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Choose Your Own Slaveventure Part 2 (Complete) (CYOA)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 04:22:54 AM

  1. Originally posted April 2017
  2.  
  3. > "Are all the work facilities like this? Enclosed, built in?"
  4. > "To some degree."
  5. > Anonymous nods.
  6. > "Cadance, are the spice farms still running?"
  7. > You perk up.
  8. "They should be. There may even be some of the Tenders still out there."
  9. > "We'll go over there. Those are much, much more open."
  10. > There are, as you had predicted, a few ponies still moving through the fields - their muzzles encircled by the white masks that protected them from the pungent odor of the plants that grew there.
  11. > Anonymous slips from his cart, walking to the edge of the field and reaching down to drag one of the roots from the ground.
  12. > "Wasabi. Pure, real wasabi - 140 dollars per kilogram produced. Nearly nine-hundred times the value per mass of corn. Eighty-five percent of farms growing it fail in a year; ninety-three percent by two years. It's fantastically hard to grow. Cadance, how many ponies work this field?"
  13. > Dredging the figures from your memories, you pause.
  14. "The Wasabi? No more than forty-eight, Master. Earth ponies all of them - Crocus runs this field, and she has six assistants with similar talents."
  15. > "How many fields have we lost?"
  16. "Two fields' worth. Out of sixteen. The spring we had that bad frost."
  17. > "There you go. Another example - simple talents, put to common use. Those with relevance can lead, the others support. The ones with talents in geology and engineering clear the fields and lay the pipes; those with plants grow the product - and so on."
  18. > Murmurs rise from the guests again, nodding as they begin to understand how he works.
  19. > "And the best part is, because of the independence I make use of - twenty-six ponies. No guards. You can look around and see yourself; there aren't any men walking around with guns keeping them in line. They work on their own."
  20. > There in fact is a guard, at the very far end of the field.
  21. > But not a human one, and in the fading light it is impossible to distinguish the pony's dress from the workers still walking among the plants.
  22. > He is more interested in the perimeter fence he walks along, though.
  23. > "That's the beauty of it all - their expertise in the field, my management. My coordination. They tell me what is possible for them to do, I lay the groundwork and coordination, and they put it in to practice."
  24. > Your heart sinks as the small convoy gets underway again, and you realize he is going to lead you right back through the living quarters.
  25. > Though the center of the camp.
  26. > Maybe-
  27. > You allow yourself the slightest tinge of hope.
  28. > -maybe nopony would have left dinner yet.
  29. > Subtly as you can, you try and squirm down into a lower position in the seat.
  30. > The convoy itself would be sure to attract the attention of any ponies passing by; all you could do was to lower your head and hope they did not see you.
  31. > ...that you are acting like a foal caught with their hoof in the cookie jar is not lost on you.
  32. > At least the streets were mostly empty, that one wish answered.
  33. > Seeing another single pony trotting ahead - their form concealed under a heavy cloak - you again drop your head.
  34. > Not fast enough, though.
  35. > They are still looking as you pass, and you are still quite able to see the familiar rounded eyeglasses, or the familiar splash of white around his muzzle.
  36. > Blue eyes lock with yours, and your heart skips decides to cancel its regular beat for several moments.
  37. > Instinctively you rear back, which also lifts your head up, which also reveals even more-
  38. > And then Sunburst has been whipped away, left behind by the convoy.
  39. > Your thoughts stay with him.
  40. > Sunburst.
  41. > Of all the ponies who needed you the most.
  42. > He'd almost been avoiding you since the punishment.
  43. > The times he faced you an obvious struggle.
  44. > To see you like this...
  45. > A - a gaudy plaything for Anonymous.
  46. > Every fear you'd held about the outfit, every spark of indignity that you'd squashed for the sake of the promised reward, come roaring back.
  47. > It is all you can do to keep your teeth merely gritted and not grinding.
  48. > He had never said anything about parading you around the camp like this...
  49. > Maybe you should have seen it coming.
  50. > Give him a hoofstep, he'd take a gallop.
  51. > But maybe a part of you had wanted to give in and accept the lie - believe that it was easier to go along with this.
  52. > ...that part of you had been so very wrong.
  53. > Agonizingly wrong.
  54. > You've stopped again.
  55. > In fact, you're already standing on your hooves again - Anonymous standing in front of the offices that stand in for your 'town hall'.
  56. > He's speaking, motioning about.
  57. > Presumably talking about how he lets you mostly govern yourselves.
  58. > Biting your tongue - literally, as well as figuratively - you struggle to force the thoughts out of your head and refocus on what he is saying.
  59. > "...living quarters we went past earlier, you can see that they are quite capable managing their own day to day lives. Most of that is done here."
  60. > "You let them run things away from your home?"
  61. "Most-"
  62. > You hadn't been invited to speak.
  63. > But you have to speak, or else your thoughts are going to slip away again.
  64. "-most of the decisions we make here are simple ones. Tallying basic supplies. Organizing what work needs to be done on the camp itself. No major decisions are made without my Master's input."
  65. > Anonymous' gaze subtly flicks in your direction, and you realize your error.
  66. > Not 'camp', he'd said.
  67. > "She's right. More importantly, putting their 'leaders' deep in the facilities like lets the ponies regard their actions as their own. It's good for their morale - improves their willingness to respect that leadership."
  68. > Improves, but not solidifies.
  69. > Motioning up to the sign above the building's entrance - an elaborately-painted "TOWN HALL" in flowing, calligraphic script that clearly shows the viewers
  70. "We do our best to... make it more than just a job."
  71. > Because without that, you would all fly to pieces.
  72. "If you would like to come in and see?"
  73. > "Yes, why don't you - Cadance, you can unlock it?"
  74. "Of course."
  75. > Thank Celestia the windows were darkened - nopony was there tonight.
  76. > Of course, with yourself and Mayor Mare out to play showpiece at this party, who would be?
  77. > Unlocking the door with a flick of low magic you step in and turn on the lights.
  78. > Immediately it becomes clear to those who follow you that there is now way Anonymous could be lying about how independent you were.
  79. > The entire suite is set up for ponies:
  80. > Desks subtly too low, meant for a head that hung over them instead of sitting behind.
  81. > Pens and pencils are equipped with rubbered grips for mouthwriting.
  82. > You turn to open the door to your office -
  83. > And with great, great effort resist the urge to slam it shut again.
  84. "...unfortunately, there isn't anypony working here tonight. If we could, I would show you what we are doing now."
  85. > Even as you talk, you also stay firmly planted in front of the office door.
  86. > No one could be allowed in there.
  87. > No one could see the smashed window, or the way somepony had burned huge letters into your desk's surface with their horn.
  88. > Despite seeing them upside down - they had been written so that you would face them when sitting in your chair - it was still quite clear what they spelled out.
  89. > TRAITOR
  90. > When Anonymous finally leads them out, it is to your considerable relief.
  91. > This night had already been a disaster.
  92. > If that had been seen as well...
  93. > The last place Anonymous leads the group is to the security station.
  94. > Their interest here is far less, although Thunderlane still leads them on a minor tour as well.
  95. > You hang back, eyes barely seeing or ears hearing as he introduces them to two of the other ponies who'd taken on the vacated guard positions.
  96. > Instead, the night's experiences roll through your mind.
  97. > The blackened letters, spelling out not just an insult but a challenge to you.
  98. > Sunburst's look of - of shock, horror, anger, you didn't really know - as he saw you ride past.
  99. > Soft hands on your coat, lips whispering friendly words into your ear until they made the offer that still sent a fearful ripple through your body.
  100. > Returning to the manor is something you have never been so thankful for.
  101. > Anonymous returns to his seat holding psuedo-court in the lounge.
  102. > Drinks flow freely now, and the guests form small knots of discussion among themselves.
  103. > Thankfully the tour's conclusion seems to have ended for a time for your direct involvement in the presentation.
  104. > Even so, half your mind is still far distant.
  105. > So far distant that you do not even see the elaborately-polished shoe until your hoof comes down on it.
  106. > The yell of surprise, though - that gets your attention.
  107. > Instantly what has to be done is all too clear.
  108. > Retreating a step, you drop your muzzle to the floor - wings half-spread, drooping to allow their tip-feathers to also brush against the ground.
  109. > Your mane pools in a multihued puddle littered by the golden chains hanging from the horn ring.
  110. "Forgive me, Sir. I was - There is no excuse. You have my greatest apologies for my clumsiness."
  111. > An eternity seems to pass as you stay like that, nose buried in a pool of mane and thick rug - a picture of abject submission, completely open to whatever may come your way.
  112. > All that comes of it is an annoyed grunt and the beginning of a phrase.
  113. > Even so, you know that voice.
  114. > Gregory - the huge man, the first to have questioned you during dinner.
  115. > The one with the hideously grating-
  116. > "Darling! I told you to stay away from that thing; it's clearly not tamed at all!"
  117. > If your ears were not already turned down, the harpy-screech of his wife would bring them so.
  118. > "And you - you! Stay far, far away from my husband! You clearly do not know your place at all."
  119. > If it would keep you away from her...
  120. > Spouting further apologies and backing away as quickly as you could, you quickly depart for a different section of the room.
  121. > How much you wish that you could take a few shots from one of the unimaginably expensive liquors floating around the room right now.
  122. > It would certainly ease the headache-
  123. > Just as you'd thought things were calming, another familiar voice splits the crowd.
  124. > "Oh, Anonymous! Anonymous, I heard the most startling thing earlier from your slave!"
  125. > An oath soundlessly flies from your lips.
  126. > Was nothing going to go right tonight?!
  127. > Catherine bullies her way through the group surrounding your owner, finding a spot vacated not so much by courtesy but by sheer shock of her sudden arrival.
  128. > "She says - I simply cannot believe this - she says that you have no plans to have her bred!"
  129. > One eyebrow cocking upwards, Anonymous tilts his head.
  130. > "I cannot say I do. She currently holds the very vital role of administrator. I can't have her distracted."
  131. > "But - but you know, if there's a chance she might give another alicorn foal..."
  132. > "Without - the Crystal Heart, I believe it was called?"
  133. > "Well, I certainly believe so. There's nothing that's stopped any other foals being born with their magic. But, you know, there's only one good way to find out."
  134. > "Hmm..."
  135. > ...oh, you do not like the way Anonymous is looking at you right now.
  136. > A predatory, yet pondering look.
  137. > "And even if she does not - well, an alicorn's offspring surely has considerable potential for leadership, even if not..."
  138. > Not one bit.
  139. > You need out.
  140. > Away from this.
  141. > A moment of silence to refocus.
  142. > Even the vial that Anonymous had given you wasn't enough now.
  143. > Desperately holding your poise until you are out of sight, you manage to strut from the room rather than flee.
  144. > But even so, there is no disguising what you are doing for yourself.
  145. > With the noise of discussion reduced to a distant buzz, you lean entirely against a cool wall - closing your eyes and trying to drain the pressure that was building inside your skull.
  146. > It was never going to be easy.
  147. > But now...
  148. > All of this...
  149. > It was too much.
  150. > Too-
  151. > Footsteps.
  152. > Polished shoes on hardwood floors.
  153. > Straightening up, you spin around - barely in time, as a man comes into view.
  154. > One of the first to arrive tonight, you thought.
  155. > The second he lays eyes on you, the man approaches.
  156. > He's -
  157. > Weathered, is the best way to describe him.
  158. > Skin that had surely started out lighter, acquiring a tan and some roughness along the way.
  159. > A face crossed by creases folded in the skin and split by a considerable mustache.
  160. > The moment he lays eyes on you, he lights up.
  161. > "Ah, there you are."
  162. "Yes - forgive me, I was looking in to something. Can I be of assistance, sir? Do you need something?"
  163. > "To talk with you, actually."
  164. > He half-squats, holding out a hand folded into a half-fist.
  165. > It takes you a moment to realize what the gesture intends, but you reach out and hoof-bump with his hand.
  166. > "Sam Weston. Investment banker."
  167. "Cadance, sir. Though, I'm sure you knew that by now."
  168. > "Yes."
  169. > He chuckles softly.
  170. > "Yes, I had. I wanted to talk to you, actually."
  171. > The mask slips back into place, a welcoming smile plastered onto your face.
  172. "What may I help you with, sir?"
  173. > "I wanted to ask you about the ringleaders of the escape. You said they're still here, but you had to punish them?"
  174. "...yes, sir."
  175. > Of all the topics to focus on, why this one?
  176. > "Your owner is a merciful man. You were forced to punish them, though - what happened?"
  177. "I... did, sir. Without question, and then took my own punishment."
  178. > "No, I mean - tell me what happened when you punished them. What did you do? How did they react?"
  179. > How did they react?
  180. > What kind of question...
  181. "They... it was thirty lashes, and to be separated from something or somepony they cared for. They were given the option to take sixty lashes at the beginning, though, instead of the separation."
  182. > "And?"
  183. "Three did not. Three of them...'
  184. > Don't think about Sunburst, don't think about Sunburst -
  185. "...chose to take it."
  186. > "And then?"
  187. "Then, sir? It was over. Those who chose the separation are still under that edict."
  188. > "But what happened then? You carried out the whipping, didn't you? How did they react? Did they scream?"
  189. > For the first time since the topic had come up you force yourself to look up and into his eyes.
  190. > What you see there sends your stomach churning and heart thudding away beneath the gauzy dress.
  191. > Fascination - and maybe even a bit of delight.
  192. "S-Some, sir. Some did. A few - a few of them. Not all."
  193. > "And tell me - how did that make you feel?"
  194. > Your heart is pounding so hard you're sure that you're almost certain it is about ready to burst from your chest.
  195. > "I need to know, Cadence."
  196. > Despite the emotional mask you'd pulled on, what you felt must have leaked out into your expression.
  197. > A hand settles on your withers - not a harsh touch, but a soft one.
  198. > "What I want to know if I'm going to be putting my money into this is just how much your master has a grip on you. So tell me, Cadance - how did it make you feel to do that?"
  199. > He was close now.
  200. > Close enough that you could smell the alcohol on his breath.
  201. > Not drunk enough to make it obvious, but certainly it is affecting his judgement...
  202. "It - it felt..."
  203. > You want to tell the truth.
  204. > Speak to how truly sickening holding the whip in your magic had felt.
  205. > How in some ways, the searing pain of the lashes on your back had not been a hundredth of the pain you felt when you'd wielded it on your ponies.
  206. > And yet - speak that truth, and who knew what you were costing Anonymous?
  207. > "Tell me, Cadance. I want to know."
  208. "It felt awful. Disgusting. Like a sickness eating away at my heart with every blow - because I knew I had to do it. I knew there wasn't going to be any other way."
  209. > Because you knew if you left it to Anonymous, it would be far, far worse.
  210. "I hated every second of it. Every scream - and some of them did scream - because I knew it was the result of my mistake."
  211. > Sam draws a soft breath, and this time your nervousness turns to outright disgust.
  212. > The look in his eyes - more than interest.
  213. > Excitement.
  214. > He was enjoying hearing this.
  215. "Do you understand what I am saying? My punishment - it wasn't my own turn under the whip. My punishment was to use it on them."
  216. > "I do."
  217. > His hand is petting your back, and your breath catches as each stroke brings it a little further back - a little closer to your dock.
  218. "S-Sir-"
  219. > "Shh. You're a good girl for your master, aren't you?"
  220. > One wing unfolds, settling over his arm.
  221. > Not stopping it, but a warning-
  222. "I - I'm sorry, Sir, my Master-"
  223. > "Shhhhh. I"m not going to hurt you, pony. But you're going to be a good girl and tell me the rest, aren't you? You don't want to disappoint your master-"
  224. > "Sam, you've got too much booze in you. Stop bothering the pony and go back to the party."
  225. > The voice makes both of you snap your heads around to face the new speaker.
  226. > Gregory stands in the door to the hallway, arms crossed.
  227. > "Piss off, trainer. I'm-"
  228. > "You're way, way too drunk for this."
  229. > "Aw, come off it. She's not obje-"
  230. "Sir, I am strongly objecting. And if you continue this I will be forced to alert my Master; he will not be pleased you attempted to assault his pony as she was trying to carry out his duties. Especially not me."
  231. > It was as if a spell had been broken.
  232. > Like you'd taken a step back and realized just what was happening.
  233. > His lips move in worldless anger, but eventually Sam seems to realize he was out-argued and outnumbered.
  234. > And Gregory does not merely tower over him, but loom.
  235. > Standing, Sam shoves past the larger man and vanishes with the sound of fading footsteps.
  236. > With his departure, you breath out - the emotions that had been building up streaming out as you let go of them.
  237. > "You apology is accepted, by the way."
  238. > Gregory was still there, leaning on the doorframe.
  239. "Apology, sir?"
  240. > You barely have enough focus to form the reply.
  241. > "For stepping on my foot. Accepted; this is obviously a rough night for you."
  242. "T-Thank you, sir. I'm sorry - I just need a moment."
  243. > "Take your time."
  244. > Moving closer, he opts to instead to lean against the wall nearer to you.
  245. > Eventually, you look up.
  246. "Is - is there something I can do for you, sir?"
  247. > You just want this night to be over, but right now he has to be seen to.
  248. > "No."
  249. > Grinning, Gregory shakes his head.
  250. > "No, I'm just waiting here because I got the feeling you need a moment... and I feel like I owe you a bit of an apology as well."
  251. "Apology, sir?"
  252. > "For Tiff, in part. My wife."
  253. "Ah-"
  254. > You lower your eyes, the shrieking voice echoing between your ears.
  255. > "Really. She's -"
  256. > He raises a hand to rub his forehead.
  257. > "-she's got a sweet heart, I swear. Just... doesn't get along with female - anything, really. Always a challenge."
  258. "A-Accepted, of course."
  259. > "Of course, but you don't really have a choice do you?"
  260. > Hesitating, you can't quite bring yourself to meet his eyes and dispute that.
  261. > Nodding, Gregory makes a soft 'hmm'.
  262. "And the other part, sir?"
  263. > "For me. I brushed you off earlier - figured Anonymous was keeping you as a fancy... pet for him. Especially when I saw his daughter and yours. Not true, though."
  264. > From tones laid on 'pet', it's exactly clear what he means.
  265. > Your wings shuffle nervously, the feeling of that hand nearing your dock not quite gone.
  266. "...no, sir. I'm not - that."
  267. > "Hmm."
  268. > Smiling the slightest touch, Gregory nods again in seeming approval.
  269. > "I have to say, I'm glad. Not just because it'd be rougher on you, but because honestly my opinion of him would be much, much lower right now if he had done that to you."
  270. "Sir?"
  271. > "I - did he tell you what I do?"
  272. "No, Sir. My primary responsibility was the presentation tonight."
  273. > "I train ponies, Cadance. Not break them - train them. Teach them skills, knowledge - things they can use. Things that make it less likely that they'll be used by someone for just simple labor... or just as pets."
  274. > Understanding of why he would be here tonight, why he would have questioned you so hard, slips into place.
  275. "Or for breeding."
  276. > The words slip out before you can stop them, a sign of how far this night has pressed you.
  277. > Some of Gregory's smile fades.
  278. > "Yes, I did see you ran into Catherine. I've heard of her too."
  279. > At some point you'd settled onto your haunches.
  280. > "Can I ask you something though, Cadance?"
  281. "...of course, sir."
  282. > A soft chuckle.
  283. > "Heh - well, I suppose you don't have that choice. Alright. Here's my question - and, I know it's going to be hard so let me be clear right now: You don't want to answer, you don't answer. Got it?"
  284. "Yes, sir."
  285. > "How much of what we're being fed tonight is true? Your master's presented himself in a very, very particular light - a very positive one. But I heard what you were telling him, and I still see how he's got you dressed up now. So, tell me - how much of that is true? If I start putting ponies in to this, what am I really getting in to?"
  286. > You... want to answer truthfully.
  287. > Here was the first guest tonight who, it seemed, looked on you as someone rather than something.
  288. > A being worth apologizing too, not just to be used.
  289. > And you want to confide in someone so very, very badly.
  290. > But...
  291. > Could you tell him everything Anonymous had done?
  292. > How he'd held Flurry's safety over your head?
  293. > What he'd done to Corona?
  294. > The predatory, hungry look in his eyes when Catherine had mentioned breeding to him earlier...?
  295. > Surely that had to just be the liquor getting to him...
  296. > And then again, Gregory had been kind to you - but he was still involved in trading slaves.
  297. > Undoubtedly profiting from his training too; you knew ponies with useful, applicable skills took top position at many sales.
  298. "He's... things have been tense here. Ever since the escape, it's not been completely calm."
  299. > You have Gregory's attention now, you can tell.
  300. "We've got a lot of new arrivals coming in, and some of the older ponies are still angry because - I'm sure you know, when ponies run like that not everypony comes back."
  301. > "I do."
  302. > It goes without saying that you aren't referring to the ponies who actually make it to freedom.
  303. "And then there was what happened with the guard. So no - things are not perfect. But I don't think my Master would punish me for saying hat."
  304. > "Really."
  305. "Yes, really."
  306. > Perhaps that came off more forceful than you'd meant it to, but you run with it anyhow.
  307. "He is trying, sir. He knows he's made mistakes, and I really think - I really do - that he is trying to do better. He's letting us take over more responsibility for ourselves - myself, but also the ponies in the guard."
  308. > "And how true is the story behind that?"
  309. "True. A guard went... out of control; my Master removed him and let us take over in their place. And it's more than that; he's let me move away from using the whip for minor things - putting ponies on extra shifts or making them clean up what they did instead of physical punishment."
  310. > " 'He's let you' - an interesting way to put it."
  311. > That, more than anything else, seems to have touched Gregory's interests.
  312. "He let me, yes. And if the money saved by letting us police ourselves adds up, he's agreed to put it towards something to let us relax. He is learning, sir. So are we, in many ways."
  313. > "Both of you, learning..."
  314. > Laughter echoes from the lounge.
  315. > "Yes, I suppose that's a good way of putting it."
  316. "It's the truth, sir. The escapes wouldn't have happened without me, but now - ever since he started actually working with me -"
  317. > You pause, hesitating with how to phrase this.
  318. "- this town, these ponies - they aren't something I'd trade away. I am responsible for them. Anonymous has let me be responsible for them, and in many ways I owe him deeply for that."
  319. > "Including your daughter, I imagine."
  320. "Including. She's - motivation too. With her so close, it's always a good reminder of exactly why I have to do my best to work with my Master, not against him."
  321. > Raising one eyebrow, Gregory tilts his head.
  322. > "You make it sound like she is being held hostage against you."
  323. "My Master has never once threatened to harm her."
  324. > It's the whitest of lies.
  325. > But still a lie, and he had asked for the truth.
  326. > Thankfully he doesn't seem to be as adept at reading ponies as Catherine is.
  327. "I know Flurry Heart's being here is a kind of leverage... but he has not harmed her, and I do not believe he will."
  328. > "Hmm. So, you'd say your working relationship is relatively solid.
  329. "Yes. We both, I think, understand that it will only go worse if we continue to butt heads."
  330. > "Mmm. It's strange, then."
  331. "Sir?"
  332. > "That he'd dress you - like this. Fooled me into thinking you were a toy for his whims, and certainly might have fooled the others."
  333. > Breath catching, you lower your head - tail flicking nervously and ears drooping.
  334. > "Point of conflict between the two of you?"
  335. > He'd asked for the truth.
  336. "I... I won't deny I'm not happy about this. It's... it's humiliating."
  337. > Lifting a hoof, you stare down at the thin band of metal encircling your fetlock and the gleaming chain that falls from it before rising up towards your horn-ring.
  338. "There's a constant humiliation associated with being a slave. With being someone's property, fit to be sold or owned at another's whims. But everypony learns to deafen it from day to day. I think that's why my Master's system works: When he gives us things like our own homes, or letting us set our own rules and police ourselves - and we don't have to try so hard to keep that anger out."
  339. > "I'm hearing another 'but' there."
  340. > You can't help the jerkiness of your nod.
  341. "Sometimes, though, it's so hard..."
  342. > Why are you telling him this?
  343. > It's certainly not part of your script for tonight.
  344. > "Sometimes it still hurts."
  345. "Yes. I don't have much pride left... but I was a princess. To be walking around like this... it does cut through the armor around my heart."
  346. > Dropping your hoof back down, you nervously scuff at the floor with its edge.
  347. "He's given his reasoning. Many of the guests here would want to see a mare so broken in that he can make them wear something like this. The ones who cared to see further - like you - they'd see through it. They'd listen to what I'm saying, not what I'm wearing."
  348. > More softly, you add:
  349. "I hope."
  350. > "And if he'd gone on touching you - if he'd tried to go further - would you have stopped him?"
  351. "My magic is suppressed, not severed. I have enough."
  352. > "Didn't ask about 'could', I asked would you - is something like that you would feel comfortable your master would not punish you for doing?"
  353. > This is a far easier question to answer.
  354. "Sir. When Thunderlane was the first pony to take up a guard position - to take on a position of authority - it was made clear to all of us: We shouldn't ever fear kicking back against that. Yes. I would have."
  355. > But you didn't.
  356. > Little liar 'princess' - you'd been frozen.
  357. > By what - fear, shock?
  358. > "Cadance."
  359. > He actually drops into a squat, holding out a hand towards you.
  360. > "Trust me. I've seen the worst that's done to your kind. I've seen the best, too. If what you've told me is all true-"
  361. "It is."
  362. > "- then you're right; there's not much of a good choice. But there is choice."
  363. "Not a real one. I work with him, or ponies suffer - suffer even more than we do just by slavery."
  364. > "The rewards are very real, though. I think - after tonight, after talking to you and him, I think this is something worth investing in too."
  365. > ...
  366. > Gradually the evening winds down.
  367. > Guests draw off, sedated by the alcohol that had been flowing for the past hour and a half.
  368. > Eventually the door closes one last time, leaving you alone with the staff.
  369. > They, despite the appearance of a few carefully-hidden yawns resulting from their long day, quickly begin to put away the remainders.
  370. > You move to aid them initially, but soon you're more of a hindrance than a help.
  371. > They're vastly more familiar and experienced with these tasks, after all.
  372. > Left on your own, you decide to seek out Anonymous.
  373. > It isn't hard to figure out where your Master has drifted off to, and carefully you crack open the door to Megan's room.
  374. > Anonymous lays sprawled the length of his daughter's bed.
  375. > One arm encircles the bed's proper owner, who - having changed into a less proper dress - is delightedly savoring what might have been a pastry of some kind.
  376. > A moon pie, maybe.
  377. > Curled against his far side with his arm around her barrel and the spread of a wing extended across his chest is Flurry Heart - eyes half-closed and breathing softly.
  378. > You'd only eased the door enough to put an eye in front of the opening and spot him, but Anonymous calls out before you can depart.
  379. > "Cadance, come on in."
  380. > Is that an order, or an option?
  381. > You aren't sure, but decide to interpret it as the former.
  382. > Slipping through the doorway, you motion with your muzzle towards the half-sleeping form of your daughter.
  383. "Is it okay...?"
  384. > "...yeeeeah, why not."
  385. > He grins happily, his own eyes half-closed.
  386. > "S'prised you haven't gone back yet..."
  387. "I wanted to see everything done for the evening before I asked to go."
  388. > "Heh, that's why I like you, Cadance. Always - always dut... dutiful."
  389. > One hand strokes through Flurry Heart's mane, yielding a soft coo from the filly.
  390. > Approaching her, you lean down and brush your muzzle against her cheek.
  391. "Hello there, Flurry."
  392. > "Hello, mama."
  393. > Yawning widely, Flurry shuffles her wings and peers up at you with sleepy eyes.
  394. > "Y'look pretty."
  395. > Pretty.
  396. > Thank Celestia that was all she knew to describe your current state as.
  397. "Thank you, little gem."
  398. > Nuzzling into her side as well, you're caught by surprise when Anonymous raises a single finger to tap the end of your nose.
  399. > "Boop."
  400. > You go mildly crosseyed with surprise, while Flurry Heart and Megan both break out in little fits of tired giggles.
  401. > Despite the stress of the evening, you can't help but crack a smile as well.
  402. > A moment of innocent fun, after everything you'd gone through.
  403. "Did you have a good evening, Flurry?"
  404. > "Uh-huh. All the people were funny. They asked me some things, but Master told them the answers I didn't know. But Mistress Megan got me some cookie dough, and then she let me have some of her dessert too when we got back!"
  405. > There's no fear, no hesitation or script-like narration in the way she talks about Anonymous' daughter.
  406. > She isn't being pressed to praise her; their relationship is truly a good one.
  407. > Raising your head, you cross around to the far side of the bed before dipping it into a bow.
  408. "Well, I suppose I must thank you for looking after my daughter so well."
  409. > Megan giggles again, reaching out a hand to pat your mane.
  410. > "She's nice. I like he-e-eeer."
  411. > That statement had been interrupted by a huge yawn, and it is Anonymous' turn to chuckle.
  412. "Come on up on the bed and take a rest, Cadance. We're all a little bit tired."
  413. > He is, you think, in an unusually good mood.
  414. > Unfortunately, good mood does not resolve the fact that the bed is already quite crowded with a full-grown human, a child, and a filly occupying it already.
  415. > There's little room to fit another full-size alicorn, unless-
  416. > "Come on, Cadance. You can come lay down next to Flurry."
  417. > Cheeks tinged with red, you clamber up onto the mattress - a task made harder by the chains still running from the bands on your fetlocks - and carefully settle on your belly sprawled across Anonymous' legs.
  418. > Quickly you busy yourself with preening preening Flurry Heart - the filly automatically extending a wing to let you nibble at the downy sheets of feathers covering it.
  419. > The chance to go back to an old, familiar comfort with your long-lost daughter is a gift in its own right, but more importantly it also lets you forget who, exactly, you were laying next to.
  420. > ...For that matter, if a chance to be with your daughter hadn't been on the table you'd probably have half a mind to completely snap at your owner.
  421. > Anonymous' actions tonight had left a deep, slow-burning anger in your belly.
  422. > You'd admitted to Gregory that you understood his reasoning, but that didn't mean you agreed with them for one moment.
  423. > He'd dressed you up in an embarrassing outfit, took you out for a trip through the camp with exactly zero warning where everypony could see you - what were you even going to do about Sunburst?! - and left you to fend for yourself among the guests.
  424. > You'd nearly been assaulted - assaulted; what would have happened if he had tried even more?! - and yet still pushed yourself to do everything you could to give him the presentation he had wanted...
  425. > Burying your muzzle amid your daughter's wings, you try and push those thoughts away.
  426. > No point in obsessing over them now; Anonymous that he was obviously inebriated and not thinking clearly.
  427. > At least, you think as you quietly shut the door with a flick of your horn, nopony else would be likely to intrude on his daughter's room.
  428. > This wasn't something you needed word of spreading to other ponies.
  429. > Things were tense enough in the camp already.
  430. > ...and that brings your mind back to the message that had been carved into your desk, down in the town hall.
  431. > Sighing softly, you pull yourself closer - twisting your head to lay an ear against Flurry's side.
  432. > Listening to the little pit-pat of beats is calming.
  433. > Even if you cannot fall asleep, closing your eyes lets you slip back to an earlier, happier time.
  434. > To when she was a permanent fixture at your side, cooing and fumbling to grasp at your tail, nursing quietly at your belly, even to her surges.
  435. > Handling those seems like a breeze compared to the now...
  436. > The barest hint of a smile touches your lips as you snuggle down beside Flurry's head.
  437. > "Her heart's funny."
  438. > Lifting your head, you find that Megan had slipped from the bed and crossed around to Flurry's other side.
  439. > Now she had mimicked your action, laying an ear to Flurry's side.
  440. > "It's really, really slow. Like, against mine."
  441. "Really?"
  442. > "Uh-huh. My doctor showed me how to feel my own heart once."
  443. "I've heard our hearts beat more slowly when we are resting than yours do. Never checked it, though."
  444. > "Yep!"
  445. > Megan leans over to wrap her arms around your daughter's barrel, and one pink-on-purple wing extends to slip around her in turn - spreading across Megan's shoulders like a blanket.
  446. > A pang of supreme jealousy shoots through you at first; that action had once been reserved for family alone.
  447. > But then you reconsider.
  448. > For Flurry Heart to extend that to a human - to one who she served, no less...
  449. > They must have grown close, even this quickly.
  450. > And really, that was... good, for an alicorn.
  451. > You would not wish her to be put in your place, let alone whatever may have happened to your Sister-In-Law or Aunts.
  452. > Shifting aside, you open up a little space next to yourself and Flurry for her to take.
  453. "Would you like to come up here?"
  454. > Wordlessly, Megan scrambles up onto the bed - taking a seat in the open space and leaning against your side.
  455. > "...you're big."
  456. > A soft chuckle escapes your throat.
  457. "Yes, I am. I'm an alicorn - we're all slightly larger than most ponies."
  458. > "Yeah."
  459. > Twisting around, she leans over on your side - head coming to rest around your shoulder, golden strands of hair mingling with the strips of your outfit's fabric.
  460. > After a moment you shift a wing over to cover her as well, eliciting a giggle from the girl.
  461. > "You're a good size to hug, too. M'sorry you'll have to go soon."
  462. > Ah, right.
  463. "...won't you need me to, though? You do have to sleep before school tomorrow."
  464. > "Nu-uh. Not now. I can stay up a little more, and Daddy's got to move as well."
  465. > Yes, you had forgotten about Anonymous.
  466. > It could be said that your little mission to drive thoughts of his... closeness from your head had succeeded.
  467. > Raising your head, you find that Anonymous, in fact, has slipped into a light doze himself.
  468. > "I'll go stick some fingers into his nose when it's time to get up."
  469. "...er..."
  470. > "Not really!"
  471. > Megan bursts out into giggles, which Flurry Heart sleepily adds to.
  472. > Laying your head back down, you brush your muzzle through her mane.
  473. "Megan? Can I just - say something special to you?"
  474. > "Uh-huh?"
  475. "Thank you. For looking after my Flurry Heart. I still worry about her sometimes, but I'm can tell you're both very good friends."
  476. > There's a long silence after that.
  477. > Flurry is actually the first to speak up:
  478. > "Mistress Megan is a good friend."
  479. > It's a simple declaration, but a meaningful one.
  480. > Not a good owner, or a good master.
  481. > A good friend.
  482. > For her part, Megan just reaches out and scratches Flurry around the withers, eliciting another small coo from the filly.
  483. > "Sh'told me some of what happened to her... and I can figure it out. I'm old enough to understand."
  484. > The shiver that runs through your daughter's body is not, you are certain, a result of Megan's touch.
  485. > "...but all that means is that I'm never letting anyone else take her! Flurry's mine now, and I'm gonna take good care of her!"
  486. > Despite the positive intent of that declaration, a pang of anger runs through your heart.
  487. > Flurry Heart should not 'be hers' - she was your daughter; she should never belong to another living creature!
  488. > Quickly you seize ahold of that thought and suffocate it.
  489. > Right or wrong, Megan was the best possible thing you could hope for Flurry to have.
  490. > Someone who cared.
  491. "That's why I say thank you. Because I know you will keep her safe."
  492. > "You sound sad."
  493. > Sometimes you wondered if young ones - pony and human alike - were every bit as astute as adults, but only showed it when they knew it would hit the hardest.
  494. "I'm... when you're a bit older you'll understand more, but... when a mother has her child taken away, it hurts. A lot."
  495. > Reaching down, you brush your muzzle along Flurry's wings again.
  496. > How long had she sad in a cage, or chained to a pole, tormented not by cruelty but simple apathy?
  497. "It hurts even more when a mother finds out that her child was hurt while she was away."
  498. > And it hurts even more than that when a mother has to hurt other ponies to ensure her child isn't harmed again.
  499. > "But she's back now. And she's my friend."
  500. "I know, child."
  501. > A heavy sigh heaves your sides; your tail flicks nervously as your ears droop.
  502. "But wounds like that are slow to heal. It's no fault of yours; I just..."
  503. > You look back over yourself.
  504. > At the sheer strips of fabric that still cling to your form, at the saddle wrapping your barrel and gleaming chains laid out on the mattress, shifting at the turn of your head...
  505. > At Flurry Heart's best - very likely only - friend coming with the title 'mistress'.
  506. "...sometimes I still think about everything we've lost, and feel sa- oomph!"
  507. > Megan had launched herself up, arms circling around your neck.
  508. > "S'okay. I get it."
  509. > A pause, then:
  510. > "...okay, I don't get all of it... but I get why?"
  511. "That makes sense, little one."
  512. > Glancing back around, again you find Flurry Heart smiling warmly up at the two of you.
  513. > If not for Anonymous' arm that was still slipped around her, you rather suspect she would be joining in as well.
  514. > Nuzzling Megan's hair a small, happy nicker escapes your lips.
  515. "I'm... glad. Truly, truly glad that you are here for my daughter."
  516. > The dampness around your eyes, you swear, is merely the result of your exhaustion combined with the stimulant's effects.
  517. > Nothing else at all.
  518. > Honestly.
  519. > "Can y'tell me about it?"
  520. > Megan's muttering is only half-audible from where her face is still buried into your neck and mane.
  521. "You?"
  522. > "Miss Kennedy -"
  523. > One of her teachers, you presume; the name isn't familiar among Anonymous' human employees.
  524. > "-says that when you're upset about something, it never hurts to try and tell a friend about it."
  525. > Ah.
  526. > So that was the hidden question in there.
  527. > 'Am I a good enough friend to be told about what is upsetting you?'
  528. > "...and I wanna know how to do good. I - I'm supposed to be learning how to do all this, right?"
  529. > A soft sigh escapes your throat.
  530. > Lifting your head one last time, you check Anonymous - still very much asleep.
  531. > How much you want to just unload your fears, your worries and concerns onto her!
  532. > And here was, for once, a human that would listen to what you were saying and perhaps even hear it too.
  533. > At the same time, though...
  534. > Could you even tell her the most of what was troubling you?
  535. > Besmirch her father like that?
  536. [Choice]
  537. > Would she even understand why being a slave upset you, or would she - as young ones so often did - draw a line between "them" (bad) and "us" (good, obviously)?
  538. "Megan..."
  539. > You can't tell her everything that is troubling you.
  540. > Not now.
  541. > Not to someone so young.
  542. > But that doesn't mean you can't give her some idea of what troubles you.
  543. "...I was - away from my daughter - my family - for so long. And then I found out she was hurt, and it was my fault, and I still can't have her by my side..."
  544. > "But - you're here now..."
  545. > Nodding fractionally, you lean your head back against Megan.
  546. "I am. But this is special, and only because Anonymous let me. Normally... I'm still under a punishment, and can't see her often."
  547. > "Oh..."
  548. "I know it is a punishment I earned, but still... it hurts. A lot. To be away from the only family I can still find."
  549. > Megan nods, a gesture felt rather than seen, and you quietly remember that she, too, is away from part of her family.
  550. > Smiling softly, you nuzzle back into her shoulder and blow a soft puff of breath through her hair.
  551. "Especially -"
  552. > You pause, hesitating.
  553. "I know her old owners were bad people, that I couldn't have stopped what they did. But it feels like a little bit my fault too. That she was hurt then. That I couldn't be there for her. That I lost my Flurry for years, and now can't even be here to make up for anything too..."
  554. > Leaning forward again to nuzzle Flurry, you add:
  555. "And I know that if I had any hope of seeing her again, I would not have earned that punishment. That much is my doing."
  556. > Not, you insist to yourself, because it would have changed for a moment how you felt about slavery.
  557. > But the truth you must force yourself to admit is that if you'd known about Flurry's purchase, if that threat had been leveled against you earlier, you would never have gone ahead with the escape.
  558. > Not if you'd known...
  559. > "How'd it happen?"
  560. "Hmm?"
  561. > "How'd you get - uh, not with your family?"
  562. "We were... split up. Before we were made slaves. I was being hunted because I was a princess, you understand? So I thought that if I went somewhere else than where Flurry was, they wouldn't hunt for her anymore."
  563. > "Oh..."
  564. > It's a simple response - a one-word admission that she doesn't really understand everything, but accepts what you are saying.
  565. "If I could have known for sure that Flurry would be going to someone who cared for her as much as you do, I'd..."
  566. > Have what?
  567. > Given up before you did?
  568. > Turned over your daughter, to be owned as property by another?
  569. > "But - couldn't you work with them? Like you do with Daddy?"
  570. "Not everyone would be so willing. Some of those who owned me - they just wanted to own an alicorn. They didn't think about how I could work with them."
  571. > Not to mention, you weren't exactly the most cooperative at that point either...
  572. "One thought if he made me beat another pony, I would stop caring about everypony else. I'd be cold and heartless. Another put me in a big, golden cage in his house, so that he could show me off to everyone. It didn't have any walls, just bars. I lived in there for a long, long time without seeing another pony..."
  573. > That one had also thought that isolating you from any other ponies would be the key to breaking your care for them.
  574. > "You - lived in a cage? Like, all the time?"
  575. "Yes. It had a bed, and a little door for food to be put in, and a mirror for me to make myself pretty with..."
  576. > And a toilet.
  577. > No walls around that either.
  578. > Or anything else to do to pass the time.
  579. > After all, what else would a prize slave have need except for a way to show themselves off for their owner?
  580. > This night hadn't been the first night you'd worn gilded chains.
  581. "All that time, I worried about my Flurry. Even when I came here and started looking after your Father's other ponies, I still thought about her. And now she's here, but I don't have nearly enough time with her to - to make up for all the years I lost."
  582. > "I could tell Daddy-"
  583. "No, little one. Don't bother him with my troubles. I gave this punishment to myself, and I have to see it through."
  584. > A fearsome little pout develops on Megan's face, but you pull her back close against you.
  585. "I miss my daughter fiercely, and I miss my home as well. But your father made her safe, and I can't trouble him more."
  586. > "That's silly."
  587. "If he wants to reward me by letting me see her more, I am sure he will tell me."
  588. > Nuzzling against Megan's cheek one last time, you add:
  589. "Do you know what you can do, though? Keep being a good friend for Flurry Heart. Be kind, and caring, and my heart will be happier knowing you are doing that."
  590. > "I promise!"
  591. > Little arms squeeze you in a fierce hug.
  592. > "I promise, I promise! I won't let anyone hurt her!"
  593. "Thank you."
  594. > Nickering softly, you kiss her hair gently before looking around again at the still-sleeping Anonymous.
  595. "Come, though. We should get you to bed - and your father, too."
  596. > The chorus of two young voices brings a little smile to your lips.
  597. > Pony or human, some things were all the same.
  598. "No, no 'awww'. We all need our sleep."
  599. > Extricating yourself from her arms, you slip from the bed and nudge at Anonymous' hand with your magic.
  600. "Master? Your daughter needs her bed back. Perhaps you should go to bed in your own room?"
  601. > A long groan is your response, and a hand slapped against his face to rub at his eyes.
  602. > "Yeeeeah. Yeah, I should. Alright..."
  603. > Busying your self waiting while he says goodnight to Megan, you exchange a last few quiet words with Flurry Heart when a cautious voice interrupts you:
  604. > "Um... Cadance? One last question?"
  605. "Yes, Mistress Megan?"
  606. > "You said you were separated from Flurry Heart before you were a slave. What about your, um -"
  607. > Her face screws up, searching for the word.
  608. > "What about her father?"
  609. > Your heart wrenches, a wound scabbed over but never fully healed re-opening.
  610. > Flurry, too, stiffens.
  611. > She must have so little memory of him...
  612. "I miss..."
  613. > You swallow, voice low and bitter.
  614. "...miss my Shining Armor too. I - I don't know where he is now. He was already gone when Flurry and I were fleeing."
  615. > "Oh..."
  616. > Judging from Megan's tone, she understands that was a uniquely painful question.
  617. > Walking to her side, you brush a cheek against Megan's.
  618. "...but that means it's even better that my daughter is with someone good now. Goodnight, Mistress Megan."
  619. > "Goodnight, Cadance."
  620. > You're slipped from the room then, fast enough to the damp shimmer on your eyes.
  621. > Anonymous is out a moment later - closing the door behind him and stretching with numerous pops and a loud groan.
  622. > "Had a bit of a conversation with my daughter?"
  623. "Yes, Sir. I - told her a little bit about how I was captured, and why I am glad that she is taking such good care of Flurry Heart."
  624. > From another pony, it might have sounded like gratuitous brown-nosing, but Anonymous already knew just how desperate you were to keep her safe.
  625. > "And your husband, I guess."
  626. "...and him, Sir."
  627. > The house is nearly empty now, most of the house slaves and staff having finished putting away the leftovers and rearranging furniture to its normal standards.
  628. > A few eyes turned to watch the two of you pass, but they are relatively few and far between.
  629. > Anonymous heads for his room, quickly snapping off his tie and leaving it along with his jacket hung on a waiting hook.
  630. > "You didn't tell her the entire truth, though."
  631. > Your muzzle dips, eyes falling to the floor.
  632. "Shining Armor is dead."
  633. > That gives Anonymous a pause, one shoe off and real surprise on his face.
  634. > "Really? I - hadn't known-"
  635. "I don't... know. I didn't see him die. But if he was still free, he would still be fighting to free others - and I would have heard. Your government would have interrogated me. If he is captured..."
  636. > Another hard swallow before you can go on.
  637.  
  638. "...if you think I am... resistant, I'm nothing compared to him. Shining Armor was a bottomless well of emotional strength on which I could always draw. Whenever I faltered, he would be there to let me lean on him. His talent was to defend and protect others - it was his most basic nature. No whip or other cruelty could ever take that from him."
  639. > Anonymous' footsteps approach, but the seal is already broken now - emotions flowing out from a wound you had long ago learned to scab over but never actually healed.
  640. "He would not break, but fight tooth and hoof and horn for our justice. Shining Armor has either died defending those few ponies who still hold our Freedom, died under some bullheaded attempt to make him obedient. Even if his heart is still beating, there would be nothing left of the stallion I loved in it."
  641. > A hand on the back of your neck, fingers in your mane.
  642. "...and sometimes I've wished him a painless end. Not to be crushed bit by bit with one cruelty after another. And I hate myself for it all the sa-"
  643. > Abruptly you're cut off as gentle hands remove the ring from your horn and begin to unlock the bands around your fetlocks.
  644. > "Come on. Let's get this stuff off you."
  645. > Tail giving a little happy swish at finally being free from the miserable outfit, you're soon devoid of the last remnants.
  646. > Stretching fiercely, you give a shake - ears, mane, and tail flapping - and stretch, back popping in a staccato burst.
  647. > The saddle's weight finally absent from your barrel is definitely welcome feeling.
  648. > "So, he was already gone by the time you were caught. What happened with Flurry? Did you tell my daughter the truth of that, or..."
  649. "Only a little bit."
  650. > Sucking a deep breath, you nod.
  651. "If I can ask, sir... if we're going to have this discussion, may I have a drink first?"
  652. > "That difficult of a topic?"
  653. "And if I'm to sleep tonight. That stimulant you gave me was a strong one."
  654. > Although, admittedly, quieting your memories would help as well.
  655. > Anonymous nods, rising.
  656. > "Wait here, I'll have to get something."
  657. > When he returns there are two tumblers in his hand.
  658. > Settling on the edge of his bed, he beckons you closer.
  659. > When you approach to take yours, he reaches out with a free hand to continue gently stroking your mane.
  660. > "You did good tonight, Cadance. Better than I'd actually expected, what with me dragging you out into the camp."
  661. "...thank you..."
  662. > The murmured response only provokes Anonymous to go on:
  663. > "Gregory told me what happened... that's part of why I wanted you with me. If I'd been there for that asshole...."
  664. > Snarling lightly, he shakes his head.
  665. > "I need to reward you for this. Something real."
  666. > Tumbler at your lips, you speedily swallow the mouthful of smoky, burning liquid before it can induce a coughing fit.
  667. "Master?"
  668. > "S'not right. You gave me a pile of shit about it, but you buckled down and did it... did good."
  669. "Sir...?"
  670. > "Aside from the money adding up from the guards - I'm going to give you some funds. For... whatever. Working on the camp, extra supplies, your call."
  671. > Carefully stifling your surprise, you simple settle for a nod.
  672. "I appreciate it. Everypony will appreciate it."
  673. > "And - I could see about getting you off your suppressants too. This ought to be good enough evidence that you can keep yourself under control - follow orders no matter how much you dislike them."
  674. "It's a statement that I understand my actions affect everypony here, sir."
  675. > "Hmm."
  676. > Anonymous' glass, you notice, is rapidly emptying.
  677. > You'd meant to confront him at some point about how he treated you - to ask whether he really thought of you as a partner or merely property.
  678. > Would now be a good moment?
  679. > Certainly he seemed to be in more tolerant spirits.
  680. "Master..."
  681. > Staring down into the glass and watching the ripples bouncing from its sides, you swallow the lump in your throat and summon the courage for the next words.
  682. > Mere exhaustion was not the only reason you'd requested this drink.
  683. "Anonymous - what am I to you? Please, give me the absolute truth - am I really your partner? Or - if not, what am I? Just property? Something to be used? Where do we actually stand, with each other?"
  684. > He doesn't respond immediately, and in another time that might have frightened you - brought on the expectation that you'd somehow displeased him and a punishment is forthcoming.
  685. > But after this evening...
  686. "I have to know. What I should expect -"
  687. > You search for the right word.
  688. "- us to be. If I'm just being rewarded because it benefits you, or because we're real partners in this?"
  689. > Anonymous takes another sip of his glass.
  690. > "...you've suddenly discovered a bit of a fight. Maybe I shouldn't have given you alcohol after all."
  691. > He doesn't move to take it from you, though.
  692. "Frankly, Master, this doesn't have anything to do with that. I might be a bit more cautious asking this, but it'd still be on my mind."
  693. > Another stretch of pointed silence drives you to go on:
  694. "It's - I just want to know. Am I just a tool, or am I really a partner here? Am I even a pony - a person - in your eyes? Or am I just a thing for generating money? Was I lying to them twice back there - once when I showed them a broken pet, and once when I told them I was an independent partner?"
  695. > Still nothing, and a bit of real anger does flicker into existence in the back of your mind.
  696. > If he was really that hesitant-
  697. > "I don't know."
  698. > That answer, and the tone it is delivered with, catch you by surprise.
  699. > He hadn't been ignoring your pleas, but ruminating on them.
  700. > And his answer was that he-
  701.  
  702. > "Let me be straight about one thing: We aren't equal. Even if I said you were, a slave isn't ever equal and I don't feel like pretending. They're my ponies in the end, and you're my pony too."
  703. > The glass slams all the way back before he continues.
  704. > "But on the other hand... yeah. You're not just a worker. Not even just a good worker. It's more than that I can rely on you to see sense and shit... you've got a dog in this fight too. It wouldn't work without you, and you wouldn't have anything without it."
  705. > There is, as much as you hate to admit it, a point there.
  706. > Having ponies to govern had given you a purpose again.
  707. > But...
  708. "May I speak freely, Master?"
  709. > "Have I ever stopped you from saying whatever the hell you wanted to?"
  710. > Putting that point side, you continue:
  711. "Nothing about this night felt like I was actually a partner - your aide, and not just your property. You wanted me at your side so you could keep any grabby guests off of me, but if you hadn't dressed me like that they wouldn't have been so keen to in the first place. You put me out there on that tour with no warning, while I was desperately trying to keep them from seeing any imperfection. And you didn't say no when Catherine asked you -."
  712. > Breaking off, a shudder runs down your from nose to rump - tail flicking unhappily.
  713. > In a softer voice, you resume:
  714. "I want to know - what should I expect from you? Am I an ally, or a tool? Because if I am just property - well, I've never denied that. Just, for the love of Celestia don't string me along pretending I'm your friend."
  715. > When you look up, he is peering down at you - an introspective look on his face.
  716. > "This is really bugging you, isn't it? Not just old stuff you've tried to tamp down coming back up again."
  717. "Some of it is. I told your daughter a little bit - of what'd happened to me in the past. About being put in a literal golden cage, being made a showpiece with no hope, no goal, no company, even no privacy."
  718. > You glance over to where the outfit had been laid out - saddle and chains and bridle and horn-ring.
  719. > Despite being off of you it still held an aura of threat about it, as if reading to leap up and wrestle itself back on to you again.
  720. "I don't know how I survived then - mostly slept a lot, I think. I've been put in solitary confinement away from all contact - just me and my regrets - in their hope that I'd come out a broken mare. I've been 'just property' before."
  721. > "You think I'd do that to you?"
  722. "There wasn't any 'no' to the idea of having me bred - mounted, rutted, and forced to carry a foal by another's order for your benefit. And what scares me, Anonymous? If you held these ponies hostage, I would do it."
  723. > The words are accompanied by a bitter, foul taste in your mouth and an imaginary stench in your nostrils.
  724. "I would lift my tail and present myself if it meant keeping these ponies - and my daughter - safe. If that's going to happen, if I'm going to be 'just property', then I don't think I can be their leader too, much less your ally."
  725. > Anonymous squeezes his hands into fists, then stands.
  726. > "I'll be right back."
  727. > When he returns, the entire bottle of golden is clutched in his hand and both glasses are quickly refilled.
  728. > "For this kind of talk... we're both going to need more."
  729. > This makes your stomach fall at his answer, but still you sip at the whiskey.
  730. > Taking his own glass, Anonymous wanders over to a window.
  731. > "So, first of all: Catherine can go screw herself. So you can put that worry out of your mind."
  732. > You utter a small sigh of relief - but the moment your eyes close you see the way he'd looked at you when Catherine had suggested it.
  733. > The face of a predator who'd just spotted prime prey.
  734. "...that is a - a huge relief."
  735. > "As for the rest of it..."
  736. > He goes quiet, looking out over the camp's distant lights.
  737. > It was well and darkened now, only a few streetlamps to be seen.
  738. > A memory bubbles up, of the night after the escape.
  739.  
  740. > You'd stood by Anonymous' side, at a window with a glass in your magic then as well - but wearing chains, and with him issuing orders rather than assurances.
  741. > "I haven't been totally fair to you, and in that much I'll do what I can to make it up. Because you are more than just property to me - certainly more than just a thing to be showing off."
  742. "Thank you..."
  743. > "S'the truth. You're the biggest pain in my ass and thorn in my side, but also the linchpin that holds this place together. And frankly, I think you're a good pony when you're not blinding yourself with that pride."
  744. > Not sure if the sum total of that comment worked out to a complement or not, you simply settle on your haunches and remain listening.
  745. > "But part of it's also simply how things are. Like I said, even if I pretended we were equal there's no way we actually would be. There'd still be times you're going to have to lower yourself for me. Nothing as big as this, but still... times."
  746. "I... understand."
  747. > "Mmm."
  748. > A nod, and another sip which you echo with your own glass.
  749. > It's been some time since you had this much alcohol, and your thoughts might be coming somewhat slower.
  750. > But it's a relief, in some ways, this openness of conversation - and you're not eager to let it go.
  751. "If I had lashed out at Sam - the one who tried to assault me - what would you have done?"
  752. > "Uh-uh. You asked your question. If I answer now, you give me an answer to a question too."
  753. "...go ahead."
  754. > "If I'd been there, I'd have told him to go fuck himself. Very politely, but very clearly."
  755. > You snort gently, having heard a great variety of polite ways of phrasing that sentiment in your time on the throne.
  756. > "Either way you look at it, it's bad. A man who walks in as a guest and thinks he can just do something like that - he's going to be the kind of person who doesn't give a fuck about you, and that's not how I work here."
  757. "It's a hard choice between defending myself properly and letting you take him on."
  758.  
  759. > "I'm half inclined to let you push him off just to watch his shock. Just don't put him into the wall like you did last time."
  760. "Right. And your question?"
  761. > "How did you and Flurry Heart get separated?"
  762. > Your heart freezes in your chest.
  763. > Ice, burning and frigid, seems to spread from it to the very air in your lungs.
  764. > You had agreed.
  765. > And maybe it needed to be aired.
  766. "I..."
  767. > This time, it is you who floats over the bottle and refills both your glasses.
  768. > Anonymous notes it with a raised eyebrow, but doesn't protest.
  769. "We were... fleeing. Shining was already - away, trying to keep up the defense, and I was trying to just move ponies to safety."
  770. > Even the burning liquid in your throat does little to force back the ice that seems to be sending tendrils through your chest.
  771. > A feeling as frigid as the winds that battered you in your memories...
  772. "It wasn't safe to stay in one place, but having to keep on the move... we were hiding in the Crystal Mountains, and Flurry Heart was still a foal. Temperatures were dropping; we couldn't stay."
  773. > The words stick in your throat, memories bubbling up from around the seal you'd long ago buried them away beneath.
  774. > Of cold, hunger, and ponies huddled in cloaks that did little to hold the little warmth they had.
  775. > Your husband no longer even at your side to keep you warm.
  776. > Or keep you calm.
  777. "Especially because of me. A princess - they wouldn't let me go so easily."
  778. > "You did something."
  779. "I split us up. Small groups, fast moving. Less of a chance to be spotted."
  780. > Another swallow.
  781. > Part of your mind wonders why you're drinking, since it didn't seem to be helping the icy feeling.
  782. "I took the largest group. Loyal friends, advisers, the few guards... but not Flurry Heart. I knew they couldn't ignore us, but a few ponies with a filly... I hoped. I really, really hoped."
  783. > There's dampness on your eyes again.
  784. > It's surprising there isn't more.
  785. > "You didn't make it."
  786. > You shake your head.
  787. "By the time I got to the rendezvous location, there were only a few of us left."
  788. > The pursuers, traps, and simple cold and exhaustion had seen to the rest.
  789. "When we got there they had... something. Somepony. They sounded just like my Flurry. I don't know, maybe they'd found somepony who knew what she sounded like. I didn't-"
  790. > Another hiccup in your voice.
  791. > The tearing at your heart when the voice echoed from the loudspeaker, begging for your surrender, seems as fresh as ever.
  792. "I gave up, of course. The ones who'd followed me went on - slipped past the trap. I only figured out they didn't have her when they started interrogating me about where she was..."
  793. > "Did you tell?"
  794. > Your head-shake is so violent that your mane whips about.
  795. "Never. I never knew - but when they told me the others with me had gotten away - if she'd been with me, I could have escaped too - I could have kept her free -"
  796. > At last you go silent, the strength to force any more words from your throat expiring at last.
  797. > Silence settles instead, draping itself across your withers like a heavy, sodden blanket.
  798. > And then, unexpectedly, Anonymous' hand on your back.
  799. > "M'sorry. Didn't know it happened like... that."
  800. "If I'd known there would be someone like you - someone who'd care for my Flurry... If somepony had sworn to me that she would be safe, I'd..."
  801. > You'd have what?
  802. > Given up?
  803. > Turned your daughter over to be property, owned by another being?
  804. > Another quiet heave wracks your body.
  805. > As cruel a choice as it had been, would things have been any better if you'd surrendered yourself and Flurry early on?
  806. > Would her fate - starving, sick, and emotionally deadened by the neglect - have been any different?
  807. > The nightmare-image of Flurry's starving, diseased, empty-eyed appearance dancing before your eyes.
  808. > You'd survived telling yourself that there wasn't any choice.
  809. > That in the end, you didn't have any power to affect the fate of ponies at large.
  810. > But that...
  811. > Flurry Heart's fate had been the result of your decision.
  812. > Her freedom could have been in your power.
  813. > "So the first you heard of her was when I showed you that picture..."
  814. > Unable to speak, you just nod.
  815. > Anonymous doesn't seem to have an immediate answer either.
  816. > Eventually, he pulls a chair up to the window next to you and sits down in it.
  817. > Motion draws your eyes up; he has unbuttoned one sleeve, and is rolling it up.
  818. > "Look."
  819. > Holding out his forearm, you quickly spot where a red line straddled by dimples in his flesh - the remnants of a gash and the stitches that closed them.
  820. "That's where - Corona -"
  821. > "Yeah."
  822. > The hand flexes a few times, muscles shifting in the arm.
