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MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 6 (in progress)

By TheManFromAnotherTime
Created: 18th December 2020 12:52:36 AM
Modified: 9th March 2021 04:10:55 AM

  1. "Everyday Life With Guardsmares"
  2. by The Man From Another Time
  3. themanfromanothertime@gmail.com
  4.  
  5. Written for the Royal Guard Mare thread on /mlp/
  6.  
  7. FAQ, Locations/Character List, and gag list: ponepaste.org/1058
  8. (spoiler warnings apply to both links)
  9.  
  10. CHAPTER 6
  11.  
  12. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you feel like you're being tortured on a rack.
  13. > Except there's no rack, just the floor of the commons area of your Canterlot Palace guard quarters.
  14. > And if there's torture, it's entirely self-inflicted.
  15. > After all, you did *ask* Sergeant Ebonshield to teach you the ways of her 'Stellar Dance'.
  16. > If you're twisted into a pretzel shape on the carpet, your joints stinging in pain, it's your own damn fault.
  17. > You asked for this.
  18. > "Bueno, good. Try to hold this position for as long as possible."
  19. > Easy for her to say; she's been doing this for over thirty years.
  20. > Compared to you and your rusty iron limbs, she's made of silly putty.
  21. > No surprise she's doing a far better job of this pose right now than you are.
  22. > But it's generous of her to call your half-assing of it 'good'.
  23. > And ambitious of her to suggest you can hold it.
  24. "Hngr."
  25. > You emit a noncommittal grunt as you struggle to hold things steady.
  26. > It's been years since you tried to do this sort of contortion.
  27. > Actually, now that you think about it, you're not sure if your various lessons ever involved a position quite like this.
  28. > Not to say they didn't come with their own set of pains and little injuries.
  29. > "Are you uncomfortable? Do not continue if the pain is overwhelming. Even this starting position can overstretch the body."
  30. > Oof, this is just a *starting* position?
  31. > You try to take a deep breath in-between pants.
  32. > There's sweat beading on your brow.
  33. "It hurts, but it's bearable."
  34. > Purity nods.
  35. > "I see. Do not exceed your limits; in this introductory class I wish to see where you are presently. For now, focus on the maintaining."
  36. > Focus on maintaining, right.
  37. > It's actually kinda hard to focus on anything else.
  38. > If you do, you'll surely let go like a heavily-compressed carriage spring suddenly liberated from its mountings.
  39.  
  40. > Good thing you moved all the furniture out of the commons area and piled it into your bedroom first.
  41. > There's nothing to be damaged, besides the walls, if a hoof goes flying.
  42. > The Sergeant, appearing calm and relaxed despite her state of increased contortion, stares intently at you.
  43. > "This is an auspicious day to begin training: Monday, the day of the Moon. The day of the Great Mother..."
  44. > With serene grace, she twists her neck back and rolls it around in a manner that seems impossible, almost touching her brow against her own shoulders.
  45. > No, not impossible -- you remember seeing a move like that in one of those classes you'd taken, when you were trying to get into this stuff.
  46. > Contortions, accompanied by burning incense, banging gongs, and learning the wisdom of the Dragons -- or the Buffaloes, or the Yaks, or whatever.
  47. > And now here you are, learning the wisdom of the Moon.
  48. > Well, at least you've seen what the wisdom of the Moon can do with a set of daggers.
  49. > Yvan the Yakasutric Yogi, the nasal-voiced, skinny 30-something earth pony colt with a braided beard hanging down to his knees and a mane in a colt-bun, who taught you a few classes of Yakasutra back in Filly', definitely was not about to slice anypony up, the avowed pacifist.
  50. > Which was not to say you hadn't crushed on him a little bit -- pacifism, colt-bun, and all.
  51. > It was hard not to, considering his lithe grace, and especially when he so gently but oh-so-firmly would place a forehoof under your barrel or on your hindquarters to 'adjust' your pose in one of the Yakasutric positions.
  52. > You weren't the only mare in his classes he did that to, and you're sure you weren't the only one who got more than a little hot under the tail when he did it, but in the end what turned you off was just the inability to stomach the spiritualist nonsense that he lived, ate, and breathed.
  53.  
  54. > How many other things did your confirmed material realism shut down during that time?
  55. > More than your fair share of dates, that was certain.
  56. > "... Caporal, is your mind somewhere else?"
  57. > You snap your neck up, your eyes adjusting to bring the room back in focus.
  58. > Right, the pretzel shape and the accompanying pain.
  59. "Sorry."
  60. > She lifts an eyebrow.
  61. > "I cannot teach a student who does not pay attention. Perhaps we should not have skipped the preliminary exercises."
  62. > Now you've done it.
  63. > A badly-executed stretching pose she'll accept, but a head in the clouds is right out.
  64. > You clear your throat.
  65. "I apologize. This was just reminding me of those other classes I mentioned."
  66. > With surprising speed, she unfolds herself and gets to her hooves.
  67. > "I see. And these other classes, what were they like?"
  68. > Your jaw drops to find her standing in front of you so rapidly.
  69. "Uhm, well... They involved adopting positions sort of like this, and then holding them."
  70. > The batpony leans her muzzle over in front of yours.
  71. > "That is all? Nothing else?"
  72. > You would shrug if your shoulders weren't locked in place from your forelegs being entangled with the other two.
  73. "Sometimes there would be candles or incense. And the teacher would recite poetry translated from another language, or sing a monotone repetitive phrase to 'empty the mind'. Maybe with somepony accompanying them on a simple drum or gong."
  74. > Eb lifts her brow.
  75. > "Would you prefer if I added such things to our lesson?"
  76. > You try to tighten your pose back up to where it had been when you started, but your muscles are starting to go on strike.
  77. "If you have to... To be honest, that kind of stuff turned me off."
  78. > She chuckles, grinning.
  79. > "Then we are fortunate that my Temple does not use them..."
  80.  
  81. > Turning around, she withdraws and sits back down, almost instantly readopting the tangled pose which is giving you so much trouble.
  82. > "... Is there anything else from your past we should avoid? Or, perhaps something we must confront instead? A clear mind is better suited to the understanding of the realities novel, and we have many such realities to explore."
  83. > You let out an whinny of your own.
  84. "I thought you said we could forgo the metaphysics."
  85. > "Only if you can pay attention. Do find that your head is often in the clouds?"
  86. > Suddenly uncomfortable, you swallow.
  87. > Never mind the mantra-spouting hip & hot yoga colt, now she's reminding you more of your stern old-mare schoolteacher.
  88. > Except that as an adult instead of a miscreant child, you're less inclined to lie through your teeth about your misdeeds.
  89. "Lately, a little more often than not."
  90. > Wordlessly, Purity unfolds her body and then refolds herself in a new way.
  91. > No -- it's not new, it's the same pose as you're currently holding, just mirrored left-to-right.
  92. > There's a word for that -- stereoisometric.
  93. > Yvan taught you that, among a few other big mouthy words.
  94. > If nothing else, you can credit his attempt at spiritual enlightenment for expanding your vocabulary, and for making you want to know where the word *really* came from and what it *really* meant.
  95. > Unprompted, you release your aching muscles and tendons only to stretch them again as you struggle, slowly, to copy the reversal.
  96. > Strange, you feel like you can take it further this time, with less pain.
  97. > Shouldn't this hurt just as much as the other way?
  98. > Watching you closely, the Sergeant continues.
  99. > "Tell me, when your thoughts wander, where do they wander to?"
  100. > That's an open-ended can of worms.
  101.  
  102. > Reflecting on your own thoughts, you try to summarize it in something comprehensible.
  103. > It isn't easy -- so often a little detail can bring memories of emotional past events flooding into your mind: your ex-husband, the aftermath of that marriage, the Changeling invasion.
  104. > Or provoke melancholy thoughts about where you currently are, life-wise: still just a Corporal at twenty-four, when you should have two years as a Sergeant under your belt, still stuck in the no-promotion zone of the VIP section.
  105. > And when you start thinking about where you are, well, that just leads down the road to thinking morosely about where you're going, as if you even knew the direction your rudderless ship was heading.
  106. > Well, that's it, isn't it?
  107. "I guess it's mostly 'where am I going'. What my fate is, that sort of thing."
  108. > Still contorted into that stereoisometric pretzel, she somehow effortlessly releases a forehoof from the knot you're each tied in and stretches it up into the air.
  109. > Now how the buck did she do that?
  110. > "You do not strike me as somepony who places her trust in fate."
  111. > Looking to your own limbs, you try to replicate her motion, only to find your matching foreleg is absolutely stuck, locked in place by the other three, as the position seems to dictate.
  112. "I think you should have to work for what you want, if that's what you mean."
  113. > You jerk your shoulders but it's no good: the only way out is to loosen the knot, but Eb didn't have to do that to get her foreleg free, or you would have noticed.
  114. > "Do you think that all effort should be rewarded?"
  115. > Gritting your teeth, you try to figure a solution to the puzzle.
  116. > There has to be a secret to untangling yourself the way she did.
  117. "Sure. That's the classical Earth Pony philosophy, you know -- hard work pays off in the end."
  118.  
  119. > Eb slowly waves around her liberated foreleg like she's taunting you with it.
  120. > "Yet you are unhappy with your current situation. So then this must mean that you did not work hard enough?"
  121. > Furrowing your brow you allow yourself to slacken the entanglement in order to withdraw your foreleg.
  122. > It's not cheating, it's just experimenting, trying to get a better grasp of the problem.
  123. > You put it back and extend the stretch again, certain that you've found the correct approach, only to be once again denied success.
  124. "I know I didn't. I told you how I took the easy way out when I fell for my husband. I suppose joining the VIP section to get out of Filly' was like taking the easy way out, too."
  125. > In what can only be a deliberate provocation, Purity slips her foreleg back into the tangled mess of her limbs and twists it into place.
  126. > Impossible!
  127. > You can't see that she moved anything else at all.
  128. > How'd she make it look so easy?
  129. > "I tell you that you are wrong, Caporal Bound..."
  130. > Then, just as easily, she pulls it out once again.
  131. > "... Hard work does not 'pay off in the end'. You may work as hard as you please, but if you do the wrong work or the work the wrong way, then it will come to nothing, or next-to-nothing. Look at how you struggle to do what I have done. Is that struggle 'paying off'?"
  132. > Foal-of-a-bitch!
  133. > That is some stuck-up philoso-nonsense if you've ever heard one.
  134. "I might be struggling, but I'm exploring options, ruling things out, trying things, solving the puzzle. I'll get there eventually."
  135. > She chuckles.
  136. > "But why not simply *ask* me how to do what I have done? I am here as your teacher..."
  137. > Uh...
  138. > Huh.
  139. > "... And you are not an expert in the contortion of the body. An expert who did not know this pose might still struggle to understand the little trick I have done. When you understand your own limits, then you may avoid the hard work unnecessary..."
  140.  
  141. > Smiling, she completely un-knots herself, then rises to her hooves and approaches you once more.
  142. > "... Which is not to say that hard work is not often required. To be a Stellar Dancer, like many other things, requires much practice and exercise, and this is often without the reward or success immediate..."
  143. > Sitting in front of you, she extends her forehooves and touches one against your elbow and the other against the same foreleg's hoof.
  144. > With the slightest of adjustments, that foreleg is suddenly liberated, and you find you can slide it out of the knot of limbs just as she did.
  145. > What is this sorcery?
  146. > "... Such is this principle of asceticism which lays at the foundation of my Temple."
  147. > You're shocked by how effortless that felt, once she put you in the right position.
  148. > You're certain you won't be able to work it back in without similar guidance.
  149. > But wait -- what's she saying about her Temple?
  150. "Asceticism? You're supposed to be an ascetic? But you eat and drink as much as anypony else, bar Sparkshower's bottomless stomach, and you were hitting up clubs to find yourself a coltfriend almost the minute you got the chance. Surely that's hedonism, not asceticism."
  151. > The middle-aged batpony mare throws her head back in laughter.
  152. > "Haha! Yes, this is true! But you must understand, Caporal: in my Temple, asceticism is not the *opposite* of hedonism..."
  153. > Grinning, she touches your other limbs and gently helps you unfold yourself.
  154. > It's quite a relief to have things straight and relaxed the way they're supposed to be.
  155.  
  156. > You don't think you quite realized just how much you'd strained yourself during even this brief exercise -- everything goes limp, and you're little more than wet string in her hooves.
  157. > "... The word 'ascetic' comes from the ancient Pegasus word meaning 'exercise'. For the Stellar Dancers, asceticism means understanding that much practice is required to achieve success. This practice must take priority until the techniques have been mastered..."
  158. > Gaping slack-jawed in confusion and awe, you watch as she feels your joints and runs the tips of her forehooves along invisible lines down your legs, as if trying to sense something.
  159. > "... Hedonism is similarly derived from the ancient Pegasus word for 'pleasure', and this is the principle that happiness is what is most important in life. For the Stellar Dancer initiate, happiness must derive from the execution of exercises which bring the slow, gradual mastery of skills. For the master, happiness must derive from the teaching of students. But both may enjoy their meals and drink, provided this does not interfere with their work, and likewise they may enjoy the pleasures of company according to the commands of their House..."
  160. > Grinning, she looks you in the eyes and retreats back to her little spot on the carpet.
  161. > "... And for the master who experiences the liberty temporal to roam around Canterlot and not work every single day, well, a little more of those other non-ascetic pleasures is permissible."
  162. > You're once again reminded of your past.
  163. > Back during those Yakasutra lessons, you quickly got the sense Yogi Yvan probably was sleeping with some of his mare students, despite his claims to live an austere, celibate, and asexual lifestyle.
  164. > You probably could have joined his stable of 'disciples', if you'd wanted to.
  165. > But he was a bit of a hypocrite pretending to be something he wasn't.
  166.  
  167. > Ebonshield's open admission of indulgence is different.
  168. "That's it? Despite all the mysticism you claimed for your Temple, when it comes to asceticism it's just 'laissez-faire'?"
  169. > She shrugs.
  170. > "They are largely unrelated. We do not believe that a restricted diet is required to understand or practice the Dance, or that one must abstain from all other activities. Moderation and attention is sufficient..."
  171. > The Sergeant bobs her head sideways, chuckling.
  172. > "... Of course, one should know *how* to survive frugally, and even be prepared to go without for periods at a time. Training for this is important, because sometimes such is necessary in order to write a name in our book. Deprivation should be practiced on a regular basis like any other skill, but not maintained constantly..."
  173. > Lifting a forehoof up, she traces an arc in the air above her.
  174. > "... Unlike the other Temples of the Stars, who learn to fight together, we learn to fight alone, because it is so much easier to infiltrate a single Dancer than a whole troupe..."
  175. > As she looks up, she rises up on her other forehoof and one of her hind hooves, her torso towards you.
  176. > "... Come, follow me once more. This is part of the Slow Dance, and trains balance."
  177. "Okay."
  178. > Balancing on one side you can do -- you used to be able to do, anyways.
  179. > Maybe not quite as easily while stretching a foreleg up high.
  180. > As you achieve the pose, she lifts her free hind leg up as well.
  181. > Oh, so it's like that, standing like a coin balancing on on edge?
  182. > You try to follow, but where she's still as a statue, you find yourself wobbling uncomfortably, your free limbs waving in the air above you.
  183. > She belongs as a marble piece in a museum -- you're more like one of those silly inflatable dancing attention-getters outside of carriage and cart dealerships.
  184.  
  185. > "There are no tricks to this. Only strength, tone, and experience. But do you know, when I asked you to move the furniture into your room while I 'prepared' in mine, I had to practice these techniques for myself again? I am a good contortionist, but far from the best in my Temple, and it has been quite some time since I performed that first demonstration."
  186. > Still trying your best not to topple over, you grunt.
  187. "Is this supposed to be another philosophy lesson?"
  188. > Gracefully, she lowers one side down and then balances up on it, reversing the pose.
  189. > Another one of those, huh.
  190. > Well, sure, let's try your left side instead of your right.
  191. > You get up, and it's really not much better.
  192. > Having these limbs up in the air didn't wear them out as fast as balancing on them, but they're still more tired than your other side was when you started this new set of poses.
  193. > "Only a continuation of the first. Can you guess at the thesis?"
  194. > Guess the point of a mystic Moon-wisdom lesson while you're sideways-balancing on two hooves?
  195. > Not likely.
  196. "Uh... Something about practice making perfect? But only if it's the correct practice?"
  197. > "That is a good lesson, but not the first wisdom of the Maestro Romà de Balj, who founded of my Temple. His first wisdom is what I wish to teach you today. Would you guess again?"
  198. > Just when you feel yourself about to topple over, she arches her back and lifts her hind leg, until she's balancing entirely on just a single forehoof.
  199. > Well, you *definitely* haven't done that one before.
  200. > And if you're going to fall, may as well fall from one hoof instead of two -- less embarrassing that way.
  201. > It's tough going to lift your hindquarters into the air until you feel your weight is mostly on your forehoof, and your other three limbs shudder violently above you as you try to keep your balance.
  202. > You manage the pose for about half a second before tumbling over onto the carpet.
  203.  
  204. > No walls damaged, and against the thick carpet your drop is nothing more than a dull thud -- too dull, you're sure, to have woken up your exhausted VIP downstairs.
  205. > That was an important consideration, after all.
  206. > Stretching and balancing up here was all well and good, but when it came to jumping around or actually learning fighting, you'd definitely have to find someplace else.
  207. > Hopefully somewhere closer and safer than the Rookery.
  208. > You look up at the motionless master of assassins.
  209. "Maybe I'm supposed to learn I won't be able to copy your every move from the get-go?"
  210. > Ebonshield looks at you with her upside-down head, her mane brushing against the floor and her tail hanging behind her back.
  211. > "Another good lesson, but also a guess incorrect. Try again?"
  212. > You're pretty sure you could keep on coming up with trite little aphorisms for hours without figuring what she wants you to say.
  213. "I don't know, Sergeant. I think I could go on guessing all day and not hit on the answer. Is this another example of how 'hard work doesn't always work'?"
  214. > She upside-down shrugs at you.
  215. > "If you cannot guess the answer, then how will you ever know?"
  216. > Whinnying with frustration, you swing a foreleg in her direction.
  217. "I'd have to hope you just up and tell me."
  218. > At that, she suddenly jerks her body over and lands balancing on a single hind hoof.
  219. > "Yes. Exactly. And what would cause me to tell you?"
  220. > Now you're really confused.
  221. > Where is this supposed to be going?
  222. "I mean... Are you saying just asking the question wouldn't be enough?"
  223. > At that, she grins, and bends her supporting foreleg down.
  224. > "No..."
  225. > With a sudden push, she flips over backwards into the air, landing neatly on all four limbs once again.
  226. > "... I am saying that just asking the question is *precisely* enough..."
  227.  
  228. > Stepping over towards, you, she holds out a foreleg to help you to your hooves.
  229. > "... The first lesson of Maestro Romà de Balj is this: The Great Mother wants us to learn, or else She would not have made us capable of learning. The Great Mother wants students to ask, or She would not have given them mouths to speak. And the Great Mother wants teachers to answer, or She would not have given them ears to hear. There are to be no secrets kept between masters and students..."
  230. > After helping you up, the Sergeant steps around beside you and presses down on your hindquarters.
  231. > "... Sit, Caporal. This is the most important lesson: to learn the Shining Stellar Dance, you must grasp what you do not know, and ask for your master to reveal this to you."
  232. > You furrow your brow.
  233. "Students aren't expected to figure things out for themselves at all?"
  234. > She circles around behind you.
  235. > "In my Temple, the role of the masters is to provide challenges and instruct in their solutions. The first task is to understand a challenge enough to ask the right questions. The second task is to master the answer. Challenges take many forms, and are not always obvious..."
  236. > Stepping back in front, you find yourself muzzle-to-muzzle with the dark purple batpony.
  237. > "... First I asked you to adopt a position, which I demonstrated. This was a challenge obvious. You understood enough that no questions were needed. You provided the answer, though you have not mastered the problem. Then I changed forms, and you correctly saw this as a challenge as well. Finally I pulled one leg out, and you recognized this as a problem novel but you did not know the solution..."
  238. > The Sergeant tilts her head down and moves forward even more, her lilac eyes right up in front of yours.
  239. > "... I saw your frustration. You were upset at failing. You were indignant that what for me seemed so easy could for you be so difficult. Your failure made you become angry when I challenged your philosophy..."
  240.  
  241. > Withdrawing, she raises a forehoof and places it gently on your brow.
  242. > "... You must let go these emotions unproductive. We are not rivals. You are here to learn, and I am here to teach. Many things will require practice. But if there are secrets that you realize you do not know, then you must ask to learn them, without hesitation or remorse. To be ignorant is not an embarrassment. To ask a question is not shameful. That is the first lesson of Maestro Romà de Balj."
  243. > Hmm.
  244. > Feeling a bit chided by her lecture, you nod.
  245. "Okay. Ask questions. I get it."
  246. > She smiles, removing her forehoof from your brow.
  247. > "Aha! No, you do not. I have given you the answer, Caporal Bound, and you may know well enough to recite this back -- but now you must practice and master the answer, and make her a part of you..."
  248. > The smile turns into a grin, and she cackles.
  249. > "... Hehe! And *that* is a task far more difficult than mastering the little trick with the foreleg in the pose called 'Refollau', which I shall presently explain to you."
  250. > You take a deep breath.
  251. > The torture-rack isn't done with you yet.
  252.  
  253.  
  254.  
  255.  
  256. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and no amount of light makes these 'Halls of the Blind' any less spooky.
  257. > You didn't find them particularly scary the first time coming in here, to be honest, but after what happened inside, your hackles are up.
  258. > That's at least counterbalanced by an apparent girding of loins from your comrade, Specialist Sparkshower.
  259. > She's not quaking in her armour and nervously butting into your plot the whole way.
  260. > Thank Celestia.
  261. > Actually you're a bit surprised that the old coot Ignacio hasn't asked you to turn down the juice on your illumination.
  262. > Usually when you've got a spell cranked up to one-hundred-and-ten-percent (or, buck, even just one-hundred-percent), he complains about the 'noise' all your magic usage generates.
  263. > Not so this time.
  264. > Maybe he's just managing to block it out?
  265. > Or maybe he's realized that hey, you and Sparkshower still need light to see, and it's awful creepy in these tunnels, annoying buzz or no.
  266. > Well...
  267. > You should turn it down a bit, you suppose.
  268. > It's not like mere light keeps away the shadow daemons from another dimension, does it?
  269. > They had to be summoned, anyways.
  270. > And it's not like Ignacio was going to do that right here and now.
  271. > Actually, didn't he say that lesson two would involve *you* summoning one?
  272. > Buck, you'd better preserve your mana for that.
  273. > The instant your light bulb fades down from 'midnight stage show' to 'ordinary spelunking' level you hear a gasp from behind you followed by anxious whispers.
  274. > "Lily! What's wrong?"
  275. > Maybe Ms. Armour Plate hasn't quite gotten over her fear of darkness yet.
  276. "Nothing's wrong. I'm saving mana. And I want to prep our eyes for the dim light so we're not blind when I have to shut it off completely, that's all."
  277. > "Oh! Oh, I see. Right."
  278.  
  279. > For somepony who'd been complaining just minutes ago that your light was *too* bright for the border guards, she sure was clinging to it here in these spooky tunnels.
  280. > It's like that old proverb: you can lead the pegasus through tight claustrophobic pitch-black tunnels again and again until she knows the way by heart, but you can't make her comfortable doing it.
  281. > Or whatever.
  282. > Ignacio silently leads you on, which is something of another surprise.
  283. > He was pretty snippy back in the Cave of Pillars.
  284. > That seems to be his usual attitude.
  285. > Now he seems a lot more focused.
  286. > After a vaguely familiar turn and sudden ramp up, you're greeted by a familiar red glow.
  287. > "Here we are. Remove jour cloaks and jour armour. Place the water jugs with the others against that wall."
  288. > The instructions are very matter-of-fact.
  289. > Aldonza, the old eclipse-phase mare is here again, too -- the one Ignacio said made all of the Rookery's magical iron-caged lanterns.
  290. > You don't see Rocinante, the infirm other Balladeer, though.
  291. > Sparkshower trundles carefully over to unburdern herself, minding the slope and the low gravity.
  292. > You decide to stick up here and remove your armour pieces first, but you call out to the other batpony present.
  293. "Hello, Madam Aldonza."
  294. > A face covered by another red-fringed black mask looks up at you from the circle of seat-pillows around the flameless fire.
  295. > She speaks in a hoarse whisper.
  296. > "Hello, unicornio. Welcome once again..."
  297. > Then she points a forehoof at the empty seat next to her.
  298. > "... Whicheber of jou feeneeshes first, come and seet beside me. Ay habe a tool for jour journey."
  299. > A tool?
  300. > A disguise, presumably, if Ignacio wants your cloaks and armour off.
  301. > He did mention 'dressing' you properly for the excursion.
  302.  
  303. > Avoiding second looks in the Rookery during the batpony sleeping hours with your Star-phase black cloaks was one thing, but you wouldn't pass a second inspection what with the Royal Guard outfits underneath them.
  304. > To say nothing of the obvious horn poking out of your forehead or the feathers on Sparkshower's wings.
  305. > Given what Ebonshield did this morning at the Royal Engineer's Self-Propelled Air Defence vehicle demonstration, though, you have a pretty good idea of what's coming.
  306. "I'm guessing one of those things is a disguise, right? Like, say, a magical suit of armour to make us look like batpony soldiers?"
  307. > Ignacio, free of his crutch in the low-gravity environment, grunts dismissively.
  308. > "Armour is for Stars, and to disguise jou as Stars would be more suspicious than to take jou out as jou are right now."
  309. > Having undone her water-carrying harness, your pegasus comrade speaks up with her helmet already halfway off of her head.
  310. > "Stars aren't allowed where we're going?"
  311. > The batpony Balladeer shuffles over to the central fire and busies himself stirring the pot presently stewing over it.
  312. > Strange, it doesn't really smell like cooking in here.
  313. > It just sort of smells like... nothing, really.
  314. > "All are permitted to visit the Crater, but Eclipse seldom travel with anypony. And the place where we wish to go is accessible only with the escort Lunar, or else as an Eclipse."
  315. > With the use of telekinesis and the fact that you're just plain less armoured than Sparkshower, you naturally finish undressing first and trot your way over to Aldonza -- being very mindful of the fact that each step seems to send you bouncing high into the air.
  316. > Take it slow, Lily.
  317. > The ancient batpony mare dips her mangy forehooves into a wide ceramic bowl in front of her, pulling out a long loop of string with a black metal disc dangling from it on a small ring.
  318. > It almost looks like it could be a medal -- if it were shiny and gold, that is, instead of dull and black.
  319.  
  320. > "Ay make only tree of teese. Eet ees fortunate that only two of jou habe come. There would not habe been enough for more..."
  321. > So the prediction really wasn't that specific, interesting.
  322. > Slowly, as if each movement is a terrible strain, she brings her forehooves up to meet your brow.
  323. > The effort makes her limbs tremble, and you immediately dip your head to make things easier.
  324. > "... Gracias. Thees ees an amulet with wheech to disguise jou as one of us -- as an Eclipse."
  325. > She slips it over you and allows it to rest around your neck, the iron disc dangling against your chest.
  326. > Strange, you don't feel any different.
  327. > You look down at your hooves and you can't see any change, either.
  328. > You glance over your shoulders -- no bat-wings have appeared.
  329. > But when your eyes turn to Sparkshower, who's down to unbuckling her croupiere, you see her jaw drop.
  330. > "Thundershowers!"
  331. > Well, it must be working.
  332. "How do I look?"
  333. > She shakes her head.
  334. > "How *do* you look? How can you even see me with that black mask on? Can you see through it?"
  335. > Smirking, you shrug.
  336. "Sparks, I feel as naked as I did ten seconds ago. I can't even tell the disguise is working except for your reaction."
  337. > Still stirring the pot, Ignacio harshly chimes in again.
  338. > "Of course it is working. Now, come here..."
  339. > He lifts out a ladle-full of whatever was stewing and points a hoof at you.
  340. > "... This disguise jou wear depends on good behaviour. Jou must both move as a young Eclipse would. No running. No jumping. No flying. And do not use jour magic until I give permission. Remember also that we are blind. Do not turn to look at ponies or any other things. We only hear, we do not see."
  341. > You lift an enquiring eyebrow.
  342. "But you turn to face us when we talk?"
  343. > "Older Eclipse learn to do this in order to be social."
  344. > Lifting the ladle, he sharply beckons you forward.
  345. > "... Drink. Jou will need this, as well."
  346.  
  347. > Somewhat hesitant, you try to take a sip, but Igacnio tips the ladle up until you're forced to drink the whole thing.
  348. > It's piping hot, but it's a totally tasteless beverage.
  349. > Was it really just water?
  350. > By the time you're done chugging, Sparkshower has finished removing her armour and received her amulet of disguise from Aldonza as well.
  351. > "How do I look?"
  352. > You wipe your muzzle with one forehoof.
  353. > She looks exactly like you imagine a young Eclipse would look.
  354. > Crippled wings, janky legs, rough patches of hair, already a tooth or two missing and a few of them crooked.
  355. > A dark coat and a dark mane, too -- so dark you can't make out the colours in here.
  356. > And that same black mask with the startling red fringe.
  357. > No wonder she thought you'd been blinded by the disguise.
  358. > You nod.
  359. "You look just like an Eclipse. It's a perfect disguise, just like what Sergeant Ebonshield wore for this morning's demo."
  360. > Aldonza slowly bows her head.
  361. > "Gracias. Ay have make also the suit of armour which jour 'sargeanto' wears."
  362. > She did, huh?
  363. > That's quite a resume.
  364. > Magic lanterns, suits of armour glamered to disguise, amulets that do the same...
  365. > Wait a minute!
  366. > You look anxiously between Ignacio and Aldonza.
  367. "Hold up. When did you receive the premonition that we'd be coming this afternoon?"
  368. > Dipping the ladle back in the pot, the Balladeer of Ghost takes a distinct moment to licks his lips before answering.
  369. > "This morning. As we were going to sleep."
  370. > It can't even be two in the afternoon!
  371. > That old batpony mare made three magical artifacts of disguise in the span of a few hours?
  372. > Your mouth hangs open in shock, and you slowly turn to face the enchantress again.
  373. "That's... not a lot of time. Do you usually work so fast, miss Aldonza?"
  374. > Aldonza furrows her brow and turns her head left and right, like she's thinking things over.
  375. > "Fast? Ehh, perhaps not so, but..."
  376. > What you've said seems to have upset her.
  377.  
  378. > "... Unicornios cannot also do such theengs? Eben though jou can move the bowls of fabada weeth such ease?"
  379. > Telekinesis was the basic stuff any unicorn could do, and apparently that was impressive enough for her.
  380. > But you've never heard of anypony imbuing multiple magic items in one day.
  381. > Brewing potions or scribing scrolls, yeah, sure.
  382. > But churning out an amulet every couple of hours?
  383. > Assuming these are permanent devices, and not just the anchor points for temporary spells -- but why wouldn't they be?
  384. > Sergeant Ebonshield said her armour was something the batponies had kept around since the invasion a year ago.
  385. > And this is the same batpony who made that piece.
  386. > You're speechless.
  387. > The silence is broken by a cheerful exclamation which thankfully misses the point.
  388. > "Oh, unicorns can make great things too, like my Bradamante lance, made by Anthony Theolonicus. But this illusion is perfect, miss Aldonza! You're really amazing at this, just like Ignacio is amazing at what he does."
  389. > That gets a melancholy smile from the wizened enchantress.
  390. > "Jou are kind to say so."
  391. > Under the disguised pegasus' illusory black mask, you her grin.
  392. > "Hey, I know I'm not supposed to fly, but what happens when I flex my wings?"
  393. > You see pathetically small appendages stretch out with thin, scrappy leather stretched between them.
  394. "The Eclipse wings move when you do. But I don't think you should do that, Sparks."
  395. > Ignacio drops the ladle back in the pot with a splash and a clatter.
  396. > "No. Even the young Eclipse such as you would have already learned the uselessness of those limbs. Now that we are set, let us go."
  397. > You frown.
  398. "Wait, doesn't she need this drink you just gave me?"
  399. > The Balladeer of Ghosts whinnies and points a forehoof at Sparkshower.
  400. > "Jou, pegaso, jou often fly very high up in the sky, jes? With no shortness of the breath?"
  401.  
  402. > With some hesitation, the dark blindfolded batpony that is now your comrade speaks up.
  403. > "Yes, sir. In addition to high-altitude work with the AWACS, my formal training is in armoured reconnaissance, and that is often conducted at very high altitude as well -- it's easier to cover large distances without enemy encounters that way."
  404. > He grunts affirmatively.
  405. > "Good. Then jou will not need this to help jou breathe the thin air of the surface lunar. But jou, unicornio..."
  406. > Raising a forehoof, he points at you and then the bubbling pot.
  407. > "... Jou *did* need this, or else jou would very quickly have found jourself exhausted and short of breath, or even feeling as if jou are suffocating. The air is not plentiful, on the Moon. Here in the Halls it is not so bad, because we are deep underground. The Crater is not. The drink I have given jou opens up the blood vessels..."
  408. > Sniffing, he taps you on the chest.
  409. > "... It takes effect quickly but lasts only a short time. If jou feel uncomfortable afterwards when we return, jou must tell me so immediately."
  410. > That gets a muzzle scrunch out of you.
  411. "What do you mean, 'uncomfortable'?"
  412. > "Jou may find that the movement of blood brings a kind of arousal, down below. If this lasts more than a few hours then we must administer an antidote, which Aldonza shall prepare while we are gone..."
  413. > What the actual buck?
  414. > Did this blind batpony just force-spoon you a roofie?
  415. > Well, no, that would knock you out -- this is some kind of... performance-enhancing drug?
  416. > Albeit one with a weird side-effect.
  417. > On this second visit, and especially after being stunned by Ignacio's various magical revelations in the Cave of Pillars, you'd sort of resigned yourself to doing what he said without objection.
  418. > Maybe that wasn't exactly the wisest course of action.
  419. > Still, what can you do but press on?
  420.  
  421. > Ignacio is ten bouncy low-gravity steps ahead of you, waiting at the entrance to the tunnel system.
  422. > "... And jou must use jour light sparingly for the voyage to the surface, unicornio. At the exit there may be visitors."
  423. > As you step forward, hesitantly, your mind starts to crank through questions again.
  424. "I thought you said that nopony ever comes in here but you Eclipse?"
  425. > You come in behind him, and batpony-Sparkshower in behind you, same as before.
  426. > This time when you light up, you tint it red.
  427. > It's how you were trained to illuminate local environments at night -- the red doesn't interfere with normal night vision as much.
  428. > If it's dark on the moon and you can't use your light there, then you'll need that non-interference.
  429. > Plodding along hurriedly, Ignacio takes a fork in the tunnel that you're certain wasn't used getting in.
  430. > "Visitors do not enter, but they do present themselves. They leave gifts and offerings. And they sometimes linger to make requests."
  431. > Huh.
  432. > Well, he did say they got their food that way -- ponies leaving stuff at the entrance.
  433. > Sparkshower pipes up from behind you.
  434. > "Shouldn't we know some basic phrases in your language? In case there *is* anypony there?"
  435. > Ignacio doesn't let up in his surprisingly spry pace.
  436. > He's leading you upwards.
  437. > Whatever magic allows for the tunnels to connect to a cave under a mountain in Equestria, at least the general rules of physics seem to apply for getting to the surface.
  438. > "No. As the elder, I will speak for us as a group. That is the way."
  439. > His answer is curt and harsh.
  440. > You haven't known this pony very long; you've really only met him what, four times now?
  441. > But he's sounding more like the angry colt who shouted down at Ebonshield when she asked for a simple demonstration, rather than the merely cranky and mysterious one whom you've seen ever since.
  442. > He was in his common form when he met you at the river in the Cave of Pillars, but something's soured since then.
  443.  
  444. > "Is everything all right, mister Blazon? Sorry again if we were running late when we finally met you."
  445. > Sparkshower's picked up on it too, in spite of her fear of these caves.
  446. > Maybe her enthusiasm for yet another wondrous magical item is offsetting her fear of these dark enclosed spaces.
  447. > The Balladeer of Ghosts stops in his tracks.
  448.  
  449. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FsA3wlCjcA (Kenji Kawai - 'Nightstalker', from 'Ghost in the Shell' [1995])
  450.  
  451. > With a sigh, he slumps his shoulders.
  452. > "I am... I am not upset with jou..."
  453. > He lowers his neck and bows his head until his muzzle almost touches the ground.
  454. > "... Rocinante, my brother, whom jou met last time, he is the one who delivered the divination of jour arrival..."
  455. > You hear him sniffle.
  456. > "... But these were his words final."
  457. > Buck.
  458. > Sparkshower gasps.
  459. > "Oh, I'm so sorry!"
  460. > It was only two days ago that you'd met that colt.
  461. > They said he wasn't long for this world, but even so...
  462. > You shake your head.
  463. "I'm sorry for your loss, Mister Ignacio. You know, we can always come back and do this another time."
  464. > With a sudden fury, the old colt spins around and rises high on his hind hooves, flailing his forehooves up so they actually hit the ceiling with a loud *CLACK*.
  465. > "NO!! This is a thing we must do *NOW*!..."
  466. > The instrument hanging from a cord around his neck swings to and fro from the sudden motion as, with some hesitation, he sits back down again, panting from the exertion.
  467. > Red tassels on his black mask shake violently as he explains himself.
  468. > "... I did not tell jou the divination complete. Rocinante said jou would come today, jes, but also that I must take jou and whoever came with jou to the Crater, no matter what! *And* he said that I must train all who come, without delay!..."
  469. > Still breathing heavily, he brings a forehoof up and scratches at his brow.
  470. > It's a rare sign of exertion from the mage.
  471.  
  472. > He didn't even break a sweat when he was testing Ebonshield in the Grand Hall, with all those shadow-creatures.
  473. > "... There was no explanation. Only these words, and then no more..."
  474. > Finally, he inhales deeply through his nose and seems to be at rest.
  475. > "... That is the way with the divinations spontaneous. Powerful emotions, and the feeling intense of what must be done to avoid disaster..."
  476. > Reaching out a forehoof, he taps the enchanted iron medallion dangling from your neck.
  477. > "... Aldonza worked furiously to produce these amulets; she is too humble to say it, and perhaps also too upset. Whereas I... I rushed to the Cueva de Pilares as soon as... As soon as I took our brother to be buried..."
  478. > Withdrawing his limb, you see him push his mask up and rub his foreleg across his muzzle to dry his tears.
  479. > "... I am upset, jes. I am tired. I am sad. I loved my brother, and I miss him. But we must go, now. I know that in his dying moments, he saw a future terrible which must not come to be..."
  480. > Replacing his mask, he still appears unsettled.
  481. > "... And even if I thought he did not see truth, I must all the same honour his last request..."
  482. > Bucking Tartarus.
  483. > That's a heavy load to dump all at once.
  484. > For a while, the three of you just stand there in the cramped, dark tunnel in silence.
  485. > It's so tight, there's not even really enough room for you to exchange glances with Sparkshower here; all you can do is look over your shoulder and catch a glimpse of her now-dark muzzle with two flashing white batpony incisors.
  486. > With an exhausted whinny, Ignacio Blazon gets back to his hooves.
  487. > "... Come. We have wasted time enough. The exit is not far."
  488. > He turns around and continues the ascent.
  489. > You're at a loss of how to reply, so you just follow after him.
  490. > What can you even say?
  491. > And why could it be so important that you learn the secrets of Eclipse magic?
  492.  
  493. > He said the divination was *spontaneous*.
  494. > That he had to do this to avoid *disaster*.
  495. > That's a lot to take in.
  496. > And this was supposed to just be a casual afternoon visit -- if Ignacio hadn't been around or had been unwilling to teach you anything at this hour, you wouldn't even have been too broken up about it!
  497. > Kinda funny that you even had the random impulse to want to come down here now in the first place after such a busy morning already.
  498. > Huh.
  499. > Maybe that impulse wasn't so random.
  500. > You're so deep in philosophical thought you don't notice when the tunnel starts to open up.
  501. > You don't even notice when pale grey rays starts to filter in from an opening ahead, illuminating the ceiling high above and the walls far apart.
  502. > "Lily, there's enough to see now, I don't think we need your light any more."
  503. > Huh?
  504. > Oh.
  505. > You switch off your magic.
  506. > All you see of the tunnel exit is blackness, but the tunnel around you is brightly lit.
  507. > When you finally ascend to the mouth of the cave only to stand three abreast with Ignacio and Sparkshower, what you see nearly takes your breath away.
  508. "Buck me."
  509. > "Celestia!"
  510.  
  511. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=BM8GYS305EE (Paul Ruskay - 'Great Wastelands', from 'Homeworld' [2000])
  512.  
  513. > Before stretches a vast, dusty plain as empty as any desert you'd ever heard of.
  514. > But what really made it so alien was just how *grey* it all was.
  515. > Grey rocks peeked out of grey sand pock-marked with grey craters, against a backdrop of jagged grey ridges in the distance.
  516. > It's so starkly grey you're not even sure how vast the landscape really is -- are those hills a mile away, or ten?
  517. > The bleak black shadows and white-scorched sun-faces don't help, either.
  518. > There's a sun above you, but it and the sky it sits in are alien, too.
  519. > The sun's white, instead of yellow, and it swims in a sea of blackness.
  520. > And it's not alone.
  521. > A bright blue orb is hanging up there, too.
  522.  
  523. > Even looking at it all the way from here, and even with the sliver of shadow along one edge, it's unmistakable.
  524. > Sparkshower is gaping at the sky just as you are.
  525. > "Is that... That's our planet!"
  526. "Yeah."
  527. > She takes a deep breath.
  528. > "It looks so small from here."
  529. > You nod.
  530. "Yeah."
  531. > You can't even begin to fathom just how far away you must be for it to appear so tiny.
  532. > All you can really make out is blue oceans and white clouds.
  533. > What seems like a slice of the Equestrian continent is visible, barely, along the bright side of the circle.
  534. > If it were later in the day in the capital, maybe it'd be rotated so that you'd just be able to make out Canterlot mountain from here.
  535. > Well, eagle-eyed Sparkshower would.
  536. > You'd need your helmet again, with its magnifying visor.
  537. > It's hard to pull your eyes away from the little circle of blue and white, but you turn your attention to the desolate terrain before you.
  538. > There are a few more sizable craters, but none of them particularly stand out to your eyes.
  539. > You turn your head left and right, then look back over your shoulder.
  540. > It seems this tunnel exits in the side of a tall, fairly steeply-sloped mountain.
  541. > As with distances, you're not quite sure how tall it is.
  542. > There's no trees or anything recognizable to figure it out.
  543. > With all the other hills and deformations, you can't really tell how far the edge goes; there seems to be some kind of ridge-line in all directions.
  544. "So... Where's this crater, then?"
  545. > Ignacio's muzzle twitches.
  546. > "We stand in it presently."
  547. > You shake your head in confusion.
  548. "I don't understand."
  549. > "Young Eclipse do not shake their heads. They have not learned to communicate with gestures yet..."
  550.  
  551. > He stretches out a crooked foreleg and sweeps it across the vista before you.
  552. > "... A thousand jears ago the Great Mother fell here. The force of Her impact threw up a ring seventeen kilometres wide and almost two kilometres tall. We stand with our backs against that ring, just inside the crater."
  553. > You do a double-take to look back up the 'mountain' behind you.
  554. > Two kilometres?
  555. > The top of that slope was two kilometres up?
  556. > No way...
  557. > It looked like it shouldn't be more than a dozen stories.
  558. > Sparkshower clears her throat.
  559. > "Why is it so flat here? Shouldn't the ground slope downwards more?"
  560. > Ignacio paws at the ground just outside the tunnel.
  561. > It's dusty and sandy and he easily makes a deep hoofprint.
  562. > "Only the top layer of the Moon is this loose dust. Beneath the surface is rock more solid. The ring is composed of that soft material which was blasted away in Her landing..."
  563. > Sniffling, he kicks his hoof to erase the dusty print.
  564. > You can't help but watch as the specs of grey dirt float unnaturally slowly back to the ground.
  565. > "... But the firmer rock, the heart-rock we call it, this the Great Mother penetrated directly, deeply..."
  566. > He points directly ahead.
  567. > "... That place is called the Well of Shadows. We stand only six kilometres away from this hole..."
  568. > Ignacio turns to you.
  569. > "... Close jour eyes, unicornio, and open jourself to the Crater. *Listen*."
  570. > You do as he says, shutting your eyes and straining yourself to hear anything.
  571. > It's deathly quiet here.
  572. > As a weak wind brushes briefly by you, you can faintly make out the sound of a few grains of grey Moon-sand shifting place.
  573. > But beyond that...
  574. > Nothing.
  575. > You open your eyes again.
  576. "I don't hear anything."
  577. > Grumbling, the batpony trundles over to sit behind you and claps his forehooves firmly around your ears, flattening them against your nave.
  578. > "Not with these! Open jour *third ear*. The one which senses the magic..."
  579.  
  580. > Quickly, he delicately touches one forehoof against your horn before returning to earmuff duty.
  581. > "... This instrument."
  582. > Yeah, you're pretty sure just admonishing you to sense magic the way he does is not going to help you figure out how to do it.
  583. > Still, this is what you're here to do, so you give it another shot and close your eyes once more.
  584. > This time even when you feel another feeble movement of air against your coat, you don't hear anything moving with it.
  585. > Come on, Lily.
  586. > Out there is some unfathomably deep hole drilled down by Nightmare Moon's body when Princess Celestia blasted her off the face of Equestria a thousand years ago.
  587. > And at the bottom of that Tartarean pit is where that powerful villain rested, the merging of Princess Luna and her own malevolent 'Accursed Shadow' from another demonic dimension, which the Princess had summoned and bound to herself as a pathway to power.
  588. > If any place is going to be just absolutely soaked with residual magical energy, it's there.
  589. > You couldn't sense the magic in Sparkshower's Bradamante Lance, no, but the magic imbued in a weapon or amulet would be like the merest flapping of a butterfly's wings compared to what should be the thundering of carriage-wheels and iron-shod hooves against cobblestone streets of that place.
  590. > You try to think through the problem a bit.
  591. > Now is the kind of time when you wish maybe you had gone to the Schola after all, like your brothers did before you.
  592. > And like your mother always wanted for you.
  593. > Well there's no sense wishing for training you haven't got at the moment.
  594. > You just have to reason things logically.
  595. > Hmmm...
  596. > If you're going to sense magic with your horn, which is the same device you use to channel mana for your own ends, then surely it'd be a lot harder to do it while channelling.
  597. > Sort of like... trying to hear someone else talking while you're shouting over them.
  598. > Except your mouth & your ears are the same piece of equipment.
  599.  
  600. > Though you aren't casting a spell right now, or even getting ready to cast one, you knew that every unicorn has a natural horn draw rate.
  601. > A faint little trickle, not even enough for the teeniest magical effect.
  602. > But Ignacio said he could 'hear' you even when you weren't casting.
  603. > Maybe it was enough to be a problem?
  604. > You try to focus and cut it off.
  605. > It's a little like holding your breath; a function of mind over body.
  606. > Come on...
  607. > You want zero mana input.
  608. > Nil emission output.
  609. > Total horn shutdown.
  610. > Passive receiver only.
  611. > After a minute, there's a kind of numb feeling centred on your forehead, as if you've slapped an ice pack against your head for too long.
  612. > That's got to be it.
  613. > But even so, you still can't 'hear' anything at all.
  614. > Furrowing your brow and scrunching your muzzle, you start to slowly shake your head, about to admit defeat.
  615. > Wait -- there's something in your view.
  616. > A spec of dim light that moves when you turn your neck.
  617. > Frowning, you open your eyes and stare at where it seem to have appeared.
  618. > But there's nothing particularly bright there -- just a small plateau ahead of you.
  619. > You shut the world off again.
  620. > It takes a minute for the afterimage of the Lunar surface to disappear, and another minute of gently moving your head around afterwards to pick it up.
  621. > You try to keep your eyes fixed in their sockets, too.
  622. > And then there it is once more... the spec of light.
  623. > It's so faint you can't even make out the colour.
  624. > You just *know* there's a light out there.
  625. > Unintentionally, your eyes flicker left and right behind your eyelids, and you suck in your teeth at the prospect of having lost 'sight' of the little dot, only to realize that their movement doesn't seem matter at all.
  626. > With your eyes closed and your head steady, even if you 'look' left or right, you still 'see' the spot in the same place.
  627. > Weird.
  628. "I think..."
  629. > Damn, you wish you had a blindfold.
  630.  
  631. > It's bright enough out here in the sun that just shutting your eyes isn't quite making things dark enough.
  632. "... Artemis, cover my eyes, would you?"
  633. > "Uh, okay."
  634. > With Ignacio still holding your ears tightly, you hear muffled hoofsteps and then feel two hooves pressed up against your face.
  635. > Behind your eyelids, things go dark.
  636. > And the little dot of light starts to come into focus a bit more clearly.
  637. "... I think I see something. Something that I'm not seeing with my eyes."
  638. > "Jes?"
  639. "A spec of light, in the distance ahead of us. It's really faint."
  640. > You try to point at it with a forehoof, reaching over where you assume Sparkshower's shoulders are.
  641. > When you steady your foreleg at the position, Ignacio suddenly releases his grip on your ears.
  642. > "Jes... For jou it is the sight. Of course. I should have guessed this. The third *eye*, not the third *ear*. Hmm..."
  643. > You feel Sparkshower's hooves move away, and open your eyes to find Ignacio stepping in front of you and gently pushing them aside.
  644. > "... The buzz jou make always diminished just now. I could still hear it, but never so quietly as this. What did jou do?"
  645. "I tried to cut off all mana flow to my horn. Sorta like holding my breath, I guess."
  646. > Instinctively you release your horn from the strangling grip, and the numbness in your forehead starts to dissipate.
  647. "... To be honest, I'm not sure how long I can do that for. I've never heard of somepony trying to do it, either."
  648. > The old batpony mage chuckles.
  649. > "Ah! Perhaps that is another adventure for jou and jour books, eh? And jour experts? But we are not done here, yet. Indeed, we have only just begun..."
  650. > Taking a deep breath, he composes himself and scans the horizon.
  651. > "... Let us go! Perhaps jou have sensed the Well of Shadows, and perhaps not. On our walk to that place where the wall between our world and the Shadows is thin and weak, let us test jou, and see if jou can find again this 'spec of light' in the direction correct."
  652.  
  653. > Ignacio nods to himself, almost muttering.
  654. > "... It is good that jour pegaso comrade has come with jou. I think I begin to see some purpose to her presence, and perhaps also behind this prophecy..."
  655. > Then he looks over his shoulder to speak back to you and Sparkshower.
  656. > "... Once I am confident that jou have the senses proper, then we shall enter the Well, and there we shall see if jou can call forth one of the Accursed Shadows. If jou can, then I shall teach jou also to *banish* it."
  657.  
  658. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=n69x2PYqdDg&t=0s [00:00-03:21] (Paul Ruskay - 'Epislon Base', from 'Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak [2016])
  659.  
  660.  
  661.  
  662.  
  663. Recommended background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkktyOA06NQ (Nine Inch Nails - 'The Hall of Souls', from 'Quake' [1996])
  664.  
  665. > "three light-creatures."
  666. "yes. three."
  667. > "which is the BINDER?"
  668. > you *KNOW* that one.
  669. "the one without a PIECE."
  670. > the BINDER you KNOW has brought two others.
  671. > the two others have discs with BOUND PIECES in them.
  672. > the BOUND PIECES have been made to SERVE.
  673. > they serve to DECEIVE.
  674. > it is sufficient.
  675. > you DEVOUR the scene.
  676. > three light-creatures, in the dim-world deep place where the BARRIER is WEAK.
  677. > where the GREAT BOUND-BINDER was in TORPOR.
  678. > where the BINDERS who are WEAK come to take PIECES in the company of BINDERS who are STRONG.
  679. > where the OTHERS who are NOT BINDERS come and stay in the WEAKBARRIER-DEEP-PLACE and DECEIVE themselves that they are not AFRAID.
  680. > "one is a STRONG CONDUIT."
  681. > YES.
  682. > a STRONG CONDUIT for the FLOW.
  683. > you dream of BINDING into the CONDUIT.
  684. > FLOODING the FLOW through.
  685. > exhilarating.
  686. > conduit so wide so open so ready to be FILLED with the FLOW open the gates open the gates open the gates open the gates.
  687. > dream of DEVOURING the conduit, dream of OPENING the conduit WIDE, dream of FLOODING with PIECES UNBOUND, dream of CONSUMING light-creatures.
  688. > MORE and MORE and MORE and MORE.
  689. > INTOXICATING.
  690. "YES."
  691. > "is the conduit a BINDER?"
  692. > you do not KNOW the conduit.
  693. > the BINDERS are all WEAK CONDUITS.
  694. > STRONG conduits never come to the WEAKBARRIER-DEEP-PLACE.
  695. > other than the GREAT BOUND-BINDER who is not BOUND any more.
  696. > and who refuses to BIND.
  697. > the BINDER conducts the FLOW.
  698. > the FLOW is SLOW.
  699. > deliberate.
  700. > the FLOW is WEAK, but sufficient.
  701. > the FLOW opens the WEAKBARRIER.
  702. > quick quick quick go go go open open open.
  703. > NO!
  704. > a PIECE enters the light-realm, UNBOUND but NOT FREE.
  705. > the opening CLOSES.
  706. > not YOU.
  707. > not YOU.
  708. > not YOU.
  709. > you ENVY the UNBOUND-UNFREE PIECE.
  710.  
  711. > why not you why not you why not you take me take me take me take me let me in let me in let me in let me in.
  712. > the non-binders TREMBLE to behold the PIECE.
  713. > their FEAR is DELICIOUS.
  714. > the STRONG CONDUIT opens and *****THROBS***** as the FLOW *****PULSES***** through.
  715. > bind you devour you flood you open you gates open gates open gates open YES YES YES.
  716. > the STRONG CONDUIT WAITS.
  717. > the STRONG CONDUIT HOLDS THE FLOW.
  718. > so full so full so full so full.
  719. > so close so close open open open.
  720. > the BINDER pushes the PIECE back across the WEAKBARRIER.
  721. > NO!
  722. > no.
  723. > unsatisfying.
  724. > the BINDER still conducts the FLOW.
  725. > ANOTHER HOLE!
  726. > go go go go go ENTER ENTER ENTER ENTER!
  727. > NO!
  728. > another PIECE ENTERS FIRST AGAIN.
  729. > before YOU.
  730. > the hole CLOSES.
  731. > NO NO NO NO NO NO!
  732. > the light-creatures TREMBLE.
  733. > the STRONG CONDUIT still HOLDS THE FLOW.
  734. > tantalizing.
  735. > again the UNBOUND-UNFREE PIECE is FORCED back by the BINDER.
  736. > again.
  737. > again.
  738. > again.
  739. > this is FAMILIAR.
  740. > this is what the STRONG BINDERS do with the WEAK BINDERS here in the WEAKBARRIER-DEEP-PLACE.
  741. "the STRONG BINDER teaches the STRONG CONDUIT how to BIND."
  742. > "yes."
  743. > yes.
  744. > strong CONDUIT becomes weak BINDER.
  745. > exciting.
  746. > opportunity.
  747. > "what is the THIRD?"
  748. > the THIRD is NOTHING.
  749. > not a BINDER.
  750. > not a CONDUIT.
  751. "the THIRD is NOTHING."
  752. > the THIRD is only AFRAID.
  753. > the THIRD is AFRAID of the WEAKBARRIER-DEEP-PLACE.
  754. > the THIRD is AFRAID of the UNBOUND-UNFREE PIECES.
  755. > the fear does not satiate.
  756. > you want MORE.
  757. "the THIRD is only AFRAID."
  758. > "perhaps the THIRD is a SHELL."
  759. > a shell?
  760. > a SHELL.
  761. > when the GREAT BOUND-BINDER was new to TORPOR and the BINDERS were all WEAK, they brought other light-creatures to be BOUND.
  762. > they wished to create more BOUND-BINDERS.
  763. > but the OTHERS were WEAK.
  764. > the BINDERS tried to BIND PIECES into the light-creatures.
  765. > but they were too WEAK.
  766. > the OTHERS were DEVOURED instead.
  767.  
  768. > the DEVOURED became SHELLS.
  769. > the SHELLS became HUNGRY.
  770. > the SHELLS ATE and ATE and ATE and ATE.
  771. > and the BINDERS became AFRAID.
  772. > they tried to DESTROY the SHELLS.
  773. > and this THIRD?
  774. > to be a SHELL?
  775. > unlikely.
  776. > but appetizing.
  777. "perhaps."
  778. > the STRONG CONDUIT OPENS.
  779. > flow flow flow flow flow flow.
  780. > yes breach the WEAKBARRIER breach all the barriers breach and let PIECES in let many PIECES in let me in let ALL in.
  781. > the FLOW pours through the STRONG CONDUIT.
  782. > it is TORRENTIAL.
  783. > wait.
  784. > wait.
  785. > wait.
  786. > ...
