose I'll have to push for the creation of appropriate Ministries to establish and enforce safety standards sooner rather than later, but this scandal should induce business-owners like Bitsmount to keep things on the level for now."
  3006. > Turning away from you, he gathers up some of the bits and pieces on his workbench and starts to tinker with them.
  3007. > You'd better ask your question now, before he gets too deep into it.
  3008. > You clear your throat.
  3009. "Sir, if you have another moment, I had a question about Princess Luna."
  3010. > He doesn't look up from the table.
  3011. > "Go ahead, Corporal. I'm listening."
  3012. > This is a sensitive topic, and you're a bit hesitant to proceed.
  3013. > You lick your lips.
  3014. "I was was wondering -- on Wednesday, when Her Majesty came to visit, did you..."
  3015. > Before you can find the right word to use, there's a knock at the door behind you.
  3016.  
  3017. > Anonymous looks over his shoulder, with one eyebrow cocked, to check if it was you who had banged on the door to make a point.
  3018. > Seeing that you hadn't, he lowers his hands and waits.
  3019. > You pull open one of the doors a few inches.
  3020. > There's a Royal Guardspony, a young pegasus colt in a Private's uniform, standing just on the other side, and he gives you a salute, then holds out a calling card.
  3021. > "I'm to wait for a reply, Ma'am."
  3022. > Taking the card, and eyeing the colt warily, you nod and shut the door again.
  3023. > After stepping into the room, you glance down at the paper.
  3024. > The upper-right and bottom-left corners bear simple geometric designs, but when you read the text that they frame, you can't resist blurting out loud.
  3025. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
  3026. > Anonymous turns fully around in his chair.
  3027. > "What is it, Corporal?"
  3028. > You can barely hold back a disgusted sneer.
  3029. "Sir, Lieutenant *Kilfeather* is requesting 'the privilege of an audience'."
  3030. > The Royal Engineer lifts his eyebrows as far up as they can go, and his mouth sags open.
  3031. > "You're joking."
  3032. > Stepping forward, you give him the card.
  3033. "I wish I was."
  3034.  
  3035. > Your VIP quickly reads the text on the card, flipping it over to check the back as well.
  3036. > Then he looks up at you, waving the card beside his head.
  3037. > "Corporal, is there anything in the Equestrian social rules about 'follow-up' visits after a 'Pas de Sabots'?"
  3038. > You shake your head.
  3039. "No, sir. I've no explanation for this."
  3040. > The Royal Engineer licks his lips and looks the card over again.
  3041. > "Who delivered this? One of the palace messengers?"
  3042. "No, sir. It's a Royal Guardspony, a Private. He might even be one of Kilfeather's, though I don't recognize him from the battle. Perhaps he's borrowed from another platoon."
  3043. > Anonymous narrows his eyes.
  3044. > "Get him in here, I want to speak to him -- that's allowed, right?"
  3045. > You're taken aback a little bit.
  3046. > The Royal Engineer wants to interrogate this messenger?
  3047. "It's a little unusual, Sir, but I don't think it's forbidden."
  3048. > "Good. Let's talk to him."
  3049. > Standing where you are, you frown at him, a bit confused.
  3050. "Sir, just so you know -- in Equestria, we don't shoot the messenger."
  3051. > Your VIP nods and gets to his feet.
  3052. > "I know, Corporal. Don't worry, I'm not about to."
  3053. "Alright, Sir."
  3054. > The Royal Engineer pulls off his apron and walks over to grab his coat from the rack as you make your way back to the door.
  3055. > Once he's properly dressed again, he gives you a nod, still holding the card.
  3056. > You pull open the door and wave a hoof at the surprised soldier standing outside.
  3057. "Come in, Private."
  3058.  
  3059. > If he didn't know the situation between Kilfeather and Anonymous, the soldier does at least seem to recognize the unusual nature of your request.
  3060. > "Uhm, Corporal, I'm just supposed to take a reply, I don't-"
  3061. > You are not in the mood for this nonsense, and you doubt the Royal Engineer is, either, so you jerk your free forehoof behind you.
  3062. "Get in here, Private. That's an order."
  3063. > With a gulp, he steps forward, and you almost have to herd him far enough into the room so that you can close the door behind him.
  3064. > The Royal Engineer stands just in front of the sitting-room area, a stern expression on his face, gently waving the calling card up in the air.
  3065. > "What's the meaning of this, Private?"
  3066. > "Uh, Sir, it's a calling card from Lieuten-"
  3067. > Anonymous cuts him off.
  3068. > "I *know* it's a calling card from Lieutenant Kilfeather, Private. I want to know why the Lieutenant wishes to meet with me."
  3069. > The Private glances in your direction as if hoping you'll help, but all you give him is a cold scowl.
  3070. > Maybe he doesn't deserve being put on the spot like this, but a little grilling won't kill him.
  3071. > The juvenile colt swallows again.
  3072. > "Sir, I wasn't told any details of that nature. I'm just here to deliver the card and re-"
  3073. > Once again, the Royal Engineer walks right over his explanations.
  3074. > "Private, are you aware of where I last met with Lieutenant Kilfeather?"
  3075. > "Y-yes, Sir. At Newstirrup Bridge."
  3076. > Aha -- so he does know a few things.
  3077. > Anonymous seizes on that fact as well.
  3078. > "And do you know what happened at Newstirrup Bridge, Private?"
  3079. > Like an animal that knows it's been caught, the young guardscolt starts to give in, his shoulders drooping.
  3080. > "Yes, Sir. Lieutenant Kilfeather challenged you to a 'Pas de Sabots'."
  3081.  
  3082. > "Yes, he did, Private. He challenged me, seeming to know exactly who I was and the arcane rules about why I was compelled to fight, and he demanded an outrageous coward's price if I refused."
  3083. > The Royal Engineer steps forward until he's looming rather menacingly over the young pegasus.
  3084. > "... And do you know what happened after that, Private?"
  3085. > "Ah... Y-Your bodyguards won the challenge, sir."
  3086. > "Indeed, Private. And a condition of that victory was that Lieutenant Kilfeather would pack up and go home. But he didn't go home, did he, Private?"
  3087. > "N-No, Sir, he didn't."
  3088. > Anonymous bends over forwards, his hands on his hips.
  3089. > "But he's packed up and home now, is he?"
  3090. > "Yes, Sir."
  3091. > The Royal Engineer turns around and steps back over to the sitting-room area.
  3092. > His expression softens a little, and he looks down at the card.
  3093. > "Private, why should I wish to meet with Lieutenant Kilfeather?"
  3094. > "I don't know, Sir."
  3095. > Instantly, the commanding voice is back.
  3096. > "That's unacceptable, Private. I want an answer."
  3097. > With a bit of breathing room around him, the guardspony casts his eyes about, looking for something -- anything -- that could get him out of this pressure chamber.
  3098. > "He, uh... He said it had to do with the 'Pas de Sabots'. I think he mentioned 'misappropriation'?"
  3099. > That's a pretty key word.
  3100. > Could Kilfeather want to negotiate with Anonymous, to ensure charges weren't pressed?
  3101. > You would probably say 'no' to that, but the Royal Engineer has greater concerns.
  3102. > He received J.P. Mustang even though he turned him down.
  3103. > Much as it would disgust you to have to do it, it wouldn't be out of character for Anonymous to hear Kilfeather out before making up his mind.
  3104.  
  3105. > The Royal Engineer stares at the pegasus Private for a few moments, taking his time to think things over.
  3106. > "Tell him I will see him, but he must come *alone*, Private."
  3107. > "Yes, sir."
  3108. > Immensely relieved to have an answer, the Private takes a hesitant step backwards.
  3109. > But Anonymous strides forward and quickly bends over to get right up in his snout.
  3110. > "I don't care if he needs three nurses to push him in a gurney after what happened to him. You tell the Lieutenant, Private, that if he doesn't come alone, I'm going to have him arrested."
  3111. > "Yes, sir."
  3112. > After reflexively snapping his response, the junior soldier once again tries to get away, only to find Anonymous continuing to talk.
  3113. > "... then, I'll have him shot..."
  3114. > "Yes, sir."
  3115. > That was a bit severe, but considering Kilfeather's crimes...
  3116. > "... out of a cannon..."
  3117. > "Yes, sir."
  3118. > Wait, what?
  3119. > "... into the sun."
  3120. > "Yes, sir."
  3121. > Okay, he's just messing with the Private at this point.
  3122. > The Royal Engineer stands straight up again, and the Private takes that as his cue to give a salute, his forehoof trembling, and scrambles for the door.
  3123. > You *don't* open it for him, and in his haste to leave he pulls it shut so hard that the door bounces back open off its latch.
  3124. > With a scowl, you walk over and push it shut again.
  3125.  
  3126. > Anonymous is adjusting his shirt-cuffs.
  3127. > "You'd better go get Specialist Glamerspear, Corporal."
  3128. "She's still wearing the cone, Sir. I don't think she'll be able to do much if Kilfeather does try to cause trouble."
  3129. > The corner of Anonymous' lip turns up into a smirk.
  3130. > "She can still wear sabots and kick, can't she?"
  3131. > True.
  3132. > You nod your head, and he sighs.
  3133. > "... And anyways, she knows him better than anyone else, so we might as well have her here."
  3134. > That's reasonable.
  3135. "Yes, sir."
  3136. > Giving your VIP a salute, you open the door and head upstairs.
  3137. > Well, when you showed up in Anonymous' chambers, you'd wanted to put yesterday behind you and focus on work.
  3138. > Fate was certainly delivering on that request.
  3139.  
  3140.  
  3141.  
  3142. > You are Artemis Sparkshower, and-hey, what the heck!
  3143. > Outside of the Lieutenant-Colonel's office and around the corner from that ornery older Griffon Sergeant in the fancy armour, your new escort jumps away from you, bounding down to the mid-floor landing in a single leap.
  3144. > Before you can even take to the air yourself, she turns around and launches down the rest of the stairs to the front hall.
  3145. > That's not fair-weather!
  3146. > Some ponies in this fireteam are in heavy armour and need a little more time to hustle!
  3147. > Or at least some advance notice!
  3148. > Despite your internal complaints, you follow her lead take to the air as well, floating downstairs as gracefully as you can manage in the cramped indoor environment.
  3149. > Was she offended by your attempt to speak Griffonese?
  3150. > Is this a prank to put you in your place?
  3151. > You were just trying to be polite!
  3152. > Well, that and maybe show off a bit, sure.
  3153. > Since you showed off once already, maybe she's teasing you into showing off some more?
  3154. > Trying to see how nimble you really are in under all this bronze?
  3155. > As you come down towards the staircase-landing, you notice that the wall is clear, and made of bare un-faced brick.
  3156. > That means nopony will notice a few hoof-prints on the side...
  3157. > Summoning up all the manoeuvrability you've got, you bank over and kick out at the wall, using it to do a 180-degree wingover without even touching the ground.
  3158. > Yeah!
  3159. > You'll show this Griffon that Armoured Division Pegasi still know how to fly!
  3160.  
  3161. > At the bottom of the stairs, just outside the building, Private First Class Featherhooves is waiting for you, holding the door open.
  3162. > With a smirk, she lets go and trots off.
  3163. > The door starts to slowly close before you, and it wasn't that wide of a doorway to begin with.
  3164. > Hurricanes!
  3165. > You pump your wings and prepare to bank again.
  3166. "Gangway!"
  3167. > The badly-lubricated hinges of the reinforced wooden door into Building 'C' creak and groan as it slowly falls shut.
  3168. > Instantly recalculating your route, you yaw right and roll over left to approach from the hinge side to slip diagonally through for the biggest gap.
  3169. > You duck your head in and collapse your wings.
  3170. > In a split second, you're through the door, and you pump your primaries back open again, inches away from crashing to the ground.
  3171. "Hooah!"
  3172. > Gosh, you haven't done anything that kinetic since the Changeling Invasion -- or maybe 'shoe camp!
  3173. > Your exhilaration is cut short when you realize that what looks like two full companies are at parade rest in the quad just in front of building 'C'.
  3174. > Three hundred Diamond Dogs, Dragons, Griffons, Minotaurs all find themselves looking up at the heavily-armoured Pegasus who's just enthusiastically shot out of their Officers' Barracks with a war-cheer.
  3175. > Some of them are even laughing and pointing back at the door.
  3176. > As you fly across the field, you turn your head around and your short-cut exhilaration turns into an uncomfortable lump in your throat.
  3177. > The officer in charge of the whole formation -- a teal Earth Pony Major -- was standing beside the doors you just blew through, his mane now a blustery mess, and his feathered beret now lying before him in the mud!
  3178. > Oh, thundershowers!!
  3179. > "Davay, olovyanny soldat!"
  3180.  
  3181. > Hovering far above the field, you see Private First Class Featherhooves wave as she calls out to you.
  3182. > It's clear she knew what she was doing.
  3183. > And now the Major is pointing in your direction, shouting something about 'wanting plots' to his Staff Sergeant.
  3184. > You're reluctant to link up with somepony who's just played a prank on you, but anything's better than staying down low and in range of the senior pony officer upset with having his muster disturbed.
  3185. > You frantically pump your wings to get up as high as possible.
  3186. > ... Wait, did she just call you a 'tin soldier'?
  3187. > As you link up with your escort high above Fort Newcastle-Upon-Mare, Private First Class Featherhooves is grinning at you.
  3188. > "Nice job, Specialist! When First Sergeant Gercog pulled me out of the formation down there, I bet my platoon twenty bits that I could get our visiting Valkyrie to screw with Major Bloodnok before the exercise."
  3189. > Up here in the sky, you get the full measure of your prankster Griffon escort.
  3190. > Private First Class Featherhooves, still laughing at the cleverness of her own gag, is a young Griffon hen with a creamy-white breast and head, accented with two large bands of black eyeshadow-feathers that form a face mask and wrap all the way around behind her into a narrow band at the back of her neck.
  3191. > Her beak is black with a bit of yellow at the base, while her torso and the coverts of her wings are Rufous-brown.
  3192. > Her primary feathers, however, are white-and-black in bars perpendicular to the shafts.
  3193. > And she's wearing a version of the standard Royal Guard armour, modified to fit her shape, with the helmet detached from the main torso armour so as to allow her to turn her head all the way around, as only Griffons could.
  3194.  
  3195. > Alright, now that you've got a good picture of her, the question was: how to reintroduce yourself?
  3196. > At first you thought you'd have to apologize for speaking Griffonese, but it seemed like that was out of the equation.
  3197. > And the Lieutenant-Colonel was right -- they *did* mistake you for a Valkyrie!
  3198. > Down below, the Major is still gesturing angrily up at the two of you, shouting about plots, and the Staff Sergeant looked like he was trying to muster up some of the flyers.
  3199. "Uh, actually Private Featherhooves, I'm not a Valkyrie... So maybe we'd better move it."
  3200. > The Griffon's eyes go enormously wide, her irises shrinking to little more than tiny dots.
  3201. > It's a little unsettling how Griffon eyes can do that.
  3202. > A second later, they pop back to regular size.
  3203. > "Cyka blyat! Come on, let's get out of here!"
  3204. > She turns in the air, heading towards the village, and you follow right along, flying echelon right.
  3205. > Huh.
  3206. > She speaks Equestrian perfectly, but still mixes in Griffonese swear words.
  3207. > Maybe it's from being around so many other Griffons in the Princess-Cadenza's Regiment, some of whom prefer their native tongue?
  3208. > Once you're out of sight of the fort, both of you turn an look back.
  3209. > No pursuers.
  3210. > Whew.
  3211. > Featherhooves turns to you.
  3212. > "... Sorry about that, Specialist. I thought being a Valkyrie would make you immune to any kind of petty 'Ninja-Punch' that the Major could dole out.
  3213. > She smirks as she uses the slang term for a Non-Judicial Punishment.
  3214. > "... Hopefully the Lieutenant-Colonel shuts him down if he tries to find out who you were. You saw how she dug in her hooves as soon as you showed you could speak a little Griffonese? Percheron will have your back, all right."
  3215. > You shake your head.
  3216. "You mean that strange offer? I don't understand; what did she mean?"
  3217.  
  3218. > The Griffon looks surprised.
  3219. > "Oh, you don't know? I thought everypony knew about the situation in the Princess-Cadenza's."
  3220. > Featherhooves jerks her head back towards the fort.
  3221. > "... We're short on officers. Percheron doesn't have enough Majors for all the Captains she's got, and she doesn't have enough Captains for all the Lieutenants, and she doesn't have enough Lieutenants for the Lieutenants Junior Grade, and she doesn't have enough of *those* for all the troops under her command."
  3222. > You frown.
  3223. "Why? What's wrong with the Princess Mi Amore Cadenza's Regiment of Auxiliaries? Things looked alright to me..."
  3224. > Rolling your head a bit, you remember your experience at the gate.
  3225. "... Although the guards at the front door might have been a few horseshoes short of a full set."
  3226. > She chuckles.
  3227. > "Yeah, it's always fun times when the 'dogs are out of the pound. But as for the Regiment..."
  3228. > Featherhooves shrugs, a wistful look on her face.
  3229. > "... It's not a fashionable place to serve. We're a bunch of non-ponies in a podunk village just a little too far from Canterlot -- or anywhere else -- to be important or stylish. The Royal Guard has a shortage of qualified officers across the board from what I've heard, and no noblepony wants to commission into something like the Princess-Cadenza's. Even ponies graduating from the Academy put as us their last choice."
  3230. > She clacks her beak noisily.
  3231. > "... And since non-ponies can't be commissioned as officers, well, we mostly get the Royal Guard's dregs. Like Lieutenant Woodhouse, who I hear only saved himself from being cashiered out by agreeing to be transferred here, or that incontinent blowhard Major Bloodnok."
  3232.  
  3233. > Licking her beak-lips, she nods her head apologetically.
  3234. > "... Sorry. I don't mean to vent at you, Valkyrie or not. But Colonel Percheron is a good commander, and even though she's got to take care of the officers she's got, she's always trying to find ways to sweeten the deal for new prospects. Like you, for example."
  3235. > You perk your ears up and frown.
  3236. "But I'm not an officer!"
  3237. > Featherhooves laughs.
  3238. > "She'll *make* you one! You must have impressed her beyond just being able to speak Griffonese; I guess I wasn't there for that. If you come back and tell her you're bored with your current posting, whatever it is, then she'll pull strings to make you a mustang officer under her command as fast as she can. Heck, if your record is good enough, she might even be able get you in as something more than a butter-bar Lieutenant Junior Grade."
  3239. > A field promotion to officer?!
  3240. > You'd earned early promotion to Specialist, sure, but actually being a leader of ponies?
  3241. > Well, of Griffons, Diamond Dogs, Dragons, Minotaurs, and more, in this case...
  3242. > The Lieutenant-Colonel's offer had felt strange enough when she made it, but now it was downright stunning.
  3243. > You're having a good time in the VIP service, but it's definitely something to keep in mind.
  3244. > Or at least, in your saddleback bag.
  3245. "Wow..."
  3246. > You trail off, unable to find any other words to describe the situation.
  3247. > Featherhooves seems to have run out of things to say, too.
  3248. > As you pass over Newcastle-Upon-Mare, you remember the question you'd wanted to ask when the Colonel dismissed you.
  3249. "... By the way, Private, I was wondering about your-"
  3250.  
  3251. > She cuts you off with a smirk on her face.
  3252. > "About my last name, right? I figured; it's not exactly a typical Griffon name, right?"
  3253. > You nod, and she continues.
  3254. > "... My grandparents came to Equestria to serve as auxiliaries in the Royal Guard. There were a lot of troubles in Griffonstone back then, so there was lot of emigration, but signing up to fight for ponies was a step further than just leaving and earned them a pretty black mark back home. Other Griffons would call them 'Feather-hooves' as an insult, as if to declare they were no longer recognized as Griffons, but Pegasi."
  3255. > She grins.
  3256. > "... Well, my 'dedushka' took it in stride and, since they didn't have a last name -- they weren't common among Griffons back then, you were just 'Greta the Goldsmith from Grozny', or whatever -- he decided to make it the family name."
  3257. > Private Featherhooves puffs out her creamy-white chest.
  3258. > "... I'm the third generation Featherhoof to serve in the Royal Guard, and I'm proud of it."
  3259. > You smile.
  3260. "So your grampa turned an insult into a badge of honour? Talk about a thermal updraft, wow!"
  3261. > "Yeah... So, where'd you learn to speak Griffonese, then? You sure talk Equestrian like every AWACS Pegasus I've ever met."
  3262. > Well, of course you do!
  3263. > It was every Pegasus' duty to serve in the Airborne Weather And Climate Service.
  3264. > To say nothing of the Royal Guard!
  3265. > Anyways, back to the matter at hoof.
  3266. "Oh, my parents were good friends with a Griffon trading family that visited Berry -- my hometown -- during the warm months, caravaning the crops to markets and ports in the fall, and bringing in shipments from the port of Fillydelphia in the spring. In the winter, they migrated South, but they would stay in town for most of the summer, doing smaller deliveries until harvest-time."
  3267.  
  3268. > You shrug.
  3269. "... Our house was next to the village inn, so as a filly, with my parents up working the weather, I played with their chicks and learned the language from 'babushka'."
  3270. > Featherhooves smiles.
  3271. > "Nice. Reminds me a little bit of a Griffonese folk song about a travelling peddler, you know the one - 'dun dun-dun-dun dun-dun-dun dun-dun-dun dun-dun-dunnnn, dun-dun-dun dun.dun.dun'?"
  3272. > She hums the first distinctive bar, and you nod your head and hum along with her.
  3273. "Oh yeah, babushka Tetranov used to sing that one all the time! For some reason I always think about these toy blocks that had the Griffonese alphabet on the side when I hear it."
  3274. > Featherhooves looks pleased.
  3275. > "If you swing by the 'Peregrines' enlisted mess on any evening where we *aren't* preparing for a field op, the old-timers will get a real kick out of hearing a Pegasus sing Griffon folk songs -- and a few of them will probably beg Percheron to find some way to persuade you to get commissioned."
  3276. > She throws her head back and laughs.
  3277. > "... I bet even grumpy old First Sergeant Gercog would actually crack a smile on that beak of his if you show up and prove to be a competent officer!"
  3278. > She wiggles her eyebrows at you.
  3279. > "... He'd know if you were: he used to be a full Colonel -- a Polkovnik -- before being forced into exile during one of the King's purges."
  3280. > The mention of exile seems to dampen her spirits.
  3281. > "... But that's a story for another time. And anyways, we're here."
  3282.  
  3283. > You were so unconsciously maintaining formation with her as the flight leader that you barely noticed the drop in airspeed and altitude, but you're coming in to land on a road just outside of the village.
  3284. > In front of you stands a large stone building, with smoke pouring from several chimneys at the top, and the sound of pounding metal from within.
  3285. > It looks like it's only one storey tall, but that one storey is almost tall enough to fit a second one in there.
  3286. > A large painted wooden sign hanging from the entrance reads: 'BRONZEHORN ARMS AND ARMOUR'
  3287. > And the sign itself has... bronze horns?
  3288.  
  3289. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=krJR0b1Wgrg (Red Army Choir - 'Korobeiniki')
  3290.  
  3291.  
  3292.  
  3293.  
  3294. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you've never felt physically intimidated by any creature in your life.
  3295. > Until now.
  3296. > Inside the smoky smithy, a towering colossus of a black minotaur bull stands behind a counter that comes up to your chin, but seems to barely reach his waist.
  3297. > And, grim-faced and with his fists on his hips, he's staring down at Private First Class Featherhooves.
  3298. > "Private, you're out of uniform. Where's your gorget?"
  3299. > His deep, powerful voice reverberates in the small showroom, rattling the sets of armour sitting on shelves and dozens of weapons hanging from the walls.
  3300. > You glance over at Featherhooves, and there's a look of defiance in the bare-necked Griffon's eyes.
  3301. > "It's too heavy, and it gets too hot."
  3302. > The minotaur snorts.
  3303. > He leans over and, with a loud 'whump', rests one of his slab-like forearms on the counter.
  3304. > From this angle, you can confirm that, yes, his upper arm is probably bigger than you are.
  3305. > Wow.
  3306. > With his other hand, the shopkeeper points an accusing finger at your escort.
  3307. > "You won't be thinking it's too heavy when you wind up taking a spear to your neck."
  3308. > His voice is so low you almost feel his words vibrating in your bones rather than hearing them in your ears.
  3309. > But Featherhooves just rolls her eyes.
  3310. > "We're going out on manoeuvres, Gunther, not heading into battle."
  3311.  
  3312. > Gunther stretches out his accusing finger and rather forcibly pokes your Griffon comrade in her neck.
  3313. > "Train in the armour you fight in."
  3314. > As Featherhooves pulls away from his prodding, the enormous minotaur withdraws his hand, balls it up into a fist, and rests it, knuckles-down, on the counter alongside his other arm.
  3315. > With another steamy snort, he looms over the desk, staring at the Griffon.
  3316. > "... Dress up properly next time you come here, or I'll see to it you get a proper dressing-down back at the Fort."
  3317. > Private Featherhooves glares right back, and for a few moments, they try to stare each other down.
  3318. > Eventually, whether it's because she withered under his gaze, or because she knows he's right, the Griffon breaks eye contact and looks sheepishly away.
  3319. > "Sorry, Gunther. I won't leave it off again."
  3320. > The minotaur doesn't break his gaze.
  3321. > "Next time, you might not be sorry -- you might be *dead*..."
  3322. > Leaning back, he sighs, and the walls seem to flex inwards and outwards along with his mighty breath.
  3323. > "... Now, what do you want? I hope you're not here to check up on that rush order -- because as much as I don't appreciate being asked to craft a whole platoon's worth of Diamond Dog armour with only two days' notice, I appreciate it even less having that pencil-neck Lieutenant Woodhouse sending badly-dressed Privates down here to check up on me."
  3324. > Featherhooves nods in your direction.
  3325. > "I'm not here about that, Gunther; right now, I'm just an errand-foal, escorting Specialist Sparkshower here, who wanted to know who supplies the Princess-Cadenza's with the 'exotic' armour we use."
  3326. > Gunther swivels his meaty neck towards you, and the intimidation factor ramps up again.
  3327.  
  3328. > It's not so much that you're *afraid* of what he could do to you.
  3329. > When you faced off against Kilfeather's second-in-command, *that* was genuine fear.
  3330. > Fear that 'Joker' could -- and did -- literally fly circles around you.
  3331. > With this massive minotaur, you don't feel like you're in any actual danger.
  3332. > But the way he moves his enormous bulk with a commanding presence is almost hypnotizing.
  3333. > You just *know* that if he wanted to, this gargantuan bipedal cow could snap bones, bend iron bars, crush bronze plate...
  3334. > It's staggering.
  3335. > Gunther looks you over with a discerning eye, and his ivory horn catches a glint from the light streaming down into the hazy room through a sunlight in the ceiling.
  3336. > "That's a solid-looking suit of armour you've got, Specialist. Is it just for show?"
  3337. > You shake your head.
  3338. "No, Sir. I'm a 19D Armoured Scout."
  3339. > He glances at your flanks.
  3340. > "I see some scuffs on it. Have you taken it into a fight?"
  3341. > Your shake turns into a nod.
  3342. "Yes, sir."
  3343. > The minotaur narrows his eyes ever so slightly.
  3344. > "Against?"
  3345. > You pause, and a quick glance beside you shows that Featherhooves is also listening attentively.
  3346. "Changeling advance scouts in the field a year ago, but most recently, I won a duel against a Lieutenant of the 1st Canterlot Air Superiority Wing."
  3347. > The minotaur doesn't budge from his spot, though you see his jaw move as if he's chewing on your words.
  3348.  
  3349. > When he's finished masticating, you see him swallow.
  3350. > Then he nods, a look of satisfaction in his eyes.
  3351. > "Alright, Specialist Sparkshower. I'm Gunther Bronzehorn, and this is my smithy. I make bronze weapons and armour in all styles, shapes, and sizes. What can I do for you?"
  3352. > You lick your lips.
  3353. "Well, I'm not here for myself, Sir. I'm currently assigned to the Canterlot Palace Military Office as a member of a bodyguard quaternion for a Very Important Pony, and our VIP requires martial equipment. Since he's not actually a pony, I'm looking for an armourer with some understanding of non-equine physiology."
  3354. > Gunther Bronzehorn starts chewing again, and you see him reach up to scratch his smoke-blackened snout, tugging on the large bronze nose-ring in the process.
  3355. > Then he blinks, and leans forward.
  3356. > "Let's get one thing clear, Specialist. I make armour for *warriors*, not *bigwigs*..."
  3357. > The minotaur leans back again.
  3358. > "... I don't do gilt, or filigree, or embossing, or bas-relief, or any other of that useless nonsense. And I only work with bronze."
  3359. > Lifting his arm up off the table, he jabs a fat thumb into his immensely broad chest.
  3360. > "... My art is in making armour that *fits* well and *works* well, not in dressing a bull up to look good for the heifers."
  3361. > He leaves it at that, resuming his chewing of some invisible cud.
  3362. > You clear your throat.
  3363. "Mister Bronzehorn, sir, my VIP has been challenged to a fight before. We defended his honour then, but he wants to learn how to fight so he can defend himself, and my Sergeant intends to train him. She doesn't want to start until he has appropriate armour so that he can, as you said, train in the armour he'll fight in."
  3364.  
  3365. > The chewing stops, and Bronzehorn narrows his eyes.
  3366. > "This VIP of yours -- what is he?"
  3367. > You sit down and start to gesture with your forehooves.
  3368. "He's a 'human', Sir. Sort of a bipedal hairless monkey. He looks a bit like a minotaur, but he walks on his feet, not on hooves, so his legs bend the other way around. And he's pretty tall, though not as tall as you, Sir."
  3369. > Gunther resumes chewing, thinking over your words.
  3370. > He glances over at Featherhooves, but she just gives a simple shrug in response.
  3371. > Then his eyes are back on you, and the chewing continues for a few uncomfortable moments more.