  823. > "We've both screwed some things up pretty hard. I can't even begin to make it up to her, 'cause fuck knows where she is now. If you can even make up for that kind of thing. The way I see it, that puts you a step ahead of me."
  824. "You could have stopped. Any time you wanted. Nobody was holding your daughter hostage to make you torture an innocent pony."
  825. > He looks away, and belatedly you remember his first reaction to what he'd done and realize he probably knew that already.
  826. > "Yeah, I could've. Too fucking late. Still, though - what it means is that the now, and the future, is what matters. Making sure this shit doesn't happen again."
  827. "I..."
  828. > You swallow hard, suddenly aware of the depth of what you want to say.
  829. > Seeming to sense this, Anonymous replaces his hand on your withers.
  830. > "Talk. We've both said a lot of shit tonight. More isn't going to be any worse."
  831. "I want to hate you. I want to hate your entire species. I want to hate you with every drop of life in me. I want to hate for the bondage you keep us in, for every crime and cruelty you've forced me to inflict on them, for not being able to go to sleep with even a glimmer of hope that tomorrow we'll be free."
  832. > By now you're nearly babbling, but still you go on.
  833. "Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm the Princess of fucking Love, and I just can't hate anyone no matter how much they deserve it. Maybe you're just not even worth hating."
  834. > "You're pissed."
  835. "I've a right to be. I was ripped from my home, lost my husband, sent my own daughter into neglect, and made a slave."
  836. > It's the only right you have left, in a way.
  837. > Everything else, taken by the slavery.
  838. > "Hey, Cadance?"
  839. "What?"
  840. > The bitterness in your voice can't be hid.
  841. > "Remember how y'said - about how if I held y'kid, you'd turn around and spread your le-"
  842. "Yes."
  843. > Unfortunately.
  844. > "Y'want t'know my weakness?"
  845. > I takes a few moments for the offer to percolate thorugh your alcohol-addled mind.
  846. > He was offering... to tell you his weakness?
  847. "S'this going to cost me anything?"
  848. > Anonymous snorts.
  849. > "Well - there's Megan, of course. But - but y'don't seem like the kind t'threaten a girl. More than that, My weakness s'you."
  850. "...me?"
  851. > "Yeah, you."
  852. > Anonymous takes another long drink, hunched forward in his seat - seemingly making himself smaller, curled in, and still apparently unable to look at you.
  853. > " 'cause, y'see, here's the thing. You - you're a leader. They care about you, and you care about them."
  854. "But you-"
  855. > "Own y'lot. Yeah, I do. But that doesn't make me a leader. I'm always one fucking step away from a revolt - hell, some of 'em are probably revolting anyway - and part of me wants to hate all of you lot because no one's thinking about what it could be like without me."
  856. > You doubted he meant without the slavery in the first place.
  857. > "And maybe I deserve some o'that. Whatever it is or isn't, you're the one holding this place together. I give the orders, but you see them done. So yeah - you're my strength like that, but you're my weakness too."
  858. > It slowly emerges through your alcohol-haze that he is telling you how he to put the pressure on him.
  859. > How to really turn the hoof-screws and make him squirm.
  860. > To make him vulnerable.
  861. > "I'm... not a leader. I'm a guy who had a couple of real smart ideas, got into buying your kind early and has been coasting on that ever since. You... you command them, 'princess'. I own you lot, but this place - it really belongs to you, and all you want to do is burn it to the ground. And when I'm too old to command you and it's Megan's turn and she can't-"
  862. > There's a long quiet after that, at some point during which your wing extends to touch his shoulder.
  863. > Eventually his hand settles on your withers again, between the muscled ridges of your wing bases, and stays there.
  864. > Silence joins the two of you, the house still except for the two souls staring out into the night watching the moon's rise.
  865. > ...
  866. > Morning comes with a distinctly agonizing revelation:
  867. > The sun is a tool of unique torture, an agonizing lance which sears through your eyes the second you make the mistake of cracking them open to scour your skull with a blistering bolt of light.
  868. > Yelping as you bury your head back beneath the covers reveals another two unwanted discoveries:
  869. > Your mouth is as dry as the Palomino Desert in summertime, and even that minor shift of your head awakens a stomach-clenching dizziness that had lain in wait for your first movement.
  870. > Something also smells rather off, you're reasonably certain that you're unwashed, and the itchy sense of unpreened feathers lines both your wings.
  871. > Clawing forth towards something resembling consciousness, you after great deliberation you conclude that there had, in fact, been had far too much to drink.
  872. > Despite your ascension you had never truly shared that legendary Earth Pony resilience, instead always holding the flighty pegasus metabolism that assured alcohol would be soon and hard felt.
  873. > It also meant that there would be a quick end to this once you did something about it, though.
  874. > The only problem was, this demanded rising in the first place.
  875. > And rising was currently prohibited by the heavy mass pinning you to the-
  876. > Eyes fly open in sudden fear, only to jam back a second later with a quiet moan.
  877. > Analyzing the situation without that particular sense, you come to the unavoidable conclusion:
  878. > You were huddled against somepony, or - with a sinking feeling of rising certainty - someone.
  879. > Sluggishly tracing through your memories - a process akin to searching for the proverbial needle in a hay-stack while sinking up to your belly in mud - you conclude that although you could remember the beginning of last night, you could not remember the end nearly as clearly.
  880. > There'd been quite a lot of talking, that much you were sure of.
  881. > But after that?
  882. > Where it had concluded?
  883. > That was a fog at best.
  884. > Which meant you would have to investigate again.
  885. > Carefully peeling one eye open the absolute minimum necessary, you deliver another pained moan.
  886. > This time, on account of what that investigation revealed:
  887. > The room you were in was absolutely, definitely, one-hundred percent not a pony's room.
  888. > And thus, that you could no longer deny that the limbs circling you, one tucked beneath your neck while another fell around your barrel and under a wing to rest on your belly, definitely did not belong to a pony either.
  889. > Anonymous - your owner, your captor and tormentor - lay with his chest and belly pressed to your back, one leg swung forward to pin your tail in place.
  890. > You could even feel his breath tickling the edge of one ear, prompting it to flick.
  891. > At the very least you could still deny that right up until the moment that truth had become unavoidable, you had been resting quite soundly (and by implication, the presence of another at your side).
  892. > Now, though - oh, if only you were skilled enough to teleport!
  893. > (Let alone teleporting while hung over.)
  894. > With that option out, you figure you only have limited time before Anonymous' own hangover also drags him to consciousness.
  895. [Choice]
  896. > A sudden horrifying thought strikes you.
  897. > The end of last night being a blur, you couldn't have -
  898. > Quickly you curl your head down, sniffing for any particular scents.
  899. > One leg is lifted too, feeling for the telltale sensation of matted hair around your hindquarters.
  900. > To your unimaginable relief, you are devoid of both.
  901. > Though you frankly reek of alcohol and - to your deep shame - your owner's own scents, it is an even greater weight lifted from your back that you clearly had not lifted your tail for him.
  902. > ...the utterly foul taste in your mouth is more attributable to the alcohol you'd imbibed than anything else.
  903. > Which still, unfortunately, leaves you with a still starkly embarrassing situation.
  904. > Particularly because Anonymous had at some point exchanged his proper evening clothing for a short-sleeved shirt and shorts.
  905. > The shirt, on closer examination, has never even made it properly on; one arm had been slipped through a head-hole, but nothing beyond that.
  906. > It simply hung loosely around the arm, the rest of him bare.
  907. > Which brings you back to the main point:
  908. > You had slept wi- alongside the man who owned you.
  909. > Not slept particularly poorly, for that matter.
  910. > His bed, for one, was infinitely more comfortable than the mattress and blankets afforded to you.
  911. > (Briefly you wonder if you were focusing on that because it was the least-humiliating reason you might have slept soundly.)
  912. > After a moment's pondering you slump back down and light your horn to subtly lift the covers back over your head.
  913. > The return to a dark, warm environment is a pleasant one, and a few minutes more would not make this situation any worse than it already had been.
  914. > Instead you run back over the limited memories you have of the prior night.
  915. > You remember speaking to him about Flurry Heart - admitting your shame of what had happened to her.
  916. > He'd told you some secrets too.
  917. > At some point the 'conversation' had devolved into telling stories of raising young daughters.
  918. > Of the troubles and chaos they produced.
  919. > You remembered far less of that, though somehow you have brief flickers of laughing at the same time your cheeks dampened with tears.
  920. > What was clear in your mind was how... off he'd sounded.
  921. > Not just when he'd admitted mistreating you, but also when he'd spat out his admission of... what?
  922. > Jealousy, at the faith ponies put in you?
  923. > Disappointment?
  924. > You still weren't entirely sure.
  925. > Hopefully he wouldn't be angry when he woke - or worse, go back on his promise to reward you.
  926. > The thought occurs that you could use this as leverage - warn him that if he held out on you, the camp's ponies would find out he'd plied you with liquor until you fell asleep with him.
  927. > But that idea is just as quickly dismissed.
  928. > It would only start a war, and there was no need to make the first strike in that conflict.
  929. > Centering in on your own emotions instead, you try and force down the nauseating sense of shame and betrayal still eating away at your heart.
  930. > The why was obvious:
  931. > You'd joined another in bed and betrayed the vows you'd taken with Shining Armor, but also betrayed the cause you'd set out for yourself from the first day here:
  932. > Never to forget what the slavers had done, never to become overly-familiar with them.
  933. > To always remember that they were not your friends, but your captors.
  934. > ...and you just gone to bed with one of them, unbound by any shackle or chain.
  935. > It's not the same, you try and tell yourself.
  936. > He'd plied you with alcohol.
  937. > You clearly hadn't been in anything approaching your right mind.
  938. > Shining Armor was - a fresh bolt of agony rips through your heart - almost certainly gone.
  939. > For all you knew, Anonymous had ordered you.
  940. > But in that 'almost' your shame lives on, eating away at your heart.
  941. > Whatever the caveats you added to it, you'd quite clearly crossed a line that couldn't ever be un-crossed.
  942. > ...and Anonymous isn't waking.
  943. > Squirming around in his humiliatingly intimate grip, you find that rolling out of his grasp is quite impossible.
  944. > Celestia help you...
  945. > Leaning your head back, you try and brush the back of your head against his chin.
  946. > You're forced to swallow twice before the cottony feeling in your mouth is suppressed enough to allow talking.
  947. "Anonymous..."
  948. > Your voice is little more than a whisper.
  949. > Any louder, and it feels as though it'd echo like a scream in the mansion.
  950. "Master...?"
  951. > With a rough groan, he shifts - mimicking your own action of burying his head beneath the covers.
  952. > No doubt he was suffering every bit of the hangover you were as well.
  953. > At last, though, a coherent answer is mumbled out:
  954. > "Cadance...? Y'smell good..."
  955. > Cheeks flushing, your trapped tail attempts a protesting flick at his statement.
  956. "Anonymous... we need to get up. I... need to be going."
  957. > It's another moment before he replies.
  958. > "M'head 'urts..."
  959. > As does yours.
  960. > "...why're y'still here? Was expectin' you t'sneak ou' earlier..."
  961. "I... should I, sir? I only just woke up a few minutes ago."
  962. > There's a moment's pause, and then a shake of his head.
  963. > "No. S'no good t'go runnin' out now... I don't know wha' I was thinkin', you're obviously no shape t'be up early."
  964. > He still hasn't let go of you.
  965. "May I get up, Sir...?"
  966. > "...yeah."
  967. > Anonymous almost sounds reluctant, but rolls over onto his back to let you slip from the bed.
  968. > At first you try slowing yourself down so as not to seem too eager to get away from him, but barely are you halfway out of the bed before dizziness rears its head again and reminds you why pacing yourself was also a good idea.
  969. > Stumbling, lurching you way forward you manage to reach the bathroom and relieve yourself.
  970. > On the way out your quickly locate two glasses and fill them with cold water.
  971. > One you quickly down; the other goes to Anonymous.
  972. > Taking it with one arm, he drinks cautiously and shades his eyes against the light with the other.
  973. > "Thanks... y'need a shower?"
  974. "I should. Otherwise I'm going to carry your... scent for everypony."
  975. > Much more than a passing touch would have brought on you.
  976. > "Go 'head. Mocha won' be here for a little bit, y'got some time. Jus' shut th'blinds b'fore y'go."
  977. > Just in case, you also lock the bedroom's door before returning to the bathroom.
  978. > On conclusion of your shower you feel something closer to actually alive - awake would have to wait a little while longer.
  979. > Mane still damp and hanging limply from your neck you emerge back into the bedroom to find Anonymous had sat up in bed, but drawn up the covers around himself.
  980. > Sipping at the water in his glass, he stares at you with a look that tells you he also still feels only fractionally less awful than you do.
  981. > Refilling his glass, you return and hop up onto the bed.
  982. "So, about last night..."
  983. > "Yeah..."
  984. > Your cheeks are burning again, and your muzzle falling towards the floor.
  985. "We... will not talk about this, I presume?"
  986. > "You didn't do anything... out of line."
  987. "Please."
  988. > "Fine. Not in public, anyhow."
  989. > The slightest touch of a smile graces your lips, and you settle on your haunches.
  990. > "It was good that we could be that open with each other, though. Maybe next time we don't wait until copious amounts of alcohol are involved, though."
  991. "Maybe."
  992. > "I'm serious, Cadance."
  993. > There's a hand on your cheek now, surprisingly soft and gentle.
  994. > You try and forget how that same hand had delivered stinging blows to the very same cheek.
  995. > "I know I'm not exactly your favorite person in the world. But the more open we are with each other, the better it is for the both of us."
  996. > ...oh.
  997. > He wasn't talking about the part where you happily climbed into bed with person you had decidedly mixed feelings about.
  998. > "I'm serious. There's no shame in admitting our failings."
  999. "So, what you said about a reward-"
  1000. > "I wasn't even drunk then, Cadance. It'll still come."
  1001. > The little smile on your face grows wider, and he begins to smile too.
  1002. "Thank y-"
  1003. > "And Cadance? There's no shame in taking a bit of a moment to relax with someone either. Especially if it came with a much-deserved rest as well."
  1004. > Cheeks raging with heat, you try to make a furious noise that ends up sounding more like a squeak and paw unhappily at the covers with one hoof.
  1005. > Laughing softly - though he winces and goes to hold his head anyhow - Anonymous shakes his head.
  1006. > "I mean it, Cadance. I imagine you feel alone at times, but I am not your enemy.
  1007. "Y-Yes, Sir. If I can get-started on my duties this morning, Sir?
  1008. > He points towards the bedroom door.
  1009. > "Head down to my library and open one of the big windows. If anyone asks any questions, you were exhausted and stayed the night in the library."
  1010. "...thank you, Master."
  1011.  
  1012. "Hey, Thunderlane!"
  1013. > The cry comes from somewhere behind you, and you try and spin in place on all four hooves to face the caller.
  1014. > Unfortunately, it turns into more of a stumble as you trip over all four hooves.
  1015. > At least you manage to avoid planting face-first into the ground.
  1016. > Catching up, Vapor Trail looks at you with a frown and distinctly concerned expression on her face.
  1017. > "Are you alright, Thunderlane? You look like you just flew a lap through Tartarus itself."
  1018. "I'm exhausted. Didn't get to bed last night - was kept out at Anonymous' event."
  1019. > "A rough time?"
  1020. "Yes. It was a very late night, and I hate putting on the good-little-guard pony act - especially when they all seem to be asking about the same kinds of questions."
  1021. > How many ponies have you had to 'arrest'?
  1022. > What happens to them?
  1023. > Are other ponies keen to join the guards?
  1024. > Have you ever had to whip another pony?
  1025. > Not one of them actually seemed interested in why ponies would want to guard themselves, beyond 'their owner told them to'.
  1026. > Seeming to get your meaning, Vapor Trail's frown deepens.
  1027. > "Yeah. I heard about it too."
  1028. > Voice lowered, she adds:
  1029. > "Is it true that they paraded Princess Cadance around dressed up like a - a -"
  1030. "She was... very unhappy about her dress."
  1031. > You bite your lip, sucking on it as you try to think on what to add to that.
  1032. > It wasn't exactly unexpected that rumors would already be trickling out in the aftermath of the prior night, but that it'd gotten so far already...
  1033. "It... didn't stop her from being a good leader, though. Honestly, I'm thankful she was there - her support got me through that night."
  1034. > Nodding, Vapor Trail seems to deflate slightly.
  1035. > "I guess. It's not right, though. That they can do that to her, and there isn't anything she can do..."
  1036. "I know. But for one night..."
  1037. > Shaking your head, you decide a topic change is in order.
  1038. "But - have they started you on working yet?"
  1039. > Her face darkens, and instantly you realize your mistake.
  1040. > "...yes. They got me a 'job' running supplies around for the kitchens and helping them cook."
  1041. "Vapor - it's not to be ashamed of, if you're helping other ponies-"
  1042. > "I know. And I think Mayor Mare knows too, and what's why she gave me a job working in the kitchens. It's not exactly my talent, after all..."
  1043. > She pauses, sighs, and adds more softly:
  1044. > "She said that I'd probably be training Pegasi on the cloud teams 'as soon as it was safe for me to'. But I'm not that far along yet, I think she's doing me a favor..."
  1045. > You nod; during the last weeks of her pregnancy, any kind of hard labor would be off the table for her.
  1046. "Like I told you - we look out for each other here."
  1047. > "Yeah, I know."
  1048. > On a whim, you lean in and nuzzle her gently.
  1049. > Vapor Trail gives a soft, surprised nicker, and quickly you pull back.
  1050. "I - I'm sorry. You just looked so down-"
  1051. > "No, I appreciate it."
  1052. "Thanks. I've... got a lot on my mind, and I just want to see somepony made happy..."
  1053. > "I'll be really, truly happy when I'm free... but this is good."
  1054. > Her head tilts questioningly.
  1055. > "What's on your mind, though?"
  1056. "I'm worried about my little brother. He's... well, I'm sure you heard about the escape-"
  1057. > "Yes."
  1058. "I was looking out for him after that. Trying to get him away from doing anything else foolish that'd just get him hurt again. But ever since I took this position..."
  1059. > She nods.
  1060. > "You've no time."
  1061. "No time, and frankly I think he might be avoiding me now. I mean, I kind of understand why... but I'm still his brother."
  1062. > Vapor Trail frowns, muzzle turning down to face the ground.
  1063. > "We don't have much here. Family really matters."
  1064. "Exactly why I'm concerned."
  1065. > At some point, you realize, both of you had begun to walk - or more accurately, Vapor Trail had begun to walk and you had begun to follow.
  1066. "Heading in for breakfast?"
  1067. > "Yes. Before I have to head off to... work."
  1068. "I'll join you. Been up for a while already, but I could use some breakfast."
  1069. > Vapor Trail's eyebrows rise.
  1070. > "Don't you normally come to breakfast?"
  1071. "Sometimes. A lot of the time I'm - busy."
  1072. > A frown touches her face.
  1073. > "That's... not good. I mean, I know you're a good pony - you really tried to help me. But not everypony else does..."
  1074. "Yeah..."
  1075. > Head hanging and tail flicking nervously, you sigh.
  1076. "Yeah. I'm trying real hard not to be 'the bad stallion', you know? That's not what I signed up for this to do, but..."
  1077. > "I get it. Cadance asked you to?"
  1078. > Your head snaps up again.
  1079. "How'd you guess?"
  1080. > Smiling softly, Vapor Trail shrugs.
  1081. > "She convinced me too. Sat me down one night and explained why it wouldn't be so bad for me to stay here w-with the foal."
  1082. > Again you nod, and wish you hadn't heard the little stutter in her voice or the way she had looked away from you when it came.
  1083. > Vapor Trail is hiding something.
  1084. > She doesn't trust you, and for some reason that makes your chest ache in a way you'd long forgotten.
  1085. "Yes. She... explained it to me too. But I wasn't counting on Rumble cutting me off."
  1086. > "Maybe..."
  1087. > Chewing on her cheek, Vapor Trail pauses.
  1088. > "Would you want me to talk to him...?"
  1089. > It's a tempting offer.
  1090. > ...given how upset Rumble seems, you're not sure you want to put her around him, though.
  1091. > The last thing you need is him recruiting more poor ponies into escape plans, especially right after Cadance put in all that work to keep Vapor Trail from fleeing.
  1092. "I'll think about it, alright? I'm going to try and talk to him myself before I ask you to fly into this mess."
  1093. > "Yeah, I understand."
  1094. "Don't get me wrong - I appreciate the offer. It's just..."
  1095. > You lift a wing to rub at your bristly mane awkwardly, and Vapor Trail shoots a soft smile.
  1096. > "It's okay. I get it."
  1097. > Laughing softly as the thick fog of awkwardness breaks, you head for the breakfast line.
  1098. > More than a few other ponies are queued up as well, and soon you find yourself talking with them.
  1099. > Some of them, anyhow - a few seem standoffish.
  1100. > Worried.
  1101. > That again puts a little twinge through your heart, but not as strong as before.
  1102. > Partly because others are more than willing to engage with you.
  1103. > Just after you seat yourself down at the table, a stallion on the far end leans over and whispers, a frown on his face:
  1104. > "So, Thunderlane - you were there last night. Is it true, that they had the Princess prancing around all dressed up like a who-"
  1105. > "Barley!"
  1106. > The mare at this side jabs a hind-hoof into his haunch.
  1107. > "That's no way to talk about her!"
  1108. "They tried."
  1109. > You cut off any further argument by providing an answer - and sticking your muzzle into the thick of it, from the way eyes suddenly land on you.
  1110. "Cadance's dress... it wasn't really a, uh - a whore's dress. But it certainly wasn't proper for royalty either."
  1111. > Neglecting, of course, that nothing on two legs in that house had seen her as remotely royal.
  1112. > A few seats down, one pegasus nudges an earth pony and whispers:
  1113. > "I told you I knew what I saw!"
  1114. "I think it was more about showing her as, uh - as broken. Like she was just there to follow orders. A low-ranker, a grunt."
  1115. > "So what happened? Did any of them-"
  1116. > With a fierce shake of your head, you again cut them off.
  1117. "She didn't let them. She held herself up, even if they were trying to see her that way. Kept talking about how she was doing things for us, for our benefit, not for Anonymous. And how it was being done on our own, too."
  1118. > It wasn't one-hundred percent true.
  1119. > But it wasn't so far out anyone could object.
  1120. "And I could see she wasn't happy about it, but she kept going anyway."
  1121. > "You think they believed her?"
  1122. "Anonymous was telling them some of it too, so I don't see why not..."
  1123. > A heavy snort from the far end of the table interrupts you - from a grey-coated, brown-maned unicorn stallion.
  1124. > "That bastard has Tirek's own tongue in his mouth. If he wanted to tell them that she's a free pony, he wouldn't have a reason to humiliate her too."
  1125. "Trust me, I don't understand it either. But then I don't understand how they can see us as just slaves either."
  1126. > "Or how Cadance let them!"
  1127. > That came from another pegasus, closer to your side.
  1128. > "If she was really on our side, she wouldn't be letting him to any of that - and she especially wouldn't have spoken up for him!"
  1129. "She has even less choice than we do."
  1130. > "You say that, but I heard that her daughter was there. She's selling us all out to get her kid a comfy spot with the house slaves after she promised to not even see her!"
  1131. > "That true, Thunderlane?"
  1132. > All eyes turn to at the grey stallion's question, and you frown.
  1133. "Her daughter was there alright, but I don't think they had a second together. Flurry Heart pretty much showed up for Anonymous to show her off alongside his own filly - er, daughter? Yeah, daughter - and that was that."
  1134. > Said stallion looks around.
  1135. > "See? It's not her that's the problem, it's Anonymous."
  1136. "Don't think I got your name, though. Obviously you know mine, but..."
  1137. > "Granite Cleave."
  1138. > Reaching a hoof across the table to which you extend your own to tap in greeting.
  1139. > Drawing his leg back, Granite Cleave looks around.
  1140. > "But really, it's not the Princess we all need to be angry at."
  1141. > From beside him comes a snort.
  1142. > "She's not exactly helping!"
  1143. > "Uh-huh. It's one thing to bow to keep the whip off your back, but she's best buddies with Anonymous now."
  1144. "Not helping - have you missed how much better things have gotten? How there hasn't been any whippings since she took over, that we have extra money coming in now?"
  1145. > That forces a heavy silence over the table, until one mare slaps her hoof down on her empty breakfast tray.
  1146. > "I'd rather we had less and remembered who our friends and who our enemies are, for Celestia's sake! Our tribes united in the coldest winter. If we get fat and happy here, we'll forget what they took from us!"
  1147. > "And I still heard that she got to stay with her filly after it was done."
  1148. > Another pony rolls her eyes.
  1149. > "Oh yeah? And who told you that, one of the other house slaves? Probably just bragging to make it seem like they've got it comfy."
  1150. > "Well they do, compared to us!"
  1151. > "I don't know how being near Anonymous can ever be considered 'comfy'."
  1152. > Two hooves pound into the table as a pony stands up to loom over it.
  1153. > "Oh, shove off! They get the best of everything."
  1154. "That's enough, everyone. Discussion I won't ding you on, but this is turning into an argument."
  1155. > Grumbles echo from several seats' occupants, but no more arguments follow.
  1156. > Soon enough breakfast breaks up, ponies wandering off to turn their trays in.
  1157. > You're halfway to the door when a roar echoes through the dining hall:
  1158. > "You take that back!"
  1159. > Ponies are already scattering, which makes it easy for you to reach the edge of the encounter.
  1160. > Granite Cleave stands nearly forhead-to-forehead with a pegasus stallion - ears pinned, bodies ramrod straight, and heads lowered as if to charge.
  1161. > Even as you watch he scuffs at the ground with a hoof and blows a breath through flared nostrils; the opposing stallion matches him with an angry toss of his head.
  1162. > "What're you going to do about it, pinhead? Put me down? Get yourself whipped? I'm allowed to have an opinion."
  1163. > Eyes never leaving his opponent, Granite snarls back:
  1164. > "You're allowed to have an opinion, but don't you dare put down the ponies I served with."
  1165. > "I said it before, and I'll say it again: The Royal Guard left us to this, and they're as useless as our traitor 'princess'."
  1166. > Leaning in, the pegasus grins.
  1167. > "Unless you want to put on some chains and prance around for the slavers like she did?"
  1168. > Granite's eyes drop to pinpricks, and you're pretty sure somepony is going to get hurt if you don't step in immediately.
  1169. "ENOUGH!"
  1170. > Leaping into the air, you beat your wings once - just enough to carry you on a long arc to come slamming down between the two of them, hooves echoing off the hard floor.
  1171. "Both of you, back off!"
  1172. > Both, in fact, do - perhaps out of surprise as much as anything else.
  1173. > Each still seems ready to fight, though, and the situation is far from resolved.
  1174. > So you use the opportunity take another step forward, stretching out both your wings and putting one across each stallions' chest.
  1175. "If the two of you really can't find anything better to do than get in fights, you're welcome to - in a shared cell. I will drag both of you in to cool your heads if this is the way you want to do it."
  1176. > "You're not involved in this. Get-"
  1177. "I damn well am. Not because it's my job, but because I really don't want to lock either of you up. You are both better ponies than this."
  1178. > Turning to Granite Cleave first, you lift one hoof to jab him in the chest.
  1179. "You - you of all ponies, I'd expect to know better than this. Not only should you know the rules, if you really did serve with the Royal Guard then you should be the level-headed one here! You know that your actions are an example to everypony around; don't jump at the first bait somepony dangles in your face like a colt showing off for the mares!"
  1180. > To your surprise, what you're saying actually seems to click in his mind.
  1181. > Granite's ears go from pinned back to merely drooping, his tail falling still and stance softening - head drooping into a more subdued position.
  1182. > There's still an angry glint in his eyes, but if you had to guess he's as angry with himself now as he is with his opponent.
  1183. > Convinced that one of the two is suitably pacified, you round on the other stallion and snarl at him:
  1184. "And you - you may be allowed to say what you want, but if you think starting a fight is the way to prove your point then you're wrong."
  1185. > He opens his mouth to speak, but you cut him off before that can happen:
  1186. "It's better to stick together! We didn't survive the Founding by blindly kicking at the Windigos - we did it by sharing our friendship, even when it was hard. If we start fighting with each other, we're as good as handing victory to the slavers. Think about that!"
  1187. > "I want to stick together! Cadance is the one that's sold us-"
  1188. "If you think anyone here is 'happy' with what's going on, you're completely deluded. We all want freedom, including Cadance. But right now fighting is only daring them to squeeze us harder; she's doing what she knows will make life easier for us - even if she has to humiliate herself to get it!"
  1189. > Your point made, you back up - keeping a steady eye on both stallions.
  1190. > Granite Cleave is the first to speak up, head still slightly bowed.
  1191. > "You're right, Thunderlane. I shouldn't be this thin-coated."
  1192. > Nodding an affirmative, you look to the other stallion.
  1193. > He glares for a moment before turning away with an almost saddened shake of his head.
  1194. > Not until his tail vanishes through the door do you actually relax, blowing out a long-held breath.
  1195. > Stepping up beside you, Granite murmur softly:
  1196. > "Thank you. I don't even know what got into me. You're absolutely right - I should have been far more mature about it."
  1197. > A cross between a sigh and an angry hiss is blown through his teeth.
  1198. > "I don't know. I guess - I guess I felt like my ponies weren't here, so I had to."
  1199. > You nod in understanding.
  1200. "...if you ever wonder why I let Cadance talk me in to doing this - it's because I'd rather yell at a hundred ponies and have them hate me than see somepony thrown in a cell or whipped for doing something stupid."
  1201. > "Would I have been? Whipped, for getting into a fight?"
  1202. "Probably not. Depends on how far it went."
  1203. > Giving a soft 'hmm', Granite nods.
  1204. "And that's nothing I'd wish on anypony. Even someone like that."
  1205. > "You've had to do it?"
  1206. "I've been whipped here myself. More than just a couple blows."
  1207. > His eyebrows shoot up, nostrils flaring again.
  1208. > Granite's gaze flicks to your back, and you realize he is looking for signs of the scourging.
  1209. > Most of the welts had faded with time, and what lingered blended well - camouflaged by your coal-toned coat.
  1210. > But to a searching eye, the signs are still there.
  1211. > Sixty lashes does not go without any scars.
  1212. > "How...?"
  1213. "It's a long story. I was sticking up for my little brother."
  1214. > Eyebrows knitting, Granite frowns - but holds a thoughtful expression.
  1215. > "...so you stepped up so nopony else would have to go through that."
  1216. "Sort of. What happened there... it'd have come down even if I was a guard then. Maybe even worse. But if I can stop it before it gets to that point... it's like fighting a storm. Once a storm turns into a monster, you can't do anything. So you break it up before it gets that bad."
  1217. > This draws a chuckle from Granite.
  1218. > He lifts a hoof to his horn, grinning slightly.
  1219. > "Afraid I can't personally relate to the analogy, but I get what you mean."
  1220. "...ooh. Yeah. Sorry - I was a weatherpony before... all this."
  1221. > "I figured. With your mark..."
  1222. "Yeah."
  1223. > An awkward pause, then:
  1224. > "But I understand. Still can't say I'm sold on liking the idea of ponies being actual guards... but at least your reason is solid."
  1225. "Trust me, if I thought I'd be actually being a slave-driver I'd have told Cadance and Anonymous both to go bite a thundercloud."
  1226. > Granite looks about ready to argue that point, but pauses and shuts his mouth instead.
  1227. > Your opinion of him ticks up slightly; evidently he'd taken your comments to heart.
  1228. "Well, that's it for breakfast for me."
  1229. > "...yeah."
  1230. > With that single word - and a sense that many more remain unsaid - he trots off.
  1231. > You do too, beginning your rounds for the day.
  1232. > But it's with a sense that you haven't heard the last of this sort of argument either.
  1233. > Indeed, while lunch is a decidedly less violent affair there is still a low buzz of the previous night's events.
  1234. > More than a few glances are thrown in your direction, and you wonder if the morning's events had discouraged them from confronting you.
  1235. > Soon after lunch, you encounter another sign:
  1236. > Somepony - clearly something of an artist - had tacked up a piece of paper bearing a rendition of the previous night's events, including a reasonably accurate depiction of Cadance's outfit.
  1237. > Except that instead of riding in a motorized cart, Anonymous rode on the Princess' back.
  1238. > And in turn was stepping on-
  1239. > You peer more closely in, frown deepening.
  1240. > Yes, she was trampling a line of ponies laid out beneath her.
  1241. > 'Traitor' was written in huge letters at the bottom of the sheet, but had at some point another pony had apparently added in smaller letters 'who drew this is a' before it.
  1242. > Somepony else had drawn a line through that, and drawn an arrow from the word 'traitor' to Cadance, as if it wasn't clear who it mean.
  1243. > Rolling your eyes, you simply do the reasonable thing:
  1244. > Grabbing the entire sheet in your mouth and hurling it into the nearest trash can - stomping it down for good measure.
  1245. > What was it about these emotions that made everypony act like colts butting heads?
  1246. > Continuing on your rounds, you let your mind wander slightly even as you patrol.
  1247. > When you got off of this patrol, you were definitely going to have to see about nipping this in the bud before it could get any worse than one angry stallion.
  1248. > ...and you know just the pony to talk to, too.
  1249. > Bon Bon might not exactly like you, but she seemed to have a bit of understanding of why you did what you had the last time you spoke to her.
  1250. > Now would be a good time to speak to her again.
  1251. > If anyone still held influence among the ponies willing to plan an active resistance, it would be her.
  1252. > You'd convinced her before, and now it seemed might be the time to try again.
  1253. > On the other hoof.
  1254. > Rumble had been away from you for far too long.
  1255. [Choice]
  1256. > This was exactly the kind of thing you'd promised wouldn't happen - you wouldn't let yourself start putting work for Anonymous before him.
  1257. > He was the reason you'd gotten into this in the first place, after all.
  1258. > But if you didn't stop this anger from breaking out into something bigger, then he'd just launch himself into another crusade anyhow.
  1259. > Bon Bon, you decide, could wait.
  1260. > She was far less likely to leap to make some rash, impulsive choice; her actions had been wrong, yes, but also careful and deliberate.
  1261. > Rumble, though...
  1262. > You snort softly, reminding yourself that you were once that age as well:
  1263. > An aggressive, bucking colt ready to snap at the slightest provocation.
  1264. > ...and what a provocation this had been, to apparently reduce half the camp's population to a similar state.
  1265. > When the buzzer goes for the end of the dinner cycle, you are waiting near the dining hall nearest to his work - hidden in a nearby doorway from the worst of the winter's bite.
  1266. > Ponies are streaming out, a torrent of exhausted and lined faces bundled against the chill.
  1267. > Your eyes sweep over them, searching back and forth until-
  1268. > There!
  1269. > The crowd parts to let you through, your face recognized even without the telltale uniform.
  1270. > Rumble walks with four other ponies - two colts, two fillies, all roughly the same age.
  1271. > They chat and laugh among themselves, faces clearly showing their tiredness yet still buoyed by their youthful spirit.
  1272. > One of the others is first to spot you; she nudges Rumble, pointing with a wing.
  1273. > He nods, apparently saying goodbye before splitting from them to approach you.
  1274. > "...hey, bro."
  1275. "Hey."
  1276. > Abruptly your composure cracks; you lean down and nuzzle Rumble.
  1277. > "Ack! Hey, bro! Not in public!"
  1278. > Rumble backs off, but there's laughter in his voice.
  1279. "Sorry, but embarrassing little brothers is a big brother's duty."
  1280. > Ruffling his mane a bit more, you step back.
  1281. "Come on. You got some free time before lights-out and curfew?"
  1282. > "A bit, I guess."
  1283. > You put on a small grin.
  1284. "Then come on. I miss my little bro."
  1285. > He smiles back, and your own smile turns genuine rather than enforced.
  1286. > Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
  1287. > The walk back to his room - by unspoken decision, his had been chosen - was silent.
  1288. > Mostly because yours was so far away.
  1289. > Stepping in and shrugging off the coat, you look around.
  1290. > Rumble's room had not changed much since the last time you had been in here:
  1291. > He had reinforced the skylight he had put in at some point, probably to support the weight of the winter snows.
  1292. > The light bulb, previously dead, had been replaced.
  1293. > Though it was still bare, casting a harsh light throughout the room.
  1294. > In fact Rumble winces when you first turn it on, sighing.
  1295. > "Yeah. I've been meaning to get a new one for a little while now, but there's not exactly a lot scrip coming out of my new position."
  1296. > You nod, understanding.
  1297. > Though you'd taken the punishment for him, Rumble had still been effectively demoted down to a newcomer at best in terms of his work position.
  1298. "It's alright. The light's not too bad."
  1299. > He climbs up on his bed, shifting over to make some room for you to join him.
  1300. > The aging mattress creaks under the weight of a stallion plus another near-grown one.
  1301. > In the noise's wake settles a silence that grows from initially comfortable to increasingly awkward.
  1302. > You swallow, realizing that ultimately you had neglected - perhaps by unconscious procrastination and avoidance - to think about exactly how you were going to address this.
  1303. "So-"
  1304. > "So-"
  1305. > Both of you speak at the same instant, immediately retreating back into another brief period of awkward silence.
  1306. "You first."
  1307. > "Your... back's looking a lot better."
  1308. > True.
  1309. > The last time you'd seen him had been not to long after the escape.
  1310. "Yeah, well, you know how good those ponies down in the medical ward are. They're practically miracle workers."
  1311. > "Heh, yeah."
  1312. > Even so, it was a good thing you'd been wearing a 'uniform' the prior evening.
  1313. > It wouldn't be good for the vaunted head of security to be seen wandering around with whip scars, after all.
  1314. > Looking around, you struggle for another topic to broach the tension.
  1315. > Sniffing, you let a new grin cross your face.
  1316. "So, seems you've still got your marefriend coming over..."
  1317. > "Y-Yeah-"
  1318. "She a good squeeze?"
  1319. > "Bro!"
  1320. > Rumble's tail lashes and eyes narrow, but it's not an angry appearance - his ears stay up.
  1321. > Snickering, you drop a wing over Rumble's withers and nuzzle into his main.
  1322. > "Oh, come on - you know I hate it when you do this!"
  1323. "Shhh. It's not like anyone's here to see me humiliate you."
  1324. > "Yeah, but still..."
  1325. "And I don't have many chances to do this anymore."
  1326. > Something in your voice must have caught Rumble's attention, as he stops squirming and instead peers up at you.
  1327. "I... miss you. I miss a lot of things like this, honestly. Just being able to spend some time, to goof around with you..."
  1328. > You trail off, lost in your own thoughts - in memories of all the things that have vanished since you took Cadance up on her offer and became a security officer.
  1329. > Abruptly something tickles your chest, and you look down to find Rumble nuzzling you back.
  1330. > "You alright?"
  1331. "I'm..."
  1332. > Your head droops, falling to rest on top of Rumble's head.
  1333. "...last night was miserable."
  1334. > "I heard."
  1335. > So you'd expected.
  1336. > It seems to be spreading just as fast as you'd feared.
  1337. "I'm worried, Rumble. Worried about everything that's going on, and what it means for all of us."
  1338. > "Because of Anonymous?"
  1339. "Because of what ponies might do, with all these rumors running around the camp. I've seen graffiti and ponies talking angrily already - where's it going to go?!"
  1340. > He doesn't answer; you simply roll to your side, laying your head down on the mattress.
  1341. "I don't want to hurt anypony. I didn't do this because I wanted to be swinging a damn club around, smacking ponies for saying bad words. I wanted to make things better for us. Cadance does, too.
  1342. > "Is it true? The rumors?"
  1343. "Depends what you'd heard, but..."
  1344. > The repetition is something you've said before, and expect to have to say many more times again.
  1345. > Cadance had not allowed herself to be humiliated without response.
  1346. > She - and you - had stood up for every pony in the camp.
  1347. > That she had absolutely not broken her own punishment, her promise not to see her daughter yet.
  1348. > And while Anonymous had not been kind to her, he had not been pointlessly cruel either.
  1349. > Rumble had gone quiet while you talked.
  1350. > When you're done, he lays down with his head facing you.
  1351. > "I'm worried too, Thunderlane."
  1352. "What's on your mind?"
  1353. > "I... he keeps squeezing us. Anonymous talks like he's making nice with us, but then he heaps something else on our backs... puts some new storm right in our path."
  1354. > There's anger in Rumble's voice, yes, but it's mixed with many other things.
  1355. > "Cadance... I want to believe she knows best for us. I really do. But when she gets dressed up like that for him, put ponies on extra hours for just reminding us of what Anonymous did to that mare-"
  1356. "They got put on extra hours for stealing and vandalizing, Rumble."
  1357. > "And you think he'd let us put up reminders? Let us remind ponies what he's done, that we're still just slaves-"
  1358. > He spits out the word, as if its presence on his tongue made him nauseous.
  1359. > "- and can't do anything about it except fight back?"
  1360. > A long silence follows that.
  1361. > When Rumble speaks again, his voice is back down to a lower volume.
  1362. > "Maybe she does care. Maybe she didn't. I don't know. But I know she went and had a fancy party with him, told them all about how we're all good ponies, and meanwhile we're still slaving away day after day after day with no end in sight."
  1363. > His nostrils flare, puffs of breath running across your muzzle.
  1364. > "You remember what we used to tell ponies? You and I, when we were on the watch? That little thing we'd have them repeat?"
  1365. "Never give up hope. Without hope, the wind'll drop you straight down. Nopony ever flew without hope."
  1366. > "Uh-huh. Well, right now... she can say things are getting better, and maybe they kinda are. But I don't know that we're ever going to be free. I don't know that he's ever going to stop squeezing us. And really, I don't know that she's on our side."
  1367. > A response does not come to you.
  1368. > Rumble seems to shrink back a bit, misinterpreting your silence.
  1369. > "I'm sorry. I know you've gotta be pretty close with her-"
  1370. "Not angry at you, little bro. Guess I'm just scared too. Scared somepony's going to do something big and stupid."
  1371. > "Scared I'm going to do something stupid."
  1372. > You nod as much as you can with your chin on the sheets.
  1373. > Shifting forward, Rumble presses his nose and forehead to yours.
  1374. > Both of you breathe softly, and Rumble lets out a small, contented nicker.
  1375. "I'm just worried about you."
  1376. > "Bro... if Anonymous - or Cadance - told you to arrest me because I was talking to ponies, waking them up to what they do - would you?"
  1377. "I didn't arrest them because-"
  1378. > "I'm not talking about breaking into and stealing stuff! I'm saying... just talk. Just reminding ponies."
  1379. "No. Just for talking? I wouldn't arrest you. I definitely wouldn't punish you. I took this job, but that doesn't mean I've forgotten who I am or what's right."
  1380. > Rumble brushes his nose against yours.
  1381. > "Thanks, bro. I... guess I just get scared sometimes. When I see you out there, being an - an officer for Anonymous-"
  1382. "No. I'm being an officer for us. Not for him."
  1383. > Another small nod.
  1384. > "...yeah."
  1385. "When you're looking at me, remember that. I don't lift a hoof for him alone. I'm here for us."
  1386. > A pause, and then you add:
  1387. "And - Cadance too. I know it must seem like it, but she hasn't gone over to his side. She's doing this for us. I don't think she would order me to stop you. She knows that the independence she's been fighting for doesn't mean anything if we can't speak freely."
  1388. > Rumble shifts, but doesn't say anything.
  1389. "I mean it, bro. She won't stop us from talking, and even if she said so I won't stop follow that order. But - don't be stupid, okay?"
  1390. > "Stupid?"
  1391. "Don't... push ponies to do stupid things. Don't let anypony get comfortable in their chains or forget Corona. But don't egg them on to actions that'll just get them trouble either. I won't punish you, but I won't be able to save you either."
  1392. > His eyes flick to the side - to your back - and Rumble nods.
  1393. > "Yeah, I understand."
  1394. "Thanks."
  1395. > A wing extends to settle across your little brother's back.
  1396. "There is hope, Rumble. For all of us. But we have to stick together. That means protecting each other, and also keeping each other from stepping out where they can't be protected."
  1397. > "You don't buck a storm apart alone. Need a wingpony."
  1398. > Grinning, you manage a small but honest laugh.
  1399. "Yes. Exactly like that. We have more wingpower together than we do apart. And that means Cadance too."
  1400. > ...
  1401. > When you step out into the night, the smile quickly fades.
  1402. > Trotting through the empty streets, thoughts roar through your head like a river swollen by a storm.
  1403.  
  1404. > Rumble, you thought, was safe.
  1405. > But what about other ponies?
  1406. > What would be said tomorrow?
  1407. > How soon would angry graffiti and muttered comments turn into something worse?
  1408. > You need to see Cadance.
  1409. > Putting some additional speed into your trot, you hurry towards the 'town hall'.
  1410. > Technically she should have turned in for the night, but there were more than enough stories of the alicorn putting in excessive late-night hours.
  1411. > ...ironically, you can't help but feeling a bit nervous yourself - expecting a security officer to come swooping out of the shadows and drag you in for being out after curfew.
  1412. > Nevermind that you outrank most of them now and could simply order them not to.
  1413. > As you turn the corner towards the town hall, however, your choice is rewarded:
  1414. > Though most of the building's lights off, a few still shine from one particular set of windows.
  1415. > The door is locked, but you have your guard's master key.
  1416. > Cadance is, as you expected, seated in her office.
  1417. > She looks up when you rap lightly on the doorframe and immediately you're struck by how tired she looks, ears, wings, even mane seeming to droop.
  1418. "Your Highness. Mind if I step in?"
  1419. > "No. Please do; I could use a friendly face today."
  1420. > Your ears fall.
  1421. "That bad?"
  1422. > "Just long."
  1423. "Didn't have enough sleep?"
  1424. > There are bags under her eyes, after all.
  1425. > "Too well, in fact."
  1426. > Cadance's voice drops to a murmur before rising again.
  1427. > "But - please, come in. Have a seat?"
  1428. > You do, though not before quietly closing the door behind you.
  1429. > Settling back into her own, Cadance rests her forehooves on the table and gives you a weary but warm smile.
  1430. > "So, what brings you here, Thunderlane?"
  1431. "Your Highness..."
  1432. > Sucking in a breath, you consider how to say this.
  1433. "...I don't mean to put more pressure on you - Celestia knows, you've already got a lot on your withers-"
  1434. > "It's okay, Thunderlane. I'd rather you told me than we both go skirting around the edges. And 'Cadance', between us here."
  1435. > Alright then.
  1436. "Cadance - you need to give them something. I know it's not your fault what happened yesterday, but not enough ponies see that. They're restless."
  1437. > Once you start, it's like a spigot has been knocked free and emotions are able to just pour out.
  1438. "You need to show them something to - to prove that what you did was meaningful, not just to Anonymous but for ponies too. Otherwise - we're both going to be caught in the middle. I've already had to shoot down rumors that you were taking time with your daughter."
  1439. > That makes her flinch, and shame echoes through you at having to use that tool in your arsenal.
  1440. > But it drives the point home, you hope, of just how bad it is that you are willing to anyhow.
  1441. > Head drooping, she nods.
  1442. > "I know. It's not just last night."
  1443. "But that certainly made it a whole lot -"
  1444. > Lifting the contents of her desk into the air in a hazy field of magic, Cadance sweeps the cloth covering - a covering you hadn't even noticed until now - aside.
  1445. > Six letters stare out at you - 'traitor', in all capitals, burned into the desk's wood.
  1446. > Written so that the one at the desk would be able to read them.
  1447. > "No, Thunderlane. Trust me, I know."
  1448. "Oh..."
  1449. > You don't have anything more to say.
  1450. > The fire that has pushed you this far gutters out.
  1451. > She did indeed know, and now you'd just yelled at her about it again.
  1452. "When?"
  1453. > "Some time before our little excursion yesterday. I don't know if by somepony who saw me in - that outfit -"
  1454. > The way she spits it out implies a special level of distaste.
  1455. > "-or angry over how I sentenced the vandals."
  1456. > You just nod, not knowing what else to say.
  1457. > "But I do, in fact, have something to give them."
  1458. "You do?"
  1459. > "Anonymous says he has granted us extra funds to be used as I see fit. I'll be opening a discussion on what everypony wants to see them used as - we will vote, after a submission period."
  1460. "Putting choice into their hooves. A smart choice."
  1461. > Cadance gives a thin, sad smile.
  1462. > "But not enough to silence the voices raised against me, I suspect. They'll just call it 'being paid off by the slaver' - and I certainly can't silence them."
  1463. "Actions will speak more loudly than their words."
  1464. > "I hope so. Sometimes I wish I could just shut them up, since I can't entirely disagree with them."
  1465. "You're not a traitor, Cadance."
  1466. > "Aren't I?"
  1467. "No. You've least of any of us forgotten that we're slaves, and that 'party' certainly didn't count as breaking your decision not to see Flurry-"
  1468. > Again Cadance flinches, breaking your gaze and turning her head to the floor - guilt seeming to almost physically weigh her body down.
  1469. > "...but I did."
  1470. > You pause.
  1471. > "After - after everypony left. She was there, along with Anonymous and Megan. In Megan's room. I couldn't resist spending a little time..."
  1472. "But - Anonymous was there. It wasn't really a visit, was it?"
  1473. > "Yes."
  1474. > But you are grasping at straws, and Cadance knows it too.
  1475. "Do you think they know?"
  1476. > "No. Nopony else came in. And I didn't stay the night. But..."
  1477. > A wing extended points to the word burned into the desk's top.
  1478. > "...I don't think anypony will care."
  1479. > Getting out of your seat, you walk around to her side of the table.
  1480. "If you are tearing your feathers out this hard over it, I doubt I am in any place to criticize you."
  1481. > "A vote of confidence I appreciate, but one is not enough. And it's only going to become worse."
  1482. > Her head turns towards the office's windows, and you notice that one is boarded over.
  1483. > "Thunderlane... if you thought a close friend of yours - Rumble, even - had been doing something wrong... how would you confront him?"
  1484. "What are you asking?"
  1485. > "I think I know who is responsible for - this."
  1486. > One wing sweeps over her desk; the other points to the window.
  1487. > "Possibly the third pony from the other vandals too. But they're so... close, I don't know how I can ask them."
  1488. "Who?"
  1489. > Cadance shakes her head, and instantly yours fills with faces of ponies.
  1490. > Who?
  1491. > Which pony would she be so afraid of confronting?
  1492. > Mayor Mare?
  1493. > No - this was a unicorn's work, unless the Mayor had suddenly learned how to sneak around and operate a blowtorch.
  1494. "I don't know if I can help you without knowing who..."
  1495. > "You aren't to arrest them. Not yet."
  1496. "Yes, Your Highness."
  1497. > "Sunburst."
  1498. > Your throat tightens.
  1499. > He'd been far closer to Cadance before the escape and her meting out the punishment for it.
  1500. > Now, the young unicorn stallion had become a rather rarer sight.
  1501. "Why?"
  1502. > "He was out last night in a heavy cloak that covered his head when we went riding around. And he saw me riding with Anonymous, dressed up like that."
  1503. "Does he know about Flurry-"
  1504. > "I don't know."
  1505. > Settling on your haunches, you turn the thought over in your mind.
  1506. > What would you do?
  1507. > Not an arrest - you'd given Cadance that - but just talk.
  1508. > Investigate.
  1509. > Certainly you could approach him yourself - take the painful matter out of Cadance's hooves.
  1510. > But maybe he would respond better to her than to you.
  1511. > Having him brought into the security station was also an option.
  1512. "I think..."
  1513. > You sigh softly.
  1514. "...I'm sorry, Your Highness. It's not really appropriate, but... I think you need to speak to him. I did the same with my brother right up until this made me worry that he'd done something stupid too."
  1515. > "Had he?"
  1516. "No, thank Celestia. But don't let it go that far. Don't wait until he feels neglected."
  1517. > Cadance eyes you quietly, and for a moment you fear that the suggestion has gone too far.
  1518. > But then she sighs.
  1519. > "You are right. I should have done this some time ago."
  1520. "I can go with you, if you like. Not... as this."
  1521. > You lift a hoof to gesture to your uniform.
  1522. "But as somepony who's afraid of what will happen if things go on like this. Someone who... stood up there on that stage and suffered the same punishment he did, so he can know I'm not just blowing him off."
  1523. > If Cadance is hurt by your reminder of what she'd done to the two of you, it doesn't show.
  1524. > Maybe she is mollified by the reminder that the very same thing had been done to her.
  1525. > ...or maybe she is just already hurting so badly that no more can be added to it.
  1526. > "Thank you. I - think that'd be a good idea. He looks up to me, but having a pony he doesn't know there will be good."
  1527. "You're welcome. Should I approach him?"
  1528. > "I think that'd be best. You can take your uniform off, but I'm always an alicorn."
  1529. > Something in her tone makes you suspect there are times where she dearly wishes she was somepony else.
  1530. > Beyond merely just not a leader, but not even the same pony she is now.
  1531. > You aren't sure how to feel about that.
  1532. > Sympathetic, yes; nopony should have to bear the weight she does now.
  1533. > But also scared.
  1534. > If she was cracking under the strain of her position... who else could hold it?
  1535. "I'll do that then, Your Highness."
  1536. > You're halfway turned out when she speaks up again, in a low voice.
  1537. > "Thunderlane?"
  1538. "Your Highness?"
  1539. > Cadance has turned too, looking out the window.
  1540. > Her expression is rendered hazy by the mottled glass, but you can tell it is not a happy one.
  1541. > "You - you do all of this for your brother's sake, yes?"
  1542. "Yes. For Rumble - the promise I made him when we were first taken. He was my family, and I would always do the most for him."
  1543. > For some reason this drives a flinch through her body.
  1544. > "What would you do if you'd betrayed him?"
  1545. > Your mind boggles at the question.
  1546. > Betrayed?
  1547. > Rumble?
  1548. > How could you ever...?
  1549. > At the same time, an undercurrent of fear ripples through you as well.
  1550. > She couldn't have discovered that you had been spying for Anonymous, that you'd turned in the escape attempt.
  1551. > ...could she?
  1552. > No.
  1553. > Cadance was as distraught by this as you were.
  1554. > Whatever it was, it was not about that.
  1555. > Which brings you back to square one.
  1556. > How could you ever betray that which you cared about most?
  1557. "Your Highness, I-"
  1558. > Seeming to predict your objection, Cadance shakes her head.
  1559. > "Imagine you did, Thunderlane. Imagine - what would you do with yourself then?"
  1560. > ...had she somehow betrayed somepony?
  1561. > Who could she care about most here?
  1562. > Flurry Heart?
  1563. > Had her time spent with her daughter provoked some kind of punishment from Anonymous?
  1564. > Swallowing hard, you choose your next words carefully.
  1565. "I like to think that no relationship is permanently destroyed, Your Highness. Princess Celestia brought back her sister, no matter what it cost her."
  1566. > A feat soured by how few years they had together before everything had come tumbling down again.
  1567. > Who knew where they were now.
  1568. > But the point still stands, albeit shakily.
  1569. "Whoever you've hurt... you can make it up to them. You can undo whatever damage you've done, and earn back their trust."
  1570. > Cadance nods, but does not look back from the window.
  1571. > "I appreciate it, Thunderlane."
  1572. "You're welcome, Your Highness."
  1573. > Trotting out of her office, you are still turning over the perplexing question of who, exactly, she could have betrayed so badly.
  1574. > Whoever it was, you hope she can mend fences with them soon.
  1575. > Looking up as you step out onto the street, you flinch as something frigid touches down on your nose.
  1576. > It was snowing.
  1577.  
  1578. > "Master?"
  1579. "Yes, Mocha?"
  1580. > The little maid pony stands at your side, an envelope dancing in her magic.
  1581. > "Letter for you, Master."
  1582. > A glance at the return address and you snort fiercely.
  1583. > Dealing with that right now was not on your list of priorities.
  1584. "Put it away in my in-box, Mocha. I'll deal with it later."
  1585. > "I'm sorry, Master."
  1586. "Sorry?"
  1587. > You chuckle softly, reaching down to lightly rub her cheek - being careful not to disrupt her elaborately-done mane or uniform.
  1588. "It's hardly your fault. You just brought it in."
  1589. > She leans into your touch, but lets out a nervous little nicker as well.
  1590. > "S-Still, Master."
  1591. "Actually... you and the entire house staff did well last night. I realize little of that company must have been particularly pleasant for you-"
  1592. > A subtle nod, but she does not dare interrupt you.
  1593. "-but you all managed excellently. I can't complain about anything, and it really was an excellent display of service."
  1594. > "Thank you, Master."
  1595. "Really, you've all been doing very well... so I'd like to reward the lot of you. Do something special, since you all held yourselves up so well."
  1596. > "A-All of us?"
  1597. "The house staff, yes."
  1598. > "I-I'd have to ask them, Master. I don't know-"
  1599. > Looking down at her hooves, Mocha scuffs at the carpeting.
  1600. "Ah, ah - careful there, Mocha. I've warned you about damaging the carpet."
  1601. > With a squeak and a little stomp, she halts her hoof.
  1602. > "Sorry!"
  1603. "No worries. But - do talk to the rest of the staff if you have the time."
  1604. > "I will, sir. I'm just... not sure what you could give us. We already live well-"
  1605. > For ponies, she seems to silently say.
  1606. > "-and, um... well, time off would be... well, most ponies don't really hang out with us."
  1607. > Hmm.
  1608. > The inevitable divisions of class, you suppose.
  1609. > Even among slaves.
  1610. > It certainly wasn't fair, but you weren't sure what you could do about it.
  1611. "True. But I don't want to leave you unrewarded for what you did either."
  1612. > Giving her cheek one final scratch, you sit back up again.
  1613. "And besides. A little time off would still be somewhat helpful... so, ask the others when you can. Ask Cadance as well - she might have some ideas."
  1614. > "Yes, Master. I..."
  1615. > She hesitates.
  1616. > "...nevermind, Master."
  1617. "Alright, Mocha. Head on out, then."
  1618. > And she does - trotting with a little extra spring in her step.
  1619. > Hopefully the promise of a reward would have that same effect on the other house ponies.
  1620. > For that matter, what could you do better for the other ponies?
  1621. > Cadance had her reward, and there was no doubt she would put the funds you were releasing for her to good use in the camp.
  1622. > But maybe... maybe it would be good to give the rest of the camp something else as well?
  1623. > Time off for all of them would put strain on your balance-books, especially as you had not quite made up the losses resulting from the escape.
  1624. > Much more so than any one-time gift of funds could have.
  1625. > ...something less, then?
  1626. > Even just going down into the camp, checking in on them?
  1627. > You knew that some ponies there simply did not like you - could never see past their grievances to recognize everything you'd given them.
  1628. > But what about some of the others?
  1629. > Would they see?
  1630. > Would they feel your honest appreciation?
  1631. > Certaily Mocha had - becoming much more warm towards you since you'd actually started paying attention to her.
  1632. > Two years she'd been here, and only now...
  1633. > But Mocha Cream was not everyone, and you couldn't afford to forget that.
  1634. > Scratching your cheek, you consider - and a thought comes to mind.
  1635. > What if you could... give them a way to talk to you?
  1636. > A way to let them vent their grievances?
  1637. > Giving Thunderlane as a guard they could actually talk to had apparently done wonders for rooting out the rot in your security force.
  1638. > What if you did the same for talking to you?
  1639. > There'd have to be a filter of some kind - you rather suspected there'd be at least a few 'go fuck your mother' type letters in the first lot - but if word could get through at all...
  1640. > You'd have to bring it up to Cadance the next time you see her.
  1641. > Or, hell, have one of the maids do it; they handled your mail already.
  1642. > The thought settles your mind enough that you're quite able to get back to work.
  1643. > Which, in turn, quickly seems to bleed away the rest of the day - soon enough the sun is sinking towards the horizon.
  1644. > Standing to stretch with a ripple of pops coming from your back, you turn and make your way downstairs.
  1645. > Barely have you reached the bottom step when you're ambushed from the side:
  1646. > One weight slams into your side, long arms wrapping around your hips to try and pinion your legs together.