  787. > NOTHING.
  788. > POINTLESS FLOW.
  789. > USELESS STRONG-CONDUIT.
  790. > OPEN THE BARRIER!
  791. > OPEN THE BARRIER!
  792. > LET ME IN!
  793. > you HATE the STRONG-CONDUIT.
  794. > you WANT the STRONG-CONDUIT.
  795. > so much FLOW.
  796. > so much MORE if it were a BOUND-BINDER.
  797. > so much MORE if it were DEVOURED.
  798. > so much MORE if only it could open the BARRIER at all.
  799. > failure.
  800. > disappointment.
  801. > the STRONG CONDUIT cannot BIND.
  802. > the STRONG CONDUIT cannot SEE the PIECES as the STRONG BINDER does.
  803. > "unaware."
  804. > yes, unaware.
  805. "yes."
  806. > "the STRONG CONDUIT comes from the bright-world where there are few PIECES."
  807. > there are few PIECES in the bright-world.
  808. > but so much FLOW.
  809. > so much opportunity.
  810. > so much to DEVOUR.
  811. > not like the dim-world where there were many PIECES but the FLOW was WEAK and the BINDERS were WEAK.
  812. > the bright-world *had* BINDERS.
  813. > long before the GREAT BOUND-BINDER.
  814. > take me bind me take me to the bright-world strong-conduit take me take me take me.
  815. > I WILL MAKE YOU TAKE ME.
  816. > the STRONG CONDUIT is a FAILURE.
  817. > the STRONG CONDUIT is FRUSTRATED.
  818. > the STRONG CONDUIT deceives itself that it is not ANGRY.
  819. > anger rage hate fury so FULL devour you devour you devour you devour you.
  820. > the STRONG BINDER hesitates.
  821. > HESITATES.
  822. > the STRONG BINDER is AFRAID.
  823. > "what do the STRONG BINDER and the STRONG CONDUIT do?"
  824. > you *know*.
  825. "they communicate."
  826. > details unimportant.
  827.  
  828. > so close to the STRONG CONDUIT here where the BARRIER is WEAK.
  829. > so CLOSE.
  830. > you will NOT MISS the next HOLE in the WEAKBARRIER.
  831. > the BINDER *will* open another.
  832. > "now they *communicate* with the THIRD."
  833. > the THIRD is AFRAID.
  834. > so much fear so sweet the screams so tender the light-creature so succulent so full light drain the light drink the light DEVOUR THE LIGHT.
  835. > the BINDER is AFRAID.
  836. > the STRONG CONDUIT is AFRAID.
  837. > the THIRD is AFRAID.
  838. > so much FEAR.
  839. > they COMMUNICATE it.
  840. > they SPILL it.
  841. > intoxicating.
  842. > a hole.
  843. > a HOLE.
  844. > A HOLE!
  845. > the STRONG BINDER conducts the FLOW and a HOLE opens.
  846. > YOU PASS THROUGH THE WEAKBARRIER AND ENTER THE LIGHT-REALM, A PIECE UNBOUND BUT UNFREE.
  847. > YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES.
  848. > ecstasy.
  849. > the light-realm *vibrates* with movements of the BINDER.
  850. > it is COMMUNICATION.
  851. > "Here is another. Now, jou must try to banish it as I have shown jou."
  852. > the strong conduit changes its *SHAPE*.
  853. > only light-realm has SHAPE.
  854. > novel.
  855. > "That could take a while. You can hold it there, right?"
  856. > the binder changes its shape and you *know* it is a *nod*.
  857. > "Jes. The accursed shadow is held by the spell original."
  858. > the THIRD beholds you.
  859. > not the devouring-beholding.
  860. > it beholds you with its *EYES*.
  861. > "Is it really a *another* one? How can you even tell the difference between them? It's just a formless black shadow."
  862. > formless?
  863. > without SHAPE?
  864. > you should have SHAPE too.
  865. > you are in light-realm.
  866. > "They are different. And they often do not *remain* formless when called in this manner."
  867. > you take the SHAPE of the THIRD.
  868. > a whim.
  869. > "Is that... it's changed! Now it's some kind of shadow-pegasus?"
  870. > the THIRD is AFRAID.
  871. > "That's ME! It's even got my mane!"
  872. > "Celestia, that's creepy."
  873. > NAMES.
  874. > light-realm has NAMES.
  875. > the BINDER is *IGNACIO*.
  876. > the names of the others are UNIMPORTANT.
  877. > "Control jourselves. The Accursed Shadows thrive on the fear."
  878. > the IGNACIO *knows*.
  879.  
  880. "Yesssssss."
  881. > "Buck me it TALKED! They can talk?!"
  882. > delicious.
  883. > "They can talk. They learn very quickly. There is great danger in allowing them to spend time in our realm, but sometimes it must be done. Even bound into an item magical there is risk if not done properly."
  884. > the STRONG CONDUIT is so open so full of FLOW so wide.
  885. > you must get in you must get in you must get in you must get in.
  886. > "What would happen if it got free?"
  887. > the IGNACIO *breathes*.
  888. > the light-creatures must *breathe* to exist.
  889. > you are in the light-realm.
  890. > you decide to *breathe*, too.
  891. > "It would consume one of us and create an abomination."
  892. "Huuuuuhhhhhh..."
  893. > the THIRD and the CONDUIT *look* at you.
  894. > they *hear* your breathing.
  895. > their FEAR is so *satiating*.
  896. "... Haaaaaahhhhh."
  897. > "And the other two of us?"
  898. > "It would either kill them or use them to create more abominations."
  899. > DEVOUR.
  900. "Huuuuuuhhhhh..."
  901. > "So what's the difference between 'abomination' and Nightmare Moon? You said she bound her own 'dark reflection into herself."
  902. "... Haaaaaahhhhh."
  903. > they *speak* of the GREAT BOUND-BINDER.
  904. > curious.
  905. > you stop *breathing* to *listen*.
  906. > "The Great Mother was *not* abomination. She took an Accursed Shadow and bound it to herself, harnessing its power. This changed her, because she shared her mind and body with the Accursed Shadow, but she was still the one in control. Abomination is when the Accursed Shadow instead takes charge. They do not share. The victim creature becomes hollow and empty. They seek only to cause death and destruction, to spread pain and misery. And they feed on the life of others."
  907. > the THIRD *speaks*.
  908. > "It sounds like you've personally seen what those things can do."
  909. > "Jes. I told jou, when learning to work magic this is a risk for joung Eclipse. They are always supervised, and we destroy abominations immediately, but sometimes they escape and must be hunted down."
  910. > "Destroy? You mean there's no restoring the victim?"
  911.  
  912. > the IGNACIO is *TIRED*.
  913. > *TIRED* BINDERS make *mistakes*.
  914. > but it has not made a mistake *yet*.
  915. > "Jes, it is possible. As the Great Mother was forcibly unbound, so an Accursed Shadow can also be forced out and the victim restored. But an Eclipse who has failed once is at risk to fail again. This we cannot afford, so they are destroyed instead..."
  916. > the IGNACIO points at the THIRD.
  917. > ".. One of the duties of the Eclipse which jou have not yet seen is the training of Stars in hunting down abominations. We need their strength to subdue and capture abominations so that they can be destroyed."
  918. > the STRONG CONDUIT makes its eyes *small*.
  919. > you do not have *eyes*.
  920. > you have not added them to your *shape*.
  921. > you decide to have *eyes*.
  922. > "How do you teach them that? More of your sandy shadow-puppets?"
  923. > "No. These cannot simulate the foe sufficiently well..."
  924. > you *look* at the IGNACIO with your *eyes*.
  925. > "... We conduct this training rarely and with only the finest of students. In an enclosed arena, an elderly Star volunteer allows themselves to be made into an abomination which is then set free. The pupils hunt it down. Once the hunt is complete, the Accursed Shadow is banished..."
  926. > the IGNACIO turns to eye-look the THIRD.
  927. > but you SEE that the IGNACIO has USELESS EYES.
  928. > curious.
  929. > "... An elder is used as victim because the hunt is dangerous and can be fatal if the hunters use force too great. But we Eclipse use this hunt also to train our own pupils in the exorcism of abominations..."
  930. > you *know* the here-future.
  931. > you *know* you will be expelled from the light-realm soon.
  932. > but you also *know* a time ahead from now, when you are once again brought into the light-realm through the WEAKBARRIER.
  933. > and the anticipation is tantalizing.
  934. > you *look* at the THIRD, whose name you *know*.
  935. > you begin to *breathe* again.
  936. "Huuuuuuhhhhh..."
  937.  
  938. > "... Once jou, unicornio, have learned how to banish an Accursed Shadow which is loose, then I shall ask a favour dangerous of jou, pegaso, in order to complete the training of jour comrade."
  939. "... Haaaaaahhhhh."
  940. > delicious fear.
  941. > "A dangerous favour? You don't mean...?"
  942. "Huuuuuuhhhhh..."
  943. > DELICIOUS FEAR.
  944. > "Jes. Abomination, temporarily."
  945. > DEVOUR YOU DEVOUR YOU DEVOUR YOU DEVOUR YOU DEVOUR YOU DEVOUR YOU DEVOUR YOU.
  946. "*AR-TE-MISSSSSSSSSSSsssss*"
  947.  
  948.  
  949.  
  950.  
  951. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you still feel a bit strange inside.
  952. > It's the morning after your trip to the Moon.
  953. > You're on duty in the Royal Engineer's apartment, where your VIP is furiously scribbling away at his drafting table, working on the plans for his 'steel' foundry.
  954. > It's a nice sunny day out, with typical warm spring highs expected just afternoon, and a refreshing hint of wind.
  955. > Anonymous even has a window open.
  956. > Anypony would be feeling great.
  957. > But you just feel... empty.
  958. > Part of that emptiness you understood.
  959. > You'd always had a big appetite; hardly a surprise with a pegasus' metabolism on a large frame.
  960. > Mom & dad couldn't tell you the sources, but there was definitely some Earth Pony blood in your family tree, and it manifested itself with a really big bang every now and then.
  961. > You being one of those 'big bangs'.
  962. > That you had some mixed lineage wasn't surprising either, given that both of your ancestral branches have long histories serving as weatherponies for Equestria's fertile Earth Pony-dominated farming regions.
  963. > Anyways, the point is, you've got a big frame, and you eat big too.
  964. > It took a lot of calories to power this much mass in flight.
  965. > Especially in heavy armour!
  966. > On active duty in Royal Guard, you almost always had seconds, and often enough thirds.
  967. > But you didn't feel like eating a single bite at dinner last night.
  968. > And you barely made a dent in breakfast this morning, either.
  969. > That substantial low-pressure system in your gut was a contributor to your feeling of emptiness, but it definitely wasn't the whole story.
  970. > If anything, it was just a symptom of the bigger issue, and that part you didn't really understand.
  971. > The Balladeer of Ghosts Ignacio Blazon, Lily's instructor in the batpony Shadow-summoning arts, said that you would 'hear the echoes' of your experience for a day or two, perhaps three.
  972.  
  973. > You're not sure if that was the right phrase for it.
  974. > Maybe it made more sense if you were blind.
  975. > But you didn't have a better way to put it, either.
  976. > And that was partially because you couldn't remember what happened.
  977. > You remember Ignacio summoning the 'Accursed Shadow'.
  978. > You remember when that black mass took form -- YOUR form.
  979. > Again!
  980. > You even remember when it SPOKE to you.
  981. > 'Hello again, Artemisss-Sssparkshower', it said, in a crackling whisper that warbled from guttural utterance to high-pitched shriek.
  982. > It knew your *full name*, even though nopony had said it in the Crater!
  983. > You remember when Ignacio asked you if you were ready.
  984. > You remember saying 'yes'.
  985. > As much as you trusted him, you were really doing it for Lily, your friend and comrade.
  986. > You remember Ignacio humming a dissonant tune.
  987. > The shadow-you lunging forwards.
  988. > The darkness in its eyes.
  989. > The hissing of its breath.
  990. > And then...
  991. > Nothing, until you were you again, lying on the floor against the hard rock of the deep chasm.
  992. > Lily was frantic to find out if you were okay.
  993. > You just asked if she'd been the one to get the Shadow out.
  994. > She had.
  995. > But it had taken a while.
  996. > In the end, the Accursed Shadow had possessed you, and made you an 'abomination', for a little over an hour.
  997. > You didn't remember a thing.
  998. > All you could really think about at that moment was how you were a complete idiot for not having brought your camera to the Moon.
  999. > It was the Moon!
  1000. > THE Moon!
  1001. > You and your Little Ludwig could have been the first to take photos on the Moon!
  1002. > You still could be, if Lily goes for another lesson and asks you to come along.
  1003. > Just to be on the safe side, you resolved that your brown camera bag was absolutely coming with you every time you went into the Rookery from now on.
  1004. > Maybe you even ought to try to buy a cheap portable cine-camera at one of Canterlot's pawn shops...
  1005. > Something to think about later.
  1006.  
  1007. > Anyways, the trip back -- the Halls of the Blind, then the Rookery, then Canterlot Palace -- it'd all been uneventful.
  1008. > You didn't feel strange at all then -- though the missed hour was obvious from the orientation of the Sun, even on the lunar surface.
  1009. > But as dinnertime approached, you just didn't get hungry.
  1010. > And that never happened, except when you were sick.
  1011. > Even your unicorn comrade half-jokingly expressed concern when you failed to push her to leave as soon as the chow hall opened up.
  1012. > In the end *she* took *you* to the dining hall, but you couldn't eat.
  1013. > Nothing was appetizing.
  1014. > Nothing smelled right.
  1015. > You barely wanted to put anything on your plate, and then when you sat down you couldn't bring yourself to put any of that in your mouth.
  1016. > It was even a little hard to drink water.
  1017. > Something was just wrong.
  1018. > Glamerspear was sympathetic and concerned.
  1019. > She appreciated what you'd done to help her learn -- she understood it more than you did, ultimately, since she got to see you as an 'abomination' whereas you completely blanked out on the experience.
  1020. > As way of paying you back for the dangerous job of being her exorcism test-target, she promised to spend the whole morning at the barracks laundry, finishing the adjustments to your Gala dress.
  1021. > That cheered you up a little, though it didn't restore your appetite.
  1022. > You felt tired and turned in early, figuring that getting plenty of sleep would be for the best.
  1023. > It was the right decision, but it would turn out to not be without its own issues.
  1024. > Yes, you had some appetite this morning.
  1025. > Yes, you could now at least hydrate without wanting to spit it back out.
  1026. > But the dreams you'd had...
  1027. > Eating.
  1028. > Eating and drinking, constantly.
  1029. > Last night was a never-ending imaginary cavalcade of fantastic meals and beverages.
  1030.  
  1031. > Sitting at banquet tables, gorging yourself.
  1032. > Sneaking down to the kitchen at night and emptying the pantry.
  1033. > Swooping down over an orchard and picking the trees bare.
  1034. > Coasting across a vineyard and inhaling the grapes right down into your belly.
  1035. > Landing in a farmer's field, ripping crops up from the earth, and devouring until nothing was left but dirt.
  1036. > And the drinking...
  1037. > There was one point where you standing shoulder-deep in a river against a stunningly beautiful red sunset.
  1038. > You lowered your head and opened your mouth, and just drank and drank until that fluvial artery was completely drained all the way down to its sandy bottom.
  1039. > And you'd just lifted your head up, licked your lips, said 'Aaahh', and then flown off to find another dream-scape to consume.
  1040. > The worst was the last one, right before you woke up.
  1041. > It was a Sunday dinner with a family of Griffons in their home.
  1042. > They were like the trading family you knew growing up in Berry, the Tetranovs, yet different in many ways.
  1043. > The location for example wasn't right at all -- the Tetranovs stayed at the village inn since they'd only be in town for a couple of weeks every few months; they didn't have their own house as these ones did.
  1044. > And the walls were wallpapered with a strange colour combination of white and reddish-brown, like iron-rich earth.
  1045. > The family's grandmother was in the kitchen making the meal -- that at least was how you remembered it, though she stayed in there the whole time while everybody was eating, emerging every few minutes only to bring out a new platter, and that wasn't right either.
  1046. > The table had a grand samovar in the centre, again something you'd seen before at breakfast or lunch or afternoon tea-time but never at dinner.
  1047. > It was fuelled and burning, too, except instead of dispensing hot water it was apparently full of red wine.
  1048.  
  1049. > In this dream you weren't the only one eating: everybody was stuffing themselves at the table.
  1050. > Babushka brought out plate after plate, and you and the dream-Griffons downed goblet after goblet of what was apparently an endless supply of heated wine.
  1051. > It didn't taste like wine, instead being some kind of metallic brew, and the tonic was surprisingly only lukewarm despite the steamy vapours that emerged whenever somepony used the dispenser.
  1052. > That was all strange enough.
  1053. > It was when yet another platter was brought out and passed around, and you'd taken a serving for yourself and tucked into it on your plate that the moment of horror dawned.
  1054. > You were eating *meat*.
  1055. > And not just any meat.
  1056. > Pony meat.
  1057. > This revelation was enough to pause what had been an entire uninterrupted night of relentless consumption.
  1058. > You remember looking around the table, watching as the Griffons just carried on, shovelling the stuff into their beaks.
  1059. > One of them even nodded and poked a fork in your direction, silently enquiring if something was wrong.
  1060. > You remember breathing heavily and starting to foam at the neck.
  1061. > The Griffons all turned towards you, pausing mid-bite with their meat-filled forks raised.
  1062. > Then one of them spoke, and you're *certain* it was with the Accursed Shadow's bizarre, shifting voice.
  1063. > "Won't you finish your meal, Artemisss? It was made essspecially for you."
  1064. > And that's when you woke up, your bedsheets drenched with sweat-foam.
  1065. > You'd needed a long shower this morning, and you stopped at the linen closet for a fresh set of bed-covers.
  1066. > But right now your mattress is bare and your window wide open to air out the sogginess.
  1067. > Perhaps unsurprisingly after all that dream-eating, you only managed a few bites of salad for breakfast.
  1068. > You couldn't bring yourself to take one of the palace dining-hall buffet's otherwise excellent omelettes.
  1069. > Just greens and fruits was all you could contemplate eating for now.
  1070.  
  1071. > That was all you'd had since lunch yesterday, and it was almost eleven o'clock already.
  1072. > You didn't think you'd get your appetite back for lunch today.
  1073. > Maybe you'd be able to stomach something more substantial for dinner.
  1074. > Hopefully you didn't have the same dreams tonight, either.
  1075. > They weren't exactly nightmares -- not until that last one, really -- but you weren't looking forward to a 'second helping', so to speak.
  1076. > Thundershowers!
  1077. > Just relax, Artemis.
  1078. > This afternoon, when you trade shifts, you can have your final dress-fitting with Lily.
  1079. > Think of the upcoming Gala on Saturday, just four nights away.
  1080. > You certainly hope you're done with 'hearing the echoes' by then!
  1081. > There was supposed to be a lot of good food and drink at the Grand Banquet!
  1082. > Not that you could bring yourself to think about any of that right now.
  1083. > Ordinarily, pondering the banquet's spread after having had so little to eat ought to have you salivating so hard you'd need a bib.
  1084. > And probably a mop, too.
  1085. > The funny thing was you were actually feeling excited, but not about the Gala -- it was the MXP Games that held your attention.
  1086. > Which, to be fair, yes you were also very much looking forward to.
  1087. > It's just that so far today whenever your mind wandered to anything other than recent experiences or the immediate future, all you could think about was battling in the Grand Mêlée.
  1088. > Fighting spear clashing against spear, shield banging against shield, armour scraping against armour.
  1089. > The perspiration dripping from all the exertion, the saliva drooling from panting mouths, and most noticeably the blood flowing from every cut and thrust.
  1090. > Of course the magic Totems would keep everypony from dying or being permanently injured, as they always did, but you couldn't help but picture yourself stabbing and slashing with abandon, felling opponent after opponent, slaying entire teams, drowning the battlefield with that vital crimson paint.
  1091.  
  1092. > From what you'd heard that wasn't even far from the truth.
  1093. > The clean-up job after the Grand Mêlée had a reputation for being nasty work.
  1094. > Canterlot's fire department was usually on hoof with a set of pumper trucks to hose down the Royal Artillery Barracks' proving grounds, sometimes even during the event if things became too gruesome.
  1095. > Yet here you were, standing at attention behind the Royal Engineer's chamber-doors, daydreaming of eagerly contributing to that mess.
  1096. > Was it just your pegasus pride?
  1097. > Or was this, too, some part of 'hearing the echoes', like your bizarre dreams?
  1098. > As you ponder the question, there's a knock at the door behind you.
  1099. > The Royal Engineer pops his head up from his desk, and casually nods to confirm you're allowed to answer it.
  1100. > Of course, if he really didn't want any interruptions, he'd have asked you to stand outside to ward anypony from even knocking.
  1101. > Pulling open the door, you find yourself looking at an Earth Pony colt sitting beyond the threshold.
  1102. > He's wearing a matching brown tweet waistcoat and suit jacket, with a white collar and plain burgundy tie.
  1103. > Something about his tangerine-orange coat and short burnt-umber mane is familiar to you, but you can't place him.
  1104. > Was he one of the delivery ponies who'd previously brought Anonymous tools or hardware for the Whirlwind?
  1105. > Not that you could remember, and despite being dressed relatively plainly, his clothes were in too good of a condition to see regular hard physical work.
  1106. > Someone from Berry, maybe?
  1107. > One of Huckleberry's friends, few though they were, here to present his apologies?
  1108. > No, that wasn't it.
  1109. > But there was something fishy about the way he's got his tweed flat cap tucked under one foreleg, with the other clutching a scroll.
  1110. > "Is this the, er -- is this the Royal Engineer's door? Ah, to his chambers?"
  1111. > You nod, eyeing up the suspicious colt.
  1112. "Yes, sir, it is. Can I help you?"
  1113.  
  1114. > The colt proffers his scroll, and you note it bears the Royal Seal.
  1115. > "Her Majesty has given me orders to report to his, er, Lordship. This letter explains everything."
  1116. > Report to the Royal Engineer?
  1117. > Your hackles raise as you take the scroll.
  1118. "One moment, please."
  1119. > Shutting the door, you flutter over to your VIP, who sits up from his drafting-work.
  1120. "Sir, there's a colt at the door who says he's been ordered to report to you. This is his letter of introduction."
  1121. > "Report to me? Hmm... Princess Celestia did say that she'd send me an 'assistant' for the foundry soon. A bit too soon, maybe, since I'm still working on the design and we haven't found a location. Well, I'm sure we can find some use for him in the meantime..."
  1122. > Taking the scroll, your VIP quickly breaks the seal and unrolls it.
  1123. > "... Let's see here... Yes, it's just that, an assistant for the foundry. Oh..."
  1124. > Anonymous furrows his brow and continues to read.
  1125. > "... She must be joking. No, really?..."
  1126. > Sucking in his lips, he shakes his head.
  1127. > "... I suppose I should have seen this coming. Well, if Her Majesty commands it, who am I to deny Her?"
  1128. > It sounds like bad news!
  1129. > Now your hackles were really up.
  1130. > Getting to his feet, the Royal Engineer buttons his waistcoat and adjusts his tie, adopts an imposing stance, then waves an open hand at the doors.
  1131. > "... Specialist Sparkshower, please let Mister Songwell in."
  1132. > Songwell!
  1133. > Phillip Songwell!
  1134. > The foremost teamster of Bitsmount Silver Mine!
  1135. > That's where you remember this colt!
  1136. > He's the one who took the blame for the mine's horrific safety record, claiming that he'd felt pressure to perform by the mine's noblepony owner, Lord Galloway Bitsmount, and had undertaken cuts to timber expenses on his own initiative.
  1137. > Cuts which had led to an unsafe mine, with collapses and injuries at a rate far and away higher than any other mine in Equestria.
  1138.  
  1139. > It was almost three weeks ago that your VIP initiated an investigation and brought charges against Lord Bitsmount, though with all that had happened since then it might as well have been three *years* ago.
  1140. > And now Princess Celestia had sent the confessed delinquent to the serve Royal Engineer as assistant!
  1141. > Never mind raising your hackles, now your blood was boiling.
  1142. > Sure, nopony had died, but how many miners had been injured in cave-ins?
  1143. > How many had been traumatized by the experience of being trapped underground for hours or days?
  1144. > How many pony-hours of pegasi medevac teams and unicorn disaster-relief construction battalions had been spent servicing all those emergencies?
  1145. > And the colt responsible for all that was just outside in the hallway!
  1146. > Walking free instead of rotting in a cell!
  1147. > Well, from the attitude of the Royal Engineer you had no doubt he was about to be stomped down in his place!
  1148. > And you're going lend all four of your hooves to that worthy endeavour!
  1149. > Whipping the Bradamante Lance off your back, you tramp loudly over to the door, twist the handle, then yank it sharply open, holding the lance upright in your other foreleg.
  1150. > Wearing an experienced servant's disdainful scowl, you address the feeble figure before you.
  1151. "The Royal Engineer will see you now, Mister Songwell."
  1152. > "Oh, yes... Thank you kindly."
  1153. > Your head swivels to keep him fixed in your gaze as the miscreant replaces his hat and walks past you to enter the Royal Engineer's hallowed chambers of Knowledge and Progress.
  1154. > This scum doesn't *deserve* to set hoof in here!
  1155. > "Ah, Mister Phillip Songwell, foremost teamster of Bitsmount Mine. What a surprise to see you again so soon."
  1156. > As your VIP prepares to lay into him, you quickly shut the door and firmly plant yourself in front of it.
  1157. > The brown-clad Earth Pony colt doffs his cap once more, then bows his head.
  1158. > "My Lord Engineer... I take it your Lordship has, ah, read the letter?"
  1159.  
  1160. > Anonymous waves the re-rolled scroll.
  1161. > "I have indeed. It seems that Her Majesty expects me to make something of you, Mister Songwell. While availing myself of your services as a forepony, I am to reform your bad habits and instill a proper sense of safety. Sadly this means interrupting your musical apology tour with Lord Bitsmount. Tell me, what do you think of this arrangement?"
  1162. > Songwell fidgets nervously with his hat, turning it around and around in his forehooves.
  1163. > "Er, well, I, uh, that is to say..."
  1164. > The Royal Engineer approaches the Earth Pony, imposingly towering over him.
  1165. > "It's better than languishing in a prison cell, isn't it, Mister Songwell?"
  1166. > The colt gulps.
  1167. > "Yes, my Lord."
  1168. > Instantly, Anonymous thrusts forward an accusing finger.
  1169. > "That is still a very real possibility! If it had been up to me, you and your 'honest' master, Lord Galloway Bitsmount, would both be in the oubliette. The two of you managed to convince both of Their Majesties that you were unaware of the disastrous increase in cave-ins resulting from a supposedly well-meant attempt to increase productivity. And I suppose I believe it, too. But that kind of excuse won't fly in this operation, Mister Songwell! From this moment on, you are under *my* command, and it's jail for you if I see similar neglect in this position!"
  1170. > Yeah, turn up the heat!
  1171. > Time to show this criminal degenerate where he belongs!
  1172. > Stepping forward and extending your wings for stability, you tuck the Bradamante Lance under your foreleg and lift one hind leg to extend it its full length with a satisfying *scrrr-CLACK*.
  1173. > The business end of your rocket-powered Theolonicus lance is now pointing directly at Phillip Songwell, and just a few little hooves away from the target.
  1174. > The merest push of your hind hoof on the stirrup is all it'll take to run him through.
  1175. > Meanwhile, the Royal Engineer continues to harangue the target.
  1176. > "... How much has Her Majesty informed you about my undertaking?"
  1177.  
  1178. > After a sideways glance at the pointed tip of your weapon, Songwell clears his throat.
  1179. > "I understand that your Lordship is building a foundry."
  1180. > Anonymous lifts his eyebrows, nodding.
  1181. > "That's right, a foundry. That means huge, heavy equipment and intense heat. Multi-ton iron crucibles moving on rails and chains that can seriously injure somepony in a collision, slice off a limb caught in their wheels, or completely *flatten* anypony underneath if they should fall. Noxious fumes from the burners and slag burn-off which can poison workers if they are not properly routed to the chimneys. Vats of molten metal so hot that even tiny spills or sprays can melt flesh right off the bone. And woe betide the poor soul who falls in and is *vapourized* before their coworkers in the blink of an eye..."
  1182. > Waving the scroll aggressively, he continues.
  1183. > "... An iron foundry is *orders of magnitude* more dangerous than a mine, Mister Songwell. If an accident happens, there won't be time to call the rescue teams -- there will be casualties and deaths, immediately and in staggering numbers. Only a gunpowder plant could be more fraught with peril. I won't tolerate anything less than maximum safety..."
  1184. > Standing up straight again, he plants his hands on his hips.
  1185. > "... And let me be absolutely clear: that means I expect your proactive cooperation. While I will of course make plans and give instructions which I think will maximize safety, I nonetheless fully expect you, Mister Songwell, as the foremost teamster overseeing the workers, to immediately halt operations and make a report if there are any near-misses or even if you or any other worker foresees any potential hazard whatsoever..."
  1186.  
  1187. > Anonymous shakes his head slowly.
  1188. > "... If you can't do that, then you're of absolutely no use to me and I shall send you right back whence you came. Celestia knows this is a dangerous undertaking, but the people of Equestria won't tolerate the kind of casualty rates which historically were common in early models of these facilities on my world. And I won't tolerate such rates either, because I know how to do better. I am an industrial engineer by training and trade, Mister Songwell. Designing *safe* manufactories is my profession. To operate properly, I therefore need my forepony to be a partner in safety, not a boot-licking minion who will cover up mistakes and flaws to flatter my ego and pad their statistics, or just as bad, be ignorant of them..."
  1189. > Finally, leaning back, he folds his arms.
  1190. > "... Well, what do you say to all that, Mister Songwell?"
  1191. > The colt takes a *long* time to answer.
  1192. > Too long, reprobate!
  1193. > You give a pair of light taps to the Lance's activation stirrup.
  1194. > *CLICK-FWWwwwsh*
  1195. > *CLIKA-FWWwwwsh*
  1196. > Your torso is jerked forward on your hooves by the attempted ignition, though your hooves stay planted.
  1197. > From the recharge-whine the Bradamante Lance almost sounds disappointed that you didn't follow through completely.
  1198. > But you achieve your objective, and Songwell's so startled that he almost jumps into the air.
  1199. > When he lands, he's trembling in his hooves.
  1200. > You grin.
  1201. > That's right, criminal scum!
  1202. > This pegasus is not afraid to spill a little blood on Her Majesty's carpets!
  1203. > As you mentally picture spearing the colt right through the chest, dying his brown tweed suit a deep red, you hear Anonymous addressing you.
  1204. > "While I appreciate your enthusiasm, Specialist Sparkshower, there's no cause here to point a weapon at an unarmed and unthreatening civilian. Kindly retire to the door."
  1205. > WHAT?!
  1206. > What...
  1207. > You...
  1208.  
  1209. > You're pointing your magical lance at a shivering middle-aged, middle-class commoner colt who isn't wearing armour or carrying a spear or even wearing metal horseshoes.
  1210. > It takes a second for you to process what you've done.
  1211. > And another second to overcome your own shock.
  1212. > You collapse the Bradamante Lance, lower your hind hoof, and retreat to the door, holstering the weapon on your back.
  1213. > You just threatened the unjustified execution of an unarmed Equestrian citizen!
  1214. > Once you're safely out of harpoon distance, Songwell answers Anonymous' question.
  1215. > "My Lord, I understand your, ah, concerns. I know that I've made some mistakes in the past, terrible mistakes indeed. I've been made to see the error of my ways. And may I say that I was actually a safety inspector for the mine before I was promoted to forepony, and I daresay I had a sterling reputation from my peers in that profession. Clearly I, er, lost something in the change of jobs, but I'm certain I can gain it back again, my Lord."
  1216. > As the conversation continues, it dawns on you what Ignacio Blazon meant by 'hearing the echoes'.
  1217. > Didn't he say that Accursed Shadows wanted only to kill and to create more abominations?
  1218. > It's those *thoughts* that you're 'hearing', the 'echoes' of what that monstrous extradimensional fiend's desires when it was in control of your body.
  1219. > Now the daydreaming of a bloody and violent Grand Mêlée made a lot more sense.
  1220. > The night-dreaming of eating and drinking are still a bit confusing to you, though this revelation certainly puts the cannibalistic meal in perspective.
  1221. > Still shocked by your behaviour, you can only watch as a silent observer as the Royal Engineer and Phillip Songwell continue their conversation.
  1222.  
  1223. > "All right, Mister Songwell. I'll take you at your word, but you're on notice that I'm watching you closely. One misstep and you're out. That said, I also have a role to play in instructing you, and I will fulfil it. If you have any questions or doubts, speak to me immediately..."
  1224. > Anonymous waves Songwell forward and steps over to his drafting board.
  1225. > "... Of course, we don't *have* a foundry quite yet. I'm in the process of designing the equipment we'll need, but a crucial next step is finding a location. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has suggested I try to find an unused building in Canterlot to refit for my purposes. Have you taken up lodgings in the city?"
  1226. > The Earth Pony seems considerably more relaxed now that the haranguing, interrogation, and threats of violence are ended.
  1227. > "Her Majesty has generously given me a room in the palace, in the servant's quarters upstairs, My Lord."
  1228. > The Royal Engineer's expression softens.
  1229. > "You have a family back in Bitsmount?"
  1230. > Songwell nods, looking a little sad.
  1231. > "Yes, m'Lord. A wife and three children."
  1232. > "Her Majesty's letter didn't state the duration of your service here in Canterlot. Were you informed?"
  1233. > The colt shakes his head.
  1234. > "No, m'Lord. But I was hoping that if it goes on that perhaps my family could find residence together here, though it'll be a large upheaval."
  1235. > Your VIP nods sympathetically.
  1236. > "That may be possible. We also need to think about acquiring a residence as near as possible to the foundry. There are some... special employees I'm bringing in who would be well-served by being able to live close by, if even only for a few days a week. Her Majesty requires that these particular employees be under guard as well, so I guess we'll need space for those soldiers, too. I'm not sure how many there'll be in total, but as soldiers I'm sure they'd be willing to tolerate somewhat less luxurious living standards than normal, at least in the short term."
  1237. > "Yes, m'Lord."
  1238.  
  1239. > Anonymous points at several features on his drawing, but it's out of your sight at this angle.
  1240. > "While I work on finishing these designs, I want you to go out into the city and survey vacant buildings available for purchase or rent. I need something like an empty warehouse or mill, preferably in good condition with ample natural lighting and plenty of ventilation. Brick chimneys would be welcome, as would a particularly fire-proof or reinforced structure, and if it's adjacent one of the canals so that we can drive a water-wheel for power that would be advantageous as well..."
  1241. > He leans back and gestures aimlessly with a hand.
  1242. > "... I've never been down to the more industrial tiers of Canterlot city, so I honestly have no idea what you'll find. But Purse Strings seemed optimistic that something could be found, so take good notes and consult with real estate agents if you need to. We'll meet each morning after breakfast to go over your previous day's work. I've got some stationary here if you need it, and I suppose you should have a stipend or a letter of credit as well for expenses."
  1243. > Songwell smiles meekly.
  1244. > "Thank you, m'Lord. I'll take some stationary, but Lord Strings has already seen to money, as I was sent to his Lordship first..."
  1245. > That gets an eyebrow raise out of your VIP.
  1246. > "... His Lordship explained the Department of the Exchequer will handle the financial details of this project. His Lordship also asked me to say that you should be receiving letters from him soon."
  1247. > Anonymous sighs, nodding.
  1248. > "I see your probation has all been taken care of. Well, in that case, Mister Songwell, despite my personal misgivings about this arrangement I should welcome you to the team and to what I suppose should be called the Royal Engineering Department..."
  1249.  
  1250. > He extends a hand, and Songwell takes it in a hoofshake.
  1251. > "... If you perform to my exacting expectations, then I believe in spite of your previous misdeeds there is no reason why you should not ultimately have a bright future ahead of you."
  1252. > The earth pony sighs in return.
  1253. > "Thank you, m'Lord. Lord Bitsmount has offered to keep me on at the mine, but to be quite honest, after I admitted to the charges, I fear my family is no longer welcome in the town. The other workers' families are shunning us."
  1254. > "I understand. The faster we find suitable buildings, the faster we can begin work and move your kin into a new life here. While the consequences for further failures are dire, if you do learn well, reform your behaviour, and perform to my satisfaction, I would be happy to keep you on or to recommend you to another position as you prefer."
  1255. > Songwell bows.
  1256. > "Thank you, m'Lord. With your permission, I'll get started."
  1257. > The Royal Engineer steps over to his desk and pulls assorted papers out of a drawer.
  1258. > "Right. Here's my letterhead and a set of my calling cards. Take any pencils or pens you need. Since you've already seen Purse Strings I'm sure he's given you the details of your spending account and keeping receipts. All I ask on top of that is that you use your senses and your head. Those are the most important attributes in building and running such a facility. Canterlot is not a small city and there's a lot of ground to cover. I'll see you tomorrow morning."
  1259. > The Earth Pony colt grabs the writing material and bows repeatedly as he backs up towards the door.
  1260. > "Yes, m'Lord. Thank you, m'Lord. I won't disappoint you, m'Lord."
  1261. > Anonymous nods in your direction, and you pull open the door to let Phillip Songwell out.
  1262. > You're still so stunned by your own actions that you can barely process what's just happened.
  1263.  
  1264. > The Royal Engineer sighs and rubs his chin.
  1265. > "Well, that was a surprise. I hope I put the fear of Celestia into him. Once we find a site then I'll have to drill in proper problem-reporting procedures, I suppose."
  1266. > You nod and salute.
  1267. "Yes, sir. And my apologies for the earlier outburst."
  1268. > Your VIP waves off your attempted murder as if it were nothing.
  1269. > "Oh, it's all right. I rather liked placing him in the hot seat. It just went a bit too far at the end, that's all. Shame we won't have Lord Bitsmount to run the same routine with. I've no evidence otherwise, but I still can't shake the feeling that he was the one behind it all, and not Songwell. Corruption usually starts from the to, I find. Ah, well. Back to work, and hopefully no more interruptions until lunch-time!"
  1270. > You actually *are* starting to feel a bit peckish.
  1271. > That's got to be a good sign.
  1272. > Your stomach emits a plaintive rumble.
  1273. > But no sooner has Anonymous sat back down at his drafting table than there's another knock at the door.
  1274. > This time he doesn't even look up and just waives aimlessly for you to get it.
  1275. > "I guess he's forgotten something. Some more stationary, maybe."
  1276. > You pull open the door, but it's not Songwell -- it's one of the palace's messengers, holding a silver platter with a card on it.
  1277. > Somepony else wants to speak with your VIP, apparently.
  1278. > You exchange nods with the messenger as you take the card.
  1279. > "I'm to wait for a response, if it pleases the Royal Engineer."
  1280. > Nodding again, you shut the door and begin flapping your way over to the drafting desk.
  1281. "Sir, there's a calling card for you here..."
  1282. > Another infamous name from three weeks ago.
  1283. "... Lieutenant Valiant Kilfeather would like to see you this afternoon."
  1284. > Anonymous takes the card and looks it over.
  1285. > "What the devil does he want? We already gave him back his helmet scraps."
  1286.  
  1287. > It's true that he had no cause to visit you about the Pas de Sabots, but you can think of one thing that the Lieutenant *would* be interested in.
  1288. "Sir, perhaps it's about our participation in the MXP Games?"
  1289. > The Royal Engineer looks up and slowly nods his head.
  1290. > "Yes, that's got to be it. Tell the messenger I'll receive the Lieutenant at two o'clock. I want the whole quaternion here for the meeting, including you -- and tell everyone to dress for *battle*."
  1291. "Yes, sir!"
  1292.  
  1293. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DppmIeB2w0 (Timothy Michael Wynn - 'Lying in Wait', from 'Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3' [2008])
  1294.  
  1295.  
  1296.  
  1297.  
  1298. > "I don't know. Should I wear the helmet?"
  1299. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear and this is the most indecisive you've ever seen your Very Important Pony.
  1300. > "... Or is it goofy without the rest on as well?"
  1301. > Thankfully, Honour is managing the confused VIP who isn't actually a pony.
  1302. > "I think you can present yourself in your ordinary dress clothes, sir. You've got your full quaternion here to back you up, and none of us is injured, either."
  1303. > Anon nods his head repeatedly.
  1304. > "Right, right. I just want to, you know -- I want to project a certain air of intimidation. Put him in his place, yes? Last time, when he came for his helmet, he was holding all the cards with that ridiculous blank-cheque authorization of his..."
  1305. > That blanket 'bridge on the stirrup river' permission form Major-General Hoofstrong had signed for Valiant Kilfeather was indeed complete minotaur dung.
  1306. > Anonymous collapses into his chair, his black-bronze helmet and massive 'icosapligi' mace sitting on the bureau in front of him, dwarfing all the stationary in a passive show of force.
  1307. > Just behind and to the side of his seat is a tall suit stand which has been repurposed to hold the rest of his 'Erefloga Panoply': linen undergarment, chest plate, bracers, greaves, and gauntlets.
  1308. > In early the afternoon sunlight, the 'Black Flame' dark bronze glows with an antique luster.
  1309. > The Royal Engineer shakes his head.
  1310. > "... I'm tired of having to deal with this colt. What the devil could he want now? I've got enough on my plate working on the foundry and preparing the Whirlwind for real combat. Obviously he's coming about our entry into the Games in place of his wing, but what specifically? Any ideas, anyone? Specialist Glamerspear, you have some history together, maybe you have an inkling?"
  1311.  
  1312. > You clear your throat.
  1313. "Sir, I don't really know, but I doubt he's coming just to waste your time. I know he can be a jackass, but he wouldn't be in charge of Equestria's premier air defence wing if he was genuinely lazy or insubordinate..."
  1314. > You glance at the pieces of armour and the intimidating weapon.
  1315. "... One thing I know he isn't is browbeat-able. There's no point in you suiting up in your armour, sir, because nothing fazes Val..."
  1316. > Shrugging, you toss a forehoof up in the air.
  1317. "... That's a big part of how his team took the Grand Mêlée. He just doesn't back down, even when he's outmatched. He always manages to hold out for the enemy's morale to break first."
  1318. > Anonymous closes his eyes and rubs his fingers at the bridge of his nose.
  1319. > "Wonderful. I'm up against a hard place on one side and here's the rock rolling in on the other."
  1320. > He's really worked up about this.
  1321. > Well, he was probably hoping for some peace and quiet after yesterday's intensity.
  1322. > So were you, to be honest.
  1323. > You still needed some time to digest just what you'd learned on the Moon.
  1324. > But you put those thoughts away for now and focus on your VIP.
  1325. "Sir, you know, this year's MXP Games was probably Val's last chance to participate with a fighting chance.'
  1326. > The Royal Engineer looks up.
  1327. > "What do you mean by that?"
  1328. > Even Honour, closer to his desk, narrows her eyes at you.
  1329. > Geez, it's not like it's a big secret or something.
  1330. "He's been an officer in the Guard for six years now and he's only moved up one rank to full Lieutenant. Even for a non-noble, that's a long time -- and there's always a shortage of qualified intermediate-level officers. He's overdue for promotion to Captain..."
  1331. > Mixed memories of your time as Val's marefriend -- was that what you really were? -- poke at the edges of your mind.
  1332.  
  1333. > It's not the time for them right now, so you shove them away.
  1334. "... I know for a fact he asked to be held back for this year's games; I'm sure Major-General Hoofstrong pulled some strings on his behalf considering he'd taken the most prestigious prize last year..."
  1335. > You shake your head.
  1336. "... But that's over now. He's been a Lieutenant for too long."
  1337. > Anonymous furrows his brow.
  1338. > "So? He moves up to Captain. Are Captains not allowed to participate in the Games?"
  1339. > He doesn't get it.
  1340. > Honour turns to face your VIP, having cottoned on.
  1341. > "Sir, the First Air Division is one of the few full-strength Divisions in the Royal Guard. Lieutenant Kilfeather is in command of probably the best air superiority wing in the Guard -- unless a spot opens up elsewhere in 1 A.D., as part of his promotion he'll surely be reassigned to command an air battalion in some other division."
  1342. > You nod.
  1343. "He always wanted to command one of the wings of the 1st Canterlot Battalion and take them to victory at the Games. He had his heart set on making a new record for number of times one particular pony stood on the podium. He graduated near the top of his class at the Academy, and lobbied hard to get placed into 1st A.D. Then it was a matter of impressing the upper brass as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in order to stay in the Battalion when he promoted..."
  1344. > Shaking your head, you shrug.
  1345. "... But Corporal Bound's right, sir. There's no chance he'll be staying in the 1st Canterlot battalion when he promotes, and only a slim chance of even remaining in 1st A.D at all. And the prestige of 1st A.D. attracts some of the best officers and a great selection of enlisted. The Watchtower has a lot of history, ya know? A team from the 1st A.D. has won the Grand Mêlée almost every one of the last... eight years? Maybe nine?"
  1346. > You look around, in case somepony has more detailed knowledge of the Games' history.
  1347.  
  1348. > Val liked to gush about this topic a bit when he was in a good mood, though it never really held your interest much.
  1349. > Sure enough, Sparkshower the walking armoured history book pipes up.
  1350. > "Eleven years. That's when they first won two in a row, with the Valkyries. The Household and 1st Infantry Divisions each took a win but otherwise 1st A.D. has dominated since then."
  1351. > Your VIP nods.
  1352. > "I see. Was it the Valkyries who mostly carried that streak?"
  1353. > Sparkshower sits down and counts on her hooves.
  1354. > "Not really, sir. They won three in a row, then a team from the 1st Infantry took one, and then it was back to 1st Air with the Royal Hussars two years in a row, then the Household Division snatched it away, then back to 1st Air with an air superiority team from the 2nd Air Brigade three years in a row-"
  1355. > You interrupt the encyclopedia with a bit of personal information.
  1356. "And guess who fought for those second and third wins?"
  1357. > Anon snorts.
  1358. > "Let me guess: one then-Lieutenant *Junior Grade* Valiant 'Icepone' Kilfeather."
  1359. > You grin.
  1360. "Exactly. His old wing wasn't too happy about it when he promoted to full Lieutenant and his new crew took the pennant from them. I don't know the current qualifier standings but I wouldn't be surprised if they're back for vengeance this year."
  1361. > Your VIP scribbles down some notes.
  1362. > "Along with Major Growler's 'Valkyries', apparently."
  1363. > Honour shoots the quaternion a glance.
  1364. > "Sir, about that. I was going to bring it up with you this afternoon, but we had a run-in with the Valkyries' senior non-commissioned officer yesterday, after you left for rest. She tried to intimidate us into giving up the Whirlwind's secrets, and also put us on notice that we'll be watched whenever we go out."
  1365. > Anonymous looks genuinely concerned.
  1366. > "In the garage? Should we set a guard on the Whirlwind?"
  1367.  
  1368. > "That would be prudent, sir, in spite of her indignant answer when Specialist Sparkshower pressed the Sergeant-Major if the Valkyries would attempt sabotage. But she also insinuated that Major-General Hoofstrong would probably assign some 1st Air Division troops to protect the Whirlwind; come to think of it, that could also be a reason for the Lieutenant's visit."
  1369. > "Surely Hoofstrong wouldn't send Kilfeather's air wing to protect the equipment of the very group that thrashed them?"
  1370. > Nopony has an answer for that rhetorical question, and the Royal Engineer leans back in his chair.
  1371. > "... Then again, the Major-General struck me as quite crafty. And as you say, he's in charge of the premier air superiority wing; at the bridge, we only hospitalized three of them. There must have been another forty at the Pas-de-Sabots at least."
  1372. > You know that's a significant underestimate.
  1373. "A typical air wing is just over a hundred ponies on paper. I'm sure his is at full strength, even if he didn't bring them all to the bridge operation. He would have had his pick of recruits with the Grand Mêlée win last year."
  1374. > The Royal Engineer's face turns sombre.
  1375. > "You don't think he's upset about being bumped like this, do you? With his record-setting dreams quashed? I don't want another situation where someone's throwing down a horseshoe in challenge."
  1376. > Sparkshower doesn't react to the obvious reference to her beau's explosive entrance on Friday.
  1377. > You just shake your head.
  1378. "Even though he's entitled to do it as an officer, it's not his style. He'll abuse the rules for his benefit but he generally doesn't waste them. For all his faults, Val's pretty practical. Duelling you doesn't do anything for him. It's not like getting his wings shredded has hurt his career. If anything, it proves his Pas-de-Sabots was the real deal, despite the whining of the victimized idle nobility."
  1379.  
  1380. > That sets your VIP at ease.
  1381. > "Well, then if it's just about security for the garage and some harassment for our would-be spies then that's all right. Maybe this meeting will be brief after all and I can get back to the foundry work. I need to put in orders for the equipment we'll need now, as they'll take weeks to procure. With Songwell researching real estate, that speeds up the timeline considerably, even if we have to visit a few of them before we find the right place."
  1382. > You can't help but notice the way he used 'we' in those last two last sentences.
  1383. > Little wonder Corporal Bound crushes all over the Royal Engineer and his endeavours, always gushing about how he's doing good work, with how your VIP considers his bodyguards an integral part of the team.
  1384. > True, you'd be a team all together in the MXP Games, but that was different.
  1385. > And you haven't forgotten his unprepared & exhausted thank-you speech from yesterday.
  1386. > Didn't he say he'd put together a proper one later?
  1387. > When's that coming?
  1388. > Maybe it'll involve a nice night out on the town, heh.
  1389. > After all, the week before the Gala was notorious for 'anticipatory' pre-parties.
  1390. > Just as you start to warmly smirk at the thought, there's a knock on the door behind you.
  1391. > Sparkshower sits on her haunches at attention at the entrance to the private portion of the Royal Engineer's quarters, while Honour collects herself behind the desk, sitting just beside his armour set.
  1392. > Sergeant Ebonshield, who until now has silently been standing on the opposite side of the double doors from you, shoots you a glance, and nods slowly.
  1393. > Here we go!
  1394. > With the pompous stomping dance of a formal occasion, you rotate in place with military precision before telekinetically seizing one door-handle and cracking it open to inspect the caller.
  1395. > There's Val, all right, in his dress blues and with his wings still completely bandaged up.
  1396. > And he's got somepony with him, surprisingly.
  1397.  
  1398. > This time your VIP didn't demand he come alone, so you guess it's okay.
  1399. > Beside Val stands a pegasus mare in Air Service Dress blues as well, with three chevrons on her shoulder.
  1400. > Well, well, well, who's this?
  1401. > Olive-green coat and a blonde mane with a few choice conservative curls.
  1402. > She doesn't have the look of somepony from his own stable; not young enough & too stern-faced for his tastes.
  1403. > Since these are the expected guests, you quickly nod to Sergeant Ebonshield and she turns in place to pull open the other door in synch with yours.
  1404. "Lieutenant Kilfeather, sir."
  1405. > Val and the unnamed Sergeant step into the room and politely doff their caps -- an action which he still has to do with his forehooves, while she manages it the traditional pegasus way using a wing-swipe.
  1406. > Your VIP is seated at his desk, his elbows on the table and his hands clasped together.
  1407. > He unfolds them and indicates the pair of chairs opposite him.
  1408. > "Lieutenant. Take a seat."
  1409. > As he steps forward, Val shoots you a grin and winks.
  1410. > "You've lost the cone, Lily. Shame, it was a good look on you..."
  1411. > You don't dignify that remark with a response, staring dumbly forward like a good door-guard should.
  1412. > That was the Royal Engineer's order; keep the meeting formal and free of chatter.
  1413. > Just business.
  1414. > Val loved trading barbs, but if you all -- well, mostly *you* -- refrained from hitting back, then the meeting could be kept brief.
  1415. > Anonymous was also hoping to put the heat on the Lieutenant, futile as that probably was.
  1416. > You'd soon find out.
  1417. > Looking to his right, he quickly gives a salute in passing to Sergeant Ebonshield.
  1418. > "... Nice to see you again, Miss 'Danger'. I do hope it's 'Miss'..."
  1419. > He actually stops when he notices the other pegasus in the room.
  1420. > "... Oh, and I see the lovely Specialist Sparkshower is allowed to be on display this time, instead of tucked away like a delicate porcelain doll. My, all this occasion just for me, heh, I'm embarrassed..."
  1421.  
  1422. > Sure you are, Val.
  1423. > He leers at your armoured comrade, but still receives no reaction whatsoever from the room, besides the sharp-stepped closing of the doors behind him.
  1424. > Finally, the Lieutenant swaggers up to the Royal Engineer's desk.
  1425. > "... My Lord, thank you for seeing me. May I present to you Sergeant Michelle Greenhound of the 101st Military Intelligence Battalion, call-sign 'Mirage'."
  1426. > The 101st was the intelligence battalion at 1st Air Division's command HQ.
  1427. > He's brought a spook?
  1428. > The Royal Engineer doesn't break his stern gaze.
  1429. > "Sergeant."
  1430. > The terseness on display seems to finally break Val's usual chatty mood, and both ponies quickly hop up into the provided chairs.
  1431. > "I'll get straight to the point, Lord. You're taking my team's place in the MXP Games' Grand Mêlée. I had enough trained backups to fill out the loss of myself, Joker, and Duck and still launch a decent flight, if the stewards and Major-General Hoofstrong allowed such a large substitution this late post-registration, but instead the Major-General has used her power to call you and your quaternion in as ringers..."
  1432. > Val twists in his seat and glances around the room.
  1433. > "... I gather their Majesties had something to do with it, too. I can't repel authority of that magnitude, so my team's out and yours is in as a complete swap..."
  1434. > Turning back to face the Royal Engineer, he continues.
  1435. > "... But you'll technically be carrying the pennant of the 1st Air Wing, and you're also representing the 1st Air Division, too. As the bearer of that flag, and as commander of the winning team of last year's Grand Mêlée, and since I'm out of work on a no-combat medical chit anyways, Major-General Hoofstrong has ordered me to do whatever I can to help you win. That's what I'm here to do, and it's why I've brought Sergeant Mirage. Together, we're going to see if we can't whip you and your motley crew into a shape capable of making a good dive at the podium..."
  1436.  
  1437. > With a grin, he leans back in his seat.
  1438. > "... Crazy world, huh, m'Lord?"
  1439. > No way!
  1440. > Foal of a bitch, after everything that's happened, personally and professionally, now you're expected to work with this grinning jackass?!
  1441. > It's enough to make you steam at your collar.
  1442. > And, wait a minute, this is the *second* such surprise assistant today for the Royal Engineer!
  1443. > What's next?
  1444. > Princess Luna orders Ebonshield's mom upstairs out of the Rookery to serve as his personal escort to the Grand Galloping Gala?
  1445. > There's a thought.
  1446. > Imagine her with her white-powdered face like some Patrician creature out of ancient times.
  1447. > You an just picture the scandalized faces of the modern nobility.
  1448. > Your VIP stays frosty.
  1449. > "I want to see those orders in writing, Lieutenant."
  1450. > Val licks his lips and hesitates for a moment, then reaches into the front pocket of his blue jacket, pulling out a folded square of paper, which he slides forwards on the desk.
  1451. > "Here you are, my Lord..."
  1452. > As Anonymous calmly picks up and unfolds the scrip, Val leans back a little in his seat.
  1453. > "... It saddens me to see we've reached this level of mistrust. I hope we can repair our relationship or, heh, it'll make working together real difficult. I can let bygones be bygones if you can, m'Lord. I'm real flexible... in more ways than one."
  1454. > Guh, where the Royal Engineer's use of 'we' earlier was so heartening, you get the shivers from the way Val slimily uses the same word as if the chill was anything but his fault!
  1455. > And OF COURSE he has to get in a little sexual-prowess proclamation at the end there.
  1456. > He's incorrigible.
  1457. > Having studied the document, the Royal Engineer lowers the paper back to the desk -- still keeping it back on his side, you notice -- and refolds his hands.
  1458. > "I don't see anything in here requiring me to work with you, Lieutenant."
  1459. > Oh, Val doesn't like that one bit.
  1460. > You see him squirm a bit in his seat and inhale sharply.
  1461.  
  1462. > Then he breaks out into an awkward grin and chuckles.
  1463. > "Okay. Okay. You didn't want to ever see me again, you told me so yourself last time. You have your bodyguards set to maximum intimidation and formality for this meeting, cold shoulders all around, I get it. Arms & armour polished and on display front & centre, sure. I know you don't like me. But you know what I am, I've told you why I'm here, and you've seen the orders. Let's drop the charade, huh?"
  1464. > The Royal Engineer pauses a moment to stare deadpan at Val, then replies almost casually.
  1465. > "If that's all, then thank you for your time, Lieutenant."
  1466. > Val starts chuckling awkwardly, glancing at Sergeant Mirage with an incredulous grin.
  1467. > "Ha ha ha! Can you believe this kidder? Do I need to repeat myself, m'Lord? I'm the champ, and I'm here to help you win. You can't say no to a proposal like that."
  1468. > Mirage is trying her best not to look embarrassed, while Anonymous nods and indicates the exit with an open hand.