  3372. > At last, the minotaur slowly nods his head.
  3373. > "All right. When it comes to non-pony armour, nobody can beat Bronzehorn -- that's why my smithy is the sole supplier for the Princess-Cadenza's."
  3374. > He lifts his enormous arm off the table, then drops it down again with one finger holding it up.
  3375. > "... You tell your VIP, whoever and whatever he is, what I told you about how I work. If he's still interested, then have him come here for a measuring. Day or night -- my door is always open for those on the warrior's path."
  3376. > The enormous minotaur pushes down on the counter and hauls himself up.
  3377. > "... I've never worked on a 'human' before, but I'm sure I can figure out how to protect him."
  3378. > With a wave of his hand, he gestures at the door.
  3379. > "... If that's everything, then I've got to get back to the forge. There's another five suits of Diamond Dog armour to finish for tomorrow morning."
  3380. > You nod and give him a salute.
  3381. > Somehow, even though this minotaur's not in the military, it seems appropriate.
  3382. > Your gesture earns you what looks like an approving nod in response, then Gunther Bronzehorn draws open a heavy leather curtain and heads out of the immense building's fairly small showroom.
  3383.  
  3384. > You exit back outside, and Private First Class Featherhooves turns to you.
  3385. > "Well, now you've met Gunther Bronzehorn, official blacksmith to the Princess Mi Amore Cadenza's Regiment of Auxiliaries."
  3386. > She nods back at the smithy.
  3387. > "... He runs this place with his wife. She was probably working away in the back, and believe it or not, she's even bigger than he is."
  3388. > Wow.
  3389. > Gunther had such an imposing presence, you almost hope you never meet his wife.
  3390. > Featherhooves raises her head-feathers and stretches out her wings.
  3391. > "... Anyways, if there's nothing else, I guess that's mission accomplished for me?"
  3392. > You nod.
  3393. "Spasibo, Ryadovoy Featherhooves. This is mission accomplished for me, as well."
  3394. > The Griffon smiles.
  3395. > "Alright, Specialist Sparkshower. You can find your way out of here OK? Then I'll see you around, olovyanny soldat."
  3396. > You smile back, and she casually swings a fist at your shoulder, creating a hollow 'clonk' against your bronze plate.
  3397. > "... Swing over to our barracks next time you've got some leave, Specialist. If you like a good party, I guarantee the 'Peregrines' will make it worth your while!"
  3398. > You forcefully nod your head, deliberately causing your bascinet visor to slam shut.
  3399. "Thanks, I will!"
  3400. > Exchanging a friendly salute to your new Griffon comrade, you both take off in opposite directions -- Featherhooves, back to Fort Newcastle-upon-Mare, and yourself, back to Canterlot Palace.
  3401. > Well, it looks like you've found Anonymous an armourer!
  3402. > Too bad it's so far away from the city.
  3403. > Newcastle-upon-Mare is only an hour outside of Canterlot by air, but probably three times that by stagecoach.
  3404. > Hopefully, Sergeant Ebonshield has secured a training ground.
  3405. > And more importantly, hopefully she can convince Anonymous to follow through!
  3406. > As nice as it was to make a new friend in Private First Class Featherhooves, it would be a waste if you came all the way out here and your VIP dropped the idea after all...
  3407.  
  3408.  
  3409.  
  3410.  
  3411. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and you have a front-row posting to the upcoming fireworks.
  3412. > Anonymous was sitting at his desk, doing paperwork -- or maybe just *pretending* to do paperwork, since he said he was going to 'act busy' when Kilfeather came by.
  3413. > And since your ex asked for a three o'clock visit, that should be any minute now.
  3414. > In front of you, Corporal Bound is standing in front of the double doors, one of her spears drawn, assembled, and held at attention.
  3415. > It's a shame Ebonshield wasn't back yet; you could really use a third set of hooves.
  3416. > Kilfeather could be a real waggon-load to manage, and your horn was still spellbound.
  3417. > Still, you wouldn't mind giving him a good kick in the head if that's what it came down to.
  3418. > You hear hoofsteps on the tile floor outside the doors, and they're followed shortly afterwards by a knock.
  3419. > Honour gives you a knowing glance, then turns around and pulls the door open a crack.
  3420. > You can hear a hushed exchange of greetings, then she closes it again and steps forward into the room, saluting.
  3421. > "Sir, Lieutenant Kilfeather is here to see you."
  3422. > Anonymous looks up from where he's hunched over his desk, with his pencil still in his hand.
  3423. > "Show him in, Corporal."
  3424. > The little bit of theatre complete, she salutes, then goes back to the door and opens it wide.
  3425. > And there he is, the colt of the hour...
  3426. > Lieutenant Valiant 'Icepone' Kilfeather.
  3427. > He's sitting sideways, looking off down the corridor as if he wasn't the least bit interested in this meeting.
  3428. > Kilfeather turns his head and looks you in the eyes.
  3429. > And that smug smile of his appears on his face.
  3430. > "Oh, hi Lily..."
  3431. > Your ex-coltfriend steps into the Royal Engineer's chambers, and Honour closes the door behind him.
  3432. > "... Fancy meeting you here."
  3433.  
  3434. > The slime-ball saunters up towards you, undressing you with his eyes as he affects a fake look of concern.
  3435. > "... How's the horn, by the way?"
  3436. > Now that he's up close, you get a good look at the bandages enveloping his wing-arms.
  3437. "It'll be fine in another day or two, Val..."
  3438. > You smirk.
  3439. "... How are the wings?"
  3440. > He tilts his head back, licking the back of his teeth.
  3441. > "Heh. They could be better..."
  3442. > Kilfeather glances back at his left wing and uselessly shrugs it upwards, showing the bandages clearly.
  3443. > "... I'm afraid I'm grounded until the fall molt. Guess this means I'll be sitting out this year's MXP Games."
  3444. > You squint and purse your lips, pouring out mock sympathy.
  3445. "Aww, poor baby."
  3446. > Lowering the wing, Kilfeather shrugs off your insult and glances around the room.
  3447. > "It's a shame. I was really hoping to lead the squadron into the Grand Mêlée for a second clean sweep."
  3448. > You're about to make another quip when the Royal Engineer, still sitting behind his desk, noisily clears his throat.
  3449. > "Lieutenant, I hope you haven't requested this audience merely to harangue my guards."
  3450. > Your ex drops the grin and looks over at your VIP, who's glaring at him from underneath his reading-glasses.
  3451. > "My apologies, Lord. I wouldn't dream of wasting Your Excellency's valuable time."
  3452. > As he puts on his 'modesty' face and steps towards the Royal Engineer's desk, your VIP retorts, wearing a scowl.
  3453. > "You've wasted quite a substantial amount of my time already, Lieutenant."
  3454. > Heh.
  3455. > You resist smirking as Kilfeather is put in his place.
  3456. > The cocksure Lieutenant closes his eyes bows his head, licking his lips.
  3457. > "I know, Sir, and I apologize. Please believe me when I say that I didn't do so deliberately."
  3458. > "Your actions last weekend seemed rather deliberate to me."
  3459. > Kilfeather has to grin as your VIP sardonically lays into him.
  3460.  
  3461. > He sighs and tries to compose himself.
  3462. > "It was nothing personal, Sir."
  3463. > Anonymous puts his pencil down and sits back in his chair.
  3464. > "From what I understand, Lieutenant, it was *entirely* personal; I just happen to not have been the person in question."
  3465. > Once again, Kilfeather has to shut his eyes.
  3466. > He sighs and opens his mouth in a grin, chuckling.
  3467. > "Heh. I can see that I've started off on the wrong hoof, here..."
  3468. > Your ex glances back at you.
  3469. > "... And also that my reputation has apparently preceded me."
  3470. > Composing himself again, Kilfeather drops the grin.
  3471. > "... I'll get straight to the point, then. You have something of mine, my Lord, and I would like it back."
  3472. > Huh?
  3473. > You shoot a glance over at Honour, but your Corporal is cool as a cucumber, and you can't read anything in her stony face.
  3474. > Kilfeather jerks a hoof back in your direction.
  3475. > "... After your bodyguard defeated me in our duel, she grabbed my helmet -- what remained of it, at least. I want it back."
  3476. > What the buck?
  3477. > He wants his *helmet* back?
  3478. > You squint, and you're about to interject, when you see Corporal Bound shake her head, ordering you to hold it in.
  3479. > Anonymous places his elbows on his desk and clasps his fingers in front of him.
  3480. > "This sounds like a matter between you and Specialist Glamerspear, Lieutenant. What does it have to do with me?"
  3481. > Even *you* knew the answer to that question, but Kilfeather gives the explanation.
  3482. > "As a Lord, you were the commanding authority for Specialist Glamerspear at the time. You're responsible for any misdeeds she might have done under your leadership."
  3483. > Oh, buck him!
  3484. "Misdeeds!?"
  3485.  
  3486. > Kilfeather looks back as you step forwards towards him.
  3487. "... If anyone committed 'misdeeds', it was you and *your* squadron, Val!"
  3488. > He stays calm in spite of your outburst.
  3489. > "Not true. You stole my helmet."
  3490. > Getting right in front of him, waggling your cone above his head, you jab a hoof into his chest.
  3491. "Bullshit. That was a battlefield trophy, and my keeping it was done solely at the discretion of the commanding authority -- which, as you just pointed out, was the Royal Engineer at the time."
  3492. > Val's grin returns, and he shakes his head.
  3493. > "Ah-ah-ah, Lily. Battlefield trophies can only be taken from *enemy* combatants..."
  3494. > He leans his head forward, uncomfortably breaching your personal space, and you recoil your head to match.
  3495. > "... We're both in the Royal Guard. Duels don't count."
  3496. > You scowl as he sits back normally again.
  3497. > What you wouldn't give to be able to a shove a telekinetic spear up his smug face *right* *now*...
  3498. > From behind his desk, your VIP speaks up.
  3499. > "Lieutenant Kilfeather, after Specialist Glamerspear was done with you, your helmet was a mangled mess, little more than scrap metal. Why do you want it back?"
  3500. > Val turns his head back towards Anonymous.
  3501. > "Does it matter, Sir? It's my property, and she stole it from me."
  3502. > Wait a minute...
  3503. > It's not *his* property!
  3504. > This request of his makes sense now.
  3505. "You mean it's the *Royal Guard*'s property..."
  3506. > Kilfeather swivels his head around to squint at you.
  3507. "... And you need it back because otherwise the loss of equipment is on you!"
  3508. > He sits and looks at you in silence, and that silence plus the lack of a grin on his face is all you need to confirm your suspicions.
  3509.  
  3510. > Finally, he puts his smirk on again and turns back to Anonymous.
  3511. > "I've got to give your bodyguards credit, Sir. They're not as stupid as they look."
  3512. > Motherbucker!
  3513. > "... But it still doesn't change the fact that I want you to order Specialist Glamerspear to return my helmet."
  3514. > The Royal Engineer manages to keep perfectly calm.
  3515. > "You've been nothing but trouble to me and my entourage, Lieutenant. I'm not very inclined to accede to your request."
  3516. > Kilfeather begins grinning again.
  3517. > "I understand, my Lord. But believe me, Sir, when I say that I don't want us to be enemies."
  3518. > Is Val trying to *threaten* your VIP?
  3519. > A member of the Privy Council?
  3520. > That's crazy!
  3521. > Anonymous lifts an eyebrow.
  3522. > "Pardon me, Lieutenant. Are you proposing to become my *enemy* if I refuse?"
  3523. > Val shakes his head.
  3524. > "Not if I can help it, Sir..."
  3525. > He shrugs his shoulders.
  3526. > "... But if you wrong me, then as a gentlecolt, what choice do I have?"
  3527. > The Royal Engineer leans forward, staring down at Kilfeather from behind his impressive desk.
  3528. > "Lieutenant, from where I sit, I see a pony who has offended a large number of ponies and committed a number of outright crimes, and is likely to soon find themselves in a court-martial dock."
  3529. > Now Kilfeather's grin breaks into a full-on smile.
  3530. > "Ah yes, it does look that way, doesn't it, Sir..."
  3531.  
  3532. > He starts nodding.
  3533. > "... But you're wrong. And I don't blame you for failing to understand -- you don't know the delicate balancing act going on in the Royal Guard."
  3534. > Kilfeather shakes his head, twitching his ears.
  3535. > "... They won't court-martial me. Not for all the outraged howls coming from the nobles I accosted at Oldstirrup Bridge. Not even for what you say I did. The leaders of the Royal Guard won't prostrate themselves towards the landed nobility and the idle rich -- not any more. They're trying to do away with purchased commissions and build a professional officer corps. They won't dare put me -- a non-noble officer, who cut his chops in the academy, an MXP champion and a decorated warrior -- on trial. It'll undo everything the Chiefs of Staff and the Minister of Defence have worked for."
  3536. > He looks back at you, nodding towards your VIP.
  3537. > "... Why don't you tell him, Lil'?"
  3538. > Damn.
  3539. > The bastard really has thought this out.
  3540. > You glance down at the floor for a moment, pawing at it with your hoof.
  3541. > When you look back up, Anonymous is waiting expectantly for an answer.
  3542. > You sigh.
  3543. "He may be right, Sir. The Guard has been trying to kill off purchased commissions and to reduce the percentage of nobles in the officer corps. His 'Pas de Sabots' really drove a wedge between the nobility and the Royal Guard leadership. The reforms have popular support, and common ponies love to see the nobility get embarrassed."
  3544. > Kilfeather chuckles, turning back to Anonymous.
  3545. > "Heh-heh, and I *embarrassed* them, all right. You should have seen what happened at Oldstirrup Bridge -- it was pathetic. Nopony put up even half as good a fight as your crew did..."
  3546.  
  3547. > He steps forward, nodding and smiling from cheek to cheek.
  3548. > "... That's why I moved even after your crew KO'd three of us. I knew the rookies in my squadron could handle a bunch of fops with nothing more than rent-a-guards. And Major-General Hoofstrong knew it, too: the 'Pas de Sabots' was her idea in the first place. I just came along and implemented it for her, with glorious results. She'll fight to defend me, and she has friends. They'll even try to suppress the first encounter at Newstirrup Bridge."
  3549. > Anonymous slowly pulls off his reading glasses.
  3550. > "But you can still get in trouble for losing your equipment, is that it?"
  3551. > Kilfeather shrugs.
  3552. > "A few days in the brig. A suspension for a few weeks or months. Maybe a demotion to Lieutenant Junior-Grade if the supporters of the Old Regime can trump up the charges enough and put together a sympathetic board of inquiry..."
  3553. > He rolls his head sideways.
  3554. > "... Is that worth my enmity, Sir? It doesn't sound like a good trade to me, and if you're the clever colt I now realize you are, it shouldn't to you, either."
  3555. > When Anonymous doesn't say anything, Kilfeather continues.
  3556. > "... That was my biggest mistake, by the way, my Lord -- not realizing how clever you were."
  3557. > Anonymous cocks an eyebrow again.
  3558. > "Really, Lieutenant. After insulting my guards, you're trying flattery, now?"
  3559. > Kilfeather shakes his head.
  3560. > "It's not flattery, Sir. It's just honesty -- I figured you'd appreciate it."
  3561. > He breathes a deep sigh, gesturing with one hoof.
  3562. > "... I knew you had to be smart if Her Majesty made you the Royal Engineer. But I thought if I put you on the spot -- really turn on the pressure -- you and your entourage wouldn't be clever enough to beat me."
  3563. > Kilfeather licks his lips and beams.
  3564. > "... That's my speciality, after all -- intuition, figuring things out with the clock ticking..."
  3565. > He shakes his head and points up towards the sky.
  3566. > "... Up there, you don't have time to think. If you think, you're dead."
  3567.  
  3568. > With a smile, your scheming ex-coltfriend lowers his hoof and waits expectantly in front of Anonymous' desk.
  3569. > And your stony-faced VIP sits there looking at him for a good long time.
  3570. > Then he looks over at you, inhaling deeply before speaking softly.
  3571. > "Specialist, go and get the Lieutenant's helmet."
  3572. > What!
  3573. "Now, wait just a second, Sir!"
  3574. > Kilfeather grins as Anonymous interrupts you.
  3575. > "Unless you can think of a legitimate reason to hold onto that helmet, Specialist Glamerspear, then we have to return it."
  3576. > "Yeah, Lily, go do as your VIP tells you."
  3577. > You stare daggers at Kilfeather.
  3578. > Anonymous breaks the silence by addressing himself to Corporal Bound.
  3579. > "On second thought, Corporal, why don't you go and fetch it? Do you know where it is?"
  3580. > Honour salutes.
  3581. > "Yes, Sir. I do, sir."
  3582. > With that, she exits the room to trot upstairs.
  3583. > No doubt she'd seen it sitting on your desk.
  3584. > You can't believe Kilfeather is getting what he wants!
  3585. > But you suppose he's right -- there's nothing you can do to him that's worth it in the long run.
  3586. > Trying to force the issue will just result in making enemies of not just him, but the higher-ups in the Royal Guard who wanted this 'Pas de Sabots' to succeed.
  3587. > Bucking asshole is backed up by a whole damn conspiracy.
  3588. > At least Anonymous has spared you the humiliation of having to turn it back over personally.
  3589.  
  3590. > Kilfeather is still staring intently at you.
  3591. > When he sees you returning your gaze, he nods, glancing down at your chest.
  3592. > "The Silver Ram... So you really are a war hero, huh?"
  3593. > Apparently, he only just now noticed the medal you're wearing around your neck.
  3594. > You cock an eyebrow.
  3595. "You didn't believe me when I said I was a Centurion of the Order, Val?"
  3596. > He chuckles.
  3597. > "Oh, I believed you... I wouldn't have put it past you to lie, but I believed you. You deserved it, after all..."
  3598. > Kilfeather licks his lips, and for a moment, that smug grin on his face actually appears sincere.
  3599. > "... I always knew you were the best anti-air gunner in the Royal Guard. That's why I had my squadron lead our dogfights towards your defence sector during the Invasion."
  3600. > You blink.
  3601. "You're joking. You and me were already broken up by then."
  3602. > Val rolls his head around.
  3603. > "Aw, come on, Lil'. I may be an asshole -- hell, I *know* I'm an asshole -- but I'm an asshole who knows how to keep my professional and personal lives separate. I might've screwed things up with you, sure..."
  3604. > He turns to face Anonymous, and gives what actually looks like a proper, respectful bow to your VIP.
  3605. > "... I might've even used a superior officer's political scheme for personal ends..."
  3606. > Lifting his head, he steps back so that he can look at both you and the Royal Engineer at the same time.
  3607. > "... But I know how to fight, and I know when I see a real fighter standing before me. Me and my squadron got creamed during the Changeling Invasion -- almost everypony did -- but before we went down, we took a bunch of the bastards with us, and I made sure to lead the rest to the ponies I knew could best destroy them."
  3608.  
  3609. > Kilfeather's smirk sneaks back onto his face, and he lifts both of his forehooves to point them in your direction.
  3610. > "... That was the 86th Artys, at least while you were in 'em, babe. I knew from the moment I set eyes on you that you were going to do great things. That's what drew me to you, not your little side business. It was the same thing with your Pegasus comrade... She's got the eye of the tiger, too."
  3611. > You roll your eyes as the door opens and Corporal Bound comes back in.
  3612. "You're full of yourself, Kilfeather."
  3613. > He grins.
  3614. > "I'm full of *danger*, baby. And that's what *you* liked about *me*."
  3615. > As he beams satisfaction and confidence, Honour steps forward and pulls his helmet wreckage out of a saddle-bag.
  3616. > It still looks like it got trampled flat by a stampede -- and then breathed on by a dragon for good measure.
  3617. > Anonymous clears his throat.
  3618. > "If you're quite finished, Lieutenant -- your helmet."
  3619. > With a smile, he takes it back from Corporal Bound and puts it into his own saddle-bag.
  3620. > "Many thanks, Corporal..."
  3621. > He gets to his hooves and salutes your VIP.
  3622. > "... And many thanks to you as well, my Lord. I'm glad this situation has been resolved amiably."
  3623. > Anonymous swivels his chair to one side.
  3624. > "As am I. However, I'm sure you'll understand if I would prefer not to meet you again, Lieutenant."
  3625. > The put-down just makes Kilfeather perk up more.
  3626. > "I understand, Sir. Although, I have to admit, I find the possibility of a rematch -- a friendly one, of course -- very enticing."
  3627. > The Royal Engineer gives him a cold stare.
  3628. > "I imagine the Royal Guard will not be in a hurry to authorize a second 'Pas de Sabots'."
  3629.  
  3630. > Kilfeather shakes his head, still smiling.
  3631. > "Ha-ha, no, I imagine that they won't... And I'm not in any shape for anything right now, either. But you know, My Lord, word will eventually get around that your group soundly beat mine, and sporting duels for status and bragging rights aren't uncommon in the Guard. Somepony else may want to test your mettle before me."
  3632. > He cocks his neck sideways.
  3633. > "... If I were you, I'd make sure to keep my bodyguards in top form."
  3634. > With a final salute, and no response to that threat from Anonymous -- was it even a threat? -- your trouble-making ex-coltfriend turns around and heads for the door.
  3635. > The door that Sergeant Ebonshield, dressed in her black armour and a sweeping long black cloak that drapes all the way down to radiate outwards on the floor, is standing resolutely in front of.
  3636. > That stops Kilfeather in his tracks.
  3637. > "Hell-o, what do we have here?"
  3638. > He looks over his shoulder at the Royal Engineer.
  3639. > "... This is quite the menagerie of guards you've gathered together, my Lord Engineer."
  3640. > Stepping forward again, Kilfeather approaches the cloaked batpony, who at the moment is only distinguishable from any other kind by her slit-eyes and tufted ears.
  3641. > "... Now I really *am* interested in a four-on-four rematch! What's your name, tall-dark-and-mysterious?"
  3642. > Sergeant Ebonshield doesn't move her head, and just looks sideways at him.
  3643. > "Danger."
  3644. > Her cold voice does nothing to dampen his mood.
  3645. > "You don't say? It's my middle name..."
  3646. > Standing in front of the door, Kilfeather turns back to the rest of the room.
  3647. > "... My Lord, it was a pleasure doing business with you. I look eagerly forward to our next meeting. Good day, Sir!"
  3648. > Laughing, he pulls the door open, exits, and closes it behind him.
  3649.  
  3650. > There's a long moment where nopony says anything.
  3651. > The silence is finally broken by Anonymous, who raises his hand to rub the bridge of his nose.
  3652. > "Sergeant, I think I'd like to expedite that combat training plan of yours."
  3653. > Instantly, she turns to face him and bows her head.
  3654. > "Certainly, Great Lord. Specialist Sparkshower returned just before Corporal Bound came to bring me down in support. She has located a blacksmith who should satisfy your requirements. All that must be done is to call upon him for a measuring."
  3655. > Tired, the Royal Engineer lays one hand on his desk.
  3656. > "Should we go now? Will he still be open?"
  3657. > Ebonshield bows her head again.
  3658. > "Great Lord, the village where can be found this blacksmith is almost three hours away by ground. Specialist Glamerspear reported to me that he is pleased to serve genuine customers at any time of day, but I should caution the Great Lord that we would not arrive until after nightfall, and it would surely be quite late by the time we returned."
  3659. > That sounds pretty far.
  3660. > All eyes are on Anonymous, who frowns and looks down at his hands.
  3661. > "Hmmm... Maybe not, though..."
  3662. > He looks up, and there's a small smile on his face.
  3663. > "... I still have an open offer from Princess Celestia to make use of one of her flying carriages."
  3664. > Aw, yeah!
  3665.  
  3666. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=siwpn14IE7E (Kenny Loggins - 'Danger Zone', from 'Top Gun' [1986])
  3667.  
  3668.  
  3669.  
  3670.  
  3671. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and nothing in your life so far has been as terrifying as this.
  3672. > Not the gruelling days of horseshoe camp, being yelled at by knife-hoofing drill instructors at all hours of the day and night.
  3673. > Not the first day on the job in the VIP service, when you were still naive about what that meant, and sweating cannonballs about messing up in front of some bigwig dignitary.
  3674. > Not even during the war, when you single-hoofedly set up barricades in the palace guest quarters and fought off three changelings who tried to force their way in.
  3675. > And from the looks of Specialist Glamerspear, even though she had a front-row seat to the Invasion, she feels the same way you do.
  3676. > Neither of you understood the true depths of terror before now.
  3677. > Your unicorn squadmate is almost indecently spread-eagled on the opposite bench, with her hind hooves hooked under the bottom of the seat and her forehooves groping for any kind of purchase on the seat-back.
  3678. > Facing towards the rear, she's puffing her cheeks out with every breath like she's experiencing contractions, and alternating between shutting her eyes in sheer terror and keeping them open to avoid nausea.
  3679. > You're in much the same boat -- or carriage, rather.
  3680. > Out the forward window, just behind Glamerspear's head, the team of six Pegasi up front dip suddenly down out of sight, probably due to some kind of air pressure thing that you're sure Sparkshower knows all about, and you instinctively clench.
  3681. > As sure as rain in the spring, the carriage lurches downwards after them, its metal trucks groaning and its wooden body creaking as it flexes awkwardly to follow.
  3682. > The small glowing crystal chandelier swings back and forth, too, casting a dizzying set of shadows up against the walls.
  3683. > Then you see the carriage-pullers swing back up across the window frame, and the same horrifying thing happens again in reverse.
  3684.  
  3685. > How in the Nine Hells of Tartarus does Princess Celestia ride one of things and yet emerge still able to stand on her own four hooves?
  3686. > Or while looking so happy and gay, for that matter?
  3687. > Did your VIP just get the bad apple of the garage, or something?
  3688. > As the carriage mercifully levels out and you're granted the reprise of a brief steady flight, you suppose you know the answer to the second question.
  3689. > It's because Her Majesty has *wings*.
  3690. > Whereas the three ponies -- well, two ponies and a VIP-who-isn't-a-pony -- in it now are completely without any ability to manoeuvre in the air.
  3691. > Although, weren't unicorns supposed to have something for that?
  3692. "Hey, Glamerspear."
  3693. > Your subordinate is entirely too preoccupied with being utterly terrified and nauseated to hear your first, feeble attempt to get her attention.
  3694. > Not to mention, the frigid wind rushing in through the side windows makes it impossible to hear almost anything.
  3695. > You'd already tried shutting them, though, and everypony agreed that it just made the nausea worse.
  3696. > Cold and windy being found preferable to stuffy and barfy.
  3697. "HEY, GLAMERSPEAR!"
  3698. > Hanging on for dear life, she opens her eyes and looks at you.
  3699. > "WHAT?"
  3700. > Seeing that the Pegasi are still flying straight and level -- though you'd never know it from the way the carriage is bucking and swaying from the wind, you take a chance and lean forward so as to not have to shout quite so much.
  3701. "If something goes wrong, you can *levitate*, right?"
  3702. > Panting almost to the point of hyperventilation, she nods her head.
  3703. > "Yeah, sure; I can float all three of us safely down..."
  3704. > She quickly plucks one of her hooves out from where it was holding on to the back of the seat and gestures at her horn.
  3705. > "... Just not while I have this crap on my horn."
  3706. > Oh, right.
  3707. > The spellbinders, and the mana-cone.
  3708. > How did you forget those?
  3709. > Forty-five minutes of shake-rattle-and-roll will do that to a brain.
  3710. > It's a miracle you can still put two words together.
  3711.  
  3712. > You see the Pegasi swing right, and you lean back and tighten your grip.
  3713. "HOLD ON!"
  3714. > The carriage lurches sideways, rolling over slightly to one side, and Glamerspear closes her eyes.
  3715. > You're tempted to do the same, but since you're on the forward-facing bench, keeping your eyes open lets you see the movement before it comes.
  3716. > There's almost enough space on your side for her to join you -- but the carriage won't stay still enough for her to risk it.
  3717. > Maybe for the trip back.
  3718. > You look up and to your left at your VIP.
  3719. > He's got his legs stretched out and braced against the opposite floor-frame, and his knuckles are white from gripping the seat-bottom so tightly.
  3720. > Somehow, he doesn't look as sick or as scared as you feel, but his brow underneath his top hat is still covered with sweat, and every now and again he risks letting go with one hand to dab it with his handkerchief.
  3721. > Said handkerchief is now absolutely soaked.
  3722. "ARE YOU ALL RIGHT, SIR?"
  3723. > Anonymous nods his head quickly, then leans over to the left to brace himself against the side wall as the team of Pegasi swing right.
  3724. > The force of this turn almost throws you out of your seat and onto his lap, but you manage to splay out a forehoof on the bench to keep yourself from tumbling.
  3725. > As the carriage rolls over sideways, everypony inside gets a horrifying look at just how far of a fall it will be if any single part of this rickety contraption lets go.
  3726. > Glamerspear in particular takes one glance and then scrambles up to the opposite wall.
  3727. > A few seconds later, the floor levels out and the ground is thankfully out of sight once again.
  3728. > Seeing the Pegasi flying straight and true, Anonymous pushes away from the wall and sits upright again, taking another opportunity to wipe his brow of sweat.
  3729. > "I used to love roller coasters back on my world..."
  3730. > Holding the handkerchief out in front of him, he wrings it out onto the painted wooden floor.
  3731.  
  3732. > It's a bit improper to soil Her Majesty's carriage in this way, but frankly, you count yourself lucky that nopony has thrown up in here yet.
  3733. > If anypony did, and your money would be on Glamerspear to start it, you'd probably follow them right afterwards.
  3734. > A little bit of sweat, by comparison, is no big deal.
  3735. > "... I liked rock-climbing... Went bungee-jumping once or twice while on holiday..."
  3736. > Giving it a final shake, he wipes off the rest of his face.
  3737. > "... I even did a tandem hang-glide and tandem parachute-jump at events with coworkers..."
  3738. > Breathing heavily, he folds it away in his pocket.
  3739. > "... And I certainly never had any trouble on commercial flights."
  3740. > You shoot a confused glance at Glamerspear.