  1647. > Another set of hoofed legs settle across your shoulders, a broad wall of feathers circling your head to cover your eyes.
  1648. > "Hug attack!"
  1649. > Two voices giggle out in unison.
  1650. > Laughing yourself, you stumble in circles a few times before finding a wall to slump down against.
  1651. "Oh, no! I've been wounded - terribly wounded! I'm at your mercy!"
  1652. > Megan throws herself across you, straddling your lap.
  1653. > "We want - cookies!"
  1654. > Judging by the intense giggling going on just behind your left ear, Flurry Heart has draped herself across your shoulders cat-like.
  1655. > Peeling her wing off your face, you glare down imperiously at your daughter.
  1656. "And do you know what happens to little girls - and fillies - that eat to many cookies?"
  1657. > "They get mo-"
  1658. "They get fat!"
  1659. > You're on her in an instant, fingers moving to furiously tickle Megan's ribs.
  1660. > She is defenseless - collapsing in a ball of tearful laughter and pleas.
  1661. > "No! No! Nooooo!"
  1662. "And when they get all round and soft and sloooooow, then -"
  1663. > You're leaning over, 'biting' at her neck with fierce snarling noises.
  1664. "- they get all eaten up!"
  1665. > Wings lightly batter your head, Flurry Heart unable to contain her laughter even when she speaks.
  1666. > "Run away, Mistress! Get safe! I'll stay!"
  1667. > "No, Flurry!"
  1668. > "Go! I'll sas- saci - sacrifi- just go!"
  1669. > She does, little socked feet pitter-pattering away down the hall.
  1670. > Distantly, you can hear another bit of laughter at the exchange - probably another house pony.
  1671. > After another moment, Flurry Heart speaks more softly:
  1672. > "Master? It wasn't too much was it?"
  1673. "Not at all, Flurry."
  1674. > Reaching up, you carefully unwind her from your neck and settle her into your arms - resting on her back and peering up at you with legs folded.
  1675. > Flurry squirms slightly as she is held child-like, but ultimately snuggles down into your arms.
  1676. > "Oh. I was afraid I'd upset you-"
  1677. "Not one bit."
  1678. > In fact, you'd been quite pleased that she dared to take part in the "ambush".
  1679. > Your daughter's vivacious attitude had clearly begun to rub off on her - a deep improvement from the shattered personality she'd displayed when you first brought her in.
  1680. > Damaged Flurry Heart may have been, but apparently resilient as well.
  1681. > And it said good things about Megan that she had influence Flurry to this point.
  1682. "I don't mind you playing with my daughter at all. But-"
  1683. > You lay a finger on her nose, pressing softly.
  1684. > Flurry goes crosseyed, forehooves pedaling in the air at your hand.
  1685. "No cookies. You just had all that cake last night, and both of you do have to watch your sugar."
  1686. > "Yes, Master."
  1687. "Good girl."
  1688. > Looking up, you spot a pair of ponies watching you from a distance.
  1689. > Raising one hand, you give them a small wave; after a moment of uncertainty, Flurry Heart joins in with one hoof.
  1690. > Both smile back - slowly at first, but with increasing warmth.
  1691. > Chuckling softly, you slowly climb back to your feet; Flurry Heart is replaced in her perch across your shoulders.
  1692. "And, there is one more thing we have to do."
  1693. > "Yes, Master?"
  1694. "Now we go find Megan."
  1695.  
  1696. > Despite Thunderlane's words, it'd taken you another two days to visit Sunburst.
  1697. > Part of that was simply waiting until Thunderlane was off-duty, but you knew he would drop everything and come if you had really asked him.
  1698. > Things cannot be ignored forever, though, and soon enough you find yourself approaching his office's door.
  1699. > He would be in there, you know.
  1700. > Sunburst... didn't have much of a social life, to say the least.
  1701. > The bookish unicorn had dedicated his life to working for you - both on-duty and off - and that had little changed after you had been forced to whip him.
  1702. > Gently your hoof taps on the door.
  1703. > "Who is it?"
  1704. "It's Cadance, Sunburst."
  1705. > A long, long silence follows.
  1706. > Were it not for Thunderlane standing at your flank, you would probably have bowed out right then and there.
  1707. > "...come in."
  1708. > You do - opening the door and peering cautiously around the room.
  1709. > It is, in a word, messy.
  1710. > A brilliant scholar of magic Sunburst may have been, but organization had always been something that eluded him.
  1711. > Even when Twilight Sparkle had tried-
  1712. > That line of thought is culled before it can go any further.
  1713. > Stepping into the room - and over the tomes and folders littering the floor - you make room for Thunderlane to enter behind you.
  1714. > Sunburst's eyes widen when he sees the other stallion, but Thunderlane is out of uniform.
  1715. "Hello, Sunburst."
  1716. > "Your Highness."
  1717. > His voice is low, almost whispered, and he drops into a small bow.
  1718. "I..."
  1719. > What do you say?
  1720. > 'Sorry I ignored you, oh and by the way did you happen to be trying to get ponies beaten with this graffiti?'
  1721. > Extending a wing, Thunderlane touches your side.
  1722. > Right.
  1723. "I am - worried about you, Sunburst."
  1724. > "Worried, Your Highness?"
  1725. "Yes, Sunburst. I..."
  1726. > Head drooping, you take another cautious step closer to his desk.
  1727. "You saw me that night. When I was out there with all the guests."
  1728. > "Yes."
  1729. > The monotone response sends another bolt through your heart.
  1730. "When we were out that night, Sunburst... somepony broke into my office in the town hall. They used magic to burn a word into my desk."
  1731. > "Oh?"
  1732. > It's impossible to tell if he knows or not.
  1733. > "What was it?"
  1734. "Traitor."
  1735. > He flinches.
  1736. > You open your mouth to go on, but no more words come.
  1737. > Celestia above, how do you say this?
  1738. > Thankfully, Thunderlane takes the lead.
  1739. > "Sunburst. Princess Cadances is - she's scared. Very, very scared that you did something-"
  1740. > "Did something?"
  1741. > There's still no real emotion in his voice, but somehow you know - really know - that he is hurt by this.
  1742. "It's not just that. The two ponies who were caught stealing paint - they said there was a third with them, a unicorn."
  1743. > "And she saw you out, covering yourself with a cloak."
  1744. > At last, Sunburst raises his eyes to you.
  1745. > The pain in them is sufficient to make you take a full step back.
  1746. > "Your Highness... please tell me. What did I do to deserve this? Why are you punishing me-"
  1747. "Punishing?!"
  1748. > "A-Aren't you?"
  1749. "No! How would I-"
  1750. > "You - you shut me out. You blocked me off. I thought - I thought I'd done something to displease you. Because I made you give me the extra lashes. I don't-"
  1751. > He swallows, motioning to Thunderlane.
  1752. > "I thought he was here, because you were going to - punish me more."
  1753. > "No."
  1754. > Stepping up to match your position, Thunderlane emphatically shakes his head.
  1755.  
  1756. > "No, I am not. I'm here because Cadance is scared, and she needs somepony by her side. And I'm here because I went through the same thing you did too."
  1757. > That finally seems to get through to Sunburst.
  1758. > "I'm sorry..."
  1759. "No. I am... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have cut you off like that. It was my mistake. I certainly shouldn't have accused you without a shred of evidence."
  1760. > Settling on your haunches, you reach out to spread a wing across his back.
  1761. > He sighs softly, nodding.
  1762. > "Thank you, Your Highness. I..."
  1763. > His eyes flick up towards Thunderlane.
  1764. > "I'm sorry, but... is he - safe?"
  1765. "Safe?"
  1766. > "Can we talk - safely?"
  1767. > Thunderlane shows no reaction, but then he is probably used to it by now.
  1768. "Yes. Thunderlane joined the Security force with my urging. He has my confidence."
  1769. > For the first time since you'd entered Sunburst smiles.
  1770. > "Good. I wouldn't ever attack you, Your Highness. I know Anonymous is holding your daughter hostage - that you didn't have any choice."
  1771. "...thank you, Sunburst."
  1772. > Taking off his glasses, he sets them the desk and laughs softly.
  1773. > "Besides, I remembered what we did before. Petty insults don't mean anything; what I've been trying to do is much bigger."
  1774. > Your mind comes screeching to a halt, and judging by Thunderlane's expression he is experiencing something similar.
  1775. "W-What do you mean?"
  1776. > "Well, there's no point in riling the security up. Especially now that we have somepony on the inside. But, we have larger goals, right? That's what I've been working towards."
  1777. > In the long silence that follows, Sunburst finally seems to realize something is wrong.
  1778. > He looks between the two of you, suddenly uncertain.
  1779. > "I thought... if I could prepare something bigger, you'd appreciate that. I thought you would stop punishing me..."
  1780. "Sunburst...."
  1781. > Every word is chosen carefully, picked with the delicateness of a chess-master playing a world tournament.
  1782. "...nothing I've ever done has been meant to punish you. It was my mistake entirely to not come to you sooner."
  1783. > How much more true it is now - if you hadn't been so weak, hadn't allowed your fear to drive you away from him, it would never have gotten to this point.
  1784. > But it had, and now a bomb had just been dropped into your hooves with the fuse lit.
  1785. "I wish I'd been a better friend for you, Sunburst, but this wasn't your fault."
  1786. > "Yes. Um, well. I..."
  1787. > It's his turn to look abashed, rubbing at the tuft of hair hanging from his chin.
  1788. > "I didn't exactly help either. I just assumed you meant to punish me."
  1789. "Nothing could be more wrong."
  1790. > Putting a hoof on his shoulder, you shake your head.
  1791. "What I had to do to you... hurt me, Sunburst. I mean it. It's why I took lashes as well - I couldn't stand myself if I did that to you and didn't take something similar."
  1792. > His smile spreads again, becoming warmer.
  1793. > "Yes. Um, okay then. Well-"
  1794. "But, Sunburst. I... I hope you'll understand then - I don't need you to plan anything big to win my approval. In fact..."
  1795. > Please, don't let him break down.
  1796. "...in fact, I don't need you to plan any big acts of resistance."
  1797. > "O-Oh."
  1798. > The look of absolute despair on his face threatens to close your throat.
  1799. > "I'm sorry. I should've - should've figured you would have your own plans. I mean, now that you have a pony on the inside with the guards and all..."
  1800. "It's not that, Sunburst. There isn't any big plan right now."
  1801. > He stares up in, seemingly barely able to understand what you're suggesting.
  1802. > "We're not planning another big escape, Sunburst."
  1803. > Thunderlane sighs, settling down on his haunches and looking towards a wall as if wishing he could appear a window into it to look out.
  1804. > "That was tried. It didn't work out too well... got a lot of ponies hurt."
  1805. > "I don't understand."
  1806. > Looking between the two of your with desperate eyes, Sunburst seems to be reaching out for any purchase to grab on to.
  1807. > "Your Highness - you used to talk to us all about how we had to preserve our dignity, our freedom because we couldn't ever get it as slaves."
  1808. > You can feel Thunderlane's gaze settling on your back.
  1809. > Not surprising; he alone among the ponies you'd had to whip hadn't been part of the original plan.
  1810. > Hadn't taken part in those hushed meetings in quiet corners and darkened rooms.
  1811. "I did, Sunburst. And... it's still not right. Won't ever be right that we are held like property. I know that as much as anypony..."
  1812. > An idea jumps into your head.
  1813. "You saw me that night, carted around like a prize while being dressed up as a broken, obedient prize for Anonymous. And while I understand why he had me do that, I still hated it. No system that makes it logical to do that to somepony will ever be right."
  1814. > The unicorn nods, eyes having fallen to stare at his desk again.
  1815. > "We don't have to know what you're planning, Sunburst. In fact, in some ways I'd prefer I didn't know so I don't feel like I should be looking out for it. But riling up ponies to act now... we've just barely been able to head off Anonymous' tightening down on everypony now. If something new crops up..."
  1816. > Sunburst sniffs slightly, nodding.
  1817. > "I... I'm sorry. I just don't understand. I thought - I thought you hadn't started anything new because you were afraid of what he'd do to Flurry, Princess Cadance."
  1818. > Oh.
  1819. > Of course.
  1820. > He'd actually known Flurry is a foal as well - had a hoof in raising her, too.
  1821. > You shake your head softly.
  1822. "However bad it is in here... provoking another reaction cannot happen now. Anonymous is, at least, trying to make our lives better - showing us some trust. Trying to make our lives easier."
  1823. > The words had come to your lips almost automatically, repeated verbatim from the speeches you'd given so many times now.
  1824. "Even though nopony should forget we're captives, that doesn't mean we have to constantly fight him either."
  1825. > Even as they do come, however, you feel your heart growing heavier.
  1826. > Why were you saying this to him?
  1827. > Wasn't what Sunburst had said the truth?
  1828. > You had been ready to spit in Anonymous' eye, until he had mentioned his purchase of Flurry Heart.
  1829. > And while it was true that your captor had begun trying to make your lives easier... did that really change that he still held your daughter - indirectly - hostage to ensure your good behavior?
  1830. > ...did he?
  1831. > You pause, considering.
  1832. > Anonymous had plans for Flurry Heart now - he'd said as much.
  1833. > All his grooming to become a leader for his other slaves like you were wouldn't mean a thing if she was sold off.
  1834. > Nor did it strike you as entirely spur-of-the-moment.
  1835. > ...had he always had those plans for her?
  1836. > Had he played you?
  1837. > Relied on your willingness to scrape and bow and do his bidding, even if his threat was hollow?
  1838. > "Princess Cadance?"
  1839. "Wha - oh. Oh... sorry. I... just thought of something important, but it can wait."
  1840. > "Oh..."
  1841. > Sunburst goes back staring dimly at his desk, and your heart wrenches again.
  1842. > Here was a stallion who'd practically dedicated his life to you - to the one pony who he could really look up to.
  1843. > And then you'd not only convinced him that you were punishing him with the silent treatment, but then dropped in to tell him that his efforts had been in vain and the ideals you'd reinforced in him were meaningless.
  1844. > No wonder he seemed empty.
  1845. "Sunburst... we just don't want anypony to get hurt. Trust me; my dedication to seeing everypony here free one day hasn't dropped by one bid."
  1846. > "Same. Even though I'm a guard now, the only reason I can get up in the morning is because I know I'm keeping ponies from being hurt worse."
  1847. > You nod to Thunerlane in thanks for his support.
  1848. > "O-Okay."
  1849. > He looks up, peering between the two of you.
  1850. > "Am I... are you going to have to actually punish me again? Uh, Thunderlane, are you going to have to, uh, arrest me?"
  1851. "No. Thunderlane isn't going to arrest you, and I am certainly not going to punish you for this."
  1852. > "Do you need to know what I was planning? Um, to keep everypony safe?"
  1853. "We..."
  1854. > You look to Thunderlane, conscious of what he'd said earlier.
  1855. > He lifts a hoof to run it throw his mohawk-mane, but manages a smile back.
  1856. > "I'll... go wait outside, okay? Tell Princess Cadance, Sunburst. If she thinks it is serious enough, she can tell me."
  1857. > A small frown touches your lips.
  1858. > That was cruel of him, to put the decision on your wings - leaving the weight of whether it was right or wrong on your head.
  1859. > The weight of being a leader, you suppose.
  1860. "Understood."
  1861. > When the door is closed behind Thunderlane, you look back to Sunburst.
  1862. "Go ahead?"
  1863. > "Going under, with the tunnels, took too long to just get away from the camp. We can't dig our way out again..."
  1864. "How? The pegasus detectors keep us-"
  1865. > "Haycartes' Method."
  1866. > The name rings a bell - something Twilight had mentioned once - but you can't place it.
  1867. > Seeing your confusion, Sunburst helpfully adds:
  1868. > "A way to enchant a pony to temporarily - inhabit a book."
  1869. > Understanding dawns in your mind.
  1870. "There wouldn't be any signs of an escape, because ponies wouldn't be leaving as ponies."
  1871. > "Yes. My magic isn't strong enough to do it, but there are some other here."
  1872. > Head hanging, he adds:
  1873. > "They've been good students..."
  1874. "And - to get out of the camp?"
  1875. > "We had - a few plans to get over the fence itself. Some of the Pegasi were talking about gliders. Too small for a pony, so they wouldn't raise Anonymous' suspicion."
  1876. > But not too small for... what?
  1877. > A book, a few books?
  1878. > Enough to carry so many ponies away...
  1879. > "It's not the only way. One mare swears she has written to a sympathizer who would let us mail ourselves. Another thinks we should hide in Anonymous' shipments - let him send us out."
  1880. "How many are involved."
  1881. > "Not too many. No more than two dozen now, I think. Many fewer than it took to dig the tunnels, I think."
  1882. "You think?"
  1883. > Sunburst flinches, and you wince.
  1884. > That came out harder than it needed to.
  1885. > "We... tried to keep it all separated. Nopony could have too much information, in case they were t-tortured."
  1886. > Celestia above, they really were assuming the worst...
  1887. > "We knew we had to keep it small, though."
  1888. "Because of the risk of discovery."
  1889. > "Because you would have to punish whoever was involved."
  1890. > You turn over the situation in your head.
  1891. > A few, highly motivated ponies...
  1892. > In some ways, that was worse.
  1893. "Sunburst, you know this can't go ahead."
  1894. > "Yes, Your Highness..."
  1895. > He hesitates.
  1896. > "I... can ask them to stop. I don't know if they will."
  1897. "And you don't know who all of them are either."
  1898. > "Not all."
  1899. "Okay."
  1900. > Turning this over in your head, you take a deep breath.
  1901. > This was... much more complex than you had ever imagined.
  1902. > It wasn't going to be so easy to simply shut down.
  1903. "This is... impressive, Sunburst. I can't ask you to just throw away all this work."
  1904. > He perks up, actualy looking pleased.
  1905. > That only makes your heart fall further; you were only realizing just now how profoundly broken Sunburst had been by the experience of slavery.
  1906. "But the thing is, we can't do it now. Not just because the time isn't right - because Anonymous seems to be actually loosening his grip on us - but because it isn't ready as a plan yet. We have to make one-hundred percent sure it's absolutely safe."
  1907. > "It is, Your Highness. The literature on Haycartes' Method is very clear, and we've been able to work around the deficiencies to keep anypony who tries it-"
  1908. "I don't just mean the spell itself, Sunburst. I mean what happens after that? How do we keep ponies safe once they are out of the camp? What happens if they reappear in the middle of a street? Where are they going next? If we're trying to mail them-"
  1909. > The idea of mailing a pony still seems strange in your mind.
  1910. > Perhaps a bit too close to how the slave markets moved ponies around without any care for them beyond preserving their sale value.
  1911. "-then we have to make sure where they arrive is safe. If it's too someone, we have to make sure they just don't want vulnerable slaves delivered straight to them."
  1912. > "Oh..."
  1913. > Sunburst's head begins to hang again, and you lean over to nuzzle him."
  1914. "I just want to be sure of everypony's safety, Sunburst. The last time... not everypony who wasn't brought back to the camp escaped. Some got out of the camp, but died going further."
  1915. > "You... knew them?"
  1916. "Not well. I know names. Merribelle. She died because there was no plan beyond 'just get out'."
  1917. > Corona's accusing voice taunts you in your head.
  1918. > Squeezing your eyes shut, you shake your head.
  1919. "At the same time... we can't be all-trusting. Anonymous may be trying to help now, but we don't know what the future will bring. Having one final shot at escaping if that day comes will be invaluable."
  1920. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  1921. "So, here's what you're going to do. You go back to your friends, and tell them this has my blessing but now is not the right time to act. Instead, they're to keep refining this plan. Most importantly, figure out where ponies are going and how they should get there after getting out of the camp. But they aren't to risk anything major, and they aren't to provoke anything."
  1922. > "I understand, Princess."
  1923. "You've done well, Sunburst. We just can't afford to start anything before it becomes absolutely necessary. Because I guarantee you - the second Anonymous finds out about this, we'll all of us be drugged and have limiters on our magic. There won't be a second shot."
  1924. > Not to mention, it would be the end of any chance ever see you daughter ever again.
  1925. > "O-Okay. What about..."
  1926. > He motions towards the closed door.
  1927. "I trust Thunderlane. If anything, he can help keep this under control - stop anything before it endangers more ponies."
  1928. > It isn't about doing Anonymous' bidding, you swear to yourself.
  1929. > It's about protecting ponies' wellbeing.
  1930. > That you even had this shot speaks to the degree of trust Anonymous put in you.
  1931. > Preserving that trust is critical.
  1932. > Pausing, you lean over and gently nuzzle Sunburst.
  1933. "I'm sorry. I should've been with you since the beginning..."
  1934. > "I'm... just glad to know you're still you, Princess."
  1935. "Still me?"
  1936. > "I was... afraid. When I saw you out in that cart like that..."
  1937. > Your heart falls again.
  1938. > If even Sunburst had been worried, how many others would lose faith in you?
  1939. > Seeing your expression, Sunburst shakes his head.
  1940. > "No, no! I didn't mean-"
  1941. "It's okay, Sunburst. I'm not upset. I understand why ponies would... think that way. You've done well, though."
  1942. > Hesitating, you ask more softly:
  1943. "I don't know if it can... but if you can keep this under control, I can see about asking if you can visit Flurry Heart?"
  1944. > "I..."
  1945. > His eyes go wide, pupils shrinking.
  1946. > "I could..."
  1947. "I don't know for sure. He will have to approve it."
  1948. > And Anonymous would have good reason to hesitate, given that Sunburst had already lead one breakout.
  1949. > "Please, Princess... I'd love to see her. Is she doing okay?"
  1950. "Well..."
  1951. > ...
  1952. > When you step out of Sunburst's office, Thunderlane is waiting just beyond.
  1953. > Rising from his belly as you approach, he cocks his head.
  1954. > "Well?"
  1955. "Their plan isn't actually the worst I've heard. Far better than the time it was suggested we just try to steal trucks and drive through the fence."
  1956. > "That one was particularly stupid."
  1957. "Yes; this time, they want to use a particular spell to sneak ponies out inside of books."
  1958. > His eyebrows rise.
  1959. > "No offense, Your Highness, but that sounds... stupidly risky. I'm sure Sunburst knows his magic, but I've never quite trusted unicorn spells that far..."
  1960. "Apparently they've tested it, but even so I told them not to try anything. I just hope it reaches everypony, though. He says they've started splitting groups up so they can't all be found at once."
  1961. > And, for that matter, you hope they will listen to you once they are told.
  1962. > "Smart."
  1963. > Frowning, Thunderlane shakes his head.
  1964. > "So, what do you want me to do?"
  1965. "Don't move in on any of them now. I'm going to give them a chance; these ones seem like a more reasonable group of ponies."
  1966. > "Not the kind who are throwing up graffiti or breaking in and stealing things."
  1967. "Exactly. I'm going to give them a chance to prove that. We stand up for ourselves without being impulsive and getting ponies hurt."
  1968. > "Alright."
  1969. > He takes a deep breath, nodding.
  1970. > "I can do that."
  1971. "By the same measure, Thunderlane, if somepony does something foolish and gets in trouble... don't hesitate to do what you have to do."
  1972. > Settling on your haunches, you sigh.
  1973.  
  1974. "It's a delicate balance between each side. If I seem to be backing Anonymous' position only, everypony will lose faith in me. There'll be something tried, and he will clamp down, and it'll all be lost. But if I don't give him something, he cuts me off and the same happens..."
  1975. > "And you lose your daughter."
  1976. > Thunderlane is watching you from the corner of his eye.
  1977. > "Trust me, Princess Cadance. I understand what you mean by balances."
  1978. "Yes..."
  1979. > You shoot him a soft smile.
  1980. "My apologies. I do sometimes forget that I'm not the only perched on this precarious balance."
  1981. > "Not a problem, Your Highness."
  1982. "Still. Thank you for coming to this. Even if you did step out, you were right. It was something I needed to do."
  1983.  
  1984. > Despite the time you'd spent waiting for the princess, you still felt the cold the moment you stepped out into it.
  1985. > Your jacket - sensibly - identified yourself as a member of the guard, though, so wearing it to meet with the skittish stallion hadn't been a possibility.
  1986. > Putting on some speed to work warmth back into your bones, you decide to head back to the guard post before turning in for the night.
  1987. > It gave you time to think, if nothing else.
  1988. > Balance...
  1989. > Cadance didn't know the half of it.
  1990. > If Anonymous found out you'd been alerted to a new escape plan taking shape and hadn't brought it to his attention, there was still a fair chance he'd come down on you - on Rumble - harder than the worst thunderstorm.
  1991. > He had, after all, made it clear that he considered your previous private agreement with him the de facto state of affairs now.
  1992. > There wasn't any way for you to worm out of this.
  1993. > ...except to just not tell him.
  1994. > To take that risk, and hope to Celestia, Harmony, even Discord that he never discovered it.
  1995. > Shivering a bit more than just from the cold, you turn down the street towards the security station -
  1996. > Just in time to see a cloaked pony slip across the street from it and down a street further on.
  1997. > In an instant you're at a full-out gallop, then with wings spread launching yourself down the street towards them.
  1998. > But by the time you're remotely close enough to the figure has already vanished down a side street.
  1999. > Cursing, you instead circle the security building - trying to figure out what they were doing.
  2000. > To your surprise, though, there's no sign of any graffiti, damage, or anything else suspect.
  2001. > Casing the position, then?
  2002. > Maybe.
  2003. > Heading for the door, you're almost caught on the nose by its opening.
  2004. > A security officer, steps out - Lana, a familiar face, one you'd worked with before, but clearly surprised.
  2005. > "Oh! Thunderlane, I hadn't expected you to be back tonight."
  2006. "I was just checking in, but - did you see sompony around just now? They ran off before I could see who they were."
  2007. > Her face goes pale.
  2008. > "Another pony? Around here? No, we didn't have anyone in here."
  2009. "Damn - listen, are you still on duty?"
  2010. > "No, I was just about to go home."
  2011. "Can you help me just to a quick look around? I couldn't see anything, but I want to be sure..."
  2012. > "Ah..."
  2013. > She hesitates.
  2014. > "If you really need to. I was I think we would have noticed if there was anything wrong, though."
  2015. > Lana isn't just brushing you off, you know.
  2016. > She'd been open and helpful before despite you being a pony - not one of the guards who held your acquisition of your rank against you.
  2017. [Choice]
  2018. "...okay, look. I realize you're not on duty, but this is pretty serious. If you could come in and just help me take a look around-"
  2019. > "Yeah."
  2020. > She sighs, seeming to realize you weren't going to let this go so easily.
  2021. > "Alright, we can do a sweep around."
  2022. "Thank you."
  2023. > Stepping back inside - into the warmth - you shiver as you realize just how frigid it had been outside.
  2024. > Giving you a sympathetic look, Lana frowns.
  2025. > "You don't have a coat?"
  2026. "I do. Just - not with me. We pegasi aren't too upset by the cold, though."
  2027. > Your nose twitches as you glance over towards her - that perfume was strong!
  2028. > "Hmm. So, what exactly did you see?"
  2029. "One pony - couldn't see what tribe, although they fled on hoof so it's probably not a pegasus. I was wondering if it was our missing unicorn perp from the break-ins-"
  2030. > Perp?
  2031. > You really were becoming familiar with their slang.
  2032. "-but I didn't get a chance to see what they were doing."
  2033. > "So, just take a quick sweep around and check for anything obvious?"
  2034. "Yes. Any signs of attempted break-in, anything out of place, that sort of thing."
  2035. > "Best to do the rooms facing the outside, then."
  2036. "Agreed."
  2037. > Moving down the hall, you begin to sweep the outer rooms.
  2038. > Windows are few and far between, mostly mounted higher up; the wire reinforcing in them casts strange patterns in the light filtering through.
  2039. > While much of the camp was cast in darkness during the late-night hours, the security station was always lit by streetlamps.
  2040. > Tile floors, empty desks, racks of files and gently flashing computer carts - all are cast in a pale, patterned glow.
  2041. > On the third room, Lana speaks up again.
  2042. > "They'd have to be a complete idiot to try and break into the security office."
  2043. "I wouldn't actually be that surprised."
  2044. > Glancing over, you notice that she's begun to sweat.
  2045. > It might just be the heavy coat, but...
  2046. "Are you alright?"
  2047. > "Yeah, just... nervous."
  2048. "Nervous? Do I worry you that much?"
  2049. > The attempt at humor doesn't quite crash as it never gets off the ground in the first place.
  2050. > Lana rolls her eyes, playing her flashlight over the next empty room.
  2051. > "Maybe I'm just a bit nervous because we're chasing a pony who's got every reason to snap if we find them? Or what if they left a bomb?"
  2052. "Fortunately I don't think anypony is that crazy yet."
  2053. > "Good..."
  2054. > She pulls her coat around herself, leaving you wondering.
  2055. > This sort of nervousness... she hadn't shown anything like it before.
  2056. > In fact, she'd always been pretty comfortable around you.
  2057. > Peering into the next room, you propel yourself up to check the upper window before glancing back to your partner.
  2058. > She was peering down the hall, as if checking to see if someone might be there.
  2059. > A curious worry begins to stick in the back of your mind:
  2060. > Sunburst had seemed pleased that Cadance had somepony 'on the inside' with the guard now.
  2061. > Did that mean he had somepony of his own?
  2062. > Or else - someone?
  2063. > After all, his entire plan seemed to focus on getting past the camp's boundaries.
  2064. > Having an ally within the security staff would definitely help there...
  2065. > "Hey, Thunderlane? This room alright?"
  2066. "Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry. Just thinking."
  2067. > Grinning - although still with a hint of trepidation - Lana shakes her head.
  2068. > "Keep it focused, officer. I'd still like to get home."
  2069. "Yeah. Sorry."
  2070. > Stepping out into the hall, you fall in behind her.
  2071. "You know... listen, Lana. I just wanted to say thank you too. For looking out for me."
  2072. > "Looking out?"
  2073. "Well, you've gone out of your way to try and help me do my job here. Which, I get doesn't sound like much, but considering how some others have made it clear they don't like having me on security, much less an officer..."
  2074. > She is quiet after that, playing her flashlight around a small closet at the end of the hall.
  2075. > Closing that door, she turns around to face you and folds her arms.
  2076. > "Look, I guess... this is a job for me, right? I'm not in it because I like kicking ponies or something. I know you're not like, dumb animals or anything. You in particular - well, you've got a lot weighing on you."
  2077. "You can say that again."
  2078. > "So, I guess I just, eh..."
  2079. > Reaching up, she scratches her hair.
  2080. > The hat she wore had disappeared some time after you'd both gone in.
  2081. > "...you guys are alright. For what you're going through, you've also been a lot friendlier than you had to be, y'know?"
  2082. > Sympathy - but did that equate to sympathy for resistance?
  2083. "Yeah. Especially with the tensions going up in the camp since then."
  2084. > "We've seen it too."
  2085. > She isn't making this easy.
  2086. > Time to throw caution to the wind and fly straight into the storm.
  2087. "You know, I've even heard some rumors ponies might be trying another escape attempt."
  2088. > "Really?"
  2089. > Head shaking, Lana turns and heads for the exit again - brushing past with another whiff of her strong perfume.
  2090. > "I wish some more of them listened to you. Don't have to like it, but violence is just going to screw us all."
  2091. "...yeah."
  2092. > "Well, everything looks clear so I'm heading out. Goodnight, Thunderlane."
  2093. > And then she departs - leaving you thoroughly confused.
  2094. > She hadn't seemed fearful at the prospect of a new resistance movement cropping up.
  2095. > If anything, angry.
  2096. > So if she wasn't backing them... what had all that nervousness been about?
  2097.  
  2098. > "Your Highness?"
  2099. > Looking up from the papers currently at your desk, you find the elaborately-dressed form of Mocha Cream dipping into a bow before you.
  2100. "Ah, yes, Mocha - what can I do for you?"
  2101. > "I'm sorry to interrupt you, Your Highness. Anonymous had a message he wanted me to bring to you."
  2102. "Oh? Let me see..."
  2103. > Reading over the paper she presents, you can feel your eyebrows rising steadily.
  2104. > The ideas it laid out were certainly an impressive step forward - and would lend credence to your claims that things really were improving.
  2105. > But first they would have to be implemented.
  2106. "So, he wants this - complaints box to be set up in the camp proper, and sorted through by one of us first?"
  2107. > "Yes, Your Highness. To, uh, iigure out which ones are most important and - uh, to 'sort out the shitposters'. His words, Your Highness."
  2108. > That did sound like the way he'd put it, yes.
  2109. "Well, I certainly think it's a step in the right direction."
  2110. > Mocha Cream's cheeks color slightly.
  2111. "...do you want to do this, Mocha?"
  2112. > "I... think it needs to happen, Your Highness? I mean, I know it feels much better that Anonymous has started to listen to me."
  2113. "I do hear a 'but' there."
  2114. > Head hanging, Mocha drops her gaze.
  2115. > "But - am I the right pony to do this? I'm... not really a mare. I mean, I'm fifteen and that's not exactly a filly anymore but I don't know if I'm ready to be balancing everypony's needs and figuring out which of them-"
  2116. > You halt her with a gentle touch of your hoof to her snout.
  2117. "It's okay, Mocha. I certainly understand. Maybe we could work through these together?"
  2118. > "Yes. Um, that does sound good..."
  2119. > The moment your hoof is gone, her gaze drops back down - but not before you see the little smile settled on her face.
  2120. > "I'm sorry. I just... I'm not sure I feel ready to do this on my own, and I know you have to be a very busy pony-"
  2121. "Not too busy to help a pony."
  2122. > "And... I'm not sure if anypony would want me looking at their wishes."
  2123. > Her hoof scuffs the floor.
  2124. > "You know... house pony and all..."
  2125. "I actually think this might be a very good thing to help ponies look at your more reasonably."
  2126. > "Hope so..."
  2127. > Lifting her eyes again, Mocha tilts her head.
  2128. > "But at least I'll have some time to help."
  2129. "Oh?"
  2130. > "Well, um... Master Anonymous is going to give us some time off. For, uh, doing good with the, uh... party."
  2131. "...don't you want to spend your time off on... yourself?"
  2132. > "I... don't know what I would do. And this seems like a good thing."
  2133. > Despite how many times you have heard similar stories, your heart still twists.
  2134. > A pony as young as she is, not knowing what to really do with a real vacation...
  2135. "Well, if you change your mind that will be fine."
  2136. > Slipping the paper back, you sigh.
  2137. "Tell Anonymous I'll be going forward on this... and also, about the money he put aside for me plus the funds from the replacement guards' salaries..."
  2138. > "Yes, Your Highness?"
  2139. "I've decided what we are going to be doing with them."
  2140. [Choice]
  2141. "I've decided I can't make this choice on my own. I know he gave me authority over the money, but the reality is I can't do that. Not - as a leader."
  2142. > And that was what he'd wanted you to be.
  2143. > Now, more than ever, it seemed you needed to give your ponies some measure of choice - some way to express themselves.
  2144. "Tell him we'll make use of this idea to allow submissions on how to use the money. Then hold a vote, and I'll bring the winning idea to him."
  2145. > "O-Oh. Okay."
  2146. "You'll still have a place in this, of course - somepony will have to sort through them initially. And, in fact, there's one other thing I'd like you to do..."
  2147. > ...
  2148. > In fact, you decide to have this done the very next day.
  2149. > Cardboard boxes with a slit cut in the top weren't exactly fancy or permanent, but they could be made in a hurry - even faster, now that Anonymous no longer had you taking the magic suppressants.
  2150. > Standing up amid the next day's dinner break, you tap the microphone twice to produce a loud popping through the camp's PA system.
  2151. > Although you couldn't be at all the dining halls, you'd decided to take the largest one and let your voice be carried to the others.
  2152. "Good evening, everypony. If I can have everypony's attention for a moment, I have an important announcement to make."
  2153. > Discussion quickly begins to die down, heads and ears turning to look up at the podium at which you stood.
  2154. "Thank you. Now, I think we have all been aware that as of late there has been an - outbreak, of violent acts in this camp. Of anger boiling over, and words of protest turning to insults and words of spite. A great many of this relates to certain - acts I was ordered to put on during an event Anonymous held-"
  2155. > There's an audible ripple of murmuring that runs through the crowd.
  2156. > A few voices seem harder than others, but few words stand out.
  2157. "-and an allegation that this suggests that I have somehow become 'his pony'. Nothing could be further from the truth - I am your leader, first and foremost, and your concerns are my concerns."
  2158. > Thank Celestia they did not know 'their leader' had spent that night sound asleep in the arms of their captor...
  2159. "To make this clear, I am announcing a new option for all of you: In each of the dining halls, you will find a box for suggestions and ideas. I encourage everypony to lay out their concerns, their hopes, their desires for what I should do - what we should do - in these boxes."
  2160. > Extending a wing, you motion towards your side.
  2161. > Mocha Cream hesitantly steps out from the table she'd half-hidden herself behind.
  2162. > She'd divested herself of her typical maid garments, but a few ponies recognize her and soon murmurs are sweeping the crowd again.
  2163. > Shrinking into herself - the lack of her typical maid outfit seemed to leave Mocha Cream almost vulnerable, as if it was a suit of armor and not a symbol of her duties as a slave - she nonetheless manages to hold at your side.
  2164. "With me is Mocha Cream. She will be helping me sort and respond to the submissions and carrying them to Anonymous.
  2165. > Instantly the voices take on a new level; giving them a moment to talk, you eventually speak up again:
  2166. "Everypony - everypony, please."
  2167. > When it is quiet enough, you go on again:
  2168. "Naturally, somepony will say that this is... merely a distraction. That we aren't actually listening to everypony. My answer is this: For the event at which there was so much discussion, Anonymous released some funds to my control. I, however, think that it would be better if everypony would decide how they are used. Submissions placed in the boxes will be listed for voting on, and the winning ideas will be brought to Anonymous for implementation."
  2169. > The conversation is rising again; you won't be able to control this much longer and it's almost certainly the same in the other dining halls.
  2170. "Mayor Mare will also assist me in this endeavor. There are sheets of paper and pens near the submission boxes. Please, take some time over this weekend to let your thoughts be heard."
  2171. > And with that, you set the microphone down.
  2172. > Even before it touches the podium, ponies are practically swarming the suggestion box.
  2173. > Sheets of paper and pens are snatched in mouths, magic field, and wingholds; more than a few pegasi leap to the air to escape the melee.
  2174. > A few roost on the ceiling beams, scribbling furiously.
  2175. > There's the flash of a half-erected shield from some unicorn before it collapses on itself.
  2176. > A couple of guards are managing to keep the crowd mostly in line, and when they seem to need help you move to wait just behind the table - moving ponies with gestures from your wings and fierce glares alone.
  2177. > Eventually the rush begins to subside; already the cardboard submission boxes are well-laden with scraps of paper.
  2178. > As you watch a less few ponies trickle in, a scratchy voice catches your attention:
  2179. > "You think he's actually going to listen to you, Miss Cadance?"
  2180. > Rumble stood just in front of the table, frowning.
  2181. > That surprises you; you hadn't seen much of the colt since the day you'd had to take a whip to his older brother.
  2182. "I can't say he will give everything we ask for... but this, yes. He and I had a long talk the night after that... event, and I really think he was listening to me."
  2183. > "Hope so. Thunderlane told me a bit, a few day ago, and I want to trust that things'll get better..."
  2184. > Stepping a bit closer to you, Rumble drops his voice.
  2185. > "Between you and me, Miss Cadance... a lot of ponies are going to be looking for a way to test you. See if you're really on our side or what."
  2186. "It's nothing new to me, Rumble. I know - and honestly, I'm not too offended."
  2187. > "Huh."
  2188. > He pauses, peering at the nearly-filled boxes.
  2189. > Before you can reply, another soft voice comes from your opposite side.
  2190. > "Is that all of them, Miss cadance?
  2191. > Mocha Cream had again detached herself from her corner forward, having hastily retreated during the initial rush.
  2192. > She staring with slightly widened eyes at the sheer volume of submissions.
  2193. > "I didn't realize everypony would be so... in to this."
  2194. "It's good. I expect some of them will be complaints, but this means enough ponies have hope too."
  2195. > "Should I take them back to the manor?"
  2196. > "Wait, you're a house pony?!"
  2197. > Rumble's unexpected outburst catches everypony by surprise - a few heads turn, and Mocha Cream shrinks down onto herself again.
  2198. > "I, uh... y-yes. I'm, uh, An-"
  2199. "She's helped me in dealing with Anonymous a great deal."
  2200. > You meet Rumble's gaze evenly - not trying to be the overbearing princess, but merely another pony.
  2201. "If there is anypony who is best to help present these ideas to him, it is her."
  2202. > "I-It's true."
  2203. > Speaking up (and yet again surprising you), Mocha Cream motions to the box.
  2204. > "I, um. I speak to him a lot. So, it'd be better if he was speaking to you, but... um. Yeah, I can bring these to him."
  2205. > Your eyebrows rise, and after a moment Rumble nods.
  2206. > "I guess..."
  2207. "First, though, we have to have these sorted."
  2208. > "You, uh... want some help with that?"
  2209. > Pausing, you glance over at Rumble.
  2210. > He'd been skeptical, but if he was wanting to take part in this now...
  2211. > Well, it couldn't really hurt, could it?
  2212. > Probably would keep him out of trouble, and Thunderlane said he hadn't gotten mixed up in any particular rebellious stuff yet.
  2213. "Are you sure you want to? I don't think I can get you any time off your actual duties, so it would be entirely in your free time..."
  2214. > "If it means that Tirek-spawn sitting up in his manor actually hears what we've got to say, I'll deliver it right to his face."
  2215. > Beside you, Mocha Cream shuffles nervously at the reference to Anonymous, her eyes again turning downcast.
  2216. > She seems ready to say something - mouth open, even - but halts herself at the last moment.
  2217. > ...hopefully there wouldn't be any further friction between the two of them.
  2218. [Choice]
  2219. "I think you'd be very welcome, Rumble."
  2220. > A voice to balance out Mocha Cream's submissiveness - verging, sometimes, on devotion - to Anonymous would be welcome.
  2221. > ...and maybe just would help the mare open up a bit more, and Rumble to her in turn.
  2222. > Certainly it would all be for the better if the ponies who served in the manor weren't regarded with such hostility.
  2223. "Okay then. Each pony take a box, and let's head back to the town hall. We'll begin sorting them tomorrow."
  2224. >...
  2225. > Ten boxes' worth came in that night.
  2226. > Three more arrived the next day.
  2227. > Actual sorting doesn't really begin until Sunday, when you're able to sit down with Rumble and Mocha Cream to begin cracking open the boxes.
  2228. > By midday, your faith in Ponykind is severely rattled.
  2229. > At least half the 'submissions' in these boxes are invective-laden examples of abuse, sometimes with an alarming amount of work put into the exact poetry of the assaults described in their words.
  2230. > Sometimes being the important part.
  2231. > Most are infinite repetitions of the same basic assaults - some ponies seem to have an unhealthy fascination with Anonymous' mother - and a part of you wonders if the sheer volume was the result of a smaller number of ponies stuffing the boxes with numerous entries.
  2232. "Mocha, do you think there's few enough you could bring in another box?"
  2233. > When no response comes, you look up from the slips you were reading.
  2234. > Mocha Cream is stock-still, ears laid flat and tail clamped to her haunches, eyes reduced to pinpricks and nostrils flared in absolute horror.
  2235. > Sighing, you stand - walking to her side and pulling the paper from her magic grasp.
  2236. > It wasn't the first time you'd found her in such a state of shocked paralysis; apparently the contents of some of the notes was a bit much for her.
  2237. "It's alright, Mocha. I'll deal with this lot; why don't you to take a look at some others?"
  2238. > "...thank you, Your Highness."
  2239. > Her mumbled answer as she stumbles from the room doesn't really reassure you.
  2240. > Nor does Rumble's muted snicker the moment she is out of earshot.
  2241. "I really don't think it's appropriate to laugh at her, Rumble."
  2242. > "Y-yeah, but what - what did she think she was going to find in here? Ponies kissing up to Anonymous' shoe like she do-"
  2243. > A fierce glare, one once perfected by hours of study with your aunt, quickly silences him.
  2244. "Perhaps she clings to him because nopony here gives he a fair shake of the tail before writing her off?"
  2245. > His gaze drops, but Rumble doesn't apologize when Mocha Cream reenters - another box at her side.
  2246. > This one, too, is torn open and she quickly begins to stoically sort through the suggestion slips within.
  2247. > Perhaps a third pony, a balance between the two of them, would have been a good idea as well.
  2248. > Too late now, however; you can only hope things don't boil over between them entirely.
  2249. > Looking down at the slip you'd taken, you glance over the words scrawled on it:
  2250. > The suggestion, in brief, was an elaborately descriptive proposal that Anonymous present himself naked for violation by all the camp's stallions and then-
  2251. > Abruptly the paper crumples in your magic, imploding down to a tiny ball no larger than a grape.
  2252. > Whatever he might have done, Megan deserved no part of the anger delivered towards him.
  2253. > It was good that the papers had been submitted without names, as you don't think you would have dealt lightly with whoever wrote this.
  2254. > Stretching out a wing over Mocha's back, you let it gently rest on her withers.
  2255. "You're doing well, Mocha. If you need to go, though, it's okay."
  2256. > "N-No. I'm okay."
  2257. > Another small sigh escapes your lips as you go back to sorting through the box before you.
  2258. > Soon enough, however, you become aware that once again sounds have halted from her.
  2259. > Looking up, you find that yes, Mocha has halted again.
  2260. > Catching you looking, she sighs - holding up the sheet.
  2261. > "This pony... they're asking if they can be moved out of the barracks and into their own room. They say that they can't sleep at night with the other ponies around them, and it's affecting how they work..."
  2262. > Her head falls, a fan of brown-and-white-streaked mane falling over her eyes as she realizes the attention she's brought on herself.
  2263. > "They. Um. They say they've already been caught sleeping on the job. But, um, they can't earn a room of their own because they're too tired to work well, so they can't sleep, and..."
  2264. > Vicious cycle.
  2265. > Your own ears fall and tail flicks.
  2266. > This was the other problem:
  2267. > Many ponies seemed to take the suggestions box as a means to make personal requests and pleas.
  2268. > Those ponies did usually leave their names on their papers.
  2269. > The problem is, if you answered one another hundred would follow and a thousand after that.
  2270. > Despite Mocha's pleading look, you can only shake your head.
  2271. "I... don't know if we can take that one to Anonymous, Mocha-"
  2272. > "But he could fix it!"
  2273. > He could.
  2274. > But what he would do is see the same catch you do.
  2275. > "He could. But he won't, 'cause he doesn't really care about-"
  2276. > Surprisingly Rumble has stopped even before your harsh gaze falls on him again.
  2277. > "...sorry. Didn't mean to... yeah. But... that's how things are down here, Mocha. We don't all get fancy beds in nice rooms. There aren't even enough small rooms for everypony; that's why some are still in the barracks."
  2278. > "I'd give her my bed."
  2279. > "Huh?"
  2280. > Her eyes firmly planted on the box in front of her, Mocha repeats herself:
  2281. > "I'd give her my bed. I can sleep somewhere else. There's, um, two other ponies in my room and we have to get up early - but it's got to be better than a barracks."
  2282. > Rumble doesn't seem to know how to respond to this quite yet.
  2283. > It's as if the idea that a house slave could care - let alone would care - about a random pony in the camp had only just occurred to him.
  2284. > "Why...?"
  2285. > "Because... it's not right."
  2286.  
  2287. "And because we stick together. It's what we have to do - everypony sticks together."
  2288. > After that they both go quiet for a while.
  2289. > Mocha Cream, you notice, had set that particular slip of paper aside rather than adding it to the discard pile.
  2290. > It wouldn't help, but you don't take it away.
  2291. > "Hey P- uh, Your Highness? Can we put this one in?"
  2292. > Rumble walks up to you, a slip carefully held between his teeth.
  2293. > Taking it, you consider the option scrawled on it:
  2294. "A... museum to Equestria?"
  2295. > "Yeah. So, um..."
  2296. > Rumble rubs his mane, looking at the floor.
  2297. > "...look, a lot of ponies - we're afraid he's going to try and convince us all that Equestria wasn't a good place. I mean... you remember how Miss Cheerilee was..."
  2298. > You do.
  2299. > And still agree with her assessment of Anonymous' lesson plans.
  2300. > "I think it'd do a lot of good if we... made a place for ponies to put their memories. Make ponies not so... worried-"
  2301. > Hostile, he means.
  2302. > "-if they knew it wasn't all going to slip away, you know? I mean... we shouldn't even have to ask that fucking mule for 'permission' to remember who we are, but still."
  2303. > In the moment of thought that follows, you're unexpectedly interrupted by Mocha Cream instead:
  2304. > "I like it."
  2305. "Mocha?"
  2306. > "I mean... I remember a lot. But not everything, since I was so young-"
  2307. > "Wait, how old are you?"
  2308. > Again Mocha droops her head, hiding her face before a curtain of coffee-toned mane in reaction to Rumble's question.
  2309. > "Just fifteen..."
  2310. > Once more Rumble seems surprised, and truthfully so are you.
  2311. > She'd always struck you as a more mature pony than that; you'd been prepared to write off her slim frame and still slightly fillyish proportions as simply how she was.
  2312. > But fifteen...
  2313. "And the two of you aren't the youngest ponies in the camp either. This could do some good, yes."
  2314. > As long as it didn't provoke ponies to further action.
  2315. > "Yeah. That's, um. That's why I like it. I don't want to let go of my memories... my family."
  2316. > Rumble's nod is slow and surprised.
  2317. > "I like it a lot more than some of the other options. Like time off; that's no use to me 'cause we're already getting free days-"
  2318. > Too late Mocha realizes her mistake.
  2319. > "Wait, Anonymous gave you time off?!"
  2320. > Hiding her face with a squeak, Mocha cries out:
  2321. > "I'm sorry! I - I forgot. I didn't mean - yes! He gave us a few days off. 'C-Cause of the party. He l-liked how we did, and-"
  2322. "Wait."
  2323. > A thought occurs to you, one that should have a long time ago.
  2324. "Mocha Cream, you're Anonymous' personal maid, aren't you? All this work - are you here now on your own time?"
  2325. > Wordlessly she nods, and Rumble crumples.
  2326. > "You... came out here to do this on your free time?"
  2327. > "Yeah..."
  2328. > "Why?"
  2329. > "B-Because I want to help. I d-don't want ponies to hate me j-just because I work in the house."
  2330. > In the long silence that follows, Rumble steps up to Mocha Cream and reaches out a wing to lightly touch her neck.
  2331. > "I, uh... thanks. And... m'sorry for yelling."
  2332. > With the caution of a mouse peering from its hole to see if the cat is gone, Mocha slowly raises her eyes to look at him.
  2333. > Then she smiles, and so does he, and so do you.
  2334. > Friendship, you thought, could still be magic - even in slavery.
  2335. >...
  2336. "Well, we've sorted out all the submissions that were meaningless or... pointlessly antagonistic, put the remainder to a vote, and put the rest to a series of votes."
  2337. > Anonymous nods, though one eyebrow rises.
  2338. > "Pointlessly antagonistic?"
  2339. "Yes, Master."
  2340. > "Were there that many?"
  2341. "...yes."
  2342. > Please don't ask what was in them...
  2343. > It's the last thing you need.
  2344. > "Hmm. well."
  2345. > Shrugging, Anonymous lets off a small chuckle.
  2346. > "Suppose there were bound to be a few who don't like me. Not a concern; let them vent. Long as nothing serious happens I don't care."
  2347. > A small relief.
  2348. "With that done, we've resolved everything down to a top few responses."
  2349. > "Alright. Hit me."
  2350. > You pass the slip-laden envelope to Anonymous and he pops it open -- working through each in turn.
  2351. > "New housing... well, that was in the cards already if expansion was going to happen. You're probably going to want to hold on that one. Expand the general store's stock... that's a doable one, though you'll have to tell me exactly what you want..."
  2352. > You glance askew as he works, taking peeks at the expressions of the two other ponies who'd joined you for this.
  2353. > Mocha Cream was as much here as Anonymous' servant, but truthfully you were glad to have her part in this as well.
  2354. > Mayor Mare, on the other hand, seemed decidedly nervous.
  2355. > She hadn't had as many direct dealings with Anonymous, but her administrative skills practically demanded she be a part of this.
  2356. > Rumble had preemptively bowed out of joining you - accurately (and to your private relief) admitting that being in Anonymous' presence wouldn't be good for him.
  2357. > "A party?"
  2358. "Finding a proper date might be appropriate, but a celebration of some kind to help ponies... let go of everything for a while."
  2359. > "Noted."
  2360. > Flipping to the next card, both Anonymous' eyebrows shoot up.
  2361. > "Well now, Cadance, I didn't expect this one."
  2362. "Sir?"
  2363. > Flipping the slip around to show you, he tilts his head.
  2364. > "I mean, I understand there are many couples in the camp but - 'sex dungeon'?"
  2365. > Blushing furiously, you practically rip the card from his hand to float it before your eyes - as if to confirm that yes, it did indeed have those two words written on it.
  2366. "That - that was not a voted choice. It must've... slipped in by accident."
  2367. > "Of course."
  2368. > But you could hear the laughter in his tone, and it only deepened the flush on your cheeks.
  2369. > "Now, let's see... an outside camp? What's this about, Cadance?"
  2370. "Master - for better and for worse, this camp is basically our world. Except for trips to hospitals for more serious injuries and the occasional off-site job, we basically never leave."
  2371. > "And you think that getting out would actually ease tensions?"
  2372. "Yes, Master. A - A secondary camp, or even just an apartment or cabin - someplace else to go, get out for a while."
  2373. > It was hard to hide the anticipation that was leaking into even your own voice.
  2374. "There's another suggestion in there for just putting the funds to allow some days to be taken off work, so you can see this is a thing that ponies want."
  2375. > "Alright."
  2376. > Folding his hands together, Anonymous meets your gaze evenly.
  2377. > "I'm going to be honest: You don't have enough funds there to both build - or buy - someplace else, cover the costs of ponies taking off work to go there, and have guards on-station."
  2378. > Your ears fall, but he goes on:
  2379. > "Now, I'm not against it... but it means that you're going to have to accept further costs down the line to meet it. Whether that means working harder, or just putting any rewards you earn down the line towards this too - but you're going to be locked into it."
  2380. "I... understand, Sir. I was hoping to rotate ponies out over time to minimize the costs."
  2381. > "It'll help, but won't replace. So, if you pick it just be aware of that."
  2382. > Folding the next card over, he goes on:
  2383. > " 'Museum of Equestria'?"
  2384. "Ponies are worried about losing who were are - as a culture, a nation, and about ponies who've been lost in slavery being forgotten. Putting somewhere aside where we could store mementos, memories, tokens of our past to make sure it isn't forgotten-"
  2385. > "Absolutely not."
  2386. > Shaking his head, former smile now absent entirely, Anonymous folds his arms.
  2387. > "That's the exact kind of thing that will keep pushing rebellion. The longer you keep pining for something that will never come back, the longer you will take to accept that this is how things are now."
  2388. "You can't stop ponies wishing for the past!"
  2389. > "No. But I don't have to encourage it either."
  2390. > You aren't even sure why this in particular incensed you so much.
  2391. > It certainly wasn't the first time you'd been subjected to some indignity, and not the only time you'd been told to let go of Equestria either.
  2392. > But something about this - the way he just brushed you off and seemed unwilling to hear even a basic argument.
  2393. > Forcing your anger down, you take a deep breath and try again:
  2394. "Master. There's no intent to drive rebellion here; in fact, I think it would reduce tensions to - to make a show of allowing them to express themselves."
  2395. > "Possibly, in the short term."
  2396. > Your heart rises, but just as quickly falls as he goes on:
  2397. > "In the long term, though? In the long term it'll only drive desire to try and seek that out. Maybe your ponies are right - maybe it would be better if it were forgotten entirely."
  2398. > Taking the slip out, he pointedly tears it in half and then again.
  2399. > A little voice in the back of your head reminds you that he doesn't mean to be insulting.
  2400. > Even so your teeth lock together to keep something bitter and unfortunate from slipping from your lips.
  2401. > Mayor Mare, picking up that you are in no state to continue, coughs softly.
  2402. > "Perhaps... we should continue?"
  2403. > Bless that mare.
  2404. > Anonymous nods, seemingly content to let the matter go as well.
  2405. > "Next one... let's see. A - 'break room'?"
  2406. > "Or recreation hall. Games room. Something for ponies to do in their time, go blow off steam. It'd generate good will, and give everypony something to do better than paint graffiti and break windows."
  2407. > Rubbing his chin, Anonymous nods.
  2408. > "I see sense in that. Low footprint and reasonably cheap as well - this could definitely be done with your current funds. Improved on, with later ones. It's definitely an option."
  2409. > Folding over to the last card, he tilts his head.
  2410. > "Off-site vacation... yeah, you did mention that would be coming up-"
  2411. > This directed to you.
  2412. > "-and if we're not talking about having anything set up for them off-site, just visits..."
  2413. > He scratches his chin.
  2414. > It'd be hard. Maybe even harder than building or renting some place for them to go. At least security is easy to manage in a limited area..."
  2415. "They wouldn't be out as long this way, then."
  2416. > Finally having managed to unlock your teeth, go back to work trying to convince him on at least this much.
  2417. "It'd just mean a bit of time away, instead of too long-"
  2418. > "I know. I was already figuring on it."
  2419. > Leaning back in his chair, he frowns.
  2420. "You're not against it, though."
  2421. > "Not automatically. It can be done... it'll just take a bit of planning. You'll have to figure out how will be chosen."
  2422. > "That's easily doable."
  2423. > Mayor Mare pipes up.
  2424. > "A straight schedule is probably best. That way we can make sure nopony's absence is too disruptive."
  2425. > Again, Celestia bless that mare; she was more than you felt you deserved sometimes.
  2426. > Nodding, Anonymous crosses his legs.
  2427. > "Alright, Cadance: I'm going to lay it out for you: I can definitely get a second site set up away from the camp for them, but it's going to cost you - a lot. You're going to be paying it back for a while, maybe even some extra shifts to make it happen. An on-site rec center or something is much, much more doable. But if you want a chance at running vacations... well, it'll happen over time and take a bit of planning, but it'll be easier to fund. Especially since we can do it as a once-off thing."
  2428. [Choice]
  2429.  
  2430. > Cadance sighs.
  2431. > "I think we'll start smaller - with something that ponies can appreciate in the moment, and understand what their work is earning them."
  2432. "The rec room, then."
  2433. > "Yes, Master. We'll put together a list of exactly what we want for it, but I actually think it'd be better if the actual construction and decoration was left to us."
  2434. "Build your own reward, take a bit of pride in it - makes sense."
  2435. > She smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes.
  2436. > Mayor Mare's eyes flick between the two of you, and privately you wonder if the earth pony had been brought along because she was effectively the camp's second-in-command organizer or to keep Cadance in check.
  2437. > Perhaps both.
  2438. > "Is there... anything else?"
  2439. "No, Mayor. I think you had best finish your planning and then present me the full details. I'll have this worked on.
  2440. > "Understood, sir."
  2441. > "I'll go back and give the announcement, then."
  2442. > Cadance stands, and soon after Mayor Mare joins her.
  2443. > Both bow their heads in a suitable display of acquiescence, and you lightly wave.
  2444. "Alright. You're dismissed. I'll be looking forward to seeing what you come up with."
  2445. > All three ponies turn for the exit, Mocha Cream moving to see the other two out.
  2446. > Just as they reach the door, however, a thought pops into your mind.
  2447. > "Master, actually could I-"
  2448. "Cadance, why don't you-"
  2449. > The alicorn has spoken at the same moment you did.
  2450. > In the silence that follows, she turns back around - nudging the door shut with a flicker of her horn and returning to seat herself on her haunches in front of you.
  2451. "Well - you wished to speak, I think?"
  2452. > "Yes, Master."