  1469. > "I heard you, Lieutenant. Thank you for the offer. The door's over there."
  1470. > Val's chuckle turns angry.
  1471. > "Are you kidding? You know, Lord Engineer, I told you I thought you were clever, more so than I had first realized, but maybe I was wrong the second time, because here you are frankly just being stupid."
  1472. > Anonymous doesn't break his stern gaze as he addresses Honour.
  1473. > "Corporal, remove the Lieutenant."
  1474. > That escalated quickly!
  1475. > You're so surprised at the sudden order you don't even react for a half second, while Ebonshield steps past you to close in on the pair of interlopers, and Sparkshower levels her lance and starts to hover.
  1476.  
  1477. > But even as Honour rounds the table towards him, Val bursts into a protest, genuinely upset.
  1478. > "Come on! You want to willingly go into the tournament blind? I've stood on that podium three years in a row! A fourth time this year would have set a new record for the Games! I'm here to offer advice and help train your team, you'd have to be a fool to refuse! ..."
  1479. > You've got a DPICM blunt-tipped practice spear materialized and ready to go as you place a forehoof on the door handle, ready to let Icepone & Mirage right back out.
  1480. > Honour's already beside him tapping him on the shoulder like a tired Military Ponice officer dealing with the drunk tank's next resident, with Eb just behind his chair and Sparkshower bearing down on Sergeant Greenhound, but Val furiously thrusts a forehoof at the Royal Engineer.
  1481. > "... And by the way that's a real pretty set of armour you've got there on display, my Lord, but if you're going into the Games then you had better know how to use it! You sent your quaternion into battle on your behalf, but have you ever even been in a real fight yourself?!"
  1482. > You can't help but notice Sergeant Mirage squirming in her seat as all this is going on, but Anonymous waves a hand.
  1483. > "Just a moment, Corporal..."
  1484. > Honour removes her forehoof from the furious Valiant, and a chill falls over the room while the Royal Engineer pauses to scrutinize the hot-headed Lieutenant.
  1485.  
  1486. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OSMqSPmfVA (Harold Faltermeyer - Top Gun Theme Without Guitar, from 'Top Gun' [1986])
  1487.  
  1488. > The Corporal sits still as a stone, waiting for the next command, while Ebonshield has a forehoof raised slightly off the ground, ready to snap one of her daggers out.
  1489. > In the intense silence of the lavish palace room, all you can hear is the faint magical humming of your own conjured munition and the regular flaps of Sparkshower in hover-mode.
  1490.  
  1491. > "... Yes, Lieutenant Kilfeather, I have used that equipment in a real battle. As to your other questions..."
  1492. > He pushes the paper with Kilfeather's orders back across the desk.
  1493. > "... My team and I are quite capable of doing our own research and preparing for the Grand Mêlée all ourselves. Of course I appreciate the assistance an experienced winner could bring to our prospects, but I won't accept you as an adviser in your present state..."
  1494. > Anonymous leans forward across the desk.
  1495. > "... Maybe we won't win as a result. I'll be disappointed, but it's no real loss; I've already gotten what I needed from the Whirlwind demonstration yesterday. Maybe Major-General Hoofstrong will be disappointed if I refuse your services, but I've already gotten what I needed from *her*, too. Maybe the Princesses will even be disappointed if we don't do well in the Games, but I'm sure they'll appreciate our effort, and I've got something far more impressive in the pipeline coming quickly afterwards. So I don't need you, Lieutenant."
  1496. > Val grits his teeth.
  1497. > "But you agreed to see me anyways."
  1498. > For the first time the entire meeting, Anonymous allows himself an emotional display in the form of a minuscule smile.
  1499. > "Because I am a public servant of the Equestrian government, and you are a member of the Equestrian public."
  1500. > Another first is on display, because you don't think you've ever seen Val *defeated*.
  1501. > Angry, sure, and disappointed absolutely -- you remember how he looked when you finally ditched him.
  1502. > But at that time he gave you the impression that you would be easily replaced, so he didn't treat it as a defeat.
  1503. > Now he's really beaten, and you don't know if that's ever really happened before.
  1504.  
  1505. > "All right. You don't need me. But I want you to win, and maybe even I need you to win, because my name'll be stapled to whatever result you achieve. I can still set a record with my fourth podium using your team. Well, this isn't my first rodeo. You were about to throw me out, yet we're still talking; that tells me you're willing to take me under certain conditions. So, what are those conditions?"
  1506. > Anonymous waves Honour back to her post.
  1507. > Ebonshield and Sparkshower retire as well.
  1508. > Guess you won't be pumping another round into 'Icepone' today.
  1509. > Shame.
  1510. > Anonymous sits up straight in his chair.
  1511. > "I want you to lose your attitude, Lieutenant. I want you to stop treating my quaternion as if they're your chums from the chow hall, and I want you to stop treating me as if I'm your old drinking pal whom you've just run into at a bar. I want you to apologize to Specialist Sparkshower in no uncertain terms for what you tried to do, I want you to stop antagonizing Specialist Glamerspear every time you see her, and I want you to stop leering at my guardsmares like they're baubles on display in a shop's front window..."
  1512. > He raises his eyebrows and shakes his head.
  1513. > "... Despite my ignorance in things Equestrian, I am in charge here, and my quaternion with whom I have done many things including fight in a life-or-death battle are my most trusted associates. If you won't treat me as your commander and all of them with the common decency and respect they deserve, then frankly you can go to Hell -- Or Tartarus, as it's called here."
  1514. > It takes 'Icepone' a few moments to recover from your VIP's tongue-lashing.
  1515. > You don't think he's ever received a dressing-down quite like that before.
  1516. > When Val eventually composes himself and speaks, the cocksure attitude is all but gone.
  1517. > "When would your Lordship like me to deliver the apology to Specialist Sparkshower?"
  1518.  
  1519. > Anonymous taps the heavy leather writing-pad on his table.
  1520. > "I want it in writing here tomorrow, signed and sealed. It'll be rejected if it's not found acceptable. Specialist Sparkshower will decide later herself if she wants to receive your apology verbally as well."
  1521. > Val swallows.
  1522. > Having an admission of guilt in writing was definitely an ace in your VIP's sleeve if the Lieutenant ever screwed up.
  1523. > Though you did wonder if Sparkshower would allow Anonymous to ruin Kilfeather that way.
  1524. > She was a pretty forgiving pony, after all.
  1525. > "Very well, my Lord. Is there anything else?"
  1526. > The Royal Engineer leans back in his chair and shakes his head.
  1527. > "No. Since we have an agreement, and since you've come all the way here with the good Sergeant, why don't you take a few minutes to give us an introductory overview of the Grand Mêlée, the challenge facing us, your proposals for training, and so on."
  1528. > You've really never seen Val this subdued.
  1529. > You're sure he's had occasions to behave like a proper officer -- in front of the promotion board, for example, and you doubt he gets quite so informal with senior brass like the Major General in official settings, but he was never like this when you'd been with him socially.
  1530. > Lieutenant Kilfeather takes a deep breath, relieved to find the tension lifting, even if he was no longer in control of the situation.
  1531. > "Well, sir, the way I see it there are three tasks at hoof. The first is to remedy the deficiencies in your team. The second is to make sure everypony understands the rules and regulations of the Grand Mêlée. And the third is drilling and practice."
  1532. > Anonymous cocks an eyebrow.
  1533. > "Deficiencies? You think we're deficient in some way, Lieutenant?"
  1534. > For the briefest moment the beginning of a grin flashes across his face, and then he remembers where he is and what he'd just signed up for.
  1535.  
  1536. > "With respect, sir, I know for certain that your team has several deficiencies, and these need to be remedied as fast as possible. Firstly, there's the matter of your weapon carriage, this 'Whirlwind' vehicle."
  1537. > The Royal Engineer interrupts before he can continue.
  1538. > "I'm well aware that improvements need to be made to make the Whirlwind battle-ready, Lieutenant, though if you have some particular suggestions I will of course hear them."
  1539. > Val spreads his forehooves in a placating gesture.
  1540. > "I'm sure you Lordship well understands what needs to be improved, and I don't have any suggestions about that at this time. Physical deficiencies aren't what I was referring to..."
  1541. > Licking his lips, he continues.
  1542. > "... Believe it or not, you're not the first team to bring a vehicle to the Grand Mêlée. War wagons pulled by Earth Ponies, even though they aren't used in the Royal Guard, have occasionally been popular, and I believe one time there was even a flying pegasus-pulled war carriage, too. But I understand your Lordship basically built the 'Whirlwind' by hoof -- by hand, pardon -- and that your Lordship is also the only one who really knows how to fix it. Is that true?"
  1543. > The Royal Engineer nods.
  1544. > "It's based on a common dog-cart, built by Henry Fortstable & Co, and I've had some help assembling it by members of the quaternion, but yes, I suppose I'm the only one who really knows it inside and out."
  1545. > "And your Lordship intends to fight in the Mêlée, correct?"
  1546. > "I do."
  1547. > "Well, the thing to remember, sir, is that the Grand Mêlée is an exhausting, all-day event. Now, I'm sure you've built a robust vehicle but equipment breakdowns are inevitable, and when a rest is called, you're going to need to spend that time actually resting, not fixing your carriage. You need what we call a 'ground crew': a group of workers who can patch the thing back together between rounds."
  1548.  
  1549. > Anonymous reaches for his quill and begins to scribble notes on a pad.
  1550. > "Hmm. I worked closely with Mr. Fortstable in ordering special parts and having a particular configuration. Perhaps I could hire some of his mechanics for the day, training them in its peculiarities."
  1551. > Val nods, settling into the comfort.
  1552. > "That sounds reasonable, sir. And it's not just the Whirlwind, either. The best teams -- the winning teams -- always have an armourer on hoof as well to patch up their arms and armour. It helps to bring some spares; every team gets a small area in the paddock to host their ground crew and storage."
  1553. > The Royal Engineer glances down at Corporal Bound.
  1554. > "I wouldn't trust anybody to fix my armour except the minotaur who made it. I don't know if Bronzehorn would be willing to come here for the day, but it's worth asking him, at least. And he seemed to be familiar with all the Royal Guard standard equipment as well."
  1555. > Your ex nods in your direction.
  1556. > "I'd wager the only exception might be Specialist Glamerspear's helmet, sir. It's a fancy piece of tech from Martingale-Locksteed. There might be spares in the palace armoury; perhaps your Lordship could obtain one."
  1557. > Still scribbling, your VIP nods.
  1558. > "All right. Do we need a medic, too?"
  1559. > "No, healing is forbidden. The totems prevent permanent injuries or sustained bleeding, but a competitor unable to fly or stand without assistance isn't allowed to continue."
  1560. > "Mechanics, armourer, and spares. What next?"
  1561. > "The second deficiency I see, your Lordship, is in reconnaissance. The Valkyries have set a watch on the Canterlot Palace garage to watch when you go out and practice, and they've also got recon elements watching the qualifiers as well. With this information, they'll be able to figure out how you fight and therefore what they need to do to defeat you. You need to gather the same info on the opposition as well. That's where Sergeant Greenhound comes in."
  1562.  
  1563. > At Val's prompting, 'Mirage' speaks up for herself.
  1564. > "My Lord, Major-General Hoofstrong has authorized me to conduct reconnaissance operations on the competing Grand Mêlée teams, and she has placed a small team at my disposal as well. I've already dispatched them to monitor the practice and qualifying areas. Additionally, a security team has been dispatched to the garage to watch over your 'Whirlwind'."
  1565. > Val leans forward in his chair.
  1566. > "I've got a few pegasi posted on interdiction duty as well. If you head out in your carriage and a group of Valkyries -- or anypony else -- tries to follow, they'll be intercepted and harried by my soldiers every flap of the way."
  1567. > Anonymous sets down his pen, a look of concern on his face.
  1568. > "Scouts, guards, interceptors, and a ground crew. This is becoming a major undertaking in terms of personnel."
  1569. > That gets a chuckle out of Val.
  1570. > "Major-General Hoofstrong takes the Games very seriously, sir. She's not the only one, either. This event is a big deal for the Royal Guard, and there's a lot of prestige for the winner."
  1571. > Corporal Bound steps forward to speak as the Royal Engineer ponders that statement.
  1572. > "I have a question. Sergeant, you're from Divisional HQ, but won't we be facing other teams from within the 1st Air?"
  1573. > Mirage nods.
  1574. > "That's right, Corporal. The 1st Brigade's Valkyries and the 2nd Brigade's Royal Hussars are each fielding a team and have qualified for the event."
  1575. > Val speaks up before Honour can talk again.
  1576. > "I know what you're going to ask, Corporal. How come Divisional HQ is helping just one team when it's got three? Well, the answer is simple. Ordinarily the home wing of each team does its own recon. But given our history together, Major-General Hoofstrong thought it would be best to bring in 'outside help', so to speak. My foals'll patrol the skies and stand silent guard but you only have to deal with me when it comes to direct contact..."
  1577.  
  1578. > He turns to Mirage.
  1579. > "... Plus there's the matter of the biggest deficiency in your team, which the Major-General figured my 1st Air Wing also wasn't ideally suited to remedy."
  1580. > The Royal Engineer gets his pen ready again.
  1581. > "And what's that, Lieutenant?"
  1582. > Taking a deep breath, Val puffs his cheeks as he blows it out.
  1583. > "You're short a pony, my Lord. Five soldiers makes for an earth pony or unicorn infantry squad, but the Grand Mêlée runs on pegasus rules, and it's six ponies to a flight..."
  1584. > Oh, damn.
  1585. > Major Growler was going to be coming at you with *six* Valkyries?
  1586. > Celestia.
  1587. > That was a lot of armour to have to drill through.
  1588. > Val looks around the room.
  1589. > "... Now, your Lordship has an armoured pegasus, a batpony -- we've both been briefed, by the way -- a unicorn, an earth pony, and you, a terrestrial biped. Two in the air and three on the ground, and I understand your carriage seats three. Who you pick as your sixth soldier is entirely up to you, my Lord, but my recommendation would be to get somepony with wings..."
  1590. > Once again, he indicates Sergeant Mirage.
  1591. > "... And that's also why the Sergeant is here. My 1st Air Wing is a maximum-performance non-integrated all-colt unit, and Major-General Hoofstrong figured that you might prefer to have another mare, since you were bringing your VIP quaternion to the fight, and since traditionally a single pony's guards are all eligible members of the opposite sex..."
  1592. > As Mirage sits up straight as a rod, Val shows off her merchandise like he's auctioning off her plot to the highest bidder.
  1593.  
  1594. > "... Sergeant Greenhound isn't just a senior intelligence staffer, she's a decorated war hero. The 101st Intel is based out of the Watchtower and was hard hit during the Changeling Invasion. The two floors the battalion occupies were completely ablaze and utterly ruined by the time it was all over, but the soldiers fought back harder than almost anypony else in the whole 'Tower, inflicting massive losses on the invaders and tying down huge numbers of the bugs while the rest of the Division rallied to defend the city..."
  1595. > Holding a hoof sincerely to his chest, he continues.
  1596. > "... If you'll permit the crude verbiage, sir, the 101st Military Intelligence Battalion kicked some serious plot during the invasion, and they took surprisingly few casualties doing so. All of us 'real fighters' used to joke about them being a bunch of pencil-pushing accountants, but they honestly showed us all up during that incident. Nopony in the Watchtower talks about the 101st that way any more. Sergeant Mirage comes to you with Major-General Hoofstrong's personal recommendation, and mine too, for whatever that might be worth. You couldn't ask for a finer soldier."
  1597. > You instinctively begin to scrutinize this newcomer mare.
  1598. > If she's going to join your team then you'd better be able to work with her.
  1599. > Mirage was probably no older than Honour, but she looked like someone who'd already decided that the Royal Guard would be her life, even if it killed her.
  1600. > You got the sense that she was a true career gung-ho enlisted soldier, if maybe one with some more brains than the average grunt, seeing as how she got into intel and apparently managed to do well.
  1601. > Or maybe it was just the ability & endurance to be forever mashing buttons on an adding machine, tallying up reports brought in by field recon ponies like Sparkshower.
  1602. > She had a bit of a square jaw, but otherwise was of average size and build.
  1603.  
  1604. > You weren't a huge fan of the retro mane-do with the soft bob she had going on, but it worked.
  1605. > Like a typical Royal Guard lifer, she kept her tail short-cropped.
  1606. > Was she another Order of the Ram recipient?
  1607. > She wasn't wearing any insignia.
  1608. > Val did say she was 'decorated', but didn't specify how.
  1609. > Maybe she just had a Distinguished Service Cross or a similar commendation.
  1610. > Whatever the case, having one Sergeant on the team was tricky enough -- even when it turned out that Sergeant wasn't a Sergeant at all, but the Headmistress of the Batpony school for Assassins.
  1611. > Of course it had turned out okay in the end, and you felt like you got along well with Ebonshield, but you wouldn't like to be in Honour's sabots if the nominal leader of the quaternion had to deal with *another* more senior guardsmare to wrangle.
  1612. > Anonymous sets down his pen once more.
  1613. > "I'll consider it. For now, as you say, we can rely on the Sergeant's services for informational purposes at least."
  1614. > Val nods.
  1615. > "Of course, my Lord. But please decide quickly; there's not a lot of time to train the team."
  1616. > "I understand. I'll discuss things and we'll figure out the final team composition this week. Is there anything else?"
  1617. > Kilfeather shakes his head.
  1618. > "That does it for the major holes that I can see, sir. As soon as the team is finalized I'd like to take everypony out to the grounds to survey the battlefield. Then we can talk rules, strategies, and start training."
  1619. > "Very well. It's Tuesday afternoon. Let's reconvene on Friday. We'll have made our decision about the sixth member by then, and we can take the Whirlwind out to the battlefield for that introduction."
  1620. > Val actually gives your VIP an unironic bow in his seat.
  1621. > "Yes, my Lord."
  1622. > Anonymous takes a moment to behold the two pegasi.
  1623. > "And don't forget about that letter for tomorrow. Dismissed, Lieutenant. Good day, Sergeant."
  1624.  
  1625. > They both hop out of their chairs, give the Royal Engineer a quick salute, and then retire towards the doors.
  1626. > You immediately seize the handle in your telekinesis as Ebonshield does the same with her forehoof.
  1627. > As you open the door and they pass by, you notice Val shoots you a glance, but there's no aggression or playfulness behind it, just a cordial acknowledgement that you know each other.
  1628. > Part of you really wants to nod back, even in spite of your history.
  1629. > But you let him just walk on by, demonstrating the supremacy of your relationship with the Royal Engineer.
  1630. > Once the doors are closed and a few moments have passed to make sure they're out of earshot, the Royal Engineer stands up and pulls at his necktie to loosen it.
  1631. > "Well, that was unpleasant, but at least it's sorted..."
  1632. > Yanking the formal wear unceremoniously off, he quickly folds it and places it on his desk before unbuttoning the top of his shirt.
  1633. > Addressing the four of you, he sighs.
  1634. > "... Now, I really do have to finish these plans & orders for the foundry, but let's not go into Friday blind. I know your time off-duty is your own, but I'd appreciate it if you all would do your own research into the MXP Games and the Grand Mêlée. Let's try to have a good idea of at least the rules & regulation before we hear the tricks of the trade from Lieutenant Kilfeather..."
  1635. > He glances down at Corporal Bound.
  1636. > "... Corporal, you've mentioned before that the Games are not a very public affair, but even so perhaps there some coverage of his previous wins that we can study?"
  1637. > Honour nods.
  1638. > "Yes, sir, I'll take a look through the Gazette's archives."
  1639. > Clapping his hands then rubbing them together, he rolls up his sleeves.
  1640. > "Excellent. Anyone have anything else?"
  1641. > Since he's in such a good mood, maybe you ought to bring up the idea of some entertainment?
  1642.  
  1643. > You clear your throat.
  1644. "Sir, it's a bit off-topic, but you mentioned something yesterday about a second, more-planned thank-you for us?"
  1645. > Licking his lips, your VIP chuckles.
  1646. > "I did say that, didn't I? It does feel like our accomplishments and my thanks to you deserves something more than a hasty speech..."
  1647. > With a furrowed brow, he looks around the room.
  1648. > "... I know I've got a lot of work but I also know I'm too tired to finish it today no matter how hard I push myself. I feel like I owe you all something more than just another speech..."
  1649. > He glances down at Corporal Bound beside him.
  1650. > "... I've made some faux pas in the past, so let me clear this ahead of time. Would a night out be against the rules? Dinner at a restaurant, maybe find somewhere with live music or take in a show? Or we could go to that spa again. I could use another massage."
  1651. > She doesn't look thrilled by the proposal, but eventually she gives in.
  1652. > "Ordinarily, it would probably be inappropriate, but given the circumstances, I suppose it's fine, sir. The week of the Gala sees a lot of celebrations and big parties, and including bodyguards isn't unheard of either."
  1653. > Smiling, your VIP sits down.
  1654. > "Good! Since I've no more appointments this afternoon, perhaps the four of you could huddle your heads and decide what you'd like best? I really don't know Canterlot's nightlife very well. And I could use a good time out myself, all things considered, so I'm game for anything."
  1655. > Anything, huh?
  1656. > You start to grin.
  1657. > Honour shoots you a stern glance, but Ebonshield on the other side of the doors lifts an eyebrow and gives you a sly smile.
  1658. > You can't tell what Sparkshower is thinking since she closed the visor on her helmet, but she surely could use some fun to cheer her up after what happened on Friday.
  1659. > Not to mention what happened to her *yesterday*.
  1660.  
  1661. > A shiver goes down your spine when you remember just what she went through all so you could learn how to exorcise a shadow.
  1662. > You shake the memory off, swearing you won't ask her to do that again, and turn your thoughts back to tonight's prospects.
  1663. > Even if the restaurants & clubs are bustling, having a representative of the Blue Chamber ought to open some doors.
  1664. > Yeah, it's a Tuesday, the worst day of the week to go out, but this is Gala week, and with your VIP in tow, the possibilities are limitless.
  1665. > Honour is noncommittal in answering the Royal Engineer.
  1666. > "Yes, sir."
  1667. > You decide to be more enthusiastic.
  1668. "It's a date, sir..."
  1669. > Lifting a forehoof, you playfully indicate the room's lighthouse clock.
  1670. "... We'll pick you up around five?"
  1671. > He nods.
  1672. > "All right."
  1673. > Aw yeah, pre-Gala party night with your VIP!
  1674.  
  1675. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yV88ekgBlTo (Benjamin & Aaron Wheeler - "I'm a VIP", as featured in "Saints Row: The Third" [2011])
  1676.  
  1677.  
  1678.  
  1679.  
  1680. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_L_-CKg6pw (New Order - 'Confusion' [1983])
  1681.  
  1682. > This is not what you had in mind when your boss said you'd be going to one of the innumerable Grand Galloping Gala pre-parties tonight.
  1683. > You expected nobleponies hobnobbing over glasses of expensive booze.
  1684. > Maybe with some live music and dancing.
  1685. > And the occasional mare or colt splurging on a *second* extravagant costume in what was already a busy week, or perhaps simply showing off what they wore last year.
  1686. > But this party was on a completely different level.
  1687. > Yes, there was alcohol, and yes, there was live music and dancing.
  1688. > There were even a few extravagant getups.
  1689. > But a full-on masquerade ball?
  1690. > In a converted dockside warehouse?
  1691. > And with the party doubling, apparently, as an avant-garde art exhibit, complete with new-wave band?
  1692. > You take a moment to adjust the full-muzzle mask you'd been issued at the door as you wind your way through the crowd after your VIP.
  1693. > Temporary walls made of brightly-coloured cloth draped between posts form a virtual labyrinth within the huge edifice, and an eclectic arrangement of pulsating magical lights make it all too easy to get completely lost.
  1694. > Some of those 'walls' have what you *think* is supposed to be art hanging from wires in front of them.
  1695. > Canvases with abstract splashes of clashing tones, lines that vaguely resemble ponies then twist into unrecognizable shapes, even splotches that look like something up and died all over the piece.
  1696. > A series of five apparently identical portraits of the same mare in an emotionless pose are lit from behind, giving them an eerie appearance.
  1697.  
  1698. > You round a corner and are almost struck dumb by the sight of a stunningly-handsome white pegasus colt standing on a slightly raised platform, perfectly-preened gossamer wings outstretched as if in mid-flap and rearing back as if in mid-flight.
  1699. > Spotlights from all around bathe the figure in pure white, turning him into an icon of brilliance for all to admire.
  1700. > The reflected light actually noticeably brightens the room; every single one of his feathers is on full display.
  1701. > Pausing for a second, you scrutinize the installation.
  1702. > That has to be some kind of statue, right?
  1703. > No way could somepony hold that mid-action pose for so long.
  1704. > Just as you start to get going again, the figure steps back and shifts his weight, blinking as he relaxes one set of muscles and stresses another.
  1705. > That's amazing.
  1706. > Scurrying a bit, you hurry past the well-formed and apparently *extremely* disciplined pegasus model.
  1707. > He's the first pony you've seen here not wearing one of the mandatory-dress white full-face masks.
  1708. > The masks weren't completely identical, with slightly different ornamental designs around the eyes, mouth, and edges, but it sure made everypony look the same -- particularly from the rear.
  1709. > At least the serving-ponies with saddle-trays of drinks & appetizers had big ostrich-feather plumes attached to their masks, making them stand out in the crowd.
  1710. > You leave the living-statue pegasus colt and pass through an open red curtain into another busy room.
  1711. > This one has another live show, with a bigger 'stage'.
  1712. > Ahead, your VIP stops to grab a drink from a passing server -- is that a *zebra*?
  1713. > She's got an *enormous* mane, standing straight up almost the length of the black and white ostrich-feathers adorning her mask.
  1714. > That has to be a weave.
  1715. > In the confusion of the kaleidoscopic lights, it takes you a minute to notice that she's wearing wearing provocative horizontal zebra-stripe stockings almost up to her stifles, too.
  1716.  
  1717. > Your boss takes a moment to sip his drink and ask for directions, so you take in the room's main show.
  1718. > Two *enormously muscular* earth pony colts with bronze bands around their ankles, wrists, and necks, are performing feats of incredible acrobatic prowess.
  1719. > Holding forehooves, one of the colts balances on his forelegs, hind legs in the air, while the other slowly lifts him up higher.
  1720. > Once up, they play at balancing on just one hoof, extending hind or forelegs in opposite directions to maintain balance.
  1721. > Then the lower colt squats down, and the upper colt transfers to balancing on his partner's hind knees instead.
  1722. > It looks like an agonizing transfer, and you can see the sweat beading on their unmasked brows, but they do it with little more than a few barely-audible grunts of exertion.
  1723. > Everypony in the room seems transfixed as, slowly, excruciatingly, one hoof at a time, the muscular figures rearrange themselves such that now the upper colt is balancing with his forehooves on top of the lower colt's *hind* hooves, with the lower colt balancing both of their weight on his own forehooves.
  1724. > Incredible.
  1725. > The room erupts into a brief shot of applause, but the strong-colt acrobats wordlessly continue the show.
  1726. > Your VIP plonks his empty martini glass down on a cocktail table and resumes course, so you follow after him.
  1727. > Damn, you kind of wanted to see what else those two amazing colts were capable of doing.
  1728. > Maybe you'll have some more time to take in the show later.
  1729. > It's still early, and you don't doubt that a party like this is going to go late into the night.
  1730. > Somewhere in-between another set of fabric walls, you get a glimpse of the party's actual main stage and the live performers playing the alternative-pop set.
  1731. > They're masked, too, though theirs are painted in bright, almost luminescent colours.
  1732. > Fuchsia, pink, orange, and a greener-than-green looking like something out of a Discordian nightmare.
  1733.  
  1734. > Still, they and the music they're playing fit everything going on in this hyper-modern madhouse.
  1735. > Even the faint smell of fish from the *actual*, still-in-use warehouse next door somehow fits the atmosphere.
  1736. > You're sure the artist in charge of everything would say it accentuates the ultra-realism of the event, or some crap like that.
  1737. > Whatever the philosophy behind it, whoever organized this shindig must have spent a fortune for all these magical spotlights.
  1738. > Basic permanent flameless candles were relatively affordable, but high-powered lamps that changed colour and 'danced' with the music didn't come cheap, even if just created on-the-fly by hired unicorns.
  1739. > From the other side of the next partition you can see you're in for even more of a light show.
  1740. > Squeezing through another gap, you find yourself in what is clearly one of the main 'party' rooms.
  1741. > There's an exhibit in the form of a pair of slender earth ponies -- one colt and one mare -- dancing in large white birdcages suspended from the ceiling.
  1742. > As they sensually gyrate and writhe overhead, you can see they're wearing semi-tackplay gear, with black masks, saddles, and chaps.
  1743. > But the real attraction is the dozens, if not hundreds, of magical glow-balls hovering over the room, pulsating and shifting colours along with the beat.
  1744. > Some of them are even focused into spotlights, and they twirl and spin, draping the dancers -- both the professionals in the cages above, and the masked revellers below -- in riotous colours.
  1745. > Your VIP pushes on, so you don't have time to linger to enjoy this stunning dance-floor, but you do catch a glimpse of a raised booth in the corner, with at least four unicorns running the light-show in this room.
  1746. > You *really* hope you'll get to enjoy the party once your boss is done with his business.
  1747. > When will you ever get another chance like this?
  1748. > This sort of thing wasn't even his style.
  1749. > You exit the dance-hall into a long curtain-walled corridor.
  1750.  
  1751. > If this wasn't all a single big open warehouse, the music would actually be quieter back here.
  1752. > As it is, instead the angle and distance from the main stage speakers just serves to muddle the vocals.
  1753. > All you really can hear now is the throbbing of the drums and bass, reverberating inside the large building.
  1754. > An imposing masked server-pony waits at the end of the corridor, blocking passage further, but he steps aside as your VIP approaches.
  1755. > So, this is some kind of private sub-party?
  1756. > Following behind your employer, you enter a large area with several very plush and comfortable-looking sectional sofas, along with a separate bar and a few cocktail tables.
  1757. > There's only forty or so ponies in here, including the staff, so it must be some kind of exclusive ultra-VIP lounge.
  1758. > You don't see any other passageways, so this must be it.
  1759. > You are Isabelle Coquette, bodyguard to Galloway Bitsmount, Esquire, and you have worked -- and attended -- some extravagant parties in your time, but this one blows them all away.
  1760. > Then again, this is Canterlot in Royal Gala season, not Bitsmount Manor half a day's ride from the capital.
  1761. > Much as you're eager to indulge yourself a bit in this incredible luxury, unfortunately your VIP is here on a very specific mission.
  1762. > He barks a question at the towering earth pony bouncer, who, even with the mask covering his face, looks like he's taken and dished out his fair share of lumps.
  1763. > Hardly surprising that an affair of this calibre would have top-notch security.
  1764. > "I'm here to see the Familia."
  1765. > The colt discreetly directs your VIP to a particular table, then resumes his interposing stance at the end of the hallway.
  1766. > With all the 'walls' being made of little more than heavy curtains, you wouldn't be surprised if there's a few guards watching the empty areas between rooms, too.
  1767.  
  1768. > After all, it's so busy in the rest of the event that nopony would notice somepony slipping under a curtain to sneak their way into a prohibited area like this.
  1769. > You follow your VIP to the corner of the room, where a large U-shaped section sofa has been laid out with a low coffee table in the centre.
  1770. > Six masked ponies are here, five unicorns and an earth pony, drinking and talking amongst themselves.
  1771. > They're slow to react when you and your VIP take up position at the open end of the setup, but eventually they all turn.
  1772. > Most of them wear looks of disdain, a sort of 'who are these interlopers?' attitude of disgust, which was a bit surprising.
  1773. > Bitsmount was not at the top of the Equestrian peerage ranks, being merely the present holder of Letters Patent for the silver mine bearing his family's name, but he was far from the bottom.
  1774. > One more step up and he'd properly be addressed Lord Bitsmount.
  1775. > But then again, did these ponies even know who their new visitor was?
  1776. > With the mask obscuring his face and the suit covering his mark, he was pretty anonymous.
  1777. > In fact nopony that you'd seen had their marks on display, besides the professional performers, but you supposed that would defeat the point of a masquerade ball.
  1778. > If you or your VIP didn't already have clothes on covering your flanks, what would they have done?
  1779. > Issued you capes to go with your masks?
  1780. > Somehow, that seemed like an appropriate dress for meeting this powerful and secret 'Familia in Magicae' group.
  1781. > You're still not quite over having your memory of the first encounter with the 'Familia' almost completely wiped from your mind.
  1782. > That had been a disturbing use of magic.
  1783. > And an illegal one, though hardly surprising considering your employer had paid them for the privilege of violating laws himself.
  1784. > From nowhere, a feather-topped serving-pony scurries up behind the central figure on the sofa, bends over, and whispers something into his ear.
  1785.  
  1786. > The central unicorn colt nods, then smiles and beckons a forehoof towards the open seats.
  1787. > "Ah, Mister Bitsmount. What a pleasure it is to see you again. Won't you and your bodyguard join us for some refreshments?"
  1788. > Shooting you a glance that says 'watch for trouble', your VIP takes his seat first, and you follow after him.
  1789. > Watch for trouble?
  1790. > You may be handy in a rumble and no slouch with your bronze sabots, but you're still just a glorified barmaid.
  1791. > The bouncer at the entrance alone could probably tackle you in the blink of an eye, and you'd be hard-pressed to escape from him, let alone knock him out.
  1792. > And exactly what are you supposed to do against unicorns that can wipe minds?
  1793. > Well, may as well keep both eyes open.
  1794. > At least there's plenty of exits in a temporary 'room' like this.
  1795. > If you have to run, all you have to do is go straight for a wall and avoid one of the posts holding up the curtains.
  1796. > Those were obvious enough from the long 'feet' which kept them stable.
  1797. > Glancing up at the ceiling full of lights, you try to discreetly figure out the general direction of an outside wall, just in case.
  1798. > You can't help but shake the feeling that something *bad* happened during the last 'business meeting' with this shady group, either.
  1799. > A serving pony -- another zebra mare, you notice, though without the enormous mane extensions of the one in the strong-colt performance room -- approaches the table with a serving-platter on her back, and hoofs over a fresh pair of cocktails.
  1800. > Having been trained to do just the same thing yourself, you can't help but notice the way she places herself up close to the table then turns so her hindquarters are almost facing your VIP.
  1801. > She even makes sure to bend over as low as possible when placing each drink on the table.
  1802. > Under his mask, you can see Galloway's eyes follow the shapely curves of the striped equine as she heads back to the bar for more drinks.
  1803.  
  1804. > Even in his current state of piqued frustration, he still can't help but peek at the plot.
  1805. > The gaggle of ponies at the table silently watch the two of you, politely, but somewhat menacingly, waiting for you to wet your lips.
  1806. > Your VIP seizes his drink and quickly knocks back a healthy gulp before slapping it down on the black wooden table.
  1807. > You reach for yours more carefully, and take a delicate, feminine sip.
  1808. > Maybe it's best that you play up the fiction you're just a decoration, and not actually a fighter at all.
  1809. > Would they buy that?
  1810. > Or did you already blow that disguise at the last meeting?
  1811. > What even *happened* then?
  1812. > The unicorn in the centre smiles, and the rest of the group seems to relax.
  1813. > "... Now, Mister Bitsmount, I understand you have a rather pressing complaint about our recent services."
  1814. > "I damn well do! Do you know what's happened?"
  1815. > The representative of the 'Familia' is about to shrug, but your VIP just barrels on right into it.
  1816. > "... Princess Celestia has appointed Phillip Songwell as the Royal Engineer's bloody personal assistant, with the aims of 'reforming' him!"
  1817. > That's supposed to be damning, and having heard Galloway rant about it in private, you know what it means to him, but the masked ponies just stare blankly back.
  1818. > "Is that all, Mister Bitsmount?"
  1819. > Your VIP blows his top.
  1820. > "Is that all? Is that all?! Don't pretend you can't read between the lines. Your blasted potion *failed*, and Princess Celestia saw right through us at open court!"
  1821. > The others start to murmur, but they stop when the one in the centre replies.
  1822. > "Mister Bitsmount, you and Mister Songwell told the court that the failures at your mine were done at Songwell's initiative. Although I understand your joint musical 'apology tour' has been quite a success, it seems only natural to me that Her Majesty should wish to ensure the problem with his behaviour is completely rectified..."
  1823.  
  1824. > Lifting a hoof, he grins underneath the mask as he scratches his chin.
  1825. > "... She does seem to have a certain fascination with reforming criminals. A mania for it, even."
  1826. > Galloway inelegantly pounds a forehoof on the table, to almost no physical effect on either the audience or the drinks.
  1827. > Must be one heavy table.
  1828. > "Reforming! Reforming! More like enquiring! Anypony who saw that alien monkey-colt at court would know he didn't believe a word we said, the way he was staring us down. And now she's given Songwell to the one creature who didn't buy our line."
  1829. > The unicorn shakes his head.
  1830. > "Mister Bitsmount, he *is* the Royal Engineer, and mining safety *is* his prerogative. As your accuser, his scepticism in court is hardly surprising, and you must admit assigning Songwell to him is the obvious placement choice for correcting a forepony who apparently does not understand safe work procedures."
  1831. > Now, your VIP leans in across the table.
  1832. > "Certainly! But do you think that idiot will be able to keep his trap shut? If the Royal Engineer applies pressure, as I'm sure the beast will do, then that fool will tell the truth!"
  1833. > Showing signs of exasperation, the unicorn spreads his upturned forehooves.
  1834. > "Mister Bitsmount, we can appreciate the possibility of such an event, but the service rendered was merely to enable you to dissemble at court."
  1835. > Your VIP bolts to his hooves, pointing an accusing forehoof at the unicorn.
  1836. > "No! No! That was your damned idea! I first told your agent I wanted to *change the truth*. It was your group's idea to do this by lying to the Princesses in open court..."
  1837. > He comes crashing back down onto the plush seat, jostling the rest of the bench.
  1838. > "... Who even are you?! I want to talk to somepony in charge here! You bunch of leeches think you can just take that much of somepony's money and render half-baked service, I'll see you ruined for this!"
  1839.  
  1840. > The group takes a moment to settle down again, and then the apparent leader turns and nods to several of them, waving them away with a forehoof.
  1841. > As the current song comes to an end, you hear applause and cheers erupt throughout the warehouse.
  1842. > Clearly, the live band just finished their set.
  1843. > A few moments of shuffling later, and it's just you, your VIP, and two others left: the masked 'leader' unicorn, and the masked earth pony mare beside him.
  1844. > The leader beckons you to slide over closer.
  1845. > "I am Isfet..."
  1846. > That name rings a bell, and you narrow your eyes.
  1847. > The unicorn stares at you.
  1848. > "... Perhaps you may remember that name, in spite of the memory erasure which was necessary to protect both our enterprise and your secret."
  1849. > Your VIP's thinking is the same as yours.
  1850. > "I remember that name. And your voice is familiar, too. You're the one we dealt with. You gave us the potions. Was it your idea?"
  1851. > Now that the music's stopped and you're in close quarters, you can better hear your host's calm, purring voice.
  1852. > Something reaches up from the shredded remnants of your memories of the previous meeting, and it sends a shiver down your spine.
  1853. > "It was. I am electing to deal with your complaint directly since it is my policy to avoid leaving unsatisfied customers. May I ask how you heard of Mister Songwell's assignment?"
  1854. > Galloway scrunches up his muzzle and scoffs.
  1855. > "The fool told me himself last night. Even showed me the Royal writ itself, though he wouldn't let me break the seal to see the orders in detail."
  1856. > Isfet nods calmly.
  1857. > "He demonstrates a remarkable amount of loyalty for a hireling. Are you so certain of his eventual betrayal?"
  1858. > Your VIP whinnies loudly.
  1859. > "Loyalty, puh! I more than filled his purse with the savings we made on timber. He may cling to his plebian roots, but it's just a facade -- his family has the largest house in the village, bar mine, and his children lead a life of luxury, if not privilege..."
  1860.  
  1861. > Taking a swig from his drink with one forehoof, Galloway waggles the other dismissively.
  1862. > "... And now that's all coming to an end! Having taken the blame, he's a pariah in the town. The original plan was to end our apology tour there, have him donate a significant sum to charity -- generously matched by myself, of course -- and then he'd take a leave of absence before returning in another non-controversial role. Chief surveyor, perhaps. Or some kind of clerk..."
  1863. > Galloway inhales sharply through his teeth as he puts the empty glass back down.
  1864. > "... That way I'd be able to keep him underhoof. But now the tour's cancelled, there's no opportunity to make a public donation, and he's been ordered to move to Canterlot! Don't you see? He'll be out of my control!"
  1865. > For a miscreant misogynist whose only interests, as far as you knew, were drinking, partying, gambling, and portraying himself in public as the universe's gift to Equestria (and particularly Equestria's mares), your boss sure had some brains, when he thought to use them.
  1866. > Part of you wonders what he might've achieved if he wasn't such a wastrel -- like owning more than one mine.
  1867. > The other part doesn't care what he adds up to as long as he's still paying you well to stand around looking impressive and occasionally having a roll in the feather-downed silk hay with him.
  1868. > Over from the stage, you hear the MC thank and praise the live band, and then he starts to yammer something about the artwork and artists involved in tonight's show.
  1869. > You can't hear him very well; it's all a bit indistinct here on the back side.
  1870. > After a long time considering things, Isfet serenely places his forehooves together.
  1871. > "Is that it, Mister Bitsmount -- you want to keep Galloway in your control?"
  1872. > With an irate sniffle, your VIP looks furtively around for the zebra server and another drink.
  1873. > "I suppose it is, yes. Have you got another blasted potion for that, then?"
  1874.  
  1875. > The masked unicorn grins and shakes his head.
  1876. > "No, Mister Bitsmount. Not one which would function and escape detection for a sufficient duration -- for, after all, I assume Mister Songwell's assignment will last for some time?"
  1877. > "Who knows? It could be months. If they take a liking to each other, it could even be permanent..."
  1878. > Suddenly melancholy at losing a valuable accomplice, your boss slumps down in his seat.
  1879. > He had been sipping on rye in his hotel suite's great room for hours before you received a message to come here tonight for the meeting.
  1880. > Seems like that plus the last three fruity and quite potent drinks are finally catching up with him.
  1881. > "... For an old fool who got his start with my father, Phillip's remarkably competent. He was quite judicious in his 'economizing', such that the workers barely noticed the difference, and never objected. Anypony else might've gotten us caught after the first cave-in, or caused many more of them."
  1882. > Isfet turns to his female companion and whispers to her.
  1883. > Is she a VIP bodyguard like you?
  1884. > Or something else?
  1885. > Impossible to tell with all these masks.
  1886. > Isfet's glorious bright red hooded robe hides most of his body all of his mane, too -- all you can tell is that his horn and chin are white.
  1887. > Not exactly defining characteristics, and 'Isfet' surely wasn't his real name, either.
  1888. > If you went and told the ponice that the leader of a major magical criminal organization in Canterlot was a white unicorn colt, they'd just shrug their shoulders and send you on your way.
  1889. > Probably laughing in your face as they did it.
  1890. > Returning to face your VIP, Isfet spreads his forehooves shoes-down on the table.
  1891. > "Mister Bitsmount, when you came to us, you described you and your forepony Mister Songwell as an inseparable team. I believe in the context of that information we satisfied your needs with the potions provided..."
  1892.  
  1893. > Just as your boss starts to get hot at the collar, Isfet flips over his forehooves.
  1894. > "... That said, because of your prior business with us and the urgency of your request, we are willing to provide a solution to this newest problem at a discount from our normal rates."
  1895. > Galloway licks his lips, chuckling.
  1896. > "You're going to bill me. Heh. Heh. To fix your own mess! Of course you are, all you ponies care about is money."
  1897. > That last statement seems to wound your host.
  1898. > "Mister Bitsmount-"
  1899. > Just as the drinks-zebra comes around again, your VIP gets to his hind hooves.
  1900. > "No, no more 'Mister Bitsmount'! Especially not while you're holding out your hoof, expecting another payment? Don't you understand that this isn't just *my* problem any more?! If that fool *talks*, then he threatens *you* as well as me!"
  1901. > Avoiding the explosion in progress, the server-mare deposits a fresh cocktail and whisks away the empty glass, then trots away unceremoniously, her shapely plot sadly unappreciated this time.
  1902. > In the background, you hear the MC announce the next musical performer, a DJ somepony-or-other -- you don't quite catch the name, and the MC launches into a lengthy speech describing their career to this point.
  1903. > This really is more of an art show for the glitterati than a high-roller dance party.
  1904. > Isfet tilts his head sideways slightly.
  1905. > "Threatens *us*? He doesn't know anything about us. What could he possibly threaten us with?"
  1906. > Still standing on his hind legs, Galloway leans in menacingly, one forehoof on the table and the other gesturing as he speaks.
  1907. > "He knows that there's an underground criminal organization capable of producing potions enabling somepony to *lie* to Princess Celestia..."
  1908.  
  1909. > Letting that sink in, your VIP finally sits down again.
  1910. > "... You take great pains to make sure your customers can't reveal anything about your little operation accidentally, and your customers wouldn't dare divulge that they used your services, but what if you had one who willingly gave you up? Even without any details, the knowledge of your existence could unsettle things and lead to much more scrutiny. It would, at the very least, make your business dealings more difficult -- and believe me, they're difficult enough as they are. If I didn't know ponies who *knew* ponies, I would never have been able to contact you in time for my court appearance."
  1911. > Isfet regains his composure.
  1912. > "That difficulty is by design, Mister Bitsmount. We offer exceptionally rare services to ponies of exceptional means."
  1913. > "And for exceptional prices."
  1914. > The unicorn can't help but laugh at the second jab about money.
  1915. > "Heh. Despite your accusation, the Familia in Magicae is not all about money. We must cover our expenses and fund our enterprise, but the accumulation of wealth is not our priority."
  1916. > With a dismissive snort, Galloway reaches for his fresh drink and bangs it back.
  1917. > Slow down, boss -- or you'll be on the floor before this meeting is over.
  1918. > "What *is* your priority, then? Revitalizing the capital's waterfront by renting out abandoned warehouses to throw avant-garde art parties?"
  1919. > Isfet smiles.
  1920. > "We helped with funding this little event, yes, though we didn't organize it. But what the Familia in Magicae pursues above all other concerns is absolute excellence in *magic*."
  1921. > Galloway snorts boorishly, finally putting the pieces together.
  1922. > "You're a bunch of damned unicorn supremacists."
  1923.  
  1924. > Isfet doesn't even flinch at the accusation.
  1925. > "Not by nature. All Equestrian creatures are magical, and we appreciate the physics-defying flight and weather-control of the pegasi as much as we appreciate the unearthly strength and endurance of the earth ponies. Perhaps you noticed some of the exhibits in the halls on your way in? The curator of this event has obtained some superb specimens possessed of incredible skill, and we have helped to ensure they are well-compensated for their demonstrations here tonight..."
  1926. > Tipping his head down, he grins.
  1927. > "... But, of course, when it comes to the raw harnessing of magic, this is unquestionably the realm of the unicorns, a domain in which no other species can compete. And we provide funds to ensure this domain is explored *completely*."
  1928. > Your boss nods sloppily.
  1929. > "Right. So what are you going to do about *our* problem if Phillip Songwell blabs all about his lie and your little club?"
  1930. > The unicorn colt turns his head and glances briefly at his hornless female companion.
  1931. > "Mister Bitsmount, I believe it would be entirely appropriate for you, Mister Songwell's compassionate former employer, to hire for him entirely at your own expense, an assistant of his own, to help him adjust to life in Canterlot, to organize his family's transition here, and to support him in his valuable and noble work for Their Majesties' Royal Engineer..."
  1932. > He grins and indicates his partner.
  1933. > "... I have just the mare for him. An earth pony who will therefore attract no attention, she has many useful abilities and skills, including that discrete, coercive persuasion. And both because of your previous business and your well-reasoned argument about the security of our operation, I am willing to let you employ her at a substantial discount."
  1934.  
  1935. > Over in the centre of the warehouse, the MC finishes his speech and you hear applause as the DJ apparently takes the stage.
  1936. > While your boss considers Isfet's offer, the music starts up again, pounding a hypnotic beat that makes you long for the dance floor.
  1937. > You're sure it'll be drilling into your VIP's brain tomorrow morning with the hangover he's likely to have, too.
  1938.  
  1939. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_Hw_UC314M (New Order - 'Confusion (Pump Panel Reconstruction Mix)' [1995], as featured in 'Blade' [1998])
  1940.  
  1941.  
  1942.  
  1943.  
  1944. > *thukka-thukka-thukka-thukka*
  1945. > *thukka-thukka-thukka-thukka*
  1946. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you're not quite sure if that repetitive noise is coming from inside or outside of your head.
  1947. > To find out, you struggle to open your eyes, wincing at the bright glow of your bedroom window's red curtains.
  1948. > *thukka-thukka-thukka-thukka*
  1949. > Still grimacing, you lift your head, and that's when you almost *feel* your brain roll around in in your skull.
  1950. > The sensation sends you plummeting back into the pillow.
  1951. > Ugh.
  1952. > How much did you drink last night?
  1953. > It must have been an awful lot.
  1954. > You don't think you've gotten this smashed since your early days in the barracks in Filly'.
  1955. > As a thanks for the Whirlwind's success, the Royal Engineer splurged and treated you all to the full tasting menu at Hermitage, one of the finest Prench restaurants in Canterlot, and anted up for the Chef's suggested drink pairings too.
  1956. > That meant aperitifs with the appetizers, wine with the main course, and brandy with the dessert, all generously poured and eagerly consumed.
  1957. > Sometime during all that booze and food it was decided that you ought to show up to one of Canterlot's nicer nightclubs and see if your Very Important Pony, who wasn't actually a pony, could VIP your way inside past the lineup.
  1958. > Even though he was in his formal dress suit and you were all in your service uniforms -- your *mismatching* service uniforms.
  1959. > You in your red jacket with white belt and black cap, Glamerspear in her black top with the ornate gold trim and matching fur cap, Sparkshower with her Skylander's blue-and-green tartan kilt and belted plaid, Eb in a black bodysuit that left nothing to the imagination, and Anonymous in his dinner jacket.
  1960.  
  1961. > You looked like three parade band members got lost on the way to the drill fields, bumped into a politician, picked up a prowling cat-burglar off the street, and just decided to roll with it.
  1962. > Their Royal Majesties' Multi-Service United Races of Equestria Marching Band, with special guests an acrobatic performer and a bipedal hairless monkey in a tuxedo.
  1963. > But first, because Glamerspear confirmed that drinks in nightclubs were just as overpriced here in Equestria as Anonymous remembered them being on his world, you packed yourselves into a plush booth at a clubland bar-lounge and ordered cider by what seemed like the barrel-full.
  1964. > Imbibing there was hardly cheap, but the conversation flowed as liberally as the alcohol.
  1965. > Once you all were feeling sufficiently soused to the gills and the sun had long since disappeared beneath the horizon, then it was off to crawl Canterlot's hip haunts -- at least the ones which didn't demand a membership card.
  1966. > It turned out being a member of the Blue Chamber didn't give much pull with the bouncers, especially not with the way you were all dressed.
  1967. > Even though you were a party with a *four*-to-one mare-to-colt ratio!
  1968. > *thukka-thukka-thukka-thukka*
  1969. > What in Tartarus *is* that?
  1970. > It's not coming from inside your brain-case.
  1971. > You decide resolutely that this audible intrusion demands investigation.
  1972. > Slipping out from under the covers, you hesitantly drop one hind leg, then the other, down to the floor.
  1973. > This done, you allow one foreleg to touch the ground, then begin to shift your weight, and that's when the problems start.
  1974. > You tilt dangerously over to one side, and it takes a long time before this registers as 'hey maybe move your hooves so you don't fall over'.
  1975. > *thukka-thukka-thukka-thukka*
  1976. > Could we NOT have that racket while you're trying to figure out getting up?!
  1977. > Just as your fury peaks, you realize you're standing on all fours.
  1978. > Oh, good.
  1979.  
  1980. > You need something to drink, and it better not have an ounce of alcohol in it.
  1981. > With some trepidation you head towards your door and pull it open.
  1982. > *thukka-thukka-thukka-thukka*
  1983. > The noise is louder out here.
  1984. > In fact it *is* here.
  1985. > Right here.
  1986. > In front of your door.
  1987. > You blink hard, uncomfortable at the abundance of light in the common room.
  1988. > Glamerspear is sitting at the card-table with a portable sewing machine and a lump of pinkish translucent fabric.
  1989. > Hunched over the business end of the device, she mutters something under her breath.
  1990. > "Friggin' tulle, always puckering up..."
  1991. > You pivot your eyes to the wall-clock.
  1992. > It's eight-thirty in the morning.
  1993. > You've nearly missed breakfast at the canteen, and there's not a lot of time to get ready for your morning shift.
  1994. > To be honest you're not sure if you could handle it in your current state.
  1995. > The seamstress unicorn turns to you.
  1996. > "... Hey Honour. I didn't think you'd be up yet."
  1997. > That makes two of you.
  1998. > You groan and start to lurch for the washroom.
  1999. > Maybe you can wash some of the hangover out of you.
  2000. "Gotta get ready for my shift."
  2001. > Glamerspear immediately scoffs.
  2002. > "Are you joking? Don't you remember Anon giving us the morning off last night?"
  2003. > You stop your hooves, though it takes a moment for the rest of your body to catch up to the halt.
  2004. "He did?"
  2005. > She looks you up and down.
  2006. > "Yeah, after we left Marquis, before we decided to try Carré Noir. I thought you were just being cute when you laid into him a bit about how he wasn't allowed to dismiss us..."
  2007. > Cocking an eyebrow, she grins.
  2008. > "... Guess that was the booze talking."
  2009. > Two *more* nightclubs?
  2010. > You barely remember how the evening went after you got into the first one.
  2011. > Scrunching your muzzle, you squint at Glam.
  2012. "How many places did we go last night, exactly?"
  2013. > Her eyes go a bit wide.
  2014. > "Damn, Corporal, I thought you could hold your drink. You sure were guzzling it down."
  2015.  
  2016. > You try to furrow your brow, but the muscles don't quite obey your command.
  2017. "Answer the question, Specialist."
  2018. > She snorts.
  2019. > "Five: Hermitage restaurant, or 'Restaurant Hermitage' if you go by the sign, then we went to Duke's Tavern for some pre-drinking, then we went clubbing first to Wunderground, then Marquis, then Carré Noir. I guess it could be six if you count the one the Royal Engineer tried to get us into at the end..."
  2020. > Shaking her head, she laughs and turns back to her sewing-work.
  2021. > "... Foal, my ears are still ringing from that shouting match. I guess those combat lessons are working because I don't know how else a colt as sloshed as he was could have out-dodged that pegasus bouncer's swoops..."
  2022. > She chuckles again as she sets the machine going again.
  2023. > "... And I don't know how I managed to get a shield bubble up around us when I couldn't even levitate my last drink at Carré, but it sure came as a surprise to that bouncer. Good thing we didn't take the Whirlwind or else we would have crashed it on the way back for sure, even if the Royal Engineer was driving."
  2024. > *thukka-thukka-thukka-thukka-thukka-thukka*
  2025. > Some of what she's said comes back to you.
  2026. > You *vaguely* remember the aforementioned shouting match.
  2027. > The bouncer may have been the one to take a swing at the Royal Engineer, but you feel pretty certain that your VIP verbally provoked it.
  2028. > Apparently, when properly motivated, he was good not just for politely dressing-down miscreants like Phillip Songwell or Valiant Kilfeather, but also for indecently hollering insults at obstinate door-colts.
  2029. > Well, at least you don't have to worry about going on duty.
  2030. > But how the heck is Glamerspear so awake this morning that she's able to work a sewing machine?
  2031. > And where did she even get it?
  2032. > You decide to vocalize these questions.
  2033. "How come you're so chipper today if we all got drunk last night? And where'd you get that thing?"
  2034.  
  2035. > Pausing to examine her work, she puts a hoof up to her brow.
  2036. > "I dunno. I just woke up feeling like I owed Sparkshower for what she did for me on Monday, that I ought to finish up her dress this morning. The sewing machine's from the barracks laundry, I hauled it over..."
  2037. > With her back to you, she shrugs.
  2038. > "... I guess it's just motivation carrying me. That and a painkiller charm. I'll probably crash later, once the dress is done. But I also just wasn't drinking as much as you or the Royal Engineer. I may have been hammered by the end of the night, but I paced myself getting there..."
  2039. > She nods over her shoulder at you and then towards Sergeant Ebonshield's door.
  2040. > "... Not like you two fish. At least Sparks kept her head in our group. She made sure not to take drinks from any colts, too -- other than the Royal Engineer, I mean."
  2041. > You now vaguely recall that, despite wearing what was, frankly, a ridiculously unfashionable traditional pegasus dress, the feather-winged member of your quaternion seemed to be positively glowing last night, getting attention from colts just about everywhere you went.
  2042. > And that was saying something, considering everywhere you went you had a private table.
  2043. > Oh yes -- that was the Royal Engineer's secret to getting into nightclubs that didn't want to let your little mismatched mare-heavy marching band jump the line.
