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MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 2

By TheManFromAnotherTime
Created: 2020-12-18 00:48:02
Expiry: Never

  1. "Everyday Life With Guardsmares"
  2. by The Man From Another Time
  5. Written for the Royal Guard Mare thread on /mlp/
  7. FAQ & Locations/Character List:
  8. Character art: (characters in order of appearance; possible spoiler warning)
  10. CHAPTER 2
  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..."
  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."
  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..."
  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.
  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."
  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.
  109. Recommended background music: (Vangelis - 'Tales of the Future', from 'Blade Runner' [1982])
  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."
  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."
  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."
  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.
  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."
  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.
  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."
  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."
  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*?"
  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.
  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?
  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?"
  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."
  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.
  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.
  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?"
  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.
  420. Suggested background music: (Christopher Young - 'Hellbound Heart', from 'Hellraiser' [1987])
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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'?"
  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."
  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."
  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?"
  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.
  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.
  611. Suggested interlude music: (Nine Inch Nails - 'Quake Theme', from 'Quake' [1996])
  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.
  629. Suggested background music: (Andrew Lloyd Webber - 'Entr'acte', from 'Phantom of the Opera' [1986])
  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."
  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.
  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.
  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..."
  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."
  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.
  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...
  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."
  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.
  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'."
  838. Suggested interlude music: (Ian Carey featuring Mandy Ventrice - 'Let Loose', Brad Holland mix [2011])
  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..."
  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.
  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*?
  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?"
  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..."
  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."
  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?"
  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.
  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."
  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!"
  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..."
  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."
  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?"
  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?"
  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!"
  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.
  1158. Suggested interlude music: (Major Lazer - 'All My Love' (feat. Ariana Grande & Machel Montano, remix)
  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."
  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.
  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."
  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!"
  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*."
  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."
  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."
  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?"
  1353. Suggested interlude music: (Salt-N-Pepa - 'Let's Talk About Sex')
  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.
  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...
  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."
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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. " 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*.
  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?"
  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-"
  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?!
  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.
  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.
  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?"
  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."
  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.
  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.
  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?"
  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.
  1754. Suggested background music: (Justin Bell - 'Spires', from 'Tyranny' [2016])
  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.
  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.
  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?"
  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."
  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.
  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."
  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.
  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.
  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."
  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?"
  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..."
  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.
  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.
  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!
  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.
  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.
  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..."
  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.
  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.
  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...
  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.
  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?"
  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.
  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?"
  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?"
  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!
  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.
  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?
  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.
  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.
  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-..."
  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..."
  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."
  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?
  2443. Suggested background music: (John Phillip Sousa - 'Semper Fidelis', performed by "The President's Own" United States Marines Band)
  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.
  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.
  2470. > You shake your head as you stare down at the draft report in front of you.
  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.
  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..."
  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."
  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."
  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."
  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!
  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.
  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*!
  2616. Strongly recommended background music: (Teri Mason Christian and Nathan Wang - 'Drinking with Boos', from 'Return to Zork' [1993])
  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."
  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.
  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.
  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!"
  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!
  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?
  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?
  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."
  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!
  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."
  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.
  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.
  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."
  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.
  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!
  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."
  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.
  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...
  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."
  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."
  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.
  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."
  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."
  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'."
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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...