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Choose Your Own Slaveventure Part 4 (Complete) (CYOA)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 05:20:37 AM
Cadance Princess Cadance thunderlane rumble mayor mare /spg/ flurry heart

  1. Originally posted October 2017
  2.  
  3. [Choice]
  4. "No, I..."
  5. > You pause, shrugging.
  6. "...I don't know. I guess I just thought that after all he'd been through, he deserved to at least be able to send a private letter on whatever was going through his mind."
  7. > Cadance bows her head in acknowledgement - perhaps thanks.
  8. > "That was good of you. And right; I think Windy Winters would have appreciated it as well."
  9. "Though now I'm starting to regret it. God damn it!"
  10. > Again your first slams into the bed.
  11. "How could they do that to her? Her, of all ponies?! Does nothing I do mean anything?!"
  12. > "Sometimes, Anonymous, our anger drives us to do terrible things we regret later on."
  13. > Looking up you're struck by the sight of the alicorn still wearing the symbols of her bondage.
  14. > Symbols, as she could surely have torn them off in an instant with her horn freed.
  15. > But wore them she did.
  16. > She certainly wasn't wrong.
  17. > If you could ever have figured out where Corona went, how would you even speak to her again?
  18. > At least Corona had come out of her experience without any long-term mental damage.
  19. "Maybe. But that doesn't mean I have to like him. She's... God, I don't even know what I'm going to do with her. Mocha really isn't able to serve as my maid as she is, but if I send her off to do something else I think it might crush her."
  20. > "Was there anything else you wanted to do with her at any point?"
  21. > A soft laugh escapes you throat, despite the pain in your heart.
  22. "You know, the funny thing is I actually mentioned that I wanted to have her given a bit of an education in massage-work, but I never got around to that. And now..."
  23. > The look that Cadance gives you suggests that she isn't a particularly large fan of that idea, but then her expression turns thoughtful.
  24. > "Actually, some physical work like that might help her regain some of her control. Maybe, I'm not totally sure."
  25. "If nothing else, it will keep her physically active and doing something. That alone will be good for her, even if she never puts it to actual use on me."
  26. > "True, I suppose. But Anonymous?"
  27. > You catch a warning tone in Cadance's voice, and look over with a raised eyebrow.
  28. > "She cares for you. Deeply. Trust me on these things; I am - was - the Princess of Love; I have a sense for matters of the heart."
  29. "I know, Cadance. Our species aren't that far apart in those respects; I can see it too."
  30. > "It's filly-love - passionate, but not always lasting. Remember that she is your slave."
  31. "Cadance, I know what I am to her. Keep in mind your role as well - you may be doing a solid job leading them, but in the end you all belong to me."
  32. > "What I am saying is, don't play games with her devotion or it will destroy her."
  33. > You rather suspect Cadance had some stronger words in mind, but she doesn't speak them.
  34. > Feeling an awkward silence building, you decide a change of topic is in order:
  35. "Right, well. I should probably go back in there. I just - what they did to her... I can't keep but wanting her to be safe and sound."
  36. > "I know."
  37. > Leaning in, Cadance rests her cheek against your arm, perhaps in apology for her earlier strong words.
  38. > "It hurts. But you must do what is best for her now, and that's what matters."
  39. "Hmm. When did you become my motivational speaker, huh?"
  40. > Despite the disagreement moments earlier you lift a hand to scratch her cheeck - fingers working their way beneath the straps of the bridle and drawing a little happy sound from Cadance's throat.
  41. "No, I'll go back in. Thank you for the thoughts, though."
  42. > "Anonymous? May I see her?"
  43. "Of course! Once Rumble has gone, though."
  44. > Forcing yourself up you head back to the study.
  45. > Both ponies there are resting on the floor, side-by-side with their flanks touching.
  46. > Mocha Cream has buried her muzzle in her forelegs, while Rumble watches with a concerned expression.
  47. "Mocha? Are you okay?"
  48. > Gasping, she tries to stand but wobbles halfway up and ends up on her haunches again.
  49. > "I-I'm sorry Master! Let me just get up-"
  50. "No, no."
  51. > You're at the filly's side in a moment, hand on her withers to calm her.
  52. "Shhh... It's alright. Tell me slowly, Mocha."
  53. > Her mouth opens once, then closes - and repeats the process, fish-like.
  54. > Eventually Rumble steps in:
  55. > "The letter. I think... Windy WInters must've really wanted to say sorry pretty bad."
  56. > "I think he was."
  57. > Mocha's voice is small, but that she is managing to talk is a good sign.
  58. > "He really, really was sorry... he got why you had to send him away. If he'd been here... I don't know, I..."
  59. "What about you, Rumble? What do you think?"
  60. > It takes the colt a few moments to answer.
  61. > "I... dunno. Doin' that wasn't right. Under any circumstances. But y'still just... sold him. Like a worn-out table or something. Or a dog."
  62. "I did give him another chance, though. He'll be going to a place where he can be taught more skills, not to be just thrown away-"
  63. > "He's going to be used. For some other slaver's benefit, if not yours."
  64. > Looking up, Rumble manages a little glare.
  65. > "Ponies shouldn't be used like that. Not even for this! In Equestria we only imprisoned anypony if they-"
  66. > He breaks off and goes quiet as he realizes just how much his voice had been raised.
  67. > Probably because of how stiff Mocha Cream has gone.
  68. > "I'm sorry. I think, um -"
  69. > Scuffing at the carped with a hoof, Rumble sighs.
  70. > "-I think I'd better go back now."
  71. "If you'd better, yes."
  72. > The coldness in your voice makes him flinch.
  73. > Rising, Rumble briefly nuzzles Mocha again and turns for the door.
  74. > "Sorry, Mocha. Didn't mean to... make it all bad like this. I just-"
  75. > His eyes sweep the expensively-furnished room - pausing on the collection of Equestrian artifacts you kept in the one bookshelf - and for a second you see that same anger flash in his expression.
  76. > But he steels himself and squashes it.
  77. > "I'll just... see you around, 'kay?
  78. "Rumble?"
  79. > He pauses, but still doesn't look directly at you.
  80. > "Yes?"
  81. "If you'd like to help Mocha from time to time, or just come up to visit... I can arrange that."
  82. > "That... would be nice, yeah."
  83. > Then, more softly:
  84. > "Thanks."
  85. > Only when you are really sure he is gone do you turn back to Mocha Cream:
  86. "Mocha, I think there's one other pony here who'd really like to see you as well."
  87. > "Flurry Heart, Master?"
  88. > Her hopeful tone brings a bit of a smile to your face.
  89. "You were close to her, weren't you? Well, actually I'd make that two then."
  90. > "O-Oh. Who is it, then?"
  91. "Follow me?"
  92. > Obediently tagging at your heels, Mocha gasps when she enters your room and lays eyes on Cadance.
  93. > "M-Miss Cadance! Why are you-"
  94. > "Hello, Mocha Cream."
  95. > Smiling sadly, Cadance rises to her hooves.
  96. > "Why are you, um..."
  97. > "I am... paying for a mistake I made, Mocha. But you don't have to worry about me; I will be fine."
  98. > Not, you think, if she keeps hiding her struggles like that.
  99. > Cadance shuffles forward until she can lower her head to nuzzle Mocha Cream.
  100. > "How are you feeling now, though?"
  101. > "B-Better. Now that I'm home with M-Master Anonymous."
  102. > If Cadance is offput by how closely Mocha clings to you, she doesn't show it.
  103. > Instead she smiles a wan smile and nods.
  104. > "I'm sorry. I was-"
  105. > Another hesitating pause.
  106. > Was she going to blame herself for Mocha being a victim too?
  107. > "-if there's anything I can do to help you, just please say?"
  108. > "Yes. Um, of course. Miss Cadance."
  109. > Carefully you reach down and, with some effort, lift Mocha Cream up to set her on your bed.
  110. > The filly squeaks as she is lifted, remaining good legs curling in against herself.
  111. > Once on the bed, though, she quickly - if tentatively, as if she isn't sure it would be allowed - leans in against your side again.
  112. "Cadance and I were just discussing what you're going to be doing while you heal."
  113. > "I c-can't be your maid again, Master?"
  114. > Large, liquid brown eyes peer up at you full of worry.
  115. "Not yet. You're still healing."
  116. > "No! I can do better! I'll get up earlier, so I can be up to your room in time-"
  117. "Mocha, do you remember what I told you I'd do if you lied to me?"
  118. > Another startled squeak, and she buries her rapidly-reddening muzzle against your side.
  119. > Oh, she remembers alright.
  120. > "Y-You said you'd s-s-spank me, Master."
  121. "So I did. Are you lying to me, Mocha?"
  122. > "N-No, Master..."
  123. > Unhappily Mocha sighs.
  124. > "I'm not well yet, am I?"
  125. "Not yet. And if you push yourself too hard you'll only make it worse."
  126. > "But I don't want to be useless!"
  127. > "You are not 'useless', Mocha Cream. You are healing; that is very different."
  128. "Yes. And as you are getting better, I can start giving you some duties. Just... not yet."
  129. > "What will I be doing, then?"
  130. > Her plaintive tone still manages to catch your heart.
  131. > Mocha Cream really did want nothing more than to serve you.
  132. > Hand going to stroke through her mane, you smile reassuringly:
  133. "For starters you'll be just resting and recovering. That's not a suggestion, that's an order. Recovering is your duty. It does not make you useless at all."
  134. > "Yes, Master."
  135. "Now, once that is started I'll slowly begin giving you back your duties. Once that leg comes out of its cast and you strengthen it up a bit, I'm sure you'll be right back in action."
  136. > Smiling enthusiastically, Mocha Cream nods in a rapid motion that sends brown and white curls of her mane dancing.
  137. > "I'll look forward to it, Master!"
  138. "Well then. Do you want to head downstairs and finish saying hello to the rest of the other ponies?"
  139. > "That, um. That'd be great, Master, but..."
  140. > She shifts uncertainly, looking around.
  141. > "...I'm actually - I'm kind of tired. If, um. If that's not and order, can I take a nap first?"
  142. "Of course, Mocha."
  143. > Still stroking through her mane, you slip your other arm around her and hug her tightly - producing a gentle and comforted nicker from the young mare.
  144. > Both her forelegs come up to encircle you in return; Mocha Cream nestles her muzzle in against your chest and draws a deep, long breath.
  145. > "T-Thank you. I'm j-just so glad to be home again..."
  146. > Then, in quieter voice:
  147. > "Master? Could I stay here while I sleep? With you?"
  148. "Well, Mocha, I'm not sure-"
  149. > The look she gives you- a pleading, needing expression...
  150. > God damn it.
  151. > You were mostly immune to your daughter's attempts to use it, but from Mocha after all she'd been thorugh...
  152. "Come on over to my study. I'm going to be in and out, and Cadance and I will be talking. But if you can sleep there... come on."
  153. >...
  154. > "-so, if we put ponies into getting all the roads back in shape - which let me tell you, is going to be a problem after the winter - we're going to come up short on most of the work quotas. Or have to ask ponies to donate their free time, which... is not going to go over well."
  155. "And if you don't, the roads get torn up and moving anything around by cart - let alone car - becomes a real chore too."
  156. > Mayor Mare nods cleanly, japbbing a hoof the the map of the camp spread on her desk.
  157. > "In the past we've patched things up bit by bit, Master. But, well - with so many ponies gone and then new ones coming in..."
  158. "Yeah."
  159. > Leaning back, you stretch mightily.
  160. > The chairs in the 'town hall' - like everything else in it - were deliberately pony-sized and sitting in them without support was going to truly ruin your back sooner or later.