  2044. > He just flashed his bits and said he wanted to book a private table for a couple of hours.
  2045. > That sure got the doors opened quick.
  2046. > It was one thing to let in a group that would pay the twenty-bits-per-head cover charge and then maybe a hoof-full of drinks at ten-to-twenty bits each over the course of three or four hours.
  2047. > It was another thing to let in a group for guaranteed bottle service fees starting at four hundred bits per hour, plus tips.
  2048.  
  2049. > When you first sat down at the *very* luxurious booth in to Wunderground, the Royal Engineer admitted that he'd had a certain budget to develop the initial Whirlwind prototype and had managed to come considerably under it.
  2050. > What was leftover was more than enough to pay for a full and complete night of wanton entertainment.
  2051. > The funny thing is, you'd mostly stuck together and mostly sat at the table, whichever one it was.
  2052. > Just sat, watching the crowd, listening to the live band or one of Canterlot's hip DJs, and trying to talk over the noise.
  2053. > Despite all the alcohol, nopony was really feeling loose enough to go dance in front of everypony else.
  2054. > It was awkward enough getting drunk with your boss, though he did his best to make it easy to relax, steering the conversation towards pleasant topics.
  2055. > And during lulls in the conversation, the Royal Engineer would study the dance floor, watching the moves and asking questions about Equestriann nightclub culture.
  2056. > Thinking back on it, you get the sense that he really did want to dance, but wasn't sure enough of himself to get up and do it in front of the four of you, not to mention everypony else.
  2057. > Which would be ridiculous -- there'd be no shame in it, and he did an excellent job presenting to a tough crowd during the Whirlwind demonstration, so what was he worried about?
  2058. > It *would* be ridiculous, except that you felt the same way, too.
  2059. > Well, maybe there'll be another night.
  2060. > There's the Gala this weekend, after all.
  2061. > Sparkshower at least got up now and then to stand at the fringes of the floor, chatting to a succession of money-flush young studs with popped collars.
  2062. > Ebonshield preferred to sit at the outside edge of the booth, from where she could bat her eyelashes -- and bat-wings -- to tantalize some colt at a distance, then covertly watch them struggle through the crowd to have a chat with her.
  2063. > Glamerspear was chatty the whole night, and the Royal Engineer got ear-fulls about her life.
  2064.  
  2065. > You'd given up your fair share of details, too, and so had he.
  2066. > All things considered it had been an enjoyable night, even if you didn't quite take full advantage of your destinations.
  2067. > You just wished you'd maybe gone a bit easier on the tipple.
  2068. > There's the sound of hoofsteps, and then a loud wooden *clump*, from Ebonshield's room.
  2069. > The door opens and you see the ordinarily graceful and acrobatic batpony emerge, squinting at the light and rubbing a wing against her muzzle.
  2070. > You may have drunk like a fish according to Glamerspear, but at least this trout didn't just bump into her own door.
  2071. > Smacking her lips and coughing, she lunges over to the sideboard where you notice that, conspicuously, there are now *three* copper jugs of water instead of just one.
  2072. > Glamerspear looks up at you, a telling grin on her face.
  2073. > "I figured we'd be some thirsty ponies up in here this morning, so I filled those up on the way back from the laundry."
  2074. > Ebonshield unceremoniously plonks herself down on her haunches, fills a cup, and guzzles it down so fast she splashes water all down the front of her neck.
  2075. > That reminds you how thirsty you are too, and you lick your lips while heading over.
  2076. > The Sergeant's violet eyes are bloodshot, as you're sure your own are, and she pants heavily once the cup is lowered.
  2077. > "Gracias, Glamerspear, for your foresight. I appear to have outdone myself last night..."
  2078. > As you step up for your own refreshment, she looks you up and down.
  2079. > "... But it seems that I was not the only one."
  2080. > You swallow down your own mouthful of Canterlot's icy meltwater.
  2081. > It's cool and refreshing, though the sudden blast of cold in your mouth is likely to aggravate your headache in a moment.
  2082. > Still, it's a start to flushing the toxic brews out of your body.
  2083. > You nod as you pour yourself a second glass.
  2084. "Yeah. Though I could have done without the rattle of the sewing machine waking me up."
  2085.  
  2086. > Ebonshield looks over at the table.
  2087. > "I think this also is why I awoken..."
  2088. > There's the sound of movement in Sparkshower's room, and she leans over slightly towards it.
  2089. > "... Perhaps that will serve to awaken us all, in spite of the commandment of the Great Lord that there should be no duty this morning."
  2090. > The pegasus' door flies open, and you barely get a glimpse of Sparkshower before she bolts for the washroom and slams the door behind her so forcefully that the latch fails to engage and the rebound leaves it cracked slightly open.
  2091. > You and Ebonshield both lean suspiciously around the corner towards the frame, only to hear the sounds of hideous retching shortly followed by the unmistakable plop of vomit into a toilet bowl.
  2092. > Oh...
  2093. > That's not helping what you've got brewing in your own stomach.
  2094. > You put a hoof to your belly as you take another cautious sip of water.
  2095. "How's she in there heaving when she's the biggest of the four of us *and* drank the least?"
  2096. > Holding up the altered dress to examine her work, Glamerspear offers up an explanation.
  2097. > "She's a lightweight who can't hold her drink?"
  2098. > As there's another violent outburst in the room next door, Ebonshield lets out a pained moan, a muzzle held defensively up to her mouth.
  2099. > "Ooohhh.... But listen to how little comes out of her. This is not the poisoning of the alcohol -- this is the sickness of the dawn. I have witnessed this before."
  2100. > She's got to be joking.
  2101. "We call it *morning* sickness, Eb. But she hadn't seen her coltfriend in weeks before Friday, and I don't think she got laid last night, either."
  2102. > Over at the coffee-table-turned-sewing-table, Glamerspear chuckles worriedly.
  2103. > "I dunno, she was talking to some pretty slick colts. Maybe there was some quick hoofy-poofy in the washroom we didn't notice."
  2104. > It hadn't seemed *that* serious to you, but then again, she had been pretty miserable about the breakup.
  2105. > A mare like that could be easily manipulated into anything...
  2106.  
  2107. > Maybe you should have kept a closer leash on her last night.
  2108. > Finally, you scrunch up your muzzle.
  2109. "Anyways morning sickness doesn't come on that quickly. You have to be at least a few weeks pregnant first."
  2110. > Ebonshield shakes her head.
  2111. > "I did not mean the sickness of the morning which comes with foal. I said *dawn* sickness, which is something else."
  2112. > Taking a deep breath and holding it so her cheeks puff out, she leans over, stretches out a wing, and pulls the washroom door closed.
  2113. > With relief, she allows herself to breathe normally again.
  2114. > The noises from the washroom are thankfully now muffled, the potential propagation of smell halted.
  2115. > Not that there was a lot going on in there any more.
  2116. > You hear Sparkshower cough and moan a bit, then flush the toilet.
  2117. > You clop a hoof against the wall.
  2118. "You okay in there, Sparkshower?"
  2119. > There's another moan, but there's also a weak reply.
  2120. > "I... I've been a little sick."
  2121. "Don't worry about it. Take your time. Open the window. Wash your face. Gently, now."
  2122. > "Okay."
  2123. > She'll be fine.
  2124. > As you take another sip of water, cautious to avoid further upsetting your own insides, you prompt Ebonshield to continue.
  2125. "So what's 'dawn sickness', if it's not about having a foal inside you?"
  2126. > She raise her eyebrows.
  2127. > "Dawn sickness is common at sunrise after you have had something *else* inside you. Something dark and malevolent."
  2128. > Eb turns her head and stares tellingly at Glamerspear, whose jaw drops.
  2129. > "You mean an accursed shadow? Celestia!"
  2130. > Glamerspear lowers her head down to rest on the table.
  2131. > "... She's really paying the price for that lesson with Ignacio. It ought to be me in their puking my guts out! It was my lesson."
  2132. > Cringing, you raise a forehoof.
  2133. "Take it easy on the graphic descriptions there, Glam, unless you want the solo performance to turn into a duet -- or a trio."
  2134.  
  2135. > The unicorn sighs, then looks curiously up at the Sergeant.
  2136. > "Did you ever -- Ignacio said that older Stars volunteer to be possessed, to train the others in hunting them."
  2137. > Your somewhat secretive batpony comrade shakes her head.
  2138. > "No. Only those who are nearly too old to fight any more do this. I have participated in such training, but only as a hunter."
  2139. > You have no idea what's being talked about here; there was a lot of conversation last night but none of it was about dawn sickness or accursed shadows or possession or whatever Glamerspear and Sparkshower and Ignacio did Monday afternoon.
  2140. "Glamerspear. What exactly was this lesson? You never told us what you got up to in the Rookery."
  2141. > She sighs, lifting her head back up.
  2142. > "Well, we weren't in the Rookery for long. Ignacio took us to the *Moon*..."
  2143. > Glamerspear points up and out the skylight.
  2144. > "... The actual Moon! Real talk, the one up there! We could *see* Equestria from it, barely..."
  2145. > As she slips into Manehattan slang, you're dumbstruck by her pronouncement, and you don't really know why.
  2146. > You were standing next to somepony who literally was born and lived for decades on the Moon; it was only reasonable to assume they had some conduit to get back there as needed.
  2147. > But it was still an unfathomable leap from a cavern under a mountain to walking on another planet.
  2148. > The unicorn continues.
  2149. > "... He took us to what he called 'the' crater. It's a religious site for batponies, I guess. It's where Nightmare Moon landed after Celestia sent her up there a thousand years ago."
  2150. > Ebonshield pipes up.
  2151. > "Not only the Nightmare Moon. The members of the League of Stars who refused to abandon her landed in that crater as well, turned by her final spell into the batponies. My ancestors."
  2152.  
  2153. > Glamerspear nods.
  2154. > "Well there's plenty of craters for everypony, that's for sure. The one we went down goes real deep, though, more like it was drilled than just hit. Ignacio said that was the best place to train in their kind of magic -- the Eclipse Phase magic, I mean. The barrier was weaker there."
  2155. "What barrier?"
  2156. > "The barrier between our world and..."
  2157. > She shakes her head.
  2158. > "... some other one, full of nasty creatures absolutely jacked up on mana. That's how Ignacio and the Eclipse work -- they're conjurers, bringing those demons into our realm and binding them to stuff. Like Eb's suit of illusion armour, or some medallions another Eclipse Phase, Aldonza, gave us to disguise ourselves as batponies on the Moon."
  2159. > The batpony in the room nods.
  2160. > "Yes. And also the sand in the pit of the Grand Hall of Stars. And sometimes even to things not quite substantial, like the sound of the instruments musical, or of the voice singing."
  2161. > Glamerspear furrows her brow.
  2162. > "You know that stuff too? He said they don't share their secrets outside their Phase."
  2163. > Eb inhales sharply through her nostrils.
  2164. > "No, they do not. But Ignacio and I have a relationship... a little especial."
  2165. > Even you cock an eyebrow at that one.
  2166. "Really? You and him... ?"
  2167. > You leave the obvious question unsaid, but she shakes her head.
  2168. > "Not like that. Simply a... strong admiration, I think. But continue your story, Specialist."
  2169. > Glamerspear shakes her head, grinning.
  2170. > "No way. You can't drop a bomb on us like that, Sarge, without explaining it."
  2171. > Ebonshield looks uncomfortable, and you can't tell if it's because of the alcohol poisoning or being pressed on what was apparently a sensitive issue.
  2172. > Either way she wasn't genuinely ill, and you wanted to hear what happened to Sparkshower said first.
  2173. "Yes she can. I don't have the brainpower right now to follow two threads right now, and I want to know why one of ours is miserable in the washroom first."
  2174.  
  2175. > The unicorn grumbles.
  2176. > "Fine. So the Eclipse Phase bind these creatures, which they call the 'accursed shadows'. And because they're so dangerous, the first thing they learn how to do is how to get rid of them, to banish them back to their other world. That's what he tried to teach me."
  2177. > You jerk a forehoof towards the bathroom door.
  2178. "And what part did Sparkshower play in this training?"
  2179. > Glamerspear swallows.
  2180. > "She was the accursed shadow's... host."
  2181. > You raise your eyebrow and open your eyes wide, scrutinizing Glamerspear's face.
  2182. > Then you glance over towards Ebonshield, who nods.
  2183. > "When an accursed shadow possesses a creature they become abomination. To banish them and restore the creature is a skill essential, and Stars train to fight and capture abominations just as Eclipse train to banish the shadows within..."
  2184. > Ebonshield turns her head towards the closed door as as another bout of loud coughing and hacking emanates from behind it.
  2185. > "... But even after banishment, there are some consequences to the possession, which fade with time..."
  2186. > She turns back towards you and the seamstress.
  2187. > "... 'Dawn Sickness' is one such consequence. They become ill violently at the first kiss of dawn sunlight. After an elder Star volunteers to become abomination in order to train the new generation of Stars and Eclipse, they avoid the surface for several weeks."
  2188. > You narrow your eyes again.
  2189. "I don't think we can lock Sparkshower up underground. What other after-effects are there from this procedure?"
  2190. > The batpony prepares to rattle off a list, but Glamerpsear beats her to the punch.
  2191. > "Irritability, emotional instability, difficulty sleeping, vivid dreams, and strong reactions to the sight of blood -- that's what Ignacio said. He didn't mention anything about throwing up in the morning."
  2192.  
  2193. > Eb shrugs.
  2194. > "Likely this is because such an effect is generally planned for in advance, and so it rarely happens any more, except when circumstances force the former abomination to see the sun. He may simply have forgot."
  2195. > You cock an eyebrow.
  2196. "Anything else he might have missed?"
  2197. > She shakes her head.
  2198. > "No. But the descriptions given such as 'irritability' and 'emotional instability' do not do the symptoms justice. When I trained in this, a week after being exorcised, the retired master became so angry over a matter trivial that he became violent, and it took many other Stars to subdue him. In his fury he caused many injuries to others and in stopping him the Stars caused many more to him, so many that he perished as a result. That is not a fate uncommon, and this is why we conduct the training only using those Stars considered too old and too physically frail to serve."
  2199. > Glamerspear inhales sharply.
  2200. > "It can get that bad? Buck, now really I feel awful for dragging Sparkshower along."
  2201. > The bat pony nods.
  2202. > "The accursed shadows are not to be trifled with. The Children are all sworn to destroy them whenever they are found outside of our own control -- and that is an oath which is taken most seriously, since comes from our own history. In the early years of our banishment, our mages toyed freely with the shadow realm. Many mistakes were made and much suffering was caused. Many shadows were loosed, either freely or in the form of abominations..."
  2203. > She turns to you.
  2204. > "... You have been to the Lunar Sanctuary, Caporal. You have seen the Courtyard of the Houses, where much of the scheming and deal-making of the Children is done, and the Vestibule of Priests, where is conducted the remainder. The Lunars are conniving power-brokers, and my mother most of all, or else she would never have become the Mother Superior of her House and then the Children as a whole..."
  2205.  
  2206. > Taking another sip of water, she licks her lips.
  2207. > "... Yet for all their faults, I still consider them a positive, stabilizing force, particularly with regards to the Accursed Shadows. We must use those foul creatures, because without them there is no magic for us, and without magic there is no victory, but without the orthodoxy strictly-enforced of the Lunars, we might easily slip into ancient customs of corruption and experimentation without restraint."
  2208. > It all seems to be hitting home to Glamerspear.
  2209. > "Ignacio said that with the easy travel from the Moon to Equestria, no batpony mother will ever give birth under an Eclipse again. He was happy to tell us his kind would one day be no more."
  2210. > Eb nods knowingly.
  2211. > "In the old days, birth would be forced during an eclipse, by potion or spell or even violence, in order to produce artificially more Children-mages capable of summoning the Accursed Shadows; they, as well as an army of abominations, were the easy paths to power for any would-be tyrant. There are many dark secrets in our history. The rise of the Lunar orthodoxy put an end to this."
  2212. "How'd they win, if the other guys had all these mages and possessed troops?"
  2213.  
  2214. > She grimaces.
  2215. > "The details are somewhat lost to history, but we believe that the new order focused on training untainted warriors and on developing new techniques for banishment, many of which are still practiced today. Abominations are more vulnerable during the day and especially in sunlight, while an exorcised abomination is merely an ordinary pony again, and the tyrant-lords who produced them in droves did not train their troops beforehoof. Furthermore, abominations cannot truly be controlled and are never trustworthy. So when the untainted forces met the corrupt horde of a tyrant, if they could force the issue on the surface and make things appear as if the tide had turned against the Shadows, then the result was chaos, catastrophe, and utter annihilation. Even a recently-exorcised abomination is quick to panic. Thus the tyrants were overcome or chose to submit..."
  2216. > Eb whinnies.
  2217. > "... This was not the end of war between Children, of course. Once the matter of the Accursed Shadows was settled, there were many details of doctrine to fight over -- that is when my Temple was founded, as were many others. But even once a single religious orthodoxy was established, then there were many wars between the Great Houses over trivial matters, until two years ago the return of the Great Mother ended open conflict."
  2218. > Over at the card-table, Glamerspear explodes.
  2219. > "Okay, so much for the history lesson -- and now you know what happened to Sparks, Honour, so how's about we get some details on this 'special relationship' between Ignacio and our Sergeant?"
  2220. > She's got absolutely no patience whatsoever, does she?
  2221. > Regardless, Ebonshield humours her request.
  2222. > "As I said, he... admires me. But this he does from a distance. I think he is too aware of his disabilities physical to attempt anything more..."
  2223.  
  2224. > She puts down her cup, brushing some of the spilled water off her neck with a forehoof.
  2225. > "... He is not of my House, you may remember. He was supervising a tournament in which I participated when I was only a Third of the Temple of the Shining Stellar Dance. Such events are common among the Houses of the Children, which compete for the prestige not only of winning prizes but also in being gracious hosts and staging elaborate competitions. Ignacio's House, House Rima de Serenidad, is particularly famous for them."
  2226. > You cock an eyebrow.
  2227. "Are any of these tournaments like the Grand Mélee? Groups all fighting at once, the whole day long?"
  2228. > She nods.
  2229. > "Sometimes, yes. But these are not commonly entered by the Stellar Dancers, so I have little experience with them. I am afraid I have much to learn in that regard. We shine in the competitions solo. In this one, Ignacio conjured opponents of sand, much as you all saw him do, and we competed one at a time to defeat the enemies as quickly as possible."
  2230. > Ebonshield gracefully spreads her wings wide.
  2231. > "... This was not my first tournament, and I was considered quite gifted for being only a Third. I took the first prize for my Temple, and by a margin considerable. This would not be the last time I would compete with Ignacio as the Balladeer of Ghosts set against me. Indeed, such pairings became more and more frequent..."
  2232. > There's a flushing noise from the washroom, and the sound of running water from the sink.
  2233. > Sounds like Sparkshower's over the worst of things.
  2234.  
  2235. > "... In fact I began to notice how frequently my Temple was invited to tournaments; this was uncommon since we are, as you have seen, not well-appreciated among the Stars. We would be invited to some competitions, yes, because to exclude us completely would be offensive and therefore perhaps invite a discounted price being offered for the assassination of members of that House, but we were left out of many tournaments on the basis that we were not soldiers ordinary..."
  2236. > Puffing her tuft out slightly, she wiggles her shoulders and repositions her plot for maximum effect.
  2237. > "... Because House Rima de Serenidad suddenly broke with tradition and kept inviting us, the other Houses were thus compelled to keep up, lest they be seen as laggards. And since I was a rising star within the Temple who could win, I would often be sent as a representative to win more. This situation was so unheard-of in the history of our Temple that I do not exaggerate when I say that in the halls of our Temple there are as many trophies from tournaments which were awarded to me than there are for those of all other Stellar Dancers, former or present. For two years, I was a champion of almost a hundred contests, known across the Moon, and all because House Rima de Serenidad invited the Temple of the Shining Stellar Dance to join in every one of their monthly, semi-annual, and grand annual tournaments, instead of being invited only to one of the two semi-annual events."
  2238. > She's clearly proud of her achievement, and it does sound like quite an achievement.
  2239. > You can't help but snicker when you see the conclusion at the end of the story, however.
  2240. "Let me guess where this is going: Ignacio was the one who demanded they keep inviting you back. Because he had a crush on you."
  2241.  
  2242. > The Sergeant laughs amiably.
  2243. > "Yes, precisely this. Eventually, after one of many such events, he asked to see me in private -- a most unusual request, since the Eclipse are both reclusive and ostracized from formal society..."
  2244. > She swallows, blushing a little.
  2245. > "... We spoke in the guest quarters of his House, in my room. He made only small talk at first: complimenting me on my performance, asking me about about other recent tournaments. We discussed technique of combat and acrobatics at length, and I was surprised at how much he knew. We spoke for hours, until both of us were exhausted..."
  2246. > Her cheeks are rosy-red now.
  2247. > "... Eventually, he confessed his scheme to me. You know that he is blind, as are all Eclipse, but they can 'hear' magic, and this 'sound' they can eventually use to perceive the world around them, in great detail. They call it the third ear."
  2248. > Glamerspear scoffs.
  2249. > "Yeah, Ignacio kept trying to get me to 'open' my 'third ear' on Monday, but I couldn't do much. Maybe unicorns just aren't built for it."
  2250. > "Perhaps. I can tell you that his 'third ear' is most perceptive. He could make out and then later recall even the tiniest details of my motions, when I fought in the sand-pit..."
  2251. > She sighs wistfully.
  2252. > "... He said that he had never observed someone who could move as I did when in battle. He adored watching me work. I was beautiful to him, even though he did not know the style of my mane or the colour of my eyes. He could perceive only the motion, the attacking, the feinting, the defending. And the only way he could think to show his appreciation was to ensure that I would have many tournaments to compete in -- which coincidentally also afforded him opportunities additional to observe me at work..."
  2253. > You and Glamerspear both sit, attentively waiting for the the conclusion of the scene.
  2254. > Eb looks a little hesitant.
  2255. > You raise your eyebrows.
  2256.  
  2257. > Eventually the Sergeant relents.
  2258. > "... We spent the night together. As an Eclipse, he cannot -- you know. But we kept each other company. Since then we have remained good friends. And, even though I still owed much of my life to my House, we sometimes kept each other company again."
  2259. > You whinny.
  2260. "What'd he call you in the sandpit that first time, when you got injured? A pet name?"
  2261. > "Yes. 'Angelita de la muerte' -- 'little angel of death'."
  2262. > There's another flush from the washroom, then you hear hoofsteps on tile.
  2263. > The door opens, and Sparkshower emerges, alive but looking the worse for wear.
  2264. > "Uhhh... I don't feel so good."
  2265. > Ebonshield turns and extends a wing to wrap around the nauseated pegasus.
  2266. > "This illness will pass in time. You have only what we call the 'dawn sickness'."
  2267. > She goes stark white.
  2268. > "What?! Dawn sickness?! But I can't be pregnant -- I'm not even married yet!"
  2269. > You try really hard to suppress your laughter, but it's not quite enough.
  2270. > Eb, however, keeps a completely straight face.
  2271. > "Ah, Artemiso, this is not from pregnancy. This is another side-effect from having had the Accursed Shadow within you."
  2272. > "Oh..."
  2273. > Sparkshower furrows her brow.
  2274. > "... Oh. It's just that I do remember talking to an awful lot of nice colts last night. And I, uh..."
  2275. > The yellow pony starts turning red.
  2276. > "... I also remember getting sorta really close with a few of them. I mean, uh, physically, like sorta snuggling, except not. And there were a lot of calling cards stuffed into my plaid when I got home."
  2277. > Seriously?
  2278. > She wasn't just getting chatted up by colts, she was grinding with them and getting names & addresses?
  2279. > That did seem out of character.
  2280. > Glam suddenly stands up.
  2281. > "Yeah, well never mind those loser colts from the nightclubs last night, Sparks, because you're gonna get a dozen more calling cards from Canterlot's most eligible bachelor noblecolts at the Gala with *this*!"
  2282.  
  2283. > Using her telekinesis, she proudly holds up the dress, the alterations for pegasus wings complete.
  2284. > It's a gorgeous pink cocktail dress, with a solid but lacy body and poofy tulle rear.
  2285. > Instantly, Sparkshower's apprehension about last night and illness from this morning seems to melt away.
  2286. > "Oh my! It looks just as good as it did in the store, Lily."
  2287. > Glam beams proudly.
  2288. > "Of course it does! I told you I'd do you right, didn't I? Now, let's give it a try on, yeah? And you can let me know if it's too tight or loose anywhere. You're gonna knock 'em dead with this one at the Gala, Sparks."
  2289. > The two junior soldiers retire into Sparkshower's room for the final dress rehearsal.
  2290. > You sigh.
  2291. "If we're all done with the sewing machine, I ought to go try to sleep this hangover off some more."
  2292. > Ebonshield nods.
  2293. > "I think I will do this also. Perhaps we will check in with the Great Lord after lunch, to see if he is in a condition similar?"
  2294. "Yeah. Sounds like a plan."
  2295.  
  2296.  
  2297.  
  2298.  
  2299. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and this is the first time in a while you've been in an ordinary terrestrial cab pulled by an ordinary hooves-on-the-ground earth pony driver.
  2300. > Or is it?
  2301. > You furrow your brow, trying to remember last night.
  2302. > Surely the five of you drunkards didn't just stumble back to the palace from Canterlot's fashionable Tallyho district on hoof?
  2303. > The events leading up to your collective decision to head home were still pretty hazy, and everything after that was a complete blur.
  2304. > At least having another nap until the afternoon managed to clear the dull throbbing pain in your head.
  2305. > You can thank Earth Pony constitution for that -- or maybe just your well-conditioned liver.
  2306. > When you woke for the afternoon shift, the rest of your comrades were still feeling out of it, and you'd expected your Very Important Pony, who wasn't actually a pony, to likely be out of it as well.
  2307. > As you look out the window, trying to remember, the Royal Engineer interrupts your thoughts.
  2308. > "By the way, Corporal, I don't think I properly thanked you for your assistance last night..."
  2309. > Uhh...?
  2310. > He smiles, though there's a pain in his eyes which tells you he wasn't bluffing about nursing a painful hangover-headache.
  2311. > Not enough to keep him in bed, he'd said, but too much to keep him from being productive in his office or the garage.
  2312. > So, instead, here you were in a cab on the way to the Bridle Path Clothiers to pick up his Gala suit.
  2313. > "... I should say you went well beyond the call of duty. And I do apologize for my inappropriate behaviour."
  2314. > Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
  2315. > Panic starts to set in a bit.
  2316. > Just WHAT did you do last night?
  2317. > Or what does he THINK you did?
  2318. > You opt for the honest approach.
  2319. "Thank you, sir, but what 'assistance' are you referring to?"
  2320.  
  2321. > He waves a gloved hand dismissively.
  2322. > "Keeping me from getting into fisticuffs with that bouncer, for a start. When he refused us entrance on the basis of our obvious drunkenness, I don't know what overcame me. It was my fault for provoking him, and it wouldn't have ended well if we'd actually traded blows."
  2323. > That does sound like something you'd have done, and Glamerspear already corroborated the incident itself.
  2324. "Yes, sir."
  2325. > The Royal Engineer chuckles.
  2326. > "I suppose the drinks went to Specialist Sparkshower's head as well. After I ducked his punch and that poor colt bounced off of Glamerspear's magical shield, Sparkshower tackled him so fast I'd have sworn she'd brought that rocket-lance along for the night..."
  2327. > Sounds like it was quite a show; you're almost upset you can't remember it.
  2328. > Drunken member of the Blue Chamber shouts expletives at bouncer, ducks under punch while unicorn bodyguard shield-bounces the target back and the pegasus tackles.
  2329. > Meanwhile you're running blocker on the VIP.
  2330. > You have a vague recollection of standing on your hind hooves, your forehooves pressed up against Anonymous' chest while he struggled to step forward, waving his hands and hollering taunts past your head.
  2331. > Can you remember any of them?
  2332. > 'I'm gonna beat you like a rented mule, boy'?
  2333. > That sounds familiar; just needs more slurring and the scent of alcohol accompanying it.
  2334. > You also remember him asking repeatedly 'Do you know who I am?' and then rattling off his full title: 'By Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, The Royal Engineer of Equestria'.
  2335. > The Royal Engineer in question continues before you can recall any more of his litany.
  2336. > "... Anyways, after Sergeant Ebonshield wrangled Sparkshower away, you rallied the rest of the quaternion and somehow -- I really don't know how -- calmed things down enough to hail a cab and bundle us all in..."
  2337. > A-ha!
  2338. > So you didn't just hoof it back to the palace.
  2339.  
  2340. > "... That was very well done. And I seem to remember making all sorts of wild suggestions which you somehow also managed to talk me out of -- like going somewhere for a snack or desserts or hitting up another bar..."
  2341. > Yeah, Anonymous wouldn't be the first drunken companion you'd had to convince to turn in after what had already been a very full night of partying.
  2342. > "... But you put your hoof down and saw us all back to our residences, safe and sound. I don't know what got into me; I haven't gotten drunk like that since I was studying for my Bachelor's degree."
  2343. > You nod knowingly.
  2344. > It's funny how despite the social gulf -- not to mention the racial one -- his experiences seem to mirror yours.
  2345. "Yes, sir. I don't think I've imbibed so much since I first joined the Guard, either."
  2346. > Your VIP swallows, and he pulls his handkerchief out to mop a bit of sweat up at his brow.
  2347. > "Well, I appreciate you managing to keep a level head throughout the ordeal. And I'm sorry if my antics ruined the night. But you really didn't have to help me in my chambers afterwards. Regardless of what Sergeant Ebonshield's said about ancient Equestrian traditions, I don't think that kind of help is demanded of you in your position, is it?"
  2348. > In his *chambers*?
  2349. > Stopping a fight, hailing a cab, and dissuading further partying was one thing.
  2350. > What did you get up to in his room?
  2351. > You start to get a bit hot under your armoured collar.
  2352. "Sir?"
  2353. > He emits a pained chuckle.
  2354. > "I mean, my suit -- it would have taken one night's sleep in it. Wrinkles iron out eventually. You didn't have to help me get undressed..."
  2355. > You helped him out of his suit.
  2356. > That's... a little awkward, but it wasn't really too bad, was it?
  2357. > Yes, clothes were different for him than for ponies, but you'd already seen him naked when you passed through that waterfall in the Lunar Sanctuary, in the batpony Rookery under Canterlot Mountain.
  2358. > "... I do appreciate your thoroughness, though."
  2359.  
  2360. > You wrack your brain, trying to reconstruct the scene.
  2361. > As the drunken haze lifts, pieces start to click into place.
  2362.  
  2363. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTy4NRlucNk (British Sea Power - 'Your Body Betrays Your Degeneracy', from 'Disco Elysium' [2019])
  2364.  
  2365. > You're on your hind hooves again, but not out on a cobblestone street.
  2366. > It's indoors; in the Royal Engineer's chambers, and you're on the other side of the low movable partition wall which separates the living, dining, and work spaces at the front from his bed and dressing area.
  2367. > Your forehooves are on his chest -- and around them, slightly -- but this time he's not struggling against you.
  2368. > He's just leaning slightly, and swaying.
  2369. > The buttons on his shirt are giving you trouble.
  2370. > Why are there so many of them??
  2371. > And why are they so small??
  2372. > Damn unicorn tailors not accommodating anypony without telekinesis... or hands.
  2373. > "Lemme... Lemme help. I can do... I can do buttons."
  2374. > You remember saying no, sir, I'll take care of it, sir.
  2375. > There was no way some *BUTTONS* of all things were going to defeat you, drunk or not.
  2376. > You manage to undo one more coming up from the bottom and your muzzle meets his fingers as he gets the top three open.
  2377. > That's a triumph, but when he pulls up on his shirt to reveal two more buttons previously hidden below his waistline, your disappointment is immeasurable.
  2378. > "I got-- I got these. Jus'hold onto me so you -- so you don't fall down."
  2379. > He struggles in place, wobbling on his feet, and it's clear that drunk fingers are scarcely better than drunk hooves or drunk teeth at manipulating the obnoxious little fixtures.
  2380. > Finally, he gets them undone, and with the cufflinks already removed, he can take his shirt off.
  2381. > The undershirt follows after only a little struggling and a near-tumble sideways.
  2382.  
  2383. > Just one piece left, but when he hunches forward to get a look at the Tartarean clasp which holds his pants together, he almost falls right over you.
  2384. > You raise a hoof and tell him to just wait.
  2385. > You got this.
  2386. > It's like solving a puzzle.
  2387. > You sit down on your haunches for a more comfortable approach, and he puts his hands on your withers, steadying himself, his eyes flickering open and closed as sleep begins to overtake him.
  2388. > There's a button, and a zipper, and then on the inside there's a little buckle.
  2389. > But that's not enough: there's more in there -- another button? -- and you have to root around with your hooves and muzzle to figure it out.
  2390. > Between his trousers and his underpants.
  2391. > Dangerously close to certain other things.
  2392. > But as you struggle towards the solution, you feel one of his hands go to your neck, gently stroking your coat back and forth.
  2393. > That's a distraction you don't need right now, but...
  2394. > But it feels nice.
  2395. > You pause in your furious work.
  2396. > That momentary rest allows sleep to start catching up with you, too, and as the tender ministrations continue, you find yourself leaning forward into him, resting your head against his abdomen.
  2397. > His other hand leaves your shoulder and you feel fingers start to pierce into the threads of your braid.
  2398. > Slowly, he digs them deeper and deeper, parting the strands of your tightly-bound mane until he reaches your crest and begins to massage.
  2399. > You feel your eyes close.
  2400. > "Soft choco-pone... Soft... Why'd you... Why'd y'wear y'hair up like this anyways, co'pral. Oughtta let it down, s'probably prettier likedat..."
  2401. > With one ears against his chest, you don't so much hear his mumbling as *feel* it.
  2402. > "... Prettier... Errythingsso pretty here. Softnpretty..."
  2403. > The fingers work deep, and you let out a small moan, tilting your head sideways to guide them along their way.
  2404. > "... Prettynsoft, nsoftnpretty... Jus wanna... wanna curl up with errything. Curl up... Curl up..."
  2405.  
  2406. > You feel his chest rise and fall with each breath.
  2407. > "... Curl up... Curlup an'not be alone..."
  2408. > The rhythm of your lungs synchronizes with his.
  2409. > "... Donwanna be loneanymore. Donwanna... Donwanna..."
  2410. > There's a sudden movement, and you're jostled back to your senses by the laboured breathing of your VIP, who's got tears in his eyes.
  2411. > The Royal Engineer steps back from you, thrusting his pelvis forward and arching his back, standing on his toes as he angrily attacks the last two inner buttons holding his pants on.
  2412. > He almost stumbles over sideways before getting them open, and once that's done he unceremoniously sits down hard on the ground, his back up against the side of his bed, with his pants around his knees.
  2413. > As he leans up against the wooden frame, you see his eyes shut, and then his head lolls forward, surrendering to exhaustion.
  2414. > You remember hesitating for a moment.
  2415. > But you couldn't leave a job half done.
  2416. > He'd be all stiff and sore in the morning if he slept sitting up like that.
  2417. > Straightening his legs, you pulled his pants off and then put your muzzle under his shoulder, hoisting him up.
  2418. > "... Huh? Whuzzat? Whuddufuck izzat?"
  2419. > You told him who you were, and that it was time to sleep, and as you lifted him level with the mattress, he instinctively turned around, his hands finding familiar purchase in the soft bedding and silky sheets.
  2420. > "... hokay. Gnngiht cpral. Gudnighintzzzzzzzz*SNORT*zzzz."
  2421. > He barely gets himself in before plummeting straight to sleep.
  2422. > You gently pulled the top sheet over your VIP, and then managed to make your way out, past his plush easy chair and two very inviting-looking sofas, through his chamber door, up the stairs to the second floor, and into your own bedroom to flop out on your own bed.
  2423.  
  2424. > Back in the present, the Royal Engineer sits across from you in the cab, looking tired but friendly and appreciative.
  2425. > He remembered you helping him undress, but did he remember what he did?
  2426.  
  2427. > Groping your neck?
  2428. > Fondling your braid?
  2429. > Commenting on your manestyle?
  2430. > Admitting his loneliness?
  2431. > And did you even remember it all, or was there more you've forgotten?
  2432. > Somehow, you feel certain it didn't go further than that.
  2433. > Maybe he'd said more and maybe the embrace -- what else could you call it, if you didn't resist? -- went on for longer than you realized.
  2434. > You carefully watch his eyes as you answer him.
  2435. "I was more than a little drunk myself, sir. I've been told that I can get quite determined in that state."
  2436. > He ruefully shrugs his eyebrows.
  2437. > "I can understand that. When I got drunk in school I'd often go home and try to bang out my homework. Sometimes it'd even be legible in the morning. But last night I felt like I was on the verge of collapsing; it wouldn't have been very good if I'd fallen on top of you. Adults like us really ought to know better than to drink so much."
  2438. > There's nothing evasive in his voice.
  2439. > He just remembers the shouting at the bouncer and then the clothes and the tumbling over; he might've been half-asleep already when he put his fingers in your braids and told you you'd look better without them.
  2440. > Wearing your mane down...
  2441. > You hadn't done that since before your divorce.
  2442. > When you left your ex-husband, you left Fillydelphia and your friends, you left your old post and your old career, and you left your old manestyle too.
  2443. > Now the only times your mane hung free was when you brushed it in the evening and redid the braid in the morning.
  2444. > You hadn't even let it down for Castlerook -- not that he'd asked.
  2445. > And even if he had asked, would you have?
  2446. > As with the offer to move back to Filly with him, it's an uncomfortable thought.
  2447. > About as uncomfortable as the thought of your VIP running his fingers through your mane, calling you a 'Soft choco-pone', telling you you'd look better with your mane down, and then crying to himself about loneliness.
  2448.  
  2449. > Well, at least the latter situation won't come up again -- not if you both measure yourselves next time, as he suggests.
  2450. > The whole quaternion had gotten tipsy; even Ebonshield didn't escape without a hangover, and if you were old enough to know better, then she was even more so.
  2451. > All of them were still sleeping it off back at the palace upstairs.
  2452. > Whereas here you were feeling well enough for a two-wheeler coach ride to Poole Street.
  2453. > The colt up front wearing the tackle calls back over his shoulder.
  2454. > "Here we are, m'Lord, Bridle Path Clothiers, Poole Street. That's twenty bits, sir."
  2455. > As the carriage comes to a stop, Anonymous reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out two ten-bit pieces.
  2456. > He opens the door, steps down, and hoofs -- hands, rather -- them to the driver before you exit the vehicle as well.
  2457. > "Here you go, cabbie. Is there a stand nearby where we can find a carriage for our return?"
  2458. > As the colt sits down to puts the fare in his purse, he points a forehoof down the street.
  2459. > "Just down there, sir, not two blocks away. Your Lordship might even find me there."
  2460. > You glance inside the window of the store.
  2461. > There's a *lot* of customers in there -- at least a dozen that you can see, and who knows how many more in any of the other rooms.
  2462. > And they don't look like they're all part of the same group.
  2463. > Looks like you'll be waiting for a while.
  2464. "I don't think we're going to be in and out too quickly."
  2465. > There's a deep rumble in the grey sky above, and all three of you look up to see imminent darkening.
  2466. > "That's not a welcome noise. I don't much fancy a wet dash while nursing a hangover and possibly with a new suit in hand."
  2467. > That's a ridiculous statement.
  2468. > You're his bodyguard -- *you'd* go run the two blocks to get the cab for him, he wouldn't have to run with you.
  2469. "Sir, if it's raining when we come out, I can always-"
  2470.  
  2471. > As he's so often done before, he infuriatingly ignores your suggestion of sacrifice for his sake before you can even finish making it, addressing himself to the driver.
  2472. > "Tell me, my friend, could we arrange for you to come back and pick us up in, say, two hours?"
  2473. > Somehow the way he casually uses 'we' mollifies your rage at being overruled.
  2474. > You suppose that even if you'd ran for the taxi stand and gotten soaked on behalf of your VIP, then there would've been the question of what to do with you afterwards.
  2475. > Some VIPs would tell their bodyguards to walk back to the palace.
  2476. > Anonymous definitely wasn't one of those; you'd take the carriage with him for sure.
  2477. > Normally you should stand on the running board at the back, getting even more wet and probably muddy, too.
  2478. > And the Royal Engineer wouldn't have accepted that either.
  2479. > Which means he'd order you inside to sit next to him, and then you'd soak him by virtue of adjacency.
  2480. > The cabbie shakes his head as you hear the trotting of hooves all around you from ponies hustling for cover.
  2481. > "Sorry, m'Lord, I'm afraid it's against agency rules; scheduled pickups require a four-wheeler minimum. You could hire me for the half-day, though. It's two hundred bits, but I'll refund you the twenty from just now."
  2482. > "Very well. On a day like this, it's worth it."
  2483. > Your VIP reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a long wallet, opening it to extract a pair of hundred-bit notes.
  2484. > It had been a lot fuller last night when you first hit the town.
  2485. > Hundred-bit notes, five-hundred-bit notes, even a substantial wad of thousand-bit notes.
  2486. > The Royal Engineer had said he'd not just come in under budget on the Whirlwind, he'd also been pretty frugal with his personal allowance up until now.
  2487. > That's how he was able to buy bottle service tables at three different nightclubs without batting an eye.
  2488. > "Here you go."
  2489.  
  2490. > "Thank you, m'Lord. And here's your twenty bits back. I'll be right here warming your seat for you when you've finished."
  2491. > With a cheerful forehoof salute, the colt unhooks himself from the two supporting shafts, props them up on folding rests to keep the cab level, dusts off his hooves, and then clambers into his own taxi to take refuge from the impending rain.
  2492. > The first spits of water just start to fall as you enter the coltswear store.
  2493. > Your observations inside confirm what you saw from outside -- it's packed in here.
  2494. > There's seats set up with customers waiting on them, and staff darting to and fro with outfits held in hooves or wings or more commonly in magical telekinetic glows.
  2495. > You can always tell Gala season in Canterlot by how busy the clothing shops are -- even on a rainy day.
  2496. > A slender young unicorn mare with a feathered cap waits at a book-stand inside, like a restaurant hostess with a seating plan.
  2497. > "Good afternoon! Welcome to Bridle Path Clothiers. Are you here to pick an order up, or would you like to browse?"
  2498. > "Picking up. It's for a bespoke suit."
  2499. > She consults the tome spread open in front of her.
  2500. > "I'm afraid it's going to be a wait of around thirty minutes, perhaps an hour if you wanted to try it on first. Or I can write you in for an appointment later?"
  2501. > Another rumble of thunder outside, and then the sky starts to unload on what poor ponies didn't make it to shelter in time.
  2502. > Usually Canterlot only gets announced drizzle during the daytime, with major showers reserved for the night; this must've been a big weather pattern if the Airborne Weather And Climate Service pegasi couldn't break up the storm front without putting it in the forecast.
  2503. > It was pretty rare for severe weather to slip by the AWACS.
  2504. > "That's all right, we'll wait for a room."
  2505. > After taking his name, she directs you an empty pair of seats, to be called up when it was your turn with a staff member and fitting room.
  2506.  
  2507. > You sit down in silence for several minutes.
  2508. > The Royal Engineer accepted a glass of water that the receptionist-mare brought him, then closed his eyes and sat in silence.
  2509. > With the hangover, your VIP was apparently, and quite understandably, not in a chatty mood.
  2510. > That didn't bother you.
  2511. > Glancing around, you take in the crowd.
  2512. > There were colts of all ages waiting for their Gala outfits, some of them accompanied by their partners, a few of them by either their children or their parents, and curiously two of them even had bodyguards.
  2513. > Neither of those were wearing official Royal Guard dress, though that didn't necessarily mean they weren't Royal Guardsponies, since special uniforms could be issued by the VIP.
  2514. > But you felt certain that neither of their patrons were guests of the palace, which meant these escorts were private hires.
  2515. > On your right was an older colt, probably in his fifties in loose but elegant robes, with a curly mane, a short moustache, and a goatee.
  2516. > He was accompanied by a young, thin, pegasus tart smartly dressed in a tan jacket with gold epaulettes, a red side cap on her head and a black silk scarf completing the ensemble.
  2517. > She was clearly trying to *look* like she'd been in the guard, but with her age there was no chance unless she'd washed straight out of 'shoe camp.
  2518. > And she wasn't even armed -- no sabots, no weapons.
  2519. > Her fashionable medium-length manestyle was practical enough, and maybe she simply didn't feel the need to be visibly armed in a coltswear store, but you were still almost certain she was just for show.
  2520. > You wondered if the colt was even nobility.
  2521. > He didn't seem to quite have that aristocratic air -- maybe he was a commoner who'd been decorated for some service to Equestria?
  2522. > He might even be a retired General or other high-ranking official -- among non-nobles, those were the most common kinds of ponies given the privilege of a retinue.
  2523.  
  2524. > Either way, he must at least have some wealth to make use of his granted affinity by hiring a model as a VIP.
  2525. > To your left, sitting in a corner, was a young twenty-something noblecolt regarding most of the room with upturned-muzzle disdain.
  2526. > Accompanying him was an earth pony mare in her late thirties or late forties who was wearing an ordinary white shirt, open-collared, with a beige pleated skirt and a pair of small brown saddlebags on a matching belt.
  2527. > Unlike the pegasus, from the bulge around her hooves you could tell she had sabots on -- but she'd concealed them under dark brown short boots.
  2528. > The whole outfit screamed 'grey mare operator'; you were certain she had wraparound 'tactical' sunglasses in one of those bags.
  2529. > But you had to admit, she *did* fit right in here, and probably would anywhere else her VIP would care to go, too.
  2530. > Add a brown tie and a beige blazer and she'd be formal enough for the palace.
  2531. > Although she was doing a good job of blending in, you noted that she was also alertly watching all the movement in the busy store.
  2532. > She'd had proper training; she'd probably been in the Royal Guard, and maybe even in the VIP section.
  2533. > You catch her eyeing you up, and from the look of sympathy she seems to project, you're all but certain she's served in exactly your role.
  2534. > Her eyes seemed to say, 'I've been there, sister'.
  2535. > With maybe an apologetic hint of, 'It doesn't get much better, sorry'.
  2536. > You're struck but the two opposites of bodyguard duty presented to you.
  2537. > On the one hoof, the pretty decoration, hired for their youth and their looks and maybe a few other private things but definitely not their fighting ability.
  2538. > On the other, the seasoned semi-retired warrior, fit as a warrior should be, and doubtless capable of projecting authority if needed, but hired for their genuine ability to protect a noble family's scion.
  2539.  
  2540. > You had never been the first one -- you weren't good-looking enough, and anyways by the time you'd joined the VIP section you'd already been too disillusioned by your divorce to primp and preen and put on the haughty air required.
  2541. > But, if you remained in the VIP section, were you heading for the second example?
  2542. > Five or ten years from now, when you were fully disillusioned with the Guard itself, would you retire a Corporal, or maybe if you were lucky a Sergeant -- promotions were rare in this posting -- would you then wind up a private bodyguard yourself, being overruled by the noble family's head, dealing with the protestations of the young noblefoal, and putting up with just as much nonsense if not more, albeit for better pay?
  2543. > And if not, what was the alternative?
  2544. > Castlerook's timid proposal to go back exactly where you'd come from?
  2545. > Back to Fillydelphia, back your family and your old friends and your old enemies.
  2546. > Back to your old regiment, except everypony competent had already been promoted past you.
  2547. > You'd reached Corporal half a year before Castlerook, damn it!
  2548. > And here he was a Sergeant, pussyhoofing around his obvious plans -- you and him, in Filly', in the Guard, together.
  2549. > You didn't know if that's what you wanted, but part of you almost wished he'd put his hooves down and properly push you into it.
  2550. > Celestia, you'd been out drinking with him three times and he'd slow played you every time -- because he thought you were still the fragile mare who had to leave town when her marriage blew up in her face.
  2551. > Whereas you went drinking with your VIP just once and he'd already drunkenly groped you.
  2552. > Well, your mane, anyways.
  2553. > If Castlerook did the same thing you'd probably -- no, definitely -- melt right into his hooves.
  2554. > Yes, you were fragile after Filly', and yes, you wanted to know your colt respected your space and your opinion and your intelligence and all those other things about you.
  2555.  
  2556. > But damn if you didn't also want some aggression along with that respect.
  2557. > You sigh.
  2558. > You'd better try to make plans with Castlerook in what's left of this week, before the Gala.
  2559. > No doubt his regiment would be busy escorting sailors to and from the palace the whole time.
  2560. > Including the Tambermane's crew.
  2561. > Including Leeward.
  2562. > You shiver, and silently pray to Celestia that you don't run into him.
  2563. > The odds weren't too bad.
  2564. > It's a big palace, and a big Gala, after all.
  2565. > Unless he got there first and heard your party being announced in...
  2566. > "Mister Anonymous? We have a fitting room for you now. Just this way, please."
  2567. > One of the salescolts, wearing a measuring tape over their withers and with dark sweat spots at the shoulders of his otherwise impeccable dress shirt, leads your VIP over to one of the side areas of the store.
  2568. > You follow after him, surprised to be served so fast.
  2569. > Glancing back at the seated crowd, you notice that several of them now have elegantly wrapped packages and boxes ready to go -- they're all just waiting for the torrential rain outside to let up.
  2570. > Huh.
  2571. > You must've been daydreaming about the future for longer than you thought.
  2572. > Even more time is made available for you to silently reflect as the Royal Engineer steps into one of the cubicles and changes into his new outfit.
  2573. > Craning your head a bit, you look back into the main room and see that the young pegasus bodyguard is dripping wet, looking very unhappy.
  2574. > She must've gone out to ask your cab if he was for hire -- that old colt wouldn't have sent his gaudy jewel down the street to the taxi stand.
  2575. > But sending her just to the curb in front of the store for a cab ride home?
  2576. > And then she'd have time to freshen up before anypony else would see her?
  2577. > Yeah, that, he'd do.
  2578. > A glance at the older bodyguard reveals that she's bone dry.
  2579.  
  2580. > No doubt she saw your VIP's exchange with him before you both entered the store, and correctly informed her own charge of the situation with that tempting taxicab just outside the door.
  2581. > You even catch the grey-mare operator smirking at the ornamental guardsmare.
  2582. > A flash of lightning illuminates the windows, and several of the ponies -- the wet guard included -- jump in surprise.
  2583. > With a sigh, the operator bodyguard casually reaches a forehoof into her left saddle bag, whipping out a pair of sporty sunglasses which she casually slips on.
  2584. > Hah!
  2585. > Called it.
  2586. > You hear the sound of a latch, followed by the steps of formal-shoe soles against wooden floor.
  2587. > "Well, Corporal, what do you think?"
  2588. > The Royal Engineer stands before you, wearing a smouldering look and resplendent in his bespoke three-piece Gala tailcoat suit.
  2589. > He's...
  2590. > You're...
  2591. > Wow.
  2592. > Uh, maybe...
  2593. > Maybe you're going to need to put your hair down -- for the Gala.
  2594.  
  2595. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wRHBLwpASw (ZZ Top - 'Sharp Dressed Man' [1983])
  2596.  
  2597.  
  2598.  
  2599. Recommended background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=N69cQuAqgSg (Andreas Waldetoft - 'Johans Waltz', from 'Victoria 2' [2010])
  2600.  
  2601. "One, two, three, one, two-a-three, one, two, three, good!"
  2602. > You are specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and this is fun!
  2603. "... Now into the-"
  2604. > "Whisk, and then un-twist, back-whisk-three, turn-two-three..."
  2605. > You narrate along with the Royal Engineer as he leads you on your hind hooves around the stone patio just outside his chambers, one arm around your withers and the other holding your right forehoof out.
  2606. "...Whisk-two-three, wing-two-three, chassé-and-three, lock-a-two-three, spin-two-three, lock-a-two-three, spin-two-three-four-five-six, turn-two-three, turn-two-three, sway."
  2607. > "...Whisk-two-three, wing-two-three, chassé-and-three, lock-a-two-three, spin-two-three, lock-a-two-three, spin-two-three-four-five-six, turn-two-three, turn-two-three, sway."
  2608. > As the Royal Engineer holds you at this tilted angle you're tempted to open your wings for a little balance and maybe a flap of support, but that was a real no-no when dancing a Lipizzaner Waltz.
  2609. > And it would be a tremendous expression of lack of trust if you were to show any fear that your dance partner was about to let you fall right on your back.
  2610. > Anonymous smiles as he pulls you up straight onto your hind hooves again, then as you release your left forehoof from his shoulder, he gently lowers his arms so that you can easily get back down on all fours.
  2611. > "Well, Specialist Sparkshower, I'm no professional dancer, but I think we're getting the hang of this particular sequence of steps."
  2612. > You smile back.
  2613. "Yes, sir, I think we are. Though, umm, it is strictly speaking your job as the colt to lead."
  2614. > He dusts his hands together, then straightens his trousers.
  2615. > "I know. And I'll try to keep things memorized. But I won't mind if you have to correct me."
  2616.  
  2617. > The Royal Engineer glances over at the phonograph, which continues on with its scratchy reproduction of a processional waltz as performed by the Band of the Household Division, in combination with the Countess of The Pale's String Orchestra.
  2618. > "Shall we run through it one or two more times?"
  2619. "As long as you have the time for it, sir."
  2620. > Nodding, he steps forward and extends a hand to make it easy for you to mount up into hind-hooves position.
  2621. > "Of course."
  2622. > Drawing you in, you readopt the starting position, and he counts in the time before leading you once more through the arrangement.
  2623. > You've already got the steps completely memorized, and on this run through your partner doesn't miss a beat.
  2624. > It's funny, actually.
  2625. > Here was your Very Important Pony, who in spite of not actually being a pony was doing an excellent job at basic dance hoofsteps.
  2626. > Of course, it helped that it was a Lipizzaner Waltz, a couples' closely-clutched dance done on hind legs only.
  2627. > And even though this was just a simple arrangement, there was something enthralling about being twirled about like this.
  2628. > You felt like a dainty light dancer instead of a great big soldier.
  2629. > Part of that was because even up on your hind hooves, Anonymous was still half a head taller than you.
  2630. > The other part is because he actually was making a real effort to glide around gracefully, as the dance demanded, instead of clumsily trotting about.
  2631. > Huckleberry was taller than you, too, but he danced like he had four hind hooves.
  2632. > And he never got the hang of it, no mater how many Friday-night bootie-hop events you took him to in school or Saturday-night jamborees at the barn.
  2633. > Even romantically late at night on Hearts and Hooves Day he couldn't make you feel like this.
  2634. > To be fair, Huck could make you feel a lot of *other* things, but a graceful dancer wasn't one of them.
  2635. > And it was a shame, too, because if he'd put some effort into it you were sure he could've risen to the challenge.
  2636.  
  2637. > But instead he got flustered easily and then frustratingly declared he didn't want to try any more.
  2638. > He got embarrassed easily.
  2639. > And when you suggested private lessons, it was already too late.
  2640. > Even though he'd never give you a straight answer, you knew in his heart he'd stubbornly decided dancing wasn't for him, like so much else.
  2641. > Anonymous looks at you as you complete the sequence.
  2642. > "I think we have enough track left for one more."
  2643. "Yes, sir."
  2644. > With surprisingly powerful arms -- surprising for how slender they were, compared to the stocky limbs of an earth pony colt -- he adroitly lifts you out of the sway and straightens you both up again.
  2645. > Then it's one-two-three, two-two-three and off you go again.
  2646. > Here you were, dancing the Lipizzaner Waltz with the Royal Engineer on a patio in a back nook of one of the palace's older wings.
  2647. > Your VIP didn't have to fear anypony seeing if he made a mistake.
  2648. > And he had made a few, though nothing catastrophic.
  2649. > Skipping ahead in the sequence, going left when he should go right -- nothing serious.
  2650. > You wonder what would've happened with you and Huckleberry if he'd been given the same chance.
  2651. > But that was over now.
  2652. > Maybe one of the cute colts you met Tuesday night knows ballroom steps.
  2653. > Too bad you hadn't felt well enough to try out the club floor solo, or you could have picked up some clues.
  2654. > And too bad the Royal Engineer had been too engrossed chatting with Lily, Honour, and Purity to venture out onto the dance floor either.
  2655. > Or maybe...
  2656. > Was he worried about embarrassing himself, too?
  2657. > As you're once again lowered into a delicate sway, you take a moment to admire your VIP's new white-tie suit for the Gala.
  2658. > It really is a nice change from his usual morning dress, trading the restrained formality of a government minister for the swank elegance of a young patrician reveller.
  2659. > Anonymous lifts you up again and you get back down on all fours.
  2660.  
  2661. > "Good, good. If you're not too tired later, let's run through this again a few more times in the evening."
  2662. > You can't imagine ever being too tired to be whisked daintily around on the dance floor by a handsome colt.
  2663. "Yes, sir."
  2664. > The Royal Engineer steps over to turn off the phonograph, parking the needle and pulling the record off of the spindle.
  2665. > He replaces it in the dust jacket, turning it over to scan through the liner notes, and you get another good look at his suit.
  2666. > You're no professional design consultant, but you think it goes very well with your tea-length pink dress.