  3741. > Did she just hear that?
  3742. > Is the ride getting to him more than it is to you?
  3743. > But the unicorn is frozen solid and paying no attention.
  3744. > You look up at your VIP.
  3745. "Commercial flights, sir? I didn't think your people had wings?"
  3746. > Anonymous nods.
  3747. > "We built flying machines, Corporal. Hollow cylinders framed in wood or aluminium, with fixed wings and engines that push air backwards. Once we get to decent internal-combustion engines here, I'll build one. They can be very safe..."
  3748. > Stretching out his arm along the backrest, he adopts a new bracing strategy, probably more from being stiff and sore with the last one than anything else.
  3749. > "... But on my world they were heavily regulated and constantly inspected. Same with the roller-coasters and other thrill rides..."
  3750. > Teeth clenched, he looks around the elegantly-decorated carriage interior.
  3751. > Plush seats.
  3752. > Fine wallpaper.
  3753. > Magical chandelier.
  3754. > Decorated glass windows.
  3755. > Doors padded in sewn velvet.
  3756. > "... As elegant as it is, I get the feeling this carriage may not have been built to quite the same standards -- if not the safety-wise, then at least in terms of its suspension and ride quality."
  3757.  
  3758. > You nod.
  3759. "It does seem to have been built for ponies who aren't concerned about falling out of the sky, sir."
  3760. > There's a fluttering bronze creamy thing at the right window.
  3761. > "Sir, we're almost there! I've shown the team leader where to land!"
  3762. > It's Sparkshower, clutching her spear and looking chipper as ever against the late-afternoon sky.
  3763. > Out the left window, you spot Ebonshield close in as well.
  3764. > Hmm, this is the first time you've actually seen her -- or any batpony at all -- in flight.
  3765. > She's got her cloak rolled up on her back like a bedroll, but is wearing every piece of her armour, and she appears to be armed, as well.
  3766. > It's more than she wears when she's on regular duty with Anonymous.
  3767. > Glancing back and forth between Sparkshower and Ebonshield, you can tell that the Batpony doesn't move like a Pegasus does -- her wings are shorter, and she uses them in brief quick flutters rather than Sparkshowers' broad strokes.
  3768. > Both of them coast as much as they can, of course, but the difference is still noticeable every time they go to flap.
  3769. > There's more important things at hoof right now, though.
  3770. "Sparkshower -- if anything happens, remember that the VIP is your priority, okay?"
  3771. > She furrows her brow.
  3772. > "What do you mean, if anything happens?"
  3773. > Hooking one foreleg out the window, you lean over and stick your muzzle a little bit outside so as not to have to shout.
  3774. "Nopony in here can fly, remember? If anything goes wrong, save the Royal Engineer."
  3775. > Her eyes go wide, as if she just realized that you were all in the carriage purely because you *couldn't* fly, and not because you chose not to.
  3776. > Probably a natural assumption for a pegasus, that the only things up in the sky were things that could make it up there themselves.
  3777. > "I don't think I could carry him... But I could grab him and slow his descent, at least."
  3778. "That'll do. He says he's parachuted before."
  3779.  
  3780. > Sparkshower salutes you and backs away again to give the carriage team more room to manoeuvre.
  3781. > You pull yourself back inside.
  3782. > Why didn't you think to give her that order *before* the flight?
  3783. > Safety procedures like this ought to be restated for everypony's benefit before the carriage even takes off.
  3784. > For that matter, some sort of straps to secure passengers in place would be sorely appreciated.
  3785. > Or at least something to hold on to!
  3786. > But who's going to think about safety procedures in a carriage where the typical occupants are immortal flying sorcerers?
  3787. > Up ahead, you see the team of pegasi slowly drift down towards the bottom of the window-frame.
  3788. > The carriage follows along, this time in a gentler sweeping motion.
  3789. > But it still makes you feel like you're about to go flying out of your seat.
  3790. > And there's a head-rush, too.
  3791. > The window-panes rattle, and your ears pop.
  3792. > Thank Celestia!
  3793. > You've had that ear-ache for half an hour.
  3794. > Anonymous braces his legs higher up on the opposite bench, getting his shoes on the plush seating, and slouching down so that he can bend his knees.
  3795. > The lead carriage-pulling Pegasus, at the front-left, turns back and hollers at the rest of the team.
  3796. > "DEPLOY AIR BRAKES!"
  3797. > As a country road swings menacingly close up into sight, all three pairs of ponies stretch out their wings, ceasing their flapping, and you find yourself being thrown forward from the momentum.
  3798. > Thankfully, everypony manages to keep in their seat, though the struggle is real.
  3799. > The carriage seems to drop out from underneath of you as well, from the sudden lack of forward propulsion.
  3800. > "... PREPARE FOR LANDING! WHEELERS, ENGAGE LANDING GEAR!"
  3801. > As the four leader ponies begin to mock-gallop to match their hooves to the ground, the two rear ponies -- the wheelers -- stiffen their legs, then reach over and set special braces mounted to their enormous oversized sabots.
  3802. > Brake shoes.
  3803.  
  3804. > You glance around the cabin.
  3805. > Glamerspear has her eyes closed and appears to be muttering a prayer.
  3806. > Anonymous' gaze is fixed ahead forward at the muddy road, adjusting himself so as to maximize the padding underneath him and his ability to use his own knees to cushion the shock.
  3807. > You hope it's not going to be that rough of a landing.
  3808. > Celestia never seems to get jerked around when she lands at Royal engagements, does she?
  3809. > But then how many of those take place on dirt roads in the countryside...
  3810. > Just then, the enormous carriage wheels catch some of the earth, flinging it against the window, and the carriage ricochets back up.
  3811. > "... GET 'ER DOWN ON THE DECK, NOW!"
  3812. > The pegasi all lean back and force their wings against the wind, and your ride comes slamming down onto its wheels again.
  3813. > This time, the springs bear most of the impact, and, beyond everypony's head jerking forward and down and a sense that you've just had your spine compressed, the carriage stays on the ground and nopony is the worse for wear.
  3814. > The two 'wheeler' pegasi jam their armoured plough-hooves into the dirt path and kick up a huge plume of mud and dust in the process.
  3815. > Straight into the carriage behind them, of course.
  3816. > The spatter is so bad the forward window is almost instantly covered.
  3817. > They must have to completely hose these things down after every single flight!
  3818. > Before you can contemplate that further, you and Anonymous both lurch forwards as the braking force catches up with you.
  3819. > Once again, you both somehow manage to stay in your seats.
  3820. > You'd literally kill somepony for a some reigns to hold onto, though.
  3821. > With the two wheelers digging in, and the four leads doing their best to stay airborne while coming to a stop, the carriage soon comes screeching to a halt.
  3822. > As the four leads touch down with it, you feel able to catch your breath for the first time in this whole forty-five minute nightmare.
  3823.  
  3824. > And how enthusiastically it had all begun!
  3825. > 'Oh, we'll take a Royal Flying Carriage, it'll be quick and stylish and fun!'
  3826. > It was quick, all right.
  3827. > And nopony said anything about 'safe'.
  3828. > Anonymous lowers his legs and places his hands on his knees.
  3829. > "Good God, that was harrowing."
  3830. > Bending forward, he pulls off his top hat and rubs his cheeks with his hands.
  3831. > Glamerspear is still glued to the opposite bench, still terrified that the carriage is about to take flight again.
  3832. > There's a fluttering noise, and Sergeant Ebonshield is up against the window.
  3833. > "Are you all right, Great Lord? Is everypony all right?"
  3834. > Anonymous sits back up and nods, sighing.
  3835. > Even Glamerspear lowers a shivering hindhoof down to the floor.
  3836. > "Is it over? Are-are we on the ground again?"
  3837. > You get to your hooves -- slowly and hesitantly at first.
  3838. > It's almost surprising to find your knees haven't turned completely to jelly, and you can still stand upright.
  3839. "We're on the ground, Glamerspear. You can get up, now."
  3840. > "Oh, sweet Celestia of Equestria, hallowed be thy name, thank you."
  3841. > As Anonymous gets to his feet as well, Ebonshield, still fluttering in the air, twists the handle and pulls open the carriage door.
  3842. > He replaces his top hat and then, holding on to the window-frame, climbs out.
  3843. > After checking that Glamerspear is managing to get herself upright as well, you follow him.
  3844.  
  3845. > There's a trail of utter destruction to your left, where the wheeler ponies' heavy brake-sabots have completely ploughed-over the muddy road.
  3846. > Not that it was much to speak of before that, but now it looks like somepony's about to sow it with seeds.
  3847. > Looking the other way, you nearly jump out of your sabots.
  3848. > Your pegasus team has landed the carriage almost directly in front of a large one-and-a-half storey building.
  3849. > And from the smell of smoke, it's the blacksmith.
  3850. > Huh.
  3851. > Despite the rough landing, the team clearly knows what it's doing.
  3852. > Anonymous dusts himself off and tips his hat to the flight leader.
  3853. > "Thank you for the trip, Captain. We shouldn't be terribly long inside."
  3854. > The pegasus nods.
  3855. > "Take your time, sir. We can use the breather to tidy up and prepare for the return flight."
  3856. > Shaking their shoulders and flapping their wings, the six pegasi unhook themselves from their harnesses and start to stretch, one of them heading to the luggage-box to grab a large bottle of water as well.
  3857. > Finally, you hear hoofsteps from behind you, and Glamerspear emerges from the carriage, looking a little worse for wear, but still professional and resolute.
  3858. > Ebonshield and Sparkshower touch down as well.
  3859. > The quaternion is assembled, and Anonymous takes a first step towards the smithy.
  3860. > "Ostanovis' tut, kriminal'naya svoloch'!"
  3861. > Now what the tartarus!?
  3862.  
  3863.  
  3864.  
  3865.  
  3866. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you're feeling pretty ashamed of yourself.
  3867. > How could you have spent the whole flight unprepared for the possibility that Anonymous, Lily, and Honour would need your help if anything went wrong?
  3868. > It's not just because you yourself are a Pegasus; you didn't go and temporarily forget that other ponies don't always have wings, nope, no-way, nuh-uh, nossir!
  3869. > For one, you've never even heard of anything ever going 'wrong' with one of Her Royal Highness' Royal Flying Carriages before.
  3870. > And even if something *did* go wrong, the carriages always carried Princess Celestia, who could certainly use her own magic to fix the problem.
  3871. > Plus, the Pegasi pulling the carriage probably knew what to do in an emergency.
  3872. > And you would surely have dived down after them if anything had happened!
  3873. > Regardless, you're disappointed with yourself for the failure to 'Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome' -- the official motto of the Armoured Scouts.
  3874. > Especially after seeing how everypony looked inside the carriage!
  3875. > At first, you'd put their strange postures down to excitement and a desire to relax a bit.
  3876. > But when the Corporal had clued you in to what you might need to do, well, that put their strange sitting positions in a whole new light.
  3877. > It was while you were in this rather guilty state of mind that you hear somepony call out from above in Griffonese.
  3878. > <<Stop right there, criminal scum!>>
  3879. > Spear at the ready, you look up and see a Griffon high up in the sky.
  3880. > Oh, it's Private First Class Featherhooves.
  3881. > Hey, wait a minute!
  3882. > Where does she get off calling you a 'criminal'?
  3883. > This griffon and her jokes!
  3884.  
  3885. > The jester Private comes screeching down like she's pouncing on prey, and you see Eb and Honour move to ready their weapons, while Glamerspear takes a step back.
  3886. "It's okay, everypony, I know her; she's Royal Guard."
  3887. > Glamerspear holds her ground, but your Corporal still has her hoof on her spear, and the Sergeant keeps her eyes on the airborne intruder.
  3888. > Uhh, is Featherhooves going to slow down or...
  3889. > Ebonshield leaps backwards away, and your VIP turns his head and puts his arm up to shield his face.
  3890. > *WHOOMP!*
  3891. > The Griffon crashes down to the ground in-between you all, spattering everyone with dirt and dust, but otherwise landing perfectly on her feet despite keeping up a tremendous speed until the very end.
  3892. > Recovering faster than you thought was possible, Featherhooves steps over and playfully punches your pauldron.
  3893. > "What's up, Specialist Sparkshower? Didn't think I'd see you back in my neck of the woods so soon!"
  3894. > She switches to speaking Equestrian, which doesn't do much to putting your companions at ease.
  3895. > What with all the mud now coating them.
  3896. > Including Anonymous.
  3897. > You noisily clear your throat.
  3898. "*Ahem*. Private Featherhooves, may I introduce Anonymous, By Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer of Equestria."
  3899. > As before, when you revealed that you weren't a Valkyrie, Featherhooves' eyes do that funny Griffon thing where they go narrow as dots and then wide as dinner plates.
  3900. > "Oh, uh..."
  3901. > Snapping to attention, she jumps into an enthusiastic, but shabby salute that definitely wouldn't pass muster in the VIP service.
  3902. > "... Sorry, your Lordship! I didn't mean to interrupt your official business!"
  3903. > One of the carriage-pullers trots over and gives Anonymous a towel, scowling in Featherhooves' general direction.
  3904. > Your VIP takes his time dusting himself off before replying.
  3905. > "Do you always greet visitors by dive-bombing them, Private?"
  3906.  
  3907. > Your Griffon comrade gulps.
  3908. > "Uhm... Well, sir, if we're flying DRAGCAP and we suspect that they're intruders..."
  3909. > You doubt that your VIP knows the acronym for 'DRAgon/Griffon/Changeling Air Patrol' -- named for the three flying creatures most commonly watched for as potential threats to Equestria -- so you speak up in her defence.
  3910. "Sir, Private Featherhooves was the soldier tasked with escorting and introducing me to the smith here, Mister Bronzehorn."
  3911. > Your VIP nods and passes the towel over to Corporal Bound, who wipes herself off as well.
  3912. > "Mm-hmm. Well, since she's here, why doesn't she introduce the rest of us as well?"
  3913. > Featherhooves salutes again, a little more properly this time.
  3914. > "Sir, yes, sir!"
  3915. > As Anonymous turns away to get his personal effects from the luggage-box, you lean over to the prankster Private and speak in a hushed voice, holding your bascinet-visor up with one hoof.
  3916. "What are you even doing out here, Featherhooves?"
  3917. > She gives you a sheepish grin.
  3918. > "I got given double-duty DRAGCAP after the stunt with you and Major Bloodnok back at the Fort. When I saw one of the Royal Flying Carriages swing in to land, I thought maybe it was your VIP, and moved closer to investigate. Then I saw you and, uh..."
  3919. > The Griffon reaches up and scratches awkwardly at her feathery neck -- largely covered by the bronze gorget she's now wearing.
  3920. > "... I guess I was so excited to say hello again, I forgot that you had somepony important with you. And I thought the mud would be a fun prank. Sorry about that."
  3921. > You think you're starting to understand why the Corporal is always shaking her head and rolling her eyes at you.
  3922. > Because you feel like doing it to Private Featherhooves, here.
  3923. > And, sure enough, from a few paces away, Honour is already into it, having passed the cleaning towel on to Glamerspear.
  3924.  
  3925. "Just... try to keep it together in front of the Royal Engineer, okay? He's a friendly and forgiving colt, but this is serious business for him. Somepony has already threatened him, so he needs to get equipped. You understand, znakómaja?"
  3926. > The Griffon nods.
  3927. > "Don't worry, I won't embarrass you again!"
  3928. > The black band around her right eye gets bigger as she lifts an eyebrow.
  3929. > "... But who would threaten the Royal Engineer of Equestria? Isn't he kind of a big deal?"
  3930. "I'll tell you about it later."
  3931. > Specialist Glamerspear, cleaned-off and steady on her hooves, tosses the towel at you while sneering at Featherhooves.
  3932. > "All you need to know, bird-brain, is that they play hard games. Not like your childish crap, *Private*."
  3933. > You almost have to drop your spear to catch the towel before it lands in the road.
  3934. > Featherhooves frowns angrily at the unicorn, but Glamerspear just shakes her head in disgust and trots off.
  3935. > Sighing, you begin to wipe your own armour down.
  3936. > Featherhooves really did manage to get this stuff everywhere!
  3937. "Don't mind her. She's under the weather right now, and the ride over here wasn't as smooth as Princess Celestia makes it look to be."
  3938. > The Griffon looked about ready to adminster a sharp comeback, but instead bites her tongue.
  3939. > "I guess I *have* exceeded my 'ponies pissed-off' quota for today. I don't want to wind up flying double-shift DRAGCAP until the fall molt."
  3940. > You nod.
  3941. > "Anytime now, Private."
  3942. > From over closer to the building, Corporal Bound calls out, waiting with your VIP and the rest of the quaternion.
  3943. > Featherhooves gives another enthusiastic salute.
  3944. > "Yes, Corporal! Right this way, Mister-"
  3945. > You quickly lean over and whisper a correction into her ear.
  3946. "*Lord* Engineer"
  3947. > "-Lord Engineer, sir!"
  3948. > Anonymous nods in acknowledgement, and the two of you pull open the door to head in first.
  3949.  
  3950. > Inside, Bronzehorn Arms and Armour is the same as it was this afternoon, except darker, though a number of lamps hanging from the ceiling provide sufficient illumination.
  3951. > All four inside walls are covered with bronze weapons, and three two-tier shelves in the middle of the room are piled with pieces of bronze armour.
  3952. > There's some new bundles at the shopkeeper's table, though -- four suits of armour, each tied up neatly with string.
  3953. > Those must be the rush orders for the Princess-Cadenza's Regiment new Diamond Dog recruits.
  3954. > Stepping forward with Featherhooves, you make for the bell hanging beside the table.
  3955. > Behind you, Anonymous and the rest of your quaternion enter and begin to window-shop the material on display.
  3956. > "Wow, is this a store or an armoury?"
  3957. > Glamerspear seems particularly interested in the variety of helmets on display.
  3958. > "This is quite the collection, yes."
  3959. > Sergeant Ebonshield, meanwhile, is admiring the swords.
  3960. > You pull eagerly on the service-bell's rope, and it shakes out a hollow clatter.
  3961. > From far beyond the curtain covering the entrance deeper into the building, you hear a deep voice bellow.
  3962. > "Just a minute!"
  3963. > Featherhooves rolls her eyes beside you.
  3964. > "I still can't believe he uses that as a call."
  3965. > You shake your head.
  3966. "Why not? He heard it back there all right."
  3967. > The griffon scoffs.
  3968. > "It's a *cow*bell, Sparkshower. And he's a bronzesmith! He should make himself a big clock-bell, or a nice tuned cylinder..."
  3969. > She gestures eagerly with her talons.
  3970. > "... or like a huge freaking gong, with a big mallet to match! It'd be appropriately-sized, at least."
  3971. > There's a dull, rhythmic thudding coming from inside the building.
  3972. > And it's getting louder, and closer...
  3973. > You're not *afraid* of the smith, but you're feeling intimidated again just thinking about him.
  3974.  
  3975. > Five fat black fingers grasp the edge of the curtain, and they draw it back it one swift motion.
  3976. > With his hooves pounding loudly against the earth floor, Gunther Bronzehorn - who might just be Equestria's largest minotaur, at least as far as you knew - enters the room, wearing a large leather apron and carrying another bundled-up set of armour.
  3977. > Instantly, he looks down at Featherhooves as he pulls the curtain shut again.
  3978. > "You're just in time, Private. And I see you're properly dressed. But I wasn't going to send word that these were done until the morning."
  3979. > Featherhooves shakes her head.
  3980. > "I'm not here for the armour, Bronzehorn. Specialist Sparkshower here is back with her VIP."
  3981. > The minotaur smith puts the bundle down and wipes a broad forearm across his blackened snout, looking over the new customers in his shop.
  3982. > "So she is..."
  3983. > With the same loud *whump* you heard earlier today, only doubled this time, he leans forward and rests both of his huge arms on the table.
  3984. > Geez, you could conceal a whole platoon behind those massive slabs.
  3985. > Turning around, you see Anonymous still inspecting some of the armour pieces on display -- he's holding some kind of strange helmet in his hands.
  3986. > Looking back at the smith, you indicate your VIP with wave of your forehoof, and raise your voice for everyone to hear.
  3987. "Mister Bronzehorn -- this my VIP, Anonymous, the Royal Engineer of Equestria."
  3988. > The enormous minotaur nods his head, his wide-shanked horns waving in the air.
  3989. > "I figured..."
  3990. > He lifts his arm and extends a hand, raising his voice to a loud boom.
  3991. > "... Welcome to Bronzehorn Arms and Armour, my Lord."
  3992. > Wearing a polite smile, Anonymous steps forward and stretches out his own hand.
  3993. > "... I'm Gunther Bronzehorn, proprietor."
  3994. > Your VIP shakes hands with the minotaur who looks big enough to just straight-up lift him into the air.
  3995. > Or throw him all the way back to Canterlot, even.
  3996.  
  3997. > Nonetheless, the Royal Engineer remains calm and polite.
  3998. > "A pleasure to meet you, mister Bronzehorn. I hope it's not too late for a business call?"
  3999. > The huge horns swivel left and right as the minotaur shakes his head.
  4000. > "It's never too late to do good business. What do you need?"
  4001. > "I'm here to get a suit of armour and a set of weapons made."
  4002. > Bronzehorn lays his massive slab of an arm down on the desk again.
  4003. > Even Anonymous has to turn his head up to talk to the Minotaur -- and the Royal Engineer is taller than Princess Luna!
  4004. > "Uh-huh, well, you're in the right place. Your bodyguard here said you were something unique, and I don't think I've seen any of your kind before, so I guess she was right."
  4005. > "I'm afraid I'm the only one in Equestria, as far as I know."
  4006. > From behind black lips, the minotaur grins his white herbivore teeth down at your VIP, masticating aimlessly.
  4007. > "Good, I like a challenge. What do you need equipment for? You commissioning into the Royal Guard?"
  4008. > Your VIP smiles, then looks over at Ebonshield.
  4009. > "Not exactly... Sergeant, perhaps you could explain the situation?"
  4010. > Your batpony trots over and bows twice -- first, to Anonymous, then to the blacksmith.
  4011. > "Certainly, Great Lord. Honourable blacksmith, the Great Lord does not plan to commission into the 'Guardia Real'. Rather, he must be equipped for the duelling. The possibility is greatest that he would be matched against a pony -- pegasus, or even earth or unicorn -- but preferably he must be ready to face any foe..."
  4012. > As she speaks in her batpony accent, the Minotaur's big eyes narrow.
  4013. > "... The Great Lord intends to take instruction in combat and will be training in the armour, as well. We will all be practising with him, so as to prepare him for the different kinds of foes he may face. There may therefore be damage to the suit during this educational period."
  4014.  
  4015. > When she's done speaking, Bronzehorn scratches his chin and addresses himself to Anonymous.
  4016. > "Fair enough. What kind of armour do you want? Your Sergeant sounds like she already has something in mind."
  4017. > The Royal Engineer defers to Ebonshield, but the batpony merely bows and shakes her head.
  4018. > "I have not presupposed any arrangement particular. I hope that this meeting will decide the best combination of your art most fine with the abilities and preferences of the Great Lord himself."
  4019. > Bronzehorn nods.
  4020. > "I see... Well, what are your 'abilities and preferences', then, m'Lord? Or would you like to hear my suggestions first?"
  4021. > Anonymous puts on a pleasant smile.
  4022. > "I'd appreciate your suggestions, mister Bronzehorn."
  4023. > The thick meaty slabs of Minotaur-arms lift off the table, and Gunther the enormous smith stands up straight again.
  4024. > No wonder the ceiling is so high in here!
  4025. > In any ordinary building, his head would be through to the next floor, and his horns would be slapping ponies in their faces up there.
  4026. > Stepping out from behind his desk, he heads over to the armour racks.
  4027. > "In general, there's three kinds of armour. There's your ordinary 'middleweight' tier of banded armour, like what they're wearing..."
  4028. > Picking up a sample cuirass off the shelves in one hand, he points at Corporal Bound, Private First Class Featherhoof, and Specialist Sparkshower with the other, lingering a while on the unicorn.
  4029. > "... She's got a special helmet, but otherwise it's basically one of these. Here, this is sized for a minotaur of about your height; feel the weight."
  4030. > Bronzehorn hands it over to Anonymous, who holds it in both hands, hefting it up and down a bit.
  4031. > "... The Royal Guard, being a standing army, mostly equips its soldiers with medium armours like these because they're heavy enough to provide good protection, without being too heavy for ponies to march or fly long distances in. Properly fitted and supported, most barely even notice it."
  4032.  
  4033. > Glamerspear scoffs.
  4034. > "Pfft. We notice it alright."
  4035. > Bronzehorn doesn't even have to step up in order to loom over her.
  4036. > "I didn't make your armour, Specialist. But I can tell from here you need it pulled in at the shoulder and let out in the croup."
  4037. > Your unicorn comrade is taken aback by his verdict, twisting her head around to look herself over.
  4038. > "What? This is how I always wear it..."
  4039. > Honour leans over and pushes on the puzzled Specialist's croupiere.
  4040. > Rather than transferring the force to her flank, you can see the armour push against Glamerspear's leg instead.
  4041. > "... Hey!"
  4042. > Corporal Bound smiles.
  4043. > "Looks like you need to let that plot-belt out a notch."
  4044. > Glamerspear frowns angrily, and twists around to adjust her armour, muttering under her breath.
  4045. > "I've always kept this buckle at the second hole, damn it! Gonna have to run loops around Canterlot Mountain for a week..."
  4046. > Honour smirks, while Ebonshield barely conceals a chuckle.
  4047. > Bronzehorn just steps over and takes the armour back from Anonymous.
  4048. > "There's different styles, of course, and each piece - cuirass, greaves, sabots, bracers, helmet - is independent enough that you don't have to wear all of them if you choose not to. You can also take a medium-weight armour and add extra pieces to provide better protection to certain areas without making it as heavy as a full plate suit. And speaking of those..."
  4049. > From a bottom shelf, he hefts up an enormous barrel-shaped cuirass of thick bronze.
  4050. > "... Here's a heavy plate cuirass I made for a dragon - a young one - decades ago. He's outgrown it, now, but I keep it on display in case anyone walks in thinking I can't handle bigger jobs."
  4051. > With a heavy thud, Bronzehorn plonks the huge bronze flattened-cylinder down in the centre of the room, in front of everypony.
  4052. > Almost *on top* of everypony, given how tall it is.
  4053.  
  4054. > "... I won't ask you to pick this one up; it might even weigh more than you do. Most dragons usually prefer something with more articulation in the chest, but this customer wanted to feel invincible even if they gave up some manoeuvrability, so I made him what he wanted. A better example is probably what your bodyguard is wearing, though."
  4055. > He points straight at you.
  4056. > "... That's as standard a heavy armour setup as they come, Royal Guard or otherwise. It's not nearly as heavy-weight as this, but it'll be completely impervious to slashing and chopping, and pretty resistant to thrusting and clubbing, too. It looks like it might impede movement, but again, if it's fitted well, it shouldn't interfere with motion at all. Your muscles will still know the difference if you march around in it all day, though, and even a good long fight can tire you out faster than in medium armour. It also gets a lot sweatier inside, so it's very important to have a good arming doublet underneath to prevent chafing and overheating."
  4057. > Tipping the huge dragon-mail on its side - an act that seems difficult even for a hulk his size - he rolls it back underneath the shelves, then dusts his hands off.
  4058. > "... Lastly, there's light stuff, like what she's wearing."
  4059. > He points at Ebonshield.
  4060. > "... I've only seen a few of your nocturnal kind around, but I've done some pieces for them. That looks like mostly leather you're wearing, which may be better than nothing, but doesn't count for much in my book. You must be fast on your hooves -- and your wings."
  4061. > At first looking somewhat shocked that the Minotaur had ever seen another batpony, Ebonshield eventually relaxes her expression and bows her head, acknowledging the compliment.
  4062. > Bronzehorn turns sideways to squeeze between Anonymous and Honour -- even though they're standing several hooves apart! -- to step behind his desk once more.
  4063. > With another loud *whump*, he plops an enormous black forearm down on the table.
  4064.  
  4065. > "... That's the basics of armour types. When it comes to duelling, my advice would be to go with the heaviest armour you're comfortable fighting in."
  4066. > Your VIP speaks up.
  4067. > "Why the heaviest?"
  4068. > Bronzehorn waves a finger in the air.
  4069. > "Because most formal duels don't go on long enough to really tire out the combatants. If it's a matter of pride, it's considered unsporting to win by exhausting your opponent. And if you show up with too much armour, you can always take some pieces off. So, get the heaviest you can handle - and afford."
  4070. > Anonymous lifts an eyebrow.
  4071. > "And how much are we talking about, here?"
  4072. > The huge horns bob up and down as Bronzehorn nods his head.
  4073. > "I'm not going to tell you anyone can buy good armour. It's expensive..."
  4074. > He nods in your direction.
  4075. > "... The Royal Guard requires soldiers enlisting in the Armoured Corps to serve for an additional three years, to make up the cost of providing the equipment. And that's not even custom-made stuff."
  4076. > The Minotaur stands up tall and proud.
  4077. > "... Bronze itself is expensive to make, but it's the labour and the knowledge that you're really paying for. We know how to smelt bronze just right for armour -- it's an old family recipe. And we know how to make metal get into the right shape with the right hardness and strength, and attach the right fittings so that you can fight at peak effectiveness. That's why I've got this gallery here; none of these pieces are for sale, because each of them has a story attached. Some were gifts from satisfied customers who retired: the ones where you can see pock-marks and gashes that didn't make it all the way through. Saved their lives, and let them win the fight. The rest are just to show off what we can do."
  4078. > He crosses his arms imposingly in front of his chest, and huffs out through his big brown nostrils.
  4079. > "... For a suit of custom-made, custom-fit heavy armour, you're looking at about a hundred thousand bits."
  4080.  
  4081. > Featherhooves' eyeballs do that zoom-in/zoom-out thing again, and even Glamerspear looks a bit shocked.