  2453. > Head drooping, she pauses to find words before speaking.
  2454. > "I'd... I want to request that you reconsider your ruling on the 'museum', Master."
  2455. "Why."
  2456. > She hesitates, but forges ahead:
  2457. > "Ponies are scared, sir. Right now, they're afraid to speak freely."
  2458. "What about your suggestions box?"
  2459. > "Even with that. Their input is still dependent on your approval. That's why there's been graffiti and vandalism in the camp - they feel like they can't speak openly, but have to speak. If you shut this down, you're only confirming your fares."
  2460. "So instead you suggest that I just go ahead and let them reignite the resistance by encouraging pining for a dead country."
  2461. > "With all due respect, sir... you don't know our culture."
  2462. > One of your eyebrows rises, but you do not interrupt her.
  2463. > "Equestria was built on harmony and friendship. Literally - the union of the three tribes brought it into existence. If you deny that, if you let disharmony and hatred slip in, it'll burn you just like it almost froze us. If you encourage us to forget it... I can be their leader, but not if they break apart. If hatred divides them, you lose too."
  2464. "Equestria was built on it, but it can exist without Equestria."
  2465. > "Not if you keep gagging us. Fear is driving them now - fear of forgetting their home, fear that they themselves will not be remembered when they pass... if you validate that fear, it'll only grow in them."
  2466. "I see what you're saying, Cadance... but look at things from my end: You're not asking me to accept unity and harmony among your ranks - by all means, push that if you want! You're asking me to promote the memory of a dead nation. A nation that doesn't exist anymore, but which'll be held up as something - 'better', whether or not it actually would be! Can you honestly say that if ponies are given that memory, they're not going to decide it's worth fighting for?"
  2467. > "We didn't fight in the past. We won by coming together in peace and working together."
  2468. > But Cadance is grasping at straws, and she knows it.
  2469. "To what end, though? There are ponies in that camp who are so eager to see me as the enemy that they'll twist talk of Equestria to act as if I personally took it away from you."
  2470. > Head turning away with an expression of pain on her face, she takes a moment to answer.
  2471. > "Ponies are being hurt by this, Anonymous. Here. Now. If you don't give them something, they'll turn anyhow."
  2472. "If you can name me one pony who's-"
  2473. > "Mocha Cream."
  2474. > You pause.
  2475. > Hesitate.
  2476. > And Cadance sees the opening, immediately leaping at it.
  2477. > "She's young, Anonymous. She was barely into her life when she was taken... but even she wanted this. Not to rebel, but to have a place for the memories of the parents she was taken from, before they fade away entirely.
  2478. > Your finger taps lightly on an armrest.
  2479. > Mocha...
  2480. "That... was a low blow, Cadance."
  2481. > "It's the truth."
  2482. > The mare had found a bit of a spot in your heart, you must admit.
  2483. > It would be so easy to say yes.
  2484. > But...
  2485. "If I do that, Cadance, where do I set the line? Go ahead, remember Equestria - but don't talk about how you were taken? Because you know what some would-be Spartacus is going to make the leap from 'remembering' to 'trying to resurrect'. And it didn't end well for him either."
  2486. > From the expression she makes, you get the feeling Cadance doesn't quite know that reference.
  2487. > That's alright; your point is made.
  2488. "If I allow 'memorials', do I ban talking about how you were taken? The omission would be as pointed as if I just straight-up allowed it."
  2489. > "I..."
  2490. "Even for Mocha... so I let her talk about her parents, but what - she can't say anything about how she was separated from them? It's ridiculous. Infeasible."
  2491. > "At least give us something! Let us properly celebrate Hearth's Warming, put on a real pageant again-"
  2492. "A pageant celebrating how Equestria was founded?"
  2493. > "Celebrating ponies giving up fighting and actually giving the effort to work together!"
  2494. "Do you really think they'll see it that way? Hell, I'd half-expect to see me playing the villain!"
  2495. > "If you keep muzzling them, you always will be!"
  2496. > Cadance flinches, eye closed and cheek turned in avoidance - a wing half-raised in a suppressed instinct to shield herself.
  2497. > ...when had your hand risen like that, palm open and ready to deliver a blow?
  2498. > When had you stood up?
  2499. > Deep breaths, Anonymous.
  2500. > Long, careful breaths.
  2501. > Hands clenching and unclenching, you force yourself back down into the seat.
  2502. > You wouldn't hit her.
  2503. > Not for this.
  2504. > Then you really would be the villain.
  2505. "I'm sorry, Cadance. Sometimes my anger... runs away on me."
  2506. > She, too, is only just relaxing.
  2507. > Wing folding back down, eye opening again, and head turning to look at you again.
  2508. > And, to your surprise, she does not hang back but instead rises to approach you until she is standing just in front of the chair - those large, liquid purpose eyes meeting yours.
  2509. > Showing she has no fear of you.
  2510. > "You stopped yourself, though. That's what matters."
  2511. > A small smile creeps onto your face.
  2512. "...yes. I did."
  2513. > "It is possible to stop anger once it's gotten started, Anonymous. You know it - you just showed it."
  2514. "You really want this, don't you?"
  2515. > Seeming to see what you are thinking, Cadance raises a hoof to gently set it on your knee.
  2516. > "Yes. Master... you want me to lead them because I'm an alicorn. Because they respect me. That's tied to old Equestria, though. If you make that tie vanish... I'm nothing but a sell-out to them. And they'd be right, too."
  2517. > Again your hand rises, this time to cup her cheek lightly and brush back through the light fuzz covering it.
  2518. > Every bit of logic you had said not to do this.
  2519. > That it could only end poorly.
  2520. > If you do give her this and it turns out badly, who knows where it will end?
  2521. > And yet, you could.
  2522. > Not give her any more money, but give permission for a... memorial of some kind.
  2523. > A chance.
  2524. > A trial.
  2525. > Would it really satisfy them?
  2526. > No.
  2527. > But it might help settle Mocha Cream's mind.
  2528. [Choice]
  2529. "Alright, Cadance."
  2530. > Resting your elbows on your thighs, you cup your face in both hands and massage your eyes.
  2531. "I didn't plan on this and frankly I have a suspicion I'm going to deeply regret it. But you've sold me on trying it."
  2532. > Practically exuding joy, she dips her head into a bow that can't quite hide the smile forming on her face or the sparkle in her eyes.
  2533. > "Thank you, Anonymous! Thank you!"
  2534. > You're unable to resist her infectious happiness, and reach out to give her a little scratch behind one ear.
  2535. "You'd better understand what you're asking for here, Cadance."
  2536. > "I do. I think this really will help everypony trust in you - work with you, not against you."
  2537. "I hope so."
  2538. > Slipping your hand under her chin, you tilt her head back up to face you:
  2539. "Because I want to make this abundantly clear: If this goes bad, it will be on your head. You will be responsible for tearing it down, and you will be responsible for any disorder that comes out of this. So I hope you're really sure of this."
  2540. > "I am."
  2541. "Then you've my permission to try a 'museum', a 'memorial'. Just remember, though - I don't want to see anything that could actually drive rebellion. You're welcome to preserve Equestria's history... but be careful."
  2542. > "Yes, Master."
  2543. > Her voice is little more than a murmur, yet you can still hear the joy in it.
  2544. "Cadance."
  2545. > Lifting both hands, you cup her cheeks again - locking her in to facing you.
  2546. "I mean it, Cadance. No matter how cruel it seems, my primary concern here making sure there's no need for any punishment. Not for you to punish some other pony who gets out of line, and certainly not for me to punish you."
  2547. > A wing extends forward, curving around to gently rest the tips of a few feathers over your hand.
  2548. > "I know. But please, consider how this looks for us-"
  2549. "That's why I'm allowing you to try it, Cadance."
  2550. > Her smile spreads ever so slightly further before she pulls away.
  2551. > "If I can be excused, then?"
  2552. "Go ahead and tell Mayor Mare too. Split the funds between the rec room and 'memorial' as you see fit."
  2553. > You smile softly as Cadance's tail vanishes through the doorway, though it fades with time.
  2554. > God, you hoped you wouldn't regret this.
  2555.  
  2556. > "Hey, Thunderlane?"
  2557. "What's up, Seismic?"
  2558. > "There's a stallion watching us. Uh, third building on the left, up on the roof."
  2559. > Following his eyes, you find a familiar horned head watching you from the top of a nearby building.
  2560. "Ah, that's Granite."
  2561. > Raising a wing in greeting yields a bob of the distant stallion's head.
  2562. > "Y'know him?"
  2563. "Yeah. Was in the Guard back in Equestria, seems to feel pretty strongly about the princess."
  2564. > Almost conspiratorially, you lean in towards the big Earth Pony who walks alongside you.
  2565. "Truth be told, I've been angling to get him on the security team if I can. He's a good pony."
  2566. > "And we can always use another competent unicorn."
  2567. "Heh, yeah."
  2568. > Your laugh is meant to be easy, but comes out forced.
  2569. > Granite rolls his eyes, nostrils flaring as he snorts.
  2570. > "Don't tell me you're not thinking it, Thunderlane. With the way things are heading up now..."
  2571. "...yeah, I know."
  2572. > Drooping slightly as you walk on, you nod.
  2573. > "I respect the Princess for what she's trying to do, but she's got to be ready for the idea that it might eventually come to needing more guards."
  2574. "Hey, don't get started on her. More and more ponies have been coming out in her favor since she started accepting ideas for the rec room and memorial!"
  2575. > "More graffiti, too."
  2576. > Eyeing you sideways even as he keeps his head pointed forward, Seismic Shift pauses before adding more softly:
  2577. > "And you're awful quick to jump to defend her. Thunderlane. Careful you don't come off as biased in her favor; that could come off as a whole new line of problems."
  2578. "She did kind of convince me to do this in the first place."
  2579. > "Still. If you're seen as just enforcing her rules-"
  2580. "Yeah, I get it."
  2581. > Grimacing, you nod.
  2582.  
  2583. "I just... don't want to see it come to another open rebellion. I don't want anypony else to go through what I did. I am on her side about that."
  2584. > "Hah."
  2585. > You hold your silence for a long while after that, mind roiling in quiet turmoil.
  2586. > There was, of course, the other reason you were so keen to see Cadance's plan succeed:
  2587. > Despite the agreement you'd clearly made with Anonymous, you hadn't revealed Sunburst's scheme to him yet.
  2588. > Why?
  2589. > That's hard to say.
  2590. > Maybe you were privately hoping it would never come to pass, that everypony could find some measure of happiness even in this miserable bondage.
  2591. > ...or maybe you were a coward, running from the reality of your duty.
  2592. > "Hey! Hey, Thunderlane!"
  2593. > As if fate just happened to know what was on your mind, a familiar voice turns your ear.
  2594. > Trotting towards you was Vapor Trail - a bit heavier on her hooves, the pregnancy finally beginning to show itself in her belly.
  2595. "Hey, Vapor."
  2596. > Smiling - thinly, but still a smile - you call a halt to your march as she reaches you.
  2597. > "I wanted to ask - did you donate that big Wonderbolts Academy poster for the memorial? I asked and somepony said you did-"
  2598. "Yeeesss? Its not original though; I repainted it from memory and I'm not really that good of an artist."
  2599. > "It's great!"
  2600. > She smiles widely, eyes sparkling.
  2601. "Really? I just made it for my quarters originally - something from home..."
  2602. > "I was so surprised to see it, and - and it made me real sad at first. But then I thought, the Wonderbolts were always about inspiring ponies, right? So actually, I think it's really nice to have a reminder of what we can be inspired to be."
  2603. "I... you're welcome?"
  2604. > Laughter - light and flowing - as she shakes her head.
  2605. > "It's not just me thanking you, Thunderlane. Everypony will."
  2606. > Leaning in, she brushes her cheek along yours - nuzzling you gently.
  2607. > "I'm glad I listened to you when you came to look out for me."
  2608. "...I, ah..."
  2609. > Still smiling, she turns and trots off with a wave.
  2610. > You aren't quite sure of what to make of that for a few moments.
  2611. > Then Seismic snickers.
  2612. > " 'Laney's got a mare friend..."
  2613. > Rolling your eyes at his singsong taunt, you roll your eyes deeply.
  2614. "Shove it, Seismic. What are you, sixteen again?"
  2615. > He does indeed quiet down, although you can still feel the stallion smirking even when you aren't looking at him.
  2616. "...fine. She's nice, alright? But I don't know if I'd call her my marefriend, exactly..."
  2617. > "Eh?"
  2618. "We've both got... pasts. With other ponies. I mean, hers is obvious, but I miss Cloudchaser too..."
  2619. > "No shame in it, Thunderlane. There are plenty of us here who've lost special someponies. And I'd say she's pretty open to you."
  2620. "Are you seriously giving me dating advice?"
  2621. > "I'm just saying, don't just reject something without a thought. You never know who you can find something with."
  2622. "I guess."
  2623. > He doesn't realize the other reason for your hesitation.
  2624. > Sooner or later, Vapor Trail's hopes of escape with her child would be dashed.
  2625. > What would happen when they were?
  2626. > Again your thoughts wander back to Sunburst's scheme.
  2627. > If Anonymous found out about that from anypony else, or even one of the human guards...
  2628. > Well, you doubted there would be any chance for them to use it to help Vapor Trail.
  2629. > Then again, if he heard it from you he might demand you root out and turn in the plotters anyhow.
  2630. "Hey, Seismic?"
  2631. > "Yeah?"
  2632. > Were you really going to ask him about this?
  2633. > Have to be careful...
  2634. "If... you found out about somepony doing something stupid, but you thought there was a chance they'd be better off if you let them be instead of turning them in... would you?"
  2635. > In the following silence, you can all but feel sweat trickling down your neck despite the chill winter air.
  2636. > "Is this a something theoretically stupid, or...?"
  2637. "In all honesty... no. Not entirely theoretical."
  2638. > "Is it Vapor Trail?"
  2639. > Despite his gentle tone you nearly stumble.
  2640. "Celestia above, no! She's been alright since Cadance, Anonymous, and I talked to her."
  2641. > "Somepony I know?"
  2642. "I don't really think so."
  2643. > "Anypony else going to get hurt?"
  2644. "Don't know. It's a risk. If I turn them in, someponies definitely will."
  2645. > "Hmmm."
  2646. > The Earth stallion's grunt gives you pause.
  2647. > "I... you're gonna have to make that call, Thunderlane. But remember: Ultimately, we all agreed to be guards so we could do the dirty work and Anonymous' guards wouldn't have to."
  2648. "Yeah. I just don't want to break that trust ponies have in us."
  2649. > "It's not an easy thing."
  2650. "You don't know the half of it."
  2651. > "Don't be so sure."
  2652. > Tilting your head and blinking you pause.
  2653. "...what's that mean?"
  2654. > "Just... there're things I'm struggling to tell about too."
  2655. "Anypony going to get hurt?"
  2656. > In a change from when he'd asked the question, Seismic shakes his head - shaggy mane flopping.
  2657. > "No. S'just... trust. Like you said. Trust. It's lonely enough in this job when they still do trust you."
  2658. > For a second a bolt of fear runs through your heart.
  2659. > He couldn't know about your betrayal... could he?
  2660. > No.
  2661. > Seismic isn't watching you for a response.
  2662. > You're in the safe...
  2663. > ...are you?
  2664. > Sooner or later, you were going to have to make a call on whether to cue Anonymous to the slumbering escape plan.
  2665. > Because Celestia herself wouldn't be able to save you - or Rumble - if he found out you were hiding something from him.
  2666. "What about you, Seismic?"
  2667. > Grinning, you give the stallion a nudge.
  2668. "You got yourself somepony nice and soft to squeeze?"
  2669. > "I'm, uh... not... interested right now."
  2670. "Oh, come on. Not even some filly you've got your eyes on?"
  2671. > "Hah, hah."
  2672. > After a moment, however, he doesn't go on and you begin to realize that maybe he was entirely serious about not being interested.
  2673. "Hey, uh, Seismic, if you lost somepony and I just-"
  2674. > "No, nothing like that Thunderlane."
  2675. > He actually manages a smile - an honest, real smile - and you relax.
  2676. > "S'appreciated, though. Thinking of me."
  2677. "Phew. Was worried I'd ticked you off."
  2678. > "If you actually annoyed me, you'd know it. I'm not some mare who's going to stand around waiting for you to guess what's wrong."
  2679. "Good. Prefer it that way."
  2680. > But then the silence returns, creeping back up between the two of you.
  2681. "If I can, ask, though... if it's not 'cause you lost someone, why-"
  2682. > "Sorry. It's... a private thing."
  2683. > That pulls a little frown from you.
  2684. > Was there something else about it that was bothering him...?
  2685. > "...want to go take a look at it?"
  2686. "Huh?"
  2687. > Your thoughts had apparently drifted so far as to completely detach you from the conversation.
  2688. > "The memorial. Museum. Whatever they're calling it now - want to go take a look after our patrol is up?"
  2689. "Yeah, unless they can figure out something else to drag us off to do."
  2690. > Lacking a proper location as of yet - the final rec building was only just in the planning stages - a former warehouse had hastily been cleaned out and quickly refurbished to meet the need.
  2691. > It's still a very obviously temporary measure - the cavernous structure and utilitarian lighting still lend the space a rough air - but already ponies were hard at work making it more appealing.
  2692. > Off to one side, separated by a partition that is little more than temporary drywall mounts held together with a variety of lumber assembled by skilled hooves, is the 'memorial'.
  2693. > By far the most impressive outpouring of support to the new project was the sheer number of things that had been donated for it.
  2694. > Most - like your Wonderbolts' mural - were carefully reconstructed from memories carried in the exile from Equestria.
  2695. > Images, texts, no less than three recreations of the Equestrian flag, memories of important events and locations carefully laid out on whatever paper ponies could find...
  2696. > But a shocking number of true relics of the lost land had come out of hiding as well.
  2697. > Closely kept mementos shepherded by careful effort and small miracle until they reached this point:
  2698. > A genuine Apple Family Cider bottle - its contents long since drained, a necklace made in the image of the lost Element of Magic, a certificate - charred but legible - signed by Celestia herself...
  2699. > They'd come in boxes still damp from the earth they'd been concealed in, tucked in the layers of a book, and stitched into a foal's blanket and carried by the pony who'd once been that foal himself.
  2700. > They had-
  2701. > Your ears cock as you approach the museum, voices rising in anger from within:
  2702. > "...a real part of Equestria, you know! If you pretend we didn't have-"
  2703. > "We're not pretending. But we have to be very, very careful about what we add, especially at first."
  2704. > "You mean we have to bow to Anonymous' decisions. What's the point of this if we're leaving out how strong we were?"
  2705. > Both you and Seismic eye each other, then move in towards the entrance.
  2706. > Before you can reach it, however, another stallion sweeps out - head held high and hooves thudding into the concrete floor with considerable force.
  2707. > Catching sight of you, he snorts - but avoid a confrontation, opting to go around you.
  2708. > "...guard dogs."
  2709. > Ignoring his muttered comment, you opt to simply let the stallion until he vanishes back out the door.
  2710. > Only then do you actually step through into the museum.
  2711. > Some of the interior 'walls' are no more than a sheet hung up over several standing bars, but the sheer volume of donations means they are already cluttered with hung-up objects.
  2712. > A low whistle escapes your lips as you look about, eyebrows rising.
  2713. "...impressive."
  2714. > "I don't think - oh. Thunderlane."
  2715. "Cheerilee... hello."
  2716. > Poking her head out of an adjoining room, she was now paused with one hoof raised.
  2717. > You'd had a few other awkward moments before, but this ranked pretty far up them...
  2718. > "You didn't have to come around just for him."
  2719. "We, uh, didn't."
  2720. > "Oh."
  2721. > The frown already worked onto her face deepens, eyes darkening.
  2722. > "Come to check up and make sure we're not encouraging sedition or something, then?"
  2723. > "Not that either. We just... want to see."
  2724. > "...ah."
  2725. > Cheerilee blinks, as if not quite expecting that.
  2726. > "I, uh... come in?"
  2727. > Taking her up on the offer, you follow her back in to the gestating museum.
  2728. > "Sorry about snapping at you. Things've been pretty... hectic."
  2729. "I figured. Sorry - I think I might've contributed to that a bit."
  2730. > When Cheerilee gives you a questioning look, you add:
  2731. "The Wonderbolts poster?"
  2732. > "Ah, the big one."
  2733. > Her grimace fades, actually melting into a proper smile.
  2734. > "That's one's actually pretty welcome."
  2735. "Oh?"
  2736. > "Well, we don't have a lot of... organizations from Equestria that we can put up, you know. The Royal Guard is of course not going to be shown here, but the Wonderbolts... they're just safe enough."
  2737. > Eyes askance, you shoot a glance at Cheerilee's back.
  2738. > Like you she still bore a few scars of her whipping at Cadance's hooves, but she had only take half the lashes and so they were considerably fewer and less severe.
  2739. "You're willing to take that risk?"
  2740. > "You donated it. Aren't you?"
  2741. "Absolutely."
  2742. > Cheerilee nods, her smile growing ever so slightly bigger.
  2743. > "Well, there you go."
  2744. > It only lasts a moment, though, before fading back down again.
  2745. > "It's good that somepony understands. I've already had to turn away too many."
  2746. "Like that one who just walked out?"
  2747. > Another nod - this one more sharply jerked than the last.
  2748. > "He had a photograph - his brother's graduating class of officers in the Royal Guard. Smuggled it along in a 'bandage' for an old injury in his leg. It must've meant the world to him, and..."
  2749. > She goes silent, eyes drooping.
  2750. > Beside you, Seismic Shift stirs.
  2751. > "Surprised you're willing to do that, Miss Cheerilee. Way I heard it, you were pretty clear about wanting to teach ponies the truth..."
  2752. > "I'm not... happy. But somepony has to do this, and at least now..."
  2753. "At least now you're not lying completely."
  2754. > "Yes. Don't have to pretend that we didn't have modern medicine, or that we lived in constant fear of monster attacks, or that our princesses and government weren't anything more than a hive of corruption and nepotism... all those lies are gone. At least now I can tell the truth, if even not all of it."
  2755. "Have there been other ponies like him? The one who brought the photo, I mean-"
  2756. > "Others? A whole lot of others. Whole, whole lot of others. A lot of ponies want this to be a way to - to strike back at him. To defy him."
  2757. "You don't want that?"
  2758. > "Of course I do. But I'm a realist, too... I don't have to lie anymore, and that's enough for me."
  2759. > She turns back to the displays, head tilted.
  2760. > "Something we have to teach every foal: You can't always get everything you want all at once."
  2761. "Don't I know it..."
  2762. > "I'm afraid, though... if enough of them get turned away, then what?"
  2763. > Silence follows that, during which you shuffle uncomfortably.
  2764. "Cheerillee-"
  2765. > "Thunderlane. Listen to me... you probably know already, not everypony has given up on pushing back."
  2766. "Who?"
  2767. > "No names. I'm not ready to give that yet... but ponies are willing to push. Me? I'm... not sure. I was, but now... we can use this. Fighting isn't needed; fleeing, or even just ensuring we are remembered..."
  2768. "And they don't see it that way?"
  2769. > "Some ponies aren't so discerning about what we're teaching here. Total freedom, or it's nothing at all."
  2770. > You have to admit to yourself that they have something of a point:
  2771. > Even if Anonymous had allowed this, there would be still be a great deal that could not be said.
  2772. > Important things - fighting back against his lies.
  2773. > But...
  2774. "Do you know what they're going to do?"
  2775. > "No. But I have some suspicions."
  2776. > She doesn't elaborate, though, and after a few moments you realize hoping for that much may have been too much as well.
  2777. "I'll, uh... go, then. And-"
  2778. > "They're build their own 'museum', holding what they want to see. Trying to teach ponies to fight, not just to remember or even to run away."
  2779. "How do you know?"
  2780. > "How?"
  2781. > At last Cheerilee turns to face you again, a bitter expression on her face.
  2782. > "I've seen how plenty of angry colts and fillies act - looking for any excuse to pick a fight. It doesn't matter who gets an ear bitten or hoof twisted in the process."
  2783. > You nod, and she turns back - returning to her work.
  2784. > "...you got a plan to deal with this, Thunderlane?"
  2785. > Grimacing at Seismic's question, you nod.
  2786. "I'll have to do a bit of planning with Gene again, but I think..."
  2787. [Choice]
  2788. "...I think some additional patrols would be a good idea, but I don't want to push on anypony until we have proof. We start acting like that, everything they said about us being Anonymous' attack dogs will be true."
  2789. > "Good."
  2790. "But at the very least, we should be staking out the security building. I almost caught somepony sneaking around in there a couple nights ago."
  2791. > Seismic's eyes widen noticeably.
  2792. > " 'round the security building? Y'see who it was?"
  2793. "Not a unicorn, that's for sure. But beyond that... no. Couldn't figure out what they were doing either."
  2794. > "Hmm."
  2795. "You think it'll work?"
  2796. > "I really don't know."
  2797. "Well, it's worth a try at least. Right now, it's the only lead we really have."
  2798. > ...
  2799. "I swear it wasn't a unicorn Seismic."
  2800. > "Hrmm."
  2801. "And even if it was, unicorn's aren't just telepathic."
  2802. > "Mmmm."
  2803. "And I really doubt we could have-"
  2804. > "I didn't say anything, Thunderlane."
  2805. > Shuffling in the jacket and leg-warmers that represented a desperate attempt to keep the cold at bay, you hunker back down under the window and glare out over the square in front of the security building.
  2806. "Sorry, I'm just... I swear I saw somepony sneaking around here. Since we didn't find any evidence, I was sure they'd be back."
  2807. > "Doesn't always happen the way you like it."
  2808. "Yeah, but I've gotta have something for two weeks of standing out in the freezing cold while I ought to be in bed, nice and warm under the covers..."
  2809. > Hissing softly as he shifts himself around to try and keep blood from being cut off to his legs, Seismic settles down into a new position and lays his eyes out.
  2810. > "Anonymous ain't judging us on how many ponies we bring in, an' I don' think the Princess is either."
  2811. "I'm judging me, though."
  2812. > "Hmm."
  2813. > Seismic goes back to watching, but you can see something is still bothering him - his ears flick, and occasionally his tail twitches with a burst of nervous energy.
  2814. "...go ahead, Seismic. Tell me up front, I want to know."
  2815. > "Not to bash your intuition on what is right... I really don't think we're going to find anypony out here. We'd be better off lookin' somewhere else."
  2816. > Despite his gentle tone and softer words, you can't help but feel a little pang in your heart.
  2817. > The last time you'd tried a stakeout like this, it'd brought the perp right to you.
  2818. > This time, however, there was apparently no such luck.
  2819. "I'm not saying you're wrong... but where would you suggest?"
  2820. > "If anything? Just patrolling the camp. Checking typical hiding spots. Or maybe they're not even out at night now; that didn't work so well for those other two."
  2821. "And the unicorn vandal that escaped might have wised up and warned his friends... yeah, I see it."
  2822. > Standing from the window you were watching from - the upper floor of small work building, surrounded by boxes of products waiting to be shipped out of the camp - you stretch out, unfurling all four legs and then one wing after another.
  2823. > As painful as it is to admit, Seismic may very well be on to something here.
  2824. "Alright. We'll give it up for now."
  2825. > Entering the security building, you head for the front office to let them know that you're turning in.
  2826. "You can wait here, Seismic. It's nothing major."
  2827. > It's little more than a perfunctory conversation, a simple notification - even if you weren't holding a technically superior rank in the security staff, this wasn't exactly in your normal hours.
  2828. > Heading back to the exit, however, familiar voices from up ahead fill your ears.
  2829. > "...sorry Ma'am, but I really can't... on duty? We were, but - no Ma'am, nothing yet, but we really can't be just -"
  2830. > Seismic?
  2831. > The other voice you can't quite identify.
  2832. > They're both of them being quite quiet - if you didn't happen to have the pony advantage in hearing, there's no way you could have heard it from this far away.
  2833. > You take another few cautious steps further, each one careful to silence your hoof-falls.
  2834. > When the second voice does become clear, you feel your coat ripple with shock.
  2835. > Lana?
  2836. > What was she doing in there?
  2837. > "Don't give me that, Seismic. It's been far, far too long with you always taken away by these 'stakeouts', and I know you always have a few minutes for me-"
  2838. > That tone of voice sets your coat prickling.
  2839. > It was not a tone of voice usually used between mere co-workers.
  2840. > "No - it's... Thunderlane."
  2841. > A long silence, followed by Lana's voice again:
  2842. > "He knows about us?"
  2843. > "N-No, but he's going to-"
  2844. > "I know."
  2845. > Soft laughter, amused.
  2846. > "He almost smelled our little fun on me the other night. If I hadn't cleaned up and masked it with enough perfume..."
  2847. > "And what if he does now?"
  2848. > "I'll make it clear to him where we stand if he does find out, don't you worry."
  2849. > "It's not you I'm worried about, Lana, it's me! What happens to me?"
  2850. > Another pause.
  2851. > "...so you think you can just run away?"
  2852. > "I just - not tonight, Lana! I have to go, he's going to be back any moment-"
  2853. > The sound of fast footsteps - though not as fast as your heart is beating.
  2854. > "You aren't going to push past me, are you?"
  2855. > "Ma'am - "
  2856. > "You wouldn't lay a hoof on me, Seismic. You know it, I know it. You couldn't bring yourself too; that's why I love having you in me. This time, we do things my way."
  2857. > Oh, Tartarus no.
  2858. > Her?
  2859. > Of all people, her?
  2860. > Your ears lay back and breath quickens, coming in rapid snorts.
  2861. > A woman ought to have understood why you couldn't tolerate this!
  2862. > You all but crash through the closed door; the room beyond was technically a bedroom, but in reality little more than the slaves' typical sleeping quarters - occasionally used by human staff if an emergency demanded they stay overnight.
  2863. > And, apparently, for other uses as well.
  2864. > Lana had, you guess, been half-turned to react to the sound of your pounding hooves when the door flew open - but she was also far too close to it.
  2865. > Stumbling in shock from the blow, she's completely off balance as your loft yourself into a leap and tackle her to the floor - going down in a tumble of hooves and arms.
  2866. > More importantly, she wasn't wearing her guard body armor either - allowing you to quickly and easily pin her with a hoof planted in a vulnerable stomach.
  2867. > Seismic bursts out with a neigh that quickly turns to a scream as both you and Lana tumble together.
  2868. "You - you sick little tick! I thought I'd torn all you bastards out of the guard, but I guess there's one more -"
  2869. > "Thunderlane!"
  2870. > "Get off of me-"
  2871. "No, Seismic - it's alright."
  2872. > You jab a hoof down on Lana's stomach again, just to make your point.
  2873. "I've dealt with this sort of shit before. Tartarus' teats - it's the reason I was willing to put on this uniform!"
  2874. > "Not..."
  2875. > Lana gurgles softly, gripping the hoof you were pressing to her throat - not hard enough to crush it, but certainly enough to make her think twice about moving suddenly.
  2876. > "...need to talk..."
  2877. "There is absolutely nothing you could say to me that could convince me not to throw you out of this camp right this second. I report to Anonymous, do you get that? No threat, no promise -"
  2878. > Actually managing a small shake of her head, she wheezes:
  2879. > "...explain..."
  2880. "Explain? Explain what? That this is somehow 'right'? That you enjoy it, that it doesn't matter because we're 'property', that he enjoys it-"
  2881. > "Yes."
  2882. "That's complete and utter-"
  2883. > Wait.
  2884. > Lana hadn't said that.
  2885. > Almost drifting, your head turns to let you look at Seismic Shift - his own eyes cast the floor, the hefty earth pony stallion seeming diminished - somehow physically shrunken - by the sheer look of shame on his face.
  2886. > Your eyes drop back to Lana, examining her face.
  2887. > There isn't anger there, no hatred or disgust.
  2888. > But fear.
  2889. > How...?
  2890. > "Thunderlane, it's..."
  2891. > He searches for the word.
  2892. > "...consensual. I'm not - being forced."
  2893. > Stumbling back, you fall to your haunches.
  2894. "Explain. Now."
  2895. > "We're..."
  2896. > Seismic Shift stumbles, not able to answer.
  2897. > Lana, on the floor, props herself on one elbow.
  2898. > "...we're sleeping together, yes. We're fucking."
  2899. > The delay in your response is, for the most part, simply due to how long it takes to process that statement.
  2900. > Those two are...?
  2901. > With a cautious step forward, Seismic gives a soft snort-nicker:
  2902. > "Thunderlane... I swear to you, it's not forced. We're just... together."
  2903. "So you have a roll in the hay in the guard building, of all places?"
  2904. > "It's... heavily built. Sound doesn't carry, and I can let Seismic in so no one else knows."
  2905. "Then that night I caught you coming out...?"
  2906. > "Yeah..."
  2907. > Seismic huffs softly again.
  2908. > "That pony you saw was me. Lana, uh, couldn't stay that night so we both left early - I went back to my quarters."
  2909. > Huffing softly at both their answers - mostly because they made actual sense - you look between the two of them.
  2910. "So I've been out there in the frigid cold for two weeks, chasing my own patrol partner."
  2911. > Wordless with shame, Seismic nods; Lana just looks surprised.
  2912. "Celestia damn it! Couldn't you have told me?! We wasted all that! You -"
  2913. > A hoof jabbed at Lana again.
  2914. "- I actually understand, but Seismic - couldn't you have told me?"
  2915. > "I..."
  2916. > His eyes fall again, tail swishing.
  2917. > "Thunderlane... if anypony found out what I was doing, do you think I'd ever be trusted as a guard again? I'd always be 'that one pony who fucked a human guard' - I'd be a traitor."
  2918. > "We had - had to keep it quiet. For both of us. I'd lose my job if word got around I was with a slave..."
  2919. "...I still don't buy it. You said Seismic wouldn't dare touch you!"
  2920. > Skin turning an impressive crimson that you aren't sure is healthy in human, Lana pushes herself upright and nods.
  2921. > "It's, um... It's one of the reasons I like him. That kind of strength, real strength... I can feel it in him when we're together. But he's always so gentle..."
  2922. > Head dropped in a gesture of submission, he nods.
  2923. > "Don' like fighting or pushing around. But I will if I gotta - s'one reason I joined the guard. Stop real fighting. And... for her."
  2924. > Here his head is tossed towards Lana.
  2925. > Well, shit.
  2926. > You really stepped in this one.
  2927. > "Thunder..."
  2928. > Breaking the silence, Seismic Shift drops to his haunches in front of you.
  2929. > "...you gonna tell Gene? Tell Anonymous?"
  2930. > You... don't know.
  2931. > "Please. I know I screwed up real good on this, but if you do... at least don't have Lana fired. This's my fault, not hers."
  2932. > "Seismic!"
  2933. > "S'true!"
  2934. [Choice]
  2935. "You know, I'm probably going to regret this completely later when it comes back around and bites me in the flank, but..."
  2936. > Blowing a hefty blast of air from both nostrils, you shake your head.
  2937. "...I'm not reporting you. Either of you - Seismic, you've convinced me that this really is on the level and despite how pissed I am that you just lead me on a wild goose chase for two weeks, if I bring this to Anonymous' attention even the best-case scenario is an ugly one."
  2938. > Seismic takes a step closer and thenh hesitates, his expression suggesting that he wants to smile but is so overwhelmed with emotion he doesn't quite know how to.
  2939. > "I'll make it up to you, Thunderlane. Somehow. I'll do it."
  2940. "Yeah, you will. For one, next time we do a stakeout you're sitting in the cold."
  2941. > He grimaces, but nods again.
  2942. > Turning to Lana, you let your own ears fall somewhat and reach out with one hoof extended.
  2943. "Lana, I'm sorry I tackled you. Should've... not leapt in like that, but gone in and asked first."
  2944. > "Forgiven."
  2945. > She takes you hoof, grinning with a hefty wince.
  2946. > "This is gonna bruise something real good, but I get that you're... kind of touchy about people hurting ponies like that. For good reason."
  2947. > Letting out a breath you'd been holding yourself, you nod.
  2948. "I can't say I understand what you too have here... but, for one we need to focus on making friends in our situation and not breaking up relationships; for two, I understand giving second chances."
  2949. > Lana tilts her head, and you chuckle.
  2950. "Let's just say my decision to take this position in the guard was something of a given second chance too."
  2951. > "Ah."
  2952. > Plus, a darker corner of your mind whispers, it would be leverage over a guard - a human guard - if it ever came to that.
  2953. > In a moment of desperation, you could try and blackmail her into aiding you.
  2954. > But that voice is quickly shoved far into the back of your head.
  2955. "Yes. So... no harm, no foul."
  2956. > Seismic turns for the door, but before he can leave you drop your hoof to the floor with a cracking stomp.
  2957. "But - a warning to you. Not from me, but just in general: Be. Careful. I already once almost stumbled into this, and someone else could too. If they do, it's going to bite you hard."
  2958. > And yourself too, if it comes out you knew.
  2959. > For that matter, you still haven't informed Anonymous about Sunburst's little circle.
  2960. > Part of you tries to rationalize that they weren't actually making any escapes yet, but the truth you knew is that to some degree you're simply sick of turning in and taking down ponies.
  2961. > Sick of being a traitor to ponykind, even if there's a solid reason for what you're doing.
  2962. > ...but the entire point of this was ultimately to protect Rumble; was letting a potentially dramatic and successful escape plan run by beneath his nose really the right choice there?
  2963. > That thought too is shoved into the back of your head, down and away where you don't have to think about it.
  2964. "So - anyway - just... be very, very careful. It's not an order, but figure out a better way to do this or take it to Gene or Anonymous yourselves, because right now it's just a matter of time until it breaks out."
  2965. > Both of them look at each other, and then Lana looks back to you.
  2966. > "Thank you, Thunderlane. We'll keep it in mind."
  2967. "You'd better. For your own sake."
  2968.  
  2969. > "Alright."
  2970. > Looking around the table, Anonymous nods to the last of his six advisors arriving to seat herself at it.
  2971. > They were a varied bunch - lawyer, analysts, bookkeeper, security officer, and of course yourself, pony.
  2972. > There were, however, three more present that you had not expected.
  2973. > Two were familiar to you - a man, his eyes covered in opaque glasses whose name you recalled from the dinner's awful night to be Randall Cooper, and beside him a young pegasus wearing a harness and bar-like lead rising up towards his hand.
  2974. > He was, you remember, blind and relied on her - Posey - for guidance.
  2975. > The third, however, seated on Randal's opposite side, was not:
  2976. > A unicorn of considerable grace, all long legs and slim barrel, eyes you through hooded eyes.
  2977. > On her neck sits a collar covered in elaborate lacework, while the crimson sweeps of her mane and tail were both smooth and gleaming.
  2978. > Though she held herself upright and statuesque, you could see the intelligence in her expression.
  2979. > Coughing politely, Anonymous smiles.
  2980. > "Let's start with our updates. Gene?"
  2981. > His security chief folds his hands, grunting out:
  2982. > "No major problems, a few fighting ponies here and there but nothing serious. Thunderlane has had his ponies out on extra patrols since you made your announcements, but they have not found anything yet."
  2983. > His eyes slide sideways, landing on you for a fraction of a second.
  2984. > "My men have not found anything either. And they let Cadance deal with troublemakers."
  2985. > "Cadance?"
  2986. "Just what he said, Master. A few ponies letting their anger boil over here and there, but nothing that requires more than stern words and some extra hours."
  2987. > "Good. We'll keep things that way - this kind of self-management is exactly what I'm looking for. Cadance, how do things sit in general right now."
  2988. "The suggestions box and the rec center are both drawing everypony's focus right now. There've been a few more incidents of graffiti, which we have dealt with on our own, but for now they seem to be improving."
  2989. > "Hrm."
  2990. > Your eyes shift to glance out the window, where a patch of scaffolding and framing was rising amid a previously-empty paved lot in the camp.
  2991. "I have to also thank you for letting us build this on our own, Master. It's drawing efforts from everypony, to build it and to make games and other things for it."
  2992. > "Exactly what I'd been hoping for. Alright, Amanda - numbers; how are our funds now?"
  2993. > "This winter hasn't been as cold as expected, so our heat charms aren't selling as well. But that also means people are buying other things, so our profits haven't taken too hard a hit."
  2994. "Would you say we're relatively safe."
  2995. > "Absolutely. Gross average is only..."
  2996. > You let the talks fade out, only coming back when your name is called for some minor input.
  2997. > The rest of the time, your attention is on the unicorn crouched at Randall's side.
  2998. > She has barely moved, yet you think she has spent a fair amount of time studying every person seated at the table.
  2999. > Finally satisfied, Anonymous leans back and folds his arms.
  3000. > "Alright, everyone - the reason for this meeting is that the dinner I held is now bearing the fruit of new relationships. We have received suitable bonding agreements for an expansion of our facilities here, an increase in our existing operations and an expansion into new opportunities."
  3001. > Motioning to Randall, he goes on:
  3002. > "Mr. Cooper here is a business management executive who will be brought onboard as an adviser to satisfy our investors that everything is being accomplished as best as can reasonably be expected."
  3003. > Greetings are murmured from around the table, including your own.
  3004. > "Now that our preliminary conditions are out of the way, we will have a brief break for refreshments before we get underway again. Say... ten minutes?"
  3005. > Two trays of light snacks had been near-silently brought into the room while they worked, and now the entire table breaks up to circle them.
  3006. > Randall, for his part, simply taps Posey on the back; she rears up to let him murmur something in his ear before she turns to head for the tables as well - guide-handle bobbing along like a signal flag.
  3007. > The unicorn, however, does not move.
  3008. > Seeing your chance, you slip from the table as well and approach the pink-maned earth pony from behind.
  3009. "Excuse me - Posey, yes?"
  3010. > "Oh!"
  3011. > She jumps lightly, shying back but then dropping into a bow.
  3012. > "Um. Pr- Miss Cadance. Hello."
  3013. > Leaning down to brush her cheek with your nose, you smile.
  3014. "Please, don't be scared. I'm sorry for interrupting you."
  3015. > "It's, um, not a problem. I'm just getting some snacks for my Master and Miss Glamour."
  3016. "Ah, let me help you with that..."
  3017. > Easily moving the snacks she points out to her plate, you take the opportunity to strike:
  3018. "So, Miss Glamour... is that the unicorn with him?"
  3019. > "Yes. Her name is Haute Glamour; she's his assistant."
  3020. "Ah - you are not?"
  3021. > "Oh, no. I'm not nearly that important. I'm just his guide-pony and fetcher. Miss Glamour is much more important."
  3022. > Posey's voice seemed naturally soft, but even so they took on an extra note when speaking of the other pony.
  3023. "I see. Thank you, Posey."
  3024. > Her cheeks color, and she seems to try and duck behind her mane.
  3025. > "...you're welcome, Miss Cadance."
  3026. > Soon enough the meeting resumes again, and now you watch the unicorn - Haute Glamour - with a new light:
  3027. > Eventually come the words that you had been increasingly expecting from Anonymous, and to a degree begun to become concerned about:
  3028. > "...and, Cadance, you will be working with - your name is Haute Glamour, yes? - with her as well as Mr. Cooper is working with me."
  3029. > "I look forward to every moment we spend working together."
  3030. > Glamour's voice is everything you'd expected it to be - smooth like velvet, but rich in tone.
  3031. "The same, Miss Glamour."
  3032. > "In fact, I think we're done with everything but the technical details here... why don't you take her down into the facilities and show her around."
  3033. > Teeth gritted internally, you put on a delighted smile and nod.
  3034. "Of course, Master. Miss Glamour, would you please follow me."
  3035. > She does, padding quietly alongside you until you are far distant from the meeting room.
  3036. > "I must say, I am most impressed, and apologize for intruding on you."
  3037. "Excuse me?"
  3038. > Smiling up at you, Haute Glamour laughs - a rich noise that nonetheless sets your spine prickling.
  3039. > "You do not wish to have me tagging along. I saw it in the false smile you put on to them - but do not worry; I am not offended."
  3040. "Ah, well..."
  3041. > You hesitate, wings shuffling.
  3042. "...it's only that I'm afraid I've had no time to prepare."
  3043. > "It is not your fault; I believe Randall brought me along with little warning to Anonymous. But even so, I remain impressed."
  3044. "Oh?"
  3045. > "You have quite the impressive 'poker smile', as it is... and I can tell that you are deft in your actions. You knew my name before we were introduced. Posey, I suppose."
  3046. "Yes, we spoke briefly."
  3047. > "Mmm-hmm."
  3048. > And somehow you are of the suspicion that somehow Glamour was not pleased by this revelation.
  3049. > Together you exit from the manor, being waved back through the fencing into the camp.
  3050. > Once inside, you begin leading her towards the town hall - if she is to be Randall's agent in the camp, you suppose introducing her to the other administrators would be the best first choice.
  3051. > "Though, if half of what I have heard is true, it is far more impressive what you have accomplished here. Is it true that there are ponies guarding ponies here?"
  3052. "Yes, though admittedly not many. I convinced the first it would be a safer "
  3053. > "Still, an impressive success. You have both Anonymous and the ponies here following your lead."
  3054. "At times. There are still... points of friction, but I believe they are solvable."
  3055. > "No, it is an impressive feat."
  3056. > She sighs dramatically, shaking her head in a toss of crimson mane.
  3057. > You cannot help notice that she has put a bit of a sway into her flanks as well, drawing more than a few stallions' - and a hooffull of mares' - gazes as she struts alongside you.
  3058. > "I have Randall's ponies firmly in line, but they are few compared to this and require constant supervision. If I could have found a suitable subordinate among them as you have..."
  3059. > Randall's ponies?
  3060. > Somehow, the way she phrased that it sounded like she excluded herself from them.
  3061. "...well, this is the town hall here. I carry out most of my administrative duties from here. Let's see -"
  3062. > You step inside, and find that it is unfortunately empty.
  3063. "- ah, it seems that Mayor Mare is not in. We'll have to meet her later. Come, let's sit into my office."
  3064. > Haute Glamour's gaze roams through the room as you shut the office door behind her - seeming to be searching for something, or perhaps critically examining the room.
  3065. > The heavy door draws a look of approval from her, though.
  3066. > "Ah, good to be able to talk freely."
  3067. > Seating herself at your desk, she now smiles warmly.
  3068. > "It is a please to meet someone who is able to manage them so well. I was afraid this would be a task, but it seems you have such things already well in your favor."
  3069. "It's not my favor. I'm just trying to make things run smoothly here."
  3070. > "Cadance, dear..."
  3071. > Another of those rich, deep laughs.
  3072. > "Cadance please, you do not need to fear I'll carry your words back to Randall or Anonymous. I understand that we have to climb to the top of these wretched heaps if we're to secure our own comfort in... these conditions."
  3073. > A cream-coated hoof is raised to gesture out the window.
  3074. > "You have truly done well here; Anonymous relies on you for advice, and these simple ponies eat so deeply out of your hoof that they manage and even guard their own bondage. Anonymous may call you a slave, but truly you are still a ruler."
  3075. > Ruler?
  3076. > Is that how she saw you, just ruling over everypony else here for your own benefit?
  3077. > "It will be easiest for us if we both work together. Randall's interests are simply seeing this job done quickly, and I see no reason to... shake the throne which you have built and seated yourself on."
  3078. [Choice]
  3079. "...I'm glad you see things that way."
  3080. > Celestia had taught you that a lie was a damaging thing.
  3081. > But sometimes, when there was no other recourse, they were necessary.
  3082. > One tool in the repertoire of a successful leader - to be used sparingly, but not rejected altogether.
  3083. > Merely held in reserve for the moments when such tools would be necessary.
  3084. > And the more you consider the way Haute Glamour is watching you, the more you realize this might be the time to marshal every drop of politicking skill you have.
  3085. > This pony was not merely out for herself, but outright dangerous to you.
  3086. > Because despite her promise not to 'shake the throne', you highly doubted she would hesitate to sell you out if it came to that.
  3087. > Quickly you run through what you know of her owner.
  3088. > Randall Cooper, a business adviser and manager - you'd only seen him with two ponies now, Posey and now Glamour.
  3089. > The former seemed to be his personal assistant and guide, the one he sent for little tasks; the latter...
  3090. > Adviser herself?
  3091. > Spy?
  3092. > Was she something like a partner to him, as you were with Anonymous?
  3093. > You weren't sure.
  3094. > The more you think on it, the more you realize you need to talk to Posey.
  3095. > Glamour was not trustworthy, and Randall himself you would have to figure out on your own.
  3096. > But Posey could help you.
  3097. "With any luck, we will be able to get this done quickly, and with a minimum of friction or distractions."
  3098. > Was that too blunt?
  3099. > Glamour had seen through your act for the sake of the meeting.
  3100. > Would she see through this?
  3101. > If she does, she shows no sign of it.
  3102. > "And I think, then, that we can both agree there is no need to... excessively bring either of them into this."
  3103. > Anonymous and Randall, you presume she means.
  3104. "I thought that was the entire purpose of your being here - to ensure that they do not have to become involved.
  3105. > Glamour only cracks a small grin, and you nod in understanding.
  3106. > Another test.
  3107. > "Randall is blind in more ways than one. He relies on us not merely to guide him as he walks, but to be his eyes and ears... but in that, we are valuable and in that value power."
  3108. "His other ponies?"
  3109. > "He fawns over us all, yes. That made things so much more simple - I merely had to make myself the most available, the most helpful to him and it was smooth-sailing from there."
  3110. > So she had galloped roughshod over the other ponies in the pursuit of her own comfort.
  3111. > It takes a decent amount of effort to keep your teeth from grinding, but you manage.
  3112. "It is... not so simple here. There are certain demands placed on us, so we have to show some measure of improvement or he will start making his own checks. And - how many are you?"
  3113. > "Nearly a dozen of them. Mostly to help him around the house - being blind as a bat, you know. A couple of them help him with his management, although they're mostly doing rote work. Calculating numbers, producing graphs, very simple things."
  3114. > Again, 'them'.
  3115. > She clearly doesn't feel herself to be part of Randall's 'herd'.
  3116. Another difference, I'm afraid - the population is too high to control everypony directly."
  3117. > "Hence your use of some ponies as guards, I see."
  3118. > Or, if you'd have said it, why simply stepping on everypony on your way up wouldn't work.
  3119. "And that I've had to establish a hierarchy with more than two tiers in this camp."
  3120. > "Oh? You think that way of managing ponies is necessary?"
  3121. > If your danger senses were signalling any louder, they would be deafening.
  3122. "Not at all... you've done an impressive job yourself. You obviously figured out who he was attached to and that you couldn't replace his most critical ponies directly, so you focused on an alternative path to success."
  3123. > "Well yes - and, of course, who'd want to do something so simple as just leading him around?"
  3124. > With a toss of her mane, Glamour gives a small laugh.
  3125. > "Those ponies are far better suited for base tasks like that. It's no mistake that I was the most successful from among them."
  3126. "Some ponies do find that they are called to be leaders, yes. Even in, as you put it, these conditions."
  3127. > Leaders, you remind yourself.
  3128. > Not rulers.
  3129. > You were nothing like this pony.
  3130. > "Though, if you were interested, I would not mind... taking a role in your operation. A little bit of hooves-on learning in how to manage a larger group of ponies."
  3131. > Eyes snapping to Glamour, you try to parse that offer:
  3132. > Was she trying to weasel her way into your favor?
  3133. > Or just securing a place for herself?
  3134. > Seeming to realize that she'd overstepped herself, Haute Glamour drops her eyes submissively.
  3135. "...I think it's best not to try any... drastic changes while we are already undergoing a significant expansion, yes?"
  3136. > "Of course, of course..."
  3137. "Though I would be happy to give you a few pointers, at this time our primary focus should be - as you said - on ensuring that both Randall and Anonymous are pleased with us."
  3138. > "Well, then, we shouldn't wast any time in ensuring there aren't any problems that might disturb that. Let's begin."
  3139. > ...
  3140. > When Haute Glamour finally excuses herself from your office, Mayor Mare has long since returned to her own desk.
  3141. > You do not direct Glamour to her position, however, as right now there was far, far more on your mind.
  3142. > Only when the door is shut and you'd watched her walk far out of earshot back towards the manor does the older Earth Pony join you at the window.
  3143. > "Who was that?"
  3144. "The greatest threat to peace and stability in this camp I have seen in some time... and that is saying something."
  3145. > Mayor Mare cocks her head.
  3146. > "She likes to be in control. To have everypony coming to her, reminding her of just how important she is... maybe even so she can just dismiss them."
  3147. > Spotting your questioning look, she shrugs.
  3148. > "It's how she walks. I was a young mare once as well, Your Highness - I know what kind of pony walks like that. One who wants to feel... in charge. Important."
  3149. "If my estimation is right, she's only done so by running roughshod over every other pony she works with."
  3150. > Did Haute have magic, you wonder?
  3151. > You couldn't have asked her directly, but she wasn't wearing a limiter and the few times you'd seen her light her horn there didn't appear to be any obvious stress in it.
  3152. > That didn't mean she wasn't - a limiter could set a bar far above mere simple telekinesis, no matter how deft - but from the way she spoke it didn't sound like Randall had any limits on her.
  3153. "So, the question then becomes 'how do we fight this'."
  3154. > "No."
  3155. > Looking up at you, Mayor Mare sadly shakes her head.
  3156. > "Now the question becomes, 'how little damage can be done when she inevitably clashes with you'. It's how things always go with a pony like her."
  3157. "I hope to be more optimistic than that... but I am afraid you are correct."
  3158. > "Your Highness... if something does go wrong while she is around..."
  3159. "You don't have to tell me. I know - it could go very bad, very quickly. Right now she feels she's an equal to me, but if she senses weakness..."
  3160. > "Like Timberwolves to a lame pony."
  3161. > Nodding, you reflect on that at least everypony here suffered more or less equally in bondage under Anonymous; there were no power struggles or hierarchies.
  3162. > The ponies who ran various sections in the camp had little to show for it except, perhaps, individual bedrooms and bathrooms - and many hours of sleep lost to their duties.
  3163. > Perhaps the most starkly worrying specter to you is if somepony discovered that they could, possibly, find a comfortable spot on top of the pile instead of being a part of it.
  3164. > It's a thought that puts a shiver through your coat; up until now, you'd been more worried about ponies resisting than ponies collaborating.
  3165. > If that changed...
  3166. "Mayor, do you think you can manage any surprises coming up in the next few hours?"
  3167. > "I suppose. Why, what are you going to do?"
  3168. "I have a bad feeling that Haute Glamour is going to set things in motion sooner rather than later, and there are things that I need to do before it gets to that point."
  3169. > "I'll deal with everything I can, Your Highness."
  3170. "Thank you, Mayor."
  3171. [Choice]
  3172. > Slipping back into the manor at this point is a significant risk on its own.
  3173. > If Haute Glamour caught you doing that...
  3174. > Still, you know the house better than she does at this point - and the danger of not doing anything far exceeds this danger.
  3175. > You wish you could teleport, but in truth your skills in that particular art, along with many of the unicorn's arts, had always been shaky at best.
  3176. > So you slip in, quieting your hoofsteps and keeping both ears pricked at attention for a hint of the intruder's voice.
  3177. > Most of the house staff simply nod to you in quiet greeting, by now used to your visits (and occasional nervous demeanor during them).
  3178. > No eyebrows rise even when you lay an ear to the dining room door, voices within discussing arcane measures of numbers and trends proving that the meeting is still going on.
  3179. > Hailing one of the house staff over with a gesture from your wings, you drop your voice to a whisper:
  3180. "Excuse me, but - do you happen to have an idea of how soon Anonymous is likely to be finishing with this...?"
  3181. > "Oh, he's already out. Left maybe an hour ago."
  3182. > He had?
  3183. "Ah..."
  3184. > "F'your looking for him, go grab him now 'fore he steps back in."
  3185. "Thank you."
  3186. > A sudden thought comes to you, and move to follow the stallion before he can leave:
  3187. "One other thing, actually. Have you seen a new pony around here - name of Haute Glamour, unicorn-"
  3188. > "-blood red mane, cream flanks, struts around like she's owning a stage? Yeah, I've seen 'er."
  3189. > He looks ready to spit, and you nod.
  3190. "She's been poking around here?"
  3191. > "Oh, yeah. Grabbin' one o'us here and there, askin' little questions... kinda pony you know somethin's wrong but y'don't know what, an' she's big stuff - something to do with all the important types in that room."
  3192. "Yes. Don't refuse her questions if she asks them, but... be wary. You're right - there's something wrong."
  3193. > "I hear ya, Miss Cadance."
  3194. "In fact... if you could keep an eye on her, and send word to me if anything... significant happens, that would be even better. Tell the others, too."
  3195. > "...woah, now."
  3196. > The stallion gives you a wary eye as well, tail flicking.
  3197. > "What's this, some kind of plotting? We don't need more trouble - ponies hate us enough already just for being in here."
  3198. "If nopony does anything, it's going to get a lot worse. You said it yourself - there's something... off about her."
  3199. > He hesitates a moment, then nods.
  3200. > "Fair enough. We'll keep an ear up for her... but if trouble starts-"
  3201. "Then I'll be caught in it as much as you."
  3202. > Turning to split off, you leave the stallion feeling just slightly more confident.
  3203. > If Haute Glamour was going to go snooping around the camp, there wasn't any reason you couldn't have eyes and ears of your own.
  3204. > Now for Anonymous...
  3205. > You find him in his study, the door open and engrossed in his computer screens.
  3206. > He looks up when you tap on the door, motioning you in.
  3207. > "Cadance - how'd your half of the meeting go?"
  3208. "...not - awfully. I need to talk about Haute Glamour, though."
  3209. > "Yeah. She's apparently a very adept manager, according to Randall. Keeps everything and everyone in line for him."
  3210. "That is - exactly what I am concerned about, Master."
  3211. > Now Anonymous raises an eyebrow.
  3212. > "Oh?"
  3213. > You're unable to keep the anger - even disgust - from your voice.
  3214. "She's a manipulator and a bully. A queen bitch, I think the phrase is?"
  3215. > "...I take it the two of you really didn't get off on the right foot. Hoof. Whatever."
  3216. "It's more than that. She keeps Randall's ponies in line with intimidation and manipulation. She holds herself above them - and I'm concerned about what happens if she tries that here."
  3217. > Anonymous snorts softly.
  3218. > "I thought you said your half of the meeting went well."
  3219. "In as much as I don't think she suspects how sickening I find her? Yes, it was. Your plans are safe for the moment - but only just."
  3220. > "Well..."
  3221. > Anonymous scratches his chin, pondering.
  3222. > "What exactly do you plan on doing about it?"
  3223. "I need to know what exactly her role in this is going to be. How much authority she actually has."
  3224. > "Alright, so - Randall's purpose for being here is basically to get my investors' at ease and assure them that I'm not going to squander their funds. He has a say in how things go, which I am legally obliged to consider... but he doesn't hold any actual position of authority."
  3225. "So he's an adviser. Nothing more."
  3226. > "Yes. That said, I've looked into him and he's a veteran with a long record of successes - and I don't have to remind you, I'm a relative rookie in this who caught one good idea. So I'll be damn well listening when he talks."
  3227. "And that extends to Haute Glamour as well, I suppose."
  3228. > You're unable to keep the frustration from your voice, and Anonymous notices.
  3229. > "Yes... and no. She's no authority and no order she gives is actually binding. But if she does have as strong a grip as you say..."
  3230. > Apparently the look on your face said enough, as Anonymous beckons you closer.
  3231. > When you drop to your haunches in front of him he reaches out to lightly scratch around your ears.
  3232. > The touch is not entirely unpleasant, but not what you are looking for at this time and so your ears flatten away from his fingers.
  3233. > "You're really concerned about this."
  3234. "I'm terrified. You know everything I've done, I've done for the sake of keeping the majority of ponies here safe."
  3235. > "You think Haute Glamour has the potential to reverse that?"
  3236. "You only need one bad egg."