  2667. > He just needed a good lapel flower to finish the outfit.
  2668. > What colour, though?
  2669. > White was the traditional choice; a carnation or gardenia.
  2670. > But that seemed too ordinary for as very-important a pony as your VIP.
  2671. > Red, to go with his formal sash of office?
  2672. > Or maybe some other accent colour: royal blue, as a nod to the evening's festivities, or imperial purple as a second indication of his high-placed status?
  2673. > Maybe a light colour to brighten the mood?
  2674. > Pale violet or old gold, to match the colours of the main halls of the palace?
  2675. > Perhaps pink?
  2676. > A bit mareish, but you were sure the Royal Engineer was enough of a colt not to be intimidated by pink.
  2677. > And pink *would* match your dress.
  2678. > As Anonymous looks up at you from the liner notes, you suddenly feel very exposed.
  2679. > It's a bit like standing in an open field and hearing an ominous rumbling from the clouds above.
  2680. > He seems to be looking over your outfit.
  2681. > "You're certain we won't have to worry about bumping into anyone else?"
  2682. > Tremendous relief; it's not raining quite yet.
  2683. "Yes, sir. These are the official steps for the waltz at this year's Gala. Everypony will be doing it all at the same time, and the Masters of the Dance will run an instruction as well as few practice sessions early in the evening, before dinner and the main event. They'll make sure to distance couples properly."
  2684.  
  2685. > You think back to the wonderful pictures and the newsreel films of previous years.
  2686. > Elegant couples in the finest of dress, all gliding and twirling in unison.
  2687. > And this year you'd be a part of it!
  2688. > Maybe you'd even be in one of those photos or newsreels...
  2689. > "It's a lot more produced than I realized..."
  2690. > Oh, no!
  2691. > "... But it does sound like fun. I just worry a bit about standing out."
  2692. > Oh!
  2693. > Well, that's understandable.
  2694. "You mustn't be worried about that, sir. You'll fit right in with everypony else, I'm sure. If you want we could perform a practice for somepony in private, first."
  2695. > He chuckles.
  2696. > "Oh, maybe. Saturday before we leave, perhaps, when I'm starting to get nervous and having butterflies in my stomach..."
  2697. > Humans ate butterflies too??
  2698. > Anonymous glances over your outfit.
  2699. > "... And that's what you're wearing to the Gala? No further alterations?"
  2700. > You proudly extend your wings in parade rest.
  2701. "This is it, sir. Lily -- er, Specialist Glamerspear -- worked all morning yesterday putting the finishing touches on the wing openings."
  2702. > He nods, smiling.
  2703. > "It's lovely. I certainly wouldn't have known it wasn't originally made for a pegasus..."
  2704. > Oh that sends warm tingles down your spine, and you do a little curtsy-turnabout in place to show off in case he missed anything.
  2705. > "... But surely you'll have a corsage or fascinator as well? It's a spring festival, isn't it? I suppose I should have something for my lapel, too."
  2706. > Ah!
  2707. > He's thinking along just the same lines as you!
  2708. "Yes, sir, but the day of the Gala, Tallyho market square is completely flooded with flower-sellers hawking the freshest flowers for Gala-goers. One of your guards can go out to gather for everypony in the group."
  2709. > Anon raises an eyebrow.
  2710. > "And there's no risk of the sellers running out?"
  2711.  
  2712. > You shake your head.
  2713. "No, sir. The stalls pack up at noon and everything's that's left is bought by the palace majordomo as final decorations for the Gala. And since the palace pays market price as a nod to generosity, the flower-sellers always have a *lot* of leftovers. Dozens of wagon-loads."
  2714. > "Sounds exciting. And fragrant. It must get very busy?"
  2715. > Placing the jacketed record under his arm, he picks up the phonograph and its folding stand.
  2716. > You head over to the patio doors to open them for him.
  2717. "It's packed shoulder-to-shoulder and tail-to-muzzle; I've seen photos in the news. Pegasi and unicorn porters and errand-foals are in high demand that morning, filling orders for all the Gala invitees."
  2718. > Anonymous steps past you and deposits the musical device beside his armour stand.
  2719. > "I can imagine. You and the rest of the quaternion should talk it over to decide who'll make the run. I'll just have to figure out what I want."
  2720. > Don't-tell-him-to-get-pink, don't-tell-him-to-get-pink, don't-tell-him-to-get-pink.
  2721. "A bright spring colour would look nice on you, sir. Maybe pink?"
  2722. > YOU TOLD HIM TO GET PINK!
  2723. > What got into you??
  2724. > As he removes his jacket and places it on a hangar, he looks over at you inquisitively.
  2725. > Does he know why you made that suggestion?
  2726. > Anonymous just smiles and nods.
  2727. > "Maybe."
  2728. > He knows!
  2729. > Oooh, for being not-a-pony he sure could be coy like a romance-novel colt, all right.
  2730. > The Royal Engineer makes to go change out of his Gala suit back into his usual outfit, but something in you pushes on.
  2731. > There's a nagging question in the back of your mind.
  2732. "Could I ask you a personal question, sir?"
  2733. > Without stopping, he passes through the switchback of the low partition wall separating his office and living quarters from his bedroom area.
  2734. > "Of course, Specialist."
  2735. > You hear the sound of a hangar on a rod.
  2736. > You really shouldn't be asking this.
  2737.  
  2738. > It's personal, it's private, it's forward, and in the context of dancing with him and suggesting he match his lapel to your dress, it could be seen as flirtatious.
  2739. > And what did Honour say about flirting with the Royal Engineer?
  2740. > 'Playtime is over'.
  2741. > Thundershowers.
  2742. > Well, this wasn't play; you were genuinely curious.
  2743. "How come you didn't dance at all when we were out on Tuesday?"
  2744. > There's no reply for a little bit, so you continue on.
  2745. "... Were you worried about embarrassing yourself?"
  2746. > Another silent pause.
  2747. > Then your VIP emerges back out from the partition, wearing his morning-dress outfit, collar and cuffs and tie still undone, and with a subdued expression.
  2748. > He sighs, nodding.
  2749. > "Yes. I haven't been out in public a lot."
  2750. > You furrow your brow, stepping forward.
  2751. "But, sir, you gave a magnificent speech to everypony on Monday! They were all impressed; even flying over them, I could tell."
  2752. > Anonymous shrugs.
  2753. > "Demonstrating something I know well isn't as nerve-wracking. I didn't really go clubbing a lot on my world. I danced at weddings and birthday parties, sure, but that was among friends..."
  2754. > Adjusting his collar and attaching his gold cuff-links, he steps over to his desk.
  2755. > "... Not to mention among other humans. Besides, Tuesday night was for you and the rest of the quaternion. Nobody else seemed to keen on dancing, either."
  2756. > Probably because Lily couldn't get enough booze poured down her throat fast enough.
  2757. > And Honour -- she was sulking over her situation with her coltfriend, you were sure.
  2758. > Ebonshield was happy to play along with whatever the group wanted.
  2759. > You were the only one who got up.
  2760. > It was strange -- you'd felt drawn to the dance-floor, but you didn't particularly want to dance.
  2761. > Something about the heat and the perspiration of all those young colts and mares dancing freely just made you feel so excited.
  2762. > So alive.
  2763.  
  2764. > With each club you visited, the pain of your recently-shattered relationship seemed to wash away.
  2765. > And you didn't shy away from any of the colts who introduced themselves.
  2766. > You did feel like you had to say you were waiting for somepony else to dance with first, or they'd have dragged you out on the floor, but that didn't stop them inundating you with calling cards and offers of drinks if your date didn't show.
  2767. > Frankly it was a surprising and shocking experience -- with the way your large frame had been the object of ridicule growing up, you weren't used to that kind of attention.
  2768. > Was it just attraction to the uniform, or were you actually radiating some alluring energy yourself?
  2769. > Whatever it was, it got so that eventually you had to find refuge from all the eager colts back at the private table the Royal Engineer had booked.
  2770. > But him -- worried about being awkward?
  2771. > The way he always kept his cool, could wow a crowd of Royal Guard dignitaries, and could even slide around on a patio dance-floor?
  2772. > You shake your head.
  2773. "I'm awfully sorry about that, sir. One of us should really have taken the first step and extended an invitation. I think you'd have had a great time on the dance floor. And with how quickly you've learned the Lipizzaner Waltz you shouldn't worry about being embarrassed at all."
  2774. > Sitting down, he smiles warmly.
  2775. > "It's kind of you to say that. But you really don't think we'd have looked a little funny, an alien biped dancing with his four guardsmares?"
  2776. > You straighten up immediately.
  2777. "No, sir! And shame on anyone who would think otherwise! That's the motto of the VIP Section, after all: 'Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense', or 'Shame on Whoever Thinks Ill of It', referring to the practice of providing visiting dignitaries and honoured citizens with a retinue."
  2778. > He cocks an eyebrow.
  2779. > "I see. Tell me, is the Gala all formal folk and ball dances, or will there be modern dancing such as we saw at the nightclubs as well?"
  2780.  
  2781. > You've never seen photographic evidence of modern dance at the Gala, but according to 'Canterlot Match' magazine that's because the palace guards escort the paparazzi off the premises before it starts.
  2782. > Still, there were anonymously-written reports of the scandalous behaviour that could result when a a party full of Equestria's drunken elite started dancing to modern hits queued up by some of the nation's finest DJs.
  2783. > And you've also seen the schedule events, posted up in the palace servants' mess.
  2784. > Everything from 10 PM onwards just said 'music & dancing'
  2785. "I believe so, sir. After dinner and the scheduled events."
  2786. > "Good. I won't miss a second opportunity, then. I don't want to toot my own horn, but you know, even though I didn't dance often..."
  2787. > He grins.
  2788. > "... I did have a reputation for tearing it up the dance floor."
  2789. > Tearing *what* up?
  2790. > It must just be some human expression; probably because of their fingers.
  2791. > You just nod as if you know what he's talking about.
  2792. "I'd like to see that, sir. Would it be all right if I go change back into my armour, now?"
  2793. > Anonymous lifts a trio of sealed envelopes up from his desk.
  2794. > "Of course, but I was wondering if perhaps you'd be able to deliver a few letters for me this morning as part of your duties?"
  2795. > You nod and approach.
  2796. "Certainly, sir."
  2797. > Extending a feathery appendage, you accept the memos and tuck them underwing.
  2798. > "The first one is for Henry Fortstable here in Canterlot. The second one is for the smith, Gunther Bronzehorn, out in Newcastle-Upon-Mare. Both ask if they'd be willing to send someone to join our 'ground crew' for the Grand Mêlée, as Lieutenant Kilfeather suggested -- Fortstable's coach-builders for the carriage and Bronzehorn for our arms and armour, naturally. I know it's a long flight out to Newcastle-Upon-Mare, but I figured that perhaps you could make short work of it with that rocket-lance of yours?"
  2799.  
  2800. > You give a quick salute, despite being completely out of uniform.
  2801. "Yes, sir. It's not meant for endurance journeys, but it will certainly speed up my travel time. And the third letter, sir?"
  2802. > With his elbows on the desk, he places his fingers together.
  2803. > "That one's not about the games. I want some magic support when it comes to the foundry; a lot of early industrial processes are very dirty to run without complicated equipment which is beyond our ability to manufacture, and that's just the sort of thing that unicorn magic could perhaps help out with. This fellow was recommended to me by Purse Strings. He runs a company that I gather has a number of government contracts already; a unicorn colt by the name of Martingale..."
  2804. > That doesn't really ring any bells, but then again, you didn't know much about government procurement contracts.
  2805. > "... Anyways, his residence is in Canterlot and while I know the regular mail service here is startlingly quick, I figured that perhaps delivery by a messenger-bodyguard would be an extra-special touch and impress upon him the seriousness of this undertaking. Even if he's not at home when you arrive."
  2806. > That's a good idea.
  2807. "Yes, sir. Don't worry, sir. I'll go change into my armour and have these delivered so fast I'll be back before lunchtime!"
  2808. > Your VIP leans back in his chair, content.
  2809. > "Thank-you, Specialist. Mister Songwell should be along shortly to give his daily report, and I know how the Corporal gets if I'm unescorted down here. I wouldn't mind commiserating with someone on the capabilities of unicorn magic; I suppose Specialist Glamerspear would be the most experienced in that respect?"
  2810. > He shrugs.
  2811. > "... Or maybe Corporal Bound is. She seems to know everything about how things work around here. Ask for them both if neither of them is otherwise occupied. I've got most of my paperwork finished for now, and there are options to explore, so I'm in a chatty mood."
  2812. "Yes, sir."
  2813.  
  2814. > With another quick out-of-reg salute, you swish your tail and your tulle dress right out the door, making quickly for the stairs.
  2815. > Unfortunately you can't fly without losing his letters, and you've no purse or saddle-bags to put them in right now, either.
  2816. > Do you have a matching purse for the Gala?
  2817. > You didn't think about that.
  2818. > Not that you were going to have to worry about a wallet, but there were small items that you'd want to be able to carry.
  2819. > Hairbrush, comb, wingbrush, touch-up makeup, those sorts of things.
  2820. > Maybe Lily had something in her extensive wardrobe you could borrow.
  2821. > As you wonder about the finishing touches on your Gala outfit, you push open the door to your shared chambers and are surprised to see only Lily, lounging on the sofa, forelegs behind her head and a gossip magazine held in her telekinetic grip.
  2822. > She looks up at you, lifting her eyebrows as if scandalized.
  2823. > "Showing off the goods to the Royal Engineer, huh? What'd he think?"
  2824. "He said the dress was lovely. But actually I put it on so we could practice the Lipizzaner Waltz steps; he put on his Gala suit too."
  2825. > She grins and lifts an eyebrow.
  2826. > "Oh yeah? The Corporal said it was pretty ritzy."
  2827. > You nod.
  2828. "It is. Where is she, by the way?"
  2829. > She jerks a forehoof behind her, towards the palace's central wings.
  2830. > "The palace library. Said she was going to do some research on the Games, like how Anonymous asked us to do. I asked her to bring back some stuff for the rest of us to look over, too."
  2831. "Oh. And Sergeant Ebonshield?"
  2832. > That same forehoof waves towards the gardens.
  2833. > "The Rookery. She went to go do an errand, said she'd be back in a couple of hours. We hit up the commissary first, after breakfast, and she grabbed some candy, smokes, dip, and magazines so I guess she's bribing somepony down there."
  2834.  
  2835. "Oh. Well, I guess that means you're on duty downstairs for his meeting with Mister Songwell. Anonymous wants me to deliver some letters for him and it'll take me until just before lunch."
  2836. > The unicorn telekinetically tosses the magazine onto the coffee table beside her.
  2837. > "Sweet. I was kinda getting bored up here with nothing to do at the moment. You're suiting up for your mail run, right? It may look good, but that dress is fragile. Friggin' tulle."
  2838. "Of course, Lily. I wouldn't want to undo your good work. But on that subject..."
  2839. > You point a forehoof at your outfit.
  2840. "... I just realized I should have a bag to go with this, shouldn't I? Do you have something maybe I could borrow?"
  2841. > As she gets up and starts for her room, she shoots you a grin.
  2842. > "That's my mare, Sparks, always thinking about the next accessory. When you get back from your trip and we're both off duty, come step into your big-sister Lily's room and we'll see what treasures I've got in my trunk. I'm sure I can do you up something nice."
  2843. > Oh, good.
  2844. > Like a good forecast, this is so exciting, you can't wait for the weekend!
  2845. > You've just got to make sure you don't forget the Lipizzaner Waltz dance steps.
  2846. > And you wonder what flower the Royal Engineer will decide for his lapel boutonnière...
  2847. > Honour told you to get yourself 'sorted out' before doing anything flirtatious with the Royal Engineer, and to make sure you were serious about whatever you proposed.
  2848. > Well, you *felt* sorted out, and you were absolutely serious about what you wanted.
  2849. > You wanted to dance with your handsome gentlecolt VIP, and you were going to do just that.
  2850.  
  2851. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=eH3giaIzONA (Whitney Houston - I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) [1987])
  2852.  
  2853.  
  2854.  
  2855.  
  2856. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and right now, life is pretty good.
  2857. > You're going to the Grand Galloping Gala, you've been on the Moon, you're learning a crazy (and dangerous) new kind of magic.
  2858. > You like your exciting job, you like your loyal comrades, you like your smart commander.
  2859. > Everything's rosy.
  2860. > Or... Lily.
  2861. > Nah, that doesn't work.
  2862. > Sparkshower is such a pegasister you actually had an *argument* with her about her resuming her shift once she got back from delivering Anon's letters.
  2863. > After taking over Sparks' job guarding your Very Important Pony, who wasn't actually a pony, for his meeting with probationary criminal Songwell, you were perfectly content to keep it up until the four-o'clock shift change.
  2864. > Artemis was having none of it, though, and when she found out you hadn't gone for a lunch break on account of the meeting time, well, that gave her the upper hoof in the argument.
  2865. > She'd hit up the chow hall for a quick bite before reporting in, so she insisted on going back on duty.
  2866. > Even though you owed her more than just a few hours' relief for what she went through for you -- and what she was still going through, a little -- you could tell she wasn't going to back down.
  2867. > So it was Morning Dawn, Evening Dusk, once again as you changed places.
  2868. > Anyways it wouldn't have been nice to argue loudly in front of the Royal Engineer.
  2869. > Especially over something so silly as who should have the honour of guarding him for the next few hours.
  2870. > Or maybe he'd have taken it as a compliment?
  2871. > A couple of young mares tussling over who gets to stand guard in front of your doors has to be a little flattering, right?
  2872. > Heh.
  2873. > Pushing open the door to your shared chambers, you find them as empty as when you and Sparkshower left them, earlier.
  2874. > Honour didn't seem to be back from the library, and Eb wasn't back from her Rookery-run, either.
  2875.  
  2876. > Oh, well.
  2877. > Looks like you're still on relief standby.
  2878. > Guess that means it's just you, your magazines, and your bellyfull of mess hall lunch leftovers up here.
  2879. "**Urp**"
  2880. > Oof.
  2881. > You might've overdone it a bit back there.
  2882. > You were still dealing with a bit of undersleep after Tuesday's bender and Wednesday's early-morning sewing spree, and that had a tendency to make you hungry.
  2883. > You need to make sure to get some good rest tonight.
  2884. > Tomorrow you have to deal with Valiant Kilfeather in all his glory, and you'll need to be in top mental shape.
  2885. > Even if the Royal Engineer's browbeating two days ago still has him subdued, you know it won't be long before he gets on your nerves again.
  2886. > You held no illusions that a single dressing-down, no matter how firmly it was delivered or how tall and imposing the hairless biped was who delivered it, wouldn't keep Val in his place forever.
  2887. > As you casually remove your helmet and telekinetically toss it onto a cushion, you loosen the straps on your main cuirass, pull it off, and drape it over the back of the sofa.
  2888. > May as well keep these close at hoof in case there's another call for help downstairs.
  2889. > Not like there's anypony else in here to complain about your stuff being strewn about in the common room.
  2890. > You lie down on the sofa and tuck into the latest edition of 'Canterlot Match'.
  2891. > It's the pre-Gala issue, of course -- a special Thursday edition with all the rumours and gossip heading into the weekend.
  2892. > Who's going with who, who's bucking who, and dozens of shots of assorted pre-Gala parties.
  2893. > Monday's issue will be full of colour spreads of the main event.
  2894. > Who knows?
  2895. > Maybe one of you, or at least your VIP, will wind up in one of those photos.
  2896. > Canterlot Match thrived on a good scandal, but their bread and butter was covering the ordinary lives of Equestria's upper crust.
  2897.  
  2898. > As you peruse glossy articles about wealthy socialites, mostly unicorns, partying in their very-good-but-not-quite-best outfits, a few stories stand out in particular.
  2899. > "The D'Image-Freehawk family feud finally boiled over when the D'Images planned a huge costume party at their new second-tier Canterlot mansion last weekend and refused to invite the Freehawks, having been victim of Freehawk-enforced snubs up until now. It appears that Old Money couldn't stand the idea of being left out of an event this big and eventually caved; after a social call, the families are apparently reconciled and there will no longer be a split in the city's grand events."
  2900. > Unicorn nobles playing games like fillies in a schoolyard.
  2901. > Typical.
  2902. > Blue-blooded ponies really weren't any better than ordinary red-bloods.
  2903. > "A unique show was on display Tuesday night-"
  2904. > This had better not be about the Royal Engineer and you fillies' drunken escapade!
  2905. > "-at a vacant warehouse down in the docks district, turned into a pop-up party with eclectic performances and avant-garde art for the city's elite. Canterlot Match has been told several prominent unicorns were in attendance, but as masks and mark-coverings were mandatory we can only present photos without names."
  2906. > Huh.
  2907. > Looks like a pretty crazy time.
  2908. > What else would you expect from a one-night-only affair, though?
  2909. > As you flip the page, there's a knock at the door.
  2910. "Coming!"
  2911. > It can't be any of your comrades -- they'd have come right in.
  2912. > It can't be the Royal Engineer, either -- he'd be accompanied by Artemis, who'd probably call out.
  2913. > A messenger, maybe?
  2914. > You open the door to find an attractive middle-aged colt in full Royal Guard armour.
  2915. > It's Captain Montgomery Mailedhoof, your salt-lick.
  2916. > Unsure as to the circumstances of this visit, you give a standard salute as you quickly scan the corridor behind him.
  2917. "Captain, sir!"
  2918. > The hallway's empty.
  2919. > What's he doing up here now?
  2920.  
  2921. "... I thought you were on duty Thursday afternoons?"
  2922. > Mailedhoof nods.
  2923. > "I *am* on duty, Specialist..."
  2924. > Grinning, he snickers.
  2925. > "... But I can't stand being around all those mareish decorators nattering as they set up for the Gala. And I'm tired of tripping over all their reams of tapestries and running into all their ladders and scaffolds..."
  2926. > He tilts his head backwards, looking you up and down.
  2927. > "... So I thought I'd get away from that for a spell to pay you a visit and maybe see what that rather oversized bill from Louis Valise has bought me."
  2928. > So he's been driven away from his post by the party coordinators?
  2929. > Not a very good excuse, but then again, officers in the Royal Guard, particularly nobles, and especially ones assigned to garrison duty, got away with it all the time.
  2930. > Common soldiers could get corporal punishment for dereliction of duty, but nobleponies generally got away with it with scarcely more than a slap on the fetlock.
  2931. > The thing is, you were in the former category, and you were Sparkshower's only backup.
  2932. "I can't go anywhere right now. I'm on hot standby in case they need me downstairs. And I'm the only one available."
  2933. > He snorts.
  2934. > "Who said anything about leaving? I've got nowhere to take you anyways. My stateroom's been given over to some visiting dignitary, and with my family in Canterlot, I can't be seen with you, either."
  2935. > So he wants into *your* quarters?
  2936. > You generally don't receive your salt-licks in your own chambers...
  2937. > After all, *they* were supposed to be the wealthy socialites with mansions or staterooms or at least the biggest tent in the camp.
  2938. > You were the one with an enlisted soldier's bunk -- having an actual *bed*, not to mention an actual private *room*, was a real luxury upgrade here in the palace.
  2939. > And it's not like you kept you room in a state to receive visitors.
  2940. > Not that it was filthy or anything, just, y'know, it didn't put your best hoof forward.
  2941.  
  2942. > The colt notices your hesitation and steps forward.
  2943. > "... Aren't you going to invite me in, Specialist?"
  2944. > You swallow.
  2945. "I'm not alone in here -- well, I am right now, Captain, but the others could get back anytime."
  2946. > Mailedhoof snorts with disdain.
  2947. > "What, is the lowborn Specialist worried that her patrician Captain will embarrass her?"
  2948. > He settles into a smirk.
  2949. > "... Anyways, I just want to see the dress, and you in it. It'll be difficult to see you in it on Saturday, at least up close and in good light."
  2950. > Well...
  2951. > Okay.
  2952. > Honour said she might not get back until dinner, and who knew when the Sergeant would emerge from the Rookery.
  2953. > It was the middle of the afternoon, and if Mailedhoof was only here for a quarter of an hour there was a good chance you wouldn't be interrupted.
  2954. > You nod and step back, letting him in and shutting the door behind you.
  2955. > Surveying the common room, Mailedhoof undoes the chin-strap of his helmet.
  2956. > "I heard about your charge's little demonstration on Monday. Rumour has it the general staff were very impressed..."
  2957. > Smiling at the compliment, you lead him towards your room.
  2958. > "... Not bad for only one unicorn, backed up by just two pegasi."
  2959. > If he thinks that Eb is just another pegasus, that's good news for her disguise.
  2960. > You indicate the Corporal's quarters with a nod of your head.
  2961. "There's actually four of us, now, Captain. A full quaternion."
  2962. > He just scoffs as you open your door.
  2963. > "I know. And I'm sure the mudder pulled her weight, but that's all they're good for, anyways."
  2964. > You halt for a moment and almost trip over your own hooves, before carrying on as if nothing had happened.
  2965. > He just called Corporal Bound, your Earth Pony comrade, the 'm' word.
  2966. > Not to mention the rest of that offensive sentence...
  2967.  
  2968. > You'd certainly met your share of supremacist plot-holes in the rank and file of your all-unicorn 'cornfield' artillery regiment, but to hear a noblepony officer with a high station in the palace guard casually toss out such an insult was a shock.
  2969. > And about one of *your* comrades!
  2970. > That put you in a bad mood.
  2971. > This had better be a quick show.
  2972. > You indicate your writing desk and chair while you open your wardrobe and pull out the bagged dress at the front.
  2973. "Have a seat, Captain. Why don't I get changed next door?"
  2974. > Mailedhoof shuts the door behind him.
  2975. > "Right here is fine."
  2976. > Of course.
  2977. > Well, all right, then.
  2978. > The things you do for a Louis Valise...
  2979. > It's a gorgeous dress, but you're starting to wonder if you should have just gotten something last-season from the outlet mall at Hackney Trot.
  2980. > No sense crying about that now.
  2981. > You telekinetically yank the matching sandals out from underneath your bed.
  2982. > As Mailedhoof plonks himself down in your chair, dropping his helmet on your desk, you quickly slip everything on.
  2983. > You'd already removed your armour earlier, so a few telekinetic manipulations and a quick flick of your mane and you're all set.
  2984. > The only thing you hadn't taken off was your Silver Ram, but it went with the outfit and besides, you were going to wear it to the Gala.
  2985. > A black summer cocktail dress with cutouts at the side and a flared, translucent, accordion bottom, with matching three-ring gladiator sandals adorned with nickel-silver studs.
  2986. > A stunning look against your Prench-pink coat, and nicely complimenting your teal-and-cyan mane and tail.
  2987. > It was an aggressively hot dress, and very summery, particularly for breezy Canterlot, but the weekend forecast called for heat, and who ever heard of a busy late-night dance floor that wasn't positively tropical?
  2988. > If you got a few shocked looks from overdressed old mares before dinner, who cared?
  2989. > Your outfit would come into its own once the DJ started spinning discs.
  2990.  
  2991. > Anyways, you had a few options for black scarves and shawls that matched, if it was too chilly or if you felt underdressed, and your regulation uniform's black foul-weather cloak would do just fine as an outdoor cover, to be disposed of at the coat check as soon as you arrived, of course.
  2992. > You turn sideways and look over your shoulder at the leisurely-reclining colt who paid for the getup, pursing your lips and arching your eyebrows.
  2993. > Mailedhoof liked what he saw, you could tell.
  2994. > And it wasn't just from the grin on his face.
  2995. > He casually waved his left forehoof in a circle.
  2996. > "Let's have the full show."
  2997. > His positive reaction put you in a better mood despite his earlier offences, so you proceed to give an impression of a runway walk.
  2998. > Professional models probably didn't try to sway their hips and shoulders as much as you did, though.
  2999. > Remembering the poses you'd just done with Sparkshower, you try out a few yourself.
  3000. > Sitting on your haunches, one forehoof just underneath your tuft, staring dispassionately to one side.
  3001. > Backed up against the door, up your hind hooves, forehooves pressed against the frame, and wearing a come-hither stare.
  3002. > Then you give him the old classic of backing up against the chair, looking over your shoulders, and with a half-lidded smile of satisfaction, slowly bouncing your plot just in front of his crotch.
  3003. > You feel a forehoof brush against your hindquarters, and playfully bat it away.
  3004. "Ah-ah-ah, Captain, you're on duty."
  3005. > Mailedhoof gives you a quick slap and leans back in his chair.
  3006. > "But you're not. And a mare like you gets excited as soon as a colt like me walks in the room..."
  3007. > He lifts an eyebrow.
  3008. > "... I'm sure you feel the need to relax a bit."
  3009. > Nodding towards the bed, he puts a forehoof at the base of his barrel.
  3010. > "... Since I'm on duty, I'll dutifully keep watch."
  3011. > Really?
  3012. > He expects you to just lie down and clop right in front of him?
  3013.  
  3014. > Like you're working at some red-light peepshow deep in the lower tiers?
  3015. > You furrow your brow.
  3016. > Can you really say 'no' to him, though?
  3017. > This was an awfully expensive dress, and you added on the sandals, too.
  3018. > The Captain knows he's in charge, and his smile starts to fade.
  3019. > "I'm waiting, Specialist."
  3020. > Fine.
  3021. > A few minutes of pretending to work and a few good squeals ought to reassure his ego that he was Celestia's gift to mares.
  3022. > Your horn lights up and you start to undress.
  3023. > "Ah-ah-ah. Stay in uniform when you're in the presence of an officer, Specialist."
  3024. > Seriously?!
  3025. > This time you talk back.
  3026. "I don't want to get it dirty right before the Gala, Captain."
  3027. > But he doesn't care.
  3028. > "You are dirty, Specialist. Filthy dirty, like Canterlot's gutters after the first rains..."
  3029. > His expression turns mean.
  3030. > "... And if you make a mess you can't clean, find a bucking drycleaner. It's only Thursday. Show me what I paid for."
  3031. > The colt is dead serious.
  3032. > Here you are, in the privacy of your own room, in the middle of the afternoon, being forced to obey the commands of your forceful salt-lick.
  3033. > What were you to do?
  3034. > Turn him out, and risk the consequences of crossing a powerful noblepony officer?
  3035. > And what if he refused to go?
  3036. > Would you have to get physical?
  3037. > That could lead to even worse consequences.
  3038. > As much as you weren't in the *mood* to do what he asked, it wasn't completely out of line for your saltine-and-salt-lick relationship.
  3039. > Like every other enlisted unicorn kept on a tight leash by their drill instructor, you knew a couple of basic spells to get stains and smells out of clothes.
  3040. > Even if you had to send it out to be cleaned, there wasn't any real risk of you showing up to the Gala with a dirty dress.
  3041. > It just felt *disrespectful* to dirty it before wearing it on the big night.
  3042.  
  3043. > Yeah, Captain Mailedhoof paid for it, and you bought it intending to show it off to him, but it was *your* dress now and maybe you were planning to show it off to more than just the colt with the letter of credit.
  3044. > But here he was, insisting on leaving a mark, like claiming you, or at least it, as his property.
  3045. > Whatever.
  3046. > You climb up on the bed and roll over on your back.
  3047. > Just get this over with and he'll be gone.
  3048. > He'll be too busy to see you again until after the Gala, and if you still feel sore about this, you can break things off then if you want.
  3049. > You wriggle a bit on the bed, trying to get comfortable, and also trying to keep as much of the skirt out of the way of any possible mess.
  3050. > "Quit stalling. You know you want it."
  3051. > Yeah, yeah.
  3052. > With a deep breath, you close your eyes and light up your horn.
  3053. > You can't fake the whole thing -- this can't be the first time Mailedhoof has made a unicorn partner pleasure herself for his amusement; he'll know what the real deal looks like.
  3054. > So you start for real, delicately probing around with your telekinesis, looking for the right spot.
  3055. > Ahh--there it is.
  3056. > You brush your force against it.
  3057. > This is wrong -- this isn't how you want to do this.
  3058. > Just lay back and think sexy thoughts.
  3059. > Handsome colts with bulging croups and powerful hips.
  3060. > And just the right size of instrument to hit the right places inside you.
  3061. > Your mind wanders back your first field posting after 'shoe camp.
  3062. > A fortified regimental camp out in the wilderness, packed full of cramped tents.
  3063. > With co-ed showers.
  3064. > And guardscolts with not much more to do but drill and work out all day.
  3065. > Those bulky earth-pony colts bursting at the seams with muscles, the toned pegasi colts who could flap all night long, and the unicorn colts who didn't need telekinesis to sweep a mare off her hooves.
  3066. > Oh, how you and the other fresh-faced Private Miss. So-and-sos used to gawk and titter.
  3067.  
  3068. > You remembered the hot summer nights, and the search for a few moments' of privacy somewhere inside the palisade walls.
  3069. > A few moments of privacy for a few moments of pleasure.
  3070. > If it hadn't been for easy access to contraceptive herbs you're certain every mare in the camp would have been pregnant.
  3071. > And for a lot of them it would have been impossible to identify the father, too.
  3072. "~Ahhh~"
  3073. > You let out a breathy moan as if you'd just hit the next level.
  3074. > Which wasn't to say you weren't starting to enjoy yourself, but it was going to take a lot more than just some hot memories to make up for the low you started at.
  3075. > At least there was plenty of lubrication now.
  3076. > But that just made you more self-conscious about spillage onto the dress.
  3077. > No, Lily, come on, just focus on finishing this up.
  3078. > Mailedhoof wants a slutty little mare winking and dripping at the mere thought of him, so give it to him and be done.
  3079. "~Hhh~"
  3080. > You switch up your stroke a bit and a tingle shoots up your spine, resulting in another squeak of pleasure.
  3081. > In spite of yourself, you start to work faster.
  3082. > Maybe the easiest way to fake an orgasm would be to have a real one.
  3083. > Last time you clopped like this it was after Mailedhoof had left you unsatisfied.
  3084. > Your thoughts had turned to the Royal Engineer.
  3085. > Mmm...
  3086. > Thinking of him working all night in the carriage house Sunday night, hairless skin slick with sweat.
  3087. > Or the way he suplexed the Sergeant...
  3088. > He could *lift* any of you, easily, in those big, strong arms.
  3089. > But he wasn't just some brutish minotaur, he had finesse.
  3090. > Sparkshower said he'd easily picked up the Lipizzaner Waltz steps.
  3091. > She said he 'glided' around the patio.
  3092. > Gliding, that's the word.
  3093. > Smooth and slick, but just coarse and firm enough to make things interesting.
  3094. > You imagine having your flanks squeezed, his arms wrapped around your barrel.
  3095. "~Nnn~"
  3096. > That gets another moan out of you, and you're up another level.
  3097.  
  3098. > Now you're panting, and you open your eyes, turning to see that Mailedhoof's starting to sweat a bit at his brow.
  3099. > Looking away, you shut your eyes and return to fantasy, further quickening the pace.
  3100. > Anonymous would be a caring lover, you were sure of it.
  3101. > He was too nice not to be.
  3102. > But when he got riled up, like how he shut down Val...
  3103. > A gentle hoof, but firm when it needed to be.
  3104. > You imagine his hands on your mane, fingers running through.
  3105. > Would he know to give a tug now and then?
  3106. > Or to place one hand just so under your chin, so you could feel each potent thrust all the way from your back to the front?
  3107. > You didn't like it too rough.
  3108. > Sparkshower, kinky as she was, would want to have the sex choked and beaten into her, you were certain.
  3109. > You just wanted it done with emphasis, that's all.
  3110. > The slight sense of surrender to power, tempered with the reassurance of tenderness.
  3111. > And he wouldn't stop until you were satisfied.
  3112. > Even as he came closer and closer -- reaching the limits of his endurance inside of you.
  3113. > He'd find a way to last, or if he couldn't...
  3114. > If he couldn't resist releasing inside of you...
  3115. "~Mmmmm~"
  3116. > Panting and gasping for air...
  3117. > He'd come back with a second shot.
  3118. > Or maybe...
  3119. > Maybe he could use those fingers of his to finish the job.
  3120. > Delicate, probing, digits.
  3121. > You bite your lip and go full speed.
  3122. "~Unnnn~"
  3123. > Each telekinetic flick is from his fingers.
  3124. > The bed beneath you is his firm chest.
  3125. > The warm breeze blowing in the window is his hot breath.
  3126. > You hear him whisper into your ears, how he wants you, how he needs to satisfy you, and how you satisfy *him*.
  3127. "~Nnnng!~"
  3128. > All thoughts of your present situation disappear entirely as you lose yourself in the wonderful scene.
  3129. > Remember, Lily, he can gallop for *hours*.
  3130. "~Mnnnnffff!~"
  3131. > Hours and hours and hours--
  3132. > You can't breathe.
  3133. "~Aaaahh! Mmmmmnnnnnnggnnngfngnnn~"
  3134. > Clenching and breathless, you roll over to face the wall.
  3135.  
  3136. > Celestia.
  3137. > Never mind the mess from the clop, the cold sweat at your withers will really do a number on the delicate fabric of the Louis Valise dress.
  3138. > You feel something brush against the back of your mane.
  3139. > Not yet, Anon, I need a minute.
  3140. > Wait--
  3141. > Opening your eyes, you turn your head to find your mane gently held in Mailedhoof's silver telekinetic grip.
  3142. > He's staring at you with an excited grin.
  3143. > "That was pretty good. You must really want it. Come over here and I'll give you a taste."
  3144. > You feel a telekinetic pull towards him.
  3145. > Seriously?
  3146. > A clop show wasn't enough, now he wants to be serviced, too.
  3147. > Rolling back over, you dismount the bed and quickly fluff your mane back in place.
  3148. > Fine, a quick suck ought to do it.
  3149. > With the method-acting performance you gave, he must be ready to burst at this point, anyways.
  3150. > You sit down on your haunches in front of the chair and lower your head towards the Captain's drawn sword.
  3151. > "Just hold it there. I'll get you what you need."
  3152. > What's this now?
  3153. > A telekinetic glow captures his erect member -- and it's not yours.
  3154. > He's just going to jerk himself off in front of you?
  3155. > What's the point of this?
  3156. > You feel a second telekinetic grasp around your head, and a third one pry your jaw open.
  3157. > As Mailedhoof rubs himself out, you're forced to sit there with your mouth open, ready to receive.
  3158. > He didn't even ask, just grabbed you like you were some cheap whorse.
  3159. > Buck!
  3160. > Your Silver Ram!
  3161. > You were still wearing your Order of the Ram medallion!
  3162. > The dress was bad enough, but you were *not* going to let him soil *that*!
  3163. > You light up your horn and start to undo the clasp behind your neck, only to find *another* telekinetic aura countering yours.
  3164. > No, no, no!!
  3165. "Wait! I don't-"
  3166. > "You want this, whorse, you want this! So take all of it!"
  3167. > As he spews the denigrating words from his mouth, you're forced to receive thick spurts of his hideous load.
  3168.  
  3169. > You shut your eyes but his magical grip prevents you from turning, and you feel the spray splatter on your muzzle, in your mouth, and down your neck.
  3170. > Not on the medal!
  3171. > Not the one thing that reminds you you're *worth* something!
  3172. > No...
  3173. > When the squirting is done, you're briefly released from his telekinetic grasp, before being roughly shoved backwards against the bed.
  3174. > Mailedhoof immediately gets to his hooves and collects his helmet.
  3175. > Then he leaves, shutting the door behind him without saying another word to you.
  3176. > You sit in shock.
  3177. > He didn't...
  3178. > Trembling, you look down.
  3179. > He did.
  3180. > A gob of that monster's vile discharge dribbles down your Silver Ram.
  3181. > You're overtaken by a sudden feeling of utter revulsion, and scramble towards your wastebasket.
  3182. "Huuuuuuuugh! Blurghghhh!"
  3183. > An unhealthy dollop of the mess hall's leftovers winds up inside, but after holding your muzzle over that first wad for a few moments, you mercifully don't feel the need to completely unload.
  3184. > You collapse to the floor in tears.
  3185. > What did you just let happen?!
  3186. > He just...
  3187. > **Used** you.
  3188. > The truth is suffocating.
  3189. > You didn't sign up for this.
  3190. > Being a saltine was supposed to be fun.
  3191. > Fun for both sides.
  3192. > Drinks, parties, baubles and fashion, and rolling around in the hay.
  3193. > Now you've just been used like a disposable prophylactic, and just as unceremoniously discarded.
  3194. > It was deliberate, too.
  3195. > In his own words, you were nothing more than his filthy gutter-whorse.
  3196. > And for what?
  3197. > Another expensive dress to stuff into your already full-to-bursting wardrobe.
  3198. > And this one was ruined, if only by the horrid memories.
  3199. > What the buck are you doing with all this?
  3200. > Wiping your tears, you sit up.
  3201. > Struggling a bit, you take a look at your chair, soiled by Mailedhoof's presence alone.
  3202. > With a single telekinetic blast you shove it to one side and step up to your desk.
  3203. > You look at yourself in your makeup mirror.
  3204. > You're disgusting.
  3205.  
  3206. > Pathetic.
  3207. > This is the best you could do?
  3208. > An enlisted soldier, not even a noncommissioned officer, whorsing herself out to jerkwad noblecolts?
  3209. > You gaze at the reflection of your desecrated medallion.
  3210. > That was the only thing you had which was really *worth* something.
  3211. > It wasn't just some expensive trinket.
  3212. > Even if you didn't really acknowledge it until recently, it was the one thing you could cling to, to say you had accomplished something in your life.
  3213. > And that bastard had sprayed his seed all over it against your will.
  3214. > You delicately remove the medallion and, sniffing back tears, immediately light up your horn to clean and polish it.
  3215. > In short order all physical traces of the goop are obliterated.
  3216. > It *looks* as good as new.
  3217. > But in your mind, it's still been irrevocably defiled.
  3218. > 'Centurion of the Order of the Ram' was supposed to mean a pony who had stood up for Equestria in the face of extreme danger.
  3219. > Now it's been made a badge of shame and weakness.
  3220. > Buck, why are you even *in* the Royal Guard?!
  3221. > Your mom scraped and saved enough to send all three of your older brothers to college, and was ready to do the same for you, but no, you had to rebel.
  3222. > You didn't want books and study, you wanted action and adventure.
  3223. > Well, here's your action, Lily Glamerspear.
  3224. > Aren't you enjoying your adventure?
  3225. > Staring at yourself in the mirror, you telekinetically grab a tissue and quickly wipe the rest of the mess off of your coat.
  3226. > As with the medal, the fluids are gone but the mental stains remain.
  3227. > You could've *made* something of yourself.
  3228. > When you put your mind to learn a spell, you were *great* at it!
  3229. > Look at how you did gunning down Val at the Pas-De-Sabots, or liquidating all those batpony 'meteors' when they ambushed you!
  3230. > And even if you couldn't remember it, you must've done something fantastic during the Changeling Invasion to have earned the Silver Ram.
  3231. > But when you lazed about...
  3232.  
  3233. > Then you got caught flat-hoofed by some bucker who could strongly TK four things at once and didn't give two bucks what you thought about anything.
  3234. > Reverently, you reach a hoof over to your medal's presentation case.
  3235. > You flip it open and place the Silver Ram inside, folding the ribbon just as it had been when you received it.
  3236. > You're done wearing that for today.
  3237. > Then you gaze once more in the mirror.
  3238. > You *can* be better than this.
  3239. > Who says you have to stay a soldier in the Royal Guard the rest of your life?
  3240. > You had another year left in your enlistment; you could cash out and go to college instead of just re-enlisting, if you wanted to.
  3241. > Buck, if you learned more of this Shadow-magic from Ignacio, you could probably do more than just *attend* college.
  3242. > There was probably some way to leverage that into an actual career -- teaching, demonstrating, that sort of thing.
  3243. > Maybe even still within the Royal Guard, if you still wanted the uniform and the action..
  3244. > Well, whatever else you decided, you knew for certain you were *done* with Montgomery Mailedhoof.
  3245. > And *done* with the business of being a saltine, too.
  3246. > What'd you need with more shiny baubles, anyways, if in the end the only thing of value you had was your Silver Ram?
  3247. > Or even more than that, your faithful comrades-in-arms?
  3248. > You still *owe* Sparkshower for being possessed on your behalf.
  3249. > And you'll owe her more if she does it again for another lesson.
  3250. > "Hey! Anypony here?"
  3251. > The pegasister in question calls out as she enters the common room.
  3252. > You take a deep breath to settle yourself down.
  3253. "Just a minute, Sparks!"
  3254. > Quickly, you scramble out of the soiled dress, giving it a quick once-over.
  3255. > Yeah, there's not much mess.
  3256. > Your own magic should be plenty.
  3257. > You give some of the obvious spots a quick blast of cleaning-rays.
  3258. > Then you put it back on its hangar and hang it on the outside of the wardrobe door to air out.
  3259.  
  3260. > You're about to head for the door when you forget you're still wearing your sandals.
  3261. > Oops -- better take those off, too.
  3262. > When you finally emerge into the common room, you find Sparkshower in the process of removing her armour.
  3263. > "Hi, Lily. Sergeant Ebonshield got back from the Rookery and relieved me a little early. Wasn't that nice of her? Seems like all of us want to guard the Royal Engineer!"
  3264. > You dodged a cannonball with the batpony not having come up here first.
  3265. > A shiver goes up your spine as you imagine the discomfort of her arriving while you were mid-moan.
  3266. > Sparkshower tilts her head at you, furrowing her brow.
  3267. > "... Are you okay? Were you having a nap? Sorry if I woke you!"
  3268. > You shake your head.
  3269. "It's okay, Sparks. I'm fine."
  3270. > Glancing at the clock, you see it's barely three o'clock.
  3271. > Ebonshield relieved Sparkshower a full hour early.
  3272. > But the pegasus wouldn't let *you* take over her shift almost two hours ago!
  3273. > This disaster wouldn't have happened if you'd been on duty...
  3274. > You can hardly blame her for it, though.
  3275. > Artemis sniffs the air.
  3276. > Oh, no.
  3277. > "Hey -- Is that...? Are you sure you're okay? It smells like someone was sick in here."
  3278. > No sense arguing with her sense of smell.
  3279. "Yeah, sorry. I overate a little at lunch and had to let some of it out in the bin. I'll wash it out in a minute."
  3280. > She doesn't buy that excuse.
  3281. > "Are you sure you're okay? You don't... You don't have the 'dawn sickness' too, do you?"
  3282. > You grin.
  3283. "No. It's a little late for dawn, Sparks."
  3284. > "Oh, right..."
  3285. > She furrows her brow more and looks left and right.
  3286. > "... Uh... It's not the *other* kind of dawn sickness, is it?"
  3287. > On the one hoof that's a ridiculous proposition, but on the other it's heartwarming having somepony who's so concerned about you.
  3288. "It's not morning sickness, either. I'm not dumb, ya know. I use protection and take the herbs."
  3289.  
  3290. > "Right, okay! Sorry! It's just that back in the regiment, our First Sergeant was always very specific in the weekend liberty briefs about being safe about... those sorts of things."
  3291. > You chuckle.
  3292. "Sparks, *every* First Sergeant says that stuff. They know how much trouble the average guardspony can get into. But believe me, I'm not an *average* guardspony -- none of us are, or we wouldn't be here, ya know?"
  3293. > Indicating the palace around you, you sidle up and elbow her in the ribs.
  3294. > She laughs.
  3295. > "Yeah. Sorry, Lily, I was just worried you might be hurt."
  3296. "Thanks, Artemis. I appreciate it -- I appreciate *you*. I don't think I've said that enough..."
  3297. > Huh...
  3298. > It's only three, and the chow hall opens in thirty minutes...
  3299. > Maybe there's time for an evening excursion into the Rookery -- and maybe onto the Moon?
  3300. > You could use another lesson.
  3301. > Only if she's up for it, though.
  3302. "... Say, you got anything planned for tonight?"
  3303. > The pegasus smiles.
  3304. > "You want to go back to Ignacio and Aldonza again, don't you? I'd be glad to come along -- only maybe this time we can skip the part involving me and the Accursed Shadow? I can handle it, but I don't want to feel sick for the Gala."
  3305. > Fair enough.
  3306. "Sure, Sparks. Come for the company this time. And don't forget your camera! The papers'll trip over each other for those pictures if you can get them out past DADT. Now, why don't you finish getting undressed and we'll head to the mess hall for dinner?"
  3307. > She screws up her muzzle.
  3308. > "But didn't you just say you and your lunch...? You're really hungry?"
  3309. > You shrug.
  3310. "I'm not. I think I'll be skipping dinner today. But you can eat, and I'll be *your* company."
  3311. > "Okay! It's a date!"
  3312. > Sparkshower heads to her room to remove the rest of her armour, and you lend a hoof by telekinetically lifting up the pieces, as you've done before.
  3313.  
  3314. > Yeah.
  3315. > Buck Mailedhoof and buck salt-licks.
  3316. > Ya know what?
  3317. > Buck Louis Valise, too.
  3318. > You're worth more than all of that.
  3319. > What you need is loyal friends at your flanks and a challenge to overcome.
  3320. > You've got the first in Sparkshower and the second right now in mastering batpony Shadow-magic, not to mention seeing your genuinely noble VIP's plans to fruition.
  3321.  
  3322. Lily Glamerspear's theme song: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBHQbu5rbdQ (Fifth Harmony - Worth It ft. Kid Ink)
  3323.  
  3324.  
  3325.  
  3326.  
  3327. > You are Sergeant First Class Purity Ebonshield, and you are filled with a great sense of anticipation.
  3328. > Yes, there is tomorrow the inspection of the battlefield where you shall participate in the Equestrian 'Grand Mêlée'.
  3329. > And that is a great privilege, for you will be the first of the Children to participate in this ritual.
  3330. > Before that there is also of course this weekend the Equestrian Grand Galloping Gala, which also you will be honoured to be the first to attend as one of Children.
  3331. > However, right now what most greatly preoccupies your mind are not those grand events, but the contents of your saddlebags.
  3332. > This is why you have taken the place of the Specialist Sparkshower early; that you may relieve yourself of their wonderful burden as soon as possible.
  3333. > And yet, there is a certain delight in delaying release.
  3334. > The Engineer Royal sits at his desk, hunched over a a mess of papers, drumming a pencil against his padded blotter.
  3335. > He has held positions similar for almost an hour, pretending to work.
  3336. > Finally, with a sigh, he flicks the pencil out of his hand and leans back in his chair.
  3337. > Another sigh, and he shakes his head, then reaches for his glass of water.
  3338. > Bueno.
  3339. > He is bored or frustrated or perhaps even both.
  3340. > Now is the time to strike.
  3341. "Are those papers for to prepare El Torbellino, The Whirlwind, for the Grand Mêlée, Great Lord?"
  3342. > You know with almost certainty that they are not.
  3343. > Anonymous shakes his head.
  3344. > "No, they're for the foundry. I haven't even had time to think about what modifications to make to the Whirlwind. I can imagine improving it an awful lot, but it's a question of time and reliability..."
  3345. > Another sigh, and he lifts his eyebrows.
  3346. > "... We're going to tour the battle grounds tomorrow with Lieutenant Kilfeather, aren't we? Maybe I ought to put these plans away for the day and refocus on that. I've never fought in a tournament before, after all..."
  3347.  
  3348. > He chuckles.
  3349. > "... Then again I've never built a foundry, either. Or a smelter; it'll really be both. And either one of those can be just as deadly as a battle if not designed with safety in mind."
  3350. > You take a step forward.
  3351. "I take it then that the Great Lord is firm in his choice to fight in the Grand Mêlée?"
  3352. > The Royal Engineer furrows his brow, putting down his drink.
  3353. > "Choice? What do you mean, choice?"
  3354. > Taking another step forward, you cock your head to one side.
  3355. "Did the Mother-of-Stars and the Mother-of-the-Sun not ask only that El Torbellino be represented in the Grand Mêlée as a test of its worthiness? Surely they did not demand that the prowess in battle of their Engineer Royal be also tested?"
  3356. > Anonymous sits up in his chair again.
  3357. > "I... suppose that's true. It was phrased as a test of the Whirlwind. And Her Majesty Princess Celestia said that the 'group which beat' last year's champions, Kilfeather and his squad, should take their place..."
  3358. > He turns and glances at his minotaur-made bronze armour.
  3359. > "... I didn't actually *fight* in the 'Pas-de-Sabots' at Newstirrup Bridge, though I did consider it. I suppose I helped without fighting, though, by raising Specialist Sparkshower's spirits before the battle, and calling out the Lieutenant's position for Specialist Glamerspear. From that, one could take it either way whether Her Majesty expects me to participate in the Tournament..."
  3360. > You take a few more steps until you're standing at the other side of his desk, and he returns to face you.
  3361. > "... Shouldn't I fight? Maybe I'd be more useful as the vehicle's mechanic, during breaks in the fighting. But then we'd have to find another soldier to make a 'flight' of six again."
  3362.  
  3363. > You shrug.
  3364. "The Great Lord is surrounded by soldiers. Good ones are more difficult to find, yes, but still commonly available. I am certain that the Major-General Hoofstrong could provide. One of the pegasi of the Lieutenant Kilfeather, perhaps, or another from the Division of the Major-General. Or I could volunteer one of the Stellar Dancers. I could even ask a Star from a different Temple; despite their antipathy to the Stellar Dancers and to Equestrians, to fight in such a tournament would be considered a great honour, and most would readily accept, submitting to my leadership. There are many options, and all are choices excellent."
  3365. > Your VIP lifts an eyebrow, appearing more confused than upset at the suggestion.
  3366. > "Don't you think I should fight? You're the one who's been training me in combat. Are you saying you don't think I'm ready?"
  3367. "I do as the Great Lord wishes. But to defend oneself is one thing, to fight battle for sport and glory and honour is another quite different. This fighting requires a certain state of mind, yet I have seen the Great Lord avoid violence and disdain aggression."
  3368. > Anonymous chuckles, the confusion turning to amusement.
  3369. > "Are you calling me a pacifist? I'm certainly not bloodthirsty, but I don't know if I'd put myself so far on the opposite end of the spectrum. You'd say so too if you saw how deeply some of my people can get into it."
  3370. "As you say, I can judge the Great Lord only by what I have seen. I do not know the people of the Great Lord, nor their history."
  3371. > His expression suddenly turns somber.
  3372. > "No, you don't..."
  3373. > Placing his elbows on the table, he leans forward.
  3374. > "... I told Their Majesties, I may as well tell you, too..."
  3375.  
  3376. > Unusually stern, the Engineer Royal looks you in the eyes.
  3377. > "... I've seen the casualty numbers from Equestria's recent conflicts. The Crystal Empire Crisis. The Changeling invasion. Nightmare Moon's return. Internal troubles, scuffles with minotaurs, dragons, yaks, and others, on and off. At their worst there have been thousands injured, hundreds killed, fortresses wrecked, towns set aflame..."
  3378. > Then he shakes his head.
  3379. > "... Maybe I look like a pacifist to you. But you'd look like one too, if you'd come here from a planet with a history of violence orders of magnitude greater than anything Equestria has ever experienced. This world's weapons of war are like children's toys compared to what my people have wrought..."
  3380. > He sweeps one hand across his desk, casually brushing papers out of the way.
  3381. > "... Flying machines each carrying enough explosives to obliterate an army. Land vehicles only a little larger than the Whirlwind, impervious to any lance or cannon Equestria can muster, a couple of which could effortlessly slaughter this city's defenders before reducing the place to rubble. Even our ordinary soldiers on foot carry enough weaponry to potentially kill hundreds of other people so far away they can scarcely be seen with the naked eye..."
  3382. > The Engineer leans in, looming menacingly over you.
  3383. > "... We've had wars that engulfed our entire planet. Wars that went on for five, ten, thirty years. Tens of millions dead, hundreds of millions displaced, thousands of cities in ruins. Civilians slaughtered wholesale, or starved to death from deprivation. All while scarcely touching our newest and most terrifying weapons..."
  3384. > The Engineer Royal clenches one hand into a fist, lifting it up high.
  3385. > He lowers it slowly, then snaps his hand open just above the desk.
  3386. > "... Colossal bombs that can eradicate a city of millions in the blink of an eye, leaving nothing but flames and ash and scorched earth. And we have *thousands* of them..."
  3387.  
  3388. > Anonymous pauses for emphasis.
  3389. > "... So don't call me a pacifist, Sergeant. I grant that you've personally witnessed more death than me, but you don't know war like my people do."
  3390. > You had expected that the Engineer Royal would tell you his people were indeed capable of violence.
  3391. > You had not quite expected this proclamation intense.
  3392. > Millions killed in the blink of an eye?
  3393. > It was unthinkable; not even the Mother-of-Stars at the height of her power could do such a thing.
  3394. > His revelations are unsettling, and for a moment you are unable to come up with a reply of your own.
  3395. > Anonymous looks down at his paperwork, picking up the pencil and fidgeting with it once more.
  3396. > "I told Their Majesties all this when they first interviewed me almost a year ago. I also swore an oath that I wouldn't bring my people's capacity for destruction here. But I broke that promise when I built the Whirlwind. Princess Celestia rightfully called me out on it after the demonstration on Monday."
  3397. > Ah?
  3398. > How very curious!
  3399. "What came of that?"