  4082. > Ebonshield and Honour, however, seem like they already knew this.
  4083. > And, to be honest, you did too.
  4084. > Whenever you - or anyone else - screwed up during heavy armour exercises, Drill Sergeant Mareline Tandem never tired of shouting, 'You don't own that armour! Princess Celestia does! Your ego is writing checks that your plot can't cash!'
  4085. > Still, your standard Royal Armoury set had a replacement cost of twenty or thirty thousand bits at most.
  4086. > That's how much the Royal Guard would dock your pay if you were found to have wantonly abandoned or ruined your equipment.
  4087. > If you remained at Specialist rank, you could just barely pay that off in thirty years.
  4088. > And they'd have to be frugal years earning active mission pay, not garrison half-pay.
  4089. > If you cracked your way into the officer corps, though, you could cut that time down to just three.
  4090. > So just how much was Anonymous' allowance from the Princesses?
  4091. > "I'll have to clear it with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but that's within my budget."
  4092. > Glamerspear's eyes go even wider.
  4093. > She clearly didn't realize just how much trust the Princesses place in Anonymous.
  4094. > Well, it was obvious Her Majesty Princess Luna trusted him, at least!
  4095. > Otherwise, Ebonshield wouldn't be here -- or she would, but you all wouldn't know anything about her.
  4096. > Bronzehorn nods.
  4097. > "I can take a deposit now, say ten percent, if you'd like to get started with measurements and design tonight. You must be in a hurry if you came all the way here in that flying contraption outside."
  4098. > The Royal Engineer reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a chequebook, and a quill-case.
  4099. > "That's reasonable..."
  4100. > As he scribbles, he looks up at the towering black monolith.
  4101. > "... Do you work only in bronze? What about steel?"
  4102. > The Minotaur squints.
  4103. > "What the Theseus is 'steel'?"
  4104.  
  4105. > Just like your gentle mushroom-picking Minotaur from Berry, Bronzehorn also swears using that race's equivalent of Tartarus -- or, rather, a fiendish creature said to dwell in their version of it.
  4106. > Your VIP finishes writing the cheque and holds it out.
  4107. > "'Steel' is an iron alloy. It's extraordinarily strong."
  4108. > Still squinting, the smith takes the cheque and grabs a ledger from beneath his desk, copying details down with a thick pencil.
  4109. > "Sounds magical. I don't do magic here, though I can recommend you some enchanters after the armour is done. But if you want a custom metal formulation, I do have a bloomery hot enough for iron-work; I sometimes use iron for fittings. You'd have to be here to instruct us in the recipe, though."
  4110. > Anonymous shakes his head.
  4111. > "I can't teach you, I'm afraid. I know the general ingredients, but I don't have the exact ratios and procedures for the different kinds of steel. I used to just pick different ones out of a catalogue when I needed them... Producing steel is going to be a top priority for my work very soon, and I've been hoping that maybe someone in Equestria has already stumbled on the formula. On my world, when easy sources of bronze ran out in ancient times, we managed to figure out primitive steels within a few centuries..."
  4112. > He gives a wry smile.
  4113. > "... Hopefully it doesn't take me that long."
  4114. > Bronzehorn gives a single heavy chuckle.
  4115. > "Heh. No kidding..."
  4116. > Having finished writing up the order, he places the cheque in the book and tears off a receipt, pushing the slip across the desk to your VIP.
  4117. > As Anonymous takes it and puts away his own writing-materials, the Minotaur stands up tall again, then reaches over and pulls back the curtain.
  4118. > "... Alright, why don't you step into the back-room and we'll get you measured up before talking details."
  4119.  
  4120. > Leading the way, he puts his hands up to his mouth and hollers ahead.
  4121. > "... Hey, Brunnie! Got a customer needs measuring up, here!"
  4122. > From deep in the bowels of the smithy, an immense contralto voice answers him.
  4123. > "I'll be right there, Guntie!"
  4124. > As your little group passes into the back room, Featherhooves elbows you in the side-plate.
  4125. > "That's the other half of the amazing Bronzehorn Armoury duo. You remember what I said about her, right?"
  4126. > You do remember.
  4127. > And you gulp.
  4128. > You're still not quite over how enormous Gunther the Minotaur is.
  4129. > Just how much bigger is his 'Brunnie'?
  4130.  
  4131.  
  4132.  
  4133.  
  4134. > You are still Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and right now, you feel tiny.
  4135. > Which is a pretty rare thing for you.
  4136. > Because, for a Pegasus, you're pretty big.
  4137. > Trowal, you're even big for an Earth Pony!
  4138. > And with your heavyweight sabots on, you're taller than most Unicorns.
  4139. > Full plate armour, with its padding and straps, adds another inch or two to your overall diameter, too.
  4140. > So you generally feel pretty large in the company of anypony other than fellow bronze-encased Armoured Corps guardsponies.
  4141. > But right now, you feel small.
  4142. > Small, and... kind of puny.
  4143. > "Your little herd of attendants can wait back out in the front if you're not comfortable undressing in front of them."
  4144. > Anonymous, your Very Important Pony (who isn't actually pony), and the only creature you see on a regular basis who is larger than you, has just been asked to strip down to his skivvies by the towering Minotaur blacksmith, Gunther Bronzehorn.
  4145. > But the big black bull is sitting down at a drafting table, which makes his size seem reasonable again.
  4146. > "It doesn't bother me..."
  4147. > Anonymous hangs his jacket up on one of several hooks lining the blacksmith's wooden-walled fitting-room, and crouches down to undo his shoes.
  4148. > "... Partial nudity doesn't seem like to be a big deal around here -- but then again, you're all covered with fur... or feathers."
  4149. > With a pair of reading glasses on and a pencil in his colossal fist, Gunther chuckles.
  4150. > "Heh. Just keep your underpants on."
  4151.  
  4152. > Those square-framed glasses really do something to soften the bulkiness of his frame.
  4153. > No, Gunther's not the reason you feel tiny right now.
  4154. > It's the titanic creature silently holding a roll of measuring tape, her arms folded in front of her chest.
  4155. > Anonymous kicks off his shoes, then stands up and undoes his belt.
  4156. > "Here, let me take that."
  4157. > It's the same contralto voice as before, and it fills the room with a resonant echo even though she's speaking at an ordinary volume.
  4158. > As Anonymous lifts his pants up off the ground, she stretches out an arm and takes them from him, hanging them up in one swift motion, without even budging from her spot six hooves away.
  4159. > "Thanks."
  4160. > Your VIP coils up his belt and places it on a low bench underneath the hangars, then begins to undo his tie.
  4161. > The chocolate-brown behemoth smiles, and she reaches up to casually brush one of her hanging copper locks back over her shoulder.
  4162. > Then she folds her arms again, resting them against her heavy brown metalworker's apron.
  4163. > As the material is pressed against her body, you get another impression of the bulk of her physique.
  4164. > Her bust alone must weigh more than your whole suit of metal armour.
  4165. > But the frame that holds it up is no less enormous.
  4166. > Anonymous slips one arm out of his shirt and pulls it off, leaving him in his socks, undershirt, and underpants.
  4167. > A hoof larger than all four of yours put together takes a single step forwards.
  4168. > "The socks and top as well, please."
  4169. > The Royal Engineer nods, and lifts up one foot to yank his sock off.
  4170. > A second massive hoof follows, and the mighty figure is now almost enveloping your half-naked VIP.
  4171. > You realize you've been rudely staring at 'Brunnie' since she walked in the room, and force yourself to look away.
  4172. > Trying to divert your attention, you look down the line of ponies standing in the room with you.
  4173. > Somehow, they don't seem any smaller than you right now.
  4174.  
  4175. > Sergeant Ebonshield has one eyebrow raised and is scrutinizing Anonymous closely, but she seems to be contemplating something imaginary and moving -- perhaps thinking how he might move in a fight.
  4176. > Corporal Bound and Specialist Glamershield, however, seem more ordinarily interested.
  4177. > He's always so well-dressed; this is the most naked they've ever seen him.
  4178. > You catch Glamerspear deliberately looking away now and then, like she's ashamed to be watching.
  4179. > Since he hardly has anything covering his bare skin besides his clothes, you suppose it is a bit different than with a pony.
  4180. > As he pulls off his shirt, you can even see his nipples!
  4181. > They're certainly in a different place from a pony's.
  4182. > Though, if mares of his species are built like the colts, then that means his race really is similar to Minotaurs in shape -- besides the legs.
  4183. > Your eyes start to wander back to the elephantine creature dominating the room...
  4184. > "Seriously? That's it? Just a bit of hair here and there?"
  4185. > Private First Class Featherhooves breaks the silence of your VIP's undressing with a *very* forward comment.
  4186. > All four members of Anonymous' bodyguard quaternion -- yourself included -- turn to glare at the blabbermouth Griffon.
  4187. > She seems to realize what she's just said -- not to mention about whom! -- and shrinks back a bit into her armour.
  4188. > But it's Anonymous himself who replies first, as he casually tosses his undershirt onto the bench.
  4189. > "Hah! I'm afraid so..."
  4190. > Placing his hands on his hips, he stands up tall.
  4191. > "... My people are built for sweating, and anything more than this would just get in the way."
  4192. > You knew that, of course -- you'd realized it at the end of the first day, after your VIP's first escorted 'jog'.
  4193. > Glamerspear and Honour knew it, too, but for Ebonshield, the information has her turning something over in her mind.
  4194.  
  4195. > Anonymous' response emboldens Featherhooves, and she pokes her head back out of her gorget, twisting it sideways in confusion.
  4196. > "Sweating? I don't understand; you're built to shrivel up in a *banya*?"
  4197. > She doesn't get it.
  4198. > "The Great Lord and his people can effectively sweat to dispose of excess heat. They must be famous for their endurance."
  4199. > Ebonshield, on the other hand, clearly does.
  4200. > Corporal Bound nods.
  4201. > "You didn't see Glamerspear walk in after His Lordship took her for a gallop in the rose garden."
  4202. > The batpony sergeant raises an inquisitive eyebrow at the Corporal.
  4203. > But Honour just turns and addresses the Royal Engineer.
  4204. > "... Frankly, sir, at times you've come close to wearing me out, too."
  4205. > From behind the drawing-board, Gunther Bronzehorn emits a deep chuckle.
  4206. > "Sounds like you'll have no trouble with heavy armour, then. But let's get your measurements first..."
  4207. > Nodding at his partner, he adjusts his eyeglasses and readies his pencil.
  4208. > 'Brunnie' takes another half-step forwards, and Gunther continues.
  4209. > "... I suppose I should introduce you two. Anonymous, this is Brunhilde Bronzehorn, my wife. Brunhilde, this is Anonymous, the Royal Engineer of Equestria."
  4210. > As she stands directly behind your nearly-naked VIP, towering vertically over him and seeming to envelop him horizontally, you can't avoid looking at her any more.
  4211. > Brunhilde Bronzehorn is, save for the great dragons and a few other mythological creatures, the biggest creature to walk Equestria's green earth.
  4212. > At least as far as you know.
  4213. > She opens her arms wide, unrolling the measuring-tape.
  4214. > Anonymous nods at her with a smile, and she nods back.
  4215. > Apparently familiar with the procedure, your VIP stretches out his arms, heedless to the fact that if she but swung her arms back together, she could squash his head like an overripe banana.
  4216.  
  4217. > Thundershowers, she could probably do it with her bare hands!
  4218. > Actually, never mind her hands, her bust alone could squash him like a bug!
  4219. > How many calves did Minotaurs have in a single litter, anyways?
  4220. > How much could each one possibly need to drink each day?
  4221. > Brunhilde looks like she could supply a whole regiment's daily allowance of milk without deflating even an inch.
  4222. > And her belly -- massive, but apparently fairly firm -- looks like it could hold that same regiment's daily rations while still having room for more.
  4223. > As she bends over to measure his upper chest, part of her weighty bosom -- barely contained behind the leather apron -- winds up resting on top of your VIP's head.
  4224. > She calls out the number to her partner, who duly scribbles it down, then the hulking heifer stands up straight and winds the strap around his arm.
  4225. > Anonymous' hair is visibly flattened from where half of one of her breasts was pressing into him.
  4226. > "He's not very big. I thought you said it was a particularly large customer coming tonight, Guntie?"
  4227. > Gunther looks up from his scribbling.
  4228. > "No, that's on Sunday -- the new Diamond Dog Sergeant in the Princess-Cadenza's."
  4229. > "Ah, of course."
  4230. > The stupefyingly large bipedal cow, having taken Anonymous's arm measurements, crouches down to do his waist and legs.
  4231. > It's as if the great presence in the room has been shrunk back to normal size -- if only temporarily.
  4232. > On your left, Glamerspear mutters aloud.
  4233. > "Never thought I'd hear somepony say the Royal Engineer wasn't big."
  4234. > Brunhilde glances up from her work.
  4235. > "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by that..."
  4236.  
  4237. > She wraps one colossal arm around your VIP's torso, passing the measuring tape around his back, her snout just in front of his crotch.
  4238. > Hurricanes, her horns stretch out the whole breadth of his arms!
  4239. > "... It's just that Minotaurs like me need to be careful around other creatures. One wrong move, and it could be extremely painful..."
  4240. > After calling out the measure, she looks up at your VIP from her hunched-over position.
  4241. > "... You're a small guy, after all."
  4242. > Anonymous doesn't even glance down as he deadpans his reply.
  4243. > "For you."
  4244. > There's an amused snort from behind the drawing-desk.
  4245. > Brunhilde leans over past Anonymous to glance at her chortling husband, a look of bemused disapproval on her brown face.
  4246. > Suppressing his grin, the bulging black minotaur nonchalantly wipes his snout.
  4247. > "Sorry. Carry on."
  4248. > With a huff and a shake of her head -- that nearly results in her horns knocking into Anonymous' thighs, she finishes measuring his legs and feet.
  4249. > Then she hoists herself back up -- and you feel absolutely minuscule again.
  4250. > It's a wonder she didn't just hang the measuring tape on the wall, then pick up your VIP and hold him against it instead.
  4251. > Then a thought really hits you in the head.
  4252. > As the wife of a smith, Brunhilde Bronzehorn must surely have a set of armour of her own, mustn't she?
  4253. > Just how big would she be in it?
  4254. > And how strong could it be?
  4255. > Would she be able to simply bowl her way through buildings of brick and stone?
  4256. > Could even thick city walls stop such an armoured behemoth?
  4257. > As you ponder these questions of enormity, she rolls the measuring tape up and steps over to put it down on the desk.
  4258. > Then Gunther gets to his hooves, blowing a quick air-kiss at his whopper of a wife.
  4259. > "Thanks, sweetie. You can get dressed again, m'Lord. I've got the numbers I need to get to work. The question is, what am I making for you?"
  4260.  
  4261. > In the middle of buttoning up his shirt, Anonymous looks up.
  4262. > "It seems like the recommendation is 'heavy armour', so let's go with that."
  4263. > Gunther nods.
  4264. > "All right. There are a few different styles to choose from, though before we do that, perhaps you'd also like to tell me what *weapons* you want?"
  4265. > Standing there with his legs bare but his chest covered, your VIP rubs his hands against his flanks.
  4266. > "That's a good question. Among my people, the most iconic weapon for single combat is the sword -- good for cutting, thrusting, and even bludgeoning, when held upside-down. But bronze, I believe, isn't well suited for longer, two-handed blades. And it seems like the most common weapon amongst ponies, besides hooves, is the spear..."
  4267. > He points at you and Honour.
  4268. > "... Specialist Sparkshower carries a long pike, and Corporal Bound has a pair of snap-together javelins. Even Specialist Glamerspear throws out telekinetic spears. So there's a lot of ranged and long-reach attacks on offer..."
  4269. > The Royal Engineer turns to face the five soldiers in the room.
  4270. > "... I'm getting this equipment and learning to fight so I can defend myself, but let's be honest: I'm not looking to become a champion warrior. I need to be able to hold my own in a duel, but it should be a deterrence and a last resort. So I think a defensive focus is in order, and maybe a more conservative weapons load-out."
  4271. > Gunther narrows his eyes and nods.
  4272. > Against the side wall, you even see Brunhilde imposingly fold her arms as well.
  4273. > "... I think I want a shield -- a fairly large one, sturdy and strong, so I can bash with it if needed. A spear goes well with a shield, but I don't have the mobility of a Pegasus; I can't charge through the air as they can, and standing alone I can't cover every angle of their attack. It's a disadvantage that might make the spear useless..."
  4274.  
  4275. > Just how much has your VIP thought about this problem?
  4276. > Then again, he's the Royal *Engineer*.
  4277. > Thinking about problems is his job.
  4278. > And he has already seen two pony-on-pony fights close-up.
  4279. > "... A sword would be easier to work with, but what if I'm faced with foe in heavy armour? I'll be forced to get in close to stab, easily out-ranged by their spear. It would be better if I had something long-handled I could swing from behind the safety of the shield..."
  4280. > Anonymous clenches his left hand into a fist, and holds it close in front of his chest, just as if he was gripping a shield.
  4281. > Then he balls up the other hand and makes a sweeping overhead chopping motion with it.
  4282. > "... Flails have range, but carry the risk of self-injury. So I think it's got to be a straight-shafted weapon: a mace, pick, or a war hammer."
  4283. > Still pantsless, your VIP holds his mock fighting position, arm still outstretched as if in full swing, and looks around for a response.
  4284. > Before anypony can say anything for or against his proposal, from the side of the room, Brunhilde steps forward and reaches out to grab your VIP's arm.
  4285. > "He's got long limbs, Guntie. And there's good muscle on them, too..."
  4286. > Letting go, she nods at her husband.
  4287. > "... Make him a good, heavy mace, like the kind our ancestors used. No spikes, so it doesn't get stuck in an opponent. He won't have any trouble bashing through armour, anyways."
  4288. > Gunther scribbles on a notepad.
  4289. > "Yeah, I like that idea. I've got just the piece of wood for the shaft, too: Wyrm's Rosewood, from the Dragon Isle. Maybe use it for the base of the shield as well, if it doesn't come out too heavy. And I'm picturing the armour already -- we go classic Minotaur-style, heavy pieces but with simpler joints. Bronze-plated leather strips for the waist; same thing at the shoulders. It'll give you the manoeuvrability to dodge around and make good use of the shield..."
  4290.  
  4291. > After jotting down his notes, the smith looks up and taps on his paper.
  4292. > "... Was there anything else? Because I think I've got a good idea right here."
  4293. > Anonymous shrugs amiably.
  4294. > "I'll defer to your experience. If it sounds good to you, it sounds good to me."
  4295. > Gunther smiles.
  4296. > "Alright. I'll send you a messenger when I've got a first draft done. My schedule's clear until that Diamond Dog Sergeant shows up for his measurement, so I should have something for you this week."
  4297. > Your VIP grabs his pants off the hook and begins to slip them on.
  4298. > "Oh, excellent! I'm looking forward to it."
  4299. > With a nod, the black Minotaur heads out of the fitting room, proceeding deeper into his smithy.
  4300. > "If you'll excuse me, I don't like to waste time when I'm feeling motivated. Brunnie, see them out, won't you?"
  4301. > His enormous wife nods.
  4302. > "Of course, dear. And I'll get the forge warmed up. How many bars will you need?"
  4303. > "Bring up six to start on his cuirass."
  4304. > As your VIP continues to dress himself, Corporal Bound clears her throat.
  4305. > "Well, sir, it seems like we're done here. All that's left is to head home."
  4306. > That gives him pause.
  4307. > And Glamerspear, too.
  4308. > Halfway through slipping on one of his socks, Anonymous looks over at everyone, his face pale.
  4309. > "Maybe we should see if those pegasi can pull us along on the ground for the trip home."
  4310. > Was the ride over here really so bad?
  4311. > "Sounds like a good plan to me, sir."
  4312. > Apparently the Corporal thinks so.
  4313. > "I'd be on-board for that."
  4314. > And so does Glamerspear.
  4315. > Wow.
  4316. > ... Just how in Equestria does Princess Celestia always make it look so cozy and elegant, then?
  4317.  
  4318.  
  4319.  
  4320.  
  4321. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and this *still* sucks!
  4322. > Still!
  4323. > Venting your displeasure on the door, you kick it closed with one hind hoof as you trot into the commons area of your shared room.
  4324. > Sitting at the card-table, Corporal Bound looks up at you from the Royal Engineer's book, glancing at your horn.
  4325. > "Still spellbound?"
  4326. > You rear back and throw your forehooves up in the air in frustration.
  4327. "Still spellbound! Grrrr!"
  4328. > Getting back on all fours, you trundle over to the sofa and fling yourself onto it.
  4329. "... 'Your mana levels are still elevated' they tell me. PUH!"
  4330. > Lying on your back, you angrily cycle your forehooves in the air as if punching an invisible speedbag.
  4331. "... 'Better play it safe for one more day'. Bwetuh-pwuh-uht-swafe-fuh-uwh-muh-duhHHhhh!"
  4332. > Pursing your lips and wobbling your head against the sofa cushion while still batting in the air, you melodically mock the medbay's maniatrician's message.
  4333. > After getting it out of your system a bit, you turn your head to see if the Corporal is still paying attention to you.
  4334. > She is, with her usual 'I'm-not-interested-but-I'm-listening-anyways' look.
  4335. > You stare at Honour wide-eyed, nodding your head.
  4336. "... I'm going nuts, Corporal! It feels like I've been chained up for, like, four whole months!"
  4337. > The Corporal rolls her eyes at you and starts to get back into her book.
  4338. > "It's been a week, Glamerspear. Not even that -- it's only Saturday morning, and they clamped you on Tuesday afternoon. That's just four days."
  4339.  
  4340. > Flipping over onto your belly, you clamber up onto the armrest, shaking your forehooves in supplication.
  4341. "Four days might as well be four months! I'm a unicorn gunner, Corporal! I live to blast things out of the sky! I can't survive like this -- on medical leave, spellbound and collared, forced to just sit around all day long, my withers withering and my plot thickening from sheer idleness."
  4342. > She shakes her head and rolls her eyes again.
  4343. > "Don't be so melodramatic. It's not like being a VIP bodyguard involves a lot of physical activity."
  4344. > How can she say that?
  4345. > What with your scheming ex-coltfriend out on the loose!
  4346. > You point an accusing hoof in her direction.
  4347. "Yeah? It was a week ago today we were duelling the 1st Canterlot Air Superiority Wing. I bet you've still got the bruises."
  4348. > She picks up her book and tries to get back to reading about pipes and steam and steel and whatever.
  4349. > "That was an exception, Glamerspear, and you know it. I don't know why you're getting so worked up about everything."
  4350. > Pausing, she looks up again.
  4351. > "... You know we're only ten days into this assignment?"
  4352. > You pipe up loudly.
  4353. "Yeah! And I've been on medical leave for half of it! I'm tired of this crap!"
  4354. > Squinting, you reach up for your horn.
  4355. "... I swear, I have half a mind to just rip this stupid thing off myself, just so I can let fly a few rounds."
  4356. > That fails to get her attention, so you continue on.
  4357. "... Or so that I can be ready to save our VIP from Celestia's fearsome flying carriage of doom when we head back out to Newcastle-upon-Mare for his suit of armour next week!"
  4358. > This time, she does look up -- though, not at you.
  4359.  
  4360. > Staring wide-eyed off into the distance, Honour swallows, and you swear you can see a shiver run down her spine.
  4361. > "That... would be nice."
  4362. > Two rides in that damned carriage!
  4363. > Two rides too many!
  4364. > And that damned Pegasus team leader!
  4365. > 'Oh, the wheels aren't really made to bear the weight on the ground, sorry, it's really a flying carriage only.'
  4366. > BUCK YOU, BUDDY!
  4367. > The bucking carriage wasn't made to bear the weight of anypony who didn't have wings themselves, more like!
  4368. > If the Royal Engineer intends to take that flying deathtrap again, you'd definitely better brush up on your emergency levitation spells.
  4369. > Or bring a parachute.
  4370. > As you and your Corporal both silently contemplate another ride in that horrifying contraption, there's a knock at the door.
  4371. > Funny enough, rather than forcing you, the subordinate, to answer the door, Honour gets up and goes towards it herself.
  4372. > Maybe it's a good way to clear her mind of the terrifying imagery.
  4373. > You'd definitely rather be continuing your hissy fit about the spellbinders than thinking about the flying carriage, that's for sure.
  4374. > As you lie, staring at the wall, forelegs on the armrest and hind legs stretched out on the sofa, you hear the door shut, and Corporal Bound trots by and flips a small piece of paper down on the coffee table.
  4375. > "Calling card for you."
  4376. > Huh?
  4377. > You reach over and pick up the thick slip, reading the message against the elegant floral background.
  4378. "Oh, buck me! Damn that colt!"
  4379. > Turning over the card to make sure it isn't a joke, you flip around to seat yourself properly in the sofa once more.
  4380. > Honour picks up her book and looks ready to dig in, but she nods wearily in your direction.
  4381. > "What is it?"
  4382. > You put the card down beside you, shaking your head.
  4383. "It's Captain Mailedhoof. He 'requests the pleasure of my company at dinner tonight' -- in the Officers' Mess."
  4384. > Sighing, you slump your shoulders.
  4385.  
  4386. > Honour just scoffs.
  4387. > "On a Saturday? Doesn't he have a family?"
  4388. > You turn to look up at the Corporal.
  4389. "Yeah, but he sends them to his parents' country estate on weekends -- especially in the Spring, when Celestia runs weekend court, and in the Summer, when the city gets too hot, and in the Fall, when I don't remember what excuse he uses..."
  4390. > You smirk.
  4391. "... And since *he's* in charge of the court guard detail, he has to stay. Nice arrangement for a philandering salt-lick; I bet he volunteered for the duty."
  4392. > Honour shrugs.
  4393. > "What's the problem with the invitation, then? Isn't it what you wanted?"
  4394. > You gesture up at your horn.
  4395. "Yeah, but not like this!"
  4396. > Slumping back down, you slouch in your seat.
  4397. "... I'll be the laughingstock of the place if I trot in with this E-collar and set of shackles."
  4398. > As you try to scheme a way out of this -- preferably, out of the *shackles* and into the Officers' Mess -- Honour looks you up and down.
  4399. > "It doesn't sound like a problem to me."
  4400. > Is this mare serious?
  4401. > This boring brown mare, with her snout stuck in a book, her hair up in a braid, and no coltfriend to speak of -- she's trying to give you social & fashion advice?
  4402. > You scrunch up your face and rip into your situation.
  4403. "What! I've got a freaking *cone* on my horn, Corporal! And it's a room full of officers -- Lieutenants, Captains, Majors, Colonels, Generals... And their high-society wives and marefriends -- and saltines -- too! I don't know what your idea of fashionable is, but medical accessories are definitely not 'the new black' this spring!"
  4404. > Honour lets you finish your rant and waits for you to catch your breath before answering.
  4405. > "You're looking at it all wrong, Glamerspear. It's not a medical accessory; it's a *war wound*, and you're a decorated, battle-scarred warrior walking into the Officers' Mess after her latest conquest..."
  4406.  
  4407. > She shrugs her eyebrows and softens her expression, turning back to her book.
  4408. > "... If you ask me, that sounds pretty good for impressing a crowd of do-nothing noblepony officers. They love to hear from Equestria's 'valiant fighting ponies'. And doubly so when your 'latest conquest' happens to be somepony whose squadron just caused a public incident and embarrassed the landed gentry of Equestria."
  4409. > The proposal dawns on you, and your eyebrows slowly raise as your frown turns into a smile.
  4410. "Oh. My. Celestia..."
  4411. > Grinning from cheek to cheek, you look admiringly up at your level-headed Corporal.
  4412. "... That is freaking *genius*! They'll be all over me for stories about the fight with Kilfeather! And Mailedhoof hasn't seen me wear my Silver Ram yet, either! I'll be the star of the evening!"
  4413. > Seductively shrugging one shoulder, you make kissy lips at the Corporal.
  4414. "... And that's what the colts like in a saltine, you know -- a mare who makes them look good."
  4415. > Smiling, you lower your forehooves back down.
  4416. "... How did you figure this out?"
  4417. > Honour looks disinterestedly down at you from her perch at the card-table.
  4418. > "You have to be able to improvise these sorts of things as a leader, you know..."
  4419. > With a brief hint of a smirk, she gets back to her book.
  4420. > "... Anyways, when you've been around VIPs for as long as I have, you start to know how they tick. They love common-born military heroes who enforce the social order."
  4421. > Nodding enthusiastically, you jump up onto your hind hooves, then pound one forehoof into the other.
  4422. "I've got just enough time to run a few laps around Canterlot Mountain to burn off all this baggage I'm carrying, before I have to get myself ready for an evening with the Captain!"
  4423. > Honour whinnies through her lips.
  4424. > "Hunrhnft. Honestly, run if you want to, but I don't think you've put on any weight. How much could you have possibly gained in just four days?"
  4425.  
  4426. > You get back down on all fours.
  4427. "But I always wore my croupiere-belt at the second notch, damn it! Not the third!"
  4428. > She shrugs and shakes her head.
  4429. > "Your butt looks the same to me, Specialist. Maybe you were always closer to the third; did you ever have somepony help fit it on you?"
  4430. > You shake your head.
  4431. "No, we all just figured it out ourselves, with some basic instructions from the Sergeant."
  4432. > Honour nods.
  4433. > "Yeah, exactly -- same as everypony else. But Gunther Bronzehorn looks like he really knows his stuff. If he says you should have your straps one way, I think you should listen to him. I might even ask him myself for advice next time we're out there."
  4434. > You nod back.
  4435. > It's a fair point.
  4436. > Taking a deep breath, you look towards the door.
  4437. "I suppose so. I think I'll still go out for a jog, though. I could use the exercise."
  4438. > The Corporal gathers up her book, looking almost enthusiastic at the prospect of being left alone with her reading material.
  4439. > "Alright, see you around."
  4440. > As you head back out into the hallway, well-lit from the skylights above, you're starting to feel like maybe this doesn't suck quite so much.