  3237. > After a second, you add:
  3238. "Ordinarily, Anonymous, I wouldn't be concerned about this. Some little cliquishness, some little pettiness... those things are normal for ponies. I saw enough of that as a Princess - we lived in harmony, not utopia; those were things to be worked out, not feared. But now we're slaves; you've seen how positively ponies have reacted to having some little degree of control and power."
  3239. > "I didn't invite you in to debate the rights and wrongs of slavery with me, Cadance."
  3240. "I'm not debating. I'm saying with that many ponies confined without power, if they get it into their heads that the kind of petty cruelty and control Haute Glamour pedals is attractive, desirable-"
  3241. > "Yeah, I remember what High School was like."
  3242. > You don't quite get the reference, but it seems to have suitably made the point judging by the contemplative look on Anonymous' face.
  3243. > "You know, I think there's a personal component in this too."
  3244. "Personal?"
  3245. > "It's not just that you're worried about what she might do. You just don't like her either."
  3246. > Your muzzle dips a bit, tail flicking with emotions long contained.
  3247. "I... can't say 'no'. I do personally dislike her - she holds herself above ponies, thinks she's somehow not just better off but actually better than them."
  3248. > "A far call from what you used to do as a Princess, I suppose."
  3249. "Yes. We were rulers, yes, but we ruled for the benefit of our subjects. Independence and self-improvement was to be encouraged, not beaten down."
  3250. > From the look on his face, he'd already thought of that and was presumably looking for something else in your answer.
  3251. > "Alright, Cadance, you've given me a solid argument - if only because you've proven yourself so far and it's pretty clear the two of you are of differing opinions."
  3252. > Leaning out of his seat, Anonymous clasps his hands between his legs and brings his face closer to your muzzle.
  3253. > "But not told me what you want to do about this - or think I should do."
  3254. > Was he offering a dare there, or a warning not to try and instruct him on his own affairs?
  3255. > Much as you found her disgusting, Haute Glamour had a point in that you'd made yourself valuable to him, and could thus get away with certain things.
  3256. > Then again, an argument with Anonymous right now might not be what you really needed...
  3257. > But then again, again it might be better to argue now than later.
  3258. [Choice]
  3259. "I can't keep track of her all the time. Where at all possible, I need you to keep her bottled up in the manor with little tasks."
  3260. > Anonymous grimaces a the thought.
  3261. > "I'll ask Randall about that. It'll be tricky, though - being out there is technically supposed to be her job."
  3262. "And whenever we have something to do together, she's perfectly welcome to do it."
  3263. > "Alright. What else?"
  3264. "When she is out in the camp working with me, I need her under my authority. As if she was one of your own."
  3265. > This draws an even-deeper frown from Anonymous, and you shake your head.
  3266. "It's not a dominance spat, Anonymous. Trust me on that."
  3267. > "That's not what I'm concerned about. The problem is you can't really punish her, because despite 'as ifs' she isn't one of mine and there are laws about injuring other people's ponies."
  3268. > You have to restrain a roll of your eyes.
  3269. > Of course there'd be something to protect ponies as property, but nothing to protect them just for being living, thinking beings.
  3270. > "You'd have to report her to Randall... unless you can prove that she is immediately causing measurable injury to me or my property."
  3271. "If she's really got a grip as tight on Randall as she said she does, that's a joke."
  3272. > "It's your only option. I'm sorry."
  3273. > Huffing through your nostrils and tails flicking, you nod.
  3274. "It'll have to do..."
  3275. > "I'll try something extra, though. Feeling out Randall a bit, seeing how much he knows about what's going on with his slaves..."
  3276. > The slightest touch of a smile graces your lips.
  3277. > That he instantly accepted your word without asking for time or proof was a statement on how much he trusted you.
  3278. > A moment later that thought sours as Haute Glamour's words come back to you.
  3279. > He relied on you because you'd made yourself useful to him.
  3280. > Nothing more.
  3281. "Okay. I'll deal with it."
  3282. > "Good."
  3283. "And.. one other favor if I can ask... when she's up here in the manor - for the good of both of us, keep her well away from Flurry Heart and Megan. If it she gets her hooks into them..."
  3284. > "Agreed. Well away from them."
  3285. "Thank you, Anonymous."
  3286. > Stepping from the room, you resist the urge to slips downstairs and check on Flurry Heart - while Megan went to school during the day, your daughter was not yet allowed to go with her.
  3287. > Halfway down the stairs, though, pony you'd barely noticed detaches herself from the wall ahead and struts towards you with that familiar, hip-swinging walk.
  3288. > You weren't quite able to keep the surprise from your face - how had she snuck up on you?! - but you're quite able to wipe it from your face and quickly put on a more positive expression.
  3289. > Haute, for her part, simply shoots you a smirking grin as she stalks past on the way back up towards the meeting room.
  3290. > Had she heard you talking to Anonymous?
  3291. > The room wasn't exactly soundproof, but you had closed the door...
  3292. > But maybe she was just sharing her amusement at your 'manipulating' Anonymous?
  3293. > Shivering softly, you wait until she is out of sight before retreating back to the camp.
  3294.  
  3295. "Right, mares and gentlecolts, here's our situation."
  3296. > Looking around at the sixteen or so ponies around the table, you're met by a repertoir of early-morning bleary eyes, but attentive ears.
  3297. "I don't think I have to tell anypony here, someponies are a little bit upset by what's been happening as of late and decided to make sure we know about it."
  3298. > "Astralia quit 'cause of it. You don't have to tell us, Thunderlane!"
  3299. > You nod in the direction of the comment, ignoring the low 'oof' that follows it as somepony gets a light kick in the shin for their effort.
  3300. "Well, you're right. We've been feeling it most of all, and it's going to get worse."
  3301. > A collective groan comes from the table, at least until you raise a wing to silence them.
  3302. "Look. Right now, there's a lot of anger brewing in the camp. It's not as out there as it once was, but it's still a problem. For starters, we're pretty sure at this point that somepony is running another 'museum', and that's only going to drive more and more aggression."
  3303. > "So, we have to root it out."
  3304. "Exactly."
  3305. > A sour look passes over your face, accompanied by a shake of your head.
  3306. "It's not a job any of us like, but I'd rather deal with this now than have to really take somepony down hard when they get egged on to doing this."
  3307. > There are a few nervous shuffles around the room, but eventually another one of the guard ponies speaks up.
  3308. > "Y'all know he's right. Much as we hate t'say it, we're all here 'cause we decided it'd be better t'take a soft hoof with somepony early on than wait for it t'get real bad."
  3309. > From his spot across the room Seismic Shift concurs:
  3310. > "Yeah. 'specially with the rumors of even more ponies coming in soon, we've gotta get a lid on this before gets too big."
  3311. > "So Thunderlane, what's our plan? We've kinda got to find this thing before we can do anything about it."
  3312. "Well, that's exactly the reason I've brought you all together here. I want to know - if anypony has a good idea about how to get this dealt with the least struggle and chaos we can manage."
  3313. > "We should just talk straight to ponies. Let 'em know we aren't going to be arresting them or anything, but we gotta know where this thing is."
  3314. > "No way! If we do that, they'll just clamp down on locking out any pony who doesn't share their views!"
  3315. > "That's the least likely thing if we just ask. It's not like we're forcing them to give it up."
  3316. "So, you're talking about what - offer a reward for anypony who comes forward and gives us a tip?"
  3317. > "Exactly. It's the best way - nopony's gonna claim we're being - what's the word, oppressive? If we just offer rewards."
  3318. > Having been 'just offered a reward' being how you were first forced to turn traitor on the camp, you aren't sure if you agree with that but you keep your mouth shut.
  3319. "Okay, there's that. The most direct option is to sweep the whole camp in one, continuous run - we're pretty much guaranteed to find it, but things could be... ugly if they do."
  3320. > A murmur of agreement runs around the table - nobody likes the idea of having to force their way into every nook and cranny, no matter how effective it could be.
  3321. > Across the table, Seismic Shift gestures to you.
  3322. > "What about your friend? Th'one who was in the Guard back home?"
  3323. "Granite Cleave? What about him?"
  3324. > "You're trying to bring him into the guard anyhow, right? Seems pretty impressed with you already? Maybe he could ask around, build us an idea of where to look."
  3325. > "Use him as a mole, you mean?"
  3326. > Another mare gives Seismic a skeptical look; the larger stallion shrugs.
  3327. > "It'd bring this down with th'least impact, though."
  3328. > "The most trust lost, though!"
  3329. > "Not any more than if we offer a reward to anypony."
  3330. "Alright, we'll consider it. Fourth option, we all put in extra hours at night trailing ponies we think are active in any resistance - see who and what they might be delivering something too, where they might be dropping things off to."
  3331. > That yields another round of groans, though you suspect it has more to do with the prospect of the few hours you do have to yourselves every day lost to yet more patrols.
  3332. "It'll be rough on all of us, but much easier on everypony else. They all know where we stand - what our job is."
  3333. > A long silence follows, as they all look between each other.
  3334. > Finally, another pony speaks up again:
  3335. > "There is a fifth option... those two who put up all that stuff with the paint they stole. We could go put a hoof in their ribs for a bit."
  3336. > "Are you seriously suggesting beating a fellow pony until they tell us? What in Tartarus is wrong with you, Sacks?"
  3337. "Agreed. I won't tolerate that - we're here to protect ponies, not harm them."
  3338. > "Oh, for - I didn't mean literally kick them! Just - tell them what Thunderlane just told us. Remind them if anypony gets hurt, it's their fault."
  3339. > "They only know their third."
  3340. > "Do you know that?
  3341. > This time more ears turn to listen, and a few ponies nod thoughtfully.
  3342. "Alright. Let's take a few minutes to talk this over, and then we'll choose."
  3343. [Choice]
  3344. > In the end you decide to take a multi-pronged approach.
  3345. > At this rate, a sweep is definitely going to be necessary - things are building far too quickly to wait for observation or an offered reward to pay off..
  3346. > But that didn't mean you couldn't try to combine it with other measures.
  3347. > And so you find yourself trotting through the halls of the medical clinic, looking for the one particular burst of earthen mane matched to the snow-white scrubs all the nurses wore.
  3348. "Nurse Mellowheart?"
  3349. > "Ye-"
  3350. > The mare's voice dies as she turns to face you, her eyes going narrow and ears laying down.
  3351. > "...Thunderlane."
  3352. > Sighing softly, you drop your own head a bit - this wasn't a dominance fight, and you didn't need to make it one.
  3353. "Can we speak to you for a moment? In private?"
  3354. > For a moment she seems ready to snap back, turn this into another fight - but perhaps seeing your own willingness to step back, Mellowheard just nods instead.
  3355. > You - along with another stallion in the guard - follow her in.
  3356. > As soon as the door closes she spins on her hooves, mouth set in a thin line.
  3357. > "What do you two want from me."
  3358. > Caught off guard by her suddenly-aggressive approach, you reel back for a moment before catching up.
  3359. "...we want to help everypony, Nurse. Same as you do."
  3360. > "Tirek-shit. What do you want from me? Because I'm well and sure two guards in uniform coming to look for me isn't just so you can tell me about a colt who's hurt his hoof and needs a band-aid."
  3361. > Groaning gently, you twist your head around and extend a wing to rub against your already-aching skull.
  3362. "We - we're not lying, Nurse. We really do want to help everypony. But... from you."
  3363. > With a shake of your head and a sigh,
  3364. "...the third member of your group. The unicorn. We need to know who he is."
  3365. > "I knew it..."
  3366. "Mellowheart-"
  3367. > You snort, pausing to compose yourself.
  3368. "Look. Things are getting... worse. Ponies are getting harder, more aggressive. And it's not going to be getting any better unless somepony does something."
  3369. > "Of course it won't. We're slaves."
  3370. > You resist the urge to snarl out a response, now keeping your breathing steady.
  3371. "Mellowheart, please - listen! We're not just looking to punish. It's - it's not what I want either! But I'm worried. Tartarus - I'm scared. What happens if things do run out of control?!"
  3372. > "Then maybe everypony will actually wake up and see what he's doing to us."
  3373. "What he's doing - have you looked outside recently?"
  3374. > "No! No, I haven't, because I've had to spend my entire waking time on extra duty because you dragged me in to be put up on that stage to be - be humiliated by Cadance in front of that entire crowd! Even after I told you I wouldn't get involved in this anymore!"
  3375. > ...oh.
  3376. > Yes.
  3377. > She was still on her punishment that she'd received, after her third counterpart hadn't made him - or her - self known.
  3378. "He is listening to us. He's given us a way to bring our concerns to him, even letting us build a place to remember Equestria."
  3379. > This time it is Mellowheart's turn to look away, and you know that you're on to something.
  3380. "Wasn't this what you said you were afraid of? That he was going to make everypony 'forget'?"
  3381. > "Yes..."
  3382. "Then look at this! If ponies kick back now, we'll loose that. We'll be falling into exactly what you were scared of."
  3383. > Huffing a lungful of air out through her nostrils, Mellowheart falls to her haunches.
  3384. > "Then tell me this, Thunderlane: When does it end?"
  3385. > You cock your head, and Mellowheart continues - tail lashing.
  3386. > "We - we stop now. Maybe we even turn around and stop ponies who are pushing back. And... then what?"
  3387. > She hisses softly, eyes squeezed shut and head drooping.
  3388. > "Does it ever stop? Are we ever free? Does he stop him?"
  3389. "I don't know, Mellowheart. But it's a sure thing that if we push back, if we fight, it'll be the end of any freedom we do have."
  3390. > "We don't 'have' freedom! We're - gifted, at best, our little 'freedoms' by Anonymous."
  3391. "And the point still remains, we lose that!"
  3392. > You don't like getting into another argument, but she's cracking.
  3393. > "I'd... heard about the 'museum', they're calling it. Is it real...?"
  3394. > Why does she ask you?
  3395. > Or maybe she's asking herself.
  3396. "It is. Really real. I donated something of my own to it - a recreation of an old Wonderbolts' poster."
  3397. > Mellowheart looks up in surprise.
  3398. > "He allowed that?"
  3399. "At long as it's not promoting rebellion here, now, with violence - he seems to be okay with it."
  3400. > Scraping her hoof back and forth on the floor, Mellowheart stares into the distance.
  3401. > "I don't believe it... why would he want us to do that? I've treated ponies whipped, broken..."
  3402. > An idea occurs to you.
  3403. "Mellowheart, are you really busy right now? Are we taking you from anything?"
  3404. > She snorts.
  3405. > "No more or less busy than we normally are."
  3406. "So, it wouldn't be a disaster - nopony's going to die - if we take you for a bit?"
  3407. > "N-No... why?"
  3408. "We're going to take a walk. For security reasons. We're allowed to do that."
  3409. > A spark of fear has crept into her eyes.
  3410. > "Why? Where are we going?"
  3411. "Over to where the museum is now, and then to where the new building is being built, so you can see for yourself what it is."
  3412. > Though not entirely at ease, that at least quiets Mellowheart as you walk with her.
  3413. > When she lays eyes on the 'museum' - much improved since you first visited, but still very rough - at first Mellowheart seems unimpressed.
  3414. > The more she walks through it, though, the more you can see the shield she'd built around her heart break down.
  3415. > Disbelief, disgust, all flowing away.
  3416. > Eventually she comes to a halt, simply looking around.
  3417. > "I don't understand... why?"
  3418.  
  3419. > You'd walked a close but reasonable distance behind her for most of the experience, not wanting to seem overbearing.
  3420. > Even now you don't directly approach, letting Mellowheart question herself.
  3421. > "He'll take it away eventually... he has to take it away. Ponies will remember like this - they'll want to go back..."
  3422. "But he isn't. He's letting us do this."
  3423. > She nods, still looking around.
  3424. > Her eyes fall on the poster you'd donated.
  3425. > "...half thought you were lying to me. That a - a -"
  3426. "A guard-pony would give to this? A traitor?"
  3427. > Beside you the other guard who'd accompanied shifts uncomfortably, but remains silent.
  3428. > You'd have to remember to thank the stallion again for letting you do this yourself.
  3429. "I'm not lying when I say I want this for the rest of us. And I'm not lying when I say I'm terrified we'll lose it if rebellion goes through."
  3430. > "It always will. We either fight back... or we're crushed into nothing."
  3431. "True or not, we have this now. Isn't this worth hanging on to? A chance to remember?"
  3432. > There's a long silence, and eventually her head falls with a massive sigh.
  3433. > "What do you want him for?"
  3434. "We need to talk to him. We're afraid somepony is going to try and push back on Anonymous again."
  3435. > "You think he would?"
  3436. "He was among the first to take action before. He might again."
  3437. > She does not reply.
  3438. "Isn't it better that we should go to him now? Before he does something big, gets caught, and then has to suffer something worse than-"
  3439. > "Promise me."
  3440. > Her voice is low, almost sounding ready to crack.
  3441. > "Swear to me that's all it is. Just talking to him. Nothing more. I won't sell him out."
  3442. > Beside you, your partner finally stirs.
  3443. > "He sold you out - left you to be 'humiliated' up on that stage."
  3444. > "I don't care!"
  3445. > Mellowheart spins around, eyes blazing to skewer the stallion.
  3446. > "I won't turn him in for punishment. He acted right. We all did. The need to speak up, to have ourselves heard - it was real!"
  3447. > Next, those eyes land on you.
  3448. > "You're right, Thunderlane. This is something worth protecting. But I won't give him up for that. I will protect him. You want me to turn traitor? Then you swear to me he will be safe."
  3449. > You choke on an answer.
  3450. > Not just because you can't promise that for certain - you don't make the rules, Cadance will certainly feel the pressure from the manor not to let him go.
  3451. > But because somewhere in her voice, you hear another:
  3452. > An angry stallion, standing up to the man who owned him.
  3453. > Making him swear that if he was going to turn - to become a secret traitor - then his little brother would have to be safe.
  3454. [Choice]
  3455. "I can't do that. Not honestly, and I won't lie to you."
  3456. > Mellowheart is silent, still looking at you with pained eyes.
  3457. "If it makes you feel better, I can say he won't be whipped. Cadance wouldn't do that - she didn't hurt you, and she won't hurt him. But I can't swear he won't be punished at all."
  3458. > "Then no."
  3459. > She gives a mournful shake of her head.
  3460. > "I can't betray him then."
  3461. > "Celestia damn it, you stupid mare!"
  3462. > Finally erupting, your partner takes a step forward - and Mellowheart and a step back.
  3463. > "He left you and Stormbreaker to your sentence; why are you protecting-"
  3464. > "We agreed. If one of us was caught, nopony would be turned in if we could reasonably help it. If Anonymous did something to us like what he did to Corona and we broke... that was different. But not if we had a choice."
  3465. > The stallion's nostrils flare angrily, but he doesn't say anything more.
  3466. > "The 'extra' month on our 'punishment' because of that? I don't hold him responsible. We made a promise, and he kept his word. I'll keep mine."
  3467. "If he does something more drastic, it'll be a lot more extra shifts."
  3468. > "I know."
  3469. > Sucking on her teeth, Mellowheart sighs.
  3470. > "Would it help if I - talked to him? Tried to show him this?"
  3471. "He - might have already seen it."
  3472. > "I know."
  3473. "It's not just that. There are a lot of rumors going around about another museum - pushing more than just remembering."
  3474. > "Like I said, I know."
  3475. > Cracking a pained grin, she smirks.
  3476. > "You hear a lot as a nurse."
  3477. > ...or, you think, you hear a lot as a pony who might still have connections within any resistance movements.
  3478. "Well - if you can, I'd really suggest trying to talk him down."
  3479. > "You don't want to?"
  3480. "I'd love to. But since I'm a security officer, it'd be a bit awkward."
  3481. > "Right."
  3482. > She sighs softly.
  3483. > "I keep forgetting, you're a guard first and a pony second."
  3484. > Your partner shifts angrily, but you halt him with a half-extended wing.
  3485. "I've got my own promises I have to uphold, Mellowheart. Just - talk to him. Please. So I don't have to chase him."
  3486. > You decide to let her walk back to the clinic on her own.
  3487. > Maybe she'd 'just happen' to run into her friend on the way back.
  3488. > Watching her go, your partner shifts.
  3489. > "So, what's this mean?"
  3490. "It means I bet wrong, and we're going to be searching the camp with one less tip to act on."
  3491. > A sharp grimace crosses your lips; you'd had hoped to have some kind of a clue to aim your efforts at.
  3492. > "We could actually take her in for some real questioning."
  3493. > You snort.
  3494. "For what purpose? She said she wouldn't tell us."
  3495. > "Alright. I'll see you at the guard post?"
  3496. "Yeah. See you there."
  3497. > The sour mood stays with you for the rest of the evening, even as you settle in to dinner.
  3498. > Conversation is muted, and even if tensions aren't yet raised things aren't exactly-
  3499. > "Hey, Thunderlane?"
  3500. > Your head snaps up, but then you relax.
  3501. "Oh, hey Vapor."
  3502. > The ivory-coated mare pauses by your spot at the table, tray balanced on one wing.
  3503. > "Mind if I sit down and join you?"
  3504. > Looking back to your half-finished dinner, you shake your head.
  3505. "Don't - I'm done anyhow."
  3506. > Grabbing the leek-and-dandelion sandwich and tucking it beneath your own wing, you pace closely at her side.
  3507. > Once clear of the dining hall, Vapor Trail casts a critical eye in your direction.
  3508. > "Every time I see you, Thunderlane, you're looking more and more out of it."
  3509. "I'm... busy a lot of the time."
  3510. > "Something to do with Anonymous?"
  3511. > You nod.
  3512. "In a way. Just... questions piling up. About what to do. Where to go."
  3513. > "It's a nasty trap you're caught in. I can tell, you really do want to help ponies - but with your position..."
  3514. "It makes it easier and harder. I can do things nopony else can, but there also those who I can't do anything for anymore."
  3515. > "What do you mean?"
  3516. "Ponies who are pushing to actively fight back. Some of them won't even speak to me now, and that means I can't keep them from getting themselves in greater trouble now."
  3517. > "They just want to stand up to what's wrong, Thunderlane."
  3518. "And I'm not disagreeing with that. It's just - when you'd bust a storm up, flying right into the heart of it isn't always the best way, you know? Going at it right now, right at him..."
  3519. > Grimacing, you sigh.
  3520. > "Like with me. Don't fight him then, but wait for..."
  3521. > She glances back to her growing belly.
  3522. "...yes. Like that."
  3523. > But then you go silent again, thinking.
  3524. > "Hey. So, um..."
  3525. > Looking up, you realize that at some point you'd reached her quarters.
  3526. "Oh. Sorry, I, uh, I guess I'll-"
  3527. > "Want to come in?"
  3528. > You blink.
  3529. "...yeah. Yeah, I can."
  3530. > Vapor Trail's room isn't much to sniff at.
  3531. > She's kept it simple - little more than the twin beds for its two inhabitants and the bare necessities for daily camp life.
  3532. > On the opposite side of the room, a few little decorations - a beaded glass figure of a unicorn resting on a dresser catches your eye - brighten the drabness somewhat.
  3533. > Silently you wonder if Vapor is trying to keep it reinforced in her mind that she is still a slave.
  3534. > Seeing your roving gaze, the mare gives a sad little face.
  3535. > "I haven't done much with this room. I should; my, um, room mate is good with her half, but...
  3536. > She trails off, then abruptly changes the subject:
  3537. > "So. Um. Your brother?"
  3538. "Rumble?"
  3539. > "Yeah. Did you ever get to talk to him?"
  3540. > Oh, yes - you had been discussing that with her.
  3541. "Yeah. In fact, it went pretty well. Grabbed him coming off a shift, sat him down and talked to him a bit. That helped a lot - and then I've heard he's been helping Cadance out a bit too..."
  3542. > "That's good to hear."
  3543. > Climbing up onto her mattress, Vapor Trail collapses onto it with a hefty sigh.
  3544. > "Sorry. Hope you don't mind - all day on my hooves gets me tired out. I was meant to fly, not stand or walk."
  3545. > Chuckling gently, you shake your head and settle yourself at the edge of the mattress.
  3546. "No, it's fine. I understand - about flying too. But yeah, Rumble... I think he's doing better."
  3547. > "And what about you?"
  3548. "Me?"
  3549. > You cock your head, and Vapor Trail nods.
  3550. > "What about you? Are you - has anyone taken out their time to talk to you?"
  3551. "A... a little."
  3552. > She is frowning, eyes boring in to you.
  3553. "...no."
  3554. > "Somepony should. You're looking out for so many other ponies..."
  3555. > Snorting softly, you roll your eyes.
  3556. "Not that most ponies see it. Half of them just see me trying to enforce Anonymous' rules, and decide I'm just here to be his attack-stallion."
  3557. > "Are they dumb? Blind?"
  3558. "I really don't know. I - I want to say yes. I want to curse them, wish they would just be sent to Tartarus - and then I remember that my little brother was like that too, and he did some pretty stupid things, and he wasn't dumb, just angry, and-"
  3559. > You pause, sucking in a breath.
  3560. > Once the words had started flowing out, they just didn't seem to stop.
  3561. "If they're dumb, then we're all dumb. Then I'm dumb. But Celestia damn it, some ponies really are stupid! There's this mare I spoke to this afternoon; I really, really needed her to do something for me so another pony wouldn't get in trouble, but she wouldn't and I can't force her. So I'm left stuck where if I don't do anything, ponies are hurt but if I push harder then I'm the villain and-"
  3562. > Something brushes against your cheek.
  3563. > Vapor Trail's wing.
  3564. > She'd extended it to touch you, a deeply concerned look on her face.
  3565. > "You really are alone, aren't you...?"
  3566. "...I'm... things are better than they were."
  3567. > "That's not a 'no'."
  3568. "It isn't."
  3569. > Heaving herself up, Vapor shifts over to nuzzle you.
  3570. > "Celestia above, this is why I hate slavery... it turns everything bad. Turns ponies against ponies. The ones who are doing the most for everypony are left alone, and the ones who just look out for themselves are promoted..."
  3571. > You wish you could dispute her.
  3572. > But you're too busy wondering how much of what you're doing was just looking out for yourself and Rumble.
  3573. "It's bad, yes..."
  3574. > "It's not fair to you. Somepony should be there for you. For you to talk to."
  3575. > And as you sit there, you realize what she is offering.
  3576. > How much it would mean.
  3577. > Yet at the very same moment, you realize just how bad an idea it is.
  3578. > To be that close to a mare who'd made no secret of her opinion of Anonymous and her situation in general?
  3579. > You'd forever have to be watching out for what you do or don't say to her.
  3580. > Maybe even lying about some things.
  3581. > And yet...
  3582. > She's right; you do need somepony - a close friend to vent to, to commiserate with.
  3583. > And maybe so does she?
  3584. [Choice]
  3585. > Leaning in, you nuzzle her back - letting the stress flow out of you.
  3586. > Enough worrying, enough being alone.
  3587. > You need a friend.
  3588. > Not a co-worker or comrade.
  3589. > Not even a little brother.
  3590. > A friend.
  3591. "...thank you, Vapor."
  3592. > "Don't have to."
  3593. > Her breath tickles your ear.
  3594. > "It's - what we have to do, looking out for each other. It's how we survive here."
  3595. "Still. You're right - I haven't had anypony to just... be comfortable with for way, way too long. And I guess - I guess part of it's being afraid. That what I have to do would get in the way of that..."
  3596. > Vapor Trail shifts, slipping her head back to rest over your withers.
  3597. > I know. You're balancing a lot."
  3598. "It's not just that. What happens if we end up - conflicting? What if I can't tell you something? What if-"
  3599. > A wing across your muzzle stops you.
  3600. > "You remember in flight camp, how they kept telling us that you can plan and practice a flight until Celestia grows old, but if you never jump off the cloud it's still no good?"
  3601. "...yeah."
  3602. > Chuckling softly, lift your head to brush your nose along her neck.
  3603. > "Make the jump, Thunderlane. It'll be okay. Trust me - nopony can be alone forever. I was, when I came here... then you and Cadance took care of me, and-"
  3604. > She cuts off, eyes drifting to her belly.
  3605. > "...so yeah. At least let me be here for you."
  3606. > The two of you stay that way for a long time, just being comfortable together.
  3607. > Despite saying that you and Cadance had 'taken care of' her, you're left with the distinct feeling that Vapor Trail had been lacking somepony close just as much as you had.
  3608. > And despite how much Rumble would definitely tease you about it... this felt good.
  3609. > "Will you have to be going soon?"
  3610. "I... don't know. Not for a little while-"
  3611. > Absent the need for any more night stakeouts, you were actually getting a bit of rest at night again.
  3612. "-but won't your room-mate be coming back soon?"
  3613. > "Yeah, but I don't think Twisty will mind. As long as we're not, y'know, doing anything-"
  3614. "Yeah, so we'll be fine."
  3615. > Giggling like a colt for a moment, soon joined by Vapor.
  3616. > "Especially for you. She knows what you did for me too, so she'd be okay with you just being here."
  3617. > You can feel your cheeks color somewhat.
  3618. "Hey, now. I don't need you talking me up in front of everypony in camp."
  3619. > Laughing, Vapor scoots over on the bed - making proper room for another pony.
  3620. > "You know, that does mean you can come on up here. There's no need for you to sit on the cold floor."
  3621. > You do, stretching out as best as you can and laying your head down.
  3622. > It's a tight fit for two ponies on the small mattress, but still possible.
  3623. > Despite the camp's tough conditions, she's kept her coat and wings in lustrous, soft conditions - even still smelling good.
  3624. > And this, you fully relish in - curling up against her and delighting in the sense of having somepony close.
  3625.  
  3626. > Tap, tap, tap goes your finger.
  3627. > You're not particularly nervous, but it's a habit you'd picked up - some way to focus yourself as thoughts tumble through your head.
  3628. > And tumbling they are, as you ponder what Cadance had just told you.
  3629. > A competitor for control of the camp - and one with decidedly fewer morals than she held...
  3630. > It is tempting.
  3631. > You'd taken another close look at Haute Glamour when you went back into the meeting, and concluded that Cadance was certainly on to something.
  3632. > The unicorn was definitely more than a simple assistant to Randall; watching them together, it was clear that he put a great deal of trust into her independent actions.
  3633. > But, of course, that alone was no cause for suspicion considering how much weight you gave Cadance's opinions.
  3634. > There did seem to be something more going on there, but it would take some investigation to determine just what it was and whether there was cause for concern.
  3635. > And that, in turn, demanded that you find a way to get Randall alone.
  3636. > Without alerting Haute to your intentions.
  3637. > Tap, tap, tap.
  3638. "Mocha?"
  3639. > "Yes, Master?"
  3640. > The maid pony is at your side in an instant.
  3641. "I need you to do a favor for me."
  3642. > "Yes, Master."
  3643. "When today's meeting ends - and it will shortly - I need you to get in there and intercept one of the ponies. Haute Glamour - red mane, cream coat, unicorn-"
  3644. > "I've seen her, Master."
  3645. "Good. Take her with you downstairs to the waiting room; tell her that I need to speak to her, and she should wait there."
  3646. > Should you add in anything more to keep her distracted...?
  3647. > No, not now.
  3648. > Didn't want to over-plan this.
  3649. "I'll be down to see to her eventually, so just keep her in place."
  3650. > Then, leaning over, you lightly scratch around Mocha's ears.
  3651. > She leans into your hand, nodding.
  3652. > "It'll be done, Master."
  3653. "Good... now, as long as you're here: How have the other ponies been taking to your involvement in Cadance's little complaints-box project."
  3654. > "They..."
  3655. > Hesitation; a flick of the ear, twitch of the leg.
  3656. > Nervousness.
  3657. "I'm asking a direct question, Mocha; I expect a direct answer."
  3658. > "They are... accomodating. I'm not... their friend. Not all of them. S-Some still aren't nice to me. I see them looking at me angrily. They, um. They mostly just ignore me, though."
  3659. "Many of them?"
  3660. > "N-No. Not really. But, um, there's one colt who is, um, helping a bit. With the suggestions. Sorting them."
  3661. > More softly, she mumbles:
  3662. > "He's nice..."
  3663. "My, my, Mocha - do you have a crush?"
  3664. > "No, I-"
  3665. > Cheeks color, puffing out as she pouts at you.
  3666. > "I don't. Really. I, um. I already have, um. Someone."
  3667. "Really?"
  3668. > Your eyebrows rise, a smirk spreading.
  3669. "So who's this other lucky fellow who's caught the attention of my little maid, hrmmm?"
  3670. > Cheeks absolutely crimson, Mocha lowers her eyes to stare at the floor.
  3671. > "M-Master, please... I..."
  3672. "Alright, Mocha."
  3673. > Holding back laughter at her flustered state, you nod.
  3674. "You don't have to say. But I hope they know just how lucky they are."
  3675. > Whatever she was going to say comes out as little more than a muted squeak.
  3676. > Eventually, she gets herself back under control.
  3677. > "M-May I go, Master?"
  3678. "Yes, go ahead."
  3679. > "Thank you master I'll get right on it this second!"
  3680. > Words pour out in a rushed jumble as Mocha all but flees the room, leaving you laughing softly to yourself.
  3681. > She was so cute when she was flustered.
  3682. > Hefting yourself from the chair, you head back down to the meeting room.
  3683. > It seems things there are just about wrapped up, and soon enough your staff begins to wander out.
  3684. > Randall waits until the others are done, Posey leading him on with the handle attached to her harness.
  3685. > Mocha moves quickly, stopping Haute Glamour while Randall proceeds on towards you.
  3686. "Mr. Cooper, can I have a word with you for a moment?"
  3687. > "Anonymous? Of course, of course."
  3688. > He grins, running a hand through his silvery hair.
  3689. > "Though I hope you don't mind if I stay standing?"
  3690. "Not at all, please do. If you'd follow me?"
  3691. > He does - or rather, Posey does and he follows.
  3692. > You bring him into your own private study, shutting the door after him.
  3693. > Seeming to realize what you'd done, Randall turns to face in your direction.
  3694. > "Now then, Anonymous. What can I do for you?"
  3695. "Well..."
  3696. > And then you consider how you're going to go about asking him about this.
  3697. > A direct approach - plainly asking about Haute Glamour's effect on his other ponies - would be risky.
  3698. > To say the least.
  3699. > But to dance around the issue...
  3700. > Well, if he was as naive as Cadance seemed to think he was, then that might not be so informative.
  3701. > You could try needling him for information about his slave stock... or how he feels about the prospect of his slaves' semi-independent operation to begin with.
  3702. > What would be the best way to try and draw back the curtain on this matter?
  3703. > He hadn't seemed too upset about the lost of
  3704. > And, of course, there was the question of Posey herself - or what she could provide you?
  3705. [Choice]
  3706. "Here, would you like a drink? It's been a long day, and I'm sure you'd like a chance to relax."
  3707. > "I would deeply appreciate it, yes."
  3708. "Whiskey? Bourbon?"
  3709. > "Scotch, if you have?"
  3710. "Of course, of course."
  3711. > He has a hand out waiting when you bring the glass, and belatedly you realize remember he would not be able to see you offering it to him.
  3712. > "No servants in here, I take it? If you brought it yourself."
  3713. "You've excellent hearing."
  3714. > Though you'd poured your own glass as well, you did not opt to sip from it.
  3715. > Blurring your mind wasn't something you wanted to do right now.
  3716. "Though, I imagine working a meeting long day like this isn't something you're entirely unfamiliar with."
  3717. > "Not one bit."
  3718. > Chuckling, Randall 'looks' down towards the pony at his side.
  3719. > "Posey. Clear distance?"
  3720. > "Four steps, any direction."
  3721. > Promptly taking advantage of it, Randall walks in a slow circle a few times; though Posey is left behind, she keeps a very careful eye on his progress.
  3722. > "I hope you don't mind if I stretch my legs. No matter how many long days I take, my legs always bother me by the end of things."
  3723. "No, no. I quite understand. You've been doing this a long time, after all."
  3724. > "Yes. My father as well, actually; he taught me how to manage even before I got into college."
  3725. "You must've been a holy terror in group projects."
  3726. > "They hated me. The blind kid being better at the work than all of them. Hid things from me, didn't let me in on their meetings, passed notes around I couldn't see. But results were results - they figured that out fast enough."
  3727. > Again Randall runs a hand through his silvery hair, and it occurs to you that he might be fishing for your own thoughts.
  3728. > After all, in this situation he is the new person on your staff - and you the vastly more wealthy one.
  3729. "Well, I think your results definitely speak for themselves. You've got quite the positive record."
  3730. > "Only through hard work."
  3731. "Hard work is exactly what we are doing here."
  3732. > "And on a considerable scale. I'll admit I've never approached the task of managing an equestrian labor population of this size."
  3733. "It seems we both have our areas of experience."
  3734. > "Yes; my own 'herd' is rather smaller."
  3735. > Mentally you offer a small breath of relief; he seemed to be turning the conversation towards a direction you favored without any need for you to steer it yourself.
  3736. "Oh? More than just the two you've brought here?"
  3737. > "Thirteen. A necessity, honestly; I've learned to adapt to my blindness, but it is still a trouble at times. Computers helped a lot; when we ordered our first PCs back in the nineties it was like a miracle."
  3738. > You chuckle, slipping down into a seat.
  3739. > Randall, for his part, continues to stretch his legs by circling slowly.
  3740. "But nothing like the ponies."
  3741. > "No, nothing like them. They're an absolutely delightful combination of personal and professional assistant that've been very unimaginably helpful."
  3742. "Ah, personal as in..."
  3743. > "As in my dear Posey here, yes."
  3744. > The pony in question seems to take that as encouragement to step over and brush her cheek against Randall's thigh.
  3745. > He responds with a loving hand on the mare's cheek that she presses herself into - affection that seems to be affectionate.
  3746. > "She's been quite the delightful thing, yes. Exactly what I needed... I used to have guide dogs, you know. Nothing like her - nothing like her at all."
  3747. "And the others...?"
  3748. > "Mostly with the business. Numbers crunching, a bit of analysis, one as a secretary, you know... a couple of them are there to just look after me."
  3749. "You sound like you've had a lot of success with them."
  3750. > "Well..."
  3751. > 'Looking' down towards Posey, Randall cracks a small smile.
  3752. > "...I won't lie. They've been a great help to me. Not just in business, and not even just in keeping me up and going around the house..."
  3753. > "Master, may I...?"
  3754. > His finger and thumb rubbing at one of Posey's ears, Randall nods.
  3755. > "Of course, Posey."
  3756. > "Sir, Master Randall has been very kind to us all. He's done everything he can to make sure we are comfortable. And he - he makes me feel like we're... important. Not just... slave, but, um..."
  3757. > "Little Posey here's become very attached to me."
  3758. > The mare in question flushes, and you're quite certain by now that her feelings for him are absolutely genuine.
  3759. > "Though she's hardly the only one. It's why I responded to your invitation, honestly. Word about your... method of doing things has been going around, so I could hardly resist."
  3760. "Ah?"
  3761. > "Yes, of course - of realizing they're more than simple machines, more than dumb animals that have to be whipped back and forth constantly-"
  3762. > Shuddering softly at the term 'whip', Posey presses in against her owner.
  3763. > "-and have ration, emotions - that they can be trusted, not just to work but to think and act on their own with a bit of kindness."
  3764. "Well, I suppose I have my own very special pony who's been a tremendous help in that respect."
  3765. > "The alicorn?"
  3766. > Caution layers his voice.
  3767. "Mmm."
  3768. > "I... see."
  3769. "You disagree?"
  3770. > You're careful to not let it sound like you're arguing, but rather fishing for an opinion.
  3771. > "I can't be certain. I wouldn't trust her so readily - they were the rulers, after all. We've all heard how resistant the fourth one, Twilight, is. But then, I've been told of how you had her... presented at the dinner, what she wore."
  3772. > Posey looks reasonably unhappy at that particular memory, you notice.
  3773. > What thoughts did she have about your treatment of the alicorn...?
  3774. "Oh, Cadance's made no secret of her opinions."
  3775. > He pauses, 'looking' in your direction with surprise clearly written across her face.
  3776. > "And she still works for you?"
  3777. "Well, in the end I think she made it clear that she doesn't want to be a slave. But she's also made it clear she understands I give every pony here a better life. Her daughter included."
  3778. > "You shouldn't rely on holding Flurry Heart hostage. She may find a way to subvert you - go around your back."
  3779. "I don't think so. She tried, once. It got ponies killed."
  3780. > "The incident she spoke about."
  3781. "Yes. We've been open with each other since then. About both our goals and the realities of our situations. Though - I can't help but notice that you seem to have a trusted four-legged co-worker yourself."
  3782. > "Haute Glamour? Yes, another of my lucky finds. A truly magnificent mind at work there."
  3783. "What else does she do for you? Besides aide-de-camp for meetings; I'm want to make sure she's able to work at her best if she's to be working in the camp."
  3784. > "Everything, honestly. She's a manager for the household as well in my business - I've put her in charge of keeping matters in line. Her talent with words is truly exceptional. Things have been going so much more smoothly since then."
  3785. > But while Randall's voice was laden with glowing admiration, you couldn't help but notice Posey's unspoken body language.
  3786. > She'd shifted back, tail twitching nervously and almost seeming to huddle defensively at her owner's side where a moment ago she had only been affectionate.
  3787. "Ah. So you bring her to meetings because she's a central part of everything you do."
  3788. > "Yes, exactly. Always eager to please, she is - I didn't have any trouble with her whatsoever."
  3789. "Aren't you worried about what might happen with your other ponies while she's away?"
  3790. > "No, no. Not at all; she's organized them into quite the efficient system."
  3791. "Impressive. That kind of skill - there's always a need for more of it, especially with the kind of expansion we're planning now, even after our business officially concludes..."
  3792. > Grinning, Randall shakes his head.
  3793. > "Not for sale, I'm afraid. Much, much to valuable to me."
  3794. "Ah, well. I understand; it was worth the request."
  3795. > So, too, do you understand the flicker of expectation that'd seemed to flow across Posey's face at the thought of Haute Glamour being sold off.
  3796. "Posey, you must be very fond of her as well - with how she seems to keep everything on-track and running smoothly."
  3797. > "Miss Glamour is a very fine pony, and we're all very thankful for what she's brought to the house. We'd all be in a lot of trouble without her."
  3798. > Everything about the line is spoken as an absolute truth, a total truth with no certainty of being misinterpreted or understood as anything less than real.
  3799. > Even the pony's expression speaks of a love
  3800. > Which is exactly why you don't trust it.
  3801. > Nothing about it matches how she'd acted a moment ago.
  3802. > This is a falsehood spoken so often and with such emotion that Posey's actually managed to convince herself it is true.
  3803. > ...either that, or learned to lie so well that even Randall or Haute Glamour could not find fault in it.
  3804. [Choice]
  3805. "Well, I can see she's done a great deal for you, Randall. I'm surprised you didn't bring her to the dinner."
  3806. > "Ah, no need. There was plenty else to be done there..."
  3807. "...and besides, some of the other guests were... well, I rather doubt all of them had the best interests of their ponies at heart."
  3808. > You crack a grin, then remember that he can't actually see it and add a small laugh.
  3809. "Yes, I noticed this too... but business demands we hold our tongues and rub shoulders sometimes, no matter how unpleasant it is."
  3810. > "Indeed..."
  3811. "That woman Catherine, for instance. You know she actually suggested I have Cadance mated to one of her stallions?"
  3812. > Posey looks rather glum at that statement, but it is Randall who bursts out:
  3813. > "Really?"
  3814. "Yes, after our tour. Right in front of Cadance..."
  3815. > "That woman, honestly... I think she feels her ponies are just like children she never had. Except, of course, she can 'give them' families. It's honestly rather disturbing to me."
  3816. "Mmm-hmm. Her... enthusiasm was surprising. Though, Gregory - Gregory Barker, you know him? Runs an auction and training facility for ponies?"
  3817. > "I haven't met him personally, although I understand he is a significant part of the investment in your operation now."
  3818. > An understatement, you think.
  3819. > Someone of Randall's experience wouldn't have neglected to research his investors.
  3820. "Ah. Well, he apparently got along much better with Cadance. Surprising, considering what he does - but I suppose it's good to know that there's someone else out there thinking straight."
  3821. > "I'll keep it in mind as we go forward."
  3822. "I'd appreciate it. If Cadance didn't mind him, I think I'll be happy with him too."
  3823. > Standing with a heavy groan, you stretch out your back - a chorus of pops as relief issues from your spine.
  3824. "Well, I think it's time to let go of work for the day."
  3825. > Now it is Randall's chance to crack a grin.
  3826. > "That sounded stressful... you should see if any of your ponies could do something about that."
  3827. "About my back?"
  3828. > "Yes."
  3829. > He reaches down to rub Posey's mane before standing up again.
  3830. > "Posey here is a tremendous help in many respects. I'm not ashamed to say that we're quite close; she even stays with me at night."
  3831. > The mare flushes, but it's not as deep as you'd expected.
  3832. "I'll preemptively assume that her assistance with my back isn't available either."
  3833. > "Afraid not, no."
  3834. "Ah, well."
  3835. > Stepping forward, you take Randall's hand and clasp it warmly.
  3836. "I'll hope to see you soon, then."
  3837. > "The same; you as well."
  3838. > Behind you, Randall had brought Posey to his side with a single click of his tongue; the mare automatically took up a position that brought her guide-handle to his side.
  3839. > Yet, as you step from the room, an entirely different set of matters weighed on your mind:
  3840. > You'd left Mocha downstairs with Haute Glamour.
  3841. > Surely nothing could have gone wrong in that time... right?
  3842. > When you find them, things at least appear to be normal.
  3843. > Mocha Cream stands by the door, while Haute Glamour placidly sprawls near the door wrapped in a jacket.
  3844. > On sighting her owner she rises, and they exchange a few quiet words before stepping out into the cold.
  3845. > There's barely a glance from either of them towards Mocha as they go.
  3846. > He heading for his waiting car, while she turns for the camp.
  3847. > You move to the door to watch them depart, and only turn when both are out of sight.
  3848. > Just in time to catch Mocha Cream looking away from you as well.
  3849. "Mocha? Is everything alright?"
  3850. > "Yes, Master."
  3851. > Her voice is soft - unusually soft, even for her.
  3852. > A tone typically reserved for when she (rarely) spoke about her family and early experience in slavery.
  3853. > Dropping to one knee in front of her, you tilt your head.
  3854. "Are you sure, Mocha?"
  3855. > "I..."
  3856. > Hesitation, and then:
  3857. > "M-Master? Can I ask you something?"
  3858. > You nod, even as your fears begin to grow.
  3859. "Ask away, Mocha."
  3860. > "Do y-you care about me?"
  3861. "What? Of course! I care-"
  3862. > '-about all of my ponies', you'd been about to say.
  3863. > But it occurs to you that hadn't really been the point to her question, and in fact might be close to the most damaging answer you could give.
  3864. "-about you. What on earth are you talking about?"
  3865. > "N-Nothing, Master."
  3866. > Her body sags, though.
  3867. > She saw your hesitation.
  3868. "...follow me."
  3869. > Tensing but obedient, the mare hangs at your heels as you head up into your office.
  3870. > Settling into your seat, you find she's become quite nervous during the trip up here.
  3871. "Now, Mocha. What's this all about?"
  3872. > "N-Nothing, Master. I'm just... worried... and..."
  3873. "Did Haute Glamour say something to you?"
  3874. > "No, Master."
  3875. > You're not convinced.
  3876. > Damn; you should've put a listening bug in her uniform before she went down there - some way to record any incriminating information!
  3877. > Now you're digging blindly.
  3878. "Mocha..."
  3879. > "She didn't!"
  3880. "Be honest with me. I'm not angry at you, Mocha. I just want to know."
  3881. > "I-I..."
  3882. > She shudders, looking at the ground.
  3883. > "..just want to know if you really do care-"
  3884. > The touch of your hand on her shoulder is enough to get Mocha Cream to look back up again - her face flushing at the touch.
  3885. "Mocha. Of course you mean something to me."
  3886. > "Y-You really mean it?"
  3887. "Absolutely. I-"
  3888. > Barely have you spoken when she leaps up, rearing between your knees to wrap her forehooves around your midsection in an iron-gripped approximation of a hug that leaves you too surprised to respond immediately.
  3889. > You do though, settling your arms around her neck as the little maid-pony nuzzles into your side with a happy nicker.
  3890. > For a few moments, at least before what she is doing catches up with her.
  3891. > "I'm s-sorry, Master, I don't know what I was-"
  3892. "Shh."
  3893. > You stroke back her mane, ignoring what this must be doing to her uniform.
  3894. "You've been a good girl, Mocha-"
  3895. > Her breath quickens slightly.
  3896. "-and I'm not upset with you, just worried."
  3897. > "T-Thank you, Master. I just..."
  3898. > Squirming in your arms, Mocha's face is beginning to turn red again.
  3899. > "...I was afraid. Afraid you were... disappointed. In me. Like how other ponies h-hate me."
  3900. "Mocha, did Haute Glamour say anything to you?"
  3901. > "W-We, um, we talked. A little bit. Not - not to much. She, um. She didn't say anything against you. Mostly talked about - her own life."
  3902. > Of course.
  3903. > Unseen behind her head your fists tighten; just what kind of creature was Haute Glamour that she could make your long-time maid question herself so thoroughly after such a short time?
  3904. > Not that she couldn't be useful, but this sort of going behind your back was completely unacceptable.
  3905. "Talk to me, Mocha. Tell me what's going on in your mind."
  3906. > "I-I'm just worried... about, um. Well, some ponies don't like me too much... but you've always been good to me. I was afraid if you weren't there..."
  3907. "You are my personal maid. You deal with me on a level no other pony here does, not even Cadance. You see me when I am first up in the morning and last before I go to sleep at night. Do you think I don't trust you? Do you think I would give that position to a pony I don't think highly of?"
  3908. > She sniffs gently.
  3909. > "N-No, Master. I just wish-"
  3910. > Something cuts her off, though.
  3911. > Stops her.
  3912. "Wish what?"
  3913. > "Nothing, Master... s'silly."
  3914. "Mocha..."
  3915. > "R-Really, Master."
  3916. > She pauses, then sighs and nuzzles back in against your side again - ears flicking at the contact as she almost seems to hide her face against your shirt.
  3917. > "A-Am I in t-trouble?"
  3918. > Well, that's a question.
  3919. > She had lied to you, after all, and that was quite clearly not according to your rules.
  3920. > But she was clearly distraught, and there was no need to be overly cruel with her.
  3921. > Then again, what use was discipline if you didn't enforce it?
  3922. [Choice]
  3923. "No, Mocha. You're not in trouble."
  3924. > After all, you'd already told her that you weren't upset with her.
  3925. > "T-Thank you, Master!"
  3926. > Burying her muzzle in your shirt again, Mocha Cream's body is wracked with tiny shakes - from forced-back tears or relief you aren't quite sure.
  3927. > At the very least, it's still easy to see the way her face has flushed pink.
  3928. "I understand, Haute Glamour said a lot of things to you that made you feel upset and alone... but I want you to understand, you aren't ever alone here."
  3929. > She tries to reply, but all that emerges is a muffled murmuring - and you aren't going to force her.
  3930. > The poor mare was clearly far more broken up about this than you'd originally estimated.
  3931. "So this time, you're in the safe. But, Mocha - look at me?"
  3932. > She does, raising eyes that are wet but have not yet started running with tears.
  3933. > You take her cheek in a firm hand, hard enough to hold her there yet not so forceful as to be painful.
  3934. "If you lie to me like that again, you'll earn yourself a good few swats around the backside."
  3935. > Breathing seeming to stop for a moment, Mocha's cheeks turn the bright crimson of freshly-picked apples.
  3936. > "Y-Yes, master!"
  3937. "Good girl. But for now..."
  3938. > Shifting to the side, you open a spot on the seat.
  3939. "...come on up, Mocha."
  3940. > "U-Up...?"
  3941. > The word is uttered as if she is barely able to comprehend it.
  3942. "Yes, Mocha. Up here."
  3943. > Missing the first jump but actually making it on the second, she settles carefully across your lap.
  3944. > More than carefully, in fact; nervousness radiates off of her in practically tangible waves.
  3945. > Breath comes short and shallow, while her eyes are contracted to near-pinpricks.
  3946. > But settle she does, laying her belly on your legs while she stretches from arm to arm in the chair.
  3947. > Laying an arm across her back, you start to work your hands around her shoulders - feeling the tension built up in the mare's muscles.
  3948. "Relax, Mocha. Like I said, you're not in trouble."
  3949. > "I-I know, Master. I'm just... nevermind."
  3950. > Her muzzle drops again, twisting to once more bury itself against your side with a nicker that is either contentment or nervousness, you aren't sure which.
  3951. > Your soft laugh only seems to affect her further.
  3952. > "S'not funny..."
  3953. "It is, a bit."
  3954. > Though her uniform prevents you from having direct access to her back, it doesn't stop you from giving her a little rubbing-down.
  3955. > Especially around her head, which is left completely open and conveniently close at hand.
  3956. "The truth is, Mocha, I'm a little worried about Haute Glamour."
  3957. > Mocha might've responded with a soft 'master?' but with her muzzle tuced between your side and the chair, it comes out more as a muffled 'mffftr.'
  3958. "I don't mind if she talks a bit... hell, it might even do Cadance a bit of good to have someone in the camp to light a fire under her tail. But Cadance seems to think she's more trouble than that, and right now..."
  3959. > Right now, you have to admit you rather agree.
  3960. > Before this, Mocha Cream wouldn't have thought of lying to you.
  3961. > One way or another, you were going to have to have a talk with Haute Glamour.
  3962. > "Master?"
  3963. "Yes?"
  3964. > "D-Do you - really - really like - me?"
  3965. > Each word is a forced out with considerable struggle.
  3966. "Absolutely, Mocha. Didn't I say that already?"
  3967. > "Y-Yes, I just-"
  3968. > She sputters to a halt again.
  3969. "Mocha, listen... for a long time - probably too long, if I'm honest with myself - I never really bothered to learn that much about the staff here. You..."
  3970. > A hefty sigh escapes your lips.
  3971. "...you've seen me at my absolute worst. One of the few who have, and the only one among the house staff. You remember the day when you came in and woke me up when I was... rather hung over."
  3972. > "Yes, Master..."
  3973. "I assume you've heard the story behind that as well?"
  3974. > Another soft affirmative noise.
  3975. "Most've heard. Only you and Cadance have seen, though. The next time you're feeling like I don't care about you, consider that."
  3976. > Though no reply comes, she nods more affirmatively this time.
  3977. "That's why you're the one who brings me the camp's suggestions. You've seen me at my best, but also at my worst. I trust you to evaluate me evenly."
  3978. > "...I will, Master! I - I promise! I couldn't do..."
  3979. > She suddenly calms up, the color that had only just begun to fade from her cheeks sharply returning.
  3980. "...couldn't...?"
  3981. > "N-Nevermind, Master. I was just... going to say something stupid."
  3982. "Y'know, I really should've paid more attention to you earlier. All that time, missing how lucky I was to have a pony like you as mine."
  3983. > "Lucky?!"
  3984. > Your eyebrow rises; given the volume of blood that must be coloring her cheeks right now, you're starting to become a little concerned for Mocha's well-being.
  3985. "Yes, Lucky. Many ponies would do this just for a chance to get close to me, get a bit elevated over others. But you... you're a good pony. You seem to actually care for me."
  3986. > With a small laugh you lean over, wrapping Mocha Cream in your and hugging her tight.
  3987. > Her scent, as her name suggests, is one of sweet cream - though mildly moderated by the fresh, laundered scent of her uniform.
  3988. > The little squeak she produces draws even another laugh from your lips.
  3989. > Words seem to be trying to force themselves from her lips, but only meaningless syllables are actually making it out.
  3990. > It takes Mocha a few minutes to return to anything approaching coherent speech, during which you remain curled around her.
  3991. "W-When I first was brought into the house, I was s-scared of you. W-When I was first learning to be your maid and I'd make a mistake - I was afraid you'd p-punish me..."
  3992. > Oh, yes.
  3993. > You remembered that - she'd picked up a few skills with her last master that put her on the short list when you'd started looking for a personal maid.
  3994. > But the actual details had to be taught, and there'd been a few hiccups.
  3995. > You'd kept something of a distant, teacher-like tone then - correcting her, but only for your own sake.
  3996. > In retrospect, maybe your ambivalence towards the staff was the best possible outcome in that respect.
  3997. > Sitting back up but keeping your arm around her, you lift Mocha's face until she is looking up at you again.
  3998. "You said you'd been sold once before. Your last master....?"
  3999. > "Didn't care. D-Didn't even know him. Just... knew of him. Was..."
  4000. "And then suddenly I'm looking after you."
  4001. > "And that I do m-mean something to you..."
  4002. > Despite her words, she's twisted away so as not to look at you, hooves doing a little nervous curl-uncurl thing in the chair.
  4003. > "I-I'm lucky to have you as a Master..."
  4004. > When you don't reply with anything more than another stroke down her neck, she goes on:
  4005. > "I still miss my parents. Since I... y'know. Sold. Apart. But you've been a good Master to me; I only... only wish..."
  4006. > Trailing off, Mocha sniffs gently.
  4007. > "M'sorry, Master. I know you must have better things to do here than listen to me babble..."
  4008. "Shh."
  4009. > Leaning over, you lightly scratch her around the ears - yielding another soft cooing from the mare.
  4010. > No wonder Haute Glamour had been able to work her way into Mocha's head so quickly.
  4011. > This mare's confidence hinged on believing you cared.
  4012. > Mocha Cream was quite clearly dedicated to you.
  4013. > And that... could be a powerful tool.
  4014. > With the right nudge, she could become more than just a servant - a powerful ally in your endless struggle to keep the ponies here in line.
  4015. > Especially with Haute Glamour; if your talking-to went poorly, that pony could try and influence Mocha again to gain your favor.
  4016. > Yet, she's also young - barely on the cusp of adulthood.
  4017. > You aren't sure if you feel ready to throw her fully into this.
  4018. > Or if she would do right if asked to.
  4019. > Plus, Cadance kind of did ask you to keep the two apart; it'd go against her wishes to get Mocha involved.
  4020. [Choice]
  4021. > ...no, putting Mocha into position as a playing piece was simply too risky.
  4022. > She was, in the end, not a veteran player in these games - not like you, Cadance, or Haute.
  4023. > And you couldn't put her into that.
  4024. > But that didn't mean you couldn't make use of her in this.
  4025. > After all, right now it seemed Mocha Cream was the one pony you could trust to never consciously betray you.
  4026. "Mocha? There are actually a couple things you could do for me."
  4027. > "Master?"
  4028. > Looking up with an attentive, focused expression Mocha appeared ready to hang on to every word you spoke.
  4029. "First - I need you to keep your ears up and pinned for the chatter from other ponies."
  4030. > "Oh. Um. But, some of them don't l-like me very much..."
  4031. "The ones that work in the house, I mean. Although, if any in the rest of the camp do talk to you, then listening to them would be good too."
  4032. > "Okay, Master."
  4033. "Good. Listen carefully for anything about what Haute Glamour - what she is doing, if there's any news about her - signs of trouble, or good things she pulled off."
  4034. > Her mouth set into a confident expression and eyes narrowed, Mocha nods her head sharply.
  4035. > "I understand!"
  4036. "Now, you can report back to me or back to Cadance. Either one of us is good... but we're the only two you talk to this about. And Mocha..."
  4037. > Scooping the mare up in your arms, you lift her to face you directly.
  4038. > Seated on the same chair as you, she's practically as tall as you are - a rare chance to actually be level with your eyes.
  4039. "...don't do anything foolish. You listen, you tell us if there's something important. But you don't go trying to play secret agent."
  4040. > "I-I don't think I'd be very good at that, Master."
  4041. > Eyes lowered demurely, her previously-determined mask falls apart - revealing a rather more uncertain, but still driven pony hiding behind it.
  4042. > "But I'll do everything I can to be the best pony for you!"
  4043. "Good girl. Your parents, I think, would actually be proud."
  4044. > She shifts, any reaction to that particular fact not easily guessed at.
  4045. > "A-And the second thing, Master?"
  4046. "Do you know how to give a massage, at all? Randall mentioned that his Posey helped him like that sometimes, and I thought it would be rather ni- Mocha? Are you alright?"
  4047. > The noise she'd just made was, you think, closest to a whinny of shock or surprise.
  4048. > From the way her eyes had shrunk down to pin-pricks, entire face turning the brightest crimson it had been yet while her hooves trembled in your arms and tail shot straight out...
  4049. "Mocha? Come on, are you okay?"
  4050. > Well, you rather think you might have accidentally broken the poor mare.
  4051.  
  4052. > "Cadance?"
  4053. > Your ear flicks at the approaching voice, and then your head turns to follow it.
  4054. "Thunderlane. Can I do something for you?
  4055. > From the serious expression on his face, you're already reasonably certain he hasn't ambled by to say hello.
  4056. > "Yeah. You got somewhere real quiet to talk?"
  4057. > Well, certainly not here.
  4058. > Not only were you standing at the open edge of the lot the new rec and museum building were going up on - hardly a private space to begin with - but the area was literally flooded with ponies.
  4059. > Dozens and dozens - mares and stallions, earth, pegasus, and unicorns alike dedicating the moments of free time they had in the day to a frenetic burst of construction.
  4060. > Even a pair of security guards paused nearby - watching not out of a sense of concern, but amazement at the way ponies were throwing themselves into this project.
  4061. > Good, a part of you whispered.
  4062. > Let them see what ponykind was capable of, when not forced to labor for another.
  4063. > But to the matter at hand...
  4064. "...follow me."
  4065. > A residential block nearby provides, but while you'd meant to speak a few soft words to one of the rooms' inhabitants, Thunderlane instead heads for the washroom.
  4066. > It doesn't occur why to you until he shuts the door - these buildings had obviously been built with human habits in mind - and turns on a shower.
  4067. > Even though neither of you are standing close by it, the hissing of rushing water is quite enough to fill the whole room with white noise.
  4068. > "There. No chance of being overheard from outside. Good idea, Your Highness."
  4069. "It hadn't actually occurred to me, so... your idea. But, what is it, Thunderlane?"
  4070. > Grimace twisting his face, the stallion shuffles in place.
  4071. > "...there's no way to avoid saying this: We're going to sweep the camp. From one end to the other, one big go."
  4072. "For ponies looking to push rebellion further."
  4073. > "For this alleged 'alternate museum' we've all been hearing so much about, for one. But yes, for rebels willing to push things too far in general."
  4074. > Your heart sinks, and Thunderlane sees it.
  4075. > The stallion shrinks down into himself even further, the full weight of what he is suggesting descending on his back.
  4076. "Forgive me. I'm just thinking, ponies are going to be upset."
  4077. > "I think we've run out of choices. Staking out is taking too long, trying to infiltrate them is as likely to bite us in the flank - and besides, I'm not sure I'm ready to ask that kind of betrayal - and I've already tried asking Mellowheart and Stormbreaker if they can put me in contact with their friend."
  4078. "No such luck, I take it..."
  4079. > "No, Celestia damn it! I was so close with Mellowheart, I showed her-"
  4080. > Sides heaving hard, Thunderlane cuts off as his sudden outburst is brought back under control.
  4081. > "...I didn't get her anything out of them, no. And I won't be wingpony to any attempts at torturing it out of them."
  4082. "I should ask them..."
  4083. > "Won't be enough. If Mellowheart wouldn't crack to protect innocent ponies, she won't crack for you."
  4084. "But..."
  4085. > Your own gaze drops to the floor, the thoughts swirling in your head obvious.
  4086. > There had to be better a way than this.
  4087. > Something that didn't involve coming down on every single pony, every single innocent soul in the camp.
  4088. "What exactly do you want from me, Thunderlane?"
  4089. [Choice]
  4090. > "We need to know which areas to avoid when we sweep. I can organize it - places we'll deliberately overlook - but somepony, you or Sunburst or one of his friends, need to tell me where and who."
  4091. > The churning in your stomach that hits you whenever you have to make these decisions gets worse.
  4092. "You won't turn them over."
  4093. > Even as the words are leaving your lips you realize your mistake.
  4094. > To even suggest the slightest chance he might betray your trust...
  4095. > The hurt look that crosses the stallion's face only makes it a certainty.
  4096. "Forgive me. I've been worrying so much, but even so that was... stupid of me to say."
  4097. > "Forgiven."
  4098. > He seems relieved to say it, as if he couldn't bear to carry any more weight than he already does.
  4099. > "If you want to be the one to tell them, though, instead of giving names to me - just giving them places to hide-"
  4100. > It's a thought.
  4101. > Keep Thunderlane out of the loop - and keep him from bearing any more weight than he absolutely has to.
  4102. > But at a certain point trust is needed too.
  4103. > Besides, what if it isn't a good place?
  4104. > You can't keep Thunderlane waiting forever while you play mailpony between them.
  4105. "How soon will you be making your move?"
  4106. > "No more than a week. If we wait any longer, I'm afraid of what will happen."
  4107. "So am I. Especially with - well, you haven't met her yet."
  4108. > "Haute Glamour?"
  4109. > Had he met her?
  4110. > Seeing your expression, Thunderlane shakes his head.
  4111. > "Not met - but heard enough about. Good and bad. Given what I've heard of both, I'm not sure which worries me more."
  4112. > A familiar thought.
  4113. "Her presence does mean we have to step extra carefully. I've got her convinced to not try and exert control in the camp for now, but any misstep-"
  4114. > "And we're all in for it."
  4115. "I think... it'd be better if as little knowledge of this was spread around as possible. That way, if we're ever asked about how much we know, we can honestly say not that much."
  4116. > It sounds like a flimsy excuse.
  4117. > It is a flimsy excuse.
  4118. > And Thunderlane can hear it too, tilting his head.
  4119. > "You're sure?"
  4120. "I wasn't. But the more I think about it... yes. If it weren't for the nature of the matter we're asking them about, and Haute Glamour watching for any cracks..."
  4121. > Stepping forward, the stallion extends a wing to touch your shoulder in a supportive gesture.
  4122. > Not an intimate touch, but definitely more personal than anypony could have gotten away with back in Equestria.
  4123. > But then, this is not Equestria.
  4124. > "Whatever your call, I'm with you. We do this, we do it right the first time."
  4125. "We will."
  4126. > The hallways outside the shower area is mercifully empty - nopony to question what, exactly, you were doing in there with Thunderlane.
  4127. > Nonetheless he sticks close by your side as you head back towards the construction area.
  4128. "...by the way, I can't help but notice you're looking a bit better than you were before."
  4129. > "I've been talking to Vapor Trail a bit. She's been helping me with... everything."
  4130. > Talking, and a bit more - his wings are perfectly preened for the first time in a very long time.
  4131. > Clearly done by somepony else, without as much on their mind as he had.
  4132. > "I, uh... if that couldn't get spread around..."
  4133. "Of course, Thunderlane. It's safe with me. Though, if you keep spending time with her you're going to carry her scent eventu- oh, Tartarus rot it!"
  4134. > Thunderlane's eyebrows rise at the very un-princesslike swearing.
  4135. > Approaching the edge of the throng of ponies milling around the work site, you'd caught sight of an unfortunately familiar crimson mane and subtly sultry pose.
  4136. > Surrounded by a few stallions and even a couple of mares with looks of considerable interest on their faces, naturally.
  4137. "...well, Thunderlane, would you like to meet Haute Glamour?"
  4138. > Following your eyes, he watches the mare with a darkening look.
  4139. > "As much as I probably should... I think I'll sit this one out."
  4140. > Casting your eyes around the scene, your attention is suddenly caught by a familiar face peering out from a nearby alleyway.
  4141. > Now a frown does settle on your lips; with a glance aside, you decide that Haute is as contained as you could hope her to be.
  4142. > After all, you can't order her back to the house just yet...
  4143. > Trotting away, you pause at the alley's mouth and tilt your head; Thunderlane falls in at your side.
  4144. "What are you doing, Mocha?"
  4145. > "H-Hello, Miss Cadance. Hello, Thunderlane."
  4146. > The young unicorn's voice is a little shaky, but mostly she sounds happy to see you.
  4147. > "I'm. Um. Trying to listen. But I'm supposed to talk to you as well."
  4148. "Trying to listen?"
  4149. > "To Haute Glamour. M-Master Anonymous told me that I should keep an ear up for anything she says that might be worrying."
  4150. > From your side, Thunderlane adds softly:
  4151. > "...he also told you not to go poking around her, I hope."
  4152. > Given the way Mocha Cream takes on the uniquely nervous expression of one who's been caught doing something they should not, you're pretty certain his guess was spot-on.
  4153. > Like the expression of a foal with her hoof in the cookie jar.
  4154. > "W-Well, yes... but I was coming down here to see you anyway, and I saw her talking..."
  4155. "I appreciate your dedication, Mocha... but you don't have to do this. Shouldn't do this."
  4156. > "Yes, Miss Cadance..."
  4157. > Sighing softly, you brush your nose over the mare's forehead, just around the base of her horn.
  4158. "...we're not dismissing your help, Mocha. But - we really need you listening to the ponies in the house, where we can't hear everything already."
  4159. > "Especially me."
  4160. > Thunderlane chuckles softly, shaking his head.
  4161. > "I can't always get up there as often as Her Highness does..."
  4162. "Anyhow, Mocha, what was your message?"
  4163. > "Master Anonymous says that he spoke to Randall, and now he's going to speak to him again and then Haute Glamour. He, um. He also talked to me a bit-"
  4164. > Her cheeks color curiously at that.
  4165. > "-and he's definitely going through with your requests about her. He, um, didn't seem to happy with her."
  4166. > Your firm, satisfied look catches a grin from Thunderlane.
  4167. > "Better not let anypony else see that, Your Highness."
  4168. "I know. But I have to express myself at some point."
  4169. > "Heh. Well, Your Highness, I'm sorry - but I think I have to be off again."
  4170. "I understand."
  4171. > "Get me that information as soon as you can, Cadance. We'll need it, soon."
  4172. > And then he's going; as soon as his tail has vanished around a corner, you're moving as well.
  4173. > "Information, Miss Cadance?"
  4174. > Mocha Cream's curious tone serves as a reminder that the mare is still standing there, and - well, actually, it's probably not that big of a deal that Thunderlane mentioned the upcoming operation.
  4175. > After all, Mocha was the last pony who'd betray it.
  4176. "Don't worry. You'll hear about it pretty soon as well - not long after Anonymous does as well."
  4177. > "Oh, okay. I'll wait to... hello, Rumble."
  4178. > You'd barely heard the colt approaching, but so he is.
  4179. > A small bow is given to you before he turns to Mocha and offers a much more nervous smile (though still a smile nonetheless).
  4180. > "Hey, Mocha. Are you here for the, uh, next round from the suggestions box...?"
  4181. > In turn she gives the same sort of cautious smile - an exchange of expressions that suggests neither is quite sure yet that they are on good terms with each other but are desperately hoping so.
  4182. > "I, uh, wasn't. But I could take them, if there are more ready."
  4183. "Not just yet, but there will be soon."
  4184. > "Oh, okay..."
  4185. "Rumble, what's brought you over here?"
  4186. > "I saw my brother around here somewhere. I just wanted to talk to him."
  4187. > "Oh, he just left..."
  4188. > Mocha actually sounds apologetic, as if this were her fault - especially when Rumble looks a bit crestfallen.
  4189. > And yet, the way he looks at her you can't quite help but to think there might have been another reason he came around.
  4190. "There will be another time, I'm sure."
  4191. > "Hope so. S'kinda rare for us to be able to really sit down and talk. Since... y'know."
  4192. > You do, but it is Mocha who answers first.
  4193. > "I know. We, um. We really don't get that much time to ourselves in the house either. Especially since we have to get up so early..."
  4194. "Truly, it seems to be the one constant..."
  4195. > Again turning to look out over the construction - even now, new ribs for the roof being lifted by a team of unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies hauling on pulleys - you tilt your head.
  4196. "...and what we do, we want to give to each other."
  4197. > "Uh-huh..."
  4198. "Actually, Rumble...
  4199. > You chew the side of your cheek - a decidedly bad habit that Celestia had broken you of long ago but had crept back in since you'd... lost your crown.
  4200. > There was something you wanted to ask Rumble about.
  4201. > Something far, far too delicate to be bringing up publicly - possibly too delicate, however much it hurts you to say this, to speak about in front of Mocha Cream.
  4202. > And yet-
  4203. > Maybe it would be best if she carried this to Anonymous.
  4204. "One question for you... have you heard anything from anypony... who was working on the escape lately?"
  4205. > "I mean... I still see some of them, but I haven't really spoken to anypony. Why?"
  4206. "I'm... concerned about where things are heading now. I'd like to speak to them and make sure nopony does anything hasty."
  4207. > "I dunno... everypony's been just kinda... drifting about since it all happened, y'know? And I haven't been in the closest with them..."
  4208. "I understand. But still, if you could..."
  4209. > "...yeah, I guess. Thunderlane's been talking to me about the same stuff."
  4210. > "It'd be nice if nothing happens. I mean, I don't want to not able to come down here anymore..."
  4211. > Mocha Cream's soft-spoken addition produces only a twist of your own ear, but Rumble looks back to her with a firm nod.
  4212. > "I - I think that'd be bad too. I mean, you're - really helping us down here, and if you go..."
  4213. > He leaves the rest unsaid, but it's clear what he is thinking.
  4214. > They wouldn't be able to talk either, and despite their limited time you can see the burgeoning friendship between these two ponies.
  4215. > "Y'know, I could - tell them about Mocha Cream. That, y'know, a pony's coming down out of the house to work with us by choice..."
  4216. > Mocha makes a strangled little noise, but then manages to add:
  4217. > "If y-you think that'd be okay-"
  4218. > "Well, I mean, it'd prove that not everypony is so bad, right? And, maybe they should try being friends with everypony else instead of just fighting?"
  4219. [Choice]
  4220. "I think that might help, if you feel alright with it Mocha?"
  4221. > The noise the mare produces is probably best described as a nervous squeak, but just the same her head bobs in a furious nod.
  4222. > "If - if it's help ponies. Um. Understand us - better!"
  4223. "I think it would. There's no better way alternative to teaching ponies not to mindlessly hate each other than to show the good that is already being done."
  4224. > "Then y-yes. I would. If you would, Rumble?"
  4225. > " 'course I can!"
  4226. > The colt's enthusiasm makes his dedication clear.
  4227. > "Even when I was - y'know, part of the Watch? I was there to help ponies."
  4228. > He glances back up to you, looking more determined than you'd seen him since the planning for the escape got underway.
  4229. > "If this can help to - I'll do it."
  4230. "Good. Thank you, Rumble. Now, if you want to find your brother... well, I think he may have gone-"
  4231. > "Actually, uh... maybe - maybe I'll go talk to him later?"
  4232. > Gaze slipping between yourself and Mocha Cream, Rumble shuffles nervously.
  4233. "...ah. I will be off, then - give the two of you a chance to properly talk between each other."
  4234. > "T-Thank you, Miss Cadance."
  4235. > And so you do - turning to strut away with a small smile gracing your lips.
  4236. > Certainly, you wouldn't stand in the way of those two being friends...
  4237. > ...or perhaps, something more?
  4238. > Opening your mind to extend a tendril of magic just a moment, you /feel/ for the connection between them.
  4239. > What you find almost makes you stumble - saved only by the weeks of education on how a princess must never stumble in public your aunt had insisted on.
  4240. > Their bond is ethereal, nebulous, still-shifting.
  4241. > Interest, care for each other, certainly - but not romantic, or even lustful.
  4242. > If anything, uncertainty; neither was quite sure of how to regard the other yet, anything more than 'friend' still being explored.
  4243. > That wasn't what had shocked you, though.
  4244. > Instead it had been the roiling tumult just beneath Mocha's surface, a churning sea of intense emotion.
  4245. > She was - in love?
  4246. > No, the /feel/ wasn't quite right for romance.
  4247. > But it was an emotion every bit as strong as the fiercest loves you'd encountered.
  4248. > For who, though - she was in the house with so few other slaves.
  4249. > One of them, or a lost love?
  4250. > And for a pony so young, too...
  4251. > Still.
  4252. > Better that she have somepony to brighten her life like that in these times.
  4253. > Glancing aside at Haute Glamour still holding court with her small cluster of followers at the edge of the work site, you allow a tiny flicker of hope - desperate, needful hope.
  4254. > That maybe a love like that could counter the poison that slavery spread, before Haute could infect any others.
  4255.  
  4256. > "Hey Thunder, Milestone's here. That's everypony accounted for."
  4257. "Thanks, Seismic."
  4258. > Privately you wonder if anypony else in the camp had realized what was coming.
  4259. > Realized that all the ponies on the guard had been off-duty the past 12 hours, resting up under direct orders from you.
  4260. > Noticed how many of the human guards, instead of leaving at the end of their shift, were simply moving to new positions.
  4261. > Made any preparations for what would be coming.
  4262. "...alright. We've still got - fifteen minutes until we start. Keep everyone organized until then, and we'll be ready to go."
  4263. > "Got it, Thunderlane."
  4264. > You're still slipping on your own guard uniform - a proper uniform now, with real protective shells in it to keep you safe and not the flimsy things they'd given the Watch - when your ears swivel at the approach of boots.
  4265. > "I have seen police horses before, but never a horse in police."
  4266. "...first time for everything, Gene."
  4267. > The head of security grunts, looking around at the assembling groups of humans and ponies.
  4268. > "You think this sweep will really work?"
  4269. "I... hope so. Hope it defuses tensions, that is - nips this in the bud before it gets worse. If that's what you mean. Half of me hopes we don't find anything."
  4270. > Or anypony.
  4271. > Please, not anypony.
  4272. > Don't let Vapor Trail have to see you bringing a pony down...
  4273. > Gene makes another uncertain noise.
  4274. > "I am... not so sure."
  4275. "...you think this isn't a good idea? Because, if you're against it, you can still order me-"
  4276. > "No. To late. And I can order you, but you know how ponies think better than I do."
  4277. > In silence, you return to tightening a greave around one foreleg.
  4278. > "Just..."
  4279. > A heavy sigh.
  4280. > "...in my country, when I was a boy - there were things like this. They tried to tell us where to go, what to think. Police came and looked for people who weren't playing along. I didn't see much; my father told me most. The police, though - I remember that."
  4281. "You aren't from - here?"
  4282. > His accent had always mystified you; not exactly being an expert on human voices to begin with, you'd always wondered why his was so different from anyone else's here.
  4283. > "No. Left, after the government fell. People got sick of it, threw them out, and then we left."
  4284. > Doubtful that the ponies here could overthrow Anonymous.
  4285. > Not without-
  4286. > Your mind shuts out those thoughts, before the blood and screams become too vivid.
  4287. > Gene fixes you with a crooked smile, runs one hand over his balding head.
  4288. > "We came here. Changed everything. Our life, or ways - my name. Yevgeny, Eugene. Gene. You, you cannot do that - four legs cannot become two, eh?"
  4289. "You're afraid we're going down the same path now, though."
  4290. > "I don't know."
  4291. > He shakes his head.
  4292. > "We come, we keep you ponies in line, we just - keep the rules. Now - now you look for this 'museum'? You're looking for thoughts. And take it from me, Thunderlane - you cannot catch thoughts."
  4293. "If we don't, then what? Seems there's fighting down that road too."
  4294. > "I didn't say not to do this. But, you must show them you do not want to take their thoughts. Otherwise... it is just a bandaid on a bigger wound. It will not heal."
  4295. > This isn't the end of it, he means.
  4296. > Not by a longshot; at best, it will only delay.
  4297. > And despite how much you'd wanted to believe - to truly hope you'd never have to do this again - on some level you'd always understood that.
  4298. > Perhaps seeing your look, Gene drops a hand to pat you affectionately on the withers.
  4299. > "Come, Thunderlane. For now - put the thoughts out and focus. It's time to start."
  4300. "...right."
  4301. > And begin it does:
  4302. > First the lockdown; across camp, doors click as automatic locking mechanisms slide into place and keep everypony exactly where they were.
  4303. > Then, the announcement broadcasted - a tinny voice echoing from loudspeakers warning that the camp was going into lockdown, that anypony out on the street should remain in place
  4304. > And lastly, scores of guards - virtually the entire staff - spilling out onto the night and begining a steady, creeping search block by block through the camp.
  4305. > With each group, at least one of the few ponies on the guard.
  4306. > If there was any luck you hadn't burned up yet, they would smooth over any-
  4307. > -encounters.
  4308. > And, more importantly, those ponies knew exactly where not to look.
  4309. > Passed from Cadance to yourself to them, indicated that certain hiding spots were to be deliberately ignored and overlooked.
  4310. > Each group's pony instructed on exactly what they had to protect.
  4311. > None of them had asked what was there - acknowledged with some implicit understanding that what was in there was not what you were searching for, that it had been cleared by the Princess herself.
  4312. > It doesn't take long for the noises of surprise to go up as doors are unlocked and the searches begin.
  4313. > You were starting outside of the communal blocks first, so there were few ponies to run into.
  4314. > Most of the buildings - the dining halls and workshops, industrial areas and storage buildings - were dimly lit and abandoned.
  4315. > Ponies were of less use here, where guards sweep through with their devices looking for signs of some hidden passages or nooks where a 'museum' might be hidden.
  4316. > But not long after that came the proper residential blocks.
  4317. > Here is where what you'd feared becomes reality:
  4318. > Ponies, only so recently turned in for the night, stumbling out bleary-eyed as guards move in to sweep their rooms.
  4319. > Many are confused.
  4320. > More are angry.
  4321. > Some terrified.
  4322. > Those you speak with briefly - questioning, when something aroused a tingle of suspicion.
  4323. > Most, you simply calmed before they were returned to their rooms.
  4324. > But not all could be, and you were quite certain that there were going to be many more unhappy ponies come morning.
  4325. > Monotony settles in as surprise becomes routine, an hour of endless searching creeping by.
  4326. > So many rooms to search - Gene had been right to request a full night to work on this.
  4327. > Jaw set in a hard line, you turn into the next hallway in this block of living quarters, wait for the door to be unlocked by the human guard behind you, and-
  4328. > Pause.
  4329. > Blink.
  4330. > Stare.
  4331. > A good dozen pairs of eyes stare back, all wide in shock and embarrassment.
  4332. > Your nose twitches, taking in the scents of sweat and arousal.
  4333. > Wings twitch uncertainly.
  4334. "...uh..."
  4335. > "Can you, uh - can you just - pass us by?"
  4336. "...no, I'm - I don't think we can."
  4337. > Try not to think about what they'd been doing.
  4338. "We're - searching every room. Everypony out. It won't be long you can go back to sle- uh -"
  4339. > Awkwardness seems to settle in an almost tangible fog of its own as they all slowly filter out.
  4340. > How a dozen ponies even fit into a room meant to sleep two, let alone for that...
  4341. > ...best not to think about it.
  4342. > Your nose is still twitching distractedly as you search through the room, the musk filling it proving a constant distraction.
  4343. > If not for-
  4344. > Wait.
  4345. > Extending a wing, you hold it high into the air - waiting...
  4346. > Beside you, another guard snickers.
  4347. > "No time for a wingboner, buddy. I know they were-"
  4348. "No. Shh. Feeling..."
  4349. > A pegasus' wing is a finely-crafted thing instrument, a delicately-tuned sensor of the air.
  4350. > And once again, you'd just felt a breeze pass through it from somewhere else than the door.
  4351. > Where would-
  4352. > Of course.
  4353. > Wings spreading, you lift yourself upward to the ceiling and gently poke it.
  4354. > Promptly the cheap plaster separates, a layer of chalk something powdery falling away where it had been inserted to mask the seam.
  4355. > Or rather, a panel separates and lifts away to expose the crawlspace above the living quarters.
  4356. "Hey, can you pass me a flashlight up here? I think there's something-"
  4357. > All at once, three things happen.
  4358. > First, you push your head up into the crawlspace and are immediately met by the image of Princess Celestia, staring back a mere few inches from your muzzle and backed by the Equestrian flag.
  4359. > Second, you're abruptly shoved to the side as somepony pushes past you out of the claustrophobic area and down into the room.
  4360. > And lastly, two competing yells from outside:
  4361. > "She's out - scatter!"
  4362. > "Hey, y - oh, shit, they're running! Stop!"
  4363. > Flickers of thought run through your mind.
  4364. > What - what was that?
  4365. > Why were they-?
  4366. > Your head spins as you try to stabilize yourself.
  4367. > Dizzily you look around, and -
  4368. > Oh.
  4369. > Well.
  4370. > This is definitely the 'museum'.
  4371. > Or most of it anyhow - you'd happened to come up muzzle-first to the nearest wall, but looking around makes it abundantly clear.
  4372. > Luna's image is there as well, as is Twilight's; the fourth alicorn's visage is tellingly absent except for a single one of her wearing the salacious ensemble Anonymous had forced her into for the dinner.
  4373. > A stark contrast to the other royals' noble depictions.
  4374. > So, too, are images of ponies bearing armor and arms.
  4375. > More importantly, there are also images of humans and ponies - fighting.
  4376. > News stories - Celestia only knows how they got those - whose headlines screamed of successful rebellions and escapes on other plantations.
  4377. > And of far worse abuses inflicted on other ponies, horrors that managed to alarm even the most tolerant of slavery humans.
  4378. > Even an impressively evocative drawing of an injured pony whose familiarity confuses you, until you realize that it was somepony's lurid rendering of Corona.
  4379. > Probably based on the rumors flying around camp - her eyes screwed up in pain, body covered in signs of torture.
  4380. > You still don't understand what was... going on down there.
  4381. > But this is definitely their museum and there's no way those ponies could have not known of its existence.
  4382. [Choice]
  4383. > Folding your wings, you drop sharply from the hidden passageway and down into the room; almost immediately they snap open, air catching in them before the floor reaches your hooves.
  4384. > One beat and they fold again, spreading only when you'd been carried through the doorway and into the chill night air beyond.
  4385. > Outside is chaos; one pony wrestles with a security officer while the others are no more than rapidly-fading hoofbeats on the ground.
  4386. > No choice - you have to stop this.
  4387. > Stumbling onto it was a break of unexpected luck, but not something that could be relied on in the future.
  4388. "Everypony after them! After them now!"
  4389. > Everypony?
  4390. > No, but too late now.
  4391. > Mid-air the radio strapped on your side would be useless.
  4392. > A moment later the whistle is in your teeth - its ear-piercing shriek forcing your own to fold down against your head as you accelerate after the fleeing ponies.
  4393. > Others answer - inaudible voices on the radio, the rising whine of a motor.
  4394. > Even as you force your wings to carry you faster, though, thoughts are rushing through your head.
  4395. > Who had they been?
  4396. > Rebels, yes - but no pony here had rebelled in a vacuum.
  4397. > You knew that well enough from Rumble's situation.
  4398. > Who, then, were they?
  4399. > Friends, family, lovers, co-workers?
  4400. > Somepony who'd been hurt by something Anonymous had done, or just ponies like Rumble driven by a need to act and given direction by another's words?
  4401. > Exactly who were you about to-
  4402. > The thoughts running through your head delay your reaction just a fraction of a second.
  4403. > Just long enough for the shadowed form to burst from another alleyway and plow into your side.
  4404. > With paired screams - anger and pain - you both tumble to the asphalt road below, spinning and rolling over each other as legs, wings, and teeth grapple for position.
  4405. > This isn't like when you'd taken Mellowheart down; she had merely fought to escape you.
  4406. > Now your assailant is fighting to hurt, wings battering your head and hooves aiming for your delicate wingroots.
  4407. > Definitely a pegasus, and definitely meaning to keep you down.
  4408. > You don't have time for this.
  4409. > A single hoof is driven into their stomach, leaving them curled in a ball and gasping for breath - and with a couple of blows on your whistle you're off again.
  4410. > Forcing your screaming muscles to work and burning lungs to keep drawing air.
  4411. > The tussle had lost you precious time, but with every second that passed more guards were joining the pursuit.
  4412. > And the simple fact was, there were only so many places to hide:
  4413. > With the camp locked down, doors were closed no matter how desperately they pounded and begged for entrance.
  4414. > Any open containers - trash cans, supply piles, anything like that - and smashed windows would be investigated.
  4415. > Leaning to curve sharply around a corner, you home in on the sound of still fading hooves -
  4416. > -The flicker of a tail vanishing around a corner-
  4417. > And then they go silent.
  4418. > Perhaps a second or two later you reach the end of the block and immediately realize exactly where they'd gone.
  4419. > The new rec hall was still unfinished:
  4420. > Half-completed walls, scaffolding, and construction debris combine to form a maze at the best of times - and right now, in the depth of night, it isn't even lit.
  4421. > Yet, there was nowhere else they could have gone.
  4422. > At least one rebel - maybe more - was hiding within.
  4423. > There was a flashlight as part of your outfit, and now it finds its way into your jaws.
  4424. > Unfortunately, it had not been made with ponies in mind - and so you're reduced to holding it in your teeth and peering in through windows, your voice distorted by the metal clamped in your jaw.
  4425. "Hey - hey, I know you came in here."
  4426. > Distorted your voice might be, but with so many openings in the building they have to be able to hear you calling down.
  4427. "Listen - I want you to come out now. I'm not going to hurt you, okay? Just come out, and come with me. Please."
  4428. > It's more pleading-sounding than you might have wanted, but that is not entirely inaccurate.
  4429. > Your request, after all, is a plea:
  4430. > A desperate one, that they not make this any more violent than it absolutely has to be.
  4431. > Unfortunately, there is no reply.
  4432. "Listen, I can just stay out here until more guards show up. But if you come out before, they won't have to come in and get you, okay?"
  4433. > You're still waiting when three more guards jog into the square.
  4434. > Flanks heaving, you drop down in front of them and spit the flashlight onto an extended wing.
  4435. > Almost immediately you nearly collapse to on side, stabilizing yourself only at the last moment:
  4436. > That tussle had done more damage to one of your legs than you'd realized in the air - a good twist at least.
  4437. > "Thunderlane. Problem here?"
  4438. "There's at least one pony in there, trying to hide. I tracked them here, nopony's come out since."
  4439. > "Urgh. Alright guys, tasers - but be careful. Thunderlane, how many?"
  4440. "I don't know. One of them tackled me on the way here, I lost direct sight."
  4441. > "Damn. Okay, careful guys."
  4442. > Careful they are - splitting into two groups which approach the building from opposite sides.
  4443. > With the flashlight again clutched in your teeth, you go in with one.
  4444. > Having something to bite on also helps with the pain lancing from your injured leg with every step taken.
  4445. > The swinging beams of light turn the interior into a half-lit labyrinth of danger.
  4446. > Exposed beams and columns leap out in stark contrast before fading back into shadow.
  4447. > "So, pony, y'got jumped?"
  4448. "Yeah. Came out of an alleyway, must've hung back."
  4449. > "What happened to them?"
  4450. "I don't know. I knocked them off me and kept going - I don't think they were again up again soon."
  4451. > Peering up into the second-floor rafters, you grimace.
  4452. "I'm heading up. Watch you from above."
  4453. > "Gotcha."
  4454.  
  4455. > You're halfway up when a yell echoes through the building, followed shortly by rushing hooves and boots.
  4456. > "Hey! Stop - stop and lay down, last warning -"
  4457. > Wincing, you wait with ears pricked.
  4458. > "-okay hit'em!"
  4459. > "Taser!"
  4460. > The yell that follows trades coherency for raw pain.
  4461. > Just in time for you to hear a small gasp directly behind you.
  4462. > Whirling about, the illuminated pool cast by your flashlight falls on a unicorn curled beside sacks of cement.
  4463. > Bright yellow eyes peer back at you, wide with terror and the beginnings of anger.
  4464. "...easy, now. Come on, you're coming with me. Stand up real slow, alright? It's over now."
  4465. > "No..."
  4466. > Her voice is made small by fear, but not so much that you can't tell their age:
  4467. > This is a young pony - very young; Mocha or Rumble's age, or maybe even less.
  4468. "Yeah. C'mon, I don't want to hurt you."
  4469. > You also can't take another wrestling match - not with a bad leg.
  4470. > "I'm not going. You can't make me."
  4471. > She's wearing saddlebags, you realize, and though most of her coat is greyed with the dust that coats the construction site enough color is left to spark a memory:
  4472. > This is the pony who'd fled the hidden attic as you peered in.
  4473. "We already found your 'museum'. We'll find the rest - we're sweeping the whole camp. You can't hide it forever."
  4474. > "N-No. I won't let you-"
  4475. > Boots coming up half-finished stairs are your only warning.
  4476. > "Thunderlane, that one of them up there?"
  4477. > Everything else happens in an instant:
  4478. > The unicorn's eyes widen, their horn lights, a piece of lumber rises from its stack.
  4479. > A wild yell, as you spit the flashlight aside.
  4480. "No!"
  4481. > You're already mid-air, but it's too late; the lumber is flying.
  4482. > A muffled howl from behind you, though still loud enough to almost block out the heavy thud of wood impacting something.
  4483. > And then you're on them, a hoof jammed against the horn and head pinned to the floor.
  4484. "That's enough! You're done!"
  4485. > Not even your voice raised to a roar can block out their crying, though.
  4486. > The unicorn wouldn't try to fight, not with their horn disrupted.
  4487. > Even these rebels weren't that stupid; she realizes her time is up.
  4488. > Her battle is over.
  4489. "Why?! You - you idiot! You knew this was over, you didn't have to hurt him!"
  4490. > "You came first! Why couldn't you leave us alone! We j-just wanted ponies to remember-"
  4491. "Remember, so they would go and fight? This was inevitable as long as you kept pushing ponies to-"
  4492. > Shaking your head in disgust, you look aside for the injured officer.
  4493. "Hey - you alright over there?"
  4494. > Groans are your answer.
  4495. > "Y-Yeah. I don't think anything is broken. You got her?"
  4496. > Looking down at the tearful unicorn pinned beneath your hooves, you nod.
  4497. "Yeah. I got her."
  4498. > "A-Alright. Gimme a second, I'll get up... got a restrictor for her horn."
  4499. > A thought wanders into your head.
  4500. > This pony, so young - was she the one Mellowheart was trying to protect?
  4501. > You can't be sure.
  4502. > And now, as the officer half-stumbles, half-walks over to apply the restrictor, isn't the time to ask.
  4503. [Choice]
  4504. > Leading the captured ponies back isn't hard.
  4505. > The officer who'd been accompanying you was, despite the piece of lumber hurled at his chest, still able to walk.
  4506. > Horn capped with a restrictor and legs hobbled, the mare you'd captured walks before you with her head hung and despondency hanging over her entire body.
  4507. > The saddlebags, though, you'd taken despite their weight.
  4508. > Quickly you switched from walking alongside to hovering a few feet above; tiring, yes - but far better than limping along on your injured leg.
  4509. > Seven other hobbled ponies are also waiting when you rejoin the other officers; all regard you with a mix of despair and derision.
  4510. > By your estimate four or five others must still be loose.
  4511. > Gene is there too, watching the procession with folded arms.
  4512. > You drop to the ground and stop in front of him.
  4513. > "All of these were in the one apartment?"
  4514. "Yes. There're some more out there still."
  4515. > "You're limping."
  4516. "I got jumped while pursuing."
  4517. > A familiar face in the crowd of hobbled ponies winces, knowing that attacking a security officer, two- or four-legged, was going to cost him a severe punishment.
  4518. > Which makes you look over at the young mare you'd brought in.
  4519. > She, too, must know what is coming for her now.
  4520. > Especially since since she had used her magic...
  4521. > "Thunderlane, you take one other officer and bring these in."
  4522. "We have to finish this. Even beyond the others still running, we can't let this go unfinished. Sweep the whole camp, or this whole thing could end up being useless-"
  4523. > And you aren't sure if you can stand to do it again.
  4524. > Once would shake the camp badly enough.
  4525. > Twice?
  4526. > Three times?
  4527. > You couldn't do this too many times before it became exactly what Gene had warned about - feeding just back into the anger with every pony taken in for punishment.
  4528. > And you personally couldn't bear to do this too much either.
  4529. "It's now or never, and you're going to need every pony out there helping-"
  4530. > "Thunderlane."
  4531. > Then Seismic is at your side, a reassuring hoof on your side.
  4532. > "Thunderlane, we got this. There're still enough of us. You're limping bad, and if you wreck that leg completely chasing somepony again it'll be game over for a while."
  4533. > He's right.
  4534. > Taking a mental step back, you consider how you must look - injured, wings half-flared, yet still pushing to go on...
  4535. > Like a madpony.
  4536. > Gene nods, putting a hand on your other shoulder.
  4537. > "Go take them back. Remember - I am the outsider. You are here to protect ponies, not hunt them."
  4538. "...right. Seismic, you - you keep everyone on track, okay?"
  4539. > "Got it."
  4540. > On track - and away from the carefully-hidden caches of materials that would destroy Cadance's plans.
  4541. > In due time a small truck is requisitioned to bring the arrested ponies back.
  4542. > Limping into the cell block, you glance around:
  4543. > Only one cell in use (for a minor issue - somepony caught after cufew the previous night, and so spending a couple of nights in the cell instead of their normal bed), so there were plenty free to use.
  4544. "One in each cell. No doubles if we can help it. Her, and him-"
  4545. > You point to two ponies, the youngest among them.
  4546. "-here, at the end."
  4547. > Where you could keep an eye on them.
  4548. > As the last cell door closes shut with the lock latching heavily, the officer who'd accompanied you looks over.
  4549. > "Now what?"
  4550. "I should go back out. Keep helping-"
  4551. > "No. You stay here; you've done your bit."
  4552. "...I can't just hang back-"
  4553. > "Yeah, y'can, especially with that bad leg."
  4554. "And? You got a piece of lumber thrown at you."
  4555. > "Body armor caught it... If I have to call Gene to get him to tell you to stay, I will. He still outranks you."
  4556. > Grimacing, you slump in defeat.
  4557. "Yeah, he does... and you've probably got a point."
  4558. > " 'sides, you don't have to prove yourself. We're not blind; we see what you're doing."
  4559. > Was that - a note of respect in his voice?
  4560. "...thanks."
  4561.  
  4562. > "Don't mention it. Get them interrogated, someone to look at them, and all that."
  4563. "Yeah. One thing, though - make sure nothing we found up there gets destroyed. One way or another, Cadance or Anonymous are going to want to see it."
  4564. > Preferably only the first of those two, but you weren't willing to push your luck right now.
  4565. > "Got it. I don't think we're getting it out tonight anyhow."
  4566. > And then he is gone, leaving you alone in the cell block.
  4567. > Again.
  4568. > This is becoming a regular occurence, it seems, and not one you're pleased about.
  4569. > Your nose twitches as you reenter the cell, the young mare within peering up at you.
  4570. > She'd been left hobbled, a hefty metal collar mounted around her neck and chained to an eyebolt in the center of the room.
  4571. > Now, from her spot on the bed - a thin mattress resting directly on the floor - she eyes you with a mixture of competing apprehension and resignation.
  4572. "Hey."
  4573. > No response.
  4574. > Slipping the door mostly shut, you walk to her side and drop to your belly next to her - trying to make yourself seem as nonethreatening as possible.
  4575. "What's your name? I don't think I've spoken to you before."
  4576. > Baleful silence, one aquamarine eye regarding you with a fearful uncertainty.
  4577. "Come on. I just want to know your name, is that too much?"
  4578. > "Why? So you can remember who you just bent over and-"
  4579. > She cuts off, laying her head down - and so do you, both in silence except for the low hiss of a heating vent and a muted, furious yelling from another cell.
  4580. > "...Crescent Moon."
  4581. "Well, I'm Thunderlane. Are you-"
  4582. > Your nose twitches again, wings shifting.
  4583. "-sorry. You've still got some... musk clinging to your coat."
  4584. > Actually blushing, Crescent turns her head away.
  4585. > "We were hoping you wouldn't actually come in when you smelled that... we heard you coming, so we looked away and C- uh, a couple of ponies got... worked up so it'd... smell."
  4586. "That was an incredibly stupid plan."
  4587. > Another small shrug.
  4588. > "You-"
  4589. > She hesitates, pauses, and clams up - shaking her head.
  4590. > "No. Can't say anything about them."
  4591. "It might help, actually."
  4592. > "Help?"
  4593. > Crescent Moon barks out a short, pained laugh - the chain from her collar jingling as she shakes her head.
  4594. > "I'm fucked, Thunderlane. I hit that guy with my magic. It's the lash for me at the very least. More likely I'll end up like Corona."
  4595. "No-"
  4596. > "What're you going to do? Run to Cadance again? She's already riding Anonymous' dick so hard she can't even see what's going on in front of her."
  4597. > Biting back a snarl, you look away and take several carefully-paced breaths to slow yourself.
  4598. "...look. What happened back there - I know you weren't planning to attack him. You didn't attack me; he surprised you while you were already scared and on-edge."
  4599. > "You think that means anything?"
  4600. "I think it can.'
  4601. > Unlike for the pony who'd tackled you in the street; that had been planned ambush, and there wasn't much you could do for that poor stallion if you wanted to.
  4602. "Look. I'm in here right now, because I don't want ponies to be hurt. I don't want you to be hurt. That's why I became a guard - because every pony I can deal with is a pony I know won't have to be hurt."
  4603. > There's no response yet, but you can feel Crescent Moon's eyes on you.
  4604. > Watching, thinking, considering.
  4605. > Because, in the end, you think she's more scared than angry - scared of being caught, scared of what her punishment would be now...
  4606. "You know my brother got caught up in this too. But he-"
  4607. > "H-he's a traitor too. We've s-seen him talking to that house-slave whore!. You too."
  4608. > Once more, deep breaths until you can be certain you aren't going to snap.
  4609. > Because, again, you didn't hear real anger in her voice but uncertainty.
  4610. > She was trying to get you angry, trying to make you snap.
  4611. > Trying to make you confirm her fear, that you were nothing but a tool of Anonymous.
  4612. > And you could not - would not - do that.
  4613. "That 'whore' is a pony who is putting whatever free time she has into trying to help us."
  4614. > Finally looking back at Crescent Moon, you stretch out a hoof in offering:
  4615. "I want to help you, Crescent. I know you were just afraid of being caught - afraid of ponies giving in to Anonymous too, of our memories of what happened being lost. That's why you got all that stuff together. The punishment doesn't have to be as bad as you're expecting."
  4616. > A long silence, then-
  4617. > "What... would it cost me? This isn't going to be free. What do I have to do?"
  4618. [Choice]
  4619. "Crescent... we need to know about the others."
  4620. > "Go fuck yourself, Thunderlane."
  4621. "Not - not for punishment, Crescent! Because of this - because when we have to go chasing you, ponies get hurt! And soon or later it's going to be more than bruises and bangs. Sooner or later somepony's going to end up dead."
  4622. > "Their blood will be on your wings."
  4623. > You bite back a snarl; this isn't working.
  4624. > Another approach, then.
  4625. "Do you think I just meant ponies we were hunting? What about innocents, just scared and caught in the way? What happens if one of your friends lashes out, snaps at a pony - goes too far? What happens if they're angry, looking for some way to vent that?"
  4626. > In the silence that follows, the gears turning in Crescent's mind could not be more deafening.
  4627. > "We're not... just going after anypony."
  4628. "No. But things can change very suddenly. A few hours ago, you were - what? Guessing that there'd be a raid."
  4629. > "Had... some guesses. We were looking for a safer place for the stuff. Too late, I guess."
  4630. > A little bit of relief for you - reassurance that what you'd done was right.
  4631. > If you'd waited any longer to move, they might've vanished even further.
  4632. "That's my point. Things move so fast, can you really be sure of how things'll be tomorrow?"
  4633. > She can't, but Crescent Moon doesn't say as much.
  4634. "We're not going to flog them. We're definitely not going to torture them. I'm just worried about ponies who might be violent. Just - even tell us who to talk to... do that much, I'll fight to reduce your punishment. Get you moved to a lighter sentence."
  4635. > This time there is a response - a nervous, jerking shake of her head that sets the chain from her collar jingling again.
  4636. > "No. Can't sell out the other groups."
  4637. "Even knowing what will-"
  4638. > "I'm going to be whipped! I get it! You don't have to remind me!"
  4639. > For just a moment fear - real fear, real terror - leaks into her voice.
  4640. > If you were a lesser pony, you could use that.
  4641. > Squeeze on that.
  4642. > But threatening a pony with torture - that's too much, even for you.
  4643. "I meant knowing more ponies will be hurt if this keeps on going."
  4644. > Laying her head back down, Crescent shakes it again.
  4645. > "Leave me alone, Thunderlane."
  4646. > Standing, you hang your head and let your frustration leak into your own tones as well.
  4647. > Let her know this is painful to watch for you too.
  4648. "Fine. Think it over. You'll be properly questioned again later; if you take my offer, tell them."
  4649. > There's nothing but silence, though, and then the squealing screech of a cell door slamming shut.
  4650. > This night wasn't nearly done yet.
  4651.  
  4652. > The sun was not yet up when you sit down on at the table in Anonymous' study.
  4653. > Thunderlane was already there - his head slumped on the table, soft snores emerging from the stallion as he caught a few minutes of shuteye after his hours at work.
  4654. > With a gentle wing you rouse him; he stares bleary-eyed at you for a few moments before ducking his head in a bow.
  4655. > "Y'highness..."
  4656. "How bad is it, Thunderlane?"
  4657. > "We're up to seventeen ponies arrested now..."
  4658. > Seventeen...
  4659. > Celestia help you, you'd known some were going to be caught in this.
  4660. > But nearly twenty...
  4661. "Was there much fighting?"
  4662. > "Almost all of them ran. A few... went after the guards. Hurt them."
  4663. "How many?"
  4664. > He winces.
  4665. > "Eight."
  4666. > Another eight ponies you would be responsible for punishing.
  4667. > "We also found their little resistance-museum, and-"
  4668. "I saw it. Before coming here. You were right to ask the other guards not to destroy it."
  4669. > "Thank you, Your Highness, but..."
  4670. > A glance around, and Thunderlane leans in to whisper straight into your ear:
  4671. > "They found one of Sunburst's caches."
  4672. > Your stomach plunges.
  4673. "How much?"
  4674. > "Not much. Some magic textbooks, I think. They don't understand it's important yet."
  4675. "We'll have to keep it this way. Who else knows?"
  4676. > "That we swept the camp? How about everypony here?!"
  4677. > A moment later Thunderlane shakes his head, ears falling.
  4678. > "Sorry. Didn't mean t'snap at you, Your Highness."
  4679. "Forgiven, of course. I meant how many ponies taken by the guards. Does Haute Glamour know?"
  4680. > "I don't think so. Not too many know that."
  4681. "We need to keep it that way. I have to be seen as on top of this, or she'll dig herself even further in..."
  4682. > Thunderlane starts to speak, but is cut off by a massive yawn instead.
  4683. "How much sleep have you had?"
  4684. > "Yesterday?"
  4685. "Since this began."
  4686. > "...thirty minutes?"
  4687. > Any attempt to reply is stymied by Anonymous' arrival.
  4688. > He sweeps in still rumpled and - by your guess - not yet showered after emerging from bed.
  4689. > "Cadance, Thunderlane. Either of you need coffee?"
  4690. "I have had already."
  4691. > "Wouldn't do me much good."
  4692. > "Okay. I've heard a lot of things already but I need to know, just what are we looking at here? Thunderlane, where do we stand?"
  4693. > "We found what we were expecting, a - cache of documents."
  4694. > "Pushing rebellion."
  4695. > "Yes. We were... lucky-"
  4696. > No hiding that grimace; Thunderlane doesn't feel it is lucky at all.
  4697. > "-enough to catch a meeting of would-be rebels as well. They ran, but the guards chased them down. Some... fought back."
  4698. > "Mmm."
  4699. > Anonymous runs a hand through his hair, then rubs his eyes furiously.
  4700. > "Okay, Cadance. They're in your court. Do what you think is right, but I think it's abundantly clear to all of us now that our actions have... consequences."
  4701. "It could not be more clear."
  4702. > No matter how you wish it were some other way.
  4703. "The other ponies - taken in, who weren't with the one group. Who were they?"
  4704. > "Just... random ponies who became upset. Probably were already ready to snap at any moment. We... don't have any evidence they were involved in any resistance."
  4705. > You glance in Anonymous' direction, trying to gauge his reaction.
  4706. > He doesn't seem to have much of one at all, though that may have something to do with his dose of sleep deprivation.
  4707. "...of - the ones who fought back, how many are dedicated rebels?"
  4708. > Thunderlane shrugs apologetically.
  4709. > "I don't really know. Some of them are young. Barely mares and stallions. I've not had too much time to really talk to all of them, but I know for sure there are a couple who were... lead alone by the others."
  4710. > You know what he wants.
  4711. > Mercy.
  4712. > Something other than a real punishment.
  4713. > But this is even less in your hooves than your own six escape leaders had been.
  4714. > Not only do you have to keep Anonymous satisifed, but...
  4715. "...I have to show I'm in control."
  4716. > Cocking his head, Thunderlane looks at you questioningly.
  4717. "Haute Glamour. And - everyone else who's watching now, but especially her. If I show any sign of weakness she'll seize on it, rip into it."
  4718. > His ears fall and tail swishes; he is not happy about what you are implying.
  4719. "I may not even have a choice. Guards got hurt. That's serious - the kind of thing that could have sent a pony to the hard cells, to real torture if-"
  4720. > You'd been about to say 'if Anonymous were still running things'.
  4721. "-if they weren't here! I want to help them! I saw what they show me as, and I don't want to be that monster."
  4722. > A tense silence pervades the room, gazes locked and nostrils flared while you lock gazes and wings twitch in the age-old gestures of pegasi engaged in conflict.
  4723. > "If I can interrupt for a moment - there'll be time to discuss this later."
  4724. "...Yes, Master. What is it?"
  4725. > "I've heard the sweep isn't quite finished. Thunderlane?"
  4726. > "Yes. With the time we took to chase down the ponies who ran, it wasn't quite entirely done. We want to keep the lockdown running through today while we search."
  4727. > "Gene's thought?"
  4728. > "He agrees. He'd be up here to tell you yourself, but he's still searching. Threw me off the search after my leg got twisted."
  4729. > Thunderlane had been hurt himself?!
  4730. > Why hadn't he told you?
  4731. > "Cadance, any objections?"
  4732. "I don't think it should be done for more than a day. I can't very well address them while the camp is locked down, and the longer we go without that the more rumors will start circulating."
  4733. > "Agreed. Okay, Thunderlane - tell Gene he's got himself a day. Next, the seized materials. What're we doing with them?"
  4734. "I want a chance to look them over. If just to know what they're accusing me, so I know how to respond. Some of the less - incendiary material, the things that look like they were just pulled from history books... it may go into the proper museum."
  4735. > Anonymous folds his arms, staring flatly at you.
  4736. "Master, we have to answer them somehow. Punish them for trying to inspire violence, yes, but also show that we are listening. That kind of communication is how we've succeeded so far."
  4737. > "You check each and every thing with me before you put them in, then."
  4738. > It's as good as you're going to get, you think.
  4739. "...Yes, Master."
  4740. > And then the room falls silent again, tension once more beginning to rise between yourself and Thunderlane like water building behind at dam.
  4741. > The only question is what part of the dam fails first, and...
  4742. > "You can't have them all whipped, Cadance!"
  4743. "Then what do I do? Extra work shifts - not enough. I'm bound by things outside my control now!"
  4744. > His teeth grit in a snarl.
  4745. > Folding his arms, Anonymous just watches you argue.
  4746. > "Cadance, one of them is just a filly! Probably not that much older than Rumble-"
  4747. > Gaze turning to Anonymous:
  4748. > "-or Mocha Cream. And now Rumble's helping Mocha with the sorting the suggestions box entries - that's the kind of thing that talking builds! That's what we'll lose if we whip her! She's nearly ready to work with us, for Celestia's sake!"
  4749. > Anonymous shoots him a harsh glare, but if Thunderlane sees it he's well beyond caring.
  4750. "Is she working with us? Going to help us stop more of this?"
  4751. > "Not yet, but that's why we have to-"
  4752. "I can't wait, Thunderlane! Not when Haute Glamour is breathing into my mane! If word gets out this is a place where ponies can attack humans and get away without a punishment... what happens then?"
  4753. > Again the stallion snarls furiously - but doesn't respond.
  4754. > And yet...
  4755. > Are you sacrificing too much?
  4756. > Becoming the very monster these ponies accuse you of being?
  4757. > And if so, how do you stop?
  4758. [Choice]
  4759. "We... can't just let this pass by without a response. People were hurt - ponies too. Not responding to this will only make it worse."
  4760. > Thunderlane looks away, his ears flat against the side of his head and wings held rigid.
  4761. "But - but. That doesn't mean we can't offer something to those young ponies who were caught up in this without understanding what it was. Thunderlane? Get some rest first, and then work on everypony who's been brought in - especially the young ones who may not know better."
  4762. > "And if they work with us?"
  4763. > His voice is still combative, accusatory.
  4764. "Then - we reduce their sentences. Anywhere we can. For the ones who fought back, they'll have to go to the whipping post - but we can take it down if they work with us."
  4765. > The look on Thunderlane's face is not a pleased one, but you can't afford to think of that right now.
  4766. > Not with the specter of Haute Glamour looming just over your withers.
  4767. "The others - as long as they didn't fight, there's no need for corporal punishment."
  4768. > "Their magic will have to be restricted."
  4769. > You grimace at Anonymous' addition; seeing it, he adds:
  4770. > "It's not purely a matter of punishment, Cadance. We need - we have to - show that we are handling this situation."
  4771. "I know."
  4772. > Celestia above, you know.
  4773. > If this wasn't dealt with, if the camp collapsed and Flurry Heart was sold off...
  4774. > The mere thought of her being out of your reach again is enough to awaken that old, hard feeling inside; the idea of her ending up with somepony like Haute Glamour-
  4775. > You push that thought away before the bile can rise too far.
  4776. "What are you thinking? Absolute severing?"
  4777. > "For the ponies who attacked guards? Absolutely."
  4778. > Your stomach drops.
  4779. "The nerves?! They'll never be able to-"
  4780. > "No, no! Not cutting the nerves!"
  4781. > Even Anonymous manages to sound horrified by that thought, though you wonder if it has more to do with the permanent loss of useful workers if that was done.
  4782. > "No surgery, and no dehorning. Period. At most I'll look at what it would cost to take them somewhere for an implant, but I'd rather not even do that."
  4783. "We'll have to use horn attenuators and wingbinders, then. For the others? The ones who didn't fight?"
  4784. > "Shackle them in at night."
  4785. > Thunderlane's voice is bitter to the point of sickness, as if he can't believe the words coming from his own mouth.
  4786. > "We can set aside one of the barracks rooms. We won't muzzle them, rule what they can say - but they were caught out of their beds at night and then ran - and we can't have that. They check in at night, get locked in, and are let go in the morning."
  4787. "That is... doable."
  4788. > Sagging in his seat, Thunderlane nods.
  4789. > You want to step over and nuzzle him, remind him that this is the time to be strong.
  4790. > That you can tell how much it hurts him to do this, but it is needed.
  4791. > Instead you settle for words.
  4792. "Go talk to Gene and then get some rest, Thunderlane. You've done enough; now your job is to make any of those ponies see reason again."
  4793. > "Yeah... alright. I'll go."
  4794. > And then there were to - the alicorn, and the master.
  4795. > Anonymous sighs heavily, hand again rising to rub at his forehead.
  4796. > "How long were you thinking of giving him before carrying out the punishments?"
  4797. "A day, at least, while the sweep is finished. Longer if needed. There's something else, too."
  4798. > "What?"
  4799. "When it comes time to do the - the whipping, I want you there to do it. To show that this kind of thing is imperiling my independence, and ability to protect-"
  4800. > "No."
  4801. > Shaking his head firmly, Anonymous folds his arms.
  4802. > "You wanted to be their leader - that means you deal with the good as well as the bad. You announced the reward for when they work well, you also get to deal with the punishment for when they don't."
  4803. > For a moment you're ready to argue, but that might only lead to you truly losing control of them.
  4804. "...yes, Master."
  4805. > A moment of silence, then:
  4806. > "Did you really think I'd order their horns cut off?"
  4807. "I... don't know. I've heard of it being done before, and I didn't know if you would..."
  4808. > "I don't maim or mutilate ponies here, Cadance. I can't dehorn them any more than I can cut off the pegasus' wings or earth ponies' hooves."
  4809. "I'll tell them that, when the punishment comes. That - if more violence keeps coming, that you could be forced to do worse. Or that they could be sent... somewhere else."
  4810. > "Do it. It'll be the truth - I can't hang on to ponies who are consistently damaging. You can't, either."
  4811. > Abruptly rising from his seat, Anonymous signals you to follow him.
  4812. > "Come. I have to get my day started."
  4813. > Getting his day started turns out to mean returning to his bedroom; again, you are struck by the sheer luxury of it even compared to your quarters in the camp.
  4814. > ...right before you are struck by the fact that he is taking off his shirt as he heads for the bathroom.
  4815. > Does he intend for you to follow him-
  4816. > "Gotta shower up, Cadance. You can... wait just outside."
  4817. "Okay."
  4818. > Soon the water begins to run; with the door open, you can just barely hear Anonymous' voice coming from inside.
  4819. > "So, what is your plan for dealing with this going forward?"
  4820. "First and foremost, making it clear that violence is met with violence. Not... by my choice, but that is how it is."
  4821. > Another simple fact of being a slave.
  4822. "Making clear what is - and is not - allowed is the next step. Show that pushing for violence like this is obviously not acceptable, but words of resistance... I still think that we can cut off many of these rebels' arguments before any actual fighting and punishment by isolating them."
  4823. > "Easy to say. They're bringing fucking kids into it now - I don't think they're going to just give up because you spoke nicely to them."
  4824. "The way they see it, foals have already been brought into this when they were enslaved."
  4825. > A longer silence before Anonymous replies:
  4826. > "You almost sounds like you're defending them."
  4827. "...no, Master. Just - explaining how they see it."
  4828. > Though you can't deny a sense that at least some part of that argument was true; it still did not warrant using colts and fillies for actual fighting, though.
  4829. "The key to cutting off their support is to invalidate that argument. Give the young ponies here more to reason associate with - reasonable and sensible ponies, than with the rebels. That's why I want to see about transferring some of the material into my museum."
  4830. > "I'm still not happy about that. As far as I'm concerned, giving them that idea was what created this mess in the first place!"
  4831. "I'll fight for it until until you order me to stop, Anonymous. It might've sped it up, but time it must've taken to gather what they have - it was going to happen anyhow."
  4832. > Not quite audible, you nonetheless suspect that his next statement was prefaced by a rather hefty sigh.
  4833. > "Which is why I'm not ordering you to tear it down. I just want you to know you're on the knife's edge, Cadance."
  4834. "Trust me, I know."
  4835. > What you also know is that, in just a few days - no matter how long you "gave" Thunderlane to try and convince them otherwise - you were going to have to take a whip to ponies once again.
  4836. > This time, at least, you could tell yourself they had jeopardized the longer-running plans you were forming with Sunburst...
  4837. > Even be angry at them for how they'd demonized you in their little 'museum'.
  4838. > But that couldn't do anything about the growing sick feeling in your stomach.
  4839. "Anonymous, if you would carry out-"
  4840. > "I said no, Cadance."
  4841. > You jump; lost in thought, you'd missed him shutting off the water and dressing.
  4842. > Anonymous had appeared practically right beside you, a frown creasing his lips and peering down at you with the beginnings of annoyance in his eyes.
  4843. > "Like I said, you don't get to cast me as the whip-wielding villain while you reap the rewards. You deal with all of this, or none of it. Which is it?"
  4844. "All of it, Master."
  4845. > "Good girl."
  4846. > Kneeling down in front of you, he puts a hand on your cheek.
  4847. > "I have faith in you, Cadance. You've got the motivation, and I think you have the brains and heart too, to see this done right. To make them understand rebelling... only leads to pain and suffering, for everyone."
  4848. > Despite the gentle touch, you look away.
  4849. "I... thank you, Master. But I really do wonder if I couldn't be doing better..."
  4850. > "Then let's focus on the task at hand. For the ones who didn't actually fight, what kind of punishments were you thinking of?"
  4851. [Choice]
  4852. "For deliberately breaking curfew, we can assign extra shifts and move them to the barracks for a time. I think we should split the ponies out who fight back and those who did not, though; the ones who fought back... can be chained in at night. The ones who did not - just locking the barracks at night should be enough."
  4853. > "Noted."
  4854. "Beyond that - especially for the young ponies - I want to assign them extra work shifts specifically working on the rec center."
  4855. > Anonymous raises an eyebrow questioningly.
  4856. > "As a punishment?"
  4857. "As a way of teaching that there is a real, tangible reward for working with me. Especially if we put some of their material - the parts that do not advocate violence - will show there's no need to fight."
  4858. > "And keep them from wrecking anything, I hope."
  4859. "If they do, I think it'll only discourage others from joining them. That museum is popular, Anonymous - if they tear it down in spite, ponies will respond in turn."
  4860. > Considering you for a moment, Anonymous nods.
  4861. > "No matter what they do, you win. I like that. Good idea."
  4862. "That's also why I don't want to punish them for just gathering the material. Note it for future reference, but do not punish now."
  4863. > "Like I said, this is still within the boundaries of what I gave you. If you think it works, go with it."
  4864. "I will. Also-"
  4865. > You hesitate.
  4866. > He'd already dismissed it, not once but twice.
  4867. > Even so...
  4868. "Master, I still think that you need to play - some part of this. If you don't-"
  4869. > "Cadance!"
  4870. > His voice turns sharp, a finger extended to jab in your direction.
  4871. > "We've been over this. No. You don't get to pull me out to play the villain, coming down to inflict my wrath."
  4872. "It's not just for me, Master! I know you value our independence, but you can't afford to hold yourself so distant either. Sooner or later, the people you work with are going to start calling you too scared to take a stand either."
  4873. > Anonymous stands sharply, hand snapping into a fist and the beginnings of a snarl forming on his lips - and then he halts himself.
  4874. > A few flexes of his hand, and it is back to normal.
  4875. > "Be very careful, Cadance."
  4876. > You head falls submissively, dropping until your mane brushes against the floor.
  4877. "I am, Master. That's exactly why I'm bringing this up again. Because it has to be said, before someone else says it first."
  4878. > "And if they do, I will remind them that you are quite capable of managing this yourself and that in fact is the core tenet of my operation here. The only reason I should ever have to step in is if you have failed."
  4879. > Once again a finger is jabbed back down at your muzzle.
  4880. > "Do you want that, Cadance? Because you know what that means."
  4881. "...no, Master."
  4882. > "Good. Then show me you can still be in charge."
  4883. "Yes, Master..."
  4884. > You hate having nothing more than that simple affirmation - wish you could say something more, give some other words to defend your little ponies.
  4885. > Why couldn't he see the damage his reluctance was doing?!
  4886. > To play the villain now, yes - but also to make it clear that the consequences for the future were larger than what you could deliver.
  4887. "Is there anything else?"
  4888. > Anonymous hesitates, sighs, and lets his hand limply drop to his side.
  4889. > "You've got what you wanted with respect to Haute Glamour. She'll be bottled up in the manor as much as she can be, and when out there under your control. I hope it's enough for you."
  4890. "I do appreciate it."
  4891. > "You'd better. Now go - we've both got to start our day for real."
  4892.  
  4893. > Sleep had fallen on you the moment you'd collapsed into bed, your mind flowing away into Luna's realm as exhaustion overcame your last reserves of energy.
  4894. > When you next stir, your first impression is a lancing bolt of panic:
  4895. > Dull orange rays were being cast through the window by a nearly-set winter sun; you'd overslept, and-
  4896. > Wait.
  4897. > No.
  4898. > The sweep, Cadance had ordered you back to bed.
  4899.  
  4900. > You hadn't overslept.
  4901. > The reprieve is only temporary, however; though you might not have been on duty, your time to work now was still limited.
  4902. > Forcing yourself up, you quickly pull on the guards' uniform - thankfully you'd had enough sense to slip out of it before collapsing into bed; sleeping in even the light body armor would have been painful.
  4903. > Your room's door is still locked, however, and you're forced to use your guard's master key to open it.
  4904. > The lockdown must still be in effect.
  4905. > Trotting down the streets only reaffirms that intuition.
  4906. > Eerie quiet pervades the camp; even the handful of ponies who would normally be out and about - catching a few moments to chat here and there, or hauling carts of goods from one location to another - are absent.
  4907. > One single pony trots by you, a letter poking from a saddlebag and eyes nervously tracking you as he passes.
  4908. > A rebel?
  4909. > No.
  4910. > More likely a simple pony sent to deliver some papers, only confused and worried after having been abruptly woken and their quarters searched in the night.
  4911. > On a whim, you change your route to pass the half-built recreation hall.
  4912. > It seems... denuded, plucked, shaved bare.
  4913. > Not merely because of the last rays of sunlight illuminating it compared to the shadowy labyrinth you'd pursued ponies into mere hours before, but absent the small degree of activity that always seemed to be going on about it.
  4914. > Shaking your head, you force yourself on towards the security station.
  4915. > Some greetings are issued as you pass through the outer offices, but even here there seems to be an unexpectedly subdued tone in the air.
  4916. > The cell block is the same miserable grey you'd left it as, but somehow seeing all the cell doors closed and locked makes it even more so.
  4917. > Behind every one of those, a pony who would suffer now...
  4918. > ...unless you could do something about it.
  4919. > Crescent Moon looks up as you enter, her eyes widening somewhat.
  4920. > "You came back."
  4921. "I told you - I'm not just trying to squeeze you information."
  4922. > Nudging the door mostly shut with a hindhoof, you approach her with cautious steps.
  4923. > "And I told you; I'm doomed. When Cadance what we're going to be subjected to-"
  4924. > Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or maybe you were too emotionally involved in this already to hide your thoughts.
  4925. > Either way, something shows on your face - enough for her to draw her own conclusions.
  4926. > "Hah!"
  4927. > Crescent Moon's bark of laughter is riddled with the mental pain of one who knows their fate is sealed.
  4928. > "So, she's already decided, huh? Well, what's our fate then?"
  4929. "What she's decided is that I have time to work with you, to try and help you before anything happens that we're all going to regret."
  4930. > "If you regret it so much, then why don't you just let me out of here?"
  4931. "If I knew for certain that nopony else was going to get hurt, I would. In an instant. That's my main goal here, Crescent - I have to ensure that this violence doesn't spread-"
  4932. > "Like we aren't being crushed beneath his heel constantly! You think this'll stop it? He won't ever stop squeezing us?"
  4933. "He's going to allow some of your material into the museum!"
  4934. > Your voice had been raised, tail lashing furiously.
  4935. > The outburst has its intended effect, though; Crescent Moon rears back with ears splayed.
  4936. > Her voice, though, has dropped to a low and questioning tone.
  4937. > "He's what?"
  4938. "Cadance argued with him. He's going to allow some material to be moved into the proper museum."
  4939. > You don't add that, depending on her sentence, Crescent might be one of the ponies doing the moving.
  4940. "That's what she wants us all to see. You've been told to be angry by the other ponies you were with, but the reality is there's no reason to start more violence. Fighting the guards, breaking in to buildings to steal paint - wait."
  4941. > A sudden thought had bubbled up into your mind, a realization that she might have been more determined than you realized at first.
  4942. "Are you - were you the third pony, with Mellowheart and Stormbreaker?"
  4943. > "Third pony? No. Not me."
  4944. > Still the sounds more subdued than before.
  4945. > "Not me, or any of the other ponies I was with. We'd have known."
  4946. > Tiny shards of fear crystallize in your heart.
  4947. > Even after this, there were already others in the camp willing to act out...
  4948. "What about anypony else? Do you know about anypony else who-"
  4949. > Breaking, you heave a heavy sigh.
  4950. "Crescent... nopony's going to be whipped for speaking their minds. Not even for being out after curfew."
  4951. > "I'm still fucked. I attacked a guard."
  4952. "You don't have to be. I told you, Cadance fought to give me time to work with you."
  4953. > She's trembling.
  4954. > So close to telling her friends' secrets.
  4955. > You have an idea of how painful that will be, but...
  4956. > She has to.
  4957. "Crescent - come on, damn it!"
  4958. > You drive a hoof into the concrete floor, the angry sound echoing in the cell.
  4959. "If I could get you out of here, take you to see the rest of it, before you do something stupid..."
  4960. > "Why? Expecting I won't be around later?"
  4961. "Wanting to save you the pain of it all!"
  4962. > But no - trying to get a pony out of the cells early...
  4963. > Maybe possible, for a pony of your influence, if she hadn't struck a guard.
  4964. > Tartarus, if she's struck you then you'd still have done it - but as it was, there wasn't any hope of getting her out of this cell before her punishment was due.
  4965. > Heaving yourself up again, you turn for the door.
  4966. "I'm sorry, Crescent. Even with everything I've done, there's only a limit what I can do for you if you won't cooperate. Cadance's offer will remain open."
  4967. > She waits until you're nearly at the door before calling out, voice laden with increasing fear.
  4968. > "Thunderlane!"
  4969. > You stop, pausing and turning your head.
  4970. "Yes, Crescent?"
  4971. > "I - I can't tell. It's not my place. Ask Windshear. He knew - more than me."
  4972. > Unfortunately, Windshear turns out to be a stallion whose small size is masks what you only presume is a considerable force of will.
  4973. > Throughout your entire talk with him, he does little more than spear you with contemptuous eyes and an insincere smirk - never once even opening his mouth, even though you can see the anger boiling within him.
  4974. > Instead he merely occasionally shifted, trying to find comfort with the heavy binder restricting his wings - nearly crushing the delicate feathers, with how tight it had been set.
  4975. > This pony was a lost cause - and, if you had to guess, probably one of those responsible for recruiting Crescent Moon.
  4976. > He seemed like the kind of pony who would drag a pony still little more than a filly into a mess like this.
  4977. > ...which leaves you exactly back at square one.
  4978. > A situation that maintains much of the day as you struggle through interrogating the other rebels.
  4979. > Some are unrepentant - either greeting you with an incessant stream of highly descriptive invectives, or the same ironclad silence Windshear had.
  4980. > Others are more agreeable - one of the other young ponies involved, a mare somewhat older than Crescent Moon, having made it clear she never expected it to jump to real violence and being more than willing to switch sides once again.
  4981. > Then there are the couple of ponies arrested outside of that group:
  4982. > Those who you didn't think even had any connection to the group of rebels, but who'd fled or fought as their rooms were searched anyhow.
  4983. > By far the most pliant - who'd only lashed out in fear or immediate anger, and now understood the depth of their mistake.
  4984. > Yet they also had nothing to give; silently you plead that Cadance would see their efforts as equal to those who had...
  4985. > At the end of the day, it's a toxic mix of despair, fury, and helplessness that has settled over you.
  4986. > For every pony you'd turned, protected from the harsher punishments, it seemed like there were two who were beyond your help.
  4987. > Despite your early-day nap, by the time you step out of the security building exhaustion is already creeping back up again.
  4988. > It's well past sunset, and with the lockdown in full effect the streets are once again eerily empty.
  4989. > But you know exactly where you are going, and can bypass the few remaining patrols of officers with simply a nod of your head.
  4990. > Vapor Trail can't hide her surprise when you appear at the door to her quarters, quickly opening it from the bare crack she'd initially opened it as to fully welcome you in.
  4991. > "T-Thunderlane? What's going on? Everything's locked, our room was searched while we were out, ponies are saying-"
  4992. "Hey, Vapor. I'll explain everything, but can I come in first?"
  4993. > "Oh-"
  4994. > She blushes.
  4995. > "-yeah. Sure. Sorry."
  4996. > As soon as you step in through the doorway, though, the second pony in the room - a pegasus with a coat the color of wine - lifts her head to fix you with a sharp, questioning look.
  4997. > "This is your 'friend', Vapor?"
  4998. > "Yeah. Twisty, this is Thunderlane."
  4999. "...hey."
  5000. > For a few second, you fear she is ready to snap at you too - but then she just snorts and lays her head back down.
  5001. > "Well, there'd better have been a good reason for this. You've had Vapor scared out of her mind."
  5002. "There is, trust me."
  5003. > So you tell them - from the beginning.
  5004. > Everything, from the rumors of the other museum to the raid to the fighting and the interrogations.
  5005. > And by the end of it, the grimace that had creased Twisty's face is diminished to nearly nothing.
  5006. > Vapor Trail is downright sympathetic, having once again made room on her bed for you to join her.
  5007. "...and Celestia damn it, I didn't want to interrupt anypony in the middle of the night - and definitely don't want to see anypony whipped! But we can't keep provoking him, or we're going to completely lose whatever we even do still have!"
  5008. > By then your voice is rich with raw emotion, the frustration that had been steadily building throughout the day finally boiling over.
  5009. > "It's hardly your fault, Thunderlane..."
  5010. "You can say that, Vapor, but I don't think a lot of ponies are going to see it that way."
  5011. > Twisty at least has the good grace to look down, her cheeks coloring somewhat.
  5012. > "Vapor Trail is right, though, and I think... if you really talked, ponies would listen. I hate Anonymous as much as anypony here, and Vapor's got every reason to be just as angry at him-"
  5013. > Here the mare in question looks aside, a wing shifting to allow a hoof to rub her steadily swelling belly.
  5014. > "-but even we can see there's no point in provoking him at every turn."
  5015. "I wish those ponies last night had seen that!"
  5016. > "Not everyone sees everything, Thunderlane."
  5017. > Nesting her head down on your withers between your wings, Vapor sighs.
  5018. > "And patience... well, you and I were Trainees, so I know you understand the idea of patiently working towards something. But the number of ponies I've seen who wanted it now..."
  5019. > Like Sunburst's plan.
  5020. > Would the rebels have been more passive if they'd known that was coming?
  5021. > You just don't know.
  5022. "I don't know. What I'm afraid is this'll break whatever patience ponies've been having and just make things even worse."
  5023.  
  5024. "My coat and boots now, Mocha."
  5025. > "Yes, Master. You're going to be going out?"
  5026. > You nod as the maidpony dutifully brings the items in question to your bed - levitating up the coat to let you slip it on.
  5027. "Mm-hmm. Cadance will be handling the punishment of our would-be terrorists soon."
  5028. > "O-Oh. I didn't realize you were going to be there for that. Ponies were saying you were going to stay out..."
  5029. "I'm not taking part in it - not unless Cadance decides to throw me in without warning, which will be a monumentally foolish move on her part - but that doesn't mean I can't come down and watch."
  5030. > "I-I see, Master..."
  5031. > Seating yourself and pulling on the boots, you pause as Mocha murmurs that.
  5032. "...have you ever seen a punishment carried out, Mocha?"
  5033. > "N-No. Nothing that serious, anyhow."
  5034. "Hmm. Maybe you should..."
  5035. > She freezes, peering up with eyes wide, confused, and more than a little terrified.
  5036. > "Have done something wrong, Master?"
  5037. "No, no. Not at all. Just, I wonder if it's something you shouldn't be exposed to..."
  5038. > "I-If it pleases you, Master."
  5039. > Heading for the bedroom door, you call back:
  5040. "Pleasing me isn't what this is about."
  5041. > Halfway down the stairs, you encounter an unexpected presence waiting at the bottom.
  5042. "Randall! I'm sorry, didn't realize you'd be in so soon. I'll be back in a bit, I have to see to something first."
  5043. > "Of course, of course."
  5044. > The man smiles, mirrored eyes concealing his eyes from you and leaving the gesture seeming to only half-cover his face.
  5045. > "Something to do with all of what your guards have been up to lately?"
  5046. "You're welcome to come along if you'd like to s- ah -"
  5047. > "See it too?"
  5048. > Randall chuckles.
  5049. > "Afraid I won't be doing that, but I'll stick along anyhow. Posey, get me turned around."
  5050. > "Yes, Master."
  5051. > The little earth mare does so expertly, but from your long familiarity with ponies you can sense her reluctance.
  5052. > She doesn't want to see any part of this.
  5053. > Too bad for her.
  5054. "We had a security problem, but the guards caught wind of it and Thunderlane - you remember him, yes? - proposed an operation to flush them out. It worked, but they decided to sweep the entire camp just to be sure."
  5055. > "Ah. And now?"
  5056. "Cadance will be dealing with those involved. As a leader should."
  5057. > "Sure you want to be showing me this?"
  5058. > You meet his chuckle with a grin - and then a laugh, when you remember his blindness - of your own.
  5059. "Partners, Randall. No secrets."
  5060. > "So we are."
  5061. > The stage with the whipping posts is already set up in an open field near the security post - two of them this time, probably on account of the number of ponies involved.
  5062. > As are the attendees; with the lockdown having been lifted, ponies are already gathering.
  5063. > In due time the miscreants are led out, hobbled with chains, wingbinders, and chain leashes on their collars.
  5064. > Their reactions to the whipping posts are varied.
  5065. > Some struggle and fight - one impressive stallion resisting until three guards physically carry him.
  5066. > Some shake and tremble with fear.
  5067. > Some just lower their eyes in despair.
  5068. > After them comes Cadance, mounting the stage and waiting for the assembling crowd to quiet.
  5069. > "No doubt all of you aware of the actions of the security forces these last few days. Some time ago, we became aware of a plot to incite ponies here to violent action..."
  5070. > As she goes on, your attention is drawn to a small voice by your side.
  5071. > "M-Master? Do you want me here?"
  5072. > Ah, Mocha.
  5073. > You'd never actually ordered her to come - forgotten your conversation with her, in fact - and in the absence of any other orders she had followed you out.
  5074. > ...well, this was something you had been considering for her to see.
  5075. > To understand what you needed to do - had to do - to keep the peace here.
  5076. > Sending her in the camp was one part of that, but some part of you thinks she needed to understand all of it, to get a proper picture.
  5077. > The pleasant, and the less so.
  5078. > Yet, she's clearly uncertain.
  5079. [Choice]
  5080. "I won't order you to stay, Mocha, but I do think you should see this."
  5081. > You glance back down at the mare, dropping a hand to rest reassuringly on the back of her neck.
  5082. "Punishment for misbehavior is a natural part of things; it can't be run from forever. Especially with your role as liason in the camp, you should be aware of everything that is going on. But no, you do not have to stay."
  5083. > "Y-Yes, Master."
  5084. > Despite your (very clear) words, she certainly isn't moving.
  5085. > Spreading her stance to a wider one - perhaps in an attempt to hide the tremble in all four of her legs - gritting her jaw, but not actually leaving.
  5086. > You're actually kind of impressed.
  5087. > Back up on the stage, Cadance is still speaking.
  5088. > "...and despite the deep, deep disgust I have made it clear even the thought of inflicting pain on another pony causes me, the reality cannot be avoided: Violence was incited, encouraged, and inflicted, even on other ponies. Violence, for no purpose but to incite further harm."
  5089. > She is monitoring the crowd, you can tell: Eyes sweeping alertly over the sea of faces, ears locked firmly forward.
  5090. > Not that it matters - if there is one skill Cadance picked up from her 'aunt' Celestia, it is a powerful skill as an orator.
  5091. > "Despite that, I still hold to my belief that it is only actual harm caused to others that has to be met with violence. Nothing more."
  5092. > Turning to face the line of miscreants, she is met with a gamut of reactions.
  5093. > Some with rage simmering only just beneath the surface, probably held in check only by the belief that an outburst would be met by even further torment.
  5094. > Some still fearful.
  5095. > And a few even daring to show hope.
  5096. > "In the collection of documents you assembled, you named me a traitor. A whore who sold out everypony else for her own benefit and gleefully took part in this oppression of our kind."
  5097. > Even the most fearless of ponies flinches at the sheer venom in her tone, and one collapses to the stage floor entirely.
  5098. > Yet, even a moment later Cadance is before her, a gentle hoof on her cheek.
  5099. > Her tone is low - Cadance must've done something to her own voice with magic, as it is still perfectly audible - and reassuring in tone, almost motherly.
  5100. > "I have fought tooth and hoof for our right to not be punished just for speaking, and I will not change that now. There is no punishment for speaking against me, though I will not deny that it has hurt me deeply. In the future, however, I plead with you to bring your concerns to me first - before it comes to violence. If you had, the things you've gathered could have been presented at the museum to everypony here - as they will be now."
  5101. > Turning back around to face the crowd:
  5102. "But if violence does continue to spread its insidious roots here, then one day I will no longer be able to shelter you. We will be sold off, split up, and - by merit of being ponies of violence - sent to far worse places than this. Places where even the liberties we enjoy here will be stripped away!"
  5103. > That, finally, gets a good ripple through the crowd and a grin on your lips.
  5104. > Nothing like a little reminder of what you've actually given them to keep the ponies in line.
  5105. > "I do not want any pony to be harmed, not even those who spread such vicious lies..."
  5106. > Next to you, Randall leans over:
  5107. > "She speaks very well, your alicorn. Something you taught her?"
  5108. "To some degree. She was already a strong speaker when she came here; I just guided her into regaining some confidence managing the herd."
  5109. > A chuckle, and he nods in agreement.
  5110. > "Confidence, yes... a powerful tool."
  5111. "With moderation to keep you from overreaching yourself."
  5112. > Studying him out of the corner of your eye, you add:
  5113. "...though, I'm sure you've seen that as well. With Haute Glamour, and all."
  5114. > "Ah, yes. She's not a speaker like this, I'm afraid. A much quieter pony... Though with my smaller staff there's no real need for speeches either."
  5115. "Indeed..."
  5116. > Back up on the stage Cadance is now going through the list of punishments.
  5117. > It's mostly what you'd gone over the prior morning - no more than extra shifts, transfer to the barracks, and loss of privileges for breaking curfew.
  5118. > But for those who had fought...
  5119. > "There is no way to avoid this. For those of you who deliberately harmed any guard pony or human, you will be subject to up to thirty lashes. Some of you have, in turn, expressed sincere forgiveness and assisted us in seeking out those who would cause further violence; your punishment may be reduced in turn. Following this, your magic will be inhibited and you will be housed in barracks when not on work shifts, chained-"
  5120. > Another murmur rippling through the assembled ponies, and Cadance lets some of her anger leak into her voice.
  5121. > "-yes, chained, because when we reduce ourselves to violent animals then we will be treated like violent animals - if not by me, then by another!"
  5122. > The first two of the eight are led up to the whipping post - their forehooves lifted into the loops at the top and secured, dragging them up onto their hindlegs and exposing their backs and haunches for flogging.
  5123. > Interestingly, while one whip is held by a guard Cadance takes the other herself.
  5124. > As the first blows come down, these first two ponies up on the stage prove to be the more dedicated types - deliberately stifling their cries, even as the lashings add up.
  5125. > Instead, you glance down to your side where Mocha still stands - shivering, pupils shrunken, but firmly in place.
  5126. "You've never been whipped, have you Mocha?"
  5127. > "I h-have, Master."
  5128. > Though she might be locked in place, keeping the tremble from her voice is entirely beyond Mocha's capability.
  5129. > "C-Caned and with a thin-rod w-whip, M-Master. But not with a long whip like t-that."
  5130. > In that, you can understand her reaction.
  5131. > The flexible whip would be far, far worse than any cane or rod would have done to her.
  5132. > Mocha flinches again as one of the ponies - now on their thirteenth blow - can no longer hold back and begins to openly cry.
  5133. "No need to be afraid, Mocha. I don't expect to ever have to do anything like this to you. You're a good pony."
  5134. > Her eyes squeeze shut, but she manages a jerky nod.
  5135. > "I-I know, Master-"
  5136. > A new scream, as a blow found its way to a particularly tender spot.
  5137. > "-but it still hurts to hear."
  5138. > Eventually the first two are brought down, carefully lead off the stage to have their injuries tended to.
  5139. > The next two brought up likewise try to keep their noises to a minimum, at least until they can no longer hold it.
  5140. > Unlike the first, however, their eyes find fresh targets:
  5141. > You.
  5142. > As if by some mutual unspoken order both of them fix you with vicious, withering glares.
  5143. > Cadance's words seem to have had little impact on them.
  5144. > Unfortunate, but not unexpected:
  5145. > Like you'd once told the alicorn, there would always be those whose first and only instinct would be to think you a monster.
  5146. > Yet, when they too begin to cry out, a look around reveals that it is not Mocha Cream at all who is worst affected.
  5147. > That dubious honor instead belongs to Posey, who has her eyes squeezed shut and ears slammed flat against the sides of her head.
  5148. > Randall had released his grip on her guide-harness handle, allowing her to sink to her knees.
  5149. > As you watch her carefully, Posey is able to wrench her eyes open and sweep them through the crowd.
  5150. > But, what is she looking fo-
  5151. > Ah, there.
  5152. > In the midst of the crowd, Haute Glamour - whose own gaze is fixed right back on Posey.
  5153. > This is something between the two of them.
  5154. > Eventually the second two ponies are removed from the stage as well, and the next lot-
  5155. > You start, throat rising as the next two are led forward.
  5156. > Certainly, Cadance had said she was young, but this pony - it had to be Crescent Moon, with that cutie mark - truly was little more than a child.
  5157. > And a terrified child at that, head whipping around wildly in any attempt to locate any hope of reprieve.
  5158. > Those eyes land on you for a moment, but then they are moving on - head wobbling under the unfamiliar weight of the restrictor fixed to her horn - to find Cadance.
  5159. > For the first time, a pony speaks before their sentence is announced:
  5160. > "Please - please! I told him - I told him who to talk to-"
  5161. > "Each of you has expressed remorse for your actions and been willing to provide us some assistance. For this, your sentences are lowered to fifteen lashes each."
  5162. > Cadance boosts her voice over the younger mare's pleas, her own eyes closed as if to block out the sight of the begging filly.
  5163. > The look on Crescent's face isn't hard to parse either.
  5164. > Betrayal.
  5165. > She thought she would be spared from more than that.
  5166. > And now-
  5167. > There's no delay on her screams; from the very first blow that snaps across her back Crescent Moon is howling.
  5168. > Her voice makes even you wince - loud, piercing, without the richer tones of a full-grown mare.
  5169. > Another reminder of her age.
  5170. > If Mocha had been able to steel herself against it before, now her defenses collapse entirely.
  5171. > Within moments she is leaning against you for support, head buried amid her forelegs.
  5172. > Squatting down, you slip an arm around her neck - bringing her head in to nestle on your shoulder.
  5173. > From the position, you can see the dampness lining her cheeks, hear the whimpers she is desperately stifling.
  5174. > Feel the spasms that run through her body each time the whip cracks and Crescent Moon belts out another shriek.
  5175. > Which she is - each new blow driving her voice to a freshly-earsplitting volume.
  5176. "You don't have to stay, Mocha."
  5177. > Your voice is barely above a whisper, your lips brushing a velvet-coated ear.
  5178. > "Y-Yes, I do. You s-said-"
  5179. "I said it'd be good for you to see this. You've seen it. You can go now."
  5180. > "T-Thank you, M-Master."
  5181. "Go to my study. I'll come back there when this is done."
  5182. > And so she does, hurrying away on scurrying hooves that keep her moving as fast as she can without breaking into a gallop.
  5183. > Standing, you find that Randall had tilted his head - cocked an ear to your motions.
  5184. "My maid. She'd been forcing herself to come see this, but she's a young thing and it was hard on her."
  5185. > "Ah."
  5186. "She needed to see it, but there was no point in troubling her excessively. Like you said - moderation."
  5187. > "Moderation indeed."
  5188. > And thought you might've imagined it, you thought there was a little bit of respect in his voice.
  5189. > When her turn is finally done, Crescent Moon has to be carried limply off the stage.
  5190. > ...
  5191. > The last two of the eight ponies had only received five lashes each.
  5192. > Those were the ones who'd willingly given every apology for their actions.
  5193. > Even grovelled a bit on the stage.
  5194. > Randall had slipped off soon after it was done, claiming the need to speak to one of your advisers.
  5195. > That left you temporarily alone, and you know exactly where you are going.
  5196. > Mocha Cream had fled not to your study as your'd ordered, but to your room.
  5197. > In an even more daring act, you found her curled up on your bed - head still tucked between her forehooves and body hunkered down into a depression in the covers.
  5198. > The door's opening pulls her attention, but too slowly.
  5199. > She is still lifting her head when you seat yourself on the edge of the bed and put an arm around her midsection.
  5200. "I thought I told you to go to my study."
  5201. > "I'm s-so-"
  5202. "Shh. You're forgiven."
  5203. > Drawing her close against your side, you lean your head over to rest on her mane - damn the consequences if it got mussed up!
  5204. > For many long minutes the two of you remain there like that:
  5205. > You with your head nestled into her mane, each breath drawing coffee-scented air.
  5206. > She with her head resting on your chest - an ear laid in to feel your heartbeat.
  5207. "Do you remember, Mocha, when you lied to me and I threatened to spank you?"
  5208. > There's no need to look to know she is flushing sharply.
  5209. > "Y-Yes, Master."
  5210. "That is, I think, the worst I ever expect to have to do to you. Ever. You're too good of a pony to demand a flogging like that."
  5211. > Some of the stress seems to seep out of her body at last.
  5212. > "I know you wouldn't Master... I just..."
  5213. > She pauses, and you wait for the mare to get her thoughts in order - listening to her soft breathing.
  5214. > "I - I don't understand! I k-know it's not a-always good being a s-s-slave-"
  5215. > Forcing the word out seems to trouble her, but Mocha still manages.
  5216. > "-but why do they do things they have to be whipped for?! Why? What did she - how -"
  5217. > Now Mocha does break off, leaving you stroking the side of her neck.
  5218. > Eventually, in a very tiny voice:
  5219. > "Did they a-all have to be whipped like that?"
  5220. "I'm afraid so, Mocha. Thunderlane, Cadance, and I all met to talk it over yesterday. We all agreed... no chances could be taken here. We had to be shown just how badly they had broken the rules."
  5221. > "But why?! Why that hard?!"
  5222. > Despite her cry, Mocha is not pushing away from you.
  5223. > The exact opposite, in fact: Her forelegs have snaked around your torso to squeeze you in a hug, seeking any and all comfort.
  5224. > "M-Master? P-Please tell me the truth - if I did something b-bad like that, would you w-whip me?"
  5225. [Choice]
  5226. "If you did..."
  5227. > Your tighten your arms around her, ready for Mocha Cream to bolt as you give your answer.
  5228. "Then yes. If you attacked someone or somepony like that out of the blue, not trying to fairly defend yourself... I'd have to. I can't play favorites. If you were just surprised, or actually attacked by someone else first... that's different. That's no crime. But that's not what they did. They went looking for a fight, Mocha, even when warned. If you did that..."
  5229. > "...you would whip me."
  5230. "Yes. Nobody is immune, Mocha. I even warned Cadance - if it was a choice between seeing this all collapse and keeping Flurry Heart, I would get sell Flurry off in a heartbeat. You've been a good pony, and if there were any ameliorating circumstances I'd bring it down as far as I could... but I can't just protect you blindly."
  5231. > Despite your plainly-stated answer, there's no attempt to flee.
  5232. > Mocha stays perfectly in place, seeming to have recognized that making a run would be painful for the both of you.
  5233. "It's harsh. I'm not denying that, I know it is. But I have to listen to that cold, logical voice in my head because if I don't... everything falls to pieces.
  5234. > "That's why they had to be whipped too?"
  5235. "Yes. Because-"
  5236. > Because the ponies are your property.
  5237. > Because they have to remember who they ultimately obey.
  5238. > Because a rebellion sparking now - right on the cusp of your most ambitious plans yet - would ruin any hope of your daughter being able to take over a true success.
  5239. "-because it's a powder keg, and they were holding a match to the fuse. Right now... everypony's already tense, and we're only just starting to defuse that."
  5240. > Leaning back on the bed, you prop yourself on an elbow.
  5241. "It's not just because I enjoy seeing ponies whipped. It's that if I did anything less, and they came back and still lit the fuse and this place went up - well, it'd be a lot worse than a few lashes then. It's a warning of sorts... Cadance, Thunderlane and I talked it all over beforehand. Decided it - had to be done."
  5242. > You aren't sure if Mocha's reaction is just a nod of agreement or her stirring for a more comfortable position, but she doesn't dispute you.
  5243. "I mean... God, what would you have done there, Mocha?"
  5244. > "I-I-"
  5245. > She shivers, liquid-brown eyes lifting to peer up at you from where she'd laid her head on your chest.
  5246. > "I don't know, Master. I'm - not you. Not a human. Not free. I'm just - just the maid."
  5247. > Fingers stroking reassuringly through her mane, you note that her tremulous tone spoke of a greater fear.
  5248. > Fear of failure, or something worse.
  5249. "It's not an easy choice, Mocha."
  5250. > "Yes, Master."
  5251. > Again her head drops to your chest, one ear flicking - eventually coming to rest square on your shirt.
  5252. > Ponies' sense of sound being so much more keen, she can almost certainly hear your heart.
  5253. > ...maybe next time you should have her come in during the planning process.
  5254. > Let her hear you, Cadance, and whoever else talking it out.
  5255. > "Master, I-"
  5256. > She sniffles, a hoof rising to rub at her nose.
  5257. > "-I don't think I want to be different. From everypony else."
  5258. "Oh?"
  5259. > "Yeah. I - I just... I don't want - anypony to go through that again. If I'm special... they'll never listen to me."
  5260. > Your hand finds a velvet-furred ear; it twitches under your touch as you run your fingers along the edge.
  5261. "You're a good pony to see that, Mocha. I wish the others could."
  5262.  
  5263. > The first time you'd wielded a whip, there'd been little chance to think about it afterwards.
  5264. > Or rather, that time you had spent was mostly caught up on the sheer agony of the flogging you'd experienced shortly thereafter.
  5265. > This time, there was no such distraction.
  5266. > You were free to wallow in the unmitigated horror of what you'd done.
  5267. > Necessary, yes.
  5268. > And even in some manner justified; a pony who'd lashed out at an officer of the law would have faced punishment in Equestria as well.
  5269. > But nothing like this.
  5270. > Except perhaps, under Sombra.
  5271. > That thought sends a shudder through your very core.
  5272. > You weren't becoming Sombra.
  5273. > You knew that, with an ironclad certainty that should have rebuffed any fears.
  5274. > And yet...
  5275. > Seated at in your office, you ignite your horn and lift the heavy calendar covering your desk to expose the coal-black letters burned into the wood beneath:
  5276. > Traitor.
  5277. > ...you aren't.
  5278. > Only doing what you have to.
  5279. > Repeating it is almost enough to make you believe.
  5280. > But doing - that is what will make others believe.
  5281. "Mayor Mare? Can you come into my office now?"
  5282. > Within a moment the pony in question is in your door, a pen tucked into her mane and folder clutched close to her chest.
  5283. > "What can I do for you, Your Highness?"
  5284. "We need something to grab everypony's attention. Something to take their minds off... what just happened."
  5285. > One eyebrow rises.
  5286. > "Are you soliciting suggestions?"
  5287. "Actually, I've already got one. The materials seized by the guards during the raid - have they all been collected?"
  5288. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  5289. "Then we need to get them in order and see what we can actually make use of."
  5290. > They had, in fact, been entirely turned over from the security forces to your staff - a result, you suspect, of your insistence in arguing that point with Anonymous.
  5291. > On the upside, this meant that there was no need to go looking for them anywhere else.
  5292. > Spreading the papers out over your desk, you start to look through each one in turn.
  5293. > The only one to really catch your eye is the largest image of Celestia - her mane rendered in exquisite form, eyes with enough depth you could almost believe they are the real thing.
  5294. > Reaching out, you lightly tap a hoof to the image's neck.
  5295. > What would your aunt have thought of you now?
  5296. > You'd only ever wanted to be for these ponies what she'd been to Equestria.
  5297. > Only ever wanted to walk in her hoofsteps.
  5298. > But by now...
  5299. > She'd always been more tolerant of little indignities on herself, sometimes even seeming to tacitly approve of them.
  5300. > As if she didn't want anypony to think she was getting to big for her hoofboots.
  5301. > It'd been something you'd made note of as you were preparing to take up your own crown.
  5302. > A lesson paid as much attention as any proper advice or little hints she had whispered in your ears.
  5303. > There was a difference between minor indignities and this, though - a sharp one.
  5304. > If she saw you now - would there be more whispers of reassurance, or only the sternly-worded lectures she had delivered with such a quiet, yet-
  5305. > "Your Highness?"
  5306. > Mayor Mare's question starts you from your thoughts.
  5307. "I - I'm sorry. I was... just thinking."
  5308. > Eyes falling to the image you touched, the older mare nods understandingly.
  5309. > "I cannot begin to imagine how hard it must be for you, always being in her shadow..."
  5310. "You shouldn't demean yourself, Mayor. You kept this place in as good shape as you could before I arrived."
  5311. > A hoof is waved dismissively.
  5312. > "Bah. It's nothing like the same - I just organized, but it was Anonymous making the decisions. You've done so much more."
  5313. > Then, more softly.
  5314. > "Would you like it removed?"
  5315. "I would like - if another could be found-"
  5316. > You glance around the office, looking for an empty spot of wall.
  5317. "-if there's another, I'd like it to hang in here."
  5318. > Now a small smile touches Mayor Mare's lips as well.
  5319. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  5320. > As to the others, though...
  5321. > The remainder of the materials can mostly be divided into five categories.
  5322. > Portraits, like that one, of figures from Equestria.
  5323. > Nobility, soldiers, even your sister-in-law and the other Elements...
  5324. > All lovingly rendered to make them appear as noble and grand as possible.
  5325. > All except yourself.
  5326. > The second category, however, is more immediately relevant:
  5327. > Articles, clipped from newspapers or in some cases seemingly printed from the humans' internet, each highlighting the darkest, most stomach-churning offenses of slavery.
  5328. > Some curt and clipped, very detached in tone and phrasing.
  5329. > Others more... hyperbolic.
  5330. > More of the same, only this time focusing on those rare instances where ponies had managed to - somehow - rebel and fight their way to freedom.
  5331. > ...one, highlighting the punishment for a pony who had done so.
  5332. > You can't bear to look at that article for too long.
  5333. > And even though the more... enthusiastic writing heartens you - there were, it seemed, still some humans who saw the evil in slavery! - it also worries you.
  5334. > For to idolize is to encourage emulation...
  5335. "Mayor Mare? Is this it?"
  5336. > "...yes, Your Highness."
  5337. > She isn't looking at you, though, and neither are her words really sent in your direction:
  5338. > Her head tilted away, as if speaking directly to you would allow you to sense their dishonesty.
  5339. "Mayor..."
  5340. > "You - should not see them. You don't have to. They won't be going in the museum."
  5341. "Bring them in, Mayor."
  5342. > Flinching sharply at your hardened tone, she sighs out:
  5343. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  5344. > The folder is relatively small, and only two sheets of paper reside within.
  5345. > One is enough to make you understand why she had disposed of them.
  5346. > Corona is drawn in heartbreaking detail, making it abundantly clear the torment she had suffered.
  5347. > Rendered laying on her side with all four legs splayed - a pose that might be salacious, if it were not for how it was used to highlight how the artist imagined her savagely-burned teats.
  5348. > Eyes peering into the viewer, a mix of rage and helplessness.
  5349. > "Your Highness? F-Forgive me, I did not see her before she - vanished. Was it as bad-"
  5350. "No, Mayor. They have... exaggerated. But that does not diminish the brutality she experienced."
  5351. > Sliding that image aside, you lay eyes on the second one and -
  5352. > Oh.
  5353. > Your throat closes up, tears springing to your eyes.
  5354. > "I'm sorry, Your Highness... I knew you would not want to see it..."
  5355. "No, I - I should."
  5356. > It was an old image, perhaps from a portrait in Equestria.
  5357. > You thought you remembered the very one.
  5358. > Shining Armor stood tall, proud, and forceful - every bit the fierce, yet warm-hearted stallion he was.
  5359. > He, too, looked into the viewer - but rather than seeming to desperately, helplessly question he seemed to challenge.
  5360. > Swallowing hard, you lift a wing to brush the tears from your eyes.
  5361. "...let us focus on our actual task, for now."
  5362. [Choice]
  5363. "We'll use the portraits. Everypony here was a critical part of Equestria. The rest of it..."
  5364. > You glance among the articles, each one a pointed reminder of the very real cost slavery continued to exact from every pony caught in its jaws.
  5365. > And you remember the deal you'd been forced to cut with Anonymous to even get this much in.
  5366. "...Anonymous will never tolerate anything that would promote actual rebellion. We'll have to leave that out."
  5367. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  5368. > Quickly Mayor Mare begins filing it away again - papers and cutouts slipping back into the folder, newspapers and the image of Corona and the one of Shining -
  5369. "No, leave that."
  5370. > "Are you sure, Your Highness?"
  5371. > Paused with her hoof on the edge of your husband's image, Mayor Mare cocks her head.
  5372. > "There's no need..."
  5373. "I will... manage."
  5374. > You could do that, couldn't you?
  5375. > Summon up enough strength to face his likeness?
  5376. > Locking eyes with the rendition of Shining Armor, you're again struck by just how well they had captured his expression - speaking to the boundless spirit you knew he bore, and yet still challenging the viewer to meet it.
  5377. > What would he think of you now, you wonder?
  5378. > Now that you were without his support you'd relied on so often after taking up your crown.
  5379. > Without the love that had buoyed you each night, when he lay with his hooves wrapped around your barrel.
  5380. "It goes up."
  5381. > Maybe even more.
  5382. > Would Anonymous provide a copy of it, if you asked him to?
  5383. > To sit on your desk, and remind you of what you should be doing?
  5384. > "Yes, Your Highness. What about the rest of these?"
  5385. "File them away. Safely, securely - if you can't find space in a lockbox, hide them. Don't let them be destroyed, though - that'd only provoke more anger."
  5386. > The smallest of smiles touches the edges of her lips.
  5387. > "Of course, Your highness."
  5388. > As to the rest of the portraits - those go into a different folder, slipped into your desk.
  5389. > You'll have to show them to Anonymous in due time - perhaps tomorrow - but right now you aren't sure you can manage to face him with an even tone.
  5390. > Not after what you'd just done.
  5391. > Squeezing your eyes shut, you try and drive out the memory insistently lingering in the back of your mind - the /feel/ of your magic grasping the whip's handle, the insistent tug on it as it caught struck flesh with an ear-dropping crack.
  5392. > The rattling grunts, moans, and eventually screams they had belted out as you had savaged their hides with the lash.
  5393. > Again, you thank Celestia that Anonymous did not demand the use of a full-length, full-weight whip that would truly have injured them.
  5394. > What you had done was already more than enough.
  5395. > Especially to young Crescent Moon - only taking half the lashes for her cooperation, but she had also resisted giving anything more than that one fruitless name.
  5396. > Tears are beginning to build at the corners of your eyes, and you force them away before they can do more than form the barest pool.
  5397. > This isn't the time.
  5398. > You, of all ponies, can not be weak - not be seen to be weak - now.
  5399. > There are other things to be taken care of first, things that have to be done to ensure you won't be needing to take up that whip again any time soon.
  5400. > So if you must harden your heart until there is tome once again, then let your heart be hardened and let this be done with.
  5401. > Slipping from the building, you take to wing as soon as sun strikes your back.
  5402. > Rapidly rising up above roof height, your systematic search for the particular pony you needed to see soon yields fruit.
  5403. > Not that she would have been hard to spot, with her crimson cascades of mane and tail.
  5404. > Alighting next to Haute Glamour, you immediately greet her with a nod.
  5405. "Haute Glamour."
  5406. > "Cadance."
  5407. > Her own replying nod is considerably warmer.
  5408. > The unicorn had been amid a small cluster of other ponies and even a few humans - surveying tools and field precariously balanced on assorted limbs and magic fields.
  5409. > Yet when you start walking, she immediately detaches herself from them to retain her place at your side.
  5410. "Good to see that you are busy. Laying out plans for the new additions, I suppose."
  5411. > "Indeed. Only just the first steps, but they are capable with a bit of direction..."
  5412. > Her head cocks, on eye still resting on you from the corner of its socket.
  5413. > "Come to check on our progress?"
  5414. "Yes. I'm glad to see the proper work getting underway now - it's been a long enough wait."
  5415. > "I can encourage them to go after, if you would prefer..."
  5416. "Hmm. I saw you at the... display this morning."
  5417. > If Haute is curious about the change of topic, she doesn't mention it.
  5418. > "Well, I am charged with reporting back on your management of these ponies, but-"
  5419. > A laugh, clear and tinkling and so far removed from the dismissive tone behind it.
  5420. > "-I quite understand the need for a bit of discipline here and there, and you handled it quite efficiently."
  5421. > Good - the chance to dig you'd been looking for.
  5422. "I imagine you're no stranger to that, with your own little 'herd'."
  5423. > "Occasionally."
  5424. > She sniffs dismissively.
  5425. > "I dislike having to use actual violence on them - so messy - but a little reminder every once in a while can be quite good."
  5426. "As far as I am concerned, if it gets to the point where there is violence involved I have already failed. It's already slipped from my control."
  5427. > "I admit, it's not my first choice... but there does come a point when, well - forgive me, but a point must be made. As hard and as quickly as is needed."
  5428. "And it did. Striking out a guard was - beyond unacceptable. The sort of thing that does imperil my control of this place. The kind of thing that could change Anonymous' mind."
  5429. > "Agreed."
  5430. > Remember, you tell yourself.
  5431. > Hard heart, cold heart - think like she would.
  5432. > Speak like she would.
  5433. > And pray you could eventually forgive yourself, because anypony who heard you would not.
  5434. "Well, there certainly were a lot of them there - so I think the reminder of the point was made."
  5435. > "Quite. Even Randall turned up - that was good. It let me give Posey a little reminder of what I might do to her if she ever gets too big for her shoes."
  5436. "I think that point was certainly made. She seemed terrified."
  5437. > "She should be. Sometimes gets a little too close to Randall - more reliant on him than on me - and needs a reminder of who is truly in charge. I've made it clear I will take a lash to her again if I find her considering betraying me, and she needs to know just how bad that would be."
  5438. > A cold feeling begins to creep up from your stomach.
  5439. > Despite knowing that the answer will likely be one you will not like, you ask the question on your lips anyhow:
  5440. "You've had to use it on her before?"
  5441. > "Here and there, once or twice. Never a full whip - that was reserved for the others. One particular stallion who thought to stand in the way when I was managing the others."
  5442. > Your stomach turns at the thought of the meek little thing being flogged, but by now practice lets you halt those thoughts far from your face.
  5443. > "But yes, I've had to inflict a little punishment when it was needed. Nothing so... powerful, of course."
  5444. > In the end all it is, is more confirmation that you needed to separate Posey and talk to her - the sooner the better.
  5445. "Randall didn't notice?"
  5446. > Haute Glamour gives you a strange look, and belatedly you realize the mistake.
  5447. "Right, blind. I'd forgotten."
  5448. > "Like I said, in more ways than one. He knew, of course, but trusted me to manage them. The same your master seems to do with you."
  5449. > There's something a little odd in her tone, though, and after a moment you identify it.
  5450. "You have a question."
  5451. > "I - don't want to sound like I am questioning your decisions. This is your territory."
  5452. "Ask, Haute. I'll not be offended."
  5453. > "Why did you pardon the ones who were speaking out against you? Surely that needs to be nipped in the bud first?"
  5454. [Choice]
  5455. > If you tell the truth - that you forgave them because you pity them (and, perhaps, in a dark corner of your mind, because you think some of their points were justified) then Haute only has more ammunition to use against you.
  5456. > And more reason to use it, seeing as you'd be making yourself seem weak and vulnerable in her view.
  5457. > But suggest that you had even crueler things planned, and she could get the wrong estimation of you.
  5458. > Or, if you somehow came into conflict even still, use it to hurt you - convince more ponies to come to her side, away from your 'cruelty'.
  5459. "Tell me, Haute, have you ever heard of the phrase 'catch more flies with honey than vinegar'?"
  5460. > "Yes. But they are not flies - they are wasps, and they have already stung you once."
  5461. "It's not the that I'm catching. If I struck them too hard I'd only turn other ponies against me; in camp like this, I couldn't ever root out all the rebels before it was too late. But I give them a voice, I let them think they can talk to me - it keeps them in line."
  5462. > "Isn't that what the guards are for?"
  5463. "I can't rely on them to catch everypony. And with this many ponies, if I'm too aggressive I could even drive them away in turn. Can you imagine the damage I would do if that happened?"
  5464. > That seems to finally get Haute thinking; she hadn't even considered that possibility.
  5465. > No surprise; whichever ponies she used for her 'enforcers' she probably considered locked in to their roles since she could spend so much more time working on each.
  5466. "Remember, there are a great many more ponies here than you are used to. A great many more chances for it to go wrong. If I had to punish every pony who's ever had a bad thought about me, everypony here would have tasted the whip already."
  5467. > Including yourself.
  5468. > Perhaps even yourself first.
  5469. "The way I did it, I get to have my cake and eat it too - show that I'm not afraid to dish out needed punishment, but can be 'reasonable' too. I make the ponies fighting me seem like the reasonable ones."
  5470. > "And if they don't fall in line? If they do still raise trouble for you?"
  5471. "You were there this morning. You heard my threat. It was not empty - there's no room here for ponies who fan the flames of violence. They will simply be removed."
  5472. > With a still-thoughtful expression stamped on her muzzle, Haute Glamour finally nods.
  5473. > "Playing your role so delicately... I'm once again impressed by your skills as a ruler, Cadance."
  5474. > No.
  5475. > If you were a real leader, you could tell her exactly what you thought of her.
  5476. > Exactly how wrong she was, how much damage she was doing.
  5477. > But you aren't.
  5478. > "If I may offer some advice of your own, Cadance?"
  5479. "Of course."
  5480. > Make some of them obedient to you. Not just loyal, not just followers - obedient. Absolutely obedient. When the time comes, you will need ponies who will follow you no matter what. Find out what makes them tick, and squeeze them on it."
  5481. "And what do you suggest I offer them."
  5482. > Everypony has something different. A vice. A hope. A thrill. A chance to belittle a human and feel they are in control, or perhaps a willing mare in their bed."
  5483. > That last one raises an eyebrow, and Haute Glamour shrugs.
  5484. > "For some, it is what they need. Yes, I did lift my tail for a few stallions - and warmed a couple of my owners' beds too."
  5485. > Then, more softly:
  5486. > "Do you think less of me for it?"
  5487. "No."
  5488. > And for the first time in a while speaking to Haute the honest in your voiice is all genuine.
  5489. > Of all the things she had done, making herself - available was the least of them.
  5490. > It could not reduce your opinion of her any lower than it already was.
  5491. > Surprisingly, however, Haute's voice also contains a note of pure and true honesty:
  5492. > "Thank you."
  5493. > Relief at being vindicated, perhaps.
  5494. > "Some would hate me for that. But I - I won't give up this power. I won't go back to being the weak, the slave. If I have to give this up - then so be it."
  5495. > And in that answer, you wonder if you couldn't also hear a scared little filly terrified of losing herself again.
  5496. > The question is, can that filly be coaxed out from under the scarred shell she'd built over her heart?
  5497.  
  5498. > You regard the toilet bowl with the dull unhappiness of somepony who had been hanging over its edge for the past ten minutes.
  5499. > Disgust.
  5500. > But relief that it was there.
  5501. > The last time you'd been this sick was - how many years ago?
  5502. > A wild night out, with Cloudchaser under one wing and a glass of proper mead in the other hoof.
  5503. > Somepony's birthday, at least at the start.
  5504. > Later, it'd just been drinking for the sake of drinking.
  5505. > ...you could use a drink right now.
  5506. > It might take the edge off the real reason you were languishing on the edge of this porcelain bowl this time:
  5507. > The screams still echoing in your ears from pairs of ponies had tiane their turn up at the whipping posts.
  5508. > Before you'd experienced it, a whipping had been bad enough.
  5509. > After your own turn under the lash, it had become so much worse.
  5510. > Enough to make you flee, stomach turning, and just barely be able to reach your quarters.
  5511. > Thank Celestia that Cadance had not demanded you be up on the stage for it.
  5512. > How she had managed to do that after her own turn under the whip was beyond you.
  5513. > Maybe alicorns were made of stronger stuff than mere pegasi.
  5514. > Maybe she just had more of her emotions, her empathy abraded away by the daily pressures she faced.
  5515. > A guard, you think, ought to be stronger than this too.
  5516. > But the way Crescent Moon had /howled/...
  5517. > Knocking at your door - a distraction from the matters at hand.
  5518. "Yeah? Who is it?"
  5519. > "It's me, big bro. You okay in there?"
  5520. > Rumble.
  5521. > You sigh a soft note of thanks.
  5522. > Of all the ponies - or humans - who could have come by, he was one of the few you were genuinely thankful to see.
  5523. "Yeah, gimme a second."
  5524. > Standing - steadying yourself until each step was actually a step, and not just a stumbling lurch forward.
  5525. > Opening the door, you find Rumble waiting directly in front of it - concern practically stamped on her face.
  5526. > "...you okay, Big Bro?"
  5527. > For a moment you consider lying and saying that no, you're fine.
  5528. > But there's no hiding it:
  5529. > You look like you just got out of a century in Tartarus.
  5530. "...not too great, but I'll be alright in time."
  5531. > "Yeah. I, uh, kind of figured. So I, uh..."
  5532. > One wing extends to gesture to your left - and there stands Vapor Trail, her head cocked in concern.
  5533. "Vapor! You - you didn't have to come out - aren't you on shift?"
  5534. > "My supervisor is... understanding. Can I come in?"
  5535. > Of course she can.
  5536. > The moment she does, however, you can't quite help but miss the wrinkle in Vapor Trail's nose.
  5537. > Cheeks flushing, you duck your head.
  5538. "Sorry. I smell like a slop bucket, don't I?"
  5539. > Vapor Trail, at least, blushes in equal embarrassment.
  5540. "I, uh.... I threw up. Let me get something to drink."
  5541. > "Threw up? Are you sick?"
  5542. "No. Not like, virus sick anyway. Just..."
  5543. > In your moment of hesitation, Vapor Trail nods.
  5544. > "I understand. Go lay down, I'll get you something."
  5545. > The tapwater is cold and tastes metallic, but right now it is the perfect thing to wash away the foul taste lingering in your mouth.
  5546. > While you rest on the bed - Vapor Trail hovering figuratively if not quite literally around you - Rumble sits in the opposite corner and shoots you a knowing smirk.
  5547. > ...the little jerk, you'll get him for that.
  5548. > Right before you give him a huge hug for looking after you.
  5549. > Seeming to read your mind, Rumble gives a little laugh and shakes his head.
  5550. > "Brothers look after brothers. Little ones too."
  5551. "Yeah, yeah."
  5552. > Despite your grumbling, you shift aside when Vapor Trail comes back and heaves herself up onto the bed as well.
  5553. > After a few moments, you speak up again:
  5554. "Vapor, can I ask you something?"
  5555. > "Of course, Thunderlane."
  5556. "What are ponies saying out there? What's - the feel of the herd?"
  5557. > This takes a few moments for her to marshal up a proper answer.
  5558. > "Ponies are - scared, Thunderlane. That raid... I understand why you had to do it. But still - it scared everypony something bad. And now those ponies who weren't even rebels, but fought back just because they were scared too and got whipped..."
  5559. "Is there going to be a riot?"
  5560. > "No. Not yet. Not nearly yet. But we're all still balanced on the edge of a thundercloud; lightning's ready to strike, the only question is where."
  5561. > That notion does not settle your stomach one bit, and yet you're still thankful for her having said as much.
  5562. > Somehow just hearing it makes suspicion leap to ironclad reality.
  5563. "I'm sorry."
  5564. > Head coming to rest across your withers, Vapor Trail nickers softly into your mane.
  5565. > "Don't be. Like I said, I understand why you had to. And for everypony ready to be angry, there's another pony ready to back you up."
  5566. > From across the room, Rumble nods in agreement.
  5567. > "If you want them to listen you've gotta show them now, bro. Show them like you showed me."
  5568. > But could that even be done?
  5569. > Head twisting around, you let your gaze run along Vapor Trail's form.
  5570. > Her belly, now truly beginning to swell with the her pregnancy.
  5571. > Over to rumble, watching you with worried eyes.
  5572. > You could - admit to them.
  5573. > Tell them something, or even everything, of what you know.
  5574. > Even just tell them everything about how you're feeling.
  5575. > But can they be trusted to know?
  5576. > Your brother and - yes, you can't deny it - marefriend?
  5577. [Choice]
  5578. > ...you feel incredibly alone right now.
  5579. > A mare at your side, her head on your withers and wing stretched across your back - breath tickling at your mane.
  5580. > Your brother, facing you with worried eyes and ready to do anything you could ask of them.
  5581. > And yet, you couldn't feel any less than a thousand miles away.
  5582. > There's no way you can tell them everything that you'd done.
  5583. > Everything that was being planned.
  5584. > It would've buoyed both their spirits to know of the escape plan - even if they couldn't have used it to sway opinion.
  5585. > But you could hardly lay that kind of weight on their backs too.
  5586. "Everything that's coming... it's like a crushing pressure."
  5587. > When neither of them speak, you go on:
  5588. "I... spoke a lot, to Crescent Moon. A few of the others too - tried to get them to talk. You know, I don't think any of them were the third pony involved with the graffiti break-ins?"
  5589. > "Another pony?"
  5590. > Rumble's voice is soft, a bare murmur.
  5591. > Clearly he was coming to the same worrying conclusions as well:
  5592. > Somepony else was still out there - somepony willing to act rashly as well.
  5593. "I can't do this again. Can't keep bringing in ponies to be whipped. Not like her... it's not like a stallion who was looking to pick a fight. She was scared, expected to be tortured if we caught her... that's not something you can whip a pony for!"
  5594. > Your hoof slams down on the mattress, tail lashing angrily.
  5595. "I took this damn job to protect ponies, not - not do that to them!"
  5596. > "Thunderlane..."
  5597. > Lifting her head, Vapor Trail reaches out a hoof to slip beneath yours as well - turning your eyes to meet her.
  5598. > Her soft expression is filled with understanding, yet that only makes your stomach turn more.
  5599. > She has no idea what you are.
  5600. > "You didn't do that to her. Of all the things that set her up to that point, you didn't."
  5601. "That's not true. I chased her, I cornered her-"
  5602. > "They provoked her to act. And Anonymous pushed Cadance into punishing her. If you hadn't - wouldn't he have sent another guard in to find her?"
  5603. > To that, there is no reply.
  5604. > You know it, Vapor Trail knows it, and Rumble knows it.
  5605. > And isn't afraid to say as much.
  5606. > "Bro, you aren't any more the fault of that than that maid unicorn - Mocha - for the orders she has to deliver, y'know? She's good. I was pissed at her at first, but she's a good pony inside - and everypony'll see you're good too."
  5607. "That doesn't excuse me..."
  5608. > "It doesn't excuse what happened to her. You aren't what happened to her."
  5609. > That draws a snort from you, but Vapor Trail leans in to nuzzle your cheek.
  5610. > A moment later something brushes your opposite cheek as well - Rumble having moved in to meet you the opposite side.
  5611. > "Nopony's hating on you, big bro."
  5612. > Somepony is, though.
  5613. > You.
  5614. > Yourself.
  5615. > Even so, you sigh and stretch out a wing - covering them both and pulling them close.
  5616. "...thanks, you two. And - worried."
  5617. > "Yeah, we know-"
  5618. "No, not just that. I am worried that somepony will blame me, and if they do... if they do, I'm worried they'll come after one of you."
  5619. > That, in turn, actually gives them pause.
  5620. > The thought of being jumped...
  5621. > "...nopony would do that. There've been some fights, but nopony's been attacked-"
  5622. "You say that, Rumble, but what if someone is that angry - and doesn't feel like tangling with a guard? What happens then?"
  5623. > "I can hold my own, bro."
  5624. > Even before he finishes, you feel Vapor shift uncertainly.
  5625. > When both of you look over for her response, she turns her head away.
  5626. > "I'll be fine. I'm a little slower than I used to be, but I was still fast enough to make the Wonderbolts, remember? I can still probably outfly half this camp."
  5627. > But what, you wonder, about the half she couldn't?
  5628. > ...
  5629. > The soft voice calling from across the road brings your head up and mind out of the clouds it had drifted into while you were patrolling.
  5630. "...oh, hey Mocha."
  5631. > Her own head drooping and seeming to glance about furtively, Mocha Cream still wanders over with a small smile.
  5632. > "Hi, Thunderlane. Do, um, you know where I can find Miss Cadance?"
  5633. "She isn't down at the town hall?"
  5634. > "No. I already looked; they say they don't know when she'll be back."
  5635. > A slight frown touches your face.
  5636. "I'm afraid I don't. I'm on loose patrol right now, though, so we can go look."
  5637. > Despite the reluctance weighing down her tone, Mocha falls in beside you.
  5638. > "Um, thank you. I don't want you to be a bother."
  5639. "You aren't. This is my role here."
  5640. > Looking down at the little maid-mare, you tilt your head and drop your voice.
  5641. "So, how are you holding up?"
  5642. > "I'm..."
  5643. > The absence of any further words speaks for itself.
  5644. "Nevermind. I'm sorry - I didn't mean to pry."
  5645. > "No, it's okay."
  5646. > Shaking her head, Mocha sighs.
  5647. > her voice is barely more than a whisper.
  5648. > "I've... not been okay. Since... you know."
  5649. "Yes."
  5650. > "I... had to leave. Master Anonymous said I should be there to see it, but I couldn't stay. I was too weak..."
  5651. > Halting in your tracks, you lean down and bring your muzzle to her level - voice also dropping to barely above a whisper.
  5652. "Would you like to know a secret, Mocha?"
  5653. > "S-Secret?"
  5654. "I couldn't stay either. I had to leave too - and then I threw up. So it's okay if you couldn't stay."
  5655. > It is, if anything, proof that this little maid-mare still had a heart left to care with.
  5656. > The proof anypony should have seen to know she was hardly just an agent of Anonymous.
  5657. > Blushing softly, Mocha turns away - but you can see the little smile touching her lips.
  5658. > "O-Oh..."
  5659. > Resuming your walk, you let Mocha catch up before speaking again:
  5660. "Rumble talks about you, you know?"
  5661. > "R-Really?"
  5662. > Oh, yes.
  5663. > There's no hiding the blush rising on her cheeks now.
  5664. "Yes. A lot. He's quickly becoming a friend of yours. Always has nice things to say about you."
  5665. > Mocha Cream might have said something, but it came out so soft and indecipherable you are barely aware of hearing it - let alone what she meant.
  5666. > Teasingly, you reply with a smirk:
  5667. "Sorry, didn't quite hear what you said."
  5668. > "...said, it must be nice to have family..."
  5669. > Your heart freezes.
  5670. > That - wasn't what you had expected.
  5671. > At all.
  5672. > And now you feel like a jerk for pushing her like that.
  5673. > Risking a glance up, Mocha spots your expression - and pales.
  5674. > "Oh! Oh, nonono! I'm sorry, I didn't m-mean to upset y-you!"
  5675. "No, no - you didn't. I just - I didn't ... know."
  5676. > It sounds so lame - 'I didn't know.'
  5677. > Mocha, though shakes her head.
  5678. > "I was too soft. I'm sorry."
  5679. "It's alright..."
  5680. > After a moment you try again, this time more softly.
  5681. "You don't have any family?"
  5682. > "N-No. I was s-sold away from my parents years ago. And, um... well, I guess we're kind of close, the house ponies? But we're not family... Master Anonymous and Rumble are the closest I know."
  5683. > Exerting considerable willpower, you keep a disgusted grimace from stamping itself on your face.
  5684. > Another life, destroyed by slavery.
  5685. > No, lives - her parents must have suffered too, having their young daughter ripped away.
  5686. > Without a second of hesitation you slip a protective wing over her.
  5687. "I'm sorry."
  5688. > "It's okay. It's not your fault. You've been good to me. R-Rumble too, once he spoke to me."
  5689. > That manages to provide
  5690. > Cadance, in fact, is not found in any of the locations you were going to look.
  5691. > Instead she practically runs into you - turning a corner and almost colliding muzzle-to-muzzle.
  5692. > Both of you halt, wings flared with surprise, and back off a step.
  5693. > "Oh! Thunderlane, I am sorry - is there something you need?"
  5694. > Both tone and the aggressive, fast near-prance she had been doing speak to a considerable pressure on her mind.
  5695. "...is something wrong, Your Highness?"
  5696. > "No, I just-"
  5697. > She glances to Mocha and sighs.
  5698. > "Haute Glamour."
  5699. > All three of you nod in mutual disgust.
  5700. > "But it's past. What can I do for you?"
  5701. "Not actually for me. Mocha?"
  5702. > "Master Anonymous requests you send up the documents seized in the raid so he can examine them and make a decision on any that your nominate to be placed in the museum."
  5703. > "Ah, yes, of course."
  5704. > Cadance nods, her expression softening.
  5705. > "There are -"
  5706. > She looks around, suddenly conscious of the ponies watching the exchange.
  5707. > "-a good few of those, yes. I'll have them sent up for his decision immediately."
  5708. > When she turns to go, however, Mocha scuffs a hoof softly and adds:
  5709. > "Um - p-pardon me, M-Miss Cadance?"
  5710. > "Yes, Mocha?"
  5711. > "He says he wants them all sent up. Even the ones you don't want in the musem, h-he says he wants to see."
  5712. > Cadance's face says enough, but it is you who give voice to her thoughts:
  5713. "That wasn't originally part of the plans. We were going to send just the ones for the museum, and just have the rest safely stored."
  5714. > A pause, then added:
  5715. > "Safely stored - with us."
  5716. > "I-I know. He says he wants to know what is being passed around, even if i-it's not going in the museum."
  5717. > "...tell him that he's welcome to come down and look, but we agreed that they would be held on to."
  5718. > Mocha's head falls even further.
  5719. > "H-He says I'm supposed to bring them all to him. I'm sorry, Miss Cadance..."
  5720. > Cadance's frown deepens, and you can understand why.
  5721. > The little independence that you had gained was being sorely undercut here, and there wasn't much that could be done about it.
  5722. > Even if it was over something so small, the effect at this delicate moment could be far worse...
  5723. > But then again, was it worth it to raise a fuss about ultimately papers that were just going to be stored away anyhow?
  5724. [Choice]
  5725. "Cadance..."
  5726. > Your voice is soft - even if you couldn't help but have this be heard, having happened in a public location, you could try and keep others from hearing you.
  5727. "We can't just - say no. Not over something as minor as this."
  5728. > The alicorn's head snaps around to fix you with a narrow-eyed glare.
  5729. > But before she can speak you go on.
  5730. > In retrospect, you wonder how many ponies would have dared to interrupt royalty - and what it said about you that you had.
  5731. "That doesn't mean we have to just go along with it. You hand it over, but you go up there and you make sure he knows that he has to give it back. He has to hold his word and give it to use. But we don't start and argument... not now."
  5732. > Cadance looks ready to argue with you right here and now, but eventually sighs and bobs her head in a single nod.
  5733. > "Okay. I'll - I'll go get to speak to Mayor Mare. Have them... brought up for you."
  5734. "Do you still need me, Your Highness?"
  5735. > "No, Thunderlane. It'll be alright."
  5736. > "Oh. Um, where are you going?"
  5737. "To finish my patrol. And then go check in on somepony."
  5738. > The medical ward feels subdued; most ponies there go about their business with quiet words and few of them.
  5739. > Whether that's just the mood of the place today or has to do with the new arrivals, you aren't sure.
  5740. > Crescent Moon has a room to herself, thankfully.
  5741. > It keeps anyone else from seeing how she pointedly ignores you when you nudge the door open and call in:
  5742. "Crescent? It's Thunderlane. Can I come in?"
  5743. > There's no response at first.
  5744. "Crescent?"
  5745. > Pushing the door a feather's-width further open yields a soft squeak from its hinges and a tired sigh from Crescent.
  5746. > "You're not going to go away if I don't answer, are you."
  5747. "You can just say no."
  5748. > But she doesn't, finally lifting her head from the pillow it had been buried in to look at you.
  5749. > "...yeah, come in."
  5750. > You do, being mindful to close the door with a gentle kick.
  5751. > It's becoming a habit - as is visiting ponies in the medical ward after less-than-pleasant business with them.
  5752. > It is also rather difficult to keep your eyes off her horn.
  5753. > Or, more accurately, the heavy metal and plastic band affixed at the base of her horn.
  5754. > That, even more than the red welts still criss-crossing her back, is what draws your attention.
  5755. > The stare draws a bitter laugh from Crescent.
  5756. > "Yeah, take a good look. I'm going to be wearing it for a while."
  5757. "Does it - hurt?"
  5758. > "No."
  5759. > Then she adds:
  5760. > "Pain - pain might be better. It's an - emptiness. Like - I know there's something there. I can feel there's something that has to be there, but it's not and when I go to reach for my magic I just can't quite grasp it-"
  5761. > She breaks off with a heavy shudder, head shaking.
  5762. > "I don't know if it's the same for a pegasus. If you can be - cut off like we can."
  5763. "We can. It's not as easy, but we can."
  5764. > "Well, it's fucking nasty. I can't stand it. A piece of me is just... gone. And it's going to keep being gone for weeks and weeks-"
  5765. > Again she cuts off, shaking but still somehow in control.
  5766. > In the following silence, you speak instead:
  5767. "I'm sorry..."
  5768. > "For what? Setting me to get flogged and my magic locked off? You knew what would happen. I told you what would happen. Congratulations; I hope you're happy with yourself."
  5769. > Her words strike with almost physical force, and you drop your head to look away.
  5770. > A moment later her voice is back, softer and more careful.
  5771. > "M'sorry. Wasn't fair."
  5772. "No, I'm the one who should be apologizing. I promised you there was a way to avoid the whip, and you still got-"
  5773. > The unicorn mare - no, you have to remind yourself.
  5774. > Still closer to a filly than a mare - shakes her head.
  5775. > "I don't blame you for telling me. You... really did believe it, I think."
  5776. "I did."
  5777. > "And I saw you leave when I was being whipped. Or, saw you weren't there anymore when it was over anyhow."
  5778. "Couldn't stay. I was sick. Threw up."
  5779. > That seems to actually give her pause.
  5780. "Crescent - there's... we're going to be putting some of the stuff you had up in the museum. Soon. Did you want to be a part of that?"
  5781. > "I..."
  5782. > She does, but her head falls heavily back to the pillow.
  5783. > "Aren't you forgetting, Thunderlane? Any time I'm not on-shift, I'm locked in my quarters chained to the fucking bed. Because I hit a guard because I was scared, and-"
  5784. > Her voice lowers an octave, mimicking Cadance's.
  5785. > "-'if we behave like animals we'll be treated like animals'."
  5786. "I can argue to have you moved out. I'll put in extra hours to be there."
  5787. > If it meant you wouldn't have to take another pony to the whipping post, you'd put in every hour you had.
  5788. > Crescent sighs - a wistful, wanting noise.
  5789. > "And make me special? Why shouldn't it be somepony else?"
  5790. "Because I like you."
  5791. > A hefty snort.
  5792. > "Little young to be your marefriend, don't you think?"
  5793. "Wha - no! I didn't mean - you remind me of my little brother, okay? I - couldn't keep him out of trouble either, and I-"
  5794. > "I know, Thunderlane. Everypony knows about Rumble."
  5795. > Of course.
  5796. "...right. Besides, I'm already close with somepony."
  5797. > "Really?"
  5798. "Really."
  5799. > "Who?"
  5800. > Mouth half-open, you hesitate.
  5801. > Could you let Vapor's out...?
  5802. > Perhaps seeing your expression, Crescent pops a painful grin.
  5803. > "Relax. I'm not going to have a hit put on her or anything."
  5804. "...Vapor Trail."
  5805. > Recognition flickers in Crescent Moon's eyes - and surprise.
  5806. "You know her?"
  5807. > "Just heard her name."
  5808. > No, it's more than that, you're sure of it
  5809. > But how did Crescent Moon know Vapor Trail?
  5810. > And why did she feel the need to lie about it?
  5811.  
  5812. "Alright, Mocha. What's Cadance got for me?"
  5813. > Seating yourself at the desk, you glance out over a whole spectrum of faces - some familiar, some less so.
  5814. > Fortunately notes have been attached to those you don't immediately recognize.
  5815. > "T-These are the ones she wanted to be sent to the museum, Master."
  5816. "Hmm."
  5817. > Here, an image of a rustic valley - small homes spread out before the swell of snow-capped peaks in the background.
  5818. > There, an image of a stallion - their face incongruously covered by a short mustache and monocle, a long-limbed mare leaning close to his side.
  5819. > 'Fancy Pants and Fleur de Lis, nobles of Canterlot'
  5820. > So that was what they looked like.
  5821. > The names weren't unfamiliar; you'd heard they were excellent organizers - belonged to some lucky bastard in Europe.
  5822. "Did you ever meet any of these ponies, Mocha?"
  5823. > "N-No, Master. We lived far away from any city. From anypony important."
  5824. > Your hand drifts over, shuffling the papers to one side.
  5825. > Uncovered is the visage of a pony clad in armored gold, their eyes narrowed in a fearsome grimace and ivory wings spread aggressively.
  5826. > 'Royal Guard', the note reads, 'name unknown'.
  5827. > Tapping your finger thoughtfully on the image, you ponder whether to allow it.
  5828. > They weren't fighting - not like some of the other images of the ponies' military that had been uncovered - but even so...
  5829. > ...eh.
  5830. > Why not; if nothing else, Thunderlane and the other guard-ponies would be usurping that role now.
  5831. > So many others like those - bits of Equestria, locked in paper, ink, and paint.
  5832. > Your hand pauses as the next image is uncovered.
  5833. > The former princess Celestia's visage peers directly out at you, her voluminous mane surrounding her head with an almost halo-like appearance.
  5834. > Her expression was - difficult to pin down.
  5835. > Thoughful?
  5836. > Wondering?
  5837. > Chuckling softly, you wonder what she would think of her 'niece' now.
  5838. > She'd have been your first choice to be the camp 'leader', but who even knew where she or her sister were now?
  5839. > Area 51, Cheyenne Mountain, the Redoubt in the Swiss Alps...
  5840. > Some place like that.
  5841. > Locked away behind blast doors and international treaties alike.
  5842. > Besides, even if they'd been 'on the market', there'd have been someone more wealthy to snap them up.
  5843. > Cadance was just unproven, just unknown enough to be within your means.
  5844. > Barely.
  5845. > "Master?"
  5846. "I'm thinking, Mocha."
  5847. > You tap the once-princess' muzzle with a fingertip.
  5848. "...we'll let Celestia and her sister go up, I suppose."
  5849. > Not that it pleases you, to have them clinging to their dead nation and its deposed leaders.
  5850. > That was the sort of thing that fostered independence.
  5851. > Rebellion.
  5852. > But Cadance was pushing this, and you'd give it to her.
  5853. "The ones she's submitted are good. They can put them up. What else is there?"
  5854. > "The portions that w-weren't submitted, Master. The, um. The r- re- r-"
  5855. "The Rebellious parts. It's okay to say it, Mocha."
  5856. > Her head ducks in embarrassment, at least until you reach down and slip your fingers around her cheek - scratching lightly to draw her head back up and a gentle nicker from her lips.
  5857. "Show me the rest?"
  5858. > She does, and you feel your body growing steadily more tense.
  5859. > There was no doubt about it:
  5860. > Some of this was very rightful anger at owners who had gone above and beyond the demands of keeping order and obedience in their ponies.
  5861. > Verging past mere strictness and into needless cruelty.
  5862. > But put in context, framed as it was with yet more calls to violent action and glorification of ponies who'd fought back no matter what it cost them-
  5863. > Well, the direction it was going was obvious.
  5864. "Those inconsiderate cunts..."
  5865. > Mocha flinches, and you again reach down to scratch her ear with a sigh.
  5866. "It's not you, Mocha. It's every one of them who don't bother to distinguish between pointless sadists and the need for law, order, and obedience that holds this place together."
  5867. > "I know, Master."
  5868. > Rearing up, she nuzzles in against your thigh.
  5869. > A knock at the door interrupts your thoughts.
  5870. > "It's Cadance. I've come up to talk."
  5871. "Come in."
  5872. > She does - with a surprisingly stiff walk, wings already angled out.
  5873. > One eyebrow rising, you reflect that at least Cadance waits to shut the door before snapping:
  5874. > "You can't take those away from us. It's not even about the material itself, Anonymous. It's about that I stood up there and said that storing them would be our responsibility. You take them away, ponies will see you undermining me - just taking everything."
  5875. > Going on like this - and strutting back and forth with steps that are as majestic as they are infuriated - Cadance continues her tirade until you at last raise a hand to halt her.
  5876. "...I'm not pleased by what I'm seeing here. Not at all - but it's abundant that you're as angry with them as I am for risking the peace here, and so I think I can trust you to keep everything here safe."
  5877. > Her mouth snaps open, ready to deliver a retort - and then Cadance pauses.
  5878. > Hesitates.
  5879. > "You - are?"
  5880. "Yes. As infuriated as it makes me, everything you've said makes sense."
  5881. > "O-Oh..."
  5882. "The ones you wanted to be put up in the museum - those are acceptable as well. Not pleased, again, but acceptable."
  5883. > Now Cadance's head falls again - cheeks coloring slightly.
  5884. > "I'm sorry."
  5885. "Did you think I wouldn't let them? Would have them all burnt or something?"
  5886. > "Yes. If you saw them all, saw what they were suggesting... you'd get angry. And..."
  5887. "...and I do stupid things when I'm angry."
  5888. > No verbal response is given, but her cheeks color even further.
  5889. "Well, maybe you're rubbing off on me a bit. Making me a bit more cautious."
  5890. > "Um. Yes."
  5891. > You chuckle softly; Cadance actually looks embarrassed at her preemptive outburst.
  5892. "In the meantime, there's something else I need from you. Between yourself, Thunderlane, and Mocha, the three of you have the best finger - or hoof, whatever - on the mood of the camp."
  5893. > "Next steps?"
  5894. "Expansion. I've secured funding through the investors and Randall; we've no difficulties there. And there are a some empty beds - even more if we hot bunk up. I'm eager to begin pushing things ahead, but I need to know if the camp is ready..."
  5895. > She hesitates.
  5896. > "There's a phrase Thunderlane used: Balanced on a feather's edge. That's where we are right now, Anonymous. Things could collapse into peace - or into a raging inferno. New ponies could be the tinder."
  5897. "They didn't set off anything the last time. This rebellion's been running a while."
  5898. > "Right now isn't the last time."
  5899. > She sighs heavily.
  5900. > "But you do have a point. It could be enough to bring in ponies more used to... other owners and see what you have given us here."
  5901. "Enough to prevent violent rebellion."
  5902. > "Maybe."
  5903. "It's not like I'm talking about another thousand ponies into the same beds we have here. We'll be building at the same time - but getting more ponies introduced initially, getting them integrated a bit at a time, so we don't have to bring them all in at once when the construction is completed..."
  5904. [Choice]
  5905. "...well, I suppose it's best not to gamble with our luck. If things are as delicately balanced as you say they are, pushing now could upset it all over again. We'll take a wait."
  5906. > "And having brand new comfortable housing might also help settle new ponies in."
  5907. "And there's a lot of things we need to resolve before we try and introduce anypony else."
  5908. > "Mmmhmm."
  5909. > In the achingly long silence that follows, it becomes abundantly clear that neither of you have any idea of what really to say.
  5910. > Cadance, after all, had come up to your office on a whim to chew you out over an accusation that proved to not even be true, while you had little to ask her about.
  5911. > Turning to your desk, you start to gather up the papers that had been sent up.
  5912. "Here. You can take these back down, and-"
  5913. > Two papers stuck together had come undone.
  5914. > Behind the first sits an image you hadn't seen before, and part of you wishes it had simply remained stuck beneath there.
  5915. > Delicately setting aside the one that had been covering it, you lift the image of Corona to examine it closely.
  5916. > Your jaws squeeze hard together, an empty pit-like sense opens up in your stomach, and a bolt of pain flickers down your arm where her teeth had sunk into your skin.
  5917. > ...at least they hadn't shown her mouth red with your blood.
  5918. > Probably didn't know.
  5919. > That was all you would need - them martyring a mare who'd actually assaulted you.
  5920. > "Master?"
  5921. > Cadance's murmur was soft; she'd moved close to your side while you were distracted.
  5922. > On your opposite side, Mocha dared to rear up and lift her forelegs up onto the seat to study the image as well.
  5923. "She wasn't - wasn't as bad as this shows. This is just meant to stir up more anger, drive up more fury regardless of the truth... but..."
  5924. > You lock eyes with mare in the image.
  5925. > If any part of her had been rendered accurately, that was it.
  5926. > The sheer helplessness and pleading in that expression was enough to force you to look away.
  5927. "...part of me thinks I deserve it anyhow."
  5928. > From the silence that follows you rather suspect Cadance thinks you deserve it too.
  5929. > She doesn't say as much, though, which you're thankful for.
  5930. "You'll get this one back too, though."
  5931. > "Thank you. I know it can't go up, but even just trusting us to hold on to it - it does help."
  5932. "Hmm."
  5933. > "We're going to put up a plaque, though. With her name on it - and everypony else who was lost. To - remember them by."
  5934. "You don't know she's dead. Hell, I don't even know if she's dead."
  5935. > "Still. If ponies want some way to be remembered by, this is probably best."
  5936. "I didn't say I'd stop you."
  5937. > Cadance nods.
  5938. > "If there's one other thing I can ask of you, a personal favor for me?"
  5939. "Go ahead."
  5940. > Two sheets are lifted from the pile and presented to you - the first of them bearing a familiar face.
  5941. > "There are two images I'd like copies made of. For me. Princess Celestia-"
  5942. > You shoot her a hard look; Celestia wasn't 'princess' anymore.
  5943. > "-and this one."
  5944. "Ah. Your husband."
  5945. > "Yes."
  5946. > Cadance's voice had turned unexpectedly soft, and she studies the image with an unexpectedly vulnerable expression.
  5947. > "If you could - shrink down that copy a bit. Maybe to something I could put on my desk..."
  5948. > Trailing off, she suddenly seems to realize who she is speaking to and dips her head.
  5949. > "...if that's not too much trouble."
  5950. "No. I don't think it would be."
  5951. > "Thank you."
  5952. > Despite hearing those two words so often from her, there's something extra in them this time.
  5953. "I remember what you said about him being a well of strength to draw on. I understand."
  5954. > "Yes. I..."
  5955. > But the words refuse to come out, choking in her throat.
  5956. > Abruptly, though, there's hoof around one side of her neck and a muzzle on the other - Mocha having slipped around your chair to nuzzle in to Cadance.
  5957. > After a few moments, Cadance relents - turning her head to brush her muzzle across Mocha's neck as well.
  5958. > The alicorn mutters something inaudible into Mocha's ear, and the younger mare smiles before letting go.
  5959. > Actually...
  5960. "Cadance? Come on."
  5961. > It doesn't quite click with her where you are going - not until you turn the corner down the hall to your daughter's room, or until you nudge the door open to the sound of lowered voices within.
  5962. "Megan?"
  5963. > "Hi Daddy!"
  5964. > Your daughter had been seated at her desk, a half-finished worksheet laid out in front of her.
  5965. > As soon as you enter, however, she's up - running over to let you scoop her up into your arms.
  5966. > And following just behind her is-
  5967. > "Momma!"
  5968. > Flurry Heart dashes past you, outsized wings spreading to let her take a literally flying leap into her mothers' hooves.
  5969. > They actually tumble over each other, each spreading their wings and nickering gently in greeting.
  5970. > You watch them for a moment longer before returning to your own daughter.
  5971. "Hey there, sweetheart. You nice and busy with your homework?"
  5972. > "Uhuh. We're doin' sentence stuc - struc - we're doing sentences."
  5973. "Structures, honey. Sentence structures."
  5974. > "Yeah, that!"
  5975. "And Flurry's helping you?"
  5976. > "Well, kinda. She, uh, doesn't know much about writing, but she still helps!"
  5977. > From behind you, Flurry squeaks out:
  5978. > "I'm makin' sure Mistress Megan does her homework, Master!"
  5979. "Good girl, Flurry."
  5980. > Megan giggles softly.
  5981. > "Besides, she knows if I don't do it, then I don't get any dessert to share with her."
  5982. "Yeah, just don't share too much."
  5983. > Gently poking your daughter's belly produces yet another little squeak from her, and a peal of laugher from Flurry.
  5984. "You do that, she'll get all big and pudgy."
  5985. > In truth, you were glad to see that Flurry had filled out well.
  5986. > No longer was she the emaciated filly you had purchased, or even the still-to-thin one that had arrived at your home.
  5987. > Her mane and tail returned to a full length and coat no longer showing any signs of her neglect, she was well and truly free of scars.
  5988. > External ones, anyhow.
  5989. > Setting Megan down with a heavy 'ooof', you head for her desk.
  5990. "Why don't you show me what you've been doing?"
  5991. > That should give Cadance and Flurry Heart a good few minutes together.
  5992. > You keep an ear cocked to their quiet discussion even as Megan runs you through her homework.
  5993. > Evidently they'd made the best of it - when you stand again, Cadance had curled up with Flurry Heart ensconced between her legs and was carefully preening the filly's massive wings.
  5994. > Noting the blissful look Flurry carries, you squat down in front of the two ponies and reach out to lightly scratch around her ears yielding another soft, happy noise from the filly.
  5995. "And what about, little one? What've you been up to?"
  5996. > "Been helpin', Mistress Megan, Master. And leanin' - math and letters and stuff."
  5997. "I hope you've been studying hard."
  5998. > "Of course!"
  5999. > She nods vigorously.
  6000. > "We're learning about long sub-tract-tion now."
  6001. "Good girl, Flurry. I'm sure you'll do great."
  6002. > Cadance stands too, giving her daughter one last longing look - and then seems to come to a conclusion.
  6003. > "Flurry, love? Can I show you something?"
  6004. > "Huh?"
  6005. > For a moment the irrational fear that she's going to show her daughter what you did to Corona snaps through you.
  6006. > But no - it isn't Corona, but her father.
  6007. > Uniform-clad, to be sure.
  6008. > But still recognizable apparently even to her.
  6009. > With eyes wide Flurry snags the image in her own horn-grip, holding it close in front of her.
  6010. > "Momma? Why's daddy's picture..."
  6011. > Huge pupils flick back and forth, from image to parent and then back again.
  6012. > "Does this mean - is - daddy coming - here?"
  6013. > You can see Cadance's heart crack, any barely-scabbed-over wounds being torn open anew.
  6014. > "No, my little prism... I'm afraid he's not. I just thought you might want to see it."
  6015. > "Oh. I - I thought -"
  6016. > Her gaze flicks to you, and you shake your head.
  6017. "I'm sorry, Flurry. I wish I could, but I don't know where he is either."
  6018. > "S'okay. Not your fault."
  6019. > You can tell she is close to crying, though.
  6020. > One arm is held out to her in a beckon; reluctantly, Cadance loosens her grip on her daughter to allow her free.
  6021. > Without any hesitation, Flurry rears up to lean up in against you in the best pony approximation of a hug.
  6022. > On your opposite side, knowing what was coming, Megan was already wrapping her arms around your neck.
  6023. "I wish I could find your father, Flurry Heart. But I can't work miracles, I'm afraid."
  6024. > "You found me. You brought me here with m'mother, and gave me to Mistress Megan. Tha's a miracle..."
  6025. > Behind her - and thankfully well out of the little filly's sight - Cadance flinches.
  6026. "I suppose so."
  6027. > Giving each one last squeeze, you add:
  6028. "You both do your best, okay? I know you're working hard, both of you."
  6029. > "Yes, dad!"
  6030. > "Yes, Master."
  6031. > Then you release them both of them, dropping your arms to let girl and filly go.
  6032. > Once you're out of the room, Cadance only gets a few steps before she seems to shrink down on herself - pushing out a deep, shuddery sigh.
  6033. "You see, Cadance. We both have things in the past we wish we could go back and just - do over. But we've also got a lot of reason to keep looking forward."
  6034. > "I hope you're not upset I showed her."
  6035. "No. It seems like it was hard enough already on you."
  6036. > "Yes, I - forget. How badly she was hurt."
  6037. "She's doing well, though. Body and mind - I'm having some of the other house slaves tutor her as much as they can, and then we'll see about a proper teacher."
  6038. > Cadance tilts her head questioningly, leaving you to shrug.
  6039. "She's going to have to be good to be a leader like you. I'll get her a damn degree, or the next best thing."
  6040. > "Yes..."
  6041. > There's something on her mind, though - you've heard that tone before.
  6042. "Speak your mind, Cadance."
  6043. > "There's one thing they can't really teach her about. Not enough. And no human could either. Magic."
  6044. > Scratching your chin, you're forced to nod in agreement with her.
  6045. "Agreed. The rudiments, but not nearly enough for her to grasp the full potential of - whatever it is you alicorns have."
  6046. > "I have a suggestion."
  6047. "...go on."
  6048. > "Sunburst. He was her mentor for what little time there was back in the Empire. He knows magic, he knows her, and she knows him. They'll work well together."
  6049. > You scowl darkly.
  6050. "He was one of your escape leaders, if you've somehow forgotten."
  6051. > "Because he thought - rightly - that it was what I wanted."
  6052. > Then, more softly:
  6053. > "You know very well I won't do that now. And he won't either; I'm all he really has left, and he can't push me away."
  6054. "That still makes him awesomely suspect."
  6055. > "It makes me awesomely suspect, yet you're trusting me with my daughter and the camp."
  6056. > She has a point.
  6057. > But at the same time, there was much that still left you uneasy about putting a former escape leader so close to Flurry Heart.
  6058. > So close do your own daughter.
  6059. [Choice]
  6060. "Alright. We'll give it a shot. The first time, though, I'll be there. I want to have a chance to talk to this pony before I let him anywhere near my house."
  6061. > "Of course!"
  6062. > You scowl again at Cadance's instant - and honestly, less than sincere sounding - acquiescence.
  6063. "I'm serious, Cadance. If he says anything..."
  6064. > This time she seems to sense your concern.
  6065. > "Sunburst isn't a dedicated rebel. He's clinging to the only pony here he really knows, and I won't be going anywhere. Letting him see Flurry again will be just another reason for him to behave."
  6066. "Then there shouldn't be any issue when he talks to me. Or if someone else sits in on his lessons."
  6067. > "Agreed."
  6068. > Looking down at the alicorn at your side, you suddenly offer a spontaneous chuckle.
  6069. "I think we'll be alright here, Cadance. If this does work out, building bridges across - if you can leverage his opinion, he's got to have... whatever the phrase is, 'street cred? For his role. If they see him working with us..."
  6070. > The alicorn makes a face.
  6071. > " 'Street cred'?"
  6072. "Y'know, like, respect among the-"
  6073. > "I know what it means. Isn't that phrase ridiculously out of date, though?"
  6074. > You roll your eyes sharply; of course the slave pony who didn't even leave the camp was more up to date on slang than you.
  6075. > But you're also grinning still, and reach down to pat her mane.
  6076. "...yeah, yeah. You know what I meant."
  6077. > "I do, and I think you're right as well. It's like with Rumble: He saw that Mocha was genuinely helping, and he was willing to open his mind and think about what that means."
  6078. "I hope so, Cadance..."
  6079. > Her mouth half-opens, but no words come out - again, hesitating to bring her thoughts to your attention.
  6080. "Speak your mind, Cadance."
  6081. > "...Master, when this works - and it will work - I hope you'll see that you can't just rely on us to be... ambassadors for you. You have to come out and make your presence felt as well."
  6082. > Snorting gently, you shake your head.
  6083. "I somehow don't think I'm going to be received with the same open minds, Cadance."
  6084. > "Then that's what you have to change. You're too distant right now. The only time most of them saw you was when you came down to see the whipping! If you ever want them to see you as something else you have to become more directly involved."
  6085. > Looking down, you raise an eyebrow.
  6086. "You're speaking frankly today."
  6087. > "A leader sometimes has to."
  6088. "Noted. But for now, I think you're doing plenty. Let me manage this expansion, and you keep the camp in line."
  6089.  
  6090. > Watching Anonymous go, you surpress a quiet sigh of frustration.
  6091. > When would he see that this sort of isolation was doing more damage than good?
  6092. > Even so, it's all you could do to keep from doing a little dance in place when Anonymous had agreed to your suggestion.
  6093. > Sunburst - teaching Flurry Heart!
  6094. > All you could have hoped for, and more.
  6095. > Moments like this are what make you think all your aunt used to say about destiny setting things right might still somehow be true.
  6096. > Not only would it give you another set of eyes and ears with you daughter, one you trusted absolutely, but it would add an extra layer of protection onto Sunburst as well:
  6097. > Should any of his notes or tomes on magic be found, there'd be an easy and simple explanation for their existence.
  6098. > Of course he would need those kinds of notes - he was teaching an alicorn, after all!
  6099. "I'm sure Sunburst will be delighted to hear you accept. I'll see about setting up a proper time for the first lesson and relay it to you?"
  6100. > "Sounds good, Cadance. And I'll have Mocha deliver the copies of these images as soon as we get them scanned, resized, and printed."
  6101. > Departing as he does, you quickly turn back to your own internal little celebration.
  6102. > As you are leaving the manor, however, another man steps out in front of you."I somehow don't think I'm going to be received with the same open minds, Cadance."
  6103. > "Then that's what you have to change. You're too distant right now. The only time most of them saw you was when you came down to see the whipping! If you ever want them to see you as something else you have to become more directly involved."
  6104. > Looking down, you raise an eyebrow.
  6105. "You're speaking frankly today."
  6106. > "A leader sometimes has to."
  6107. "Noted. But for now, I think you're doing plenty. Let me manage this expansion, and you keep the camp in line."
  6108.  
  6109. > Watching Anonymous go, you surpress a quiet sigh of frustration.
  6110. > When would he see that this sort of isolation was doing more damage than good?
  6111. > Even so, it's all you could do to keep from doing a little dance in place when Anonymous had agreed to your suggestion.
  6112. > Sunburst - teaching Flurry Heart!
  6113. > All you could have hoped for, and more.
  6114. > Moments like this are what make you think all your aunt used to say about destiny setting things right might still somehow be true.
  6115. > Not only would it give you another set of eyes and ears with you daughter, one you trusted absolutely, but it would add an extra layer of protection onto Sunburst as well:
  6116. > Should any of his notes or tomes on magic be found, there'd be an easy and simple explanation for their existence.
  6117. > Of course he would need those kinds of notes - he was teaching an alicorn, after all!
  6118. "I'm sure Sunburst will be delighted to hear you accept. I'll see about setting up a proper time for the first lesson and relay it to you?"
  6119. > "Sounds good, Cadance. And I'll have Mocha deliver the copies of these images as soon as we get them scanned, resized, and printed."
  6120. > Departing as he does, you quickly turn back to your own internal little celebration.
  6121. > As you are leaving the manor, however, another man steps out in front of you.
  6122. > So lost in your own thoughts are you that you nearly collide with him - and, in fact, he had made absolutely no effort to get out of your way either.
  6123. > Why becomes abundantly clear when you look up - up to the mirrored glasses and long white cane held in his hand.
  6124. "Ah, Randall - I apologize, I wasn't looking where I was going."
  6125. > "Quite alright; I will admit the same. Cadance, yes?"
  6126. > His joke draws a small smile to your lips.
  6127. "Yes, Sir."
  6128. > He reaches out with surprising accuracy, feeling for you and slipping a hand around your cheek.
  6129. > "Ah, there you are. My apologies, I just didn't want to hit you with my cane."
  6130. "Not at all. I've heard that humans sometimes use touch to 'see' when they, ah, cannot..."
  6131. > "Afraid that's a bit of a myth. Although-"
  6132. > He pats around your muzzle a little further.
  6133. > "-although you are shaped a fair bit differently than most ponies, I will admit."
  6134. "Yes, Sir."
  6135. > A moment later the full implication of his carrying a cane comes down on you:
  6136. "Posey isn't with you, sir?"
  6137. > "No, not right now. I've been here enough times that I'm starting to get a sense of where things are in the house, and there's no need to have her constantly at my side. She's a helpful little thing, but she deserves a little time off too."
  6138. > Helpful, you wonder, or terrified of what would happen if she found herself anything less than essential?
  6139. > Either way, an idea is taking shape in your head.
  6140. "Forgive me for asking, Sir, but if she has some time off - perhaps she would like to spend it in the camp?"
  6141. > "Nothing needs to be forgiven! It's an excellent idea, if you can get her out of the room..."
  6142. > Ah, of course.
  6143. > Haute Glamour's influence there again, working on top of Posey's already introverted nature.
  6144. > Even without seeing you, Randall seems to sense what you are thinking.
  6145. > "I do wish I could get her out more. She's better with the others back home, but there's so few she knows here."
  6146. "I'm sure I can find someone who would be willing to be her friend."
  6147. > Yet, at the same time, you can't feel a nagging sense that what you are doing is less than friendly.
  6148. > Do you want to help her?
  6149. > Save her from the shadow that was cast over her?
  6150. > Absolutely.
  6151. > But at the same time you also want to use her:
  6152. > Wield her as a tool to strike out at Haute Glamour.
  6153. > A little shiver runs down your spine.
  6154. > It isn't using her.
  6155. > You swear that.
  6156. > It isn't-
  6157. > "-ance? Are you alright?"
  6158. "Ah - yes, I'm alright. I'm sorry. A - bad thought crept into my head."
  6159. > "Not about me, I hope."
  6160. "No, no! Not at -"
  6161. > But he is grinning, and you issue a small sigh of mixed relief and annoyance.
  6162. > "I understand. It happens."
  6163. > After he passes, though, your thoughts return.
  6164. > Whatever the reason, Posey was still your key to undermining Haute and seeing the pretentious unicorn's reign of terror on Randall's ponies done away with.
  6165. > And that would start when you showed her that there was any other way to live at all.
  6166. > You owed it to Posey to send the pony who could actually speak to her.
  6167. > Not just put pressure on her to speak up but actually show her that she could have friends, that there was no need for her to live under the hoof of another.
  6168. > ...yourself?
  6169. > Certainly you could show her the greater picture of what you'd done in the camp.
  6170. > But you also knew that your status as an alicorn could be... overbearing for some, and she was already reactionary enough to overbearing presences.
  6171. > Thunderlane, possibly; he could absolutely show her the safety and protection you'd brought from the camp.
  6172. > Made it a place where ponies didn't have to fear random brutality simply for being slaves.
  6173. > Mocha would be another option.
  6174. > The two were alike in many respects, but Mocha had also shown a deep personal strength that might rub off on Posey.
  6175. > Or - and you almost chuckle at the thought - Flurry Heart.
  6176. > She had, after all, come into this camp from abuse and neglect to a degree of safety, protection, and comfort.
  6177. > Not that you'd forgotten about Anonymous' ominous warning looming over her head, but if Flurry could show Posey that there wasn't a need to hide how things really were from Randall...
  6178. > It might just do the trick.
  6179. [Choice]
  6180. > Or - it occurs to you suddenly - why not have Sunburst speak to her?
  6181. > He had suffered the worst you had ever done to any pony in this camp, but he had also kept your trust afterwards.
  6182. > And, of course, he would be in the house already too.
  6183. > Yes, that would work quite well...
  6184. > Sunburst's office is, as you had found it before, a maze of tomes, files, and other mayhem.
  6185. > How he had managed to acquire this much you weren't quite sure of, but the stallion always did seem to have an affinity for books that verged on a talent in its own right.
  6186. > "Your Highness!"
  6187. > Speaking of the stallion in question...
  6188. > Rushing out from behind his desk, Sunburst bows deeply to you.
  6189. > Shaking your head gently, you reach out with a wing to lightly tap his shoulder.
  6190. "It's alright, Sunburst. I was hoping to speak to you, if you have a moment?
  6191. > "A moment? Yes; for you, of course I have a moment!"
  6192. > Shutting the door behind you - and securing the lock with a spell to boot - you glance around.
  6193. "I have something I have to ask of you, Sunburst. It will be... delicate, but you're the single best pony for this task. And, in the end... I think it would be something of a reward for you as well."
  6194. > "Princess?"
  6195. > He cocks head slightly.
  6196. "Anonymous wishes for my daughter to have... an education in magic. She's still young, but-"
  6197. > Perhaps you should have approached that from a different, more cautious angle.
  6198. > Sunburst is frozen in place, his glasses hanging perilously from the end of his muzzle and pupils shrunken beneath his hanging curl of messy mane.
  6199. > Mouth working furiously, he finally manages to push out some words again:
  6200. > "I - I am - going to be allowed - to see Flurry Heart again-"
  6201. "...Anonymous wishes to speak to you first. He is still very nervous, given your role in the escape plan, but he sees the sense in having the absolute best teacher for Flurry that can be found. I think I have convinced him."
  6202. > Instantly Sunburst dampens, ears falling and half-sinking onto his haunches.
  6203. > "Talk to him? I don't know how good I'll be at that - I'm not really a social stallion..."
  6204. > You had noticed; the more you looked around the office, the more you were left with the sense he spent most of his waking hours in here.
  6205. "It's not a question of being social. All he's concerned about - ah, I'd better start at the beginning."
  6206. > Seating yourself across from Sunburst, who himself drops the rest of the way down as well.
  6207. "Anonymous intends for Flurry Heart to be working with his own daughter. Not merely serving her as a maid, but working entirely."
  6208. > "I've heard the rumors. He wants to start a whole second camp like this."
  6209. "Eventually, yes. For now, though, that means she needs to fully grasp her abilities as an alicorn. Not only are you best-skilled to teach her, but... I think a familiar friendly face would do good for both of you."
  6210. > "Yes, Princess."
  6211. > He practically breathes the words, delight flickering across his face again.
  6212. "You're to tutor her at the very least on magic, possibly other subjects. Most likely you will be teaching her in the manor, rather than she coming here."
  6213. > "...and so I would be near Anonymous' daughter as well."
  6214. "Megan, yes. She is - an innocent soul; truly caring for Flurry, but also unaware of the evils of slavery. I don't think you will have any problems with her."
  6215. > "But I do understand now why he wants to - interrogate me first."
  6216. > Scuffing gently at the floor with a hoof, Sunburst glances down.
  6217. > "I'm just afraid of saying something that will make him take her away. From you."
  6218. "I understand, but I don't think you'll have to be afraid. He just wants to make sure that you aren't going to encourage her to rebel, or do something rash yourself."
  6219. > "Of course not!"
  6220. > You smile reassuringly, reaching out to touch his hoof as it drifted back and forth on the floor with one of your own.
  6221. "Then just say that, and I'm sure everything will be fine."
  6222. > Though Sunburst nods, there's clearly something still concerning him.
  6223. > After a few moments, he at last gives voice to his worries in a whispered voice that suggests he barely can stand to consider them:
  6224. > "Princess... will she remember me?"
  6225. "I... expect so. The two of you were so very close, after all, and you last saw her not that long before she and I-"
  6226. > Before you sent her away.
  6227. > Condemned her to neglect.
  6228. > Doomed her to slavery.
  6229. "-were separated."
  6230. > "And she remembered you."
  6231. "Yes. I haven't had a chance to speak to her about this - I haven't been with her nearly as much as a mother should - but I think she will remember you."
  6232. > "Does she remember her father?"
  6233. > You flinch.
  6234. > Not at the mention of Shining Armor, but at the memory of Flurry leaned up against Anonymous in a hug after seeing his image.
  6235. > Why hadn't she come to you...?
  6236. "Yes. She does."
  6237. > This time it is Sunburst who reaches out to you.
  6238. > "I'm sorry, Princess. I shouldn't have asked, that was - beyond me."
  6239. "No, it's - okay. You, of all ponies, I should be able to speak with about him. You knew Shining, after all. And you've lost so much too."
  6240. > "Yes..."
  6241. > He sighs looking, away with ears fallen.
  6242. > "I still sometimes look for... information about Star-"
  6243. "Anything?"
  6244. > A silent shake of his head is all that he responds with - and all that needs to be said.
  6245. > Just like Shining - most likely dead, in body or mind, as a unicorn of her caliber would surely have been a great prize for some slaver.
  6246. "I'm sorry."
  6247. > "Don't be. Like you said - at least with you I ought to be able to talk about it some, since you knew Starlight."
  6248. > You nod, but say nothing and so an awkward silence falls for a few moments before you speak up again.
  6249. "Sunburst, there's one other thing about this job that I'll need you to do..."
  6250. > He listens carefully as you tell Posey's story, expression hardening when you talk about Haute Glamour.
  6251. > "Sounds like a few ponies I knew back in the School for Gifted Unicorns. Just as bad as I was at magic, but none of the knowledge either - so instead they just intimidated everypony else into giving them what they wanted."
  6252. > Sighing softly, he shakes his head.
  6253. > "Of course I'll try to help her, but - why me, Princess? Like I said, I'm not so - socially gifted. There've got to be other ponies who'd be better able to talk to her...?"
  6254. "Maybe. But you've done a lot for me, and..."
  6255. > You hesitate, struggling to reach for the words.
  6256. "...and I hurt you. I hurt you badly, Sunburst, even though you were just doing what I'd encouraged - even ordered - you to do. Haute Glamour hurts ponies too, but you of all ponies can say that I'm not like her."
  6257. > It's a long, anxious moment that follows, during which you squeeze your eyes shut to force the thoughts back.
  6258. > But that couldn't stop the memories of the way he'd /screamed/ when you'd taken the whip to his back.
  6259. > Or the little almost-sniffle that you-
  6260. > "P-Princess?"
  6261. > Something touches your chest - his hoof..
  6262. > "Is - this why you were pushing for Anonymous to allow me to be Flurry Heart's teacher? To - make up what you had to do to me?"
  6263. "No... maybe. Part of it."
  6264. > "You don't have to, Cadance. It wasn't your fault."
  6265. "Just because it's not my fault doesn't mean I didn't..."
  6266. > Another shaky breath.
  6267. "...I hurt you, Sunburst. You and the other five, so that I could see my daughter again. I put her above all of you. You can tell me that Anonymous didn't give me a choice - I tell myself plenty often enough - but it doesn't change that I did it."
  6268. > "Princess... look at me, please?"
  6269. > Forcing yourself to, you find Sunburst watching you through his wide glasses with a tired, but sympathetic look.
  6270. > "You aren't like Haute Glamour. You want me to tell Posey that, but you need to hear it too. You aren't like her."
  6271. > A moment, and you manage an actual real smile.
  6272. "Thank you."
  6273. > Sunburst smiles too - then looks back to his desk.
  6274. > "Now. Before I go on and start figuring out how I'm going to make up for years of missed opportunities with little Flurry, there's something else I want to show you."
  6275. > Turning to his desk, he opens a drawer; at tome is drawn from within, set on the desk, and carefully opened to a particular page.
  6276. > "Cherry, how are you feeling in there?"
  6277. > To your shock, the book answers back.
  6278. > "Feeling fine. Something up out there?"
  6279. > "Someone I'd like you to see."
  6280. > Joining him, you peer down into the page - where a quite animated image of an earth pony peers straight back up.
  6281. > "Oh! Miss Cadance!"
  6282. > "Princess, this is Cherry Blossom. How long have you been in there, Cherry?"
  6283. > "Nearly twenty hours now, and no problems yet."
  6284. > Sunburst glances up to you.
  6285. > "We're trying longer lengths now, with Cherry Blossom and the other volunteers. A day is all I think we can do without raising suspicion, but it proves that the Method can be sustained without injury."
  6286. "Cherry - what is it like in there?"
  6287. > "Strange. I - don't know how to describe it exactly. It's like you're in a window in the sky, but the sky is flat. The ground is the paper, but I'm - standing up, except I'm not. It's weird at first, but I can move around now."
  6288. > You nod, and Sunburst opens the drawer again.
  6289. > "I'm going to put you back now, okay Cherry?"
  6290. > "Sure thing."
  6291. > Only once the book is away, you cock your head.
  6292. "How else is it coming along?"
  6293. > "We've figured out that hold and colt don't really bother them, and as long as there's a unicorn in there they can undo the spell and let many ponies out."
  6294. > Sunburst sighs gently.
  6295. > "We've even tested it on getting out of the camp itself - not with a pony, obviously, but it doesn't set an alarm. The only holdup is having somewhere to send them to."
  6296. "You had a contact outside the camp, yes? Is there any luck with them?"
  6297. > "As far as I can tell she is trustworthy. But there was another idea - all the stuff that was taken from the raid the guards did. There must have been things in there about other anti-slavery groups, right? Free ponies - or people - we could reach out to and definitely trust! We could make use of that!"
  6298. > He is, of course, right.
  6299. > But getting involved in anything with the types of "resistance" those ponies had been mixed up with made you nervous.
  6300. > Not all of them were violent, sure...
  6301. > But still.
  6302. [Choice]
  6303. "...I'll pass on the information, Sunburst. But -"
  6304. > You draw yourself up again, adding just a little touch of 'imposing ruler' to your body language.
  6305. "-but, I want to make something clear: We don't trust anyone implicitly. Or even anypony."
  6306. > That last bit hurt to say, but was very much the truth - especially since you'd been introduced with to ponies like Haute Glamour.
  6307. "You verify any contact with them first. You make sure they're exactly what they say they are, or we don't do anything."
  6308. > "Y-Yes, Princess."
  6309. > Only then do you sink back down, offering a gentler smile to Sunburst.
  6310. "I'm sorry. But we're taking an awful risk here. Already, even just with this testing... it's a terrific gamble. One we have to take - we need a contingency if everything goes wrong - but we can't be anything less than perfectly careful. One mistake and we all lose everything we've gained, no matter how little it is."
  6311. > "I understand."
  6312. "Good. I'll give you the names and any other relevant information, but not the papers themselves. So if you're caught... it's called plausible deniability."
  6313. > "Hmm."
  6314. > Rubbing at the little tuft of bear hanging from his chin, Sunburst nods.
  6315. > "Makes good sense. We've already got another group investigating help from the outside; I don't even know who's in it, but I trust the pony who talks to them. If I need any other information, We'll have to come back to you."
  6316. "Better that than this whole thing collapsing if the papers are discovered. Teaching my daughter gives you an excuse for keeping tomes on magic around and experimenting with them, even the more obscure and unusual ones. But nothing will excuse that connection, if it's discovered."
  6317. > If he is upset by the fact that you were ensuring he would be the one punished if the information is uncovered, Sunburst does not show it.
  6318. > Half of you wants to believe that he is actually fine with it, that he recognizes the need and understands.
  6319. > But half of you is upset with yourself, and whispers assurances that he is almost certainly as angered as you are and merely equally good at hiding it.
  6320. "The urge to just... leap ahead and take advantage of this is strong, I understand. But establishing their trustworthiness and ability to shelter us first is imperative; some sort of - show of faith. If you think they can be safely contacted for that, then go ahead - I trust you to approach this with the proper prudence."
  6321. > "I'll pass it on when I send the information. I won't even be doing this - it's another group that does this; I only know
  6322. > Sunburst offers a rare smile.
  6323. > "I'll do you proud, Your Highness."
  6324. > ...
  6325. > Shortly after you return to your office, Thunderlane taps gently on the door.
  6326. > "Your Highness? Can I come in?"
  6327. "Of course, Thunderlane. What is it?"
  6328. > "I just wanted to know how the talk went with Anonymous."
  6329. "Ah..."
  6330. > You beckon the stallion in, and he settles down in front of your desk.
  6331. > "He is going to give the material back in the end?"
  6332. > Hiding the look of embarrassment on your face is impossible, but not the worst.
  6333. > Thunderlane was, after all, a trusted friend.
  6334. "He was quite upfront about it, yes. He'll give it all back."
  6335. > Sagging in relief, Thunderlane nods.
  6336. > "That should take some pressure off. Show everypony we don't have to fear him right now."
  6337. "You sound very relieved."
  6338. > "I was afraid if this went on for much longer somepony was going to get beaten silly if something didn't come soon."
  6339. "Tensions are that high?"
  6340. > Your eyebrows shoot up; you'd told Anonymous the camp was balanced on a knife edge, but something like that...
  6341. > "Not - not everypony. But there are a few groups. Your most tenacious supporters. The ones who hate you the most. They were getting ready. This will help, though."
  6342. > A gentle sigh escapes you.
  6343. "Thank you for warning me, Thunderlane... and I hope it does. I can't face having to physically punish anypony else right now."
  6344. > "I know.... listen, about that. There's something I thought I should bring up, about the other ponies... involved in that."
  6345. "Go ahead."
  6346. > "I think we should see about offering some of them a way out. The flogging made its point - violence isn't going to be tolerated - but we don't have to continue to torment them. Give them an option to prove they regret it."
  6347. "You're thinking of Crescent Moon."
  6348. > Thunderlane winces, but nods.
  6349. > "Was it that obvious?"
  6350. "No. But I was, and I guessed."
  6351. > "So, will you?"
  6352. > When you don't answer immediately, Thunderlane snaps - looking up with eyes narrowed:
  6353. > "She's a child, Your Highness! A child lead astray by others. Sealing her magic, chaining her to a bed?! Is that really necessary?"
  6354. "You were the one who suggested it, I might point out."
  6355. > Again he winces, rather more sharply this time and accompanied by a look away.
  6356. > "...and you'd better believe I regret it."
  6357. "Why, then?"
  6358. > "I was - I don't know. Playing the Tirek's advocate, trying to look tough for Anonymous so he wouldn't think I was sympathizing with them too much... I don't know, okay?"
  6359. > He really doesn't, you think.
  6360. > Or maybe he does, and is just not able to admit what his reason was.
  6361. "I'll take it under consideration, Thunderlane. But when you say the camp is balanced on a knife's edge, remember that we are part of the camp too."
  6362. > "You made an exception for Rumble. Wasn't he the same?"
  6363. > Now it is your turn to flinch.
  6364. > In part because not only was Thunderlane right, but because it had been you who lead him astray then.
  6365. > And partially because of the thought that flickered through your head at that moment:
  6366. > That perhaps you would have been better off not to make an exception.
  6367. > No!
  6368. > You had to then, and you could now.
  6369. "I will bring it up with Anonymous."
  6370. > Thunderlane perks up, and you speak before he can get ahead of himself:
  6371. "But - you must remember, everything that you felt he will feel too. Especially appearing tough so others will not think he is weak; after all, to a large degree he still thinks of us as property and feels he will be judged by his ability to exert himself on us. This is also the fact that there are laws he must obey-"
  6372. > Not laws about protecting ponies, though.
  6373. > No, they didn't extend that far.
  6374. > Just laws for protecting humans.
  6375. "-and I don't know if he will assent to removing her horn restrictor."
  6376. > "I get it, yeah. But that's enough."
  6377. > Somehow you force a smile, thankful for Thunderlane's understanding tone.
  6378. "Is there anything else?"
  6379. > "No, I just wanted to bring that up. I'll take off now, Your Highness."
  6380. "Be well, Thunderlane."
  6381. > Barely have you looked back down at your desk before there's another tap at the door.
  6382. "Don't have to knock again, you know."
  6383. > "Oh, um - it's actually, not Thunderlane, Miss Cadance..."
  6384. "Oh, Mocha!"
  6385. > Beckoning the timid young mare in, you offer a gentle smile.
  6386. > "H-Hello, Miss Cadance."
  6387. > Settling in her seat, she nervously brushes her maid's uniform flat before reaching into the saddlebags she wears.
  6388. > "Master Anonymous wanted me to bring these back to you. It's the papers you gave him."
  6389. "Oh, yes! Thank you, Mocha."
  6390. > But she returns her muzzle to the saddlebag, drawing out a frame as well.
  6391. > "Master also said you would want this..."
  6392. > Even before she passes it to you in her magic, you know what it is.
  6393. > The image of Shining Armor had been copied, resized, and inserted into a pictureframe.
  6394. "Oh, yes. That is - very welcome. Thank you very much, Mocha Cream..."
  6395. > "He also said he didn't know if you wanted the picture of Celestia framed, so he only did the one."
  6396. "No, that's fine. We'll... figure something out."
  6397. > About this, and all the struggles you face.
  6398. > Somehow.
  6399.  
  6400. > Barely have you stepped from Cadance's office when the front door of the town hall opens and a familiar face steps in.
  6401. > Mocha Cream smiles up at you; she'd become much more warm and friendly, you reflect, since becoming closer with Rumble as well.
  6402. > "Hello, Thunderlane."
  6403. "Hello, Mocha. Bringing something down for Cadance?"
  6404. > "Yes. The documents she wanted back."
  6405. "Ah, cool! I won't keep you then; I'm sure she'll be glad to have them back."
  6406. > Slipping past the unicorn filly, you turn and step out onto the streets.
  6407. > It was good that Anonymous had brought those back so quickly, you think.
  6408. > But soon very, very different thoughts are looming once again on your mind:
  6409. > The same thoughts that had lingered since you'd spoken to Crescent Moon.
  6410. > Spreading your wings, you leap skyward - the flight providing something of a distraction from the considerable fear on your mind.
  6411. > Vapor Trail was known by the rebels.
  6412. > She couldn't be one of them - she was too kind, too caring towards you to be a violent rebel.
  6413. > ...unless she was a spy?
  6414. > You nearly lose a wingbeat at that thought, dropping a good five feet in the air before your wings beat again and propel you back up.
  6415. > No.
  6416. > Vapor Trail was not a spy.
  6417. > She was just - mixed up in something she doesn't understand.
  6418. > ...you hope.
  6419. > You plead.
  6420. > Having another pony there to listen to you - one who would support you - had kept you going when everything else seemed set to fall apart.
  6421. > A blush sneaks across your ebony cheeks as you reflect that it probably didn't hurt that the pony in question was a cute mare too.
  6422. > But still.
  6423. > Maybe you should talk to her about this?
  6424. > To settle your own mind, but also to clear her name.
  6425. > After all, if one of them decided to save their own neck by telling everything they knew and it got around to one of the less sympathetic guards...
  6426. > Crescent Moon had said she didn't know much about the organization; if the others potentially knew even more...
  6427. > But then again, you didn't want to push Vapor Trail away by seeming like you're interrogating her about it.
  6428. > Tartarus' teats - you'd tried to make her feel safe and welcome here!
  6429. > Screwing it up now...
  6430. > ...but in counter to that, it might be better to get to the bottom of this with a friendly face.
  6431. > Growling softly, you bring yourself down atop a roof and peer over the edge of the roof to the lower building beside it.
  6432. > The smells wafting from a pair of fan vents spoke of dinner already well underway - a kitchen, and somewhere within Vapor Trail at work.
  6433. > ...it isn't stalking.
  6434. > You just want to make sure she's safe.
  6435. > By confronting her, or something else?
  6436. > Crescent Moon would be no help, at least not until you found a way to reduce her sentence.
  6437. > She'd clammed right back up tight as soon as she'd figured out you were probing about Vapor's situation.
  6438. > Driving a hoof into the roofline with an angry thud, you allow a small growl out.
  6439. > Just what were you going to do...?
  6440. > And how much of this was 'keeping the camp peaceful' now, and how much was taking advantage of your position?
  6441. [Choice]
cadance princess cadance thunderlane flurry heart rumble /spg/ pie

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