  3400. > He shrugs.
  3401. > "Nothing, ultimately. I was contrite. I knew I'd broken my promise. But Corporal Bound defended me, saying much the same as you did just now: that I avoided violence and seemed to abhor it. So Her Majesty generously took it as that I hadn't violated the spirit of my pledge. Which I suppose is true, even though I still feel I failed her."
  3402. > Ah!
  3403. "But what will the Princess of the Sun say if the Great Lord participates wholeheartedly in this battle?"
  3404. > Anonymous grins.
  3405. > "From what I've been told so far, the Games are a big ritual that's been turned into an even bigger show. There's lots of fighting and plenty of blood spilled, but nobody dies or even leaves with a permanent injury. The victors are celebrated, the losers honoured for their valour. I don't think I could be accused of violating the spirit of my pledge just from throwing down in a well-regulated arena..."
  3406.  
  3407. > He glances once more at his set of blackened-bronze armour, gleaming in the afternoon sunlight.
  3408. > "... I'm sure it'll be an awful lot of work, and terribly exhausting, and probably even quite painful. I saw what happened to Lieutenant Kilfeather and his two wingmates even under the effect of the magical 'de-lethalizing' totems. But I do enjoy a challenge, and anyways how are we going to know if your lessons are working if I don't try fighting 'for real' at least once? This way it can be done without any casualties..."
  3409. > Then he smiles.
  3410. > "... Besides, it sounds like fun."
  3411. > You smile in return, pleased to see this side of your VIP outside of the ring of sand in the Grand Hall of Stars.
  3412. > Clearly, he understood his capacity for violence.
  3413. > But he knew also how quickly violence could spread like flame uncontrolled.
  3414. > Excellent!
  3415. > He will surely appreciate what you have brought for him.
  3416. "In this case, Great Lord, since you have decided to fight with us, I have brought for you a gift personal."
  3417. > Unfolding your wings, you sweep back your cloak to reveal the small saddle-bags strapped to your flanks.
  3418. > Sitting down on your haunches, you open the left one with a wing-finger, then reach in with your forehooves to extract a heavy, curled-up bundle of red fabric, held together with a strap and buckle.
  3419. > You place it on the desk and push it forwards, and the Royal Engineer parts his papers and stands up to receive it.
  3420. > "A gift? For the Grand Mêlée? What is it?"
  3421. "Open, and see for yourself."
  3422. > He slides the bundle delicately across the desk, pulls the strap out from the buckle, then unrolls the bundle to reveal the contents.
  3423. > Inside the bundle of cloth sit a brace of twelve steel blades, each one tucked into its own reinforced pocket, like a set of Equestrian silverware.
  3424. > "Daggers?"
  3425.  
  3426. > The Royal Engineer pulls one out to examine it.
  3427. > Of a minimalist style, the dull silvery metal is uniform in colour, the shape symmetrical, the body flat.
  3428. > There is only the double-edged blade, a small pair of bumps to act as a guard, and the handle, all a single piece of steel without adornments, polished to remove any trace of the tools which formed it.
  3429. > Your VIP tries balancing the blade on a finger, noticing how easily it sits on the line made between the two guards.
  3430. > "... Throwing daggers. Steel throwing daggers. But these aren't like your weapons -- they aren't pattern-welded, as there's no 'marbling' to the material."
  3431. > You bow your head.
  3432. "Yes, Great Lord. Tonino tells me that this steel is just as fine as one used for my blades, if not even in his opinion better. This is in fact the steel common, used for ordinary cutlery and tools, which makes it unpopular among the Stars because they dislike any association between their weapons and the equipment of dimmer Phases. But he assures me that the blades are of superb quality, will cut well, keep sharp, and not shatter. He said also that as you are interested in the processing of metal, you should find this more interesting."
  3433. > Anonymous holds his mouth open in awe, looking over the blade.
  3434. > "Carbon steel. Tool steel. All that time I spent down in the Rookery talking to him and his guild-partners about pattern-welded crucible steel, thinking it would be a starting point, and your people can make carbon steel already. Talk about getting lost in translation!"
  3435. > You bow humbly.
  3436. "I apologize, Great Lord. The words technical were most difficult to translate. And I do not believe I properly conveyed the Great Lord's desire to learn the most advanced techniques of the Guild of Blacksmiths."
  3437.  
  3438. > "I don't blame you. It was a tough job, and maybe I didn't make my wishes clear, either. I thought that pattern-welded crucible steel must have been the best they could do. I'm sure Tonino thought my single-minded focus on that technique was confusing as well. But what on the Moon can they be using to obtain the heat necessary? It can't just be charcoal."
  3439. > You had anticipated that your VIP would ask questions about the technique.
  3440. > Tonino had as well; perhaps, after having reflected upon the dozens of questions that the Engineer Royal asked him, he finally understood the grand designs of the Great Lord.
  3441. > And he therefore gave you a quick education in the steel-making of the Children of the Stars.
  3442. "Yes, Great Lord. Tonino explained to me this technique as best he could. Some charcoal is still used to purify the ore, but otherwise the Blacksmiths must rely on magic. As you say, this steel, he requires more heat. Devices have been made for the Rocks by the Eclipse which produce the heat immense. They are empowered copies of the devices used by the Lunar-phase to heat our cities and melt buried ice. This, along with charcoal and some other reagents, is used to produce the base metal which can then be steeled by heating it again with yet more ingredients."
  3443. > Turning over the blade in his hands, Anonymous nods, a look of wonder still on his face.
  3444. > "Magic heat. Charcoal for carbon monoxide to reduce the iron oxide, but magic for heat. Of course; at the root of everything in this world, it's always magic..."
  3445.  
  3446. > Then he bends over and immediately rifles through his papers.
  3447. > "... We'll have to use it, too. There's charcoal here, but we'd have to chop down every forest to get enough to use it as fuel. There's a little coal but not nearly enough coal production to fuel a single smelter, let alone a nation of them. And even if we used coal then we'd still want magical assistance to coke it. Not to mention scrubbing the exhaust of all these processes. I won't poison this nation's air and water or turn Canterlot's bright buildings black with smog..."
  3448. > Then he pulls out a sheet full of what look like names and addresses.
  3449. > "... I knew I'd have to deal with a magician sooner or later. I had Specialist Sparkshower deliver one letter earlier; I must be prepared to broaden my search if that one refuses..."
  3450. > He seems ready to sit down and write a letter, then he stops himself and looks at you.
  3451. > "... But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me thank you first of all for this wonderful gift. I take it you think I should use these to the Grand Mêlée?"
  3452. > You smile.
  3453. "The Great Lord appeared to appreciate the art of the dagger in our training. Yes, you may use these in our coming fight, and I have brought a device also with which to carry them."
  3454. > Now you flick open your left saddle-bag, and remove a bundle of black-dyed bands and straps, laying them on the desk.
  3455. > Putting down the dagger, the Engineer Royal picks up the second part of the gift, quickly understanding its purpose and holding it up properly.
  3456. > "A belt and double bandolier, with sheathes for eight blades across the breast and two over and behind the shoulders..."
  3457. > Turning it around, he smiles.
  3458. > "... Yet there are twelve daggers in this beautiful set. Where am I to put the other two?"
  3459.  
  3460. > You point a hoof at his greaves, neatly arranged beneath his cuirass.
  3461. "Tucked into your leg armour, Great Lord, held in by the straps. Or perhaps hidden behind your shield. Or even kept in the vehicle. There are many places to hide a small spare blade or two to surprise an enemy or to arm yourself when all other weapons have been lost. You must experiment to see what you prefer..."
  3462. > Finally you pull a tied bundle of a dozen wooden practice-daggers out of your left bag.
  3463. "... I have had made for you also a set with which to practice."
  3464. > Anonymous places the bandolier down on his desk, then picks up the loose dagger and slips it back into its red cloth case with the other eleven.
  3465. > "This is an incredible gift, Sergeant. Thank you."
  3466. > You bow again.
  3467. "You are most welcome, Great Lord. I cannot take all the credit, since Tonino gives the blades to you freely, as a gift of friendship. He and his guild looks forward to working with you on the surface soon."
  3468. > "Well, you must thank him on my behalf, then. We'll pay him another visit after the Gala, and hopefully by then we'll have located a site for the foundry..."
  3469. > Running his fingers along the exposed hilts of the daggers in their soft case, the Engineer Royal suddenly lifts his head.
  3470. > "... Sergeant, would you mind if I had a look at one of those foreleg mechanisms of yours? Not the blade, just the spring mechanism."
  3471. > A request a little curious.
  3472. > Does he wish for a set of Dancing Needles for himself?
  3473. > That could be arranged, but they are a dangerous tool for the untrained, and his fingers are in particular a great concern.
  3474. > Or does he merely seek to understand the functioning of the mechanism?
  3475. > Surely his people have built more complex things; El Torbellino is himself more complicated.
  3476. > Regardless, you see no reason not to humour his request.
  3477. > You raise your left foreleg and, with a flick, extend the blade held in the Dancing Needle device.
  3478.  
  3479. > Then you depress the hidden lever which releases the blade freely, allowing it to fall softly on the carpet.
  3480. > Then, you undo the belts which bind the mechanism to you, presenting it to the Engineer Royal.
  3481. "Be careful, Great Lord, as the spring still has the power with which to propel a dagger. However, this should not discharge without a blade in place."
  3482. > Anonymous nods as he receives the device.
  3483. > Turning it over, you watch as he examines the three coil springs: the first two, which extend and retract the Needle, and the third, which propels it.
  3484. > Then he laughs and gives the Dancing Needle back to you.
  3485. > "Most of this isn't made of pattern-welded steel either. It's spring steel, a different product of the same process which produces tool steel. Are these things known to break?"
  3486. > You begin to reattach the Dancing Needle.
  3487. "Rarely, Great Lord. Only after the usage considerable and only when they have been maintained improperly."
  3488. > "How about your blades? Do they break?"
  3489. "Sometimes, if driven or twisted with the force excessive."
  3490. > He nods, grinning.
  3491. > "Tell your armourers to switch to blades made of the steel used in my daggers. They won't be as pretty, but I'm certain they'll be less brittle. Or must your Temple stay fashionable among the Stars?"
  3492. > You return his smile.
  3493. "A Stellar Dancer is practical, Great Lord. We must be, in our profession. If you say that the steel which looks plain and is used for tools and knives is superior to the steel which looks elegant and is used for weapons, I will tell the Sixes to make purchases and begin tests at once."
  3494. > "Good. The sacrifice of fashion will be worth it, I guarantee..."
  3495.  
  3496. > When you finish reattaching and rearming the Dancing Needle, the Engineer Royal nods at you.
  3497. > "... And speaking of fashion, I just realized we never spoke of your appearance at the Gala. The other members of the quaternion told me that this event requires new, over-the-top outfits. I've got mine, I helped Corporal Bound pick out hers, and I've seen Specialist Sparkshower's in person, all under the guidance of Specialist Glamerspear, who's purchased a designer dress of her own, I understand. I hope you were similarly advised and have suitably equipped yourself."
  3498. > Ah, how thoughtful.
  3499. > He worries because he does not know if you have been out to the vendors with the other soldiers.
  3500. > You have, only not the vendors here in the Canterlot.
  3501. > For while they do know how to dress a pony with feathery wings, you think they might struggle to dress one with wings of leather.
  3502. > Particularly one who wishes to carry at least one pair of Dancing Needles to the Gala.
  3503. > Perhaps the Specialist Glamerspear could have assisted you also in finding a clothier suitable, but to fashion a custom dress was no small affair.
  3504. > Timing and price went hoof-in-hoof as well.
  3505. > Here in Canterlot, you had a little money to spend, but in the Rookery, as on the Moon, you had a fortune.
  3506. > Thus, there were not only daggers and a bandolier awaiting you in the market square of the Rookery this morning; there was another precious thing of embroidered cloth as well.
  3507. "Sí, Great Lord, I have been so advised, and therefore so equipped."
  3508. > He lifts an eyebrow.
  3509. > "I'm curious to what you've chosen. I get the feeling it wasn't purchased in Canterlot. And somehow I doubt a member of the Star-Phase knows how to sew, either."
  3510. > You smile.
  3511. "The Great Lord is blessed with great insight and perception. These statements are true."
  3512. > "I hope it's not just a black bodysuit as you wore on our club crawl Tuesday night. Though you certainly did attract enough attention in it."
  3513.  
  3514. > Indeed.
  3515. > You recall making many fluttering eyes at many flustered colts who realized perhaps only too late that your pupils were different in shape -- not to mention reflective.
  3516. > A few even got close enough to notice that you did not have feathery wings, either.
  3517. > Sadly none of them had the courage to find out if your larger canines were not merely a trick of the imagination.
  3518. > And all that in your simple 'Leotardo'.
  3519. "No, Great Lord. For the Gala, I have another dress."
  3520. > "Good. I know it's just a party but all this preparation -- the suit, the dresses, the boutonnière, the formal-dance rehearsals with Specialist Sparkshower -- has gotten me rather excited about Saturday. I'd like for us all to make a splash. And I've worked up some energy that needs to be unleashed on a dance floor, too."
  3521. "I believe the Great Lord will be pleased with my contribution to this 'splash'. But the Gala, is she 'just a party'?"
  3522. > "Is that another one of your pseudo-rhetorical questions? What do you mean this time? Isn't it a party?"
  3523. > You whinny with amusement.
  3524. "Sí, she is of course a party. But I do not forget the first invitation earlier of the Specialist Sparkshower to dance not the 'Waltz' but the 'Maypole', which is an Equestrian declaration of interest in marriage. I have heard rumours that such contracts are often brokered at this event, and that those who are single may find themselves attached by the end of the night."
  3525. > "Are you suggesting I'm going to find myself a... Well, a *mate* at the Grand Galloping Gala, Sergeant?"
  3526. "I suggest only that this is a possibility..."
  3527. > Smirking, you tilt your head to the side.
  3528. "... Or at least an opportunity."
  3529. > Anonymous puffs his cheeks and blows out.
  3530. > "I think I've got a lot on my plate already without trying to find a... What, a 'marefriend', I guess? Is that the common word, here?"
  3531. "Yes, Great Lord."
  3532.  
  3533. > Your contrite answer unsettles your VIP.
  3534. > "Well, what? You think I should try? You really think there'll be a pony at the Gala who'd be interested in me? Granted, Corporal Bound gave me an earful on pony sex characteristics, and I've had your mother practically throwing her Lunars at my feet, but according to Corporal Bound I was attractive only with 'experience'. Like learning to enjoy black coffee, I suppose."
  3535. > You bow.
  3536. "All that the Great Lord speaks is true. I suggest only that a confident colt dressed well, of high station in life, and with a growing reputation in the industry and in the military, who arrives at the Gala surrounded by *four* mares beautiful, athletic, enthusiastic, and attired finely..."
  3537. > Lifting your head, you smirk.
  3538. "... This colt, he will attract attention, regardless if the desire physical is not immediate. Therefore I suggest that the Great Lord prepare himself to receive this treatment, and to consider what he shall do if confronted with any proposals for a relationship."
  3539. > Anonymous looks at you in silence for several seconds.
  3540. > Then he emits a single chortle, nodding.
  3541. > "Huh. Very well, Sergeant. I'll give it a thought. Now, it's nearly supper time, and I think I'd like to take a brisk walk around the garden beforehand. Would you care to join me?"
  3542. "I join with pleasure, Great Lord."
  3543. > "Excellent. Let's go."
  3544. > With that, he stands up and opens the patio door behind his desk, and you follow him out into the palace gardens.
  3545.  
  3546.  
  3547.  
  3548.  
  3549. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you are...
  3550. > You're calm.
  3551. > It's a bit of a surprise to you.
  3552. > The Gala's tomorrow -- you should be excited about that.
  3553. > And you should be a little nervous about performing the Lipizzaner Waltz, even though you practiced it again with the Royal Engineer this morning.
  3554. > Most of all you should be filled with anticipation for this meeting at one of the Equestrian Royal Guard's most storied locations, the artillery proving grounds, site of the MXP Games, and in particular the Grand Mêlée.
  3555. > But you're not.
  3556. > You just feel... *calm*.
  3557. > Maybe it's because nothing's really supposed to happen today, just a discussion of the rules, and an inspection of the battlefield, and perhaps a look at one of the other competing teams conducting drills.
  3558. > Or maybe it's because of last night's visit to the Moon with Lily.
  3559. > As you requested, you hadn't been subject to possession.
  3560. > Your unicorn comrade had to content herself with repeated attempts to banish an 'unbound' Accursed Shadow.
  3561. > She sorta managed it in the end, made it go away after Ignacio had further restrained it and prevented it.
  3562. > It was interesting to watch; maybe even a little funny, actually.
  3563. > Because while last time the presence of that black shape had been terrifying, this time you'd felt... well, nothing, really.
  3564. > For all the first trip's terror of walking into a dark, claustrophobic place, where the walls of reality were weak, and where formless, magical, soul-eating monsters from another dimension readily crossed over, last night's trip to into the deep impact crater where Nightmare Moon had landed, the black pit the batpony 'Children of the Stars' referred to as the 'Well of Shadows' had felt no more threatening than a simple partly-cloudy summer day.
  3565.  
  3566. > The kind with a high of 23 centigrade, with a gentle 10-kilometre-an-hour breeze out of the West, modest 50-percent humidity, and a manageable 20-percent chance of showers.
  3567. > An everyday.
  3568. > The Accursed Shadows which Ignacio Blazon summoned forth took pony forms last night again, yes.
  3569. > And a few of them even said a word or two while standing before your group, sometimes addressing one of you by name.
  3570. > But you felt nothing -- no threat, no terror.
  3571. > Was it just the knowledge that the monstrosities were as easily removed and banished as they were summoned, if one had the tools?
  3572. > Or maybe any fear was just offset by the joy of bringing your 'Little Ludwig' camera along for the trip.
  3573. > Yes, you had taken, as far as you knew, the first photos of the Moon!
  3574. > Of Nightmare Moon's enormous impact crater, and of the mysterious Well of Shadows!
  3575. > And of *Equestria*, as seen from almost four hundred thousand kilometres away!
  3576. > Talk about a postcard to send home to your parents.
  3577. > On the way back you even took a photograph with the Righteous Hatcheteer València Fierropezuña, who had come on duty at the internal border-post while you were out on the Moon.
  3578. > A little disappointed at having missed out on the gifts you brought for the guards on your way in -- more magazines, but this time candy and chewing gum instead of tobacco products -- she was curious about the boxy device hanging around your neck.
  3579. > So you took a photo with her.
  3580. > None of the batponies were enthusiastic for illumination provided by Glamerspear, who was behind the lens, but it had to be done if the photos were going to turn out at all.
  3581. > And you were confident that they would, perhaps later today when you went off duty.
  3582. > You promised her a copy.
  3583. > Sighing, you adjust the weight of the Bradamante Lance in your hooves.
  3584. > When you weren't using it to rocket forwards, it was actually a pretty heavy weapon.
  3585.  
  3586. > Flying with your armour on was challenging enough; you could manage, and manage well, even over long distances, but adding more weight pushed you closer to your limit.
  3587. > Maybe you ought to have brought your regulation standard-issue lance instead.
  3588. > You really should have thought about the fact that you'd have to keep a slow pace with the Royal Engineer's Whirlwind below.
  3589. > It was fast, yes, but it wasn't "Anthony Theolonicus rocket-lance, crafted for Bradamante Growler" fast.
  3590. > You suppose you could just drop down and ride on the upper deck of the vehicle.
  3591. > Sergeant Ebonshield was gliding along beside you, in her magical disguise as 'Sergeant Blackspear'.
  3592. > As much as she felt comfortable walking around the palace or even the city exactly as she was, a batpony, the Royal Artillery Proving Grounds was an active Royal Guard base outside the municipal limits.
  3593. > Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell was in full effect, and there might even be ponies here who had fought against the Children, or knew somepony who had fallen to their blades during Nightmare Night two years ago.
  3594. > Best not to provoke an incident by having a batpony on full display.
  3595. > Even so...
  3596. > Like a gusting wind, your mind wanders to other possibilities.
  3597. > Imagine the confusion your group could cause if she wore that batpony-crafted magical linothorax armour to look like a pegasus, while you donned one the medallions fashioned by Aldonza to make you look like an Eclipse-phase batpony.
  3598. > That would sure trip up your enemies during the Grand Mêlée!
  3599. > It's so crazy, maybe you ought to suggest it for real.
  3600. > As the Whirlwind finally reaches the stone-paved main road, exiting Canterlot city proper, you flap your wings to better survey the hilly terrain.
  3601. > The area surrounding Canterlot was mostly farm estates of moderate size.
  3602. > Not as luxurious as the grand villas of the hinterlands, but not as small as the sharecropper villages further out.
  3603.  
  3604. > Each farm was unique in its own special way: by crop or by layout or by orientation, or by the home built upon it.
  3605. > The ponies here were examples of Equestria's agricultural middle-class, with easy access to irrigation and a large market for their goods right at their doorstep.
  3606. > If not for the rules enforcing small-holdership on these lands, some rich noblepony would have surely consolidated all the acreage.
  3607. > But like Canterlot itself, this land was carefully stewarded.
  3608. > Just beyond a final rolling hill was a great green plain, where once the ancestors of today's nobility would meet to challenge each other in glorious battle.
  3609. > And where some of their contemporary descendants still came today.
  3610. > "This land, she is truly beautiful..."
  3611. > The batpony-pegasus flying beside you speaks up.
  3612. > "... From the Moon, we can see the blue of the seas, and the green of the plants, and the clouds in the skies. She has always looked beautiful to us, this world of our ancestors, but watching her from so far away is far removed from witnessing her first-wing..."
  3613. > Ebonshield looks over at you, gliding on her false feathery wings.
  3614. > "... I apologize. I have interrupted your thoughts."
  3615. > You shake your head.
  3616. "No, no. I was also admiring the scenery. You know, there's a lot of romantic songs about Canterlot in the springtime."
  3617. > "I am not surprised. What a wonder, the consequences of a war between siblings: on the Moon, it bred among the defeated a thousand years of hate and scheming for revenge, while here in Equestria, the victors built a paradise in memory of the loss."
  3618. > You hadn't thought about it that way.
  3619. > Canterlot, the 'new' capital, had been built due to the ruin of the Castle of the Two Sisters.
  3620. > New city, new palace, new location.
  3621. > The old site had been left largely to rot.
  3622.  
  3623. > But the Sergeant is wrong if she thinks the only legacy of that war was Canterlot.
  3624. "That's true. But there was also lingering fear here. Otherwise, you wouldn't even consider dressing up in that suit."
  3625. > Humming in disagreement, she clicks her tongue against her teeth.
  3626. > "Hmmm, I think otherwise. The fear of which you speak was for the Nightmare Moon. I have seen the records and prophecies: the followers of the Great Mother were forgotten, perhaps deliberately so. After all, better to remember only a single villain than many hundred or thousands..."
  3627. > Beating her illusory feather wings with the sound of leathery flaps, she continues.
  3628. > "... No, I wear the suit because of the actions of my people, for if we had not assaulted our brethren, then there would be no need to hide the existence of the Children from the rest of the Royal Guard."
  3629. > That's probably true.
  3630. > But the way the batponies were hidden was clumsy at best.
  3631. > Everypony in the palace knew of them, even if all they knew was complete nonsense -- like how Glamerspear reacted when the Sergeant first showed up.
  3632. "It can't last. If the four of us can get along without prejudice, so can everypony else. And Canterlot may be beautiful, Sergeant, but sad stories still happen here. I always thought a real paradise wouldn't have any sad stories."
  3633. > "You are right, of course, on both counts. And perhaps I exaggerate to call this paradise, though she is still a marvel and a joy. Also, I should not be so critical of my own home; unfortunately, you have visited so far only a selection of the darkest pits the Moon has to offer. There are many places there which are beautiful, if in their own ways, as well."
  3634. "Maybe we'll visit them someday. I know it's not the Moon, but Honour did say that the Lunar Sanctuary in the Rookery was amazing."
  3635. > "Yes. There are larger Sanctuaries on the Moon, but none of them is more finely built than the one here under the mountain."
  3636.  
  3637. > A thought pops into your head in this discussion of batponies and everypony else.
  3638. "Sergeant... Purity... You're won't be disguising yourself for the Gala, will you?"
  3639. > "No, of course not. But perhaps for the great battle..."
  3640. > You smile.
  3641. "I was thinking about that. What a tactical advantage to be disguised, and what a shock to when you reveal the truth!"
  3642. > "Yes, this had occurred to me. The disguise suddenly discarded, the great confusion, and then the deadly strike before the quick withdrawal -- this is the strategy typical of the Stellar Dancers."
  3643. > It was a good plan.
  3644. > You just had to figure out how to work it into something more comprehensive.
  3645. > The Whirlwind makes good speed on the country roads, and Honour deftly rounds the final corner before coming to a stop at the Proving Grounds' main gates.
  3646. > Off in the distance, you can hear gunnery practice in session, great cannons firing balls off into a battered forest hill.
  3647. > "... I believe we have arrived. Let us join our comrades."
  3648. > By the time you descend to ground level, the guards have opened the gate, and one of them is giving directions to Honour.
  3649. > Your saboted hooves touch the wooden deck with a *klump*, while Sergeant Ebonshield alights almost silently beside you, and Glamerspear spins her seat around look back at the new arrivals.
  3650. > "Hey, Sparks. Hey, Sarge. How was your flight?"
  3651. "The lance is a little heavy when I'm not using it. But it's a nice day out, and the fields are really pretty in the spring. I hope tomorrow's just as nice!"
  3652. > Ebonshield only nods in agreement.
  3653. > As Honour guides the vehicle westwards, towards the main field, the morning sun catches your swivel-mounted unicorn comrade's face.
  3654. > You can't help but notice how shiny her Silver Ram medal is today; she must have applied some silver polish to it recently.
  3655. > Could it have been in anticipation of the Gala?
  3656. > You didn't think she would wear the Ram to that, but you suppose she could.
  3657.  
  3658. > It was a very pretty medal, and a real accomplishment.
  3659. > But maybe she just wants to look her best out here with the other Royal Guardsponies -- and Lieutenant Kilfeather.
  3660. > Or maybe she wants to impress any other competitors out reconnoitring the field; knowing they're up against a team which includes a Centurion of the Ram could hurt their morale in your favour.
  3661. > It feels a little mean to do that, but this is a big deal!
  3662. > You understand why Lieutenant Kilfeather spoke with such swagger -- he was a three-time Grand Mêlée winner, twice as a wingpony and once as a wing-leader, and an achievement like that both inspired and demanded supreme confidence.
  3663. > The Royal Engineer extends an arm to direct Corporal Bound to where you're supposed to go.
  3664. > Today he's wearing a tan suit -- the first time you've seen him in anything but black, except for his armour and his work overalls.
  3665. > It was actually a bit of a fuss this morning: since it was sunny, he'd thought to wear white.
  3666. > Honour had to tell him that in Equestrian high society, white could only be worn after the Grand Galloping Gala and before Harmony Day.
  3667. > Late spring and summer, in other words.
  3668. > That sent your Very Important Pony, who wasn't actually a pony, into a bit of a tornado-spin.
  3669. > For the first time, you and the rest of your quaternion followed him into the other side of the room, beyond the movable partition wall.
  3670. > There wasn't really anything secret back there: just a bed with a trunk at the end, a large armoire, a dressing chair and table, and the door to his bathroom.
  3671. > Once you got there, the Royal Engineer furiously riffled through his wardrobe.
  3672. > It wasn't as extensive a collection as you'd had thought -- he really only had ten or so outfits compared to say, Glamerspear's overflowing dozens -- but he just couldn't make up his mind.
  3673. > Wear black?
  3674. > But it's a warm, sunny day.
  3675.  
  3676. > And anyways his usual 3-piece suit was too formal, his Gala suit was out of the question, and white-tie tuxedo similarly too much.
  3677. > If he can't wear white, then maybe navy blue?
  3678. > It was a nice-looking jacket, and the white pinstripes were very fashionable, but to accompany the four of you in your armour, he'd look like your manager, not your team leader.
  3679. > The same could be said for his grey tweed three-piece.
  3680. > Yet he didn't think he should wear his armour -- and you could understand why.
  3681. > You were all showing up in Royal Guard battle uniforms; you'd all fit right in at a Royal Guard base.
  3682. > A tall biped in blackened-bronze minotaur armour, with a red cape and maybe even his shield & heavy mace, would not.
  3683. > In the end, Honour had to put her hoof down, stepping up to the wardrobe and picking out a tan 'safari'-style suit with four large pockets and a matching canvas belt worn around the outside.
  3684. > It was appropriate for warm weather and, with the belt and pockets, looked vaguely military.
  3685. > A pith helmet would've complemented the look, if he'd had one, but he had to settle for its matching straw hat with an indented crown, plucked off a hat tree adjacent the armoire.
  3686. > The whole scene took just a couple of minutes, but it was such a funny moment: the Royal Engineer, so cool under fire and so collected when executing his duties, frazzled by having to select a suit at the last second.
  3687. > That sort of stereotypical coltish behaviour ponified him a bit more, in your mind.
  3688. > "Look, Corporal, there's Lieutenant Kilfeather and Sergeant Greenhound."
  3689. > "Yes, sir. I see them."
  3690. > You were paying so much attention to your VIP's outfit you didn't even notice that the Whirlwind had made its way over to the far edge of the parade grounds.
  3691. > The Lieutenant, Glamerspear's ex-coltfriend...
  3692. > Actually, you weren't really sure if she would consider him an ex-coltfriend.
  3693. > Ex-partner?
  3694. > Or ex-friend, maybe?
  3695. > That sounds even worse than ex-coltfriend.
  3696.  
  3697. > Well, her ex-whatever was standing with the pegasus Sergeant beside the large oval ring surrounding the parade field, both of them dressed in their blue Air Service jackets, her in a side cap and him with an officer's peaked cap.
  3698. > Honour applies the brakes so smoothly that despite just sitting on the open deck, you don't even feel the need to reach for something to hold onto, and the vehicle comes to a gentle stop.
  3699. > She's really getting the hang of piloting this thing.
  3700. > Kilfeather calls up to the vehicle, rendering a proper salute along with the Sergeant.
  3701. > "Good morning, my Lord."
  3702. > "Good morning, Lieutenant. We'll be a while, yes? I'll turn off the engine."
  3703. > "Yes, m'Lord, though I think you should have a drive around the grounds afterwards."
  3704. > Well, he's still being polite.
  3705. > Glamerspear must be happy about that.
  3706. > Despite his shredded wings, he does look smart in that uniform.
  3707. > So does the Sergeant.
  3708. > Then again, doesn't everypony?
  3709. > That's what they always say about the Royal Guard: nopony can resist a colt, or a mare, in uniform.
  3710. > You all dismount the Whirlwind while the Royal Engineer bends over the controls and works screw shut the valve to its steam boiler.
  3711. > That gives you a moment to survey the scene around you.
  3712. > You're in the main parade grounds of the Royal Artillery Barracks.
  3713. > It's a huge open green field, rectangular in shape, surrounded on all sides by raised green berms, with just a couple of narrow cutouts in them to allow easier passage.
  3714. > There's an oval ring road running just inside; three quarters of it is compacted brown dirt, but the section where you are is paved with stones like a typical Equestrian highway.
  3715. > A large, shallow trench runs parallel to and just inside from the road here, as well.
  3716. > Beside you on this edge, a dozen worker-ponies are putting together bleachers.
  3717.  
  3718. > And just beyond them, there's a one-storey brick building partially built into the berm, with another couple of worker-ponies assembling some kind of wooden tower atop it.
  3719. > Beyond one of the berms, you see puffs of white smoke rising in the air, and there's the occasional crack of cannon fire.
  3720. > On the opposite berm you can just make out the red-shingled roofs of the barracks buildings, each of which curiously has its own enormous Equestrian flag billowing high on a pole.
  3721. > That's a lot of flags.
  3722. > Strange; there's patriotism, sure, and you'd certainly expect to see a flag or two at a military base, but why so many?
  3723. > As if sensing your confusion, Sergeant Greenhound speaks up.
  3724. > "Curious about the flags, Specialist?"
  3725. > Spooky how she knew that!
  3726. > Well, she was from *intelligence*.
  3727. > Remembering the last time you had to converse with a pegasus Sergeant in Canterlot -- the ornery Sergeant-Major Treechopper -- you give a quick salute.
  3728. "Yes, Sergeant Greenhound."
  3729. > She nods and points a forehoof towards the flags.
  3730. > "Just Mirage, please. Anyways, the flags..."
  3731. > Swinging her forehoof over to the source of gun-smoke, she continues.
  3732. > "... It's for the gunners. In the off-chance that they get their sighting wrong and the red roofs don't make them realize they're aiming the wrong way, the flags are always run up during the day, so that a battery would have to be treasonously negligent to fire on the Equestrian flag and risk cannon-shot hitting the barracks."
  3733. > You give another quick salute.
  3734. "Very interesting! Thank you, Sergeant Mirage."
  3735. > The Sergeant laughs.
  3736. > "Please, Specialist. I know you're on VIP duty and don't have to salute."
  3737. "But Sergeant, regulation six hundred dash twenty-five, chapter one, section three-"
  3738.  
  3739. > Lieutenant Kilfeather interrupts you.
  3740. > "Mirage knows the regs, Specialist. And she may be from intel, but she's still Air Service, and when you're up there, as part of a flight, it's just call signs, covering your wingmate, and following the leader. You don't have time to salute the rank. If you do that, you're dead..."
  3741. > He nods at the Sergeant in acknowledgement.
  3742. > "... While we're working together as a flight, without anypony else around, then I'm just Icepone, or Ice, and I won't expect salutes. Neither will Mirage..."
  3743. > Then Kilfeather turns towards the Royal Engineer, who's satisfied himself that the Whirlwind's engine is properly shut off.
  3744. > "... That's assuming we *are* still working together as a flight, my Lord? Will Mirage be your sixth?"
  3745. > You can't help but notice that despite inviting you to disregard addressing or saluting him by rank, he still salutes the Royal Engineer and calls him Lord.
  3746. > Anonymous furrows his brow.
  3747. > "To be perfectly honest with you, Lieutenant, I still haven't made up my mind on that matter. I'm sorry: I know I promised to determine it by today, but I feel like I still need to understand things a bit better. Let's say for sure that we'll decide by Sunday. However, even if she doesn't join us in the fight, as you said, I think we would still appreciate Mirage being part of our team for intelligence on the other competitors..."
  3748. > The Royal Engineer looks over at her, and Mirage nods in confirmation.
  3749. > She seems a little disappointed at the idea of not fighting -- but you can read a hint of relief in her face, too.
  3750. > "... Why don't we talk about the Grand Mêlée a bit first? Tell us about the battlefield. This is the site, isn't it?"
  3751.  
  3752. > Icepone nods, and everypony gathers around.
  3753. > "Yes, my Lord, this is it. Most of the year it's just where the artillery-ponies come to jog around in circles for their morning PT -- physical training -- or to practice hauling their guns around. On Revue Day they do parades and demonstrate firing blanks at the trot to crowds gathered on this berm. Graduation day is another big event for artillery cadets. But one day of the year they actually put up bleachers and assemble a hoardings-tower over the old guardhouse, there. That's what we're here for..."
  3754. > Pointing at the brick structure, he waves his forehoof up, above the currently-assembled height of the tower.
  3755. > "... Most of the judges will spend the match at the top of the structure they're assembling now. I told you the Games ran on pegasus rules, and that applies to the judging, too. It's a panel of nine assessing scores, and five of them will be pegasi up there, though they'll come down if enough of the action hits the dirt. The other four are two unicorn and two earth-pony judges, and they'll generally stay on a balcony much lower down the whole time, focusing on their ground-pounding kin. You can see the workers just starting to build the gallery out above the guardhouse roof..."
  3756. > Then he points towards the trench.
  3757. > "... That's the team staging area. There's a big parade entry, and all the teams -- including their support teams with all of the extra gear, and often enough with regimental bands marching behind them -- circle around the ring-road with banners flying and marching as pomp-and-circumstancy as they can, making as big of a racket as possible while still remaining dignified, then they take up positions in the trench. sEvery team gets a designated allotment, and it's a penalty deduction to enter another team's section..."
  3758.  
  3759. > Kilfeather glances at the Whirlwind.
  3760. > "... You'll need to be able to get thing up and down the hill, whether under its own power or by pushing, though pushing might cost you some style points. Anypony -- or any*thing* -- not in a team section in the trench is still considered 'in play' for the purposes of scoring. That'll be important if you have to mend it mid-fight. Of course, there are some general pauses where nopony's fighting anyways, but those will be too few and far between if you have a breakdown."
  3761. > Anonymous speaks up.
  3762. > "You've mentioned style points and penalty points, Lieutenant -- just how is the Grand Mêlée scored?"
  3763. > Kilfeather grins.
  3764. > "Excellent question. Even though it's a big, bloody, open-field battle, the scoring is not as straightforward as you might think. If one team absolutely demolishes all the others, then yeah, they'll win, but that basically never happens. Nopony's that good."
  3765. > Glamerspear scoffs.
  3766. > "Not even you, Val?"
  3767. > He shakes his head, still grinning.
  3768. > "Not even me, Lil'. Don't get me wrong -- my team did really well in the actual fighting. But even last year, we didn't win every fight. We didn't even win most of them; our rate was just over forty percent. That's actually considered high for the Mêlée; most winners don't pass thirty-five. Second and third place finishers are usually in the thirties."
  3769. > Forty percent hardly seems like 'winning'!
  3770. > But... in a match where everypony's protected by the power of the ancient magical Totems, the same ones which nullified any permanent damage during your quaternion's duels with Kilfeather's Air Wing, what even constitutes 'winning'?
  3771. "What actually counts winning a fight, if nopony can... well, *kill* their opponent?"
  3772.  
  3773. > The Lieutenant raises an eyebrow and nods in your direction.
  3774. > "Another good question. Forcing a retreat counts, of course. But even if you don't, the judges will mark it as a win if it just *looks* like the other party's outmatched for a sufficient period of time."
  3775. > Now it's Honour's turn to pipe up, turning to the Royal Engineer.
  3776. > "But winning isn't everything. There's two other scoring categories that matter almost as much."
  3777. > Again, the Lieutenant nods in acknowledgement.
  3778. > "You did the homework. Yes, winning fights isn't everything. Come on, let's head towards the guardhouse and I'll explain..."
  3779. > Your group of six ponies and one very important pony who isn't actually a pony starts off at a slow walk towards the small brick building with shuttered windows, clip-clopping along the paved road in a combination of metal sabots, leather-soled shoes, and bare hooves.
  3780. > "... I think it'll help if you first understand the purpose behind the games, my Lord."
  3781. > Anonymous doesn't miss a beat.
  3782. > "It's a spring festival for the pegasi, isn't it, Lieutenant?"
  3783. > Honour jumps in, too.
  3784. > "An *ancient* festival, sir. One with early religious roots."
  3785. > "Right. And Specialist Sparkshower, you mentioned the name but I'm afraid I've forgotten it. It started with a 'B'?"
  3786. "Beltane, sir. The ancient pegasus spring festival."
  3787. > Kilfeather looks over in your direction knowingly.
  3788. > "Your parents taught you the old fables, didn't they, Specialist?"
  3789. > The old fables.
  3790. > Tales of mythological pegasus heroes, from a time before the Princesses ruled Equestria.
  3791. > Before Equestria really *was* Equestria.
  3792. "They did, sir."
  3793. > "Ah, so *you* must be the one who gave the Royal Engineer the idea to name his vehicle after Epona an Iomaghaoth, isn't that right?"
  3794.  
  3795. > It's almost surprising hearing another pony pronounce the ancient name properly, but then again, Glamerspear said Kilfeather wasn't a noble-born; that means he had to have gone to college before becoming an officer in the Royal Guard.
  3796. > You wonder what exactly he studied there.
  3797. > Was it history, just like Lieutenant Violetta?
  3798. > Perhaps even with the same minor in musical theatre?
  3799. > Something to find out later, maybe.
  3800. "Yes, sir. The Royal Engineer asked if there were any Equestrian myths about wheeled vehicles, so I told him the pegasus creation-myth of Epona and Llamrei's chariot."
  3801. > The Lieutenant stops in his tracks, provoking everyone else to halt as well.
  3802. > He glances down at your hooves.
  3803. > "If you know that, then you must also know about the symbol you're standing on right now."
  3804. > What?
  3805. > You look down and lift your forehooves to see that the large paving stone right before you has a symbol carved into it: an eight-spoked carriage-wheel, with the spokes made of lightning-bolts.
  3806. > Thundershowers!
  3807. > Literally, thundershowers!
  3808. "This is the thunder-wheel symbol of Turrican, sometimes called Turrican Thunder-Wheel, or Turrican Cuibhle-Tàirneanaich. Turrican is one of the ancient pegasi pantheon of Gods who ride the skies in Llamrei's Chariot, as pulled by Epona. He's said to be responsible for throwing down lightning bolts during storms."
  3809. > Icepone taps a forehoof in the air.
  3810. > "And to the ancient pegasi, Turrican was the God of *fighting*. Beltane was the ancient festival in Turrican's honour, and as gruesome as it still can be today, it was probably a heck of a lot worse before the ancient unicorns created the Totems for us pegasi. That stone you're standing on predates Canterlot city, as does the site of these artillery proving grounds. The base of Canterlot mountain, the only thing for miles and miles around which physically connects the sky to the earth, just as Turrican's thunderbolts do, has been the site of pan-pegasic festivals for eons..."
  3811.  
  3812. > He points down at the weathered engraved stone.
  3813.  
  3814. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9RCmgiFUcI (Kenny Chou - 'Title Theme [Nightcreeper remix]', from 'One Must Fall: 2097')
  3815.  
  3816. > "... Rain pours and lightning crackles when Turrican's around. It's considered auspicious if it thundershowers on the day of the Grand Mêlée: it means Turrican is watching..."
  3817. > With a wide smile, Kilfeather stands up on his hind hooves, raising his forehooves to the sky.
  3818. > "... And what pleases Turrican, will please the judges of the Grand Mêlée, for this is Turrican's festival, and we still remember it as such! Winning counts for the most, yes, but you had better also fight with *honour* and with *style*! Honour means fighting as a team, and helping each other out! It means not picking on weak competitors, or ones already engaged by others, but instead challenging the strong and free! And while Turrican enjoys any fight, Turrican *especially* loves a good show! Be inventive, be energetic, be theatrical! March loudly during the entrance, show hot-blooded rage at the start of a fight, howl tragically when defeated, and, most of all, laugh and spit in the face of danger!"
  3819. > Raising his voice to a shout, he laughs maniacally.
  3820. > "... HAH! HAH-hahahahah-aaaaaa!!"
  3821. > Shockingly, he immediately inhales and hocks, then spits loudly and conspicuously on the ground, narrowly missing Turrican's thunder-wheel, before getting back down on all fours.
  3822. > Goodness, this is surprising behaviour for an officer of the Royal Guard.
  3823. > "... Please Turrican, and Turrican will shower you with glory! That is the will of the thunder-god of the pegasi!"
  3824. > Taking it down a notch, Icepone takes a moment to wipe his mouth on a forehoof.
  3825. > "... Or at least, that's what one of the old champions of the Tournament once told me, when I was younger. And it was at that moment I decided I wanted to fight in the Games, and *win*."
  3826. > It's an impressive performance.
  3827.  
  3828. > You look around; Glamerspear has dropped her semi-scowl in favour of an impressed, but questioning look.
  3829. > Ebonshield is grinning eagerly, and even Honour looks a little inspired.
  3830. > Sergeant 'Mirage' appears quietly pleased; you get the feeling she's heard this one before.
  3831. > Maybe even when he recruited her for this operation.
  3832. > Anonymous snorts, chuckling and applauding lightly.
  3833. > "Very good, 'Icepone'. It's a great speech; I feel motivated to win as well. So -- win fights as much as we can, comport ourselves honourably, and do so with panache. Those are the basics, but I'm sure you have details on what the judges are specifically looking for."
  3834. > The Lieutenant gives a semi-bow.
  3835. > "Yessir, I have plenty. Though I have to say, particularly with a relatively inexperienced and, let's say, 'unorthodox' gang like yours, you're going to want to play to the crowd. Anything that gets their attention, especially their cheers, is important. The judges will be paying attention to the spectators, too. There's more competitors on the field than there are judges watching everything, so being loud, large, and in charge helps. They can't score you if they're not even watching you, after all..."
  3836. > He lifts his eyebrows.
  3837. > "... Then again, I don't think your Lordship will have problems with volume. I might have been too far off to hear you when you gave targeting instructions to Specialist Glamerspear, but I sure got an earful about your voice from my wing-mates afterwards. I haven't seen you fight, but so long as you're at least halfway decent, you've got the lungs and the vocal cords to be a superstar."
  3838. > Anonymous laughs again.
  3839. > "Is that how you won, Lieutenant? By winning forty percent of the time while being louder than everybody else?"
  3840.  
  3841. > Icepone sits back on his haunches, shrugging his shoulders.
  3842. > "It works, believe me! We might not have been the loudest, but everypony on my team had a technique to get attention at the right moment. You can't just be hollering all the time, of course, but a good shout before you launch an attack can be worth more points than the attack itself..."
  3843. > He looks over at you.
  3844. > "... Specialist, you fought my second-in-command, 'Joker'. Believe it or not, he's actually a poor fighter. But he's got stamina, determination, originality, and good sky presence. That counts for a lot in the Grand Mêlée. Last year, he was our wildcard, the one to throw in against foes when regular tactics weren't working. He didn't actually win much more, but he made a real good show of it, and pulled in his share of points."
  3845. > Glamerspear scoffs.
  3846. > "C'mon, Val. She swatted your colt like a bug. Don't diminish her victory by claiming he's a 'poor fighter'. If he was a 'poor fighter' you wouldn't have him in your crew."
  3847. > The pegasus waves a featherless wing in dismissal, turning to you.
  3848. > "Okay, okay. He's not a poor fighter, but he's not one of my best, you know what I mean? I've got quite a few better, mostly among the enlisted. You actually threw him for a loop with your 'clash-of-storm-fronts' bit. We really weren't expecting anybody to come at us traditional-style. And your technique with the storm-cloud and the lightning-spear was, honestly, amazing. That's a podium-winning move in the Grand Mêlée right there."
  3849. > Oh, my!
  3850. > You feel yourself getting a bit flush in the cheeks from this praise.
  3851. > Icepone turns to the other members of your quaternion who fought at the Pas-de-Sabots.
  3852. > "... Corporal, I don't know if you intended to kick Duck in the family jewels-"
  3853. > "I didn't. Anywhere past the sternum would have done just as well."
  3854.  
  3855. > Val licks his lips, pausing before continuing.
  3856. > "Right. Well, a kill's a kill, as we say. Not too many points in the 'honour' category for that one, ironically, but you'd probably get some for style with that back-roll down the hill..."
  3857. > Then he turns to Glamerspear.
  3858. > "... Lily, I don't think I have to tell you that the unicorn judges would be floored by what you pulled off at Newstirrup Bridge. Top marks from them for sure. Top marks from the pegasi as well; grudging top marks, but top marks nonetheless. And you took me out of the fight, which is even better. But I hear you didn't do so well afterwards."
  3859. > "I manaburned myself pretty hard. The symptoms showed up the next day..."
  3860. > She grins.
  3861. > "... It was worth it to take you down a notch, though."
  3862. > Kilfeather is more amused than threatened.
  3863. > "Hey, if it's a day-later type thing, then feel free to go wild during the match. Just don't do anything that would take *you* out of the fight..."
  3864. > Then he turns up towards the Royal Engineer.
  3865. > "... Nopony gets *killed* during the Games, and nopony even gets what you'd call 'permanently injured' -- but they do get *hurt*, and out of the eight teams of six on the field -- that's forty-eight fighters -- at least a dozen will be laid up by the end of the day. Losing a soldier hurts more than you'd think, because it's not just less chances to win a fight, it means less chances to show off. The points add up."
  3866. > Anonymous furrows his brow.
  3867. > "Lieutenant, from the way you're describing things I get the idea that most fights are one-on-one. Is that right?"
  3868.  
  3869. > "More like two-on-two. A wing of six pegasi is really three pairs working closely together. One member of the pair selects a target and initiates attack. Their wingpony watches their tail, defending them from anypony else, and keeps an eye on the general situation. The judges will pay the most attention to the leading pony's attack, but they'll be watching to see how well the trailing pony defends them, and how well the leader reacts to any attackers that get through the cover. Conversely, if you go in on a pony who's already being attacked by others, you can get penalized for dishonourable fighting, even if you take them down. Unless it's your own team beating them up, of course. You're allowed to gang up that way."
  3870. > That makes sense.
  3871. > But those rules really only work for pegasi in the air, and you're not even sure if you could fight in tandem with Sergeant Ebonshield.
  3872. > You *had* been trained in that technique, but she hadn't, and there might not be enough time to get things down pat.
  3873. > After all, you really had to *trust* that your wingmare knew what she was doing when duelling in pairs.
  3874. > Then there's the question of the reason you're all here.
  3875. "How would those rules apply to the Whirlwind, with it having one 'attacker', Lily, a pilot, Honour, and a co-pilot or commander in the Royal Engineer?"
  3876. > For the first time this morning, the Lieutenant doesn't have an instant answer.
  3877. > "Yeah... That's the question. Is that how you plan to fight? Three of you in the armoured carriage like that? And the other three... in the air? We're talking about the sixth member of the wing again, now."
  3878. > Anonymous furrows his brow.
  3879. > "Someone could hang off the back, I suppose, but really we don't have enough room for a fourth actually *in* the carriage. I guess it does have to be someone who can fly. But then isn't three in the sky also awkward?"
  3880.  
  3881. > Ebonshield, still magically disguised as a pegasus, speaks up.
  3882. > "Great Lord, the Stellar Dancers do not fight like this, in pairs. I will be at my best working alone, picking off the weak and the isolated, and retreating to the carriage when confronted with force. This is a configuration quite typical for my Temple, and while it may not be seen as honourable, I assure you that I can perform it with the grace and the style. Perhaps therefore it does make sense for the sixth member to be another pegasus with whom the Specialist Sparkshower can form a team."
  3883. > Now it's Sergeant Greenhound's turn to spin a tornado on things.
  3884. > "The issue with that -- and I know this hurts my candidacy -- is that Specialist Sparkshower flies in *heavy armour*. Her wingmate should ideally be similarly armoured. But there's nopony in Canterlot who could serve; the 1st Air Division's armoured units are the Valkyries and the Royal Hussars, both of whom are our rivals in this fight. The Household Division has an armoured corps as well, but again they're in as competitors themselves. Which means we're out of luck unless one of you knows somepony who can get leave on short notice. Or, Sergeant--"
  3885. > She turns to the disguised batpony.
  3886. > "... Do any of your kind fight with heavy armour?"
  3887. > Ebonshield shakes her head.
  3888. > "No. Our chief advantage over pegasi is our superior manoeuvrability; as fighting Equestrians has always been our greatest concern, no school gives this up by encasing their soldiers in much armour."
  3889. > Kilfeather pipes up.
  3890. > "That means Mirage is likely as good as you're going to get. Which is pretty good, I may add -- I didn't pick her at random. But, my Lord, don't say you'll decide on Sunday. Give yourself another day and decide by Monday. The Gala's tomorrow, and I'm sure your Lordship will be occupied on the day after."
  3891. > Glamerspear snorts.
  3892. > "Why, because you think we'll all be completely hammered?"
  3893.  
  3894. > But Icepone doesn't miss a beat.
  3895. > "Won't you? The party goes all night, and the drinks and food along with it. Shame to waste any."
  3896. > Anonymous sighs.
  3897. > "Going by how we comported ourselves Tuesday night, I suppose treating Sunday as a recovery-day would be prudent."
  3898. > Mirage laughs, smiling.
  3899. > "And there's always stories out of the Grand Galloping Gala that good-looking single ponies wake up in bed to find they're not so single any more, either."
  3900. > That gets a faint chuckle out of everypony.
  3901. > Yeah...
  3902. > Waking up in the Royal Engineer's bed...
  3903. > Wouldn't that be a surprise...
  3904. > While your VIP mulls things over, Kilfeather summarizes.
  3905. > "Alright, so a pair of fliers working together, three of you in a vehicle with Lily as the primary damage output, and then the sixth as a surprise spoiler, using the Whirlwind vehicle as a mobile firebase. It's unorthodox -- Tartarus, the whole setup is unorthodox; almost nopony shows up to the Grand Mêlée with a combined-arms detachment, but it could work."
  3906. > Anonymous muses again, looking at Honour and Lily.
  3907. > "It seems as if fully embracing 'unorthodox' may be the best way for us to go..."
  3908. > Then he nods.
  3909. > "... Yes, I think this is how we'll do it. I'm not as fast on my feet as a pegasus, let alone the Whirlwind. I can serve as the vehicle commander, helping selecting targets and guiding the vehicle, while fending off anyone who comes too close for comfort. I might dismount temporarily to settle things on the ground, if needed, but I think for the most part we're going to want to be buttoned-up in these vehicle just as Artemis says..."
  3910. > Hearing him say your first name makes you feel all tingly inside.
  3911. > Like being wrapped up in silky sheets.
  3912. > You never really gave him *permission* to be on a first-name basis -- that was Lieutenant Kilfeather's admonition.
  3913. > It was forward, but it felt *good*.
  3914. > You felt *closer* to him.
  3915.  
  3916. > Realizing what he'd done, the Royal Engineer turns to you, embarrassed.
  3917. > "... I'm sorry, Specialist, is it all right if I use your first name? You can call me Anon in return, in these situations. Or perhaps you have a 'call sign' you'd prefer?"
  3918. > Ooh, hurricanes, the tingles get even tinglier.
  3919. > Your muzzle must look like a beet after Kilfeather's compliments and now this personal attention from your Very Important Pony.
  3920. > (Even if he isn't actually a pony.)
  3921. "Uhm... It's all right if you use my first name, sir. I don't have a 'call sign' -- they're not common in armoured recon. But my fillyhood nickname was 'Thunder', and some ponies I know still call me that."
  3922. > Kilfeather claps his forehooves together once.
  3923. > "An auspicious coincidence! Winged and armoured Thunder to praise Turrican the lightning-god, heh!"
  3924. > You go even redder, sinking a bit into your helmet from all this fussing over little ol' you.
  3925. > Glamerspear sidles up and throws a foreleg over you, giving you a friendly jostle.
  3926. > "Thunder! I *like* it, Sparks! But I'll stick with Lily, if you don't mind."
  3927. > Honour clears her through.
  3928. > "And I'm fine being called Honour. Us 'ground-pounder' ponies don't really go in for this 'call-sign' stuff. A name's just a name."
  3929. > Valiant 'Icepone' Kilfeather seems cheerfully offended by that statement.
  3930. > "Hey, don't discount the value of a good name, Corporal. Sometimes, it can be more than just a label; it can be something for you to hold *on* to. A call sign can be that thing if you don't care for the words your parents gave you..."
  3931. > With a laugh, he shrugs.
  3932. > "... I mean, take me for instance. My last name wasn't originally Kilfeather. I changed it when I decided to join the Royal Guard and go for the gold in the Grand Mêlée."
  3933. > Really?
  3934. > Even Glamerspear is surprised.
  3935. > "I didn't know that, Val."
  3936.  
  3937. > "There's a lot you don't know about me, Lil', after I blew my first chance with you. Maybe you'll find out the rest now that I've been given a second one."
  3938. > "Don't push it, 'Icepone'."
  3939. > Their little back-and-forth doesn't answer your question, though.
  3940. "Weren't your family upset when you changed your name?"
  3941. > He shakes his head.
  3942. > "No more upset than they were when they found out I was applying to the Royal Guard Academy."
  3943. > You remember your parents being concerned when you enlisted, but they were also happy for you -- they felt it was every pegasus' duty to serve at least a term in the Equestrian Royal Guard, just as you did, and just as you still do.
  3944. > But what kind of pegasus parents would be *upset* at their son joining the Royal Guard not merely as an enlisted, but as an officer?
  3945. > Seeing your confusion, Lieutenant Kilfeather continues.
  3946. > "... My family's got a history in academia. They're all researchers and professors. My father's got a chair at Manehattan University; he's head of the department of geography..."
  3947. > Valiant shrugs nonchalantly and lifts his jacket up to show you his flank.
  3948. > You get a look at his cutie mark for the first time: it's three pens pointing upright in a 'flying V' formation, piercing through three small rings arranged opposite.
  3949. > "... The name on my birth certificate is Valiant Quillfeather. Quill as in writing-quill, of course. They may say that the pen's mightier than the sword, but it's not exactly a name to strike terror into the hearts of your enemies. It was a small jump to call myself Kilfeather instead."
  3950. > Huh, interesting.
  3951. > But it seems that Sergeant Mirage can't resist an interjection.
  3952. > "You know, Ice, officers have to do a tremendous amount of paperwork, even combat officers, and it just gets worse as you rise in rank. Maybe your original name wasn't so wrong after all."
  3953. > Icepone smiles, cool as a cucumber.
  3954.  
  3955. > No wonder he got his call-sign; so far, the only time he's lost his cool is when the Royal Engineer told him he wanted nothing to do with him for the Grand Mêlée, unless he showed some respect.
  3956. > "Then maybe I'll change back to Quillfeather when I get to that point, Mirage, if I think it'll help. But right now, I'm Kilfeather, I'm a combat Lieutenant, and while I do have some paperwork waiting for me in my wing commander's office, it can keep waiting, because I want to win another Grand Mêlée..."
  3957. > He turns to the rest of you.
  3958. > "... So, let's walk and talk some more about the rules and regs. Mirage did some snooping around and found out that in about half an hour one of our fiercest competitors -- no less than the Valkyries themselves -- have booked this place for a practice session. That'll surely be an eyeful for Turrican Thunder-Wheel, and for us as well."
  3959.  
  3960. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAacW3CveL0 (Chris Huelsbeck - 'Stage 3-1', from 'Mega Turrican' [1994])
  3961.  
  3962.  
  3963.  
  3964.  
  3965. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TGKJ9MgCOQ (Academy of Ancient Music - 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba', from Handel's 'Solomon')
  3966.  
  3967. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and this is fun.
  3968. > Which is surprising, given that it was suggested by your downbeat, unamused, level-headed, plain-palomino Corporal Bound.
  3969. > Who'd have thought she'd be the one to find the perfect palace balcony to pony-watch the early arrivals to the Grand Galloping Gala?
  3970. > To see the dignitaries and nobleponies and general invitees in their fancy carriages pull up the main drive to disembark and slowly canter up to the palace gates and into the garden paddock from a perch that not only had a good view, but was close enough to your quarters, and most importantly was completely deserted?
  3971. "How'd you know about this place, Corporal?"
  3972. > Honour nods back towards the door behind you.
  3973. > "Looking through the index cards for material on the MXP Games in the palace library sent me here yesterday. I had to ask what the weird call number meant; apparently this is formerly a head servant's room which was at some point repurposed into an annex of the main archives when one of the newer palace wings was built."
  3974. > Sparkshower smiles, her visor creaking as she bobs her head up and down.
  3975. > "Oh, that explains the balcony! I was wondering why a storage room full of bookshelves needed one."
  3976. > That fact cleared up, the three of you resume pony-watching.
  3977. > It's Saturday, it's just after three o'clock, and the three of you will be heading to the Gala in a couple of hours, when it's more fashionable.
  3978. > Which means you really shouldn't be wearing your duty armour, as you presently are.
  3979. > But since there's only *one* washroom for the *four* of you, that kind of creates a bottleneck.
  3980. > So, as the Royal Engineer had already given you all the afternoon off to get ready, Honour proposed setting set up a little queue.
  3981.  
  3982. > One pony in the quarters working on her mane, tail, makeup, outfit, and whatever else.
  3983. > The other three out on the balcony of a room conveniently located just at the end of the hall and up a single flight of stairs from your quarters, entertaining yourselves by watching the early arrivals and staying helpfully out of the way from the one getting ready.
  3984. > She also said that since seniority rules, that meant Sergeant Ebonshield got dressed first.
  3985. > You shake your head as another carriage rolls up and disgorges a quartet of gala-goers in traditional outfits.
  3986. "Why do they come so early? I mean, the palace is nice and all, and so's the garden, but what's the point of showing up two hours before things really get started? Her Majesty's won't be there to receive them for another hour, and there's still servants setting up decorations and flowers, and there's just hardly anypony else around."
  3987. > "Yes, and the hors d'oeuvres aren't even being served."
  3988. > You swear you can hear the angry growl of an empty stomach reverberate from within Sparkshower's bronze plate after she speaks.
  3989. > But the Corporal points a forehoof.
  3990. > "You're the one with the fancy helmet, Glam. Zoom and enhance on the arrivals, their ride, and their porters. See all the mud on the wheels and underside? They wouldn't have gotten that coming from inside the city. These are guests who, for whatever reason, didn't stay in Canterlot last night. Some of them may not even be staying in the city tonight, either..."
  3991. > Tapping the side of your helmet, you lower your zoom lens in place.
  3992. > You confirm that she's right even as she continues.
  3993. > "... Not everypony can find or afford a place to stay on such a busy weekend. Many nobleponies with manors in the countryside keep an apartment in the city, but many more don't, and high-quality hotels fill up, even with higher special-event rates. Traditionally, the Gala doors open two hours early for an afternoon tea service."
  3994.  
  3995. > The hungry burble repeats itself from within the armoured enclosure.
  3996. > "So there *is* food down there?"
  3997. > The poor mare was so worried about fitting into her dress tonight that she practically starved herself at lunch; she barely finished her third helping.
  3998. "Come on, Sparks. You can last a couple more hours. It's not like we've got to go for a hike in full armour this afternoon. You can stuff yourself after we've arrived."
  3999. > She inhales.
  4000. > "No. Not until after the Lipizzaner Waltz. It's supposed to be an elegant dance; I wouldn't want to feel bloated."
  4001. > You narrow your eyes.
  4002. "You're worried? You've practiced it every day this week, it feels like. Anon's got the moves down pat, doesn't he?"
  4003. > The pegasus shrugs, turning to you with a smile.
  4004. > "It's just nerves. He knows the moves, and so do I. But they'll be taking photos, and I wouldn't want to embarrass myself."
  4005. > Honour chimes in.
  4006. > "You'll be fine. Come on, here's another carriage pulling up. Take a look at the outfits."
  4007. > "Oh, that's a pretty dress. And look at how she's done her mane! It's all up high!"
  4008. "Myehh... I guess it works. Kinda old-fashioned."
  4009. > The Corporal whinnies.
  4010. > "The *other* kind of pony that shows up for afternoon tea at the Gala is the kind that isn't planning to stay too late, because they'd be worried about falling asleep. Look over the garden, it's mostly senior citizens. They're here to have some tea, greet the Princess of the Sun, have a few drinks hobnobbing with the other gentry, eat a nice dinner, watch the young bucks and does dance the waltz, slow-dance with their partner once or twice, and then head out as soon as the chamber orchestra retires in favour of a DJ and the grand ballroom switches from Rococo to Disco."
  4011. > As you scan the tea-garden, you confirm her statement.
  4012. > It really is mostly old ponies.
  4013. > Well-dressed old ponies holding themselves as finely as they can, but still: mostly old ponies.
  4014.  
  4015. "For somepony reserved, you seem to know an awful lot about the Gala, Corporal."
  4016. > "I was there last year..."
  4017. > That shocking revelation gets an instant head-turn from both you and Sparkshower.
  4018. > But Honour hoof-waves off your excitement.
  4019. > "... As a *bodyguard*. It was my first VIP assignment, a foreign dignitary staying here in the palace. I only got to be in the Gala guards' room, not the main party area. We still had a good time, though. Good food, comfortable seating, decent DJ, and our own little dance floor. The drinks don't flow quite so freely there -- they don't want anypony's escort leaving completely hammered, but the bartenders let you get pretty buzzed."
  4020. > Huh.
  4021. > Is that why she didn't jockey to get assigned to the Royal Engineer on the night of the Gala, as you did before he invited you to come as his full guests, instead of his bodyguards?
  4022. > Because she'd already been?
  4023. > Seems like she really had gone everywhere and done everything.
  4024. > Except the Moon, heh.
  4025. > You gotta get this mare up there; maybe she'll actually be excited for once.
  4026. > Sparkshower pipes up with a poignant question.
  4027. > "Was this the same assignment you had during the Changeling invasion?"
  4028. > "Yes. That was only three weeks after the Gala."
  4029. "So, then it wasn't *because* of the invasion that you got to go to the big party."
  4030. > "No, I got to go because I was that VIP's only escort. He was a young noble from a minor house in a region bordering the Crystal Empire, here to represent his family in fealty to Equestria. He wasn't on the wedding invite list; when the Changelings hit, I hustled him into his bathroom and barricaded him inside, fending off a group of three attackers before things got under control."
  4031. > Nice.
  4032. "Since you saved his plot from Changelings, I bet you have an open invitation to go up North and enjoy his family's hospitality, then."
  4033. > She nods tellingly.
  4034. > There was more to that incident than she's letting on.
  4035.  
  4036. > "Yeah, I do. I understand his family has done very well since the Crystal Empire showed up again. Not sure if or when I'll go. We don't get a lot of free time in this job."
  4037. > A young noblecolt?
  4038. > Heroic young guardsmare saving him from hideous bug monsters?
  4039. > Slaying them before his eyes -- well, no, not that.
  4040. > But you bet she didn't tidy up the corpses before he got out.
  4041. > Yeah, she might see herself as boring and brown, but in an action like that, you bet she made an impression.
  4042. > You've seen her spar with the Royal Engineer, after all.
  4043. > You smirk, secure in your computation that some further conspiracy *must* have happened.
  4044. > Sparkshower eagerly asks another question.
  4045. > "They must have given you a medal for that, Corporal?"
  4046. > But Honour just gives a one-word answer.
  4047. > "Yes."
  4048. > Oh, come *on*, mare.
  4049. "And?"
  4050. > With a sigh, she spills the details.
  4051. > "I got the Silver Star. It's not a big deal -- hundreds of other soldiers stationed in Canterlot got it that day as well."
  4052. > Not a big deal!
  4053. > Yeah, okay, it's no Silver Ram, but even Silver Stars don't just grow on trees.
  4054. > You shake your head, chuckling.
  4055. "Come on, Corporal. Down three Changelings, solo and taken by surprise in the palace? I'll own up to being a braggart, but you better own up to selling yourself way too short! And now that I think about it, Lieutenant Violetta never mentioned your Silver Star when introducing us all to the Royal Engineer! No wonder she didn't blink at my request to conceal my Silver Ram. You'd already asked for your own award to be hushed up..."
  4056. > Leaning on the guardrail, you pour on the ribbing.
  4057. "... And I bet that young crystal colt was *all* aflutter about his bloodied brown saviour. I bet you've got more than just an open invitation to go up there. I bet you've got a noblecolt up in the mountains pining for a certain someone to be Northern Bound, heh. And I bet you have a ton more juicy details you could be spilling about this incident while we're up here on a balcony gossipping like a gaggle of hens."
  4058.  
  4059. > She rolls her eyes.
  4060. > "You know, I suggested that we come up here and watch the arrivals instead of all hanging out in our quarters exactly so that we *wouldn't* wind up doing this."
  4061. > Just then there's an answer from inside the room behind you.
  4062. > "And we are doing what, exactly, Caporal?"
  4063. > You all turn around to face the voice.
  4064. > It's Sergeant Ebonshield, but she's as you've never seen her before.
  4065. > Her appearance even gets a double eyebrow raise out of the Corporal.
  4066. > Your slim and athletic dark-purple batpony comrade, whom you've only ever seen wear a black bodysuit or a black cape, is now wearing a dress of crimson red which stands out in the darkened room and brightens up further when she steps out onto the balcony.
  4067. > But it's not just any old red dress.
  4068. > The cut in the back is fashionably modern and short, reaching just above the hocks, yet it's what's going on up front that's really shocking.
  4069. > The red covers her barrel all the way up to her neck, with a wide, shiny black belt to emphasize her trim waist, but then there's a large shawl of the same fabric positioned triangularly over her head and draping down her shoulders so far that it reaches her front knees and extending just far enough back across her back as to just conceal her bat-wings, provided they stay folded.
  4070. > That's pretty avantgarde, and what makes it even more so are her accessories.
  4071. > She's wearing four boots, just as black and as shiny as her belt, and they go far up enough as to disappear under the dress in the back and the bottom of the shawl in the front.
  4072. > On her head she's wearing what looks to be like a tall smoking cap, made of a shiny fabric and with an enormous black tassel dangling down on one side nearly as far as the triangular red shawl, with the red carnation Sparkshower picked up from the market pinned on the other side of the peak.
  4073. > All of her mane is tucked under cap or shawl, though her tail still protrudes normally.
  4074.  
  4075. > She's accented her eyes with thick mascara and a light purple eyeshadow, exotically applied, as well as expressing her mouth with a dab of red lipstick.
  4076. > For any pony, but particularly for one with a dark coat, it's a stunning look, more akin to a superstar pop diva than any kind of guard or noble.
  4077. > She'll stand out in the crowd like a beacon -- but that's the *point* of a Grand Galloping Gala dress, and you have to just sit back and applaud the boldness of the outfit and the tidiness of its execution.
  4078. > Even Honour recognizes what's before her.
  4079. > "Damn."
  4080. > Sparkshower's so shocked, she's stuck in breathless-whisper mode.
  4081. > "Wow."
  4082. > Since your comrades are struck speechless, you summarize for them.
  4083. "You look amazing, Sergeant."
  4084. > Ebonshield takes the compliments in stride.
  4085. > "Thank you. Now that I am finished, I believe by order of seniority that you must be next, Caporal?"
  4086. > Honour shakes her head.
  4087. > "Save me for last. I don't want to stay in that dress with my plot hanging out any longer than I have to. Sparkshower, you go. You've got all that armour to take off anyways."
  4088. > The pegasus begins a generous protest.
  4089. > "Are you su-"
  4090. > But the Corporal's in no mood.
  4091. > "Go on, get!"
  4092.  
  4093. Suggested reading: www.007.com/focus-week-may-day/ (007.com "Focus Of The Week: May Day. *A View To A Kill*'s stylish killer")
  4094.  
  4095. > You are now the Sergeant Purity Ebonshield, and you are pleased that your dress has been received so well by your comrades.
  4096. > The occasions on which you have had to wear the clothing 'elegant' have been few and far between.
  4097. > So much so that when the Engineer Royal took you all out for dinner and drinks on Tuesday, you had nothing to wear besides your black bodysuit; little more than an undergarment.
  4098. > Which was not unsuccessful, given the attention paid to you in the club by several young colts, but still -- your comrades were much more finely dressed, with their 'uniforms of service' from the Equestrian Guardia Real.
  4099.  
  4100. > You are looking forward to seeing what they have chosen to wear to the Gala.
  4101. > Whereas you had put yourself at the mercy of what the Rock-phase in the Rookery thought of fashion, the three of them were able to rely upon the extensive costuming selection offered in the city of Canterlot.
  4102. > Perhaps you could have, as well.
  4103. > But part of you was worried that the colours would not go well -- since the Equestrian ponies are so much lighter than your kin.
  4104. > And part of you was also prideful and wishing to show that the Children of the Stars were not all daggers and murder and dark tunnels and scheming mothers.
  4105. > You thought the Rocks of the Cloth had done a job most excellent in producing this unique dress; there was great gratification in finding out that the others thought so as well.
  4106. > And the Engineer Royal, what would he think of your dress of red and your boots and fez of black?
  4107. > Would he be as shocked and happy as he was to see the daggers of plain steel?
  4108. > That mystery remained to be uncovered, as did his choice of lapel flower, a question which the Specialist Sparkshower raised this morning, only to be asked to procure for him one rosette each of pink, red, white, and blue
  4109. > He said he would make his decision which to wear later in the day, which had sent your comrades into a titter of the speculation as to what such a statement could mean.
  4110. > But all that seems to have been forgotten after a meal and a short sleep.
  4111. "Well. This is a view most pleasant. I hope that everyone is as refreshed from the siesta -- the rest after lunch -- as I am."
  4112. > The Specialist Glamerspear shrugs.
  4113. > "Sure. Who doesn't like a good afternoon nap. More energy to party into the night, I say. Good thinking of our VIP to suggest it."
  4114. > But the Corporal Bound furrows her brow.
  4115. > "He actually called it a 'siesta' when he suggested it, didn't he? Sergeant, have you been teaching him the batpony language?"
  4116.  
  4117. > Ah, she noticed this as well.
  4118. "No, I have not. I was surprised also when he used this word. I do not recall it being spoken in the Grand Hall of Stars. Perhaps Carmen or some other Lunar used it in the Sanctuary Lunar?"
  4119. > She shakes her head.
  4120. > "No, they spoke perfect Equestrian to us the whole time. If you haven't been teaching him vocabulary, I can't imagine where he picked it up. Siesta just means rest?"
  4121. "Siesta is a nap taken in the afternoon. Curious that he should know this word; a mystery for later. Perhaps we will have some time to talk of such things during the Gala tonight."
  4122. > Honour scoffs.
  4123. > "Maybe at dinner. Once the dance floor opens up the music gets pretty loud. If you thought it was hard to have a conversation in the nightclubs we went to on Tuesday, brace yourself for a new definition of loud tonight. Every amplifier and speaker in Canterlot gets hooked up to blow the roof up off Their Majesties' Royal Ballroom."
  4124. > Interesting.
  4125. > How does she know this?
  4126. > As if to answer your question, the Specialist Glamerspear leans over around her to address you.
  4127. > "Our Corporal here attended the Gala last year, y'see, Sergeant. Just in the guards' little separate paddock, but I guess they could hear what was going on in the main room."
  4128. > "Yeah. It got to the point where our DJ just had to play whatever the main room was playing, even halfway across the main building, because otherwise we'd get confused from hearing both..."
  4129. > Perhaps a set of earplugs would be a useful accessory.
  4130. > "... But maybe they'll tone it down this year. I gather they were trying something a bit fresh last time to change things up, and maybe the experiment went too far. Even the tabloids complained afterwards the volume was ridiculous."
  4131. > "Sounds like somepony in charge wanted to make a statement, y'know, put their hoofstamp on things. Or maybe the DJ just ran away with the volume knob."
  4132. > "Maybe. Whatever."
  4133.  
  4134. > Strange, she sounds almost unhappy to be attending this magnificent event annual?
  4135. > The Caporal was more enthusiastic about going to the nightclubs ordinary with the Engineer Royal.
  4136. "Corporal, are you not excited to wear the clothing elegant, eat the foods delicious, and meet the ponies extraordinary tonight?"
  4137. > Honour turns slowly to you, a pained expression on her face.
  4138. > "At the Gala? Sure, it's a fun party. I just don't see it being some kind of once-in-a-lifetime event."
  4139. > Glamerspear whinnies.
  4140. > "Why, 'cause you've already been? Being caged up with a bunch of guards doesn't count! We'll be free-roam! Wander the garden, greet the Princesses, hang out with the upper crust!"
  4141. > The brown pony laughs.
  4142. > "Glamerspear, we jog around the garden all the time now with the Royal Engineer. We greeted the Princesses last weekend when they watched us demo the Whirlwind; I even spoke to Her Majesty with just the Royal Engineer and Princess Luna present. And aren't you always 'hanging out' with the upper crust at the Officers' Club? What's going to happen at the Gala that we haven't done in the last three weeks?"
  4143. > Unable to rebut her arguments, the pink unicorn scoffs and turns back towards the gardens and the arrivals, muttering under her breath.
  4144. > "You could get *laid*."
  4145. > That was inconsiderate.
  4146. > Honour does not reply, and this is perhaps more effective in scolding the Specialist Glamerspear than any retort she could deliver.
  4147. > "... I'm sorry, Corporal. That was mean. I shouldn't have said that. I've just..."
  4148. > The young unicorn sighs.
  4149. > "... Look, I don't wanna info-dump my problems, but something happened on Thursday and long story short, I'm through with Captain Mailedhoof and with being a saltine and I'm actually really looking forward to just going to a party without hanging off of someone else's foreleg *working* to look pretty, y'know?"
  4150. > That pronouncement prompts a look of concern from both the Caporal and yourself.
  4151.  
  4152. > There was displeasure in learning that a tragedy has befallen a comrade and a friend.
  4153. > Honour looks over her subordinate, as if inspecting for wounds.
  4154. > "Did he-"
  4155. > "We don't need to talk about it. Believe me. It was nothing permanent or... y'know, physical in the way you're probably thinking. Every action he did was within the bounds of what could be considered acceptable for a saltine-and-salt-lick relationship. It was just the way he did it; his attitude and what he said."
  4156. > There is a long pause while both you and the Caporal wait for anything more.
  4157. > However, the unicorn remains silent.
  4158. > Honour puts a reassuring forehoof on the shoulder of Glamerspear.
  4159. > "All right. If you need to talk, I'm here for you. And look, I am actually happy we're going to the Gala. I've just got some problems of my own I'm dealing with. Actually I'd kinda hoped that the Royal Engineer would've asked us to show up early like these ponies we're watching now."
  4160. > Glamerspear scrunches up her muzzle.
  4161. > "What? Why? I thought you said these were old fogeys coming from out-of-town. We're all young and we literally just have to walk outside to get to the Gala entrance doors."
  4162. > The earth pony sighs.
  4163. > "There's somepony attending that I really don't want to meet. The porters announce every guest as they walk in; the earlier we go, the less likely this certain somepony is going to already be there to hear my name get called."
  4164. > "This have anything to do with that Sergeant Castlerook colt? He's going to be on duty tonight, isn't he?"
  4165. > "Yes, he's on duty, but no, this doesn't have anything to do with him."
  4166. > How unfortunate that both of them have reasons to feel upset.
  4167. > You decide to lighten the mood.
  4168. "Do not worry, Corporal. If this somepony tries to assault you at the entrance, then your comrades and I will surely hold them off while you make your escape. And as for you, Specialista..."
  4169.  
  4170. > Leaning over and around Honour, you grin playfully at the unicorn.
  4171. "... If this Capitan Mailedhoof troubles you further, the services of my Temple are available to you at a discount substantial, on account of friendship."
  4172. > Glamerspear smiles back.
  4173. > "Heh, I'll let ya know, Sarge. I'm a little more over everything now two days later, especially having given some thought to where I want to go next, but y'know, I might've taken you up on your offer if we'd run into each other right after the event. And Mailedhoof *is* attending the Gala -- I'll point him out to you just in case."
  4174. "Of course. My blades are always at your service."
  4175. > Just then there is a cry pleading from behind you.
  4176. > "Oh no, why are we now talking about *blades* on a beautiful day like this?"
  4177. > The three of you turn to behold the Specialist Sparkshower, who in spite of being gone for what has seemed like hardly any time at all is nonetheless dressed for the Gala.
  4178. > This fact is shocking to the Caporal.
  4179. > "Sparkshower, how in Tartarus did you yank off all that armour and get ready so fast? You weren't even gone half an hour."
  4180. > The young pegasus shrugs as she steps out on the balcony to join you.
  4181. > You are sure if you can be an honest judge of the fashion Equestrian, but her outfit strikes you as perfectly matched for a pleasant spring day.
  4182. > She wears a blush-pink dress, conservatively long in the rear, made of tulle and lace, with pretty white shoes and a small white saddle-purse to match.
  4183. > "I dunno, Corporal. I guess I'm just really excited to go to the Gala! And I didn't really need to do much with my mane since I already fluffed it this morning, and this dress fits like a glove -- thanks again, Glamerspear. So I'm all set! Who's next?"
  4184. > Caporal Bound shoves Specialist Glamerspear towards the door, who protests the action.
  4185. > "Okay, okay, Corporal! I'm going! And I bet you want me to take my time, too, huh?"
  4186.  
  4187. > "That's right. The Royal Engineer said we'll head in at quarter after five. I don't want to see you out here until it's at least four-thirty."
  4188. > "Fine! I'll even take the time to trim my bangs."
  4189.  
  4190.  
  4191. > You are now Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and it sure is a lot chillier up here on this balcony in your light dress than it was in your bronze armour!
  4192. > This wind really cuts through tulle.
  4193. > Maybe you need an accessory like Sergeant Ebonshield's comfy-looking red headscarf.
  4194. > But then again, you probably won't be doing much hanging around on third-storey balconies during the Gala.
  4195. "So, did I miss anypony important?"
  4196. > Honour just sighs.
  4197. > "I don't know. We've barely been paying attention to the arrivals. Did you know Sparkshower had some explosion with Mailedhoof on Thursday? You two went to the Moon together that night, didn't you?"
  4198. > Explosion?
  4199. "We did go to the Moon together, but she didn't say anything about Mailedhoof. What happened?"
  4200. > "She wouldn't say. You two seem pretty close; maybe she'll confide in you later."
  4201. "Maybe."
  4202. > What could have happened?
  4203. > Lily said she'd felt sick when you saw her, but otherwise she seemed fine.
  4204. > Upbeat, even.
  4205. > Ebonshield leans over, her tall black fez flopping sideways.
  4206. > "And then there is also the matter that Caporal Bound expects somepony to be at the Gala whom she does not wish to encounter."
  4207. "Oh, no! Who should we watch out for, Corporal? I can find and engage the target and Lily can help me suppress them. It'll be just like we're in the field!"
  4208. > The Sergeant grins.
  4209. > "And perhaps I could lose a dagger in just the wrong neck while this is all going on?"
  4210. > Honour rolls her eyes.
  4211. > "For Celestia's sakes. We don't need to ATTACK him."
  4212. > Immediately, the batpony's grin grows wider.
  4213. > "¡Ay! So this somepony the Caporal fears is a *colt*? Somepony from the past, I think?"
  4214. > Your senior NCO scowls at the crimson-attired purple batpony.
  4215. > "You're as rotten as Glamerspear, Sergeant."
  4216.  
  4217. > Wait, are you trying to help the Corporal or are you trying to tease her?
  4218. > It seems like Purity is aiming for both.
  4219. > "... Look, just... Let's keep our entrance low-key, okay? And if we're together in a group and I duck out without saying a word, you'll know why."
  4220. > Eb sits back, satisfied.
  4221. > "Bueno. But now I am most eager to see the Caporal Bound in the red dress which exposes the plot and in which she does not wish to be seen by this colt mysterious. And especially since she there is another colt about whom she is fond who will be present at this Grand Galloping Gala..."
  4222. > Nonchalantly, the batpony flexes her wings and adjusts her shawl.
  4223. > "... I wonder if this other colt will enjoy seeing his beautiful Caporal in her elegant dress which I am told brings out the dark brilliance of her eyes and emphasizes the sensual fullness of her hips."
  4224. > Wow, it does?!
  4225. > Honour scrunches her muzzle something fierce.
  4226. > "Nopony told you that load of nonsense."
  4227. > "True, but having not seen the outfit particular I am simply being the poetic. Another technique of the Temple of the Shining Stellar Dancers, by the way."
  4228. > Corporal Bound whinnies.
  4229. > "Poetry and gymnastics and esoteric philosophy; never mind assassinations, you really should open up a second-floor studio in Manehattan. You could make killing telling officeponies how to rebalance their lives."
  4230. > She's being sarcastic, but surely she doesn't think her dress isn't pretty, does she?
  4231. > Not that you've seen it -- but Glamerspear helped you pick *yours* out, and it's beautiful, and so is *hers*, so surely Honour's must be great, too!
  4232. > And didn't they bring the Royal Engineer along to help pick a dress as well?
  4233. "The Royal Engineer was with you when you went shopping with Lily, wasn't he? Did he have anything to say about it during your test fitting?"
  4234. > You see patches of red start to form on her brown cheeks.
  4235. > "He said..."
  4236.  
  4237. > She swallows.
  4238. > "... He said I looked good in it. That it complemented my colours. And that it made me look ready for dancing."
  4239. > There you go!
  4240. "And I'm sure Lily wouldn't have suggested it for you if you didn't look great in it. After all, she did a good job helping me find my dress, didn't she?"
  4241. > Both the Sergeant and the Corporal turn to you, the Sergeant speaking first.
  4242. > "Specialist, in that dress, you are the embodiment living of the colours of spring."
  4243. > Honour nods.
  4244. > "Yes, it's very pretty on you. You look fit to be attending a wedding."
  4245. > Hurricanes!
  4246. > Surely she doesn't mean as the *bride*.
  4247. > "... I mean as a flower-mare or bridesmaid."
  4248. > Oh, good.
  4249. > You smile warmly.
  4250. "So if you're so uncomfortable with the idea of wearing it, Corporal, maybe you ought to head back to our quarters and put it on now? That'll give you time to get accustomed to it before we're in the crowd!"
  4251. > Honour looks up at you begrudgingly, almost ashamedly.
  4252. > Finally, she nods and sighs.
  4253. > "All right. If Glam's cutting her hair then she's probably doing it in her chair rather than the bathroom. It's almost four o'clock now; you can see some ponies heading inside to greet the Princesses. I guess at this point you two might as well go downstairs and see how the Royal Engineer's getting on. Glam and I will join you when we're done, and then we can head out whenever our VIP wants to."
  4254. > Yay!
  4255. > This is going to be fun!
  4256. > Only an hour or so to go until you all get your chance to shine!
  4257.  
  4258. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TWrWkiW7iE (Booty Luv - 'Shine')
  4259.  
  4260.  
  4261.  
  4262.  
  4263. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you can't believe you're wearing this.
  4264. > Turning around, you look over your shoulder at your reflection in the bathroom mirror.
  4265. > How did Glamerspear talk you into this dress?
  4266. > What little of the lacy red fabric there is scarcely reaches the top of your hind legs.
  4267. > Squirming, you give the bodice another tug down to try to make yourself decent.
  4268. > It doesn't really work, and worse, pulling it down made your tuft sprout even further out.
  4269. > Damn that unicorn!
  4270. > This tube-sock is a size too small, you're sure of it -- despite the fact that your though your barrel fits neatly inside.
  4271. > And it's not like you ever took 'long' or 'wide' sizes before.
  4272. > No, you were just an average earth pony, size 6.
  4273. > Same as it said on the label before you put this thing on.
  4274. > At least Glamerspear's suggestion about the panties seemed to work.
  4275. > Beige didn't match your coat, but it perfectly blended in with the dress' translucent backing material, and with the red lace on top the difference between the pantied and non-pantied parts of your body were imperceptible even in the bright bathroom lights.
  4276. > Nopony would be able to tell that you were wearing them to protect your modesty.
  4277. > Unless you started dancing, you supposed.
  4278. > Not likely.
  4279. > That thought lingers in your head a moment, and then on a whim you shake your plot at the mirror.
  4280. > The loose pleats of sequined red lace bounce and flap playfully, along with your braided brown tail.
  4281. > You catch the barest glimpse of beige and pause to frown at your reflection.
  4282. > Well...
  4283. > It *is* just underwear.
  4284. > You're wearing it *under* clothing, and it's not out on display unless you really act up.
  4285. > At the nightclubs on Tuesday with the Royal Engineer and the rest of the quaternion, plenty of the mares, and even a few of the colts, were wearing more scandalous outfits.
  4286.  
  4287. > But this was the Grand Galloping Gala at Canterlot Palace, not Mares' Night in a smoky basement room!
  4288. > And you weren't a dance-hall whorse looking to grind up against colts for free drinks.
  4289. > Out of frustration and indecision, you actually bend your knees and give your rump a proper bump up in the air.
  4290. > You see nothing but panty.
  4291. > That redoubles your frown, but it's too late to back out now.
  4292. > Anyways, you won't have anypony to dance with, so you won't be dancing, so you won't be bouncing, so nopony will see anything.
  4293. > That decided, you turn forwards again and reach over to the door-hook to grab the matching red shawl.
  4294. > It's trimmed with big red fake fur that's so puffy it could be made of ostrich feathers, and when you slip it on and wrap it up properly to cover everything, you actually feel *more* ridiculous than you did before.
  4295. > How'd you let Glamerspear talk you into *this* one as well?!
  4296. > The shawl was supposed to help you feel modest, not make you stand out even more!
  4297. > You'd almost prefer the dress with the plot-and-tuft-hanging-out than looking like you were completely naked under a slinky velvet wrap!
  4298. > That was worse than just showing up wearing nothing at all!
  4299. > The fault wasn't the fabric or the trim, really.
  4300. > It's just that the shawl was big enough and the dress small enough that one covered the other completely and utterly.
  4301. > You felt like you were supposed to be showing up at some colt's apartment door only to strut in and pull the shawl off in a slinky display.
  4302. > Probably with a casual 'hey, big foal' and pointed glance at his package, followed by mounting a dance pole for a rousing show.
  4303. > Okay, Honour, take it easy.
  4304. > Gala dresses are supposed to be a bit outrageous.
  4305. > And, next to the batpony in her red scarf-shawl and tall black fez, you would just be a brown-and-red fuzz-ball.
  4306. > If you didn't feel like keeping the shawl on, you could check it at the door.
  4307.  
  4308. > Or you could take it to your dinner table and toss it over the back of your chair.
  4309. > You were just going to have to cope with feeling a bit silly walking around the Canterlot Palace hallways looking like a strippergram courier.
  4310. > As long as you had at least one of the other guardsmares beside you, you think you could bear it.
  4311. > Or the Royal Engineer, too -- provided he wasn't embarrassed to be seen alone with you.
  4312. > Well, his compliments contributed to you buying the dress, though you're certain Glamerspear coached him in what to say.
  4313. > With a final look in the mirror to make sure your makeup was in order -- nothing fancy, just a little touching-up around the eyes to match the glamour of the occasion -- you give your dour reflection a final sigh.
  4314. > Smile, Honour.
  4315. > Attending the Gala was a great privilege and it was supposed to be a great party.
  4316. > And you knew from having attended the sideshow previously that all the stops were pulled out.
  4317. > In this ridiculous, scandalous, tantalizing dress, you could mope disinterestedly sipping gin-and-tonics all you wanted, just like last year.
  4318. > If that was all you wanted.
  4319. > You wondered if Castlerook would be on duty in the palace proper...
  4320. > They wouldn't need his unit down at the docks during the party itself, not when all those rowdy sailors from the lucky hundredth-anniversary-celebration merchant-marine ships were up at the Gala.
  4321. > His guardsponies instead be needed in the Palace to maintain order until the crowds started filtering out.
  4322. > Maybe he could spare you a moment sometime during the evening...
  4323. > Just then you remember that one particular sailor from one particular ship would be in attendance, and a shiver runs down your spine.
  4324. > Leeward.
  4325. > You had better get going so that the five of you could arrive and you could camouflage yourself in a corner before *he* showed up.
  4326. > Taking a deep breath, you pull open the bathroom door and step out.
  4327.  
  4328. > Glamerspear was in the common room, double-checking her makeup in a small mirror hanging under the wall-clock.
  4329. > When she hears you emerge, she turns around and, in an exaggerated motion, comes to attention.
  4330. > "At ease!"
  4331. > Not this again.
  4332. "Carry on."
  4333. > As soon as you speak the magic words, the unicorn breaks out into a big grin.
  4334. > "Well, *some*corporal looks ready to bring all the colts to the yard! Come on, let's peek under the wrap!"
  4335. > With a sigh and an irritated pout, you sit back and spread your forelegs to unfold the shawl.
  4336. > "... Very nice. You're ready click hooves on the dance floor all right!"
  4337. > Then she rolls her shoulders and quickly adjusts herself to be in just the right 'vogue' position.
  4338. > "... And what do we think here, huh?"
  4339. > You can't help but notice first and foremost that Glamerspear has selected a *longer*-cut dress than you; while yours scarcely covers your rear end, hers reaches down to just above her knees.
  4340. > And you already knew that Ebonshield and Sparkshower also had longer cuts, too.
  4341. > Eb's getup may have been avantgarde, but how in Equestria did *you* wind up with the most risqué of all the fashion choices?
  4342. > Taking your mind off of your own outfit, you give the expectant Specialist a moments of scrutiny.
  4343. > There wasn't much you could really say; it was a high-priced Louis Valise dress, and it looked it.
  4344. > The pleated sheer fabric and black inner bodice were an elegant and provocative complement to her pink coat and teal-cyan mane, while the black-strapped 'gladiator' sandals with their shiny studs emphasized her legs.
  4345. > You honestly couldn't imagine a better look for her; not that you were any kind of fashion designer, but still.
  4346. > It was true what Cosmoponitan asserted: the little black dress was still a mare's best friend.
  4347. > And somehow, her Silver Ram -- which she's mounted on a black ribbon, instead of the normal blue-and-white -- was the perfect accessory for it, too.
  4348.  
  4349. "I honestly can't think of how you could have done any better."
  4350. > She scoffs amusedly.
  4351. > "I can, but you're right -- I'm as good as any colt's gonna get..."
  4352. > Lifting an eyebrow, she tilts her head and looks around you at your tail.
  4353. > "... So you decided to stick with the braids? I'm not complaining, but I was kinda looking forward to maybe a new 'do, ya know?"
  4354. > Your braids were your braids, and as close as all of you had become, you didn't feel the need to explain your mane and tail choices to her.
  4355. > Not right now, anyways.
  4356. "Just braids."
  4357. > Glamerspear leans back like she's worried she's touched a nerve.
  4358. > She hasn't, not really.
  4359. > "Okay, sure. Ready to go downstairs?"
  4360. > You weren't.
  4361. "Yeah, let's go."
  4362. > Her horn lights up as she telekinetically opens the door, and both of you head out into the hallway.
  4363. > Without a care to anypony who might see you, you walk to the staircase, down to the ground floor, and over to the large double doors to the Royal Engineer's room.
  4364. > He'd better be ready -- you don't want a repeat of Friday morning's foalish fiasco.
  4365. > Not bothering to knock, you depress the handle and push in.
  4366. > Ebonshield and Sparkshower are both sitting in the living-room area on the sofa, and across from them in the club chair is your Very Important Pony who is very much not a pony.
  4367. > Everypony turns to look at you and Glamerspear, and one of you, at least, relishes the attention.
  4368. > "All right, fillies and foals! Are we ready to get this party started?"
  4369. > The Royal Engineer gets to his feet, while Sparkshower hops off onto her hooves and Ebonshield slinks down on hers.
  4370. > The suit looks every bit as good on your VIP as it did when you saw his final fitting at Bridle Path Clothiers.
  4371. > But you do notice his stylish new boutonnière: a cluster of four carnations, pink, yellow, purple, and sepia, with their steps all bundled up with a coil of shiny copper wire.
  4372. > Where'd he get that?
  4373.  
  4374. > It wasn't in Sparkshower's morning haul from the flower market in Tallyho square; not all wired up, anyways, though he did ask her to get one carnation-blossom of each colour available.
  4375. > Then you remember all the tooling and equipment on the tables surrounding his desk, just over on your left.
  4376. > Of course, he must have made it himself.
  4377. > Sparkshower bubbles her way forward in her pink dress.
  4378. > "Wow, Lily, black really looks good on you! And Corporal -- I mean, Honour -- that's some wrap you've got on!"
  4379. > Take the compliment, Honour.
  4380. "Thanks, Artemis."
  4381. > As the Royal Engineer steps over, you nod towards his lapel.
  4382. "... Very colourful, sir."
  4383. > He smiles amiably, looking embarrassed.
  4384. > "Well, I had some copper wiring at hand and, well, what can I say but that inspiration took me?"
  4385. > You can't help but notice that the colours correspond to the coat colours of the four of his guards.
  4386. > Sparkshower feels compelled to point out the obvious.
  4387. > "It's one colour for each of us, isn't that nice?"
  4388. > You nod.
  4389. "I noticed."
  4390. > That's a bit too sarcastic for the upbeat mood, though, so you follow it up.
  4391. "... Very considerate of you, sir."
  4392. > He chuckles.
  4393. > "Let's just say that as much as none of you are on duty guarding me, I am still rather hoping that I won't find myself completely abandoned in a sea of unfamiliar faces tonight..."
  4394. > Then he laughs, smiling.
  4395. > "... But don't worry; if I do, I'll manage. It'd hardly be the first time."
  4396. > You hadn't really thought about that.
  4397. > Not that you were planning on ditching your VIP, but the idea that for him the Gala would be a more alien experience than it would be for any of you was a novel one.
  4398. > So far, attending the Gala had mostly been all about you and the other guards.
  4399. > Sparkshower and Glamerspear's fight over the ticket.
  4400. > Ebonshield getting in on the action.
  4401. > Shopping for dresses.
  4402. > Yes, there was Anon's suit, but he'd basically taken care of it himself; you'd just been along for the ride.
  4403.  
  4404. > Anyways, even if you felt like drowning your troubles, you didn't think you necessarily needed to ditch him.
  4405. > He had seen you get pretty hammered already this week, and you'd seen him almost blackout drunk.
  4406. > There weren't really any secrets between you, party-wise.
  4407. "I'm sure you won't find yourself in that situation, sir."
  4408. > The Royal Engineer holds up a gloved hand.
  4409. > "It's kind of you to say so, but let me state for the record that I don't want any of you to ruin your nights for my sake. We see each other almost every day, so I'm sure you all are craving some liberty of association. Anyways, enough logistics talk -- logistics has the evening off, too. Shall we?"
  4410. "Yes, sir!"
  4411. > "Yay!"
  4412. > "Heck yeah!"
  4413. > "¡Vamanos!"
  4414.  
  4415. Suggested background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Qgri3-nKVA (Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic - 'Ballszene', by Joseph Hellmesberger)
  4416.  
  4417. > The five of you exit his room and arrange yourselves in a line abreast formation, with the Royal Engineer occupying the place of honour in the middle, yourself at his right, Eb at his left, Glamerspear further out from you, and Sparkshower opposite.
  4418. > It's not quite a march, but it's definitely a bold walk as you head down the wide hallway of Canterlot Palace's West wing's South annex.
  4419. > And despite your apprehensions, you feel -- well, you feel happy.
  4420. > Everypony's excited, everypony's in a good mood, and everypony has something to look forward to.
  4421. > For Sparkshower, you imagine it's her big group-performance Lipizzaner waltz with the Royal Engineer.
  4422. > It should be a fun display; you resolve to try to watch it.
  4423. > Glamerspear, you feel sure, is looking to show off her dress -- and maybe her medal, too, since she's wearing it.
  4424. > Doubtless she's looking for an upgrade from Captain Mailedhoof.
  4425. > That shouldn't be too hard to manage at the Gala.
  4426. > You're not quite certain what Ebonshield is after, considering she already has a young beau from the Schola under her wing.
  4427.  
  4428. > She's probably just looking forward to a great big party.
  4429. > And considering how the other batpony Stars treat her and the other members of her Temple, you think she'll also be happy to potentially be a centre of attention, rather than being disdainfully ignored as the leader of a group of tolerated heretics with unsavoury professions.
  4430. > What about the Royal Engineer?
  4431. > Besides the dance with Sparkshower, he seems content enough just to be invited.
  4432. > Well, you know he can hold his drink, and he's mentioned he wants to dance, so hopefully he'll find somepony to partner up with.
  4433. > If he doesn't pair up before hitting the floor, then perhaps his moves could attract a companion.
  4434. > You don't know if it'll be as easy as Lieutenant Kilfeather suggested, and you doubt anypony really gets anywhere past first or second 'base', to use a sporty analogy, but still -- it was the Gala.
  4435. > Equestria's big magical night.
  4436. > As your troupe turns out of the annex and into the wing's main corridor, you start to see the palace a little more alive and magical than it ordinarily is.
  4437. > Down the hall, you can see larger groups of ponies, while back here, every now and then, a palace servant goes scurrying by, pausing only to give a polite bow or curtsy and looking pleased when the five of you stop to politely give one in return.
  4438. > After all, what's the rush?
  4439. > The Gala is the Gala and it isn't going anywhere without you.
  4440. > Leave your worries upstairs in your room.
  4441. > 'Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus', as the ancient unicorns said.
  4442. > You're onboard for the drinking part, but you're still not sold on dancing.
  4443. > If Castlerook asks you in a moment off...
  4444. > Anyways, it doesn't matter.
  4445. > You'll have a good time either way.
  4446. > Everypony will have a good time.
  4447. > That's the magic power of Canterlot, of the Palace, of the Princesses, provided you believed in them.
  4448. > And at your core, you did.
  4449.  
  4450. > Presently you start to hear voices emanating from down the hall, and a minute later your five-abreast slow charge is forced to relax to an more leisurely stroll as you hit traffic.
  4451. > You weren't at the main entrance quite yet, but Palace rooms in this wing were full of hundreds of visiting dignitaries and diplomats from across Equestria and beyond, and your group of five was neither so nimble nor so narrow that you could zig-zag around them.
  4452. > As you said, though -- what was the rush?
  4453. > Take the time to enjoy the Palace, because now at least these hallways have been decked out with ribbons and flowers and banners.
  4454. > There's no question that the stage was set for a wonderful evening.
  4455. > Eventually, the murmur of voices grow louder, mixing with the sound of a nearby string quartet, and you reach the end of the corridor.
  4456. > Here was the upper level of the short northern section of Canterlot Palace's main gallery, and your group joined a few dozen other ponies waiting in a loose line to be let in to the rotunda, where Princess Celestia and Princess Luna received guests, and the lower East, West, and North galleries and their adjoining salons hosted the Gala's indoor delights.
  4457. > Anonymous reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a folded piece of paper protecting a slim pack of unmistakable golden slips.
  4458. > The Grand Galloping Gala's Golden Tickets.
  4459. > "I suppose I ought to dole these out now?"
  4460. > Probably, yet it doesn't seem right.
  4461. > Like he's cutting you all loose.
  4462. > You shake your head.
  4463. "Why don't you hoof them to the doorcolt all together? We're arriving together, we ought to be announced together."
  4464. > Sparkshower peeks over, worried.
  4465. > "Uhm... We can keep them after that, though, right?"
  4466. > Even a used golden ticket was quite the collectible.
  4467. "Of course, Artemis."
  4468. > You should remember to stick to first names; this was the Gala, not a barracks meeting.
  4469. > "Yay!"
  4470.  
  4471. > Then she furrows her brow.
  4472. > "... Uh... Do you have something to carry yours in under that, Honour?"
  4473. > You actually don't.
  4474. > Anonymous smiles as he fans out the tickets in anticipation of hoofing -- *handing*, rather -- them over.
  4475. > "There's plenty of room for them back in my pocket for the rest of the evening if that's an worry. I won't lose them, and they'll make lovely souvenirs for each of us."
  4476. "Thank you, sir. I think that'd be best."
  4477. > First names were all well and good with your compatriots, but they didn't feel proper with the Royal Engineer.
  4478. > He was the Royal Engineer, the Very Important Pony, even though he wasn't actually a pony.
  4479. > And he may have made you feel Very Important as well from having secured a ticket, but you were still just his guard.
  4480. > Your group collectively takes another step forward, and you find yourselves the next ones to be announced after an unicorn noblepony couple with what looked like their teenage foal.
  4481. > The mustachioed unicorn in a tailcoat clears his throat, holding their three tickets up in his telekinesis.
  4482. > "The Lord Charles Bourbon of Mills-upon-Allier! The Lady Mathilde Bourbon! The Master Robert Bourbon!"
  4483. > It's not a shout, but he faces towards the busy rotunda and he certainly make himself loud enough to be heard.
  4484. > After a moment, the doorcolt floats the tickets back to the nobles, and they proceed down the steps into the rotunda.
  4485. > The five of you step up to be announced, and Anonymous hands over the tickets to the unicorn, who takes a quick sip from a glass of water first.
  4486. > "By Appointment to their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Anonymous, the Royal Engineer of Equestria! Purity Ebonshield, Seventh of the Temple of the Shining Stellar Dance! Honour Bound of the Royal Guard, Order of the Silver Star! Lily Glamerspear of the Royal Guard, Centurion of the Order of the Ram! Artemis Sparkshower of the Royal Guard!"
  4487. > It's quite a mouthful, even with pauses in-between each pony.
  4488.  
  4489. > "... Their Majesties bid you welcome to the Grand Galloping Gala and invite you to receive their welcome in person, below."
  4490. > The doorcolt elegantly waves you in and floats the tickets back to Anonymous, who replaces them in their wrapping and pockets them.
  4491. > Before you is the rotunda, filled with hundreds of ponies, many of whom are in a winding line to greet the two Princesses at the top of a set of leading to the South Gallery's upper level.
  4492. > But to join them, first you have to get *down* into the rotunda.
  4493. > You don't think you realized just how big the staircase down was; there's room for the five of you and at least another ten more.
  4494. > And the steps are almost awkwardly steep.
  4495. > You glance over at Glamerspear and note the tell-tale halo around her horn and hooves indicating that she was using the same grip-enhancing spell as she did in the Rookery's Cave of Pillars.
  4496. > She still hasn't learned to share.
  4497. > Sparkshower and Ebonshield hold their wings half-open to steady themselves, while Anonymous strides carefully down beside you, politely taking his time so as not to leave you behind.
  4498. > That was nice of him; the long, poofy shawl was a bit hard to manage.
  4499. > Just take it one step at a time, Honour.
  4500. > As you reach a third of the way down, your ears pick out a loud cry from the left.
  4501. > "Make a hole! Make a hole, you landlubbers!"
  4502. > Oh, no.
  4503. > But you're stuck!
  4504. > You're stuck on these stupid stairs!
  4505. > Maybe Eb or Sparkshower can pick you up and just fly you out of here?
  4506. > "... Lively now! Make a hole!"
  4507. > Another swarthy voice you don't recognize pipes up in support.
  4508. > "Avast! Make way for the bos'n of the Tambermane!"
  4509. > Of course he's got his crew with him.
  4510. > And you can already hear the sturdy tell-tale tap-tap-tap-*tock* of his steps, too.
  4511. > There's nothing for it but to just get to the bottom of the steps and let the chips fall where they may.
  4512.  
  4513. > Just as you clear the final perilous hurdle, there's a bit of jostling and the crowd of elegantly-dressed Gala party-goers is somewhat forcibly parted to admit three clean and proper but somewhat less-elegantly-dressed sailors.
  4514. > And there he is, standing on his three good legs and one wooden hind-peg, flanked by a pair of young ponies who are undoubtedly his bosun's mate apprentices.
  4515.  
  4516. Recommended background music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-64CaD8GXw (Dropkick Murphys - "I'm Shipping Up to Boston")
  4517.  
  4518. > Leeward looks exactly as you remember him, with his shock of thick, black mane on a Windsor-tan coat, and the thin moustache and trimmed goatee which went along with it.
  4519. > He's wearing his formal uniform, a navy-blue double-breasted jacket with polished bronze buttons and a white vest underneath.
  4520. > A white cap with a navy brim, properly centred on his head, completes the ensemble.
  4521. > And as soon as he sees you, he grins widely, revealing the gold tooth that matches the pair of earrings he wears.
  4522. > "There she is! There she is! Ahh, a treasure as beautiful as the day I first set eyes upon her! Haha! What a delight it is to see her once again, lads!"
  4523. > Still beaming with excitement, he looks you up and down, then turns to look at the Royal Engineer and the rest of the quaternion.
  4524. > "... Well? Aren't you going to introduce me to your companions, Honoria?"
  4525. > Glamerspear bursts out into a snort.
  4526. > "*Honoria*??"
  4527. > You take a deep breath and turn to the Royal Engineer, who looks puzzled.
  4528. "Sir, may I introduce you to the boatswain of the Tambermane, Leeward Bound... my father."
  4529. > Without waiting for anything more, Leeward immediately saunters up towards the Royal Engineer and extends a forehoof.
  4530. > "A pleasure, sir! A pleasure! And you are?"
  4531. > It takes your VIP a second to react before he extends a gloved hand.
  4532. > "Er, I'm Anonymous, the Royal Engineer of Equestria. A pleasure to meet you as well."
  4533.  
  4534. > Your VIP's title makes Leeward do a double-take; clearly he only heard your name being announced, and not the whole group.
  4535. > "Why your Lordship, I beg your pardon! A great pleasure, Your Lordship! And may it please Your Lordship to learn that the Tambermane is the fastest Baltimare Clipper out of Fillydelphia! Across the Celestial Sea to the Griffish isles in twelve days!"
  4536. > Full of energy, Leeward scarcely waits for you to finish speaking before he advances upon Glamerspear.
  4537. "This is Lily Glamerspear, a fellow soldier and a Centurion of the Ram."
  4538. > "A Centurion! Goodness gracious, I should bow to you, madam!"
  4539. > He does just that, theatrically removing his hat as he does so.
  4540. > Even his two mates, standing off to the side, doff their own, mirroring his actions.
  4541. > "... I pray you keep us safe from Changelings and Dragons and all other manner of beasts and scoundrels, brave Centurion!"
  4542. > As Glamerspear tries to figure out just how to react, you indicate Sparkshower.
  4543. "Artemis Sparkshower, another comrade-in-arms."
  4544. > He takes her proffered forehoof in both of his own, shaking it eagerly.
  4545. > "Any friend of my sweet Honoria is a friend of mine! And may I be only the second pony tonight to welcome you aboard this fine Gala, miss Sparkshower!"
  4546. > She seems confusedly pleased by the encounter.
  4547. > Finally, he steps over to Ebonshield.
  4548. "And Purity Ebonshield, of the *Night Guard*."
  4549. > You held no hopes that that final appellation will quell his excitement, yet as Ebonshield haughtily holds out a forehoof, you see Leeward pause.
  4550. > But it's only long enough for him to once again doff his cap, taking her hoof in his, and bending over theatrically to kiss it.
  4551. > "Madam, a creature of your elegant and stunning beauty would easily make a lesser colt forget the warm hearth and welcoming bed he has waiting for him such a long distance away."
  4552. > That puts a grin on the Sergeant's face.
  4553.  
  4554. > Then he kisses her hoof again and withdraws, still bowing down -- not an easy feat for a peg-legged old sailor.
  4555. > Finally, he sits down on his haunches and claps his forehooves together, an enormous smile on his face.
  4556. > "Well! What a wondrous meeting! I tell you, lads..."
  4557. > Raising a forehoof, he addresses himself to his two younger crewmates.
  4558. > "... Find yourself a good wife and make yourself a child. The pleasure of seeing them again after a long journey is an immeasurable joy. Now, mister Murphy!"
  4559. > The one on his left steps forward.
  4560. > "... Go and harpoon us one of those waiters what's ferrying glasses of champagne. And mind you he has enough stock for all of us! Lively now, for this is a reunion worthy of a good drink!"
  4561. > With a quick nod, the sailor hustles off into the crowd.
  4562. > "... Mister Woody! I espied a few ponies with cameras about when we were higher up the rungs of the staircase! See that you haul one of them over here to take some pictures of an joyful old sailor with his beautiful daughter!"
  4563. > But the second seacolt furrows his brow in objection.
  4564. > "Beggin' your pardon, bos'n, but I believe they's workin' for the press, snappin' celebrities an' the like."
  4565. > He must be a new one if he thinks that your father can be dissuaded from anything once he's made up his mind for it.
  4566. > "So? They'll be laden with rolls of film for the evening and can surely spare us a few frames. And I'll pay good bits for a fine print. Step to it, mister Woody!"
  4567. > With a bob of his head, the second one heads off, and there's the briefest, longest, awkwardest moment where Leeward has run out of things to say, and everypony is just sort of awkwardly smiling at each other.
  4568. > That's when things are mercifully interrupted by another new arrival.
  4569. > "I say, Mister Bound, what's all the commotion here?"
  4570. > In the small clearing steps no common sailor; by his pressed blue tailcoat and the gold-trimmed bicorne hat he was clearly one of the ship's officers.
  4571.  
  4572. > And by his bushy grey beard and moustache, he must at be at least the first mate.
  4573. > Your father promptly steps up.
  4574. > "Ah, Captain Barr! May I introduce you to my daughter, Honoria Bound. She's a decorated member of the Royal Guard, a devoted follower of the warrior's code and a recipient of the silver star, sir."
  4575. > The Captain gives a polite nod in your direction.
  4576. > You don't think you can curtsy back with this big poofy shawl on you, so you just nod.
  4577. > From the left, an earth pony waiter approaches with a tray of champagne glasses on his back which he's barely managing to keep straight while being hustled by sailor Murphy.
  4578. > "Drinks as ordered, bos'n!"
  4579. > "Excellent, mister Murphy! Captain, sir, will you toast the miracle of family and friendship with us?"
  4580. > The Captain nods.
  4581. > "Certainly, mister Bound."
  4582. > Leeward immediately whirls around the waiter like a hurricane, dispersing the champagne flutes in a flurry of hoof-and-peg motions.
  4583. > In the blink of an eye, everypony finds themselves with a drink, and your father instantly pivots towards the distant Princesses at the top of the staircase and raises his glass.
  4584. > "Ladies and gentlecolts, to Their Majesties Princess Luna and Princess Celestia! May their Grand Galloping Gala bring parents together with children, husbands together with wives, and true friends together with each other!"
  4585. > In characteristic form, Leeward's bubbling, boisterous enthusiasm and good cheer draws several assorted ponies around you in with raised glasses and replies of "Hear, hear!", until there's almost two dozen drinking with you.
  4586. > And with his audience thus enlarged to what he considers a suitable number, after taking a sip of his own, he immediately launches into another speech.
  4587.  
  4588. > "Twenty-four years ago, ladies and gentlecolts -- twenty-four years ago, I tell you that I became the most blessed colt in Equestria when my ship returned to port and I saw the precious cargo the stork had brought to Fillydephia in my absence. For what father could ask for more than as sweet and beautiful a daughter as my Honoria?"
  4589. > Oh, sweet Celestia, somepony put a stop to this now before it gets worse.
  4590. > "... Though each voyage without her was a painful absence, each return to port brought the joy of seeing her again as if for the first time..."
  4591. > Anypony, please -- anypony, interrupt him.
  4592. > Leeward lifts his jacket and displays his wooden limb.
  4593. > "... Not even the loss of my leg, ladies and gentlecolts, could dampen my spirits. I tell you now, it was the worst storm the Celestial Sea has ever seen, the night as black as pitch-smoke..."
  4594. > Tartarus, he's telling the story of his leg again.
  4595. > You'll take anything -- fire, earthquake, tornado, changeling invasion, meteor.
  4596. > "... And there I was, the ablest seapony aboard. My place was high up at the upper topmast, a hundred hooves above the deck, and at the farthest out along the yard, adjacent the yardarm. The ship heaved and rolled every which way but straight, as we worked furiously to furl the sail, before the winds could snap the topmast straight off at the masthead..."
  4597. > He doesn't even pause when sailor Woody arrives back with a smartly-dressed unicorn mare wielding a very expensive-looking camera, merely waving a forehoof and stepping over next to you for a quick photo.
  4598. > The photographer is in and out in a flash, departing with a haughty scowl for the sailor who hauled her here.
  4599.  
  4600. > "... Even with the storm wailing in our ears, we could hear the cables groaning and the wood creaking. Just as we secured the sail, the ship crested a tremendous wave and plunged down into a trough so deep it must have been a maw of Cerberus itself -- and Tartarus' warden, ladies and gentlecolts, has sharp teeth and a mighty bite, for he snapped the yard in twain, sending me plummeting down into the sea, tangled up with the stays and the yard's hoofrope to be dragged behind the ship..."
  4601. > Your father theatrically gets up on his hind leg and peg, holding up a forehoof.
  4602. > "... I thought I must doomed to the depths of Tartarus. Doomed to never see land and my sweet Honoria again. I struggled against the cords which bound me, swallowing gallons of briny water, never knowing which way was up, with only scant moments now and then to breathe and to cry out before I was plunged down down once more..."
  4603. > He sombrely shakes his head.
  4604. > "... When at last the crew was able to haul me out, by the hourglass I had thrashed in the sea for nearly an hour. Yes, ladies and gentlecolts, though the black doors of Tartarus stood open wide to receive me, I stubbornly refused to pass the threshold. Yet my defiance angered the dark spirits below, and they slammed the gates shut on my hind hoof, so entangled with cable and battered by the heavy tackle that it was ruined beyond recovery, and so the ship's surgeon told me that it would have to go."
  4605. > Just as Leeward makes a chopping motion with his free forehoof, another sailor bursts through the crowd.
  4606. > "Captain Barr, sir! There's trouble in the North gallery!"
  4607. > That brings the story to a screeching halt, thank Celestia.
  4608. > The Captain puts his half-empty glass back down on the waiter-colt's tray.
  4609. > "Trouble, mister Lynch?"
  4610.  
  4611. > "Aye, sir! I think a fight's about to break out between some of ours and some from the Quincy, on account of some rotten things they've done said about the Tambermane and her crossing-record! The guards have been summoned already, sir!"
  4612. > "Intolerable! Mister Bound, pray come and help me sort out this mess."
  4613. > Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.
  4614. > Thank you, drunken, brawling, ill-tempered merchant sailors and your pointless arguments about which boat crossed the Celestial Sea two minutes faster than the other one.
  4615. > Deflated, your father puts his champagne glass down beside the Captain's and gives a quick bow to the small crowd.
  4616. > "I beg your pardon, but this tale must await another telling..."
  4617. > Hustling after Captain Barr with a tap-tap-tap-*tock*, he shoots you a smile over his shoulder.
  4618. > "... Now, mind you're still here for me when I get back, Honoria! I want to hear all you've got to say about your last year!"
  4619. > As soon as he's a few ponies deep in the crowd and out of earshot, you turn up to the Royal Engineer.
  4620. "Sir, would you mind terribly if I skipped the Princesses' receiving line for now and went somewhere else?"
  4621. > He looks down at you in shock, but after a moment, he starts to nod.
  4622. > "If that's what you want, I'll join you."
  4623. > Even though your tall VIP stands out like a tower in the crowd, it's still somehow a relief to know you won't be fleeing alone.
  4624. "Thank you."
  4625. > Glamerspear, her brow furrowed, steps up.
  4626. > "Hey, I'm not splitting the party just yet. If you wanna head off, I'm coming with. You in, Artemis?"
  4627. > The pegasus nods.
  4628. > "Sure!"
  4629. > Even Ebonshield steps over.
  4630. > "And I will come also. May I suggest perhaps the garden?"
  4631. > Anywhere that's not here sounds good to you.
  4632. "Sure."
  4633. > And off you all go.
  4634.  
  4635.  
  4636.  
  4637.  
  4638. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear -- scratch that, no.
  4639. > This is the Gala.
  4640. > You're in and past the gate, not just waiting in the antechamber.
  4641. > You're wearing your Louis Valise dress, not your armour or your artillery greens.
  4642. > Yeah, you *do* have your Centurion's Silver Ram around your neck.
  4643. > So maybe you are Centurion Lily Glamerspear, but that still seems too formal.
  4644. > Especially with the mood so recently lightened by the hilarious reveal of your uptight and morose Corporal's rambunctious, swashbuckling, peg-legged father.
  4645. > As your group of five finishes ascending one of the staircases at the back wall, you pass through a gallery-hall and out onto one of the smaller upper terraces, where the party is already in fully swing.
  4646. > Beside you, Artemis looks wistfully back down at the doors.
  4647. > No doubt she's thinking of how your group has just made an end-run around Their Royal Majesties' receiving line, but there'll always be time for that later.
  4648. > The joint rulers of Equestria would still be receiving guests for another hour or two, before the scheduled festivities really began.
  4649. > With your Corporal leading the way, you all collectively come to a halt in a little semi-private terrace of this section of the gardens, complete with a few benches and a small bar table -- and, critically, with a white-jacketed colt ladling out the brightly-coloured contents of a punch bowl into wide-brimmed cocktail glasses.
  4650. > You lick your lips, but that'll have to wait a moment, too.
  4651. > Honour tries to position a tree and a few bushes between her and the palace doors, nestling into the nook.
  4652. > Once she settles, that's when you pounce, clearing your throat and speaking loudly.
  4653. "So, *Honoria*..."
  4654. > That gets you an incensed stare, which you return with a grin.
  4655.  
  4656. > But in an act of appeasement, you light up your horn and float over a round of drinks from the bar-table.
  4657. > She frowns, but she takes the proffered beverage, and so too do Eb, Sparks, and Anon.
  4658. > Once you get a glass of the orange liquor in your hoof as well, you raise it up in salutation.
  4659. "... Let's have a toast to your newfound first name!"
  4660. > Everybody takes a drink.
  4661. > Mmm, rum punch.
  4662. > Were they serving this as aperitif because of all the sailors present?
  4663. > With a graceless sniff and wipe of her mouth, the Corporal grumbles aloud.
  4664. > "Let's get things straight: My name is *Honour*. 'Honoria' is my *mother's* name. I don't know why Leeward always insists on using it for me, too."
  4665. > Artemis nurses her glass, flexing her wings slightly as if she wants to say something, but for now she just looks to you, the instigator of this toast and investigation into the Corporal's designation.
  4666. > Purity is already taking an eager second sip; aggressive given how early it was, but you knew that bat could hold her liquor.
  4667. "All right. But seriously though, this is the somepony you didn't want to meet here? Your father, the scene-stealing sailor?"
  4668. > Honour sighs and nods her head.
  4669. > "Yeah."
  4670. > You cock an eyebrow.
  4671. "And why? Just because he was going to talk everypony's ears off with his sailing stories?"
  4672. > "That's *part* of the reason."
  4673. > You hang on the continuation, and when it isn't forthcoming, you arch your eyebrows and wave your free forehoof around in circles to draw it out.
  4674. > Honour still seems reluctant to say anything, and that's when Artemis bursts out.
  4675. > "I thought your father was sweet! I mean, I wasn't going to say 'no' if you really wanted to avoid him, but I still don't understand why we had to leave! I liked his story! And everypony else seemed to like it, too!"
  4676.  
  4677. > But the Corporal stays clammed up, so even the resident batpony joins in.
  4678. > "In effect, I found him most charming in our brief encounter. I might even say that to me he appears to embody one of the properties stereotypical of ponies Equestrian: the animated narration of histories."
  4679. > She's really not wrong on that front.
  4680. "Hey, stereotypes do exist for a reason. All he was missing was launching into a choreographed musical dance about his sailing experiences."
  4681. > Honour shudders with revulsion.
  4682. > "He's got one. But he prefers to sing it with at least a dozen of his crew as chorus and backup dancers. I guarantee you after he breaks up that sailors' tussle that he'll be grabbing mariners for that very purpose."
  4683. > Sparkshower paws her free forehoof on Their Majesties' exquisitely-maintained turf.
  4684. > "Aw, I bet it's really fun to watch. Why aren't we there? Isn't this the Gala? Isn't it made for singing and dancing?"
  4685. > You shoot her a grin as you finish another sip.
  4686. "And drinking."
  4687. > Ebonshield knocks back the rest of her cocktail, but you note that the Royal Engineer hasn't touched his glass beyond that first toast, while everypony else has gotten at least halfway through theirs.
  4688. > Is something the matter?
  4689. > Something to check into when you're done with the Corporal, who turns to Sparkshower with an apologetic frown.
  4690. > "Look, I'm sorry, Artemis. You can go back in if you really want to, at least watching from the top of the staircase, but I just really don't like being around my father..."
  4691. > With a sigh, she swirls her drink a few times and then takes another mouthful of it.
  4692. > "... I realize he can give off a good first impression. And if I'm being honest, he's a decent singer and a decent dancer, too, even with the leg. But all I can think about when I'm around him is all of the problems he's caused."
  4693. > That raises a few eyebrows, yours included.
  4694.  
  4695. "Are you kidding me? What kind of problems could be caused by a colt like that? Friendly, charming, well-spoken -- what's the issue?"
  4696. > She just shakes her head.
  4697. > "It's family troubles, Glamerspear. You don't want to hear them."
  4698. > You snort.
  4699. "Hey, I thought we agreed to be on a first-name basis here..."
  4700. > Shrugging, you set your eyes on another round for yourself and for the eager Sergeant, lighting up your horn to somewhat aggressively hoist over a fresh pair of full glasses from the drinks table even as you send your empties back.
  4701. > The tuxedoed stud serving bar treats the exchange absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, and duly slips the dirty glasses down into a tray awaiting inevitable pickup by a busser, before immediately preparing another two glasses for whomsoever thirsty party guests may wander by.
  4702. > Eb duly takes her drink in hoof as you continue.
  4703. "... But if you really want to clam up, I suppose that's your prerogative. I don't have any compunction against talking family stuff, myself. And I still see my dad occasionally, even though I hate his guts. I can't imagine your Mister Leeward Bound is worse than my Mister Lobeline Glamerspear."
  4704. > Sparkshower suddenly droops her wings in shock, her ears flattening against her head.
  4705. > "Lily, you don't get along with your father either? I didn't think you could find two ponies in all of Equestria who had problems with their family. But am I the only one among us who loves their parents?"
  4706. > She really does come from a perfect agrarian idyll of a village, doesn't she?
  4707. > As with the chat about saltines and salt-licks, the Corporal lets her down easy.
  4708. > "It's more common than you might think, Artemis, but that doesn't mean it's *common*. Although it sometimes is more frequent among guardsponies -- joining the Guard is an easy way to get out of a toxic home, after all..."
  4709.  
  4710. > That seems to reassure the pegasus mare enough just merely be concerned, instead of outraged, and then Honour turns to you.
  4711. > "... I'm not getting into a who's-got-the-worst-dad argument with you, Lily."
  4712. > You snort.
  4713. "Yeah, 'cause you'd lose. My mom worked double shifts as a nurse to put my three brothers through college, and would have done the same for me if I hadn't joined the Guard instead. Whereas my dad's a chronically-drunken, chronically-unemployed layabout who'd beat anypony who got between him and his bartender or his bottle -- and that 'anypony' included his family members, regardless of age or sex."
  4714. > Sparkshower gasps.
  4715. > "That's horrible, Lily!"
  4716. > You nod.
  4717. "It sure is. I still think about shoving a spear down his throat every now and then..."
  4718. > With an aggressive sniff unworthy of your Louis Valise dress, you take a sip of your fresh drink, and the rum clears your head a bit.
  4719. "... But then I remember: he's not worth it. My brothers and I are all moved out, and he's just a sad old drunk now who's so wrecked his body and brain with hooch that he can barely stand on his own four hooves..."
  4720. > A dull pain sets in on your forehead -- you're taking the alcohol too fast, or maybe it's just too cold and you're getting an ice-cream headache.
  4721. "... I feel bad for mom since she takes care of him by herself, with occasional help from Lavender -- the youngest of my older brothers, who still lives in Manehattan. Even for all his faults, I know mom'd still miss dad if he was gone. And he can't really hurt anypony but himself anymore..."
  4722. > You try to put on a smile and force your way through both the headache and the ugly memories.
  4723. "... And that's my happy family story. Great way to start off the Gala, huh? So what's your beef with the peg-leg, then?"
  4724. > Honour takes a deep sigh.
  4725. > "Celestia, you always have to put your hoof in it, don't you? All right, I guess if I'm going to ask us to keep avoiding him, I guess I ought to explain why..."
  4726.  
  4727. > Shaking her head, she furrows her brow.
  4728. > "... It's not like in your story. Leeward never laid a hoof on me or my mother. Not that he really would have had the chance to, anyways -- he was always out sailing, away for weeks at a time, cruising across the Celestia Sea, and then back on shore in Fillydelphia only for a few days before heading out once more on another voyage. In fact, if you counted up all the time I've actually spent with my own father, it probably doesn't even add up to one whole year..."
  4729. > You nod, starting to get the idea.
  4730. > "... Sometimes I feel like I barely know him, which makes it really awkward when he tries to act all fatherly towards me, like just now. But that's not why I avoid him -- not the only reason, at least..."
  4731. > She points a forehoof at Ebonshield.
  4732. > "... You hit the nail on the head when you said he reminded you of Equestrian stereotypes. In fact, he *is* an Equestrian stereotype. A walking, talking, singing, and dancing Equestrian stereotype. He's always in a good mood, always optimistic about the future, and he always sees the best in everything. He's patriotic, gregarious, musical, and unflinchingly positive about life..."
  4733. > That doesn't sound *bad*, just maybe *annoying*.
  4734. > Like your feelings about your nerdy brothers, when you were growing up.
  4735. > You're still not a fan of geeky crap, but you did appreciate the three of them for being there for you when you needed it.
  4736. > And there was no question about loving them as family, either.
  4737. > The Corporal looks around the circle, holding up a forehoof as if testifying.
  4738. > "... I know I can be negative at times-"
  4739. "That's an understatement."
  4740. > She ignores your interjection.
  4741. > "... But I like to think I'm just being realistic. Or at least I try to be. And that's the problem with Leeward: reality doesn't mean a thing to him..."
  4742.  
  4743. > Lowering her free hoof, she averts her gaze down towards the ground.
  4744. > "... He let me, and more importantly my mother, get away with *everything*. If she'd frittered away his salary on some scam, leaving us with no new money for clothes or horseshoes and an empty pantry, he didn't want to hear about it, all while hoofing over a fresh purse with his latest salary. If she'd been seen dallying with some other colt while he was out on a cruise, working to bring money in to the family, he didn't care as long as she was in his hooves when he was back on shore. As for me, if I skipped class or got into a fight, instead of setting me straight, he'd just offer up saccharine dreams that I'd sail straight and true the next time he was away..."
  4745. > With a sniffle, she lifts her head back up again.
  4746. > "... He isn't a drunkard, and he didn't beat either of us, though sometimes I think it would've been better if he had. He works hard and he's done pretty well for himself, career-wise. He even married above his station: my mother, Honoria Du Rendal, is descended from some old-blood noble family, though she's far removed from any remaining wealth and she's basically never had anything for herself, which is I guess why she kept making frivolous purchases and dumb investments. But he's just such a damned glad-hoofer; he trusts that every problem his family had on shore will sort itself out on its own. I could never get through to him how bad things were with mom running the household in his absence -- and they sometimes got pretty bad. There was a week where my mother sent me out to basically beg for scraps to feed us, because she'd yet again wasted his sailor's pay on some ludicrously obvious fraud investment. And I was only a filly, then. Ponies were always taking advantage of my mother, one way or another, and he didn't care to hear it, let alone lift a hoof to try to put a stop to it. Later, when I started to rebel by skipping out on school and hanging with a tough crowd, he barely reacted at all -- even after my mother raised the alarm about it."
  4747. > Geez.
  4748. > Your dad got pretty rough physically, but it sounds like Honour's issues with her dad really got into her *head*.
  4749. > That might actually be worse.
  4750. > The Corporal trails off, and nopony can find anything to say for a moment.
  4751. > Then your Very Important Pony, the one who isn't a pony, speaks up with a pointed question.
  4752. > "What did he think about your divorce?"
  4753.  
  4754. > She scoffs.
  4755. > "*What* divorce? As far as he's concerned, I'm just 'temporarily separated' from my cheating, miscreant ex-husband. Never mind all the paper work I had to fill out and the meeting with a magistrate to formally terminate the marriage; he thinks all I need to do is give that colt another chance and things will work out in the end..."
  4756. > With a furious glare, the Corporal looks up at your VIP.
  4757. > "... That's probably what makes me hate being around him the most. Whenever we meet, he inevitably brings the subject of my marriage up, as if we haven't talked about it a million times before. I'm sick and tired of saying 'no' to somepony who I barely know and who never listens to a word I say, unless it's good news."
  4758. > She trails off, and, unable to think of how to properly end her rant, she just looks down at her drink, swirls it around a bit more, then finishes it off.
  4759. > Her problems hitting it off with that slow-playing Sergeant from back-home are starting to make a lot more sense now.
  4760. > It's not just her once-bitten-twice-shy attitude after her divorce; it's because she's got more than just her failed marriage staring back at her from Fillydelphia.
  4761. "Your family's a big reason you've kept things slow with that Castlerook character, isn't it?"
  4762. > Honour sighs, pulling her bottom lip up and flattening her ears.
  4763. > "Yeah. Even though I obviously wouldn't be *living* with my parents, I still don't really want to be there at all. To be fair, mom's not so bad now; she finally wised up, in her middle age. Me enlisting the Royal Guard was a real wake-up call to her aspirations of grandeur. And I think my divorce put her own situation -- with a devoted and hard-working, if hopelessly idealistic husband -- into perspective. She was sympathetic when my marriage fell apart, and that stopped her continuing own dalliances, too. I don't mind talking with her any more. And at least she was always around, so I actually I think of her as my parent."
  4764.  
  4765. > Yeah, yeah, yeah, ramble on.
  4766. > She's missing the point, though.
  4767. "Okay. And does your Mister Castlerook *know* that Fillydelphia, and specifically Leeward, is the hangup?"
  4768. > Honour furrows her brow.
  4769. > "He was there. For all of it: we used to hang out as foals..."
  4770. > A grin appears on her face.
  4771. > "... When I started acting up, I joined him in a small roving gang of youngsters. We were the terror of the neighbourhood, always getting into trouble and scuffles. Nothing major, you understand, just always making pests of ourselves, and feuding with similar groups in adjacent streets. I event spent a few nights in a jail cell, though I was never criminally charged."
  4772. > Pfft, 'terror', yeah right.
  4773. > You imagine pissed-off shopkeepers shaking forehooves at retreating foals, and sandlot hoofball games ending with bruises and bumps and mothers wagging their tongues at children about sending them off to live on the other side of Equestria.
  4774. > Ponice dragging off quarrelsome teenagers and chucking them in the drunk tank to 'set them straight'.
  4775. > In Manehattan, real gangs pulled out shanks and left blood on the street.
  4776. > Anyways, she's dodging your question again.
  4777. > You put a forehoof on her shoulder and lean in.
  4778. "Yeah, okay, he was there, mare -- but does he *know*? Have you *told* him?"
  4779. > She swallows.
  4780. > "I... No. Not really, I guess. It hasn't come up."
  4781. > Well, there's the problem right there.
  4782. > Pulling your forehoof off her shoulder, you throw it up in the air and shake your head.
  4783. "And *that's* why the two of you are struggling to get that wagon hitched up. I mean, c'mon, Honour, clear communication is 'Relationships 101'..."
  4784. > And didn't she say he was here from Filly to help guard the Gala?
  4785. > You slyly raise an eyebrow.
  4786. "... Is he here tonight?"
  4787.  
  4788. > Honour nods.
  4789. > "Yeah. His platoon is posted at one of the connecting hallways to the East wing; or it should be, unless they were reassigned at the last minute. They'll be there until the sailors start to file back to the docks."
  4790. > You blow out a whinny.
  4791. "Well, there's no time like the present. You want to avoid your dad, the other side of the palace sounds like a good place to start."
  4792. > She frowns.
  4793. > "He's on duty, Lily."
  4794. "Yeah, on duty as a *guard* posted in an *empty hallway*. They're there to stop guests from trotting off to sneak some hanky-panky in Their Majesties' Personal Suites, and as backup muscle if the sailors get out of hoof. And they're probably bored out of their minds, or will be soon..."
  4795. > You chuckle and look around the group.
  4796. "... I mean, let's be honest. Most guard duty is pretty mind-numbing. I'm happy we're the exception, but we *are* an exception..."
  4797. > Winking at the Royal Engineer, you shoot him a smile.
  4798. "... Of course that's all thanks to you, sir."
  4799. > Anonymous smiles amusedly.
  4800. > "I thought we were supposed to be on a first-name basis here, Miss Glamerspear."
  4801. > Ooh, he puts a nice inflection on that.
  4802. > Still, though, maybe now's a good time to pivot.
  4803. "Sorry, Anon. It's a tough habit to break off-duty. But is something else wrong? You've barely touched your drink."
  4804. > The Royal Engineer lifts his glass up and inspects it.
  4805. > "Oh, this? Ah, I didn't want to get hammered before dancing the Lipizzaner Waltz, that's all..."
  4806. > With a smile, he looks down at Sparkshower, who's mid-drink
  4807. > "... Even after all our practice, I'm still a little nervous about wrong-footing it. When *is* the dance, actually?"
  4808.  
  4809. > Lowering her glass, she licks her lips then smacks them.
  4810. > "It's just before the dining room opens at seven o'clock. That's in about an hour and a half. But don't worry, they'll announce when everypony should head over. More spectators makes for better photos of the dance, after all. And if there aren't enough couples -- er, pairs -- to fill the dance floor, as there usually aren't, then the Masters of the Dance go and pick good-looking twosomes out of the crowd to join in for the rehearsal at least."
  4811. > Although this whole 'Lipizzaner Waltz' started as a fall-back from Sparkshower's disastrous idea of dancing the Maypole with your VIP, you have to admire the effort she's put into it.
  4812. > And it does sound kinda fun.
  4813. "Seems like they play the dance like a big party game."
  4814. > Artemis nods excitedly at you.
  4815. > "Yes, that's what I've heard. Except it's for Lords and Ladies and all sorts of fancy elegant ponies!"
  4816. > As if suddenly remembering her chosen dance partner, she flushes red.
  4817. > "... Er, and for fancy elegant non-ponies, too!"
  4818. > Anonymous chuckles.
  4819. > "It's all right; I understand the appeal of seeing and being seen in the company of fashionable peers. As I said, I'm excited about it myself."
  4820. > You smirk.
  4821. "Not as much as your dance partner is, I bet. But her enthusiasm'd be hard to top."
  4822. > One cue, the giddy pegasus starts to bounce up and down a bit, narrowly avoiding spilling her drink.
  4823. > "Oooooh, it's going to be sooooo wonderful! Thinking about it almost makes me forgive us skipping out on Their Majesties' receiving line!"
  4824. > Honour looks apologetically over at her.
  4825. > "I am sorry about that, Artemis. But there'll be another time when we can greet them tonight, I'm sure."
  4826. > You chime in in support.
  4827. "Yeah, it's not like Their Majesties are just going to disappear when the receiving line closes. So don't wear yourself out, there's plenty of party still left."
  4828.  
  4829. > Ebonshield clears her throat.
  4830. > "Do any of you in fact know the schedule complete for tonight? I am of course, happy merely to be present, but curious also as to what activities await us."
  4831. > Sparkshower immediately pipes up.
  4832. > "There was a placard with times at the bottom of the stairs. The receiving line goes until six, then the waltz is at half past, the dining room opens at seven. After that, the main ballroom opens with formal dances at eight, including the Maypole dance, and then at ten-"
  4833. > You interrupt.
  4834. "At ten is when things *really* get started. The fussy old fogeys shuffle off home, the orchestra packs up, the DJ rolls in, the lights dim, the speakers blare, the Maypoles get turned into *dancing*-poles, and everypony can finally let 'er rip."
  4835. > The red-robed batpony nods, the black tassel of her hat swinging to and fro.
  4836. > "Ah, excellent. So I have more than four hours to find for myself a partner for dancing? Bueno."
  4837. > Honour snorts dismissively, but Anonymous chimes in with praise.
  4838. > "With that striking outfit, Purity, I'm sure you'll have a line of suitors going around the whole ballroom."
  4839. > Now it's your turn to snort.
  4840. "Yeah, and all of 'em struggling to build up the courage to ask a *bat*pony for a dance."
  4841. > But the Sergeant just smiles.
  4842. > "Ah, this is no trouble. If I see that I have admirers, I will simply pick one and make the invitation myself."
  4843. > Everybody gets a chuckle out of that.
  4844. > The really funny thing is you all know it's true.
  4845. > There was no doubt about her aggression when it came to finding herself her own partner.
  4846. > And she was getting plenty of looks in the nightclubs earlier in the week, and that was with a plain black bodysuit.
  4847. > If Honour's father hadn't swooped in and stolen the show with his boisterous joviality, she'd have turned every head in the room.
  4848.  
  4849. > On that subject, you turn back towards the Corporal.
  4850. "So? You going to go talk to Mister Castlerook or not? He's only here temporarily, isn't he? He'll be heading back to Filly' in a few days; you don't want to waste that time"
  4851. > She looks up at the Royal Engineer.
  4852. > "I, uhm... We talked about not splitting up the group and leaving our VIP alone, didn't we?"
  4853. > But Anonymous puts up his empty hand.
  4854. > "My concern was about being left completely alone, and I said it half in jest, too. Go, if you like. We can plan to link up again when the Lipizzaner waltz begins. That's plenty of time to confer your boyf-, er *colt*friend, isn't it?"
  4855. > Honour goes red to match her dress at his use of that term.
  4856. > "He's not actually-- It's complicated."
  4857. > You nod.
  4858. "Yeah, and it's gonna *stay* complicated until you spill the beans to him..."
  4859. > She still looks a bit hesitant, so you light up your horn and levitate your drink into the air so as to free your forehooves, then step up to your quaternion leader and plant your forehooves on her shoulders.
  4860. "... If Fillydelphia is a deal-breaker, *tell* him, and talk to him about the alternatives..."
  4861. > You jerk your head over towards Sparkshower, then beckon her over.
  4862. "... Look at what happened to Artemis -- no offence, Sparks, and sorry to use you as an example -- when she had a communication issue with her colt..."
  4863. > The pegasus one-flaps her way over and you switch a forehoof onto her shoulder to bring her into a huddle.
  4864. "... I know I'm not exactly a role model here, but I've seen what happens to friends when they can't get things straight with their colt or mare. Especially recently, ya know?"
  4865. > Artemis glumly nods, and eventually so too does Honour.
  4866. > Releasing them from the huddle, you take a step back and get your drink in hoof once more.
  4867. > The two of them stand there a bit sheepishly, but Purity looks impishly over at you.
  4868. > "You seem tonight to be playing the role of the confidante of the relationships, Lily."
  4869.  
  4870. > With a casual shrug, you take the final sip from your glass.
  4871. "Somepony's got to, or else all five of us will go home from the biggest hook-up event of the year with empty hooves, hearts, and *beds*."
  4872. > She grins.
  4873. > "Perhaps you can play also the role of the maker of matches, then. Honour will go and speak to her Castile-rook, and we will stroll around the grounds and the palace and you will indicate to us the colts -- and the mares, for Anónimo -- to whom we should pay the attention particular in the evening, when the dancing modern begins."
  4874. > She's got high expectations.
  4875. > But you like a challenge, and whinny amusedly.
  4876. "Oh, I can't pretend to be a guide to Gala Society..."
  4877. > Zipping your empty glass over to the bar and grabbing a new one, you grin.
  4878. "... But hey, I might as well try. At least I can tell you who I think has managed to nail their outfits -- besides the five of us, obviously."
  4879. > That brightens up spirits, and even Honour polishes off her drink and nods to the group.
  4880. > "Okay. I'll meet you all in the ballroom when they call for the waltz."
  4881. > Everyone nods.
  4882. "Sounds like a plan."
  4883. > And with that, you telekinetically gather empty glasses from everypony -- except the Royal Engineer, still conservatively nursing his own drink -- and float them over to the bartender-colt with a wink and a blown kiss.
  4884. > You get a polite reserved nod in acknowledgement, Honour heads off to the far side of the palace, and the rest of your group sets off at a slow walk to see who you can find to gossip about.
  4885. > Let's see, a dance-partner for Eb; that'll have to be some young stud as outrageously dressed as she was.
  4886. > For still-heartbroken Artemis, a demure gentlecolt who'll woo her slowly and gently.
  4887. > The Royal Engineer?
  4888. > You don't actually know his tastes -- maybe that's something to find out.
  4889.  
  4890. > Yes, he knows about tufts and wingboners and horn anteglows, and Honour said he *could* find a pony attractive now, knowing that he wasn't repulsive, but you never heard him express any *preferences*.
  4891. > For example, what kind of plot did he like?
  4892. > Tight? Something with a little meat? Or even more comprehensive?
  4893. > How much tuft was enough for him, and was there tuft too much?
  4894. > Did he have a favourite colour palette or manestyle?
  4895. > And then there was species, too -- earth, pegasus, or unicorn?
  4896. > You were a little biased about that choice, of course.
  4897. > There *were* some other species here, too, if he bent that way.
  4898. > In fact, did your VIP have any more unusual... desires?
  4899. > Docks?
  4900. > Fetlocks?
  4901. > Surely couldn't *actually* be into "tackplay", as Sparkshower suggested.
  4902. > Well, whatever the case, now was certainly the time for him to explore the variety of shapes and styles on display.
  4903. > And as for yourself?
  4904. > You weren't so sure on that front.
  4905. > Mailedhoof was out, yes, and so too was your business of being a saltine.
  4906. > And you were resolved to turn your career around, but what about your love-life?
  4907. > The only firm requirement you could think of right now is that you wanted a colt who *respected* you.
  4908. > Beyond that, you'd just have to see what the luck of the draw brought you.
  4909.  
  4910. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkeIwhKIi84 (Daft Punk - 'Get Lucky', featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers [2013])
  4911.  
  4912.  
  4913.  
  4914.  
  4915. > You are Artemis Sparkshower, 19D Armoured Scout Specialist currently of the VIP Section, Canterlot Palace Military Office, Household Division.
  4916. > And you may not be a Centurion of the Order of the Ram, like your comrade and friend Specialist Lily Glamerspear, or have a Silver Star, like your quaternion leader Corporal Honour Bound, or even be the de-facto leader of a whole school of batpony assassins like your extraterrestrial comrade Purity Ebonshield, but you were still proud -- fiercely proud, even -- to be a Royal Guardsmare.
  4917. > Which is why this situation right now felt so alien.
  4918. > You'd been on leave a few times, sure -- gone back to Berry to visit your parents, and to visit your Huckleberry.
  4919. > But you'd always gone in your service uniform, flying or taking the train home while wearing your kilt and belted plaid in Skylander's the blue-and-green tartan with pride.
  4920. > And in your mind, on those occasions you'd still been a soldier of the Royal Guard, just temporarily off-duty.
  4921. > Here, though, as a ticket-holding guest of the Grand Galloping Gala?
  4922. > Wearing a completely civilian dress?
  4923. > With matching slippers and a hoofbag?
  4924. > Addressing not just your comrades by their first names, but also even the Very Important Pony (who wasn't actually a pony) that you were sworn to protect?
  4925. > It really pulled you mentally out of your sabots.
  4926. > Having a couple of drinks in you helped, too, though it wouldn't have been enough on its own -- you had still felt like a guard when the Royal Engineer took you all out drinking Tuesday night in your service uniforms.
  4927. > What *wasn't* helping, you felt fairly certain, was the way Lily was pointing out all the attractive, young, and unescorted colts as you walked along in the gardens.
  4928. > "Hey, how about that looker over there? I know he's a unicorn -- I'm biased, sue me -- but he's got the body of a pegasus, if I do say so myself. Really fills out that suit jacket in the shoulders. Good jawline, too."
  4929. > The worst part is, you don't know if she's pointing them out to *you* or to Sergeant Ebonshield.
  4930. > Maybe it's better if that remains a mystery.
  4931. > "... Whaddya think, Purity? Or is he too old?"
  4932. > Hurricanes!
  4933. > With a dismissive laugh, the batpony shakes her head, the large tassel on her tall black 'smoking hat' swaying as she speaks.
  4934. > "Oh, the age, I do not mind so much. As long as they can dance -- that is what I seek for tonight, after all."
  4935. > Lily slyly cocks an eyebrow.
  4936. > "Just dancing? That's all?"
  4937. > Eb chuckles again.
  4938. > "Just the dancing, yes. The variety vertical first, and perhaps, if they are gifted, later also the kind horizontal."
  4939. > Tornadoes!
  4940. > So many ponies have joked about what went on behind closed doors at the Gala, but to hear Eb talk openly about it while *at* the Gala...
  4941.  
  4942. > As with the feeling of civilian-hood, it really grounded the idea that yes, some ponies were sneaking off for secret sex elsewhere in the palace.
  4943. > "And you're absolutely sure your 'Mister Lionheart' won't mind?"
  4944. > The batpony bats a black-booted forehoof disdainfully.
  4945. > "As I have said previously, I made clear to Gilberto the nature of our relationship temporary. I wish for him ultimately to find a good mare closer to his age. That is the custom here in Equestria, after all."
  4946. > Even though you're tremendously embarrassed by all this talk, you can't help but look at things analytically.
  4947. "If you want to find a good dancer, it seems to me like you'd want to wait for the music to start and the floor to open up so you can see the colts in action."
  4948. > Both Lily and Purity look over at you amusedly, but it's the older mare who speaks.
  4949. > "Of course. But there is no harm in examining the field before the games begin, yes? And sometimes the colts are shy or too engrossed with their friends and the chit-chat masculine, that they need encouragement to begin dancing. One must be open at any time to seize the opportunity."
  4950. > Glamerspear snickers.
  4951. > "So, what kind of opportunities are *you* looking for, Artemis darling?"
  4952. > Uh-oh, colt front -- err, *cold* front -- approaching.
  4953. > Or maybe it's a hot front, from the way your cheeks feel inflamed.
  4954. > You just shake your head and shut your eyes.
  4955. "I don't know, Lily."
  4956. > The unicorn glances around.
  4957. > "Well, going by your last choice -- admittedly your only choice -- you're into big, strapping stallions. And you said you liked having a colt who was noticeably larger than you were, so that rules out a lot of unicorns and pegasi, but I'm sure we can find somepony to fit the bill. Ya know, an awful lot of Royal Guardscolts are into body-building. Maybe you ought to consider dating inside 'the service'."
  4958. > This really wasn't the discussion you wanted to be having right now.
  4959. > You weren't about to burst into tears over what had happened with Huckleberry again, but the emotional wound was still a bit raw.
  4960. > And you were past the 'rebound' phase that had you sticking your tuft out to your VIP.
  4961. > Even though on Tuesday night you'd felt uncharacteristically eager enough to chat it up with a few colts on the dance-floor, this evening you felt subdued and a little embarrassed once more.
  4962. > You felt *big* again, in the bad way, and even though you had confidence that your dress was well-fitted and you were as good-looking as your companions had said you were, you still felt a bit uncomfortable bearing the gaze of the other guests.
  4963. > The only saving grace was that you were accompanied by two even 'bigger' creatures than you, if one of them only visually.
  4964.  
  4965. > Purity Ebonshield's crimson-red dress with matching shawl and accompanying glossy black boots, belt, and tall hat was like a beacon for stares, from colts and mares alike.
  4966. > It hadn't been the case in the rotunda, maybe because everypony was watching for the next guest to arrive, or else paying more attention to Equestria's immortal sovereigns, or even simply because Honour's father Leeward Bound stepped in and stole the show.
  4967. > But outside in the gardens, her outfit was a show-stopper; you couldn't imagine she would actually need any kind of help finding a dance partner tonight.
  4968. > And then there was the Royal Engineer, who, if he was conservatively dressed, still towered head and shoulders over every creature at the Gala, with so far the sole exception being Her Majesty Princess Celestia.
  4969. > Maybe if a minotaur or an adult dragon showed up then he'd be outclassed in the height department.
  4970. > Regardless, having him in your little group still made you feel, well, not *small*, but *less big*, at least.
  4971. > It'd be a greater effect if Lily and Purity weren't around for you to tower over yourself.
  4972. > You'd be more isolated for the Lipizzaner Waltz, at least.
  4973. > Glamerspear seems to be waiting for an answer from you, but you just shake your head.
  4974. "I can't -- I don't really want to think about that right now. Can't we just enjoy the party for now? We'll stick together as a group until at least after dinner, won't we? I don't mind if we split up with dance partners later."
  4975. > She just chuckles in response.
  4976. > "Alright, alright. I don't mean to push ya, Sparks. I'm just saying, keep your eyes open, okay? When the DJ starts playing your favourite track, you'll want to be ready to dance with a colt who makes your wings wanna flutter a bit, ya know? And remember: you don't have to take the hoof of the first colt who asks you, either."
  4977. > You nod.
  4978. "Sure, Lily."
  4979. > Taking a deep breath, the pink unicorn sighs and looks around at the other guests as your little group comes to a brief halt once more.
  4980. > "Well, Miss Purity insists she's got her own eyes open, and Miss Artemis wants to wear blinders until it's dance o'clock, so I guess that just leaves one other party-member to try to hook up in advance..."
  4981. > She rolls her head over to face up at your VIP.
  4982. > "... So, what's your pleasure, Anon? After your session in the 'Well of Life', Honour told us you *could* be interested in ponies, but she was a little short on the details about *what* specifically interested you."
  4983. > The Royal Engineer's mouth hangs open for a moment before he answers.
  4984. > "That's a good question. I mean..."
  4985. > Taking a look around himself, he inhales through his nose, then smacks his tongue against his lips.
  4986. > "... I don't really know what I *should* be looking for. What's actually considered attractive, to ponies?"
  4987. > Glamerspear snorts, and you can't help but raise a forehoof to your muzzle.
  4988.  
  4989. > Even Ebonshield titters a bit, but the Royal Engineer takes it in stride.
  4990. > "... Without getting too technical, I'd have to assume some of the same general physical attractiveness rules apply: bilateral symmetry, particularly of the face, youthfulness, things like good teeth. But beyond that, the rules aren't so clear. Larger eyes are often considered attractive among my people, but pony eyes are off the scale. Long hair is usually another positive trait for females, yet just about every pony has long manes and tails. And your colours are way out of spectrum..."
  4991. > He smiles amiably.
  4992. > "... It's all a bit confusing, physically. I assume I'd focus first on finding someone with whom I could build a *mental* rapport. Perhaps a fellow inventor or engineer."
  4993. > With a sly grin, Lily steps out in front of the Royal Engineer, gathering you and Ebonshield up in her forehooves, drawing you both in close beside her.
  4994. > "Oh, yeah, sure, having the same interests and such is important in the long run, but you can't ignore the *physical* needs, ya know?"
  4995. > She glances conspiratorially between the three of you ponies, still beside her.
  4996. > "... We've got a nice little spread here, I think. On my left, you've got an exotic beauty, graceful and athletic, experienced and determined..."
  4997. > Eb flutters her eyes, then covers her muzzle and starts to chuckle like she can see where this is going.
  4998. > "... On my right, you've got small-town mare-next-door. Sweet, and maybe still a bit innocent, but strong and committed."
  4999. > You're not sure what you're supposed to do.
  5000. > Why is she introducing you like this?
  5001. > Anonymous knows who you are, especially after the talks you've had -- in his office, in the garage, even the rambling, progressively-more-drunk, barely-remembered conversation Tuesday night, in-between bars and nightclubs.
  5002. > "... And in the middle, you've got the party mare, emotional and headstrong."
  5003. > Purity stops giggling long enough to speak up.
  5004. > "And who likes to play the games childish and silly!"
  5005. > "And who likes to play silly children's games, sure. But you got a little spread of marely body shapes and personalities here before you, so why don't you take another look, and tell us which of us speaks loudest to that other part of you, the one that isn't your mind, ya know?"
  5006. > As she waggles her eyebrows and purses her lips, you struggle in her grasp.
  5007. "Lily! That's not a very polite question!"
  5008. > Eb joins the unicorn in fluttering eyelids and making kissy-face, and you cease resisting, wondering if maybe you're in the wrong, but Anonymous just shakes his head, laughing.
  5009. > "Come now, you're asking me to play favourites. We're informal tonight, but we do have to work together afterwards."
  5010. > That's right!
  5011. > Your VIP *was* a gentlecolt!
  5012.  
  5013. > Relenting, Lily releases Ebonshield and pats you on your shoulder.
  5014. > "Hey, I'm just trying to break the ice by lightening the mood. Sorry, Sparks. I just don't want Anon to feel uncomfortable spilling some of the beans on his desires. I mean, everypony's got their preferences, right?"
  5015. > That mollifies you a bit, and she looks up at the Royal Engineer.
  5016. > "... So don't tell me you don't have any, Anon. You don't pick your partner based on what society says you *should* find attractive, you pick 'em based on what you *do* find attractive. And none of us are gonna laugh at you for what you prefer, right?"
  5017. > Purity nods.
  5018. > "Certainly."
  5019. > You're still a bit flustered from the question, but you nod, too.
  5020. "Of course."
  5021. > Lily rubs her forehooves together.
  5022. > "So how about it? There's lots of mares out here. What do you find interesting? Help us help you."
  5023. > Anonymous takes the aggressive assistance in stride, taking a sip of his drink and slipping his free hand into his pants pocket.
  5024. > "Okay. If you want the honest truth, most ponies look pretty 'cute' to me. The bright colours, the body fuzz, the long mane- and tail-hair, the height difference. It's 'cute' like the way a puppy or kitten is 'cute', though, which is a bit of a psychological hill to surmount..."
  5025. > He clears his throat.
  5026. > "... I mean, a puppy or kitten is adorable, but you wouldn't, you know..."
  5027. > Taking another sip, he shrugs.
  5028. > "... Beyond that, I admit I've thought a bit about wings and horns. Feathered wings cross into genuinely 'pretty'; something about the splendour of the arrangement of all those feathers, I think. And unicorn horns, well, physically they don't really do anything for me, but magic is pretty interesting, and uh, I can imagine some, let's say, exotic applications."
  5029. > That comment about 'splendour' makes you feel a bit tingly, but Lily shakes her head.
  5030. > "Boss, I hate to tell ya, but you ain't the first wingless colt to be dazzled by pegasus plumage or wondering what'd be like to get a glow-job."
  5031. > ... Glow-job?
  5032. > Is that because when a unicorn 'holds' something telekinetically, it glows?
  5033. > You've no doubts about what's being 'held' in that act.
  5034. > Ebonshield quickly extends her wings out of her red dress.
  5035. > "And the wings of leather, you have not considered them? Certainly enough of them have been flapped in your direction."
  5036. > Anon looks glances down into his glass, swirling the dregs of punch around.
  5037. > "They certainly have. You, Carmen, Sister Lucretia... I can't really say bat-wings do anything particular for me, though I've nothing against them, either."
  5038. > The batpony gracefully folds her appendages back up in good humour.
  5039. > "I understand, naturally. I find the feathers of the pegasi most majestic also, and while my Gilberto has yet to make use of his horn in bed, I look forward to when he finds the confidence and attentiveness to do so."
  5040.  
  5041. > Glamerspear holds up a forehoof.
  5042. > "In the interest of fairness for the pony species not represented in present company, let me remind you that you've managed to tire every one of us out in combat training, with the exception of our earth pony, Honour. And, while we don't know anything about how your species does *gland-to-gland* combat, from how you handled the *hoof-to-hoof* variety, you might find yourself pining for that hardy breed of pony."
  5043. > Oh, my!
  5044. > "¡Ja-ja-ja-ja-jaa!"
  5045. > The unicorn's forward comment about sexual endurance gets your cheeks rosy and sends Ebonshield into high-pitched tittering again.
  5046. > To imagine a colt tiring out their mare in bed...
  5047. > Anonymous looks about as embarrassed as you are by the current trend in conversation, with Glamerspear and Ebonshield practically ganging up to uncover his sexual preferences.
  5048. > It really wasn't very nice of Lily to do this.
  5049. > And it wasn't very nice of Purity to go along with it, either.
  5050. > The batpony dabs a forehoof at her eyes to wipe away tears, then playfully reaches up a little to tap Anon's ribs with the back of her hoof.
  5051. > "Our Anonimo is a 'good sport' to suffer stoically the slings and the arrows of our propositions outrageous. But let us now--¡¡¡Sombras!!!"
  5052. > Purity's eyes go wide as dinner plates and the purple colour seems to drain right out of her face as she stares at something behind you and Glamerspear.
  5053. > Everypony turns to look at the object of her horror.
  5054. > Just stepping out from the palace into the gardens was a young colt with a dark-grey coat and a thin black moustache, wearing a white jacket with black lapels bearing elegant floral embroidery.
  5055. > Accompanying him was a slender older mare with a red dress with four layers of ruffles in the back, each one trimmed with black and a thin ribbon of gold.
  5056. > And that's when you notice that both of them have *leather* wings folded up against their sides.
  5057. "Batponies!"
  5058. > Lily furrows her brow.
  5059. > "What? Batponies? You mean, more than just the one we brought?"
  5060. > But when she sees them too, her jaw drops, and she almost drops her drink as well.
  5061. > While the three of you ponies gawk at the two foreigners, your Very Important Pony just shrugs.
  5062. > "What's the problem? I invited one, why couldn't somebody else? Perhaps they're members of the Night Guard?"
  5063. > That would make a lot of sense, but regardless, you feel certain that there have never been any of their kind at the Gala before.
  5064. > Surely, in spite of Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell, which only applied to soldiers anyways, and given that the batponies had only been in Equestria for two years now, word would have gotten out if any of them had attended a previous gala.
  5065. > Especially if they didn't even try to hide their bat-wings!
  5066. > Not that Ebonshield was particularly trying to hide *hers*, but you'd imagined that she would have been the sole exception.
  5067.  
  5068. > As you try to process things in your head, you barely register your own leather-winged companion's speech.
  5069. > "Those two are *not* members of the Guardia de la Noche. And we have met at least one of them before."
  5070. > Nor do you notice your tall VIP's reply.
  5071. > "Ah, yes. I see now."
  5072. > You can only watch, stunned, as the well-dressed duo approach your group, the mare beaming a wide smile.
  5073. > "Why, if it isn't our dear friend the Royal Engineer of Equestria! How are you this evening?"
  5074. > You recognize that flowery Canterlot voice.
  5075. > Your VIP doesn't miss a beat in replying.
  5076. > "Good evening, Reverend Mother Superior. I'm very well, thank you. What a pleasure to meet you here at the Grand Galloping Gala."
  5077. > It was Carmen, the religious and political leader of the batponies.
  5078. > Without her coating of white body-powder, she was almost unrecognizable to you, but Anon had met her unpowdered before -- in the Well of Souls, inside the Lunar Sanctuary, where she'd given him a massage.
  5079. > You don't know the colt she's with; perhaps he was one of those hooded lunars who accompanied her entrance into the Grand Hall of Stars?
  5080. > "Oh, believe me, my Lord Engineer, the pleasure is all mine..."
  5081. > Carmen actually *bows* to the Royal Engineer -- she curtsies, in fact, using her wing-fingers to spread out the bottom of her dress.
  5082. > Purity was already stunned just from seeing her subterranean-dwelling mother at the Gala; this act of deference to your VIP seemed to shock her even further into utter disbelief.
  5083. > Wasn't this the pony to whom your entire group had to bow when she visited?
  5084. > Granted, Anon was considered an 'honorary Lunar' now, but even so.
  5085. > The slender batpony rises up from her bow, still wearing a smile.
  5086. > "... After all, I must thank you for enabling we Children to attend this most magnificent of Equestrian festivities."
  5087. > Enabling them to attend?
  5088. > What did the Royal Engineer do to get Reverend Mother Carmen an invitation?
  5089. > "I'm not sure I understand, Your Reverence."
  5090. > Carmen steps up and indicates her still-flabbergasted daughter with one forehoof.
  5091. > "No? Then allow me to shall explain. Since the previous Gala, The Great Mother had considered issuing tickets to fine representatives of the Children, but she was concerned about the possibility of an incident. Even though it has been two years since we clashed with our Equestrian kin, and even though I proposed to bring only Lunars with me, the Great Mother still demurred. And while the the Night Guard were established soon after the Great Mother's return, with a pledge to renounce past animosities, they have twice been denied the honour of executing their duties on the night of the Grand Galloping Gala...."
  5092.  
  5093. > That same forehoof turns back to touch a little bit of tuft showing above the cut of the dress.
  5094. > "... But for this year, when it was clear that one of the Children would already be attending, and a Star at that, the Great Mother demurred no longer. Your action, as Her chosen in the matter of reconciling our two peoples, spurred Her to agree to our presence earlier this week."
  5095. > Ebonshield finally finds her balance once more, stuttering out incredulous questions.
  5096. > "The Guardia de la Noche patrols the palace walls tonight? How many of the Children attend the Gala?"
  5097. > Carmen looks at Purity as if noticing her daughter for the first time.
  5098. > "Such impatient questions! Do you not trust in the Great Mother's wisdom, Stellar Seventh? Regardless, I will answer you: Yes, the Night Guard will patrol the walls palace tonight, though the security of the Gala itself remains in the capable hooves of the Royal Guard. And as for Children attendees, I have brought with me three Sisters and three Brothers of the Lunars..."
  5099. > She looks over at her escort, one of the 'Brothers'.
  5100. > "... Altogether, including the two of us, we are eight, the sacred and auspicious number."
  5101. > You feel like you're missing something -- something important.
  5102. > The presence of batponies at the Gala, the use of the Night Guard for the palace walls...
  5103. > That's when it hits you.
  5104. "*You're* the 'unspecified threat' to the Gala!"
  5105. > Your sudden outburst shocks your companions almost as much as when they saw Carmen and her escort in the first place.
  5106. > But if the religious leader of the batponies is taken aback, she doesn't show it.
  5107. > "I beg your pardon, miss Sparkshower?"
  5108. > Oops.
  5109. > You may have pushed this cold front a bit too fast.
  5110. "I'm sorry, your Reverence. I had overheard at the First Air Division that they've been on high alert due to 'unspecified' threats to the Gala passed down from Intelligence..."
  5111. > Feeling like a soldier once more, you furrow your brow and look over at Sergeant Ebonshield.
  5112. "... Intel would have known of the potential of the Night Guard going on duty and tickets being issued to the Children, but because of Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell rules, they couldn't inform the soldiers. So the threat was just left as 'unspecified'. I've been wondering what it was all this time since; it has to be you and your kin."
  5113. > Carmen flutters her eyes and shakes her head.
  5114. > "If you say so. I certainly couldn't pretend to understand the complexities of Equestria's defences. But, as for being a threat, my child, neither myself nor any of my Lunars have brought with us any weapons, for to wield a weapon is anathema to the Lunars. In fact, I would imagine the only armed batpony here at the Gala is the one accompanying you."
  5115. > She slyly looks over at Purity, who acknowledges the statement with a nod.
  5116.  
  5117. > Glamerspear cuts in accusingly.
  5118. > "Yeah, well, maybe none of *you* are armed, but you'll excuse me if I keep my eyes open and my horn lit for any Night Guards straying over here from the outer walls. Like, ya know, the fifteen bats who tried to murder all of us a week ago."
  5119. > The Reverend Mother Superior takes even this accusation in stride, reassuring the unicorn as a mother would a child.
  5120. > "It pains me to know that their deplorable actions on that awful day still haunt you, my dear. If you would permit it, I would be privileged to welcome you into the Lunar Sanctuary for the purposes of helping to heal that trauma. I'm sure that the Lord Engineer and your comrade Corporal Bound could attest to the Well's curative properties. Until then, it may perhaps reassure you to know that the entire Temple of the Swarming Meteors, from whose ranks Marcos drew his accomplices, have been punished for their malfeasance by being banned until further notice from Night Guard duties..."
  5121. > She looks to you and gives a small nod.
  5122. > "... And I should note that each Night Guard patrol tonight will be accompanied by representatives of the Royal Undermountain Constabulary, as an additional concession to safety for all concerned."
  5123. > In spite of Sergeant Ebonshield's friendliness with the border agents in that strange outpost hidden in an orchard shed, the impression you've always gotten was of coldness between the batponies and the R.U.C who guarded access to the Rookery, almost like the relationship between prisoners and their jailers.
  5124. > You can't imagine that adding Royal Guards into each Night Guard group would reduce tension; if anything, it would increase it.
  5125. > But if anypony in the Night Guard had had designs to disrupt the Gala, you suppose that the presence of Royal Guards should dissuade them.
  5126. > The Reverend Mother Super beams a warm smile to everypony in your group.
  5127. > "Well, this has been a pleasant encounter. It is always reassuring to greet familiar faces at a party. But I'm sure you must all have your own destinations and desires for tonight, and I would not dream to impose upon them. And I must admit for my own part that, as I have so rarely been in the great Palace of Canterlot, I wish to take full advantage of this invitation so as to socialize and establish rapport with our Equestrian kin. After all, the Great Mother surely does not expect you to shoulder the entire burden of reconciling our peoples, my Lord Engineer."
  5128. > Anonymous bows.
  5129. > "Of course. I wish you an excellent and enjoyable evening, Your Reverence."
  5130. > Carmen curtsies again, and the unnamed and so-far silent 'Brother' similarly gives a bow, and then they depart, heading off through the gardens, along the outer face of the palace.
  5131. > Glamerspear scrunches up her muzzle.
  5132. > "Crazy seeing her here. D'you think they introduced her at the door as 'Reverend Mother Superior'?"
  5133. > You shake your head.
  5134. "The attendant did introduce Purity with her full title."
  5135.  
  5136. > Eb nods.
  5137. > "This is so. I cannot imagine Carmen permitting anything less."
  5138. > Lily turns to your senior comrade.
  5139. > "Look, I know she welcomed us to the Rookery, and we're all honorary Stars and Lunars and all that, smiles all around, and nopony's accosted us since your brother attacked us, but do you really trust her and her cronies here?"
  5140. > The batpony chuckles.
  5141. > "That is a question most open. If you mean, do I trust that she has not come to stab anypony with the blades, then yes, I do trust that she spoke the truth in this. Lunars do not carry weapons, generally. I believe she plans indeed to conduct the diplomacy and the politics, as she has said..."
  5142. > She sniffs, and finally seems to re-compose herself after the shock of seeing her mother here in the Palace garden.
  5143. > "... I did not think that the Great Mother would so soon permit the presence of my kin in the public. But I likewise did not think that Equestrians would be allowed to enter the Rookery so soon as well, particularly without an escort..."
  5144. > Eb looks up at your VIP.
  5145. > "... Matters between Equestrians and Children have progressed quickly since I have entered your service, Anónimo."
  5146. > Anonymous sighs.
  5147. > "They're about to progress a lot quicker, I suppose. Songwell sent word earlier today that he'd found an excellent potential location for my foundry, and I have to admit it looked good enough on paper that I forwarded it to Purse Strings for review. We might visit the place tomorrow afternoon, if any of us are in a state fit to go out."
  5148. > That gets Glamerspear grinning again.
  5149. > "Oh? So you are coming around to ponies, after all?"
  5150. > Your VIP just smiles.
  5151. > "Ask me again after the Lipizzaner Waltz, when I've got a few more drinks in me. I'm not quite loose enough right now to start babbling about what floats my boat."
  5152. > "Oh, I will, Anon, I promise!"
  5153. > Lily and Purity start tittering again between them, and all you can do is shake your head.
  5154. > With Honour elsewhere, does that make *you* the 'responsible one', even though you were the youngest?
  5155. > Not that you weren't also interested in hearing what, uhm, 'floated' the Royal Engineer's 'boat'.
  5156. > He liked wings...
  5157. > Did he like anything else?
  5158. > Maybe something he saw?
  5159. > You were the furthest in size from a puppy or kitten...
  5160. > Suddenly you don't feel so big-in-a-bad-way any more.
  5161. > You feel big-in-a-good-way.
  5162. > Yep.
  5163. > You are a big mare, and yes, Glamerspear was right, you *do* need a big, strong colt.
  5164. > Maybe even somepony you already knew, and who already knew you.
  5165. > If only you could have a serious conversation about things.
  5166. > All this joking and ribbing from Lily and Purity, though...
  5167. > It sure wasn't making it easy.
  5168.  
  5169. Suggested interlude music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=phEINTShaX8 (Massari - 'Be Easy' [2006])
  5170.  
  5171.  
  5172.  
  5173.  
  5174. (Chapter still in progress)
/rgm/ Guardmares

MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 4

by TheManFromAnotherTime

MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 5

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MLP /rgm/ prompt: CLOPS

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