  4441. > At least, not when you have clever-horse squad leader like the Corporal watching your back!
  4442.  
  4443.  
  4444.  
  4445.  
  4446. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you have a lot of things on your mind right now.
  4447. > Foremost among them is the letter to your sweet Huckleberry Pudding.
  4448. > He must have received it by now!
  4449. > With Glamerspear's advice on Thursday morning, you had managed to finish it and send it off that afternoon.
  4450. > And mail from Berry usually only took two days to get to Canterlot, from what you saw of the postmarks.
  4451. > That means your Puddin' could be reading it *right now*.
  4452. > You try to mentally broadcast waves of positive thoughts.
  4453. > 'Write back saying that of course you'll come!'
  4454. > It hadn't worked the last times you'd tried this sort of thing, but it couldn't hurt, right?
  4455. > Huckleberry could be a stubborn pony; the kind you could give a ticket to the country's biggest and grandest and most important party, and still have them say they don't want to come.
  4456. > Not that you'd have him any other way, but the anxiety was really frustrating!
  4457. > And it was all supposed to have been so easy.
  4458. > Huckleberry, hard worker and tight-lipped as he was, would never knowingly complain about his job, but you knew he was getting a little tired working as a farmhand on the Shortcakes' plantation.
  4459. > He was plain colt with few worldly wants, but he couldn't go his whole life just picking strawberries in someone else's yard.
  4460. > Since buying his own farm was a ways off, well, you'd said maybe he should try to get a job somewhere else.
  4461. > When the opportunity to interview for VIP service had come up, you'd brought him along for a trip to the Canterlot employment office.
  4462. > And the colt at bureau had said there were plenty of opportunities for a pony of his size and strength.
  4463.  
  4464. > Coachpony pulling passenger carriages, or luggage-porter drawing freight cart.
  4465. > Construction worker building Canterlot's fine structures, or navvy labourer laying and maintaining the county's waterways, roadways, and railways.
  4466. > Street-sweeper keeping the roads clean of dust.
  4467. > Not glamorous positions, sure, but easy to get into and out of, and if he didn't like it, the Shortcakes had promised to hire him back if it didn't work out after a few months.
  4468. > Heck, they'd said even if he *did* like it, they'd be glad to have him back in the late spring for when work was heaviest and they needed the extra hooves.
  4469. > Everything had been all set when you'd transferred to Canterlot in the winter for your training; Huckleberry was to follow along and try his luck at the professions on offer.
  4470. > By the time your training was done and your first assignment was about to begin, he'd have had four months already to get the feel for Canterlot.
  4471. > If he'd felt it wasn't going to work, then you'd try to back out of VIP service -- it was a volunteer position, after all -- or just serve a single three-month term before transferring back to your old unit, the 23rd Air Wing, based out of Fort Fickle in Berry.
  4472. > But no.
  4473. > The month had come and gone while you were in VIP training and then another three on half-pay waiting for assignment, and even though you'd found him a potential apartment -- very modestly priced, but in a nice neighbourhood and with a friendly landlady! -- he'd stayed in Berry.
  4474. > In winter, with nothing to do on a strawberry patch covered in snow.
  4475. > Grr!
  4476. > You tried not to get angry at your Puddin', but he could be berry, berry frustrating!
  4477. > *Very* *very* frustrating, rather.
  4478. > But everything could still work out, if he'd just come for the Gala.
  4479. > You'd saved up enough for him to spend a week in a small hotel afterwards.
  4480. > If he just gave Canterlot a try, you're sure he would like it!
  4481. > You just had to get him back here, first.
  4482.  
  4483. > Then, after that, maybe you could get a place together.
  4484. > It wouldn't matter if it was far from the palace -- you didn't mind flying a long commute.
  4485. > And if you got tired of VIP service, they'd always be happy to have you at one of the city or palace garrisons.
  4486. > One of the perks of being a 'rarity' -- a 19D Armoured Scout who was a *Pegasus*, rather than an Earth Pony -- was that every single armoured division wanted to get their hooves on you.
  4487. > So, even though there weren't a lot of them compared to the regular infantry divisions, you still got your pick.
  4488. > Like the Royal Hussars, based in Canterlot.
  4489. > Or even the elite Household Cavalry Regiment.
  4490. > And, apparently, your proficiency with Griffonese had earned you an opportunity just outside Canterlot, in the Princess Mi Amore Cadenza's Regiment of Auxiliaries.
  4491. > That would be a bit far for a Canterlot commute, and Newcastle-upon-Mare was such a tiny place, but with an officer's salary you could easily support both you and your Puddin', no matter what he found himself able to do.
  4492. > Definitely something to think about.
  4493. > And to talk about with Huckleberry in your next letter.
  4494. > Oh, thundershowers!
  4495. > Here you are thinking five flaps into the future when you've got enough on your back for the first flap, let alone the next four.
  4496. > You had other concerns, too, but these seemed almost trivial in comparison.
  4497. > One was a general apprehension about this 'training' that Ebonshield wanted to conduct with the Royal Engineer.
  4498. > She hadn't said much about it -- not that she'd had the opportunity, really, since things had been so busy, but she could have *made* the opportunity if she'd wanted to.
  4499. > What exactly was it going to entail?
  4500. > Did *you* need to get some extra equipment yourself?
  4501. > Like a training lance, maybe, with a dulled tip and softer wooden shaft?
  4502. > You certainly didn't want to conduct a live-action exercise with your own VIP!
  4503. > What would happen if you injured him!
  4504. > Nothing good, that's for sure.
  4505.  
  4506. > You were also worried about your comrade Glamerspear.
  4507. > At breakfast this morning, she'd made it clear she was starting to get a bit stir-crazy about those shackles on her horn.
  4508. > She didn't manage to get them off today -- Honour had told you as much when you'd gone up for lunch.
  4509. > Lily herself was still out, though nopony seemed to know where.
  4510. > Running a lap around the mountain wouldn't have taken that long, and when you'd stopped by the sentry post on your way to mess hall, it turned out that she'd never actually checked out of the palace grounds.
  4511. > Corporal Bound had told you about the big date she had with Captain Mailedhoof tonight; maybe she was preparing for it?
  4512. > Well, wherever she was, you hoped it was all going to work out in the end.
  4513. > You had enough to worry about with your coltfriend; you didn't need to be worrying about your new marefriend as well.
  4514. > And then there was this Lieutenant Kilfeather!
  4515. > Honour and Glam had told you all about him last night, about how he had all but threatened the Royal Engineer -- *YOUR* Royal Engineer! -- with another personal combat challenge!
  4516. > Ebonshield and Honour had deliberately kept you upstairs during the meeting, according to them to 'protect you'.
  4517. > It's a good thing they had, because from the sounds of it you would have joined in with Glamerspear in kicking that jerk's butt!
  4518. > Someponies just needed a good swift boot to the buttocks, that's all!
  4519. > So with all these different troubles on your mind, what was one more?
  4520. > Except it wasn't a *trouble*, really.
  4521. > It was just curiosity.
  4522.  
  4523. > Anonymous, By Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer, has been working for two and a half days with the bits and pieces of metal on his workbenches.
  4524. > On Thursday it hadn't looked like much at all.
  4525. > On Friday, you only got a brief glimpse of things before heading out to the Bronzehorn smithy, and your VIP's end goal was still completely inscrutable.
  4526. > But today, things were starting to come together.
  4527. > He'd been occupied all morning with affixing a number of seemingly independent pieces to a single black wooden base.
  4528. > Brass cylinders, iron and brass wheels, rods, gears, and chains...
  4529. > And lots of copper tubes of all shapes and lengths, some of them dressed up to resemble a disc plough, with dozens of tiny circles of copper surrounding the pipe.
  4530. > What could it all mean?
  4531. > Your VIP had gotten it all put together before lunch, and was now busy tweaking the components according to whatever strange plan he was following.
  4532. > He must be close to being done, because he's filled several of the cylinders with different fluids.
  4533. > Water, for one, and what looked like a few different kinds of oils.
  4534. > Except he wasn't building Equestria's most advanced perfume applicator, because they weren't fragrant oils, they were cooking and heating oils.
  4535. > They were smelly, and not in the good way.
  4536. > And they were messy, too -- his apron was now smeared with oil stains and grease.
  4537. > Wisely, he'd had a number of canvas drop-clothes brought in this morning to cover the floor around his working area.
  4538. > So considerate of him to be concerned about spilling oil all over Their Majesties' palace carpets!
  4539. > But just what was he building?
  4540. > "I think that's it. How about that!"
  4541. > Looking very pleased with himself, your VIP takes a step back to admire his creation.
  4542. > "... I think it's ready for a test drive. What do you think, Specialist?"
  4543. > He turns to you, as if you have any idea what's going on.
  4544. "Er... What is it, sir?"
  4545.  
  4546. > Still smiling, your VIP holds up a single finger, waggling it in the air.
  4547. > "A piece of the future, Specialist Sparkshower! With this little machine, I will reveal a tiny glimpse of what science & industry can do to change Equestria!"
  4548. > Lowering his hands to wipe them on his apron, he strides enthusiastically over to the patio door.
  4549. > "... Step on up to the table; I'll just open up the door for some fresh air first."
  4550. > As he does so, you step forwards and get a closer look at his creation.
  4551. > There's a single very large brass cylinder, thin-walled and fairly light -- that's the one he filled with water.
  4552. > From what you can tell, it feeds water into another cylinder that's got some strange things happening to it.
  4553. > There's lots of pipes and things going into and out of that one.
  4554. > Including one copper conduit to another cylinder that you know was filled with the smelly heating oil.
  4555. > Besides that, the bundle of rods and gears seems to be assembled more next to the water-and-oil assembly than a part of it.
  4556. > It still doesn't make any sense, but your VIP certainly seems enthusiastic, so it must be interesting.
  4557. > Maybe it all has something to do with the big gear wheel attached to a shaft with the rods?
  4558. > That's certainly the largest single piece, besides the water tank.
  4559. > "... All right, ready for this?"
  4560. > Anonymous steps up behind you and pulls a matchbox out of his pocket.
  4561. "Yes, sir!"
  4562. > His excitement is infectious, and you really are starting to feel like something big is about to happen.
  4563. > Twisting open a valve and opening a small cover in the contraption, he strikes a match and sticks it in.
  4564. > You can hear the tiniest 'whoosh' as if you'd just lit a large oil lamp, and Anonymous throws the match in and closes the cover.
  4565. > "Now, we just wait for the water to boil -- it should only take a minute or two."
  4566. > So it's some kind of kettle?
  4567. > What's wrong with an ordinary copper one over a fire?
  4568. > You keep your questions to yourself lest you appear foalish.
  4569.  
  4570. > Anyways, you're going to find out what it does soon enough.
  4571. > Seconds tick by on your VIP's elegant lighthouse clock in the middle of the room.
  4572. > Smoke begins to come out of the complicated cylinder; it's a good thing the outside door is open.
  4573. > Anonymous occasionally puts his hand up to the large cylinder, feeling it for heat.
  4574. > After a minute, it's so hot he can't touch it any more, and he stops checking it, instead donning some heavy leather gauntlets.
  4575. > Then you see steam start to come out of one of the other cylinders.
  4576. > It's surprising to see it coming out all the way down there, when you know that the 'kettle' cylinder is a full hoof-and-a-half away on the other side of the board.
  4577. > "... There's the steam. Any minute now..."
  4578. > There's a soft 'pffsht' noise, and then another 'pffsht', and then another...
  4579. > Things are moving!
  4580. > The two big rods start to push and pull against the big gear wheel, each time emitting a soft 'pffsht' and sure enough, it moves along with them.
  4581. > You can scarcely believe your eyes.
  4582. > Pointing with your hoof, you stare at the wondrous contraption as the gear wheel spins faster and faster.
  4583. "Boiled water is doing this, sir? Moving that wheel?"
  4584. > Anonymous folds his arms across his chest.
  4585. > "Yes it is, Specialist! It's a two-cylinder steam engine, just like the one I built from a model kit when I was a teenager. A bit bigger, perhaps, but then I've got bigger plans for this one than simply looking 'cool' on my bookshelf."
  4586. > The wheel is really spinning at a furious rate now, and Anonymous reaches over to tighten a valve.
  4587. > Almost instantly, things slow down a bit.
  4588. > "... Now that it's assembled, it's time to put it to work. Would you bring over that waggon, Specialist?"
  4589. > He points at a four-wheeled delivery cart, standing upright in the corner.
  4590. > It doesn't escape you that the cart is just big enough to hold his 'steam engine'.
  4591.  
  4592. "Yes, sir. Where are we taking it, sir?"
  4593. > As you pull the cart over to his workbench, Anonymous is busy closing valves and shutting his machine down.
  4594. > "To the garage. I finally received my special order from the Robinsfoal company of Mount Street last night..."
  4595. > Robinsfoal, you knew, was a coach building company here in Canterlot.
  4596. > They even made the Royal flying carriage that your VIP had ridden in last night!
  4597. > Hoisting up the wooden board with both hands, Anonymous squats down and lowers it onto the cart with a grunt.
  4598. > Then he smiles and winks at you as he grabs a toolbox.
  4599. > "... This weekend, I'm going to try to build an automobile."
  4600. > A 'automobile'?
  4601. > What in Equestria was that?
  4602. > Then again, you suppose it probably *wasn't* in Equestria.
  4603. > Not yet, at least.
  4604.  
  4605. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlpByUfVGHY (Marko Polo - 'Speedy Speed Boy')
  4606.  
  4607.  
  4608.  
  4609.  
  4610. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and it's been quite a night.
  4611. > Captain Mailedhoof watches you go past as he holds the door open to his quarters.
  4612. > "Mmm, and they say mares don't look good in uniform."
  4613. > Pausing for just a moment, you turn and brush your styled mane out of your face.
  4614. "They say that, do they, Captain? Who's 'they'?"
  4615. > The Captain grins underneath his moustache.
  4616. > "Bucks without any brains, I should think..."
  4617. > Still smiling, he shuts the door.
  4618. > "... Now, what will you have to drink? Same as earlier?"
  4619. > You shake your head, your silky bangs brushing against your brow.
  4620. "No, it's too late for another cocktail. I'd like something simpler."
  4621. > Mailedhoof steps in close to you; close enough that your smells all mingle together.
  4622. > The single-malt Baltimare whiskey on his breath, and the Griffonese vodka on yours.
  4623. > His natural musk, and your Pommel No. 5.
  4624. > The hot sweat radiating out from under his undone collar and loosened tie, and the half-drunk perspiration collecting at your flanks.
  4625. > The Captain leans in, his breath warm against the nape of your neck.
  4626. > "I've got a bottle of Bordelaisian red that I've been saving for a warm spring evening..."
  4627. > More alcohol was probably not the best idea right now, but at least it was just wine.
  4628. > And if he was being honest about it being special, then it was probably one worth bragging about.
  4629. > He came from old, big money, and had a reputation for throwing it around.
  4630. "Alright..."
  4631. > Withdrawing slightly, you turn to be able to face him.
  4632. "... I'll freshen up while you let it breathe."
  4633. > Mailedhoof's nostrils flare as he takes a deep breath.
  4634. > "Mmm, certainly. But don't be too long... "
  4635. > He takes another step forward to make up for your withdrawal.
  4636. > "... Robust older vintages spoil if they're left out."
  4637.  
  4638. > Mailedhoof was coming on hard and heavy, but you could hardly complain given how you'd led him on.
  4639. > You make sure to give him a playful flutter of your bob hairdo as you smile and brush away from him towards the washroom.
  4640. > Stepping into the lavatory, you shut the door and stick your forehooves on the sink, examining yourself in the mirror.
  4641. > Not bad, for an evening spent trying to elegantly carouse in the Officers' Mess.
  4642. > Your makeup was still holding together, for the most part.
  4643. > Mane and tail could use a quick brush, but it was nothing to worry about.
  4644. > And you'd probably be making a mess of both in short order anyways.
  4645. > But it's your clothes that interest you the most.
  4646. > You were wearing your Service Dress Uniform, something that rarely got pulled out of your considerable closet.
  4647. > And never before for a 'date-night' like this; not when you had so many other options.
  4648. > Even for parties one of the mess halls, the dress code allowed civilian attire of sufficiently formal appearance, and you had plenty of outfits that fit the bill.
  4649. > Tonight, though, you'd worn everything but your dress pants and matching spats.
  4650. > Made of black-dyed wool, your dress jacket had a red collar trimmed in gold.
  4651. > You were wearing the black bear-fur hat as well, still in excellent condition and playfully tilted slightly to the side, with its red 'bag' of ornamental fabric hanging down one side and its short double hackle of gold-dyed hair at the top to match the trim.
  4652. > Most striking, however, was the arrangement of yellow worsted yarn on your chest.
  4653. > Twelve stripes, stretching from shoulder to shoulder at the top and narrowing to half that at the waist, surrounded the twelve great brass 'acorn' buttons stamped with the Royal Artillery crest of crossed cannons capped by the Celestial Tiara.
  4654. > And your shoulders and cuffs were similarly trimmed with elaborate and artistic braiding.
  4655.  
  4656. > As Guard uniforms went, those of the Royal Artillery were pretty stand-out, even for a Specialist such as yourself.
  4657. > Officers got stripes and braids made of gold gimp cord instead of yellow worsted yarn, for an even more striking effect.
  4658. > It was enough in your case to have the yellow-and-black as a bold contrast to your Prench-pink coat and teal-and-cyan mane.
  4659. > And the cut of jacket broadened your shoulders while slimming your flanks; always a useful feature.
  4660. > But tonight, the big show was the medal at your neck.
  4661. > Suspended on a white-and-blue striped ribbon, the silver ancient-style helmet with the two ram's horns hung prominently against the dark fabric covering your breast.
  4662. > And it had garnered enough attention tonight to more than distract from the shackles on your horn, which remained, in your opinion, still unsightly even after you'd dressed them up in black ribbon.
  4663. > Everypony in the 'O Club' had been interested in the pretty young Centurion of the Order of the Ram from the Royal Horse Artillery.
  4664. > And, once he'd heard you tell the story once or twice, the silver-maned Captain Mailedhoof was more than happy to recite the tale on your behalf, the better to show off his 'guest'.
  4665. > It was fairly obvious from the other officers' reactions that he'd been through this song-and-dance before, but there was some genuine admiration and appreciation for your accomplishments during the Invasion.
  4666. > Later, in smaller company, talk did eventually turn to your spellbinders -- you'd left the E-collar at home, it being 'optional' after all.
  4667. > With the right crowd of noblepony officers sitting around the table, you earned just as much acclaim for what transpired during the war as for what you'd done to Kilfeather, variously addressed as 'that villainous rapscallion', 'that churlish upstart', and 'that tactless knave'.
  4668.  
  4669. > More than a few of them had heard first-hoof accounts of what was now being called the Massacre of Oldstirrup Bridge.
  4670. > And they were all pleased to hear that the Lieutenant had paid for it beforehoof at the Battle of Newstirrup Bridge.
  4671. > Running a little water in the sink, you lean forward and paw at where some of your makeup has started to run in an unsightly manner.
  4672. > In a few moments, it's tidy again, though your natural features are coming through.
  4673. > Nothing to worry about in the dim lighting now.
  4674. > You pull back again and look yourself over.
  4675. > All in all, you'd put on a good show tonight.
  4676. > The Captain had shown himself to be nothing but pleased at the attention you'd brought him.
  4677. > That was part of the implied saltine 'contract', after all.
  4678. > True salt-licks like Mailedhoof weren't just after sex.
  4679. > They wanted a mare (or a colt) who looked good by their side, as well.
  4680. > A partner who flattered them and brought them the social attention they wanted.
  4681. > What was the relationship other than a sophisticated display of power?
  4682. > 'Look at how rich and wealthy and successful I am, that I can afford to surround myself with such beautiful ponies.'
  4683. > And your angle?
  4684. > Well, you had a few.
  4685. > With the Gala coming up and a ticket metaphorically in your pocket, you had your eyes on a new dress...
  4686. > Being presented at the Officers' Club was a step towards your next salt-lick, too.
  4687. > But, as you told Sparkshower, it wasn't just about long-term plans or material gains.
  4688. > You liked the attention.
  4689. > You liked the glamour.
  4690. > And, as thrilling as it had been to utterly obliterate the wings of your sick and twisted Pegasus ex-coltfriend...
  4691. > You take a deep breath and size yourself up in the mirror.
  4692. > ... You hadn't had a good buck in weeks, now.
  4693. > And Captain Mailedhoof did have a reputation.
  4694.  
  4695. > Smacking and puckering your lips to evenly redistribute your lipstick, you turn off the sink and ready yourself for the inevitable conclusion to the evening's activities.
  4696. > No doubt there'll still be some small talk in the sitting room first.
  4697. > You open the door and exit the washroom.
  4698. > The Captain's quarters in the military barracks were spacious for a single unit.
  4699. > And it appeared that he'd furnished them himself, with an elegant sofa, fine dining table, and an impressively large buffet server fully stocked with alcohol.
  4700. > Of course, he had a private residence in Canterlot as well; a nice townhouse with enough space for his whole family.
  4701. > This was just his simple Guard-provided room, for when he was working 'late night' shifts.
  4702. > And from the looks of things, he'd turned it into his personal love-nest.
  4703. > Over on the sofa, your silver-maned colt of the hour turns and looks appreciatively in your direction.
  4704. > "Your glass awaits, my dear. A 'Clos du Marquis' 996, an exceptional year."
  4705. > Holding his own glass up high in one hoof, he swirls it around.
  4706. > You trot delicately forward.
  4707. > Mailedhoof was the kind of colt who liked his mares demure on the surface.
  4708. > The kind who liked to feel a bit of the thrill of the hunt, even in an affair that was bought and paid for.
  4709. "It sounds lovely, Captain."
  4710. > "And you deserve it, after the delightful company you gave and stories you shared with everypony tonight. Did you enjoy yourself?"
  4711. > You take the glass in one hoof and sit down at other end of the sofa, which is just wide enough to not quite be called a love-seat.
  4712. > Perfect for allowing ponies to sit far enough apart to begin the night with the appearance of civility, while keeping them close enough to facilitate debauchery.
  4713. "Yes, very much so. I hope I'll have the opportunity to visit again, sometime."
  4714.  
  4715. > Mailedhoof twists slightly in his seat and leans over in your direction.
  4716. > "Mmm. That can be arranged..."
  4717. > He raises his glass in a toast, and you match him, then take a drink.
  4718. > The Prench claret is rich and smooth, with a creamy texture and a fruity smell.
  4719. > As you put down the class, your nostrils pick up the aromas of ripe blackberries and raspberries.
  4720. > The Captain scooches over slightly towards you, extending one foreleg along the back of the sofa.
  4721. > "... I must admit, my dear, that as well as you wear it, I didn't expect to see you in uniform tonight."
  4722. > Licking his lips, he leans in a bit.
  4723. > You remain as you are, projecting neither discomfort nor eagerness.
  4724. > He needs to feel like this is all him.
  4725. > "... Surely, a pretty young mare like yourself must have an elegant dress or two in her wardrobe?"
  4726. > You look down for a moment, feigning embarrassment.
  4727. "Oh, I do, but nothing that I thought would be good enough for the Officers' Mess."
  4728. > Mailedhoof shakes his head and tuts.
  4729. > "Tut-tut! Such a shame! We'll have to address that..."
  4730. > Scooting over even more, now his forehoof is behind your neck.
  4731. > "... Why, I had a look at Valise's spring collection earlier this week..."
  4732. > Valise -- Louis Valise -- was one of the great Prench luxury fashion houses, with a prominent store in Canterlot.
  4733. > Mailedhoof was doubtless there with his wife and children, making sure they would all be properly outfitted for the social season as well.
  4734. > You had to respect, on some level, a philanderer who still took care of his family.
  4735. > The Captain leans in even closer, brushing one hoof against the whiskers of his short moustache.
  4736. > "... I think there some pieces in there which would suit you beautifully."
  4737. > The moustache-brushing hoof casually winds up coming to a rest on your thigh, as if almost by accident.
  4738.  
  4739. > Part of you -- the base, animalistic part -- lustily wants that to get on with that as quickly as possible.
  4740. > The other part lusts for haute couture -- and being able to show it off at the Gala.
  4741. "I'm sure they're very lovely, Captain, but I don't think I could possibly afford such a dress on a Specialist's salary."
  4742. > With one hoof on your thigh and the other around your back, Mailedhoof leans in even closer.
  4743. > "Then you should count yourself very lucky to be acquainted with a gentlecolt of means, my dear."
  4744. > Now's the time for you to feign shock and surprise.
  4745. > You place one hoof on your chest, curling in your shoulders slightly.
  4746. "Oh, I couldn't, Captain! You're too generous!"
  4747. > Oh, but you definitely *could*.
  4748. > Mmm, the looks you'll get at the gala in an in-season LV dress...
  4749. > "Not at all, not at all. I'm simply happy to provide for one of Equestria's brave young guardsmares."
  4750. > You lower your hoof and relax your posture, and Mailedhoof takes advantage to scoot in even closer, his jacket brushing against yours.
  4751. > Now, for all the space you were collectively using, the sofa might as well be a love-seat -- and a small one, at that.
  4752. > You exhale and take a deep breath, as if you were flustered by the offer and constrained by some invisible corset.
  4753. "All right, if you insist."
  4754. > "Oh, I do..."
  4755. > The hoof around your back curls inwards and brackets your shoulder, then pulls you gently towards the Captain.
  4756. > "... You must make your way to the Strand as soon as possible and pick yourself out something elegant. I'll take care of the rest."
  4757. > That's the deal done, then.
  4758. > The part of you that cares about what will happen in the distant future of tomorrow and beyond is satisfied, and all that's left is the part that cares about what's going to happen tonight.
  4759. > And that part is famished.
  4760. "How can I possibly repay such noble charity, Captain?"
  4761.  
  4762. > Mailedhoof is close enough now that the longer whiskers of his moustache flutter with each word you whisper.
  4763. > "I'm sure..."
  4764. > His eyes lock with yours.
  4765. > "... we can think..."
  4766. > Your mouth hangs slightly open, expectantly, and he leans forward even further.
  4767. > "... of something..."
  4768. > Gently, he presses his lips against yours.
  4769. > After an all-too-brief taste, he pulls back, and, seeing the glimmer in your eyes, he presses forward again -- more boldly, this time.
  4770. > Embracing you, he doesn't have to force your lips open; they willingly part when his tongue gently prods against them.
  4771. > As he sensually explores your mouth, you feel his chest press against yours, and you casually struggle to put your wine glass down on the side-table, before you wind up dropping it.
  4772. > The kiss goes on so long that you're wonderfully short of breath when he finally breaks it.
  4773. > Almost gasping, you lick your lips as he leans over to attend to your neck.
  4774. > Undoing your collar and jacket in the process, he begins to kiss his way down, all while you fumble eagerly to undo the chin-strap of your hat.
  4775. > This part is so much easier when you can use your horn, but you're managing.
  4776. > By the time he's got the twelfth and final button undone, your chest is heaving in anticipation and you finally manage to release your head-cover.
  4777. > The fur-covered accessory tumbles onto the floor behind the sofa, and the Captain - your Captain - rears back to attend to his own jacket.
  4778. > Panting, you lean forward and scramble to undo his lower buttons as he starts from the top.
  4779. > You get halfway up, and that's when you see it.
  4780. > Pulling back, you gasp in shock.
  4781. > The rumours didn't do it justice.
  4782. > Mailedhoof is *enormous*.
  4783. > And it's apparent he has an appetite to match.
  4784. > Glancing up, you see an eager grin on the Captain's face as he undoes the last clasp, letting his red officer's jacket hang open wide.
  4785.  
  4786. > You stretch out a hoof and gently paw at the object of your attention.
  4787. > Mailedhoof licks his lips, and leans over you to rests his forehooves on the back of the sofa.
  4788. > One of those hooves gently nudges your head forwards.
  4789. > You happily oblige, placing both your forehooves on the Captain's flanks and turning your head sideways to keep your horn clear from his belly.
  4790. > You begin gently, softly nuzzling his stiff rod, and you hear a grunt from above you.
  4791. > "Hrnghh..."
  4792. > And he's a vocal colt, too!
  4793. > No wonder the fillies in the Canterlot barracks powder-room refer to Captain Montgomery Mailedhoof as 'The Battalion Stallion'.
  4794. > There's just one myth left to confirm, but it can wait.
  4795. > More moans come from above as you playfully nibble his tip with your lips.
  4796. > When you roam further down, you see his flanks jerk and quiver.
  4797. > And when you lick your way back up to the top, his chest puffs in and out against your head.
  4798. > Grasping his flanks tightly, you give his head another kiss, eliciting another quick grunt, before licking your lips and spreading them open, slipping it smoothly inside your mouth.
  4799. > "... Ahhhhhhhhhh..."
  4800. > You're rewarded with a long coltish moan of pleasure.
  4801. > After letting that tantalizing sound run its course, you attend to his member in earnest.
  4802. > First, gentle licking to get things started.
  4803. > Mailedhoof's chest heaves up and down with deep, satisfied breaths.
  4804. > You start to move your head in time with his own respiration.
  4805. > Shallow at first, then deeper and deeper until your mouth is almost filled with each swing.
  4806. > That's when you start to add wobbling your head to the ensemble.
  4807. > His hips start to gently buck rhythmically with your own motions.
  4808. > "... Uhhnnnn..."
  4809. > Another moan, and you set your tongue to work as well, swirling it around his tip.
  4810. > Mailedhoof gasps and throws his head back.
  4811. > "... Oh-Ohh... Ohhhh..."
  4812.  
  4813. > You picture him wide-eyed, staring up at the ceiling as he receives indescribable pleasure from beneath.
  4814. > That image fills you with a desire to finish this as quickly as possible so that the Captain can attend to your own needs, and you speed up your pace.
  4815. > But then again, you also want him coming back for more...
  4816. > Just as he starts to buck your mouth at a trot, you pause your motions, suckling delicately at it in place.