  161. > But with Cadance out of action someone was going to have to pick up the slack, at least in part.
  162. "Would it be more manageable if you didn't really have to really re-seal stuff? Just dump some asphalt and let it fill in, and skip any preemptive work to focus on just filling potholes?"
  163. > "Definitely. but patch like that will probably last only months."
  164. "It's fine. With the kind of construction we're going to be doing around here in the future, I'll just have the contractors repave every street with totally fresh stuff. That'll happen before fall."
  165. > "That will work, I suppose. Though, if you're thinking of doing major work, we're going to have to figure out ways for most ponies to get around."
  166. "It's going to be bigger than that; we're going to have to shunt some ponies around entirely.
  167. > Mayor Mare shoots you an expression of utter horror at the scale of the task.
  168. "No, no. You won't be doing it on your own; I'll probably have to rent some temporary housing while we do some of this work."
  169. > "Master, if you're looking to do that I can recommend some open areas we could put tents in for a time. But there is a simpler solution."
  170. "Hit me."
  171. > "Cloud homes. The pegasi here are ground-bound and their things aren't enchanted to stay around in clouds, but there's no reason we couldn't home them temporarily there. We even have machinery and skilled cloudworkers for making some of your products."
  172. > Turning to a map of the camp, Mayor Mare taps several blocks.
  173. > "There are a few locations where we could set them up and not have to worry about what is beneath."
  174. "So, it'd take some workers off active duty, but spare us having to take up room and set up tents. I'll keep it in mind."
  175. > You drop your pen and slump back in the chair, rubbing your back again.
  176. "You know, Mayor, you're really quite good with this. I can't imagine how you and Cadance manage this every day."
  177. > "We manage... somehow."
  178. "Still. You're doing fantastically here, especially for a pony in your position. I'm already having to consider exactly where to invest in, now that it's a possibility."
  179. > "What ponies to buy, you mean."
  180. > Surprised by her frank talk, you raise an eyebrow - but nod.
  181. "Yes. I could focus on acquiring more capable ponies with highly valuable skills; they'd certainly pay off well. But there'd be fewer of them, and less flexibility outside of their skill groups. Or a broad variety of ponies, looking to repeat what I'd done before - seek out gems within them and let their own talents guide them."
  182. > Picking up your pen again, you begin to tap it lightly against the table.
  183. "Or even some griffons. Allegedly they've been performing very well... when they can be convinced to work. That latter part keeps the prices on most of them down. Might make some good guards as well - predator instincts and all."
  184. > "I presume you won't be able to acquire nearly as many highly-skilled ponies."
  185. "Accurate. Not only are the base prices higher, but they tend to at individual auction... which means they really can spiral up. But for good reason."
  186. > "Well, whichever path you take I'll be ready to do what I can for this place."
  187. > Pausing, you glance over to Mayor Mare with one raised eyebrow.
  188. "You're taking this rather well, actually. Considering the topic."
  189. > "Master, if I can speak frankly with you?"
  190. "Of course."
  191. > Stripping her glasses Mayor Mare lays them on the desk and rests them on the table while looking you straight in the eye.
  192. > "I am not a young pony. I was not a young pony when this all began, and I've not gotten any more youthful. I'm no spirit full of fire and fight."
  193. > Her head turns to a window, and you get the sense she is examining her own reflection.
  194. > "For an old mare like me, in any of the tougher work camps the end wouldn't be long coming. I'd I'm not afraid to admit I obeyed because I was terrified of dying in a place like that."
  195. > Suddenly you are very aware of just how tired she sounds - and looks.
  196. > A pony might not be human, but you can't miss the wrinkles around her eyes or the fading of her coat into a grey that matches her mane.
  197. "What happened?"
  198. > "A manager is always useful. I made myself useful, and eventually came here."
  199. > Turning back to face you, she shrugs.
  200. > "I still hate being a slave. I still miss being the simple mayor of a small town, even if Ponyville might have driven me into an early grave too with all the stress it caused. But for better and for worse, this place became a home too. If you're going to be bringing more ponies, I'll be damn sure to see it not fall apart."
  201. "Hmm."
  202. > Privately, you'd hoped that she would be a little bit more thankful for a position so well-tailored for her old life and freedom from the looming fear of a wretched end.
  203. > But perhaps that was her way of being thankful.
  204. > Especially from someone who had thought her job as a free pony would drive her to an early grave too.
  205. "Any advice, then, on how best to avoid that?"
  206. > "I don't have the vision Cadance does, not for a grand future for this place. It's her you'll want to talk to. But if I can make one suggestion, Anonymous? Don't let this place become divided. Between skilled ponies and not, valuable and cheap, griffon and pony, new and old, guards and everyone else... whoever you bring in, don't let that happen or it will collapse."
  207. "That, I can agree on."
  208. > "Talk to Cadance, Master. She can tell you better than I."
  209. > The alicorn, unfortunately, was little more help.
  210. > When presented with your question, she instead shuffles over to a window to look out at the camp and gently rolling hills beyond.
  211. > You take the opportunity to wander on back to your chair and settle in it.
  212. > Mocha Cream slept soundly curled against one arm but there was still plenty of room for you.
  213. > Idly you stroke the snoozing mare's cheek; mumbling in her sleep, she promptly slips a forehoof across your chest and buries her muzzle into your side.
  214. "Cadance?"
  215. > "My heart, Anonymous, says to spare as many ponies as I can - to spread whatever funds you may have as thin as possible and bring every soul I can here while improving this camp and making it a better place to live."
  216. "But you know that is not realistic."
  217. > Her head falls, mane sweeping around to hide the bridle.
  218. > It does nothing to hide the rest, though.
  219. > "It is not my money, and I am not making this choice myself. In the end, you are asking me how best to bend ponies to your benefit."
  220. "One way to look at it, I suppose. Another is that if we succeed here, even more may come."
  221. > "That is."
  222. > Cadance's voice is somewhat muffled by her falling mane.
  223. > "There's some truth in what Mayor Mare told you as well. Perhaps a blend... bring in a few ponies with the skills you can use, and have them educate and lead the rest. No preferred slaves, but teams. No luxury improvements, but something... do away with the barracks, maybe."
  224. [Choice]
  225. "I think I'm going to have to continue with our mixed-bag approach. Mostly whoever I can acquire, and we'll build on their skills as we can. A handful of highly-skilled ponies to form the core of teams... we'll make it clear they're leaders, not overseers."
  226. > "That, I think, is manageable. Reward them by the total team's performance, not by the individual's."
  227. "Yes."
  228. > Tapping the desk with a finger, you ponder further:
  229. "Say... say we start doing bulk purchases. Sort our arrivals, see what kind of talents we're pulling in. What we can expand to start developing to fulfill their needs. Then get some real talented ponies to form the nucleus of those teams."
  230. > "As much as my heart wishes to just buy them all... that I think this is the safest course for the future of this place."
  231. > Cadance can't quite keep the morose tone out of her voice, though, nor manage to lift her head when she speaks to you.
  232. > She ought to be, but you're reasonably certain lecturing her wouldn't help at this time either.
  233. "There's one other thing I wanted to try, and I think you'll like it."
  234. > This catches her attention; one ear turns to focus on you, even if her head remains ducked.
  235. "If there's one thing I've been learning recently, it's how much emotion goes into driving you ponies. Especially when it comes to family, friends, or loved ones."
  236. > "What are you suggesting?"
  237. "When we're looking at ponies to bring here, we look for families where possible. After that we set aside a little more money; if a pony here can find a family member on auction and are performing well enough, the money will be there to bring them back together."
  238. > Rather than respond immediately, Cadance rises to her hooves - head coming back up - and hobbles to your side, chains clinking with each step.
  239. > Seating herself on her haunches at the foot of your chair, she stares with wide and expressive eyes::
  240. > "Anonymous, I... I don't... I hadn't expected-"
  241. "Shhh."
  242. > Reaching out to scratch her lightly about the cheek, you offer a gentle smile.
  243. "Haven't I always said, Cadance, that I wanted this to be a place where ponies will want to work? We may have to ration the funding by lottery, and figure out what to do if it turns out that someone's family has a history of problem-behavior... but I think it will help."
  244. > Leaning in to your hand, she turns her head and presses it wordlessly to your shoulder.
  245. > "I never thought I'd see the day when this was how it would be..."
  246. "We can do this, though. It's not impossible. You've shown me that you can work with me, and now I want to give you something even more to work with."
  247. > "And I will! If we can take 'problem' ponies in, it might even spare them from being sent off to-"
  248. > She cuts off, choking, and your hand stops to simply rest supportively beneath her chin.
  249. "You're thinking of Autumn Frost and Comet Tail, aren't you?"
  250. > Eyes dropping away towards the floor, Cadance nods.
  251. > "I still can't believe I b-branded him and sent them to... to..."
  252. > A sharp tremble, almost like a slight retch, runs through her body.
  253. "Cadance. We can't be holding ourselves entirely responsible for them. We can encourage, and warn, and incentivize... but we cannot hold ourselves absolutely responsible for them."
  254. > The alicorn stirs, pauses, considers, opens her mouth and re-closes it, then decides to go ahead after all:
  255. > "...coming from you, Master?"
  256. > Her pointed use of your title draws a grin to your lips:
  257. "Yes, even coming from me."
  258. > Giving her chin one last scratch, you sink back into the seat again - adjust the still-resting Mocha Cream, who kicks weakly in her sleep in protest at being moved.
  259. "There's one other thing I wanted to ask you about: What do you think of Griffons, Cadance?"
  260. > "Griffons?"
  261. > Head cocked she pauses in thought:
  262. > "Capable, but proud creatures. I only met a few; Equestria had good relations with most of their aeries in my lifetime, but we had warred in the past."
  263. "And personally - do they tend to be reasonable?"
  264. > "I... can't say; again, I only met a relative few."
  265. > Her eyes close and voice slides into the practiced tone of one repeating a lesson taught by repetition.
  266. > "Griffon social orders are complex and hierarchical, moreso than pony ones. They challenge each other to determine rank and responsibility; a newcomer to any social group will attempt challenge until they meet another they cannot overcome."
  267. > Eyes reopen, but the voice remains the same:
  268. > "Ponies often find them rude and aggressive; this is because they are attempting to challenge to determine social order. Clearly laying out standing initially will avoid this, after which they are most agreeable."
  269. "You're well-read."
  270. > "Auntie Celestia made sure of it. It wouldn't do well for a Princess to start a fight over an argument."
  271. "So, basically what you're saying is that I beat them silly and then they won't give me any more trouble."
  272. > "NO! I-"
  273. > Too late Cadance spots your grin.
  274. > "Anonymous. That is not something to joke over; I don't doubt many a griffon has suffered terribly because their captors did not understand how to respond to them."
  275. "But I would not. Your point is taken, though - so, we might have a handful of incidents until they settle down, after which they'll be less trouble. Got it."
  276. > Rubbing your chin, you grimace:
  277. "I've personally heard good things about them - a lot of flexibility in roles, and dutiful - so it's clear someone's gotten through to them. Let me talk to Thunderlane, see what he thinks. Mayor Mare too."
  278. > "Anonymous?"
  279. "Yes, Cadance?"
  280. > The mare raises a hoof - or attempts anyway, the chain between them quickly going taught.
  281. > Instead she falls to her haunches and raises both hooves to her muzzle, indicating the bridle:
  282. > "I know I'm not returning to leading things quite yet, and I'll have to come back afterwards... but there's something I have to do in the camp. If I could have these off for just a visit..."
  283. "What are you thinking of?"
  284. > She tells you, and your expression turns somber:
  285. "...ah, yes. Of course I'll let you do that. In fact, take some time for that if you need to; I know you'll come back up here when it's done with."