  4817. > "... Mmmfff..."
  4818. > You noisy stud bites his lip and trembles, bucking in brief spasms, aching for release.
  4819. > Now is a perfect time to pull out, and there's a frustrated groan when you do so.
  4820. > But it quickly turns back to satisfaction when you move a hoof over and stroke the rod with your soft frog.
  4821. > Giving your mouth a break, you lean back and work the Captain back up again for a while.
  4822. > When you can see his flanks tensing up from every pump, you move forward again.
  4823. > Moving your hoof motions further down his member, you once again nibble at his tip.
  4824. > "... oooOOOhhhhh..."
  4825. > The deep moan reverberating from his firm chest is music to your flickering ears.
  4826. > You've barely got his head back in your mouth when he starts to buck against your lips again.
  4827. > A grunt accompanies every thrust, and you can tell it won't be long now.
  4828. > Weaving your head to and fro, you stroke upwards with your tongue, as if willing his impending release.
  4829. > His breaths grow shallow, and the noises get louder.
  4830. > Then, sealing your lips tightly, you apply the final tool in your arsenal.
  4831. > Suction.
  4832. > "... Oh-oHHHHHHHH!"
  4833. > That does the trick, and you feel his legs quiver as he empties his load into your mouth.
  4834. > "... AHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhh..."
  4835. > Drawing it out to the last drop, you don't cease your tender ministrations until the pulsing has well and truly stopped.
  4836. > You're rewarded with a final, weak whinny when you finally release his member.
  4837. > Sitting upright, you look up with a closed mouth at your new salt-lick.
  4838.  
  4839. > Mailedhoof, out of breath and with his neck covered in sweat-foam, looks down at you.
  4840. > You tilt your head back and let him watch you swallow.
  4841. > Yes, you can play the demure mare all he wants -- chaste and innocent, a perfectly suitable companion for polite company.
  4842. > You lick your lips and open your mouth to reveal that it's empty.
  4843. > ... But you are also the lusty mare he needs to satisfy his own indecent impulses.
  4844. > He grimaces down at you, his face a mixture of exhaustion, satisfaction, drunkeness, and lust.
  4845. > In this moment, it's the face of somepony who understands exactly what you are, and what you want.
  4846. > Good relationships are built on solid understandings, aren't they?
  4847. > Even if they're craven, wanton ones like this.
  4848. > With a satisfied nod, he sniffs and wipes the involuntarily-discharged nose-and-mouth muck off his snout, then pushes you over sideways onto your belly, lifting your hooves up onto the sofa behind you.
  4849. > Oh, so it really is a 'love-seat', eh?
  4850. > Grunting like an athlete trying to get his worn muscles ready for the second heat, Mailedhoof clambers up on top of you.
  4851. > Just as soon as you manage to tear off your jacket, you feel his belly press against your back.
  4852. > Then his muzzle is at your right ear.
  4853. > "... You need this, don't you?"
  4854. > Mmmm, not just a moaner, but a talker, too?
  4855. > You nod as you start to wink in anticipation.
  4856. "I need this."
  4857. > With the Captain's hot breath against your neck, you feel something stiff and wet make its way smoothly between your legs.
  4858. > As he presses in, you instinctively close your mouth and moan in your throat.
  4859. "Mmmm..."
  4860. > Then he nibbles at your neck, and your mouth pops open.
  4861. "... Ahhh..."
  4862. > He advances further inside you, deeper and deeper, and you almost hold your breath until he finds the end of his length.
  4863. > And with his girth, you feel parts of you squeeze like they've never squeezed before.
  4864. > You start to buck your hips against the sofa, as if begging him to rut you.
  4865. > There's another bite at your nape, less gentle this time.
  4866. > "Tell me how much you need it..."
  4867. > What a tease, when you're already so wound up!
  4868. "Oohh... Ohhh... I need it... I need it bad."
  4869.  
  4870. > Brushing his snout against your mane, he whispers in your ear.
  4871. > "That's no way to address an officer, soldier."
  4872. > As if to emphasize his point, he quickly pulls out and bucks right back in.
  4873. > Oh, sweet Celestia, you might just pass out if you have to wait any longer.
  4874. "I need it, sir... I need it, Captain... I need it, Captain."
  4875. > You bite your lip, squeezing your thighs together in anticipation.
  4876. > "Mmm... That's what I thought."
  4877. > You let out a wonderfully satisfied moan as you feel the first real buck against your hips.
  4878. "Aahhhhhhh..."
  4879. > And as the rhythmical pumping continues, you lower your head down to the sofa, squeaking with each delightfully pleasurable thrust.
  4880. > You shut your eyes, and fireworks start to go off in your head.
  4881. > They captivate and enthral you, and you moan with each delightful burst.
  4882. > Your breath grows short, and things become hazy...
  4883. > You remember an immense, thrilling explosion right at the end, and feeling exhausted afterwards.
  4884. > A warm, fuzzy, heavy blanket seems to collapse on top of you with a grunt, and you hear faint snoring in your ear.
  4885. > The rest of the night is a complete blur.
  4886.  
  4887. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQIRbV_noi8 (Matt Monro - 'On days Like These', from 'The Italian Job' [1969])
  4888.  
  4889.  
  4890.  
  4891.  
  4892. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and it's another day in the Royal Guard.
  4893. > That used to mean 'another *boring* day'.
  4894. > However, serving as a VIP bodyguard for Anonymous, By Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer, had proven to be anything but.
  4895. > Yet, with his armour on order, Kilfeather de-feathered and appeased, his new batpony reconciled to the team, and even Glamerspear hopefully on the mend, the excitement was hopefully going to wind down.
  4896. > You're looking forward to a nice, simple, relaxing Sunday.
  4897. > A Sunday probably spent watching the Royal Engineer work with some draft ponies in the garage, building a 'steam-powered automobile', if Sparkshower's report from yesterday was anything to go by.
  4898. > It sounds interesting, and Anonymous' book certainly had chapters on both steam power and automobiles, though you hadn't quite gotten as far as them yet.
  4899. > Anyways, it would probably be better to see it in reality before trying to understand the theory.
  4900. > If you're really lucky, he might even explain it out loud a bit today.
  4901. > Nursing your mug of coffee, you flip over the weekend paper on the card-table before you as you wait for the start of your shift.
  4902. > Galloway Bitsmount still made the front page, though not as the lead story.
  4903. > 'BITSMOUNT AND SONGWELL CONTINUE PUBLIC APOLOGY TOUR' starts off a fat double-wide column on the left side.
  4904. > Seems like their little song-and-dance number is a big hit among the few well-to-do members of Canterlot society who stayed in the city for the weekend, despite the all the hustle and bustle from ordinary-class ponies piling in for Celestia's open court.
  4905. > Even those same ordinary ponies are piling on the praise.
  4906. > 'APOLOGY OF THE YEAR', is the title of one editorial in their favour, though it's a bit early to be making that call.
  4907. > And you still can't shake the feeling that something's not quite right.
  4908.  
  4909. > When you visited him at the mine, Bitsmount seemed guilty as all Tartarus.
  4910. > Still, as your VIP pointed out, there's no evidence or witnesses, so there's nothing to gainsay him or his foremost teamster.
  4911. > You ignore the stories about them and carry on.
  4912. > Most of the other news items relate to matters of court business: the settling of long-standing feuds and other accounts in distant parts of the country.
  4913. > Celestia's Weekend Day Court was the ultimate place to resolve such disputes, it being the highest court in the land.
  4914. > Before you can get halfway through an article on the resolution of a major Appleloosan land-use case, the front door flies open.
  4915. > "I'm back, and better than ever!"
  4916. > Wearing the military outfit she went out with yesterday afternoon, Specialist Glamerspear enters the room, beaming with afterglow.
  4917. > She still has the shackles around her horn, though.
  4918. > Glamerspear turns to you after closing the door.
  4919. > "... Good morning, Corporal. How come you're armoured up? Isn't Sparkshower on duty this shift?"
  4920. "I'm taking the morning today to make up for her covering for me on Thursday."
  4921. > Mentioning Thursday brings back some awkward memories.
  4922. > At least it's another bit of excitement that's been resolved, though.
  4923. > Taking a warm sip from your mug, you get back to your 'Canterlot Times'.
  4924. > But something you said seems to intrigue Glamerspear.
  4925. > "Oh reeeeeeeaaaaaaallyyyyy? Where is she now? I've got the perfect idea!"
  4926. > You shrug.
  4927. "She was still hungry this morning and got a second plate. I'm sure she'll be back soon."
  4928. > "Perfect! Can I ask a favour, then?"
  4929. > You look up from your news.
  4930. > The kinds of 'favours' Glamerspear has asked for on this assignment so far do not make you optimistic that this latest one will be a good idea.
  4931. "What is it?"
  4932.  
  4933. > "Could you find out if the Royal Engineer could do without Sparkshower and me this morning -- or even this afternoon, or both? After I pay a visit to the infirmary to get these Spellbinders off of me, I want to take Sparks out dress-shopping for the Gala!"
  4934. > Requesting what amounts to a leave of absence when your quaternion is already short-staffed?
  4935. > On the other hand, it is *Sunday*.
  4936. > Nopony conducts business today except for Princess Celestia, and then only for a few weeks a year.
  4937. > The likelihood that anypony would want to call on your VIP, and that they would be senior enough to also require three or four of you there as honour guards is pretty low.
  4938. > You nod.
  4939. "I'll ask. But don't leave until I find out."
  4940. > Glamerspear gives you a polite salute.
  4941. > "Yes, Corporal!"
  4942. > As you return to your newspaper, you can feel her eyes looking you up and down.
  4943. > "... Saaaayyyyy... When are *you* going to find yourself something to wear to the Gala? The clock is ticking, ya know!"
  4944. > Her perkiness this early in the morning is a little disturbing.
  4945. > If anything, spending all evening at the Officers' Club drinking should have left her hung over and miserable.
  4946. > She must have really gotten railed by Captain Mailedhoof last night.
  4947. > And probably gotten a good taste of his 'salt'.
  4948. > His *wallet*, in other words.
  4949. > You shrug.
  4950. "I wasn't going to make a big deal about it. Probably just wear my Service Dress Uniform."
  4951. > Glamerspear reels back in shock and throws up her hooves.
  4952. > "What! Corporal, you can't just show up in your Royal Reds to the Grand Galloping Gala! It's the biggest pageant of the year! And the biggest colt-and-mare show, too!"
  4953. > Landing down on all fours again, she steps forward, wearing a wry smile.
  4954. > "... You've got to look your best for all the eligible Corporal Colts out there, eh?"
  4955. > Oh, brother.
  4956.  
  4957. > You shake your head.
  4958. "I'm not planning to gussy myself up for the Gala -- and especially not for the colts."
  4959. > Glamerspear steps up to the card-table, and you can smell the odour of sweat and sex on her.
  4960. > She got railed, all right.
  4961. > "For the mares, then?"
  4962. > You give her a dismissive frown.
  4963. "Har-har."
  4964. > The horn-shackled unicorn leans in over the table, placing her forehooves on it, and her pungent unwashed stench assails your nostrils.
  4965. > Whew!
  4966. > Not even Sergeant Ebonshield's room smelled that bad after she brought home a random colt from the nightclub.
  4967. > "Alright, so then for the colts! What's the problem with making yourself look good for 'em? That's how you get their attention! You wanna stay single all your life, Corporal?"
  4968. > Half an hour before a morning shift begins is really not when you want to be having this kind of conversation.
  4969. > Especially not with a young fresh-from-the-sack unicorn Specialist.
  4970. > Or is that *ripe*-from-the-sack?
  4971. > But she's so energetic right now you doubt you can shut her down without at least humouring her questions for a little bit.
  4972. "First of all, Glamerspear, I *have* had coltfriends before..."
  4973. > You put down the newspaper and look her in the eyes.
  4974. "... And second of all, the kind of colt who horns in on tarted-up mares in slinky dresses is the kind of colt I can do without."
  4975. > Glamerspear rolls her eyes at you and, mercifully, gets back down and plops herself in a chair, giving some space between you and her stink.
  4976. > "Oh, come *onnnnn*, Corporal. Don't tell me you're one of *those* kinds of mares, who thinks that only bad colts go for attractive mares!"
  4977. > She dismissively bats a hoof in the air.
  4978. > "... That's some grade-A manure. Bad colts go for anything with four hooves, attractive or not! Believe me, I've probably met more of them than you have."
  4979.  
  4980. > You can believe that last part, at least.
  4981. > The chipper unicorn continues on.
  4982. > "... And anyways, I'm not suggesting that you 'tart' yourself up like some street-walking dollymop. Just, y'know, make yourself a nice 'catch', that's all. Get yourself a nice dress, some makeup, a new manedo, maybe some new sabots-"
  4983. > Ugh, her 'go out there and get yourself a colt' speech is starting to remind you of your mother's nagging when you visit home.
  4984. > You cut her off before the similarities become too uncomfortable.
  4985. "Whatever fashion-show beauty standard you're thinking of isn't worth the effort just to 'catch' myself a shallow colt."
  4986. > Trying to get back to your newspaper, you pick up your coffee and swivel sideways in your seat.
  4987. > Glamerspear just stares at you, squinting in confusion.
  4988. > The long moment of silence has you hoping she'll drop the subject.
  4989. > Then your Prench-pink unicorn Specialist shakes her head, and you know she's not going to.
  4990. > "I don't understand."
  4991. > Looks like you're going to have to spell it out.
  4992. > Swivelling back in your chair, you sigh and drop the newspaper.
  4993. "I'm *brown*, Glamerspear. Brown coat, brown mane, brown tail, brown eyes..."
  4994. > You gesture with your coffee cup.
  4995. "... In a world of colourful ponies, it takes a lot of work to make *me* stand out."
  4996. > Picking your newspaper again, you lean back and try to find where you'd left off with that Appleloosan land dispute.
  4997. "... Believe me, I've done it before. And it attracted the wrong kind of colt back then. I'm not about to repeat my mistake."
  4998. > There's another long, silent pause, which gives you enough time to finish the article.
  4999. > As you flip over the paper and get started on the next one, Glamerspear undoes the chin-strap for her fur cap, then removes her hat and places it down on the table.
  5000. > Abandoning her energetic enthusiasm, she places her hooves together on the table and composes herself in her seat.
  5001. > "Corporal?"
  5002. > This time, the tone is more restrained.
  5003.  
  5004. > You look up again, and Glamerspear is frowning at you.
  5005. > "... You really feel that way? You don't like the way you look?"
  5006. > You shrug.
  5007. "I like the way I look just fine. But I know it's not very attractive."
  5008. > Glamerspear really furrows her brow.
  5009. > "*It's* not very attractive? You mean *you're* not attractive? Corporal, that's ridiculous!"
  5010. > Now what?
  5011. > She gestures with one hoof in your direction.
  5012. > "... You're being too hard on yourself, Honour. You're a good-looking mare. Nice teeth, symmetrical face, clean coat, well-shaped body..."
  5013. > Glamerspear shrugs, still frowning.
  5014. > "... Maybe not ready for the cover page of Cosmoponitan, but who is? I don't think you've got anything to be ashamed of. All I was trying to say earlier is that you'd look *even better* in a nice dress, and with your mane and tail down instead of up in a braid -- or heck, leave it braided, but use some nicer hair-bands and get a little help to tidy the weave up, that's all."
  5015. > Curling up one side of her mouth, and grimacing with concern, she looks askance at you.
  5016. > "... Did someone *tell* you that you weren't good-looking?"
  5017. > You sigh.
  5018. > It's just like visiting your mother, all right.
  5019. "No. I figured it out for myself."
  5020. > The unicorn plants her hooves on the table, and pushes herself up a little bit.
  5021. > Not enough to re-unleash the smell, thankfully.
  5022. > "Well, you're *wrong*, okay? You're *wrong* if you think that. You're a good-looking pony, Honour. I'm being honest, here!"
  5023. > As she points a hoof in your direction to emphasize the point, the hallway door opens and Sparkshower walks in, exhaling sharply.
  5024. > "Whew! Maybe I shouldn't have had that second plate! Oh, hey Glamerspear! How was your night?"
  5025. > Glamerspear immediately seizes on this fresh opportunity.
  5026. > "Sparks! Come over here and tell the Corporal that she's attractive!"
  5027.  
  5028. > That results in a quizzical look on the cream-coloured Pegasus' face.
  5029. > "Uh... okay?"
  5030. > After shutting the door, she trots over to the card-table.
  5031. > But before she can say anything, Glamerspear starts into explanations.
  5032. > "Corporal Bound doesn't think she's good-looking because she's *brown*. I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my life! Come on, you think she's a pretty mare, don't you?"
  5033. > Sparkshower looks you over, still a bit confused.
  5034. > After a moment, she nods her head and try to smile affirmatively.
  5035. > "Sure, I don't see anything wrong with her."
  5036. > That's some damned faint praise.
  5037. > Almost as soon as the words leave her mouth, Sparkshower goes beet red when she realizes what she said.
  5038. > "... I-I mean, you're a pretty mare, Corporal! Why... Why, I bet if you let your mane down you'd look gorgeous! It's so long, and I bet it's luscious and straight! Not like mine, which is short and curly -- I always feel a bit silly with it like that. I bet I'll wish I had your mane if I see it let down. And you'd look great in a nice dress... Like one with puffed sleeves!"
  5039. > After a brief look of disgust at the thought of such an old-fashioned getup, Glamerspear turns to you, triumphant.
  5040. > "There, you see? And when Sergeant Ebonshield wakes up, I'm sure she'll say the same thing!"
  5041. > She points an accusing hoof at you.
  5042. > "... So, after Sparks and I get something picked out for the Gala today, you'd better take a day off this week and do some shopping yourself. Bring one of us with you if you want a second opinion, even! I know all the right places to shop!"
  5043. > Sparkshower's look of confusion returns.
  5044. > "Wait, we're doing *what* today?"
  5045.  
  5046. > The unicorn shoots a smirk over at her pegasus comrade.
  5047. > "As soon as I get this crap removed from my horn and the Corporal here confirms that Anonymous won't be needing us today, I'm taking you out dress-shopping, Artemis. I know just the place to find you something new and stylish for the Gala. And I won't take 'no' for an answer, to the outing or to the dress. I'll treat you myself if I have to!"
  5048. > Sparkshower's eyes go wide and her face lights up like a child unwrapping presents on Hearth's Warming Day.
  5049. > "Oh, wow! That sounds fun! I'll go take a shower right now so I'll be all ready when you come back from the infirmary!"
  5050. > "Sure thing, Sparks, knock yourself out..."
  5051. > As Sparkshower trots over to the washroom door, Glamerspear turns to you and lowers her voice.
  5052. > "... Anyways, I don't want to hear this kind of nonsense talk about you not being attractive ever again, okay?"
  5053. > That almost sounds like she's giving you an order.
  5054. > You narrow your eyes a little bit, and she realizes her mistake.
  5055. > "... Uh... Corporal Bound, I mean."
  5056. > That's better.
  5057. > Before you can placate her with an answer, there's a shriek from the other side of the room.
  5058. > "EEEEEEEEEEEEK!"
  5059. > You lean around Glamerspear, as she herself twists back in her seat.
  5060. > Both of you stare at a shocked Sparkshower standing in front of the washroom door.
  5061. > "... Corporal! There's a colt asleep on the toilet in here!"
  5062. > What the buck?
  5063. > You get to your hooves, and Glamerspear follows after you.
  5064. > After trotting around the sofa, you're both standing beside your pegasus soldier.
  5065. > Sure enough, there's a young unicorn colt sitting on the can, groggily blinking his eyes after what was surely a rude awakening from Sparkshower's outburst just now.
  5066. > "Uh... Wha?"
  5067.  
  5068. > Glamerspear shouts at him with an angry look on her face.
  5069. > "Hey! Who the buck are you, and what the buck are you doing in *our* washroom?"
  5070. > The colt just winces at the loud noise, holding his forehooves to his head and groaning incoherently.
  5071. > "Mmmnn... Waszzroo-waszzroom? Oh..."
  5072. > Opening his eyes, he seems to wake up a bit more.
  5073. > "... Ohm buck... Wha-What time is it?"
  5074. > You glance back at the clock.
  5075. "Seven-fifty-five."
  5076. > That gets his attention, and he slides off the porcelain throne which had served as his bed.
  5077. > "Seven-fifty-five? Damnit, uhmgonnabelatefurclaszzz..."
  5078. > He starts stumbling towards the three of you, and you all take a healthy step backwards.
  5079. > Sparkshower, probably because she's still a bit shocked at finding this colt in her washroom.
  5080. > Glamerspear, because she wants to keep him at a safe distance for a fight.
  5081. > You just back up because you're worried his next move might be to throw up.
  5082. > Then there's a voice from beside you.
  5083. > "It is Sunday today, chico. No classes today."
  5084. > Sergeant Ebonshield, wearing a slinky translucent negligee, has emerged from behind her door and steps towards the befuddled young colt.
  5085. > "Uhn? No classes?"
  5086. > Taking him on one shoulder, she steadies him and guides him out of the washroom.
  5087. > "No, mi pequeño. The Schola Magia is closed on the Sunday, yes? You told me this."
  5088. > The colt nods, coming with her.
  5089. > It's all the three of you can do but to watch as your batpony Sergeant -- who might almost be old enough to be this young colt's *grandmother*, from the look of him -- leads her latest 'take-home dinner' back to her room.
  5090. > "Oh... Oh, right, yeah."
  5091. > "Come on, now. You need some more sleep of the beauty."
  5092. > "O-Okay. I think I had a bit too much to drink."
  5093. > "Sí, and you made yourself very tired with exertion. You must come back to bed."
  5094. > "Mmm-hmm, yeah... Heh... Yeah, I remember... heh..."
  5095.  
  5096. > Grinning stupidly, he stops, leans over, and gives Ebonshield a sloppy kiss on the neck.
  5097. > "... I... I'm your tiger, aren't I, baby? That's what you said last night, ehehehehe..."
  5098. > Looking a little embarrassed at this revelation, she wraps one of her bat-wings around him, and pulls him more forcefully towards her door.
  5099. > "Sí, sí, eres mi tigre. But now the tigre, he needs the rest. Come, come."
  5100. > Without any further interruptions or discussions from the hung-over young unicorn colt, she manages to get him into her room -- still dark, with the curtains closed.
  5101. > After a few moments spent tucking him in, your adventurous batpony Sergeant emerges, looking rather less confident than usual.
  5102. > She steps right up in front of Specialist Sparkshower, standing almost snout-to-snout.
  5103. > What the buck?
  5104. > Surprisingly, Sparkshower doesn't back down, and a second later, Ebonshield closes her eyes and bows her head -- and keeps it held down.
  5105. > "I apologize most profoundly for this rude shock, Specialist Sparkshower. This was my fault for not keeping track of my colt when he got up to use the washroom early in the morning."
  5106. > Despite apparently understanding the gesture enough to not back away, Sparkshower still looks uncomfortable with this setup.
  5107. > "Uhm... It's okay, Sergeant. I was just surprised, that's all. It's no big deal."
  5108. > "No, no, do not say this -- 'It is no big deal'. I have been most inconsiderate; I must apologize most profusely for this unworthy conduct."
  5109. > Sparkshower looks at a loss for words, and there's a long silence.
  5110. > Finally, you shrug your shoulders.
  5111. "Well, I don't have time for this; I've got to go on duty. Sergeant Ebonshield?"
  5112. > The batpony opens her eyes and looks up at you from her bowed position.
  5113. "... Just try to keep your colt-toys under control next time, okay?"
  5114. > "Of course, Caporal. I will not allow this to happen a second time."
  5115.  
  5116. "Sparkshower, accept her apology, will you?"
  5117. > "Uh, I accept your apology, Sergeant Ebonshield?"
  5118. > That gets the batpony's head back up again.
  5119. > "Gracias, mi camarada..."
  5120. > After a second brief bow, she steps aside, leaving the way to the washroom clear.
  5121. > "... Please, do not allow me to interrupt you further."
  5122. > With that, she gives another bow to you and to Glamerspear, then walks back into her room and shuts the door.
  5123. > After a sigh, Sparkshower heads in to the washroom.
  5124. > Glamerspear announces to no-one in particular.
  5125. > "Well, I'm going to medical."
  5126. > You nod in her direction.
  5127. "Maybe wait to have a shower first, Glam."
  5128. > She looks over at you, confused, and you hold a hoof up to your nose.
  5129. "... Unless you want them to know exactly what you were up to last night."
  5130. > Glamerspear doesn't look embarrassed, but she does nod a little awkwardly, at least.
  5131. > "Sorry."
  5132. > Shaking your head, you head to the card-table and quickly down the last of your coffee as Glamerspear heads to her room and starts to pull off the rest of her uniform.
  5133. > So much for this being a boring Sunday.
  5134. > But at least that's it for surprises, right?
  5135.  
  5136. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cpyWmYwl1A (Johnny Mercer - 'Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive')
  5137.  
  5138.  
  5139.  
  5140.  
  5141. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and wow, this dress really is something.
  5142. > And that something is *scandalous*.
  5143. "I don't know, Lily... It's a bit... *unicorn*, don't you think?"
  5144. > Standing on the ground beside the little dressing-area podium, your single-horned comrade looks up at you with a grin.
  5145. > "Of course it is; we're in a unicorn fashion shop! And I think what you're wearing ticks all the boxes: it's classic, it's modern, it's fashionable, it's elegant, and it's suitable for dancing."
  5146. > Frowning, you look yourself over in the triple mirrors.
  5147. > It *is* a pretty dress, what little of it there is.
  5148. > Honestly, it would be easier to describe the dress by what it *doesn't* have.
  5149. > There aren't any foreleg sleeves for one, which is quite a shock.
  5150. > It's also completely without a bustle, flaring outwards only very slightly, before dropping down behind your legs.
  5151. > And there's no layered petticoats or train!
  5152. > The skirt stands alone, a few layers of tulle on top of a base of satin.
  5153. > There's some pleating, but no ruffles.
  5154. > You almost feel naked.
  5155. > And with a chest made of embroidered lace, you might as well be.
  5156. > But it *is* a pretty dress.
  5157. > And the blush-pink colour does seem to suit you well.
  5158. > Can you really wear this, though?
  5159. "Aren't there going to be an awful lot of Cloudsdale dignitaries and nobleponies at the Gala? I... I'm just a bit worried I'll look out-of-place wearing something that's so far from a traditional Pegasus gown."
  5160. > Glamerspear smirks and shakes her head, and with the chains removed, there's more jangling noise when she does so.
  5161. > "'Traditional Pegasus gown'? You mean those Peplosian togas?"
  5162.  
  5163. > Stepping up onto the platform, you see her horn light up and you feel her lift up and adjust the skirt on you.
  5164. > "... This is Canterlot, filly; unicorn fashions are *in*. And I think you look ready to be someone's bridesmaid in this outfit."
  5165. > Pacing around, Glamerspear looks you over and makes a few more adjustments as she talks.
  5166. > "... We can check out the Pegasus shops if you want -- anything to get you out of those country-mare folksy earth pony clothes -- but I think this is as close to 'the one' as we've seen so far."
  5167. > Satisfied with the small changes she's made, Lily steps back down off the podium and you look yourself over once more.
  5168. > It's been almost four hours since you left the palace after getting approval from the Royal Engineer, via Corporal Bound.
  5169. > First stop was The Strand; Glamerspear spent almost an hour picking herself out a little black dress with an outrageous price tag from Louis Valise.
  5170. > Then again, everything in there was outrageously priced.
  5171. > Clearly, Captain Mailedhoof wasn't surviving on just his officer's pay.
  5172. > Glamerspear had pored over a few other accessories, and had them added to the order, but it would be up to the Captain if he decided to buy them for her.
  5173. > If he didn't go for it, she said she might grab one or two of them herself to round out the look.
  5174. > 'Never let them dictate control over the purse-strings, Sparks -- If they say you can have twenty bits, try to spend twenty-five.'
  5175. > That was her piece of advice for you, if you should ever find yourself in a similar position as a 'saltine' to a rich noblecolt.
  5176. > Which would be a pretty unlikely turn of events.
  5177. > After the visit to Louis Valise, you'd hopped into a carriage for a trip across town to Hackney Trot, Canterlot's 'outlet mall'.
  5178. > The stores only sold last year's fashions, but at least the prices were more reasonable.
  5179. > And as far as you were concerned, last year's high-fashion outfits were outrageous enough!
  5180.  
  5181. > It had taken rather longer to pick out something for you from the crowded racks of leftovers.
  5182. > And the stores were busy, too -- less well-to-do ponies preparing for the Gala, and ordinary ponies in town for weekend Day Court, taking a little shopping trip on the side.
  5183. > But your comrade seemed to know all the tricks and guided you effortlessly from one store to the next, honing in on dress after dress, babbling out loud as she approved or rejected each one for some reason or another.
  5184. > This was the eleventh dress you'd actually tried on.
  5185. > 'Tea-length boat-neck dress in blush-pink. Tulle, satin, and lace, with chiffon rosette', read the label.
  5186. > It *was* very pretty.
  5187. > You turn in place to look at yourself from the side.
  5188. > The lace top blended well with your wings, concealing their true size.
  5189. > Not that you were *embarrassed* about how big they were, but still, it was a nice feature.
  5190. > And the pale colour seemed to work well against your mild cream coat.
  5191. > Plus, your curly golden-yellow mane looked *really* nice draped over the lace, and the same with your tail underneath the tulle skirt.
  5192. > You think you can see why Glamerspear is pushing this one so hard; and it's not like she was doing it out of exhaustion or anything like that.
  5193. > Ever since spending the night with Captain Mailedhoof, and then getting her spellbinders removed, she was more energetic than you'd ever seen her.
  5194. > And more upbeat, too.
  5195. > So, was this the dress?
  5196. > Maybe.
  5197. > The wing-slits were still a bit too small for you, however.
  5198. > Actually, the cut as a whole wasn't quite right -- you'd had to go a size up just to get it to fit, so now it was too loose in other parts.
  5199. > Unicorn fashion designers seem to expect that every pegasus is built skinny and lithe!
  5200.  
  5201. > Although to be fair, pegasus designers seemed to make that assumption, too...
  5202. > It's hard being a pegasus with this much earth pony blood in you.
  5203. > Sometimes it was easier to shop at earth pony stores and then just have them altered for wings.
  5204. > You frown at your reflection in the mirror.
  5205. "If I get this one, Lily, I'll have to get some adjustments made. Is there going to be time for that?"
  5206. > Glamerspear bats a hoof in your doppelganger's direction.
  5207. > "Don't worry about it. I'm sure this place has an alterations backlog a mile long, like most of the city's tailors this soon before the Gala, but I'll take care of you. I didn't *start off* getting rich colts to buy me Louis Valise and Coco Pommel dresses, ya know."
  5208. > You look down at her almost in shock.
  5209. "You can sew?"
  5210. > She shrugs.
  5211. > "A little. Enough to turn a cheap dress into something nice, or to fix the cut so it fits properly."
  5212. > Smiling, she looks around at the racks of last year's fashions.
  5213. > "... Once I started earning bits, I used to almost *live* in places like this. Actually, that's not true -- Hackney Trot is unused leftovers from last year's catalogue. I mostly spent my time a step down from here, rooting around in thrift shops full of used clothing -- Manehattan is full of 'em. Found some real gems that were years and years old but didn't take too much work to make good as new. I still have a few of them stuffed in the back of my wardrobe."
  5214. > Waggling her eyebrows, she turns back to you.
  5215. > "... Just don't let that secret get out, okay? I don't want random guardsponies coming to me for last-minute alterations. And I *definitely* don't want my salt-licks thinking they can cheap out on me!"
  5216. > This revelation has you thinking about where your comrade disappeared to before her big date.
  5217. "Is that what you were doing yesterday afternoon? We were looking for you, but you hadn't checked out."
  5218.  
  5219. > She nods.
  5220. > "Yeah. I was in the laundry fixing up my Artillery Gold-and-Blacks, hunched over a machine. I just wanted to make a couple of changes, but without my horn it wound up taking me all afternoon..."
  5221. > With a sigh, she looks you over and tries to brighten herself up.
  5222. > "... So, are you saying 'yes' to this dress?"
  5223. > You look over your reflection once more.
  5224. "I *think* so... I just wish my Puddin' was here to see before I decide."
  5225. > "Yeah? He has vocal opinions on fashion?"
  5226. > You shake your head at the, admittedly, very pretty cream-and-gold mare in the pink dress in front of you.
  5227. "No... Not *really*. I doubt he would say anything at all, actually."
  5228. > Turning to look down at your comrade, you sentimentally lift your eyebrows.
  5229. "... But I'd just see the reaction on his face, and I'd know if he liked it or not."
  5230. > Glamerspear softens her expression.
  5231. > "A colt of few words, huh?"
  5232. > You sigh again at your pretty reflection.
  5233. "You don't know the half of it. My poor Puddin'... He isn't comfortable speaking in public at all. Sometimes he's not even comfortable speaking to *me*."
  5234. > Turning around, you try to focus your attention on the dress.
  5235. > But all you can see is the missing colt behind you.
  5236. "... He's so gentle and so kind, but he really has trouble standing up for himself. Why, one time, the Shortcakes forgot to give him his pay at the end of the week -- just an innocent mistake, nothing deliberate -- and he couldn't bring himself to speak up about it, heading home empty-hoofed."
  5237. > You hop in place to see the dress bounce.
  5238. "... It took me three days to get it out of him that he hadn't been paid. And then I had to come with him back to the farm, because he wasn't going to be able to ask for it without me there to support him."
  5239. > The tulle and silk skirt floofs wonderfully as you prance about.
  5240. > It'll look beautiful when you dance around the Maypole.
  5241.  
  5242. > Provided you have somepony to dance with.
  5243. "... Communicating isn't his strong suit, even when it's just with me. But I can read him enough to know when something is wrong."
  5244. > Glamerspear nods sympathetically.
  5245. > "It sounds like you've got a real deep connection to him."
  5246. > You lick your lips.
  5247. > Yes, this is the dress.
  5248. "I do, but it takes a lot of work. And sometimes I think that I'm the only one who can understand him. I worry a bit about what happens when I'm not there to help."
  5249. > Struggling to reconcile the vision of a happy future beside your coltfriend at the Gala with the troubles he can sometimes give you and the possibility that he'll turn the invite down, a tear escapes down the side of your cheek.
  5250. > As you stand there, blinking to hold back the rest of them, Glamerspear quickly steps up and tenderly wipes it off your cheek with a hoof.
  5251. > "Hey, hey hey... Look, I'm sorry if I upset you by forcing all this shopping on you."
  5252. > You shake your head.
  5253. "No, the shopping didn't upset me. And you're right -- this is the dress, I'm certain of it."
  5254. > Glamerspear smiles even as she dabs at your cheek.
  5255. > "That's great. And we can call it a day now if you want to; we can find you some shoes, a fascinator, and a hoofbag some other time."
  5256. > You lift up your forehoof, examining one of the cute little 'Mary Janes' Glamerspear had managed to find you in matching pink.
  5257. "I like the ones you found for me just now. Don't you?"
  5258. > She nods.
  5259. > "Sure, sure, I just -- if you didn't like them, I didn't want to drag you around any more today, that's all."
  5260. "No, I like them. Let's do it."
  5261. > "Okay. And I'm sorry to get you upset like that. I've got just the idea for a cure, though..."
  5262. > Smiling, she steps around in front of you and holds you by the cheeks.
  5263. > "... Usually, shopping is what I like to do when I'm feeling blue, but if that doesn't work, there's nothing like a good massage to take the stress off."
  5264.  
  5265. > You don't know what to think about that.
  5266. > You've never even had one.
  5267. "A massage? You mean, like, at a spa?"
  5268. > She smirks.
  5269. > "Yeah, Sparks, like at a spa. There's a nice little one, 'Spa Dalecarlia' not too far from here. How about it? My treat."
  5270. > You try to smile back.
  5271. "Okay. But let me pay for the dress and the shoes at least -- you can't buy me everything, Lily!"
  5272. > Glamerspear nods and then deliberately boops her snoot against yours, which makes you giggle.
  5273. > "Hey, I owe you for putting up with me, okay? And for being a good friend. But if you insist on paying for this, then I'll just have to treat you to a late lunch after the rub-down..."
  5274. > Her face lights up and she looks off into the distance.
  5275. > "... Oooh, or I know! Instead of just the regular service, I'll treat us to the 'deluxe' regimen!"
  5276. > 'Deluxe' regimen?
  5277. > That raises a few questions in your mind.
  5278. > You've heard stories about Canterlot's spas, after all.
  5279. "What's involved in that?"
  5280. > "The 'deluxe' regimen at Spa Dalecarlia? For a pegasus?"
  5281. > Glamerspear smirks.
  5282. > "... That'll be a back and four-leg massage, followed by..."
  5283. > Dragging it out, she leans forward and whispers seductively into your left ear.
  5284. > "... a *professional*, *deep*, *intense*..."
  5285. > Uh-oh...
  5286. > "... feather-preening."
  5287. > Oh, my!
  5288.  
  5289. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbZSe6N_BXs (Pharrell Williams - 'Happy')
  5290.  
  5291.  
  5292.  
  5293.  
  5294. Recommended background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=XORwfYUH23Y (Kris Maddigan - 'Carnival Kerfuffle', from 'Cuphead')
  5295.  
  5296. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and this is-Oh, buck!
  5297. > "LEFT!"
  5298. > Pushing hard on the tiller, you're jostled over rightwards up against the Royal Engineer's flank as the carriage, under your amateur control, swerves to avoid a hapless pony who stepped out into the path without looking.
  5299. > The shocked pedestrian jumps back as you navigate around him, then stares dumbfounded as the ponyless carriage carries on with little more than the quiet 'pffsht-pffsht' burble of the steam engine.
  5300. > Twisting in his seat, Anonymous turns around and lifts his hat to apologize to the awestruck pony.
  5301. > "... Terribly sorry, sir!"
  5302. > Meanwhile, you struggle to get the wheels pointed straight again and back on the palace grounds' main pathway.
  5303. > It's quite an effort for you, and you're sweating as you think about another pony jumping out, but the Royal Engineer doesn't seem to be fazed even in the slightest.
  5304. > "... Ha-ha! Did you see the look on his face? There's going to be a lot more the day we take this into town!"
  5305. > You hope that day is far, far off.
  5306. "Yes, sir."
  5307. > Your curt answer prompts a closer investigation, and the Royal Engineer looks down at you, seeing your death-grip on the steering bar.
  5308. > "Steady on, Corporal. You're doing just fine."
  5309. "Could have fooled me, sir."
  5310. > You really, really, really want to wipe the sweat accumulating at your brow, but you're worried that if you take your hooves off the tiller for even one second, you'll wind up crashing the Royal Engineer's brand new 'steam car'.
  5311. > "Here, just keep it straight, and I'll slow us down a bit."
  5312. > Anonymous places his left hand on top of your hoof, then reaches down and twists the main steam valve a quarter-turn clockwise.
  5313.  
  5314. > There's no lurch as when a pony-pulled carriage slows down, or even when the magical Friendship Express train puts on the brakes, but rather a smooth deceleration from the hasty gallop down to a much more manageable trot.
  5315. > Gradually, you feel yourself able to relax a bit.
  5316. > It helps that you're on the broad packed-dirt avenue leading from the palace to the military barracks.
  5317. > As you come back to your senses, the road seems wider than it was before, the poplar trees less threateningly close than they had seemed just a few moments ago.
  5318. > You sigh, and, with Anonymous' hand still steadying your hooves on the tiller, take a moment to wipe your brow.
  5319. > It really *is* amazing how a few bits of machinery powered by little more than lamp oil and water can propel this tiny modified four-wheeled dogcart along at fantastic speeds with barely any noise at all.
  5320. > If that was you who'd stepped out into the road just now, you'd probably be just as dumbstruck.
  5321. > "You holding up there, Corporal?"
  5322. > You nod.
  5323. "Yes, sir. It's just all a bit much to take in at once -- the speed and the controls, I mean."
  5324. > As you replace your second hoof on the tiller, Anonymous leans over and pats it with his other hand.
  5325. > "Well, for your first time driving, I'd say you're doing extremely well. Here, we're on a nice, wide, straightaway again, far away from any pedestrians, so how about I open up the tap?"
  5326. > More speed is something you could probably do without.
  5327. "Uhm..."
  5328. > "You'll be fine. I'll keep my hand here on the tiller too, just in case."
  5329. "O-Okay."
  5330. > Bending forward, he gives a healthy double-turn counter-clockwise to the main valve.
  5331. > Instantly, you feel pressed back against the seat as the carriage pulls forward.
  5332. > The Royal Engineer actually has to grip the brim of his top hat as you pick up speed.
  5333. > "Ha-haa!"
  5334.  
  5335. > As the carriage's spring suspension works overtime to smooth out every little bump and crook in the road, you firm up your grip on the controls.
  5336. > You have to admit, though, as terrifying as it is to be responsible for steering this crazed engine, at least you're just a few hooves above the ground.
  5337. > And, to be honest, it's not really going *that* fast.
  5338. > Almost any pegasus could fly faster than this.
  5339. > Heck, a few speedy earth ponies could probably gallop faster than this.
  5340. > The difference is, though, by Anonymous' estimates, his 'automobile' could keep up this pace for three or four hours before needing a refill.
  5341. > The pegasus would need a rest after just one.
  5342. > And the earth pony would only be able to sprint short distances at this speed.
  5343. > Taking a deep breath, you feel yourself able to relax in spite of the velocity.
  5344. > And you start to understand the Royal Engineer's elation.
  5345. > The wind in your fur.
  5346. > A certain thrill of speed.
  5347. > You even - just for a moment - dare to look left and watch the trees, lawns, and gardens go whizzing by.
  5348. > But you still can't believe why, after just a few short minutes driving it himself, he stopped the car and ordered you to take the helm.
  5349. > Maybe he'll be more forthcoming now that you've negotiated your way around a few corners?
  5350. > Turning forward again, you see Anonymous look down at you, still holding your hooves.
  5351. > "See? Not so bad after all?"
  5352. > You force out a thin smile.
  5353. "I suppose so, sir. But why have me test drive? You should be sitting in front of the controls; you built this, after all."
  5354. > Letting go of your hoof, and still clutching his hat, he leans back and stretches out his legs.
  5355. > "Corporal, I'm not interested in building a car only I can drive. I need to build a car that *ponies* can drive."
  5356.  
  5357. > With a grin, he looks over at you.
  5358. > "... I do apologize for putting you on the spot, but I figured a slow-speed trial by fire would be the best teacher. Learning to pilot an automobile is more about feeling and experience than it is about rules and lessons. You have to drive until you get to where the carriage is merely an extension of your own body."
  5359. "Sounds a bit like learning to skate."
  5360. > He nods.
  5361. > "It's exactly the same idea. Why don't you try weaving the wheels left and right while we're on this easy straight section here?"
  5362. > That sounds like a terrible idea.
  5363. > The expression on your face must have made that clear to him, and he places one hand on top of your hooves again.
  5364. > "... Just do it gently and smoothly, and everything will be fine."
  5365. > Taking a deep breath, you do as you're told, gently swinging the tiller left and right.
  5366. > Sure enough, the carriage threads back and forth along the road like a skier slaloming down a mountain.
  5367. > Better yet, it seems to do so with no difficulty.
  5368. > Maybe this isn't so hard after all.
  5369. "I think I'm getting the hang of it."
  5370. > "Good, because we're coming to the end of the main thoroughfare. You'll want to navigate around the fountain and send us back the way we came."
  5371. > The small fountain at the far end of the gardens looms ahead of you, growing closer and closer by the second.
  5372. > It's true that the road around it is still pretty wide, and the carriage seems able to turn easily enough, but you're not so sure...
  5373. "At this speed, sir?"
  5374. > "Sure. Start from the outside rim, aim to just barely clip the fountain halfway around, then swing back to the outside. If you can hit the apex we'll rocket back onto the main road like a racer."
  5375. > You gulp.
  5376.  
  5377. > There's a crossroad right in front of the fountain, but the main path doesn't broaden to match, which is going to make getting to the outside of the circle difficult.
  5378. > "... Oh, and clip the grass on the way in and out -- nopony'll mind a little out-of-bounds driving for this first outing."
  5379. > Somehow, you just *knew* he was going to say that.
  5380. > "... Just don't try to steer while we're off the road, or we could flip."
  5381. > Well, *that's* reassuring.
  5382. > "... Oh, and if you feel that we're sliding instead of turning, point the wheels in the direction of the slide to regain control."
  5383. > You have to do what now?
  5384. "Sir?"
  5385. > He seems to realize that that was maybe a bit too much to take in all at once.
  5386. > "Don't worry about it. I'll guide you if it happens."
  5387. > Still, with the Royal Engineer's hand reassuringly on top of your hooves, you aim for the right outside edge of the fountain circle and twist the tiller slightly to the left, pointing the wheels right.
  5388. > You feel him tap a finger on your hoof.
  5389. > "... A little less, and you're there."
  5390. > With just seconds before the wheels leave the dirt road, you inch the controls a tiny bit back towards centre, and the carriage ploughs straight through the freshly-mowed sod with barely a jostle up top.
  5391. > As soon as the front wheels touch the dirt again, you try to swing the tiller right again, only to find Anonymous' hand holding it in place.
  5392. > "... Steady... Okay, smoothly now!"
  5393. > The little pffsht-pffsht-pffsht carriage barrels towards a hedge lining the outside of the road, and you firmly, but progressively, swing the tiller to the right.
  5394. > Amazingly, the wheels respond perfectly, and the nimble little dogcart's nose points back towards the fountain.
  5395. > But something's not right...
  5396. > The back wheels are slipping!
  5397. > The front wheels are stopping!
  5398. > Despite turning, you're still headed for the bushes!
  5399. > "... Right! Turn into the slide!"
  5400.  
  5401. > You swing the tiller left and try to get the wheels pointing in the direction that the carriage is actually going.
  5402. > You look right, and the hedge -- and the stairs up to the barracks ground -- careen dangerously close.
  5403. > But you feel the front wheels bite into the looser soil, and they start spinning again.
  5404. > "... There's your grip! Bring it left!"
  5405. > Against the muckier earth here, you struggle to push the tiller right again, but it eventually comes -- and the carriage swings around the circle, passing the midway point.
  5406. > "... Alright, let it swing outside!"
  5407. > You keep the tiller to the right, then turn your head to the right to gauge the hedge.
  5408. > Instantly, the Royal Engineer shouts at you.
  5409. > "... Eyes ahead!"
  5410. "But then-"
  5411. > "... Look where you want to go!"
  5412. > This is ridiculous!
  5413. > As the carriage comes careening out of the circle, you're forced to just glance right to make sure you don't leave the road.
  5414. > Somehow, it all works, and you clear the circle with just a little unsteady sway in the rear wheels.
  5415. > "... There you are! Back on the avenue!"
  5416. > Incredulous that these bizarre, counterintuitive instructions somehow managed to get you around the corner safely, you straighten the tiller again, and after a healthy hop as the car jumps up from the fresh grass onto the raised roadway, you inch it left and then straight again.
  5417. > Miraculously, you're back on the wide main road, driving straight and true down it.
  5418. > The Royal Engineer releases his hand from your hooves on the tiller, and slaps it against his knee.
  5419. > "... Outstanding, Corporal! Power-sliding a live-axle steam carriage! We'll make a rallycross champion out of you in no time!"
  5420. > You have no idea what that is, but it sounds like a compliment.
  5421.  
  5422. > And you have to admit, the excitement of that stunt has your heart beating furiously -- in a good way.
  5423. "Thank you, sir!"
  5424. > "How do you feel about being Equestria's first pony car-driver now?"
  5425. > You nod your head and actually manage a genuine smile.
  5426. "I'm honoured, sir."
  5427. > The Royal Engineer grins.
  5428. > "Hah! I thought you were 'Honour', Corporal!"
  5429. > You haven't heard anyone make that lame old joke since 'shoe camp and high school.
  5430. > Somehow, it makes you chuckle now.
  5431. "Heh. Call me whatever you like, sir, as long as you don't make me go around the fountain again at that speed."
  5432. > Anonymous' eyes light up.
  5433. > "At this speed? No, next time we'll take it even *faster*!"
  5434. > Oh, Celestia.
  5435. "Faster?!"
  5436. > "Of course! What's the point of life if you don't challenge yourself?"
  5437. > You sigh and shake your head.
  5438. > This mad, brilliant maniac of a colt.
  5439. > So much for your boring Sunday supervising wrench-jockeys in the garage.
  5440. > *That* lasted all morning, sure, but you'd barely gotten some lunch in you when he pulled you out here for *this*!
  5441. "At least let me practice some more at slow speeds first, sir."
  5442. > Anonymous smiles and pulls off his hat.
  5443. > "Sure! How about you start with parking us back in the garage?"
  5444. > You recall just how cramped it was in there.
  5445. > Anonymous even had you guide him out on hoof!
  5446. > Not to mention how narrow the roadway is to get there...
  5447. "Uhm..."
  5448. > "Had enough for one day, have you?"
  5449. > You nod.
  5450. "Yes, sir."
  5451. > "Alright, let's switch places, then."
  5452. > What?
  5453. "While we're *driving*, sir?"
  5454.  
  5455. > Without even waiting for you, he clambers up on top of the box behind the seats, standing above you.
  5456. > "Come on, 'Honoured', move over!"
  5457. > Desperate not to let go of the tiller, you scooch over to the far side, keeping one hoof on it.
  5458. > Making it look effortless, Anonymous steps over you and then down into the driver's seat, placing his hand on top of your hoof.
  5459. > "... there we are! Haha!"
  5460. > His laughter is infectious, and you find yourself giggling along with him.
  5461. > "... Now, let's park this crate and see what kind of damage we've done to it!"
  5462. > Damage?!
  5463. "*Damage*, sir?"
  5464. > He looks chipper as ever.
  5465. > "Sure! I've got enough parts for three more I want to put together, but let's see how the basic design held up under pressure."
  5466. > Smiling, he reaches down in front of your legs and twists the main valve clockwise twice.
  5467. > You can feel the carriage noticeably start to slow down.
  5468. > After he almost effortlessly makes the quick left and then right turn required to head over to the garage, he continues talking.
  5469. > "... I want to get this thing cleaned off and inspected before dinner. Then I can work on any design revisions for the coach-builders this evening."
  5470. "Yes, sir."
  5471. > Another blind corner, and, giving a quick double-squeeze of the rubber horn, he snaps the carriage around it.
  5472. > How does he make it look so easy?
  5473. > Well, he already gave you the answer:
  5474. > Practice.
  5475. > As part of you is still trembling from the terrifying excitement of that high-speed fountain circle, another part of you is genuinely looking forward to trying it again.
  5476. > But that'll be the business for another day.
  5477. > And what a day it'll be!
  5478. > Huh, that's funny.
  5479. > There was Glamerspear trying to scam Sparkshower out of the spot at Anonymous' side to the Gala.
  5480. > Here's you pining for another 'ordinary', 'boring' day with nopony but your VIP.
  5481.  
  5482. Suggested watching: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgH88xrYdE4 (MyClassicCarTV - Jay Leno's 1909 Stanley Steamer)
  5483.  
  5484.  
  5485.  
  5486.  
  5487. > You are Artemis Sparkshower, and for some reason you feel very exposed right now.
  5488. > Which is weird, because although you aren't wearing any clothes, a plush white cotton towel is covering your plot.
  5489. > You're lying on this padded table, with your head in a soft pillow, your forelegs splayed slightly out ahead of you, your hind legs similarly arranged behind you, and your wings folded neatly against your torso.
  5490. > It's actually a very comfortable position, and none of your private parts are open to the air right now, so what's the problem?
  5491. > Probably the fact that in a few moments, somepony is going to open the door to this little room and give you the first massage you're ever had.
  5492. > "You nice and comfy over there, Sparks?"
  5493. > Oh yeah, and Lily is on the table next to you, too.
  5494. "I think so."
  5495. > The truth was, you weren't, but that was your own hesitation and insecurity, and nothing to do with the setup or the environment.
  5496. > It had become clear from the moment you stepped inside the front door that 'Spa Dalecarlia' wasn't one of the shady Canterlot 'stroke-and-poke' parlours where the word 'massage' was placed firmly between sarcastic quotation marks.
  5497. > From the outside, it was just another large white-painted brick row house, its sign -- a pony silhouette, painted red and decorated with blue and white designs -- affixed to the wall beside an unassuming black double door.
  5498. > But inside, you were met with a surprising elegance.
  5499. > The smoky aroma of pine and incense overriding the smell of the street.
  5500. > The burble of a small artificial waterfall feature at the entrance, to drown out the noise of passing carriages.
  5501. > Beyond that, the constant crackle of small open-walled fireplaces, lined with blackened stones and fed with aromatic woods.
  5502.  
  5503. > And everywhere, pine-wood floors, waxed and polished to a warm gloss, and so solidly set that you still haven't heard so much as a single board creak.
  5504. > The price for a 'tandem massage, deluxe service' seemed perfectly reasonable, especially since it included a bottle of wine and also granted you access to the spa's pools, saunas, and baths afterwards as well.
  5505. > As a result, you didn't feel too guilty for Lily treating you like this.
  5506. > You'll definitely have to repay her generosity with an excursion of your own, though.
  5507. > Anyways, here you were, fifteen minutes or so after checking in, with a few relaxing sips of 'Blaxsta' sweet ice wine in you, and lying on a firm but cozy massage table, underneath a soft cotton towel.
  5508. > You still don't hear the boards creak, nor even the hollow boom from the subfloor, but you do hear the soft patter of slipper-covered hooves on wood.
  5509. > Except... one of them isn't hooves, you think?
  5510. > The door opens, admitting a streak of light from the bright corridor into the candle-lit massage-room, and you glance up from your pillow.
  5511. > A smiling, elegantly-coiffed unicorn mare in a pure-white nurse's robe quietly shuffles into the room.
  5512. > "Good afternoon, gentlemares; my name is Gala, and this is my associate Nina."
  5513. > She waves a hoof behind her, and a similarly-clad chestnut-brown griffon hen steps in behind her.
  5514. > "... I'm Spa Dalecarlia's unicorn specialist and I'll be attending to Lily today, while Nina is our feather-treatment expert and will be attending to Artemis."
  5515. > Nina the griffon gives a polite nod of acknowledgement after closing the door.
  5516. > Gala looks you and Glamerspear over.
  5517. > "... Are there any questions before we begin?"
  5518. > You wiggle your head back and forth against the pillow.
  5519. > It's really soft, but it's still holding your head up nicely.
  5520. > And it smells faintly of lilac, too.
  5521.  
  5522. > As you settle back into its sleep-inducing comfiness, Gala heads over to a shelf lined with jars and bottles on the far side of Lily's table, while Nina does likewise with the one near you.
  5523. > Peeking out sideways, in the corner of your vision you can just barely watch as she rubs lotion on her neatly-trimmed talons and selects a bottle of yellowish oil.
  5524. > Then she steps back, still rubbing her hands to spread out the lotion, and leans down to whisper behind your head.
  5525. > "Nina tayk gud caer of you taday, mizz Sparkzhawer. You want Nina gif uzual treetment?"
  5526. > Her Griffonese accent is thick, and her voice is hoarse and smoky, but that's not why you're confused.
  5527. "Uh... It's my first time having a massage, actually?"
  5528. > The talon-rubbing stops.
  5529. > "Oh! Forgive Nina! Nina hyeer Artemiz in gard, tought mast be Valkyri."
  5530. > What is it with expatriate griffons thinking you're a Valkyrie?
  5531. > And you didn't even walk in here with your armour on!
  5532. > It's still back in your room at the palace!
  5533. > Stepping around in front where you can see, Nina smiles and places her talons together in supplication.
  5534. > "... You kno Valkyriz, yes? Famouz pegazus soldyars?"
  5535. > You nod.
  5536. > "... Nina iz favrit mazzeuz Valkriz. 'Spa Dalecyarlia' iz favrit zpa Valkyriz. Comm myany ovten."
  5537. > Huh.
  5538. > Well, in that case, you suppose the misunderstanding is understandable.
  5539. > You want to say something in reply, but this pillow is just so comfortable right now.
  5540. > And the lilac scent makes you think of frolicking in a spring meadow...
  5541. > All you can manage is the slightest of nods and a blink.
  5542. > Thankfully, she understands, and her face brightens up as she squeezes another blob of cream out onto her talons.
  5543. > "... You firzt tayme mazzaj? Masslez muzt be sorr! Stronk pegazus gard need myany mazzaj keep top shyape! Nina mend you good."
  5544. > After completely covering her hands with the stuff, she winks at you and steps around beside you.
  5545. > "... Ve start viz standart tryeatmyent, yes? You tell Nina iv hurtz."
  5546.  
  5547. > If it hurts?
  5548. > This can hurt?!
  5549. > Suddenly, the pillow doesn't seem quite so soft any more, and you feel your muscles start to tense up.
  5550. > Just as they do, you feel a squirt of something cool and refreshing on your right shoulder.
  5551. > "... Oil iz for myake mazzaj smoov. Oil cyam out in shaver lyater, yes?"
  5552. > That's reasonable.
  5553. > Nina puts her talons against your shoulder and right foreleg and begins to gently smear the oil back and forth up your limb.
  5554. > Well, this isn't so bad.
  5555. > You close your eyes and try to relax.
  5556. > When that section of your coat is good and oily, you feel her let go, and then there's a sharp noise.
  5557. > Glancing up, you see her crack her knuckles, and she winks at you again.
  5558. > "... OK, now vork beginz."
  5559. > She places her hands back down, but this time the gentleness is gone.
  5560. > Nina pushes her talons hard against your shoulder, and you feel yourself partially forced against the table's bed-cushion.
  5561. > The pressure builds and builds, and just when you feel like it's almost painful, she relents a bit, only to slide down your foreleg, squeezing it tightly in much the same way.
  5562. > It's a forceful sensation, and you open your eyes and stare ahead, unable to enjoy the pillow.
  5563. > As she goes down, pausing every few seconds to squeeze, your mind tries to comprehend the weird experience.
  5564. > You can almost feel it going through the list of possibilities.
  5565. > It's not actually *pain*.
  5566. > But it's too strong to be mere *contact*.
  5567. > And it's certainly not a *tickle* or anything like that.
  5568. > Nor is it particularly *hot* or *cold*, either...
  5569. > Each of those sensations fills your head in turn, like a rotating pinwheel of options, unable to settle on any single one.
  5570. > Nina ends at your hoof, cradling your pastern as she firmly moves the joint through its full rotations.
  5571. > Now *that*'s a strange sensation.
  5572. > But again, not unpleasant.
  5573.  
  5574. > The massage continues with a second pass at your right foreleg and shoulder, and you still feel yourself unable quite to put together how you feel.
  5575. > Especially since you're having trouble feeling that limb now.
  5576. > By the time she finishes a third paralysing pass and moves over to your left side, you're at least able to relax again.
  5577. > When she gets to your hindquarters and presses her cream-covered talons into your towel-covered plot, you feel your eyes start to droop as the all-consuming soft lilac pillow sucks you into its tender world.
  5578. > And when she reaches your final quarter, you've made up your mind:
  5579. > Massages are *fantastic*.
  5580. > With all four of your limbs in a numb kind of ecstasy, Nina the griffon masseuse reaches down and swings out a pair of padded extensions from underneath the main table.
  5581. > Delicately, but confidently, she unfolds each of your wings and stretches them out to a comfortable extent, laying them down on the table supplements.
  5582. > You start to wake up again, wondering if it's now time for you to be preened by somepony else.
  5583. > An almost horrifying proposition when Glamerspear first mentioned it, by now you're so mellowed-out from the rest of the massage that it's more of a curiosity than anything else.
  5584. > But Nina doesn't attend to your wings; instead, you feel her dribble a healthy amount of oil on your back.
  5585. > As her taloned hands forcibly press and smooth your upper side, from your withers to your croup, the experience is so indescribably fantastic that you can't help but let out a soft moan.
  5586. "Mmmmnnnnnngg..."
  5587. > Taking your audible tender emanation as a cue, she redoubles the force.
  5588. > As the pressure approaches pain, you feel a kind of bizarre, relaxing euphoria, and your next breath -- made under duress owing to the force from above -- is followed by a noise that's as much a grunt of distress as it is a sigh of pleasure.
  5589. "....Gnnnnnnffffmmmmmmmmmmmm..."
  5590.  
  5591. > You close your eyes, feeling your head sink further into the pillow, your limbs growing even more numb, as your torso is gripped by an agonizing ecstasy.
  5592. > Nina continues to work your back, and you continue to moan involuntarily, each of your vocal exhalations a tribute to her fantastic skill.
  5593. > By the time she's done, an all-too-brief eternity later, you're in such a comatose state that you wouldn't care to move even if the building was on fire.
  5594. > You're barely conscious of your griffon attendant stepping away to wash her hands in the basin at the back of the room.
  5595. > And you're still just barely aware when she comes back and sits down next to your outstretched right wing.
  5596. > It's an impossible struggle to open just one eye to watch, but when you feel something rustle your feathers, you manage to open a window into the candle-lit room.
  5597. > Your vision is blurry and unfocused, but you can just barely make out her golden-yellow beak deep amongst your secondaries, nibbling and nipping.
  5598. > Her eyes are open wide for this inspection, and she's holding your second digit against the table padding with one claw to keep your wing steady.
  5599. > You watch as she comes across a loose, ragged feather, somehow forgotten at the base of your wing, and quickly yanks it out with a fast jerk of her head, dropping the worn item on the ground.
  5600. > This would be the most awkward and ticklish thing imaginable, but for the fact that you really can't feel anything at all right now.
  5601. > Just then, there's a moan from your left.
  5602. > "Mmm... Ahh..."
  5603. > Nina continues her work on your right wing, and you endeavour to swap your right eye being open for your left.
  5604. > Another massive undertaking later, and you see the unicorn attendant, Gala, sitting in a small stool just in front of Lily's head.
  5605.  
  5606. > Wearing a set of jeweller's magnifying glasses, she's got a tiny, wooden-handled brush suspended in her telekinetic field.
  5607. > Each time she briskly strokes it against the junction of one of Glamerspear's spiral horn-whorls, you hear your comrade inhale sharply or emit a sound of pleasure.
  5608. > You even see her brow scrunch up and her hind leg twitch at the same time, too.
  5609. > Wow.
  5610. > Massages really *are* fantastic.
  5611. > As you feel Nina nibble on another one of your feathers, setting it straight, your eye droops closed again.
  5612. > Just before you all but lose consciousness, there's just one thought going through your head:
  5613. > Can you get a membership to this place?
  5614. > Because if so, it would be worth every silver bit...
  5615.  
  5616. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=jx0YwZWv84Q (Jami Sieber - 'Maenam', as featured in 'Braid' [2004])
  5617.  
  5618.  
  5619.  
  5620.  
  5621. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and it's nice to finally have a break.
  5622. > No more helping the Royal Engineer colthandle large pieces of machinery around.
  5623. > Or having a tiller at your hooves and a speeding dogcart underneath your plot.
  5624. > Nor clambering all over the same dogcart, inspecting it for cracked fittings, loose screws, sheared nails, and other mechanical faults.
  5625. > Anonymous, your Very Important Pony who isn't actually a pony, certainly put you to work today.
  5626. > Which is not to say that the work wasn't enjoyable or interesting -- it was!
  5627. > Not the usual VIP bodyguard duties, to be sure, but you didn't mind.
  5628. > Even if Anonymous had roped you in more because you just happened to be there than anything else, who cared?
  5629. > What else were you going to do, just stand there not helping?
  5630. > Still, it was a relief when Sergeant Ebonshield tagged you out sharply at 4 in the afternoon.
  5631. > You'd gone straight upstairs, pulled off your armour, took a shower, and then, noticing that your quaternion's two Specialists still seemed to be out enjoying their day in the town, headed off to dinner by yourself.
  5632. > So, here you are, in the subdued Sunday evening barracks chow hall, quietly having dinner for one with a side order of this week's new issue of 'The New Equestrian'.
  5633. > And who else is on the cover but your favourite pegasus: Glamerspear's ex-coltfriend, Lieutenant Valiant Kilfeather.
  5634.  
  5635. > Caricatured sitting on top of a high brick wall blocking a river bridge, he's been drawn with a smug and confident grin.
  5636. > Strewn in front of his wall are half-a-dozen toppled-over carriages with their noblepony occupants scattered to and fro, looking incredulous with their bushy moustaches and cracked monocles.
  5637. > 'NOBLES RUN HEADLONG INTO KILFEATHER'S BARRICADE', reads the caption.
  5638. > With your own personal insights into Kilfeather's motivations, you decide to skip the lead story for now.
  5639. > After flipping around some other political topics, including one on the accusations against Galloway Bitsmount, you find yet another reference to your current assignment.
  5640. > Buried in the reviews section at the back, somepony at the magazine has written a few paragraphs about your VIP's book, 'Science & Industry, Part 1'.
  5641. > And it appears that they liked it, though the reviewer admits to not quite understanding everything inside.
  5642. > You can sympathize with that.
  5643. > Still, they praised his endeavour as being 'a most valuable use of Their Royal Majesties treasury', and said that 'we look forward to seeing more wondrous works from our alien Royal Engineer'.
  5644. > It was good to know that it wasn't just you, nor even just the Princesses, who thought that Anonymous was doing good work.
  5645. > The press was picking up on it, too.
  5646. > As you take another bite of dinner, you wonder if he's going to get any interview requests soon...
  5647. > He certainly should once word gets around of his 'automobile'.
  5648. > You flip the magazine over and start into The New Equestrian's review of a new musical which opened last week at the West Side Theatre, called 'The Spectre of the Show Hall'.
  5649. > Before you can get into it, you hear someone calling your name.
  5650. > "Bound? Is that you?"
  5651.  
  5652. > You look up, and walking towards your table wearing a friendly smile on his face is a dark grey earth pony colt with a liberty-blue mane, dressed in a Royal Guard olive drab jacket.
  5653. > "... Thought I might run into you here. Long time no see."
  5654. > Alex Castlerook.
  5655. > A friend and neighbour of yours from Fillydelphia, he enlisted at the same time as you, went into the infantry just like you, and served alongside you in the same regiment.
  5656. > You haven't seen him since you left for the VIP service, and that was almost a year ago.
  5657. > The nametag on his breast identifies him as Sergeant now, too.
  5658. "Likewise, Castlerook. What are you doing here in Canterlot? You didn't transfer out of the 186th, did you?"
  5659. > You nod at the seat opposite yours, and Castlerook takes his time sitting down, groaning a bit, clearly thankful for the rest.
  5660. > "Nah, I'm still watching the bay at Fort Mifflin most days. But we've been temporarily reassigned here to Canterlot to provide extra security for the Gala. Just marched in this afternoon."
  5661. "Ah."
  5662. > That wasn't unusual.
  5663. > Every year, divisional and regimental commanders vied and haggled over which one would get the Gala 'extra-help' assignment.
  5664. > It involved a lot of work, but guarding the walls during the Gala was still a feather in every officer's cap.
  5665. > And since the winning regiment's soldiers usually wound up working directly under the command of the normally under-strength Palace Guard battalion, some of the regimental officers could usually get into the Gala itself.
  5666. > Castlerook readjusts himself in his seat, looking you over.
  5667. > "So, how's the VIP service been treating you, Bound?"
  5668. "It's been okay..."
  5669. > If you'd met him two weeks ago, you'd be saying that sarcastically, secretly begging to get out of here.
  5670. > But being the Royal Engineer's bodyguard has changed things, and you not only say it honestly, you proceed to elaborate on it.
  5671. "... My current assignment is pretty good, actually."
  5672. > Castlerook nods.
  5673. > "Good to hear."
  5674.  
  5675. > That's all either of you can think to say for the moment, and there's an awkward silence where you're just looking each other over.
  5676. > He's finally lost his new-recruit-body shape, slimming down a bit.
  5677. > And he's let his mane and tail grow in a bit from the buzzcut he used to wear.
  5678. > It's a good look.
  5679. > You glance at the rank insignia on his shoulder.
  5680. "They made you a Sergeant, huh?"
  5681. > He looks down for a moment, almost embarrassed, then shrugs his eyebrows.
  5682. > "Yeah, well, somepony's got to keep the 'shoes in line; I guess I looked like the colt for the job."
  5683. > Licking his lips, he tilts his head sideways.
  5684. > "... You still have your access pass into the Underground, I see."
  5685. > It was well known that nopony in the Royal Guard, and maybe not even all of Equestria, could stop the insatiable rumour mill known as the Corporals' Underground.
  5686. > Lowest rung Non-Commissioned Officers like yourself, straddling the line between the enlisted soldiers and the more senior staff, were almost expected to somehow know everything that was going on, and often did.
  5687. > You weren't big into the rumours, but even you couldn't avoid the Underground.
  5688. > And now that he was a Sergeant, Castlerook was out of the loop.
  5689. > You shrug.
  5690. "Yeah, though there's always so many rumours going around the Palace, the Underground's like a tiny creek next to a raging river."
  5691. > The colt across from you laughs, and it's a laugh tempered by experience, tinged with the world-weariness that comes from it.
  5692. > A laugh not unlike your own.
  5693. > "I hear that..."
  5694. > His ears twitch and he glances around, looking over at a rowdy table full of young guardsponies like he just got a telepathic signal from them.
  5695. > "... Well, I'd better see to my flock before one of 'em manages to start a fire before the big day..."
  5696. > Castlerook nods at you, smiling.
  5697. > "... It was nice to run into you and catch up a bit. We should do it again, when I'm not harnessed to a wagonfull of recruits fresh out of 'shoe camp..."
  5698.  
  5699. > His smile is infectious, and you nod.
  5700. "Yeah, we should."
  5701. > He rolls his tongue around in his mouth, and then you see him swallow.
  5702. > "Maybe we could catch up over some drinks later tonight, at the canteen? If your coltfriend doesn't mind, I mean."
  5703. > You have to laugh at that last one.
  5704. > He knows what happened to you back in 'Filly.
  5705. > He knew the colt, too.
  5706. > And he knows how cautious and withdrawn you've become since then.
  5707. "*What* coltfriend?"
  5708. > You shake your head.
  5709. "... I'll see you there -- if your *wife* doesn't mind."
  5710. > "Wife? You mean Their Majesties' Royal Guard?"
  5711. > Yeah, you always pegged Castlerook for being married to the job.
  5712. > He never admitted it back when you were in the 186th together, as Privates, then Privates First Class, and then Corporals, always maintaining that he'd get out as soon as he reached End of Active Service.
  5713. > But he didn't seem sincere about it, somehow.
  5714. > Maybe it was just because he didn't get emotional about the Royal Guard's nonsense.
  5715. > He had a tolerance for it that made him the perfect colt for the job.
  5716. > Seems like getting promoted to Sergeant made him face the truth:
  5717. > He's in the Guard for life.
  5718. > Castlerook nods, the short shock of blue mane sticking out above his forehead bobbing slightly as he does.
  5719. > "... She knows I'm faithful, so I don't think she'll mind me going out. Especially not if it's with another one of her finest."
  5720. > You suck on your lips.
  5721. "Making a lot of assumptions there, Castlerook."
  5722. > He lifts an eyebrow.
  5723. > "Am I? Good, then..."
  5724. > Still smiling that warm, congenial smile of his, he gets up from the chair.
  5725. > "... I've given you something to talk to me about over drinks tonight."
  5726.  
  5727. > Castlerook knew how tight-lipped you could be, too.
  5728. > As he gives you a friendly nod and steps off, you watch him saunter over to his table and sit down with his current squad of Filldelphia goons.
  5729. > You sigh.
  5730. > This isn't going to be *just* drinks tonight, is it?
  5731. > Sounded like he really wanted to dish the dirt, and you weren't sure you were in the mood for that.
  5732. > Maybe you ought to reconsider and blow him off.
  5733. > Well, what the Tartarus!
  5734. > It's been a good day so far, with you feeling properly tired, yet still looking forward to the next shift.
  5735. > Might as well catch up with an old friend and comrade.
  5736. > Somepony you can relate to, and who often thinks the way you do, too.
  5737. > A better-looking one than you remember, at that.
  5738. > And it sounds like he's single.
  5739. > Aw, buck, you can just hear your mother's voice admonishing you to go after this colt.
  5740. > 'Youze bettah dress up nice fah him if youze wanna see him egain, young mayah!'
  5741. > Nothing ever happened between the two of you two back in Filly' because you were already attached, and when that fell apart, you high-tailed it to Canterlot.
  5742. > Had he been the 'other colt' all that time?
  5743. > You take a drink from your cup.
  5744. > Nah, Castlerook never saw you like that.
  5745. > Yeah, he never shunned you like the boring brown mare you were, but that was probably just because he had more than the half-ration of brains that every other Royal Guardspony seemed to come with.
  5746. > And he was a nice colt and a good friend, too.
  5747. > Listened to you hash out your problems.
  5748. > Offered to help you out when you had your crisis.
  5749. > Even broke ties with your ex when he found out what they'd done to you.
  5750. > You stare, intently, at Castlerook's green-jacketed back.
  5751. > He's keeping a watchful, knowing gaze on the twelve greenhorns at the table.
  5752. > There's something inviting about his keen green eyes and the stern but friendly look on his face.
  5753.  
  5754. > Buck, why the Tartarus did Glamerspear have to pick *this* morning to give you the bucking 'talk'?
  5755. > That, plus the exciting and exhausting 'driving test' has got you imagining all sorts of stupid crap.
  5756. > Well, either way...
  5757. > Maybe you ought to dress up a little bit tonight.
  5758. > Put on your best face for an old friend, at least?
  5759. > Yeah.
  5760.  
  5761.  
  5762.  
  5763.  
  5764. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and if you sit in this pool any longer, you're probably going to turn into a pickle.
  5765. > But your comrade hasn't shown the slightest hint of wanting to leave, and it's not *that* late -- yet.
  5766. > With your forelegs splayed out behind you on the tile edge, you grab your drink -- just flavoured water, it's a spa, after all -- in your telekinetic field and take a sip.
  5767. > In front of you, a few hooves away, Sparkshower is still just floating on her back, eyes closed, fore legs tucked in, wings outstretched.
  5768. > Has she even folded them up since your tandem massage?
  5769. > You recall her stepping sideways through a lot of doorways to get to to the baths.
  5770. > That was after you both managed a solid 90-minute post-rubdown nap.
  5771. > And after lengthy showers to wash out the massage oils.
  5772. > Not to mention a visit to to the sauna to open up your pores, of course.
  5773. > Then another shower to rinse out the sweat.
  5774. > So you've been here in the baths, enjoying the warm water for... what, an hour and a half, maybe?
  5775. > Sparkshower's said barely two words since you got here.
  5776. > She sure seems to be silently enjoying herself, though.
  5777. > As your pegasus combat-chum floats aimlessly by, she speaks up, almost whispering in the quiet, echoing hall.
  5778. > "Glamerspear."
  5779. "Yeah?"
  5780. > "I don't think I ever want to leave this place."
  5781. > You chuckle, and take another sip from your glass.
  5782. > Mmmm, blueberry pomegranate.
  5783. > Yeah, it was expensive at five bits a bottle, but the bottles are big, and anyways: it's *spa day* today.
  5784. > Spa day, where the schedule's made up and the bits don't matter.
  5785. > Sparkshower turns her head over towards you, craning her neck back as she floats slowly away.
  5786. > "... I'm serious. This is the most amazing day of my life."
  5787.  
  5788. > You snort.
  5789. "Feel free to come back anytime you want, Sparks. It's a public spa."
  5790. > "Oh, I will! Do you think they sell memberships?"
  5791. > Nodding, you put the drink down.
  5792. "Sure. Access to the baths, showers, sauna. It's worth it if you come more than twice a month. And you get a discount on services like the massages."
  5793. > Abandoning her 'dead-pone float' pose, she flips over onto her belly, and you watch her doggy-paddle towards you, wings still loose in the water.
  5794. > "Really? Let's do it! I want to come here every week! Will you come with me?"
  5795. > This mare serious?
  5796. > Well, you could afford it, barely, and it would be nice to come and relax once a week...
  5797. > And it's *always* nicer to come with friends.
  5798. > Mailedhoof would probably prefer if you make spa day more of a weekday morning or afternoon thing, but you can sort that out later.
  5799. > Grinning, you nod at your potential new spa-buddy.
  5800. "You really had that good of a time, huh?"
  5801. > She nods excitedly, splashing water everywhere as her chin bobs up and down.
  5802. > You shrug.
  5803. "... Alright, let's do it."
  5804. > There's more splashes as she claps her forehooves together, exclaiming quietly so as not to disturb the tranquil hall.
  5805. > "Yaaay!"
  5806. > Luckily, there's almost nobody else in the baths for her to have disturbed.
  5807. > But, recalling the situation of your employment, you tilt your head sideways.
  5808. "Provided we get authorization for that much libo, I mean. I don't think we're really supposed to get any vacation time at all in the VIP service, right? We're basically either on-duty or on-call. That's why the assignments are only for three months at a time, ya know."
  5809. > Those big blue eyes of hers instantly go all pouty.
  5810. > "Aww! But if we just come for a couple of hours? I'm sure we could get away for just that!"
  5811. > You shrug again.
  5812. "Sure, probably. But, I mean, the Royal Engineer's a busy colt. If he needs us, we've got to be there for him, right?"
  5813.  
  5814. > Having paddled her way over to you, Sparkshower flips over onto her back and floats aimlessly nearby.
  5815. > "Of course! Oooh, or maybe we could bring him with us! He's a hard worker, he could use a massage, couldn't he?"
  5816. > You glance around the place.
  5817. > Bring Anonymous here?
  5818. > Sure, it was nice for a public bath-house.
  5819. > Clean.
  5820. > Pleasant decorations and furniture.
  5821. > Good, competent staff, too.
  5822. > But, well, you've *been* in a couple of Canterlot's members-only spas, and this doesn't hold a candle to them.
  5823. "I dunno, Sparks... I mean, sure, it's a good place and I think he'd like it, but why come here to a public spot when he could easily join one of the private clubs? Alien hairless monkey-creature or no, any of them would be glad to have someone from the Blue Chamber join their exclusive ranks."
  5824. > Flipping back forwards and briefly ducking her head under the water to wet her hair, Sparkshower resumes treading water.
  5825. > "Private spas? What are those like?"
  5826. > You telekinetically float over your drink and take another sip.
  5827. "I've only been to one; the 'Crimson Ellipse', in the Temple district."
  5828. > You glance around at the neat mix of creamy-white and beige tiles covering the walls, floors, and ceilings.
  5829. "... It's basically this, but turned up a big notch. Take the pools, for example: there's attendants serving drinks, a harp-player in the corner, circulating fans in the ceiling, the tiles are arranged in mosaics of Equestrian pastorals..."
  5830. > Sparkshower looks up and around, and you swear she can see what you're talking about.
  5831. > You shrug.
  5832. "... That sort of thing. It's still a spa, and I don't have any complaints about this one, but the elegance, opulence, and service is just on another level, ya know?"
  5833. > "Wow. Did you have a massage there?"
  5834. > You sure did.
  5835. "I did -- a *couples'* massage."
  5836. > You lean in conspiratorially, lowering your voice.
  5837. "... You each get *two* masseuses."
  5838. > Sparkshower's eyes go wide, and her jaw droops open.
  5839.  
  5840. > It just hangs there, silently, as her brain computes how that would feel.
  5841. > "*Two* masseuses... Gosh..."
  5842. > You smile.
  5843. "Heh, you seemed to really enjoy your *one* masseuse, earlier."
  5844. > She closes her eyes and sucks in her lips, clearly reminiscing.
  5845. > "Yeah..."
  5846. > Oh, this could be fun.
  5847. "I mean, I needed that massage, and a good horn-job always sends me on the express train to pleasureville, especially when they get in there deep, but you sounded like you were *really* feeling yours."
  5848. > With her eyes still closed and her legs paddling in place, she licks her lips.
  5849. > "Mm-hmmmm..."
  5850. > You notice her wings start to lift up out of the water too, no longer quite so limp.
  5851. > Heh.
  5852. "That griffon was really working you over. Way heavier than anything I've ever seen. Almost looked like she was going to crush you flat or rip you apart."
  5853. > Sparkshower bites her lip.
  5854. > "MMMmMmfff, yeahhh..."
  5855. > So she likes it rough, huh?
  5856. > OK, time for the punchline.
  5857. "Last time I felt like how you looked during that massage... Well, you *have* been rutted before, haven't you, Sparkshower?"
  5858. > You make sure to have your glass in your mouth just as her eyes shoot open and her cheeks go rosy red.
  5859. > Without saying a word, she curls up her legs and sucks in her mouth, then, slowly, lowers her stiff wings, and starts to beat them to stay afloat.
  5860. > In the span of half a minute, her expression goes from shocked, to embarrassed, to frustrated, to scowling, and then finally to a sort of resolute confidence.
  5861. > It's hilariously adorable.
  5862. > Realizing the teasing predicament you've placed her in, she licks her lips and opens her mouth.
  5863. > But you cut her off, waving a dismissive hoof, having gotten your giggles out of her already.
  5864. "I'm teasing, Sparks. You don't have to tell me anything."
  5865. > Now the frustration face is back in full force.
  5866. > "I know, but I'm... I'm not some... maiden filly, okay?"
  5867. > Oooh, so maybe she's still feeling talkative today?
  5868.  
  5869. > After that depressing bit about her coltfriend this morning, you were worried she was going to clam up.
  5870. > This is your chance to get her spill some juicy bits.
  5871. > Nodding, you swirl your drink around.
  5872. > You've just got to have a little tact.
  5873. "Sure, Sparks, I believe you. You don't have to tell me anything about how your Huckleberry bucked you behind the Shortcakes' strawberry silo, or whatever you call the building they're stored in."
  5874. > On the other hoof, buck tact.
  5875. > As her eyes open even wider, Sparkshower's creamy cheeks turn a brighter shade of red, and she gulps.
  5876. "... But anyways, I didn't ask if you'd ever been *bucked* before, I asked if you've been *rutted* before."
  5877. > You let that statement hang in the air.
  5878. > The pegasus' brow furrows slightly.
  5879. > "Wha... What's the difference?"
  5880. "Oh, so you *haven't* been rutted before, then?"
  5881. > The grin's back on your face, and the wide-eyed look is back in hers.
  5882. > Time to spill the beans.
  5883. > You finish your drink and set the glass down.
  5884. "... Bucking's what you do on a nice clean bed, or in a quiet barn with fresh hay. It's a good time, but it's quick, and even though you're having fun, your mind can still wander -- what's for dinner, the book you're reading, the movie you just saw, the next boffyball tournament, that sort of thing, ya know?"
  5885. > A hint of confusion creeps back into those baby blues.
  5886. > "Uh-huh?"
  5887. > You take a deep breath, then look her straight in the eyes.
  5888. "But *rutting*..."
  5889. > Lifting an eyebrow, you lean forward.
  5890. "... *Rutting* is *feral*. It's *bestial*. It's *savage*. It's when your colt is a *monster* between the sheets."
  5891. > You shake your head, keeping her gaze.
  5892. "... You're being bucked so hard and so good, you wouldn't care if you're in a filthy mud-hole or if it was pouring rain. You can't think about anything else -- you can't think about anything at all, almost, for all the fireworks going off in your head."
  5893.  
  5894. > Licking your lips, you recline back against the wall.
  5895. "... When you've had a good rutting, you won't whinny or moan, you'll *growl* like a beast. You'll bite him because he's going so hard it almost hurts, but you'll bite him even harder if he lets up for even a moment. And you just want more, and more, and more, until those fireworks hit the big bang at the end, and as everything goes dark, you fall asleep to the echoes."
  5896. > You nod.
  5897. "... *That's* what a rutting is."
  5898. > Sparkshower is breathing heavily, half-covering her mouth with her forehooves, and with her wings flapping fast enough in the water that she's propelled halfway out of the pool with each stroke.
  5899. > You lift an eyebrow.
  5900. "... So... Have you been rutted?"
  5901. > Still in the throes of imaginary ecstasy, she shakes her head.
  5902. > "No..."
  5903. > She swallows.
  5904. > "... But I *want* to be."
  5905. > Oh, now this could be delicious!
  5906. "Yeah? Got it all figured out in your head already?"
  5907. > She nods, and water-flaps her way over to the edge of the pool, finally hooking her forehooves onto the deck as she presses her belly up against the wall.
  5908. > It takes her a second -- and a sniffle or two -- to pull herself together.
  5909. > She's still breathing heavily, and there's a glossy look in her eyes as she speaks.
  5910. > "Whenever Pud'... Whenever Huckleberry and I, you know... Whenever we're together, I'm always the one who, um... gets things started."
  5911. > Your fillyfriend's colt doesn't take the initiative?
  5912. > With a good-looking young country mare like her?
  5913. > That's tragic!
  5914. > You put on a sympathetic face, and turn around so that you're both dangling off the edge, facing one of the bath-house room's walls.
  5915.  
  5916. > After letting that last statement sink in for a moment -- or maybe she's just taking a breather because she's never revealed this to anypony else -- Sparkshower swallows and continues on, a little less hesitant.
  5917. > "... And, I mean... It's, uh... It's *good*, you know? And once we get started, I don't... I don't have to do all the, um... the *work*."
  5918. > Well that's good to hear, at least.
  5919. > You nod, wearing a genuine frown of concern.
  5920. > "... Sometimes, I, um... I tell him... I tell him *maybe* we could try this, or that, or something... You know, to see if we feel better about it?"
  5921. > Somepony's probably been reading Cosmoponitan.
  5922. > Sparkshower really isn't as virginal as she looks, is she?
  5923. > She's just less open, and more embarrassed about it.
  5924. > And she's probably just had the one coltfriend, too.
  5925. > "... And, um, sometimes he's okay with it, and we do try it, but sometimes he doesn't want to, so we don't."
  5926. > Hmmm...
  5927. > "...Sometimes he says he's afraid of hurting me, because he's such a big colt, much bigger than me, and... and I always have to tell him that he won't, that he shouldn't be afraid. But he says he always worries about it while we're, um, making love."
  5928. > Your spilling-her-heart-out fillyfriend pauses for a minute, staring aimlessly at the boring white tiles on the far wall.
  5929. "What do you wish would happen?"
  5930. > She licks her lips again, still staring forwards.
  5931. > "I wish... I wish..."
  5932. > Biting her lower lip, she takes a deep breath, then shakes her head.
  5933. > "... I wish that when I'd go and visit him at the farm in Berry, he'd escort me to the barn, shut the door, and then roughly *throw* me backwards onto the hay with... with a savage grunt..."
  5934. > Her breathing starts to get faster, her stare intensifying.
  5935. > "... Then I want him to climb on top of me, so I can feel his big, strong, chest pressing against mine..."
  5936. > Unf.
  5937.  
  5938. > "... And I want him to hold my hooves down with his, and I'll wrap my feathers around his back, and I don't even want him to say anything, I just want him to treat me like I'm not some fragile little doll, treat me like I'm a mare, a big strong mare who can take whatever he has, and just... and just..."
  5939. > She has to close her eyes for a moment, and you see her sway her body against the pool wall.
  5940. > "... Give it to me, rough, hard, heavy, and all day long until... until I can't even remember my name."
  5941. > Wow.
  5942. > Sparkshower takes a moment to wind herself down from that before she glances up at you.
  5943. > "... Is that too much to ask?"
  5944. > Buck.
  5945. > This *is* a tough spot she's in.
  5946. > Chewing over her words, you sigh.
  5947. "I dunno, Sparkshower... A colt who's having trouble with his daily life... His job, his home, his ambitions, his dreams..."
  5948. > Arching your eyebrows up, you sigh again.
  5949. "... They can have trouble performing in the hay, ya know? The troubles weigh down on their minds. Makes it tough to focus. Hurts their confidence. It can happen to us mares, too."
  5950. > Sparkshower nods.
  5951. > "Yeah, I know... I know..."
  5952. > You shake your head at the tiled wall.
  5953. "I don't think you can just 'love' your way out of it, Artemis. Maybe you can't even help him solve these things; maybe he's got to fix them on his own, or else he still won't think much of himself."
  5954. > She sighs again.
  5955. > "I know... I know..."
  5956. > Damn, this is kinda depressing.
  5957. > You don't want to end this great day on a low note.
  5958. > Suddenly getting an idea, you reach over and pat Sparkshower on her shoulder, trying to put a smile on your face.
  5959. "Come on. Let's go rinse off and head to the front desk. You get a discount on your membership if you buy it after a regular-priced visit."
  5960. > Artemis' face lights up, and she grins.
  5961. > "Yeah!"
  5962.  
  5963. > As she simply pop-flaps her way onto dry land and you slowly clamber out, you take a moment to reflect.
  5964. > Sparkshower's coltfriend is the one who really has the problems, not her.
  5965. > It sucks for her to have to deal with them by association, but you know what?
  5966. > Sometimes the only thing you can do with other ponies and their problems is just leave them alone and wait for them to figure stuff out by themselves.
  5967. > And there's no place better for that than a nice spa.
  5968.  
  5969. (Continued in Chapter 3)
/rgm/ Guardmares Anon

MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 4

by TheManFromAnotherTime

MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 5

by TheManFromAnotherTime

MLP /rgm/ one-shot: Saint Destruction

by TheManFromAnotherTime

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by TheManFromAnotherTime

MLP /rgm/ prompt: CLOPS

by TheManFromAnotherTime