  286. > You are the first to arrive, and for some minutes you stand alone.
  287. > Eventually, however, a few other ponies do slip in:
  288. > Clinging to the walls, ears swivelling and eyes searching as if they half expected to be jumped by the guards for being here.
  289. > Waiting calmly you allow them to form a small crowd - instinctively seeking the shelter found in a herd.
  290. > They eye you with wonder, suspicion, and curiosity.
  291. > The cloth-wrapped form by your side draws even more attention, as does the freshly-dug hole nearby.
  292. > It was one of very few graves - Anonymous did not tend to buy older ponies, and if nothing else the quality of his medical care could not be questioned.
  293. > The hooffull of plots had been granted their own space, though - a small rolling hill on the edge of the camp, near the fence and dotted by assorted young trees and bushes reaching skyward.
  294. > Chrysocolla's place was at the edge of this, out in the open sun.
  295. > Politely you clear your throat, and the few small whispers that had been passed around go silent.
  296. "My little ponies... I thank you all for coming here today, though the moment we find ourselves at is not a pleasant one."
  297. > Turning, you allow your eyes to drop to the cloth-wrapped shape lying on a stretcher at your side.
  298. > Your eyes see it, but your mind sees the twisted, burnt, and broken body beneath.
  299. "Chrysocolla, I admit, I did not know well. I did not speak to her, and only knew her in passing. Now, I wonder, would it have prevented this if I had?"
  300. > Shaking your head, you push the thought out of your mind:
  301. "This is why I am glad you've come. You who did know her, who can remember her as she was in life."
  302. > Turning back to face them, you add:
  303. "As we return her to the earth - earth of a foreign land, not her home but one she was brought to, I hope you can remember her as she was: Before hatred and fear caught hold of her heart and twisted her."
  304. > One by one they speak, recalling their best memories.
  305. > Happier times, brief moments of true exuberance amid the tedium and cruelty of slavery.
  306. > Slowly you begin to have an image of a pony you barely knew.
  307. > A pony fascinated by minerals and the beauty to be found them.
  308. > A pony who could see a rock and know exactly how to break or polish it to bring out its beauty.
  309. > A pony with loves, hopes, dreams, and fears.
  310. > One brings forward a rolled-up section of newspaper, unfurling it to reveal a line of carefully-kept mineral specimens.
  311. > "She always kept them on a window. 'colla would scour the camp looking for anything remotely interesting to her."
  312. > Perhaps, you think, Chrysocolla didn't deserve to be remembered this way.
  313. > Not after what she had done to Mocha Cream.
  314. > But some part of you also insists that she had to be memorialized as she was.
  315. > To not let the sickness that had crept into her heart define her.
  316. > Eventually they finish, and you turn to the plot of freshly excavated earth.
  317. > It was done the traditional Earth Pony way: With not a spark of magic, but with ropes and cloth to lower her down to become one with the earth again.
  318. > Your heart lightens just a fraction when one of the other mourners offers one of the ropes to you, letting you take part.
  319. > Teeth aching from the strain, you help guide Chrysocolla into the pit.
  320. > Once the ropes are free, the others gather around the edge - faces stoic, but eyes misty with tears.
  321. "...we stand here, gathered to see Chrysocolla to her final resting place amid the earth from which we are all made."
  322. > Though not, you ponder, literally so - not even the same world.
  323. > Sentiments would have to suffice.
  324. "Our food from the earth, all ponykind from the food, and the earth our destination. So it must continue, our life. Though we wish she had not left us so soon, we wish even more that she find peace, safety, and comfort denied to her in life. May she-"
  325. > Your voice cracks.
  326. "-may she find harmony among the Great Herd, and freedom roaming on the Eternal Fields."
  327. > "Harmony eternal, and freedom."
  328. > 'Freedom' was not part of the older service, but it felt fitting.
  329. > The other ponies, apparently agreeing, echo it in unison as well.
  330. > Returning the dirt is also done the traditional way, without magic but only by hoof and shovel gripped in mouth.
  331. > You are sweating by the time it is done, but so are all the others.
  332. "I assume one of you brought her sprout?"
  333. > A few look surprised that you know the traditional earth pony ritual, but Celestia had ensured you were familiar with all three tribes' funerary rites in case you were ever called to... take part.
  334. > Discovering the Crystal ponies' had been necessary too, later on.
  335. > One marches forward, reaching into his saddlebags to produce a small shrub.
  336. > Carefully this is placed in the loose earth topping the grave, its roots buried in and the dirt tamped down.
  337. > The three earth ponies in the small crowd step forward, close their eyes, and-
  338. > There is a... feel.
  339. > Not the sharp, controlled feel of a unicorn's spell or the rushing sense of movement that accompanies a pegasus' magic, but sort of heavy presence all about you.
  340. > Like the weight of the land itself.
  341. > Earth Pony magic had always been the most difficult for you, and opting not to take part seems to be the smarter choice.
  342. > Slowly - but steadily - the bush sprouts grows, growing until it is twice as tall as it had started and surely its roots twice as deep.
  343. > The feel fades, and the three earth ponies breath out in unison.
  344. > In ones and twos ponies start to drift away, until you are left alone with the freshly-turned grave.
  345. "What are you thinking of?"
  346. > She tells you, and your expression turns somber:
  347. "Ah, yes. Of course I'll let you do that. In fact, take some time for that if you need to; I know you'll come back up here when it's done with."
  348. > ...
  349. > You are the first to arrive, and for some minutes you stand alone.
  350. > Eventually, however, a few other ponies do slip in:
  351. > Clinging to the walls, ears swivelling and eyes searching as if they half expected to be jumped by the guards for being here.
  352. > Waiting calmly you allow them to form a small crowd - instinctively seeking the shelter found in a herd.
  353. > They eye you with wonder, suspicion, and curiosity.
  354. > The cloth-wrapped form by your side draws even more attention, as does the freshly-dug hole nearby.
  355. > It was one of very few graves - Anonymous did not tend to buy older ponies, and if nothing else the quality of his medical care could not be questioned.
  356. > The hooffull of plots had been granted their own space, though - a small rolling hill on the edge of the camp, near the fence and dotted by assorted young trees and bushes reaching skyward.
  357. > Chrysocolla's place was at the edge of this, out in the open sun.
  358. > Politely you clear your throat, and the few small whispers that had been passed around go silent.
  359. "My little ponies... I thank you all for coming here today, though the moment we find ourselves at is not a pleasant one."
  360. > Turning, you allow your eyes to drop to the cloth-wrapped shape lying on a stretcher at your side.
  361. > Your eyes see it, but your mind sees the twisted, burnt, and broken body beneath.
  362. "Chrysocolla, I admit, I did not know well. I did not speak to her, and only knew her in passing. Now, I wonder, would it have prevented this if I had?"
  363. > Shaking your head, you push the thought out of your mind:
  364. "This is why I am glad you've come. You who did know her, who can remember her as she was in life."
  365. > Turning back to face them, you add:
  366. "As we return her to the earth - earth of a foreign land, not her home but one she was brought to, I hope you can remember her as she was: Before hatred and fear caught hold of her heart and twisted her."
  367. > One by one they speak, recalling their best memories.
  368. > Happier times, brief moments of true exuberance amid the tedium and cruelty of slavery.
  369. > Slowly you begin to have an image of a pony you barely knew.
  370. > A pony fascinated by minerals and the beauty to be found them.
  371. > A pony who could see a rock and know exactly how to break or polish it to bring out its beauty.
  372. > A pony with loves, hopes, dreams, and fears.
  373. > One brings forward a rolled-up section of newspaper, unfurling it to reveal a line of carefully-kept mineral specimens.
  374. > "She always kept them on a window. 'colla would scour the camp looking for anything remotely interesting to her."
  375. > Perhaps, you think, Chrysocolla didn't deserve to be remembered this way.
  376. > Not after what she had done to Mocha Cream.
  377. > But some part of you also insists that she had to be memorialized as she was.
  378. > To not let the sickness that had crept into her heart define her.
  379. > Eventually they finish, and you turn to the plot of freshly excavated earth.
  380. > It was done the traditional Earth Pony way: With not a spark of magic, but with ropes and cloth to lower her down to become one with the earth again.
  381. > Your heart lightens just a fraction when one of the other mourners offers one of the ropes to you, letting you take part.
  382. > Teeth aching from the strain, you help guide Chrysocolla into the pit.
  383. > Once the ropes are free, the others gather around the edge - faces stoic, but eyes misty with tears.
  384. "...we stand here, gathered to see Chrysocolla to her final resting place amid the earth from which we are all made."
  385. > Though not, you ponder, literally so - not even the same world.
  386. > Sentiments would have to suffice.
  387. "Our food from the earth, all ponykind from the food, and the earth our destination. So it must continue, our life. Though we wish she had not left us so soon, we wish even more that she find peace, safety, and comfort denied to her in life. May she-"
  388. > Your voice cracks.
  389. "-may she find harmony among the Great Herd, and freedom roaming on the Eternal Fields."
  390. > "Harmony eternal, and freedom."
  391. > 'Freedom' was not part of the older service, but it felt fitting.
  392. > The other ponies, apparently agreeing, echo it in unison as well.
  393. > Returning the dirt is also done the traditional way, without magic but only by hoof and shovel gripped in mouth.
  394. > You are sweating by the time it is done, but so are all the others.
  395. "I assume one of you brought her sprout?"
  396. > A few look surprised that you know the traditional earth pony ritual, but Celestia had ensured you were familiar with all three tribes' funerary rites in case you were ever called to... take part.
  397. > Discovering the Crystal ponies' had been necessary too, later on.
  398. > One marches forward, reaching into his saddlebags to produce a small shrub.
  399. > Carefully this is placed in the loose earth topping the grave, its roots buried in and the dirt tamped down.
  400. > The three earth ponies in the small crowd step forward, close their eyes, and-
  401. > There is a... feel.
  402. > Not the sharp, controlled feel of a unicorn's spell or the rushing sense of movement that accompanies a pegasus' magic, but sort of heavy presence all about you.
  403. > Like the weight of the land itself.
  404. > Earth Pony magic had always been the most difficult for you, and opting not to take part seems to be the smarter choice.
  405. > Slowly - but steadily - the bush sprouts grows, growing until it is twice as tall as it had started and surely its roots twice as deep.
  406. > The feel fades, and the three earth ponies breath out in unison.
  407. > In ones and twos ponies start to drift away, until you are left alone with the freshly-turned grave.
  408. > Eventually you walk to its edge, dipping your head until your nose is almost brushing the dirt.
  409. > It still hums every so faintly with the echoes of that power you'd felt.
  410. "Forgive me, Chrysocolla. May you rest peacefully."
  411. > Whispering your final words, you rise and turn to leave - your face a rigidly-controlled blank mask.
  412. > The past could not be erased.
  413. > Time to face the future.
  414. > After the funeral is done, you cannot help but briefly check in at your office in the town hall.
  415. > True, you had told Anonymous that you would not be taking up any duties again.
  416. > But it couldn't hurt to check, could it?
  417. > And besides, if nothing else it would be seen out and about in the camp.
  418. > Let everypony know you were okay, and not suffering some awful agony in Anonymous' cells.
  419. > ...despite your foalish efforts to put yourself in exactly that situation.
  420. > Trotting through the streets, you can't help but feel this decision was the right one:
  421. > Your appearance, un-marked by any sign of torture, prompts more than a few quiet words of relief from passing ponies.
  422. > Each of these you meet with a quiet smile and a few soft words of your own.
  423. > Nothing much, but enough to show your mind was just as unscarred as your body.
  424. > Just as you turn a corner, however, a familiar voice calls out from behind you:
  425. > "Cadance!"
  426. > You pause, one hoof lifted.
  427. > Thunderlane catches up to you at a quick trot, circling around to face you directly.
  428. > Yet, once there he doesn't seem quite sure what to say - mouth opening, but nothing coming from it.
  429. > Steeping in, you take the initiative instead:
  430. "Thunderlane. I'm sorry you couldn't come, though I understand."
  431. > "I don't think I could have seen her without seeing what she did again."
  432. > Shuddering gently, the stallion shakes his head.
  433. > "And they might've not wanted me there. Didn't want to make a scene. Was it peaceful?"
  434. "Yes."
  435. > "Good. That's how it should be."
  436. "You might still want to visit her some time. It might settle your mind some."
  437. > "Speaking from experience?"
  438. > Now it is your turn to look aside, and Thunderlane quickly takes a step in:
  439. > "I'm sorry, Your Highness. That wasn't right-"
  440. "No... it's fine. And yes, I was."
  441. > Relaxing, he backs down a touch.
  442. > "Ah... does this mean you will be coming back now?"
  443. "Not quite yet. I'm checking on a few other things, but then I have to go again."
  444. > Frowning, Thunderlane just nods.
  445. "I'm... helping Anonymous plan a few things right now. With the future of everything here, and more ponies coming..."
  446. > "It's going to happen, then?"
  447. > You glance about, but most ponies are giving you a respectful distance - enough to talk quietly.
  448. "Yes. In the next few months."
  449. > "He'll probably want us to recruit a few more guards from the ponies. For that matter, I think it would be a good idea for us to bring in a few more guards."
  450. > You frown a touch, Anonymous' report of what Mayor Mare had said coming back to you.
  451. > Don't divide the camp...
  452. "If I can make a recommendation, Thunderlane?"
  453. > "I'm always willing to listen to you, Your Highness."
  454. "Advice, Thunderlane. Not an order: Don't only recruit guards straight out of the new arrivals. Find a few more from ponies currently on the Watch, and let new ponies join the Watch in their place as well."
  455. > He nods in understanding.
  456. > The Watch was little more than ponies who carried out routine tasks and light enforcement in the camp; unlike the Guards, they had no power to actually send ponies to the cells or inflict punishments.
  457. > Hopefully that lesser position would be enough to catch any potential problem recruits before their egos could create any problems.
  458. > "A mixed group, more new and old... yeah, I could see working with that."
  459. "You don't sound enthusiastic."
  460. > Snorting gently, Thunderlane sighs:
  461. > "I never really wanted to become a - a guard for all this, you know? Nevermind an officer of guards."
  462. "I remember."
  463. > "But I know I have to, so... it'll be done."
  464. "Good... I suppose this is already getting into management work, which I'm not really supposed to be doing right now."
  465. > "Anonymous' order?"
  466. "To keep me from tearing myself apart. I've been... standing alone for a long time."
  467. > Thunderlane grimaces.
  468. > "Still. I... snapped a bit, at Bon Bon. For pushing you into that-"
  469. "I was the one being a foal, not just her."
  470. > "Still. She shouldn't have encouraged you to throw yourself at him."
  471. "No. Maybe it's the same absurd urge still arguing in my head, but I'm glad it happened now - rather than I pushing myself into something truly dangerous later on."
  472. > "Then, he didn't actually punish you."
  473. > Thunderlane sags in relief.
  474. "A symbolic punishment, and removing me from my duties for a time. Nothing more."
  475. > The lie is not told without a struggle.
  476. > A catch in your voice betrays it.
  477. > If he were paying attention, Thunderlane would surely have noticed it.
  478. > But he is too relieved to care.
  479. "I should go back now, though. Before he actually starts to think I'm lying to him."
  480. > "Yeah... just, it was good to see you again."
  481. "The same, Thunderlane. I should be back for real soon enough."
  482. > Quickly you hurry away, hoping just as deeply he doesn't take notice of your haste - or determine its true reason.
  483. > When had lying become so easy to you?
  484. > Why was speaking in defense of a slaver - to conceal torture - something you could do at all, much less do so easily?
  485. > The shudder that runs down your spine has less to do with memories of the past.
  486. > It is much more fear of what your future holds.
  487. > Retreating back up to the manor, you slip to Anonymous' room, barely acknowledging the other servants.
  488. > The shackles, collar, and bridle are still there; you return them to their places binding your legs, neck, and around your head without a second thought.
  489. > Then, you retreat to Anonymous' (currently empty) seat by the window and simply lay down beside it.
  490. > Wondering.
  491. > Worrying.
  492. > The past was behind you, yes.
  493. > But the future was not so secure either.
  494. > Eventually you become aware of a presence at your side; turning your head you find Megan staring at you with wonder and worry in her expression.
  495. > "Cadance?"
  496. "Yes, little one?"
  497. > Despite the pain in your heart, you manage a smile.
  498. > No need to let the innocent share your worries.
  499. "Is there something I can do for you?"
  500. > "Were you a bad pony, Cadance? Is that why you're..."
  501. > She gestures to the metal you wear.
  502. > Her question - so similar to what your very own Flurry Heart had asked - shatters your mask.
  503. > The pained expression that settles back over your face tells plenty.
  504. > Megan leaps forward, arms wrapping your neck and head burying into your mane just above the collar.
  505. > "It's okay, Cadance. We're all bad sometimes. And you're sorry, aren't you?"
  506. "Of course I am, Megan."
  507. > "It's not bad if we make mistakes sometimes."
  508. > A thoughtful pause, and the girl whispers into your ear with a tickling breath:
  509. > "Can I tell you a secret, Cadance? You can't tell anyone, though."
  510. "Yes, Megan. You can tell me."
  511. > "I was a bad girl too. I was stupid and was mean to Thunderlane and another pony; Daddy had to spank me right in front of Flurry and Thunderlane. But it's okay, 'cause we both know better now right?"
  512. > Of course, Flurry herself had already told you this.
  513. > But even so, Megan's simple and honest hopefulness and desire to help brings a smile to your lips.
  514. "I do hope so, Megan. This is nothing I wish to go through again, and I know how silly I was."
  515. > "Good. 'cause, I think you're a good pony and I don't wanna see you sad."
  516. "Thank you, little one. I..."
  517. > Turning your head aside, you extend a wing to wrap around Megan and return her hug.
  518. "...I feel a lot better now, knowing I'm not alone. Thank you."
  519. > This, at least, is not a lie.
  520. > Megan was a constant source of relief to you - a reminder that the future was not always bleak.
  521. > Not perfect and not without its struggles.
  522. > Someone like her taking responsibility for the future, though...
  523. > There was just a bit of hope there.
  524. > Giggling softly at your feathery touch, Megan gives your neck one last squeeze before she lets go.
  525. > "Um, Miss Cadance? Flurry Heart says you know how to brush her mane really well. Can you, um, show me? I know how to kinda do it, but you know better..."
  526. "Of course! Now, or...?"
  527. > "A little bit later, after dinner... if Daddy doesn't have you doing something."
  528. "I don't think he will."
  529. > This proves true enough; Anonymous seems merely content to talk with and ask your advice on certain matters.
  530. > You are still free of any particular duties long after night has fallen and the hours creep on..
  531. > When Megan - already dressed in her pajamas for the night and followed closely by your own daughter - appear at the door of Anonymous' room, you motion to the bed with one wing.
  532. "Come. Sit down, and I'll show you how to do this."
  533. > You leap up onto the bed with a single bound; after a moment to gather herself, Flurry follows suit while Megan scrambles up one leg over the other.
  534. > ...asking Anonymous to begin those flying lessons with your daughter would have to come next.
  535. "Now-"
  536. > Rolling over to rest on your side, you tuck your legs into your belly - clearing a space free of shackle or chain for them to rest.
  537. "-sit down here, and let me see the brush in your hand?"
  538. > Megan does as asked, seating herself cross-legged against your belly with brush in hand.
  539. > Gently both in a light touch of magic, you show her how to add that specific twist to your daughter's mane that would make it curl just right.
  540. "...like this, see? Flurry's mane doesn't like to run straight, or even curl in one direction."
  541. > "Uh-huh?"
  542. "So, you have to do a little turn-around just like this-"
  543. > Again, her hand is guided through the right motion.
  544. > Flurry coos softly, eyes half-closed in contentment.
  545. "-and it goes just right."
  546. > "Um..."
  547. > Face screwed up in concentration, Megan pouts as she struggles with her view.
  548. > "...that's hard. You're cheating; you've got magic."
  549. "Well... maybe if you took your other hand - yes, that looks like it will work better. You'll just have to do it backwards from how I do it."
  550. > With that correction both of them rapidly improve, until both daughters' faces are lit with satisfaction at this new skill.
  551. > Your thoughts begin to drift, magic releasing Megan's hand and instead - in lieu of a proper second brush - using it to lightly starting to stroke through her hair and wind it into loose braids.
  552. > The fondness you felt for this girl was undeniable, despite that she owned your daughter and might very well some day own you.
  553. > If there was any Harmony left in this world, there would be a way to preserve her hopeful, thoughtful heart.
  554. > Apparently your thoughts had once again drifted, as you don't notice Anonymous' presence until some time after he must have arrived.
  555. > In your defense, he had been very quiet:
  556. > Only just leaning against the doorframe with arms folded and small smile playing around his lips.
  557. > Seeing that you have noticed him, Anonymous pushes off from the door and pads over on quiet feet.
  558. > "Glad to see all of you are becoming close."
  559. "She came to see me. Offered to comfort me. She's a good girl, Anonymous."
  560. > Your voices were lowered, but even so Flurry Heart flicks an ear at the new noise.
  561. > Carefully drawing back from the two, you rise and lightly leap from the bed.
  562. > Anonymous catches on and together the two of you retreat to the far side of the room - your chains clinking softly with each step.
  563. > "I was wondering where she'd run off to. Usually if I can't find Megan she's either quietly working at her homework... or about to cause some serious trouble."
  564. "No trouble whatsoever. She actually came looking for more help caring for Flurry Heart."
  565. > "Hmm."
  566. > Leaning back against the wall, Anonymous rests a hand atop your head.
  567. > "I imagine you were glad to hear that."
  568. "Their friendship has given me hope like nothing else here has - and made me want to keep this place safe and secure like nothing else could."
  569. > Rolling your head a touch to lay an eye on him, you wonder if Anonymous is getting your point:
  570. > That friendship, thoughtfulness, even love had won you over where no cruelty ever could.
  571. > He remains watching the two with a distant expression.
  572. > "Yes, I know. And I suppose I could say the same: I'm happy for both of them. Even with playdates to go to, Megan... could be very alone at home. So could Flurry."
  573. > A pause, during which he starts to lightly rub at one of your ears.
  574. > "I imagine you'll be wanting to start her flight lessons soon."
  575. "As soon as my time in these-"
  576. > One hoof is raised to indicate the shackle and chain leading from it.
  577. "-I was planning to, yes."
  578. > "If you'd like to start a few days earlier, I think I could agree to letting you have trips outside like today. Especially for that reason."
  579. > Your ears tuck down at the memory of how you'd almost broken your promise and gone back to working with Thunderlane.
  580. > Still - you could hardly refuse.
  581. "I... would like that very much."
  582. > After that the both of you go silent, watching the two sleep curled together:
  583. > Megan had drifted off with her head resting on your daughter's flank and one foreleg clutched tightly; presumably in response Flurry had unfolded one voluminous wing to rest across the little girl's shoulders.
  584. > "You know, there's no reason we have to kick them out. If you'd like them to stay here tonight."
  585. > Catching your expression, Anonymous grins again.
  586. > "The bed's plenty large enough, don't worry."
  587. > That is a bit of an exaggeration.
  588. > And despite recent events, you were still none too keen to be sharing a bed with Anonymous.
  589. > Having your daughter sleeping by your side after so long, though-
  590. > Was there ever any doubt?
  591. "I would like that very much. Thank you, Anonymous."
  592. > "Go get them under the covers. I'll be along shortly."
  593. > Both Flurry Heart and Megan stir as you lift them in your magic to draw the covers back and over them.
  594. > You quietly nicker to settle your daughter, and Megan soon joins her.
  595. > Then you find your own spot, again settling on your side next to them and drawing the sleeping pair in against your ribs.
  596. > Curling your head in, you nuzzle each in turn and whisper:
  597. "Rest well, you two."
  598. > Here was the future you could struggle for.
  599. > Here was your reason for going on.
  600.  
  601. > Your trot back to your quarters is dogged by lingering thoughts of what Cadance had talked about.
  602. > Both physically - hooves dragging with each step - and mentally, your thoughts laden with the knowledge of what she had just told you.
  603. > Just a few months ago, your allegiance to Anonymous was purely private and personal.
  604. > A convenient arrangement to spare Rumble the worst cruelties of life as a slave.
  605. > Now, though?
  606. > There wasn't any point pretending anymore.
  607. > This is your job, and Cadance was talking about making it even larger and more important.
  608. > New ranks of guards...
  609. > On the one hoof, you can't help but be relieved that was an option.
  610. > Adding more human guards would only raise the probability that someone eager to take advantage of their position would slip in again.
  611. > But on the other hoof, getting even more ponies to police themselves...
  612. > What you did on your own was one thing.
  613. > You'd long since accepted that choice.
  614. > Turning more ponies to become allies of the slavers, though...
  615. > It was one thing to make your own decisions, and quite another to encourage others to.
  616. > You weren't sure you were comfortable with encouraging ponies follow your own path.
  617. > Finding your way to your quarters, you grab the key hung around your neck, stick it in the lock, turn, and-
  618. > "Surprise!"
  619. > You leap back with wings flared and a surprised (and very unstallionlike) squeal as five voices cry out at once.
  620. "Vapor Trail? Rumble?! Seismic Shift? What are you all doing in my room-"
  621. > Trotting forward, your brother lifts his head to nuzzle against your shoulder.
  622. > "C'mon bro! Don't tell me you've forgotten!"
  623. "I..."
  624. > Your eyes fall on the tiny cake sitting in the middle of the room's table at the same time that Rumble replies:
  625. > "It's your birthday, you silly featherhead!"
  626. > Birthday.
  627. > Yours.
  628. > It was, wasn't it?
  629. > And you had totally forgotten.
  630. > But not your friends.
  631. > They hadn't let you down.
  632. "You guys, I..."
  633. > Looking around, you struggle to find some way to break the awkward moment.
  634. > Again your eyes fall on the cake, and you manage an almost choked-sounding laugh as tears well up in your eyes.
  635. "...how did you even get a cake for me?!"
  636. > "I work in the kitchen, remember?"
  637. > Vapor Trail struts forward too, opting to place a soft kiss on your cheek.
  638. > Seismic whistles softly, and you roll your eyes mightily at him - right before kissing Vapor back.
  639. > She giggles, flushing just as deeply as you are.
  640. > "When I told the forepony there that I just wanted to make a little cake for the birthday of somepony who'd really need it, she was happy to help."
  641. > Releasing her, you step forward to study the cake.
  642. > "I know it's not that big, and the frosting might be a bit hard - we didn't have a lot of butter to work with - and-"
  643. > Turning back, you wrap a wing around her and squeeze tight.
  644. "Don't worry. Coming from you - I'm sure it'll be sweeter than any other cake could be, no matter how huge."
  645. > Another round of 'dawwwws' from the others reminds you that they're still present.
  646. "And hey, all of you count too! You all showed up for me, and... I dunno. I - I really..."
  647. > Your throat sticks, eyes beginning to dampen as Rumble comes up to flank you on the opposite side.
  648. > "C'mon, bro - you think we don't know?"
  649. > Grinning, Seismic nods.
  650. > "Y'think this wasn't exactly why we did it, for that matter? C'mon in and have a taste of your cake, featherbrain."
  651. "Only if all of you do too."
  652. > "No way! It's tiny; there's barely enough for you - nevermind six of us."
  653. > Rumble isn't wrong - it's more of a cupcake than a proper cake itself - but even so you shake your head.
  654. "All of you. I can give at least that much."
  655. > With a shake of her head Vapor Trail detaches herself from your side.
  656. > "Alright, alright. I still have a knife here to cut it with..."
  657. > Seated around the room in whatever spot they can find, the other ponies-
  658. > No.
  659. > Your friends.
  660. > That's what they were.
  661. > Brother, lover, co-workers or comrades depending on how you looked at it.
  662. > But in the end, friends.
  663. > And their presence brightens the room considerably.
  664. > Makes it not just a place to be, but a home.
  665. > You can feel your worries melting away like the icing in your mouth.
  666. > With them all standing behind you, offering support, all of your earlier fears seemed to melt away.
  667. > Slaves or not, you could do this.
  668. > You would do this.
  669. > Some way forward would be found - some balance achieved.
  670. > Leaning over, you nuzzle Vapor Trail's shoulder (in turn prompting an eyeroll and excessive gagging from Rumble).
  671. > With their support, everything would be alright.
  672.  
  673. > The bells over the door jingle lightly as you step in, the shop's scent - the distinctive musty scent of stale air filling your nostrils.
  674. > You pass tread cautiously through a narrow aisle corridor, hemmed in on either side by shelves teetering with what feels like every kind of goods imaginable, from cans of food to compasses to batteries.
  675. > Nothing seems outright suspicious, but being on the run had made you wary.
  676. > And even if this place had come recommended from your earlier sources, what you were doing is still dangerous.
  677. > Peeling, cracked tiles pass beneath your hooves - all in dire need of a cleaning.
  678. > Somewhere above, an ancient air-conditioning unit groans away.
  679. > Probably doing more to contribute to the odd smell than affecting the temperature, though at least the small freezer case stuffed against one wall seems cold enough.
  680. > But not a sign of any other inhabitants.
  681. "Hello? Is anyone here?"
  682. > "Yes, yes! I'll be right there! One moment!"
  683. > The cry comes from somewhere further back, and moments later is followed by the sound of something heavy grinding across the floor.
  684. > Following the sounds, you somehow manage to navigate the labyrinthine aisles until at last you find an elderly man attempting to shove a box swollen to near bursting back under the shelf it'd obviously come from.
  685. "Here, let me help you with that!"
  686. > Planting your shoulder to the box, you add your considerable bulk to the effort and soon it is back in place.
  687. > Resting his back against the shelves and panting heavily, the man offers you a hand:
  688. > "Gerald."
  689. "Nice to meet you. Should you really be pushing those around all on your own?"
  690. > "Probably not, but... oh, where is he? Scroll! Scroll Seal, get up here!"
  691. > From somewhere down a half-blocked stairway in back comes a tumble and a yelp, then the sound of pounding hooves.
  692. > A young unicorn wearing a collar sprints up the stairs, breathing hard and obviously still blinking the last of sleep out of his eyes.
  693. > "What is it, Mister Gerald? I'm almost done putting those new flour sack-"
  694. > "No, you weren't. You were sleeping. Again."
  695. > Gerald's tone is more amused than angry, though, and you relax some - clearly these two were close and Scroll Seal hardly seems to fear his owner.
  696. "Listen, I don't want to take too much of your time, but - I need your help, and I've heard you're willing to provide."
  697. > Scroll finally looks at you and gasps sharply.
  698. > "You're-"
  699. > "Shh!"
  700. > Gerald's hand snaps out with surprising speed, closing around the stallion's muzzle.
  701. > "No names. Those're the rules, remember?"
  702. > "Mmmmf!"
  703. > A bob of his head gets the hand released from Scroll Seal's muzzle.
  704. > "So, go lock the door and come back here. Now then, pony - you're on your own there, I'm guessing?"
  705. "Yes, I'm running. I need some things to get the rest of the way."
  706. > Gerald's face crinkles into a kindly smile.
  707. > "Come to the right place. This shop is just one of two in town, so I have to stock just about everything. Gives me good cover. What do you need?"
  708. "False ownership transfer papers for starters. They need to be for a specific person - I have the information."
  709. > "I can do that."
  710. "And I've heard you can do disguises. Scroll Seal recognized me, and I don't want that to happen again."
  711. > "A disguise... yes, we can."
  712. > "It's a variation of the same spells the Royal Guard's armor was enchanted with, to make them all look the same."
  713. "So, once you cast it the spell won't need any recharging."
  714. > The stallion grins with a shake of his head.
  715. > "Not for a good long time! And if you get dosed with anti-mag drugs or a suppressor or something it won't wear off - though, another good unicorn could unravel the spell if they notice it. Watch out for that."
  716. "Noted."
  717. > You drive into the bags wrapped around your midsection, emerging with a series of papers carefully clasped in your teeth.
  718. "Here. The information about the one I need to be assigned to."
  719. > Gerald takes the papers and adjusts his thick glasses, staring at the papers intently.
  720. > At his side, Scroll peers up - surprise growing on his face.
  721. > "Him? Why him? I know he has that huge camp, but he's kind of well-known - people'll know you're a runaway if they see this! Take my advice: Let us build you a 'owner' in the state you're heading towards; it'll be more believable if you get stopped."
  722. "I'm not going that way, though. I'm going into Anonymous' camp."
  723. > Now both of them look up in surprise.
  724. > "You're what?!"
  725. > "Say that again?"
  726. > Setting your fiercest determined expression, you repeat yourself:
  727. "I'm going in. There's something there I have to do."
  728. > "I hope you're not planning to get out again. They had a big escape a few months ago, and after that nopony's come out of there."
  729. "I can manage."
  730. > Alternately eyeing you and your papers, Gerald shakes his head:
  731. > "I'm not sure I can do this. We help runaways here, but whatever you're planning to do..."
  732. "Please."
  733. > You drop to your haunches, swallowing pride and frustration.
  734. "I've thought about this a lot. I have to go in there. I came to you because everyone else I spoke to said you could do this."
  735. > "We can. But I'm not sure I want to send you marching back into slavery. We try to help ponies do the exact opposite, and-"
  736. > He pauses, as Scroll Seal had lifted a hoof to place it on Gerald's thigh.
  737. > "Please. If he wants to go - and I think he has to go - then are we really supposed to stop him?"
  738. "And I know how to handle myself. If it comes to this... I can manage myself."
  739. > Sighing, Gerald shakes his head.
  740. > "I don't think we should, but I suppose I can't say no. Alright, give me the information. I'll make you some papers. Scroll can do the disguise. Just let me know what your new colors will be."
  741. "Thank you. I mean it."
  742. > "Just don't blame us - or tell us - if you get caught with this."
  743. "I don't intend to."
  744. > Perhaps an hour later, you step out of the store.
  745. > Somewhere under your now-bandaged leg, a 'splint' carried the enchantment that had turned your hair, eyes, even your hooves to unfamiliar hues.
  746. > Your coat still tingles where the new false colors were settling in, like a cold slime of mud coating your body.
  747. > It would fade in time, you knew.
  748. > But for now, you have to resist the urge to scratch furiously at your coat.
  749. > There'd be plenty of time for it to settle in.
  750. > Your saddlebags were heavy with fresh supplies, and hooves tingling with eagerness get moving.
  751. > Orienting yourself by the setting sun, you set a fast trotting pace.
  752. > A long way to go, but you'd make it to that camp.
  753. > Somewhere deep in your heart, you know.
  754.  
  755. > The growing fields, you'd decided were the best place for this.
  756. > Asking Flurry to attempt flight within the house was also asking for a glass-shattering, wall-cracking collision that the filly would struggle even further to recover from.
  757. > The yard at the front of the house was close and open enough, but paved with gravel and asphalt.
  758. > A crash there could be equally catastrophic:
  759. > You were looking to encourage Flurry Heart, not maim her!
  760. > Attempting to question Cadance had been no more reassuring:
  761. > Her own attempts at getting the filly to glide and make short, flapping leaps inside the house had been productive enough, but clear flight still eluded Flurry Heart.
  762. > Questioned about if she had any idea of when flight would come, she shakes her head.
  763. > "She flew... practically from birth. All pegasus foals can kind of hover, but Flurry really flew. Never had trouble like this."
  764. "Are her wings too weak?"
  765. > "They're weak, but not that weak."
  766. > Slumping despondently, Cadance shakes her head - only to perk back up when you start rubbing the muscled valley between her own wings.
  767. > "It's in her head. She's still terrified of flight, on a very basic level. Afraid it'll ruin whatever peace and comfort she has here."
  768. "Do you think... would it help if I were there? I mean, I've told her to go ahead with this, but - if I could be urging her on?"
  769. > "Perhaps, but it's more than that. She's lost the sense of the /flow/ of the magic in the air and won't let herself feel it again. Without that, she won't go far."
  770. "Ideas why?"
  771. > "I don't know."
  772. > Behind those three words, an ocean of pain lurks.
  773. > The voice a mother whose daughter will not explain her own fears to her.
  774. > "She leaps, jumps, and glides inside well enough... but sustained flight?"
  775. > Looking up sharply, Cadance hisses through her teeth.
  776. > "Anonymous, please tell me: When you first... found Flurry Heart, were there any signs she had been beaten? Tormented? Anything at all?"
  777. "No. Neglect, yes - but not deliberate harm. Then again, for a filly... a loud voice and harsh words might've been enough to get into her head."
  778. > Shuddering softly, your alicorn nods.
  779. > "I think she's... terrified something bad will happen to one of us if she flies. Leaping doesn't take her far, but actually flying..."
  780. "We can do this though, Cadance. Children can be hurt, but so can they heal. And I've some ideas to help her."
  781. > It would have to be softer terrain - which the well-tilled earth you used to grow exotic plants boosted by various ponies' talents would adequately provide.
  782. > As February turned to March and then April, the weather warmed and became perfect for an outdoors flying attempt.
  783. > Getting Flurry Heart out there was a different story.
  784. > Aside from brief trips with Megan just outside your house, the little filly had never gone far.
  785. > She knew it only as a place that brought back memories of being chained to an exposed post in the cold, and where Mocha Cream had been ruthlessly attacked.
  786. > (The little maidpony had also steadfastly rejected an offer to come, though she clearly wanted to be there for Flurry Heart.)
  787. > So you rode all together in the little cart - yourself in the front, with Flurry Heart huddled beside you and Megan on her far side, the two clinging to each other.
  788. > Your daughter, unlike her slave, looked about with wide and enthusiastic eyes at the ponies and buildings passed by.
  789. > You only had eyes for the work being done.
  790. > While true construction had not yet begun surveyors were out in full force - taking samples and readings, laying marks, and setting up fences that would define the new perimeter of your camp.
  791. > In back rode Cadance, now devoid of bridle, chains, collar, or any other sign of her experience.
  792. > No guards; you had full trust that your alicorn could handle that.
  793. > Pulling up at the edge of the field, you stop the cart and climb out.
  794. > Flurry Heart follows, putting a tentative hoof down into the soft earth - her tail swishing nervously as she studies the dirt clinging to her hoof.
  795. > No need for a supportive touch this time:
  796. > Megan provides that instead, kneeling down to put her arm around her pony's neck.
  797. "Alright, Cadance. She's all yours."
  798. > "Of course. Come here, Flurry?"
  799. > Heaving out the two stepladders she had brought along, Cadance quickly climbs to the top of one.
  800. > A cloud of her mother's magic lifts Flurry Heart to perch atop the other.
  801. > "Now, do you remember what we were doing before, Flurry? I want you to leap off and glide, just like that. I'll go with you, okay?"
  802. > "Uh-huh."
  803. "And don't worry about us. Just focus on what your mother's asking you to do."
  804. > Face screwed up in concentration, the little filly bunches her legs to jump and hangs her wings open.
  805. > "Go!"
  806. > Cadance is clear in a second, wings beating once to lift her as she cranes her neck back around - horn lit and ready in case Flurry Heart falters.
  807. > No need, though.
  808. > The little alicorn safely glides down to the ground...
  809. > But never once beats her own wings, even to slow a landing that leaves her stumbling.
  810. > The briefest of worried glances is shot in your direction before Cadance scoops the filly back up and both return to the top of the ladders.
  811. > "Now... let's try that again, but try and angle your wings back so you glide a little bit further, okay? Just like I showed you once."
  812. > "Yes, Momma."
  813. > She doesn't, though.
  814. > Or manage to steady her landing at all.
  815. > In fact, Flurry Heart does absolutely nothing at all; once in the air, it's as though she is a frozen statuette of a pony.
  816. > Right until her hooves touch solid earth again.
  817. > You're no expert on pony psychology, but it's easy to see that she has no sense of how to fly.
  818. > Cadance sees it too, and shakes her head.
  819. > "Let's try something different. I'm going to pick you up, Little Gem, and carry you in a circle. I want you to keep your wings open and try to /feel/ the air, okay?"
  820. > You've been told a tandem takeoff is tricky at the best of times, and with Flurry Heart hanging between her hooves Cadance needs to beat extra hard to compensate for her daughter's frozen wings.
  821. > Eyes up to watch them circle in a slow glide, you're distracted by a sudden tug on your pants-leg.
  822. > Megan waits until you've sat yourself down before leaning over to whisper in your ear, as if afraid that the circling ponies could hear her words:
  823. > "Daddy, what's wrong with Flurry?"
  824. > How do you explain this to your daughter?
  825. > You'd told Cadance to explain her own behavior; now it seemed it was your own turn to face the probing questions of a child.
  826. "Flurry is... hurt. Inside her head, honey."
  827. > "Like, does she need to go to the suh... serg... to th'head doctor?"
  828. "...noooo, not like that kind of doctor anyway. She's... afraid, because her last owner wasn't nice and didn't let her fly at all."
  829. > "Uh huh. I know. She tells me sometimes."
  830. > This draws a raised eyebrow; while Flurry Heart had spoken to you on occasion, she never really opened up to you in any real capacity.
  831. "Has she said she wants to fly at all? Or why she's scared of it now?"
  832. > "Nuh-uh. Sh'doesn't wanna talk about it."
  833. > And, you presume, Megan had not pressed her.
  834. > Good; there's no need for her to be making Flurry Heart uncomfortable.
  835. > That'd only slow the healing process; time would fade the terrors that bound Flurry Heart - eventually.
  836. > Far above Cadance dips and weaves in the sky.
  837. > She's begun a series of mildly acrobatic maneuvers, probably in the hope that something new would reach the filly clutched between her hooves.
  838. > Said filly seemed to stable - her own wings outstretched, if unbeating.
  839. > Their span, even for an alicorn, is massive - approaching that of a full-grown pony rather than a young filly with many years yet.
  840. > Yet she isn't using them; they stay locked in place and rigidly held out.
  841. > "Daddy? Did I do something wrong? I thought she might not later, until she's bigger..."
  842. "Well, she will fly when she's bigger - but first we have to help her not be afraid of flying anymore."
  843. > Megan nods thoughtfully, lips pursed up in consideration of how to do this.
  844. > Eventually, however, she asks a far different question than you'd expected:
  845. > "Will Flurry be strong enough to carry me? Like, flying?"
  846. > Your laugh a loud bark, enough to draw a questioning look from Cadance.
  847. "I don't know if she'll be that strong, sweetheart. By the time she's old, you will be grown up too."
  848. > Pouting, Megan twirls a bit of her hair between finger and thumb.
  849. > "Then... what about Cadance? Or Thunderlane? Could they carry me?"
  850. "Megan, honey!"
  851. > Laughing, you pull her into a hug - producing more pouting, but with just the hint of a smile.
  852. "They're busy ponies, and besides you'd practically have to be tied to their back in case you fall off. No, I don't think they should be carrying you."
  853. > "But daaaddy...."
  854. > Tapping her on the nose with a finger, you shake your head.
  855. > She was protesting, yes, but not with vigor.
  856. > You shake your head.
  857. "Nope. Sorry, sweetheart - no pony rides."
  858. > Despite her idea being shot down Megan is content to sit on your lap until Cadance comes in for a touchdown.
  859. > A few feet from the ground she releases Flurry, but instead of a clean glide the filly sinks like a rock - falling to the ground in a head-over-hooves tumble.
  860. > Immediately Cadance is down on the ground nuzzling her, and your daughter has leapt up from your lap to run back over as well.
  861. > Soon enough, Flurry Heart stands back up - apparently unharmed.
  862. > Cadance, as sure as she is certain neither of them is looking, gives a sad shake of her head in your direction.
  863. > You make a 'come here' gesture, retreating to a safe distance and watching the two young ones huddling together.
  864. "No luck?"
  865. > "She locks up. She won't let herself feel the flow, so she can't fly... which only makes her believe she is doing something wrong and panic more."
  866. > Resting a hand on Cadance's back, you offer a gentle rub.
  867. "We'll figure it out. Give her some time; it's only just her first time together."
  868. > To your surprise she smiles back.
  869. > "I know. And I think this getting out will be good for her. perhaps meet a few other colts and fillies in the camp-"
  870. > Noting your expression quickly sliding towards 'alarmed', she hastily adds:
  871. > "-with somepony watching over her."
  872. "That's fine. If you want to be that someone, you're welcome to. The time when I had to hold the two of you apart from each other is long over, and I trust you."
  873. > "I know."
  874. > Turning her head, Cadance looks back towards the two daughters.
  875. > Flurry Heart had one wing extended allowing Megan to carefully look it over.
  876. > "...perhaps your daughter would like to come? Meet some of the ponies? I swear I will not let her be hurt."
  877. > You shoot a questioning look in Cadance's direction.
  878. > Where had that come from, and why was she suddenly so insistent?
  879. > There was another purpose there you're certain, but at the same time you can see the advantages too.
  880. "I'll think about it."
  881. > "Maybe you would want to come yourself?"
  882. "I think I might put a damper on any playing they do. I'm a bit intimidating for the young ones, you know?"
  883. > Despite the easy smile you wore, Cadance could easily see through to your true emotions.
  884. > "Then change that."
  885. "I..."
  886. [Choice]
  887. "Alright, Cadance. I'll come along. Maybe not for their general off-time together - at least not at the beginning - but at the very least I can accompany her around a bit."
  888. > "I know you're busy, but I really think this will help."
  889. "You're probably right."
  890. > Standing again, you look back at the two daughters - human and pony - seated together in the field.
  891. > Now convinced Flurry was unharmed, Megan had sat down cross legged and spread one of the filly's enormous wings across her lap to carefully put her feathers back in place.
  892. > That particular task had been carefully taught by Cadance, now that she was around with her daughter more often, and Megan had taken to it enthusiastically.
  893. "...and actually, there was one thing to do that I was thinking about."
  894. > "Oh?"
  895. "I've yet to actually see what you did with that 'museum'. Now that the initial rush has died down, I would like to. Maybe come with both of them?"
  896. > In contrast to her earlier morose appearance, Cadance breaks into an open and wide smile.
  897. > "I actually think that would be lovely, Anonymous."
  898. "Good. Maybe later today, once the work shift ends and there are a few ponies around to see her."
  899. > ...
  900. > You'll say this for the ponies:
  901. > When they're really motivated to do something, the miracles they work continue to shock you.
  902. > This place isn't just a building to hold the mismatched pictures, trinkets, and tributes to their broken land they've collected.
  903. > The architecture itself is distinctly inhuman:
  904. > Some touches are subtle and almost whimsical considering the nature of the camp.
  905. > Beautifully hoof-carved decorations had been set into the wall, and the wooden floor had been burnished and darkened with some sort of polish after construction was complete.
  906. > Windows had been tinted - sometimes with simple colored paper, and sometimes apparently the glass itself.
  907. > In many places lighting was simple bare bulbs, but in a few old-style lanterns had been cleverly fitted with electric bulbs.
  908.  
  909. > One room is even illuminated by gently-glowing solid crystals.
  910. > Other touches are far more obvious and pointed - stairs cut short and shallow for creatures of hoof and not food, windows starting at barely knee-height for you, every door having large handles easy to hook a hoof or muzzle around.
  911. > All of those seem to send a simple, clear message:
  912. > This place was not meant for you.
  913. > You were not supposed to be here.
  914. > This was where they pretended they did not belong to you.
  915. > And if the building did not get the message across, the looks from the few other ponies there did.
  916. > Cadance gets a few deferential nods - they knew better than to bow where you could see it, even if you knew it happened out of sight.
  917. > But you get sharp, questioning glances.
  918. > They had never expected to see you in this place, even with their former princess at your side.
  919. > Now they feared - feared you had come to take away what you had given.
  920. > In truth, you can't blame them.
  921. > Looking at the items they have on display - totems to a dead nation - you find yourself again questioning just how Cadance had talked you into this.
  922. > Could any good really come of it?
  923. > All it was doing was extending the grip that fruitless dream had on them.
  924. > Making it ever-more-likely they would act on that attachment.
  925. > Even Cadance, you're certain, had her own ulterior motives for being so enthusiastic about bringing Flurry Heart here.
  926. > Had to make sure her own daughter was 'properly educated' in her own history, after all, and your coming along was tacit if not explicit approval.
  927. > But at the same time...
  928. > You glance back to where Flurry Heart is staring up in open-mouthed admiration a broad, wide painting of several pegasi in bright-blue uniforms.
  929. > So there was some appeal of flight there still.
  930. > Maybe you could make use of that somehow.
  931. > Another thing giving you pause was the ponies' reactions to Flurry Heart
  932. > Or rather, that they didn't seem to know how to react to her.
  933. > The alicorn filly's existence was a known thing, of course, but seeing her directly was far different.
  934. > Anger competes with pity and confusion, the last emotion you suspect being provoked by the way Flurry Heart is all but glued to your daughter's side.
  935. > Megan held no leash and gave no orders.
  936. > Yet Flurry Heart rarely ventured far from her Mistress, and was obviously much more at ease at your daughter's side.
  937. > You could all but see the thoughts whirling in their heads:
  938. > Wondering what she feared, if not her owners.
  939. > Maybe some of them making the connection, realizing she had to have known Mocha Cream.
  940. > Seeing the way your daughter sometimes reached out to give a reassuring touch to let Flurry know she was there.
  941. > Cadance could read the ponies far better than you, and she had insisted this 'museum' would be for the better.
  942. > All your fears aside, you had to trust her.
  943. > Otherwise your entire purpose of putting her in command was a sham.
  944. > As you wander through the museum, from room to room, Megan slowly begins to relax.
  945. > She becomes increasingly willing to wander further from yourself so does Flurry as well - a reflection of her Mistress' emotions, even offering a shy wave to the occasional pony.
  946. > Still at your side, Cadance sighs softly.
  947. > "I wish Mocha Cream had been willing to come. She would have loved to see this too."
  948. "I know. In time, Cadance."
  949. > "What about you? What do you think of it?"
  950. "I..."
  951. > You look away, distracting yourself with a model of one of their cloud-cities.
  952. > On closer inspection the model itself was not formed of ethereal vapor, but cleverly-worked cotton.
  953. > "Master?"
  954. > A low smile comes to your lips.
  955. > Good - Cadance still knew her place in public.
  956. "I think that if this is what you expected this project to bring, you've done admirably."
  957. > It's a non-answer and she knows it.
  958. > Rather than push the issue Cadance simply nods and turns to approach Flurry Heart.
  959. > It's Megan, though, who looks up as she approaches:
  960. > "Was your world really like all this? With th'city up in the clouds and dragons and monsters and-"
  961. > Pulling her practiced smile, Cadance nods.
  962. > "It was, yes. Though-"
  963. > She looks up at the drawing they'd been looking at.
  964. > A group of ponies watching tremendous numbers of dragons passing overhead.
  965. > "-though we had a lot of brave ponies helping keep us safe too."
  966. > Cadance's attempt to talk-down the depicted danger goes completely over her head.
  967. > Instead, Megan giggles softly.
  968. > "But that's okay. You don't have to worry about monsters now, 'cause we make sure you're safe."
  969. > The alicorn barely manages to hide her flinch.
  970. > Barely.
  971. > Heading off the situation before it can get worse, you quickly step in:
  972. "Megan, honey? If you're done up here, do you want to go back downstairs and let Flurry Heart play with some of the other ponies for a while?"
  973. > " 'kay, Daddy. C'mon, Flurry!"
  974. > As she skips off with the filly at her heels, you call after:
  975. "And watch out going down those stairs! Take them slowly!"
  976. > Despite the warning, your ears are quickly assaulted by the sound of little shoes and little hooves hammering down the stairs at a breakneck pace.
  977. > You follow at a far more sedate pace, with Cadance following silently behind.
  978. > The recreation hall, too, was a small miracle of pony ingenuity.
  979. > Not just the building itself, but that it had been constructed to have a distinctly homey feel despite the limited materials they had to work with.
  980. > Heavy, thick wooden beams spanned the ceiling and gave the impression of a far older building, while the lighting fixtures here had been covered in paper to give the appearance of lantern-lights rather than electric bulbs.
  981. > A mud-brick fireplace sat in the corner, its blackened interior testifying to at least one fire having been lit (though you wondered exactly what they had fired it with).
  982. > After your expansion got up and running, perhaps you should consider offering a service of pony architects.
  983. > Despite dinner hour being over, the smell of something sweet and heavy wafted through the room.
  984. > Scattered groups of ponies sat around - some clustered around tables of various games, others simply talking.
  985. > You had a suspicion that if you checked more closely, those game boards and pieces would prove to be equally unique hoof-crafted items.
  986. > One pony painted in the corner, on what looked like an old section of used wrapping paper.
  987. > Here and there stuffed pillows or even just piles of hay served as more comfortable seats than wooden benches or canvas straps.
  988. > For Megan and Flurry, the space is as fascinating as the museum itself.
  989. > Soon they spot a small cluster of a handful of other colts and fillies hanging on the edge of the room away from most of the adults.
  990. > There were relatively few in the camp, so the age range varied.
  991. > In the end they were all still children, though.
  992. > While they make a beeline for the gathering, you on the other hand remain paused by the doorway.
  993. > For now, this was your limit.
  994. > Cadance pauses by your side at first, watching the two of them run off.
  995. > Slowly her ears begin to fall, wings also seeming to droop a bit.
  996. > Squatting down, you offer her what you hope is a reassuring look.
  997. "It'll be okay, Cadance. She'll make inroads eventually, and there'll be other chances to get her to fly too."
  998. > "I know. I'm just... afraid."
  999. "Give it time. Megan told me something that made me think. Flurry's afraid something will go wrong if she flies, so if we keep showing her that it's safe eventually it will get through."
  1000. > Maybe it's that you are offering new thoughts, or maybe just that you are trying to reassure her at all.
  1001. > Either way, she perks back up a bit.
  1002. > "I do hope so."
  1003. > In the distance, the two have tired to join the other pony children in play.
  1004. > From appearances, it's only a moderate success - nervous questioning glances are being shot at Megan and occasionally yourself.
  1005. > Flurry Heart has resume clinging to her Mistress' side.
  1006. > Motioning towards them with a wing, Cadance cocks her head:
  1007. > "May I go...?"
  1008. "Of course. I'll be around if you need me."
  1009. > Wandering off tail swishing, Cadance heads into the crowd - dodging a few greetings and one bow from a pony who hadn't spotted you yet.
  1010. > You cock an eyebrow when they do realize you are watching and their pupils shrink.
  1011. > This time you could let it pass; a quick shake of your head and dismissive wave sends them on their way.
  1012. > "Feeling generous on your visit?"
  1013. > You glance aside to find Cheerilee watching you with a wary gaze.
  1014. "That, and I think my point was made. No need to be excessive."
  1015. > She grunts softly in response, and you aren't sure quite what it means.
  1016. > "...I'm surprised to see you in here."
  1017. "I thought I should come down and have a look at some point, though honestly it's really for them."
  1018. > You motion towards the two - girl and filly - who were now watching with the rest as Cadance spoke.
  1019. "My daughter has been too isolated, to say nothing of Flurry Heart. Now that I'm trying to be more directly involved... well, it wouldn't be good to keep them separated."
  1020. > "Hmm."
  1021. > That noncommittal noise leaves you uncertain as to what Cheerilee really felt.
  1022. > Probably her point; as far as you knew the one-time schoolteacher had never been particularly fond of you.
  1023. "I've heard you had a large part in getting this place up and running, though."
  1024. > "After you took away my job teaching, I had to do... something for them. Something to keep all this from dying off."
  1025. > There seems to be a shrouded accusation there.
  1026. > Almost as if she is saying that you would have killed something if she had not.
  1027. > For a second you consider giving her a bit of a lecture.
  1028. > But no, not tonight.
  1029. > Not with your daughter around.
  1030. "Well, for what it's worth... I wasn't entirely sure on the idea of a 'museum'. I still am not sure I am. But purely from an objective standpoint... you've really, actually, done well with it. I was impressed."
  1031. > Just as expected, that catches Cheerilee off guard.
  1032. > A compliment had hardly been what she'd expected and her gaze returns with an even more skeptical look, searching for some sign of any trap.
  1033. > "...thank you."
  1034. "You're welcome. You earned it."
  1035. > You motion toward the side of the room, where a large map of old Equestria has been pinned to the wall.
  1036. > At a glance, you don't think it's entirely accurate.
  1037. > Probably hoof-painted by various amateur artists rather than printed out.
  1038. > Little pins are stuck into it at various locations, paper tags hung from them.
  1039. "What's that about?"
  1040. > "Oh, that?"
  1041. > For once, a little smile comes to Cheerilee's face.
  1042. > "We're trying to figure out where everypony came from. Where home is."
  1043. > Is.
  1044. > Not was.
  1045. > A good thing she is looking away, so she does not see the frown that passes over your lips.
  1046. > At the same time...
  1047. > You had brought up the point of trying to keep families together when the new slaves started coming in.
  1048. > If Cheerilee was already working on this, maybe she could be more helpful when the time comes?
  1049. > Then again, you aren't sure if you can trust a mare who aided in one escape and clearly has less-than-friendly feelings towards you still.
  1050. > It would be quite the coup if you could recruit a former rebel to help you.
  1051. > But a disaster if she turned again.
  1052. [Choice]
  1053. > No.
  1054. > You couldn't give her that great a responsibility just yet.
  1055. > Cheerilee was still an unknown quantity.
  1056. > For now she worked in your favor, but seemed ready to turn on you again at any moment.
  1057. > Like, for example...
  1058. "I'd remind you, Cheerilee, that I had nothing to do with your school being taken away from you. That was Cadance's doing. Not mine."
  1059. > "Anonymous-"
  1060. > You shoot her a sharp glare, and finally it seems to get through to the mare that she is treading on thin ice with you.
  1061. > "Master. Look. You can pretend that it was Cadance who went up there and made that decision, but if you think there's any one of us who didn't understand where those orders came from after you threw her in a cell and-"
  1062. "Actually, no."
  1063. > You put a firm tone on, raising a finger to stop her.
  1064. "Remember, Cheerilee - I do not lie to you. I've always been straight about my intentions. So believe me when I say that I gave her no orders but that she had to choose what would happen to you. That choice was hers."
  1065. > That seems to give her actual pause, and you once again are thankful the ponies remain unaware of the lies you had told.
  1066. > Mistakes that - though long since passed and regretted - could still have ruined you.
  1067. "Besides, you went up on that stage and pretty much publicly threw away any connection to the schooling anyhow. I couldn't have just sent you back after that anyhow."
  1068. > "You always could have stopped feeding them that drek in the first place. Can still."
  1069. "After the choice you made that still wouldn't have brought you back."
  1070. > Perhaps understanding she is going to get nowhere, Cheerilee just looks away.
  1071. "I'll freely admit I was not doing my best at that point. Being too standoffish, expecting Cadance to be able to manage everything. Maybe if I hadn't been, things wouldn't have reached that point. But by the same measure, if you try and blame me for things that never happened that will not make anything better now."
  1072. > Nostrils flaring as she blows out an angry breath, she nods.
  1073. > "I know. But that doesn't mean I like it. I didn't have foals of my own, but they are my colts and fillies."
  1074. "At the same time, what you're doing here now... I'm not going to take this away so long as nothing worse comes of it. And you know, there are going to be a lot more ponies coming soon enough. They might need help settling in, and if you can use this-"
  1075. > You wave an arm about, indicating the room.
  1076. "-to help them come feel more welcome? To lighten the weight on their minds, make their lives better - isn't that worth it?"
  1077. > Cheerilee hesitates to answer.
  1078. > It seems as though she hates to concede anything to you.
  1079. > But in the end she does, hissing softly.
  1080. > "Yes. I guess it is."
  1081. "Good. And if I see good things happening, then we can maybe think about changing things a bit more."
  1082. > Finally untensing, she sighs.
  1083. > "That would be... good."
  1084. > And a way to keep the family-finding focused on individual ponies.
  1085. > You wanted them seeking your favor and - if it worked - being indebted to you, not to another pony
  1086. > "But... we don't have much time before lights-out, and I have things to do. If I can go...?"
  1087. "Just one more thing before you do. Have you had any experience with griffons?"
  1088. > "Griffons?"
  1089. > Cocking her head, Cheerilee almost seems to forget her anger for a moment.
  1090. > "I think one or two visited Ponyville back before. One of them was a sweet thing - young, but tried teaching a lesson in my classroom. Why, are some being brought here?"
  1091. "Maybe. I'm trying to figure out how they might fit in. Well, I won't keep you any longer. Good evening, Cheerilee."
  1092. > "...good evening."
  1093. > She struts off as well, and you return your attention to the various young ones in the distance.
  1094. > They were playing now, even letting Megan join in.
  1095. > That brings a small touch of a smile to your lips.
  1096. > Your daughter was something else, that's for sure.
  1097. > At least she seemed to have learned her lesson about trying to needlessly order them around.
  1098. > Or maybe it was the singular delight of play all young creatures seemed to share.
  1099. > Either way she seemed to have integrated herself well, albeit with Cadance passively watching from a short distance.
  1100. > The alicorn was studying them with a small, fond expression.
  1101. > It's almost enough to make you think she'd forgotten her earlier worries regarding her daughter.
  1102.  
  1103. > As you circle on your patrol, you're once again thankful that Anonymous had given you permission to patrol outside of the camp's actual fences.
  1104. > The construction going on there was one of the first big changes to happen in a while, and a welcome relief from the day-to-day, week-to-week routine of the camp.
  1105. > All the equipment, watching the new buildings rise up...
  1106. > It was strange, in a way - seeing new blocks being laid out, roads paved, foundations poured... yet outside the existing fence and so entirely unpopulated aside from the workers.
  1107. > As the frames of buildings had begun to rise, skeletal and open, it sometimes almost looks like a slice out of a ghost town.
  1108. > During the day, though, there was plenty of action to watch over.
  1109. > Plus, some of their workers were ponies.
  1110. > So far you had kept a polite distance.
  1111. > It felt strange, to suddenly realize that you were not just keeping a lookout for trouble inside the camp but keeping a fair eye on those outside of it as well.
  1112. > Today, you were circling just outside the camp's current fence - the heavy radio tag that kept the Pegasus Detectors from hitting you weighing on your neck where it hung.
  1113. > A welcome weight, though; without it they would have long since sent you into a nauseated huddle against the ground.
  1114. > Seismic Shift had joined you, the enormous earth pony plodding along with his own tag bumping against his chest.
  1115. > His eyes, too, are on the rising buildings.
  1116. > "Wonder if we'll get new rooms."
  1117. "You looking forward to it?"
  1118. > "Well, those old places are kind of... rough."
  1119. "I'm hearing a 'but' there."
  1120. > Seismic laughs, then glances about before answering in a lowered voice:
  1121. > "...but, I'll miss being further away from Lana."
  1122. "You're still seeing her?"
  1123. > "Yeah."
  1124. > A small, fond little smile forms on Seismic Shift's muzzle - along with a little flush.
  1125. > "We're still... doing a thing. It's good, and not just... being with her. We listen to each other."
  1126. "Yeah. I guess I'm lucky I don't have to hide being with Vapor Trail."
  1127. > "No, you're just lucky period. She's a good mare."
  1128. "Hey, I'm not the only-"
  1129. > Your ear turns, something having caught it's attention in the distance.
  1130. > "Voices?"
  1131. "I think so. Angry. Let's go."
  1132. > Galloping close, your heart sinks as you spot the offenders:
  1133. > Two groups of ponies, on either side of the fence.
  1134. > One is a pair of workers outside the current camp - a unicorn and earth pony, presumably on break from their duties.
  1135. > The former hangs back, nervous and seeming ready to bolt while the latter is practically nose-to-nose with the fence.
  1136. > Opposing them, a trio of young-looking ponies just inside the fence.
  1137. > That sinking turns into full-fledged horror as you spot a familiar grey coat and dark-blue mane among the camp's ponies.
  1138. "Shit, it's Rumble."
  1139. > By now you were also plenty close enough for the voices to have resolved into words - and the angry retorts being traded back and forth leave you none too
  1140. > "You gonna be oka-"
  1141. > Cutting Seismic off, you beat your wings twice to lift off and carry you just high enough to come down in a hard, interruptive landing.
  1142. "That's enough! What's going on here?"
  1143. > One of the other ponies with Rumble - another colt - is first to respond.
  1144. > "We were just watching, and he came over here and started taunting us-"
  1145. > "Hey, I wanted to talk! I'm not the one who came over and decided to start barking at us-"
  1146. > " 'Barking'?"
  1147. > You can practically hear the fury ready to boil over in Rumble's voice.
  1148. > "We're not dogs!"
  1149. > "Coulda fooled me, the way you were acti-"
  1150. "I said that is enough!"
  1151. > "Oh, and what're you-"
  1152. > "Thunderlane said that's enough."
  1153. > For his size, Seismic Shift could move rather quietly.
  1154. > His sudden appearance and the growled reminder that comes with it puts a damper on the earth pony's aggression, ears laying flat and backing up a step.
  1155. "Now. Somepony. Explain to me. What in all hell is going on here?"
  1156. > At last the unicorn speaks up, though his voice suggests a degree of timidity still:
  1157. > "We, uh... we were just looking in, actually. And then they came by. And, we started to talk at first, but then things... uh... things kinda went bad."
  1158. > "Go rot in Tartarus, he called us-"
  1159. > A fierce, narrow glare shot at Rumble quiets him.
  1160. > You weren't taking any of this right now.
  1161. "Did he actually start it?"
  1162. > The unicorn paws at the ground nervously.
  1163. > "...Transom didn't mean to. He just said that it's a nice place they're building here; it's a pity anypony moving in to it is still going to be a slave."
  1164. > Nodding, the earth pony - Transom, you presume - adds:
  1165. > "Yeah! I didn't mean anything by it, and this runt just goes off on me like a firework on Summer Sun-"
  1166. > This time you preemptively shoot Rumble a glare before his retort can even begin.
  1167. > Then, turning back to Transom, you try and put on your most understanding tone.
  1168. "Do you not get how insulting that sounds? 'Great place you're going to have here, too bad you're still going to be slaves'?"
  1169. > "That's not what I meant at all!"
  1170. "It certainly sounded like it. I shouldn't have to remind you that you're in the same situation we are, you know!"
  1171. > "Oh, well actually!"
  1172. > A grin grows on his face.
  1173. > "What I was trying to tell them is that I, in fact, am not!"
  1174. > Puffing out his chest, he adds on:
  1175. > "You're looking at a free-and-clear special dispensation pony."
  1176. "What?"
  1177. > The unicorn sighs softly, taking a turn to speak up.
  1178. > "Transom dug some people out of a building after an earthquake. They gave him freedom for it."
  1179. > "Oh, so you got free and decided to turn right back around and go back to working for the slavers? That's even worse!"
  1180. > That hadn't come from Rumble, and neither do you have to shoot him down:
  1181. > Seismic Shift goes nose-to-nose with the filly responsible, lowering his head close enough to touch muzzles if there weren't a fence in the way.
  1182. > "I think Thunderlane told you to stop."
  1183. > She squeaks quietly, but Transom only shrugs.
  1184. > "You think that's what it's like out here? I don't get to pick and choose. The company bids the job, we work on it. I quit, I don't get paid... and if don't get that, sooner or later someone would just try and stick something on me to drag me back in. It's work on your own, or work with a collar on your neck."
  1185. > Jabbing a hoof in the direction of the three camp ponies, he adds:
  1186. > "Hell, I come over and still try and show a little sympathy for you all still stuck in here, and I just get snapped at! Next time I'll just keep my words to myself."
  1187. > With that he spins in place and stalks off, tail lashing.
  1188. > His unicorn friend watches him go with a sigh.
  1189. > "Sorry about that. Transom's... a touch bitter. Because things haven't gotten any easier since he was freed."
  1190. "That rough?"
  1191. > "Doesn't have to worry about being beaten or anything, and it's got to be nice for him to make his own little choices."
  1192. > Finally it occurs to you that he'd always been speaking in the singular, the separate, from Transom.
  1193. "Wait, are you not-"
  1194. > "Nope. Property of Alcom and Sons Construction Contractors. I'm Current Tap, by the way."
  1195. "Thunderlane."
  1196. > He taps hooves with you in greeting.
  1197. > "But... yeah. It's rough out there for him. He's a good pony - looks after us who are still owned by the company, makes sure they aren't too rough on us - but barely anyone gives Transom a fair shake and it gets to him."
  1198. > At this Rumble - and both his compatriots - wince slightly.
  1199. "So, you think he was trying to be sympathetic there?"
  1200. > "Trying? Yeah, he was trying. But he kind of... snapped back too. Is there going to be an issue as a result of this?"
  1201. > He motions towards your uniform.
  1202. > "I kind of figured you must be working as a guard out here..."
  1203. > On the other side of the fence, Rumble winces as well.
  1204. > Even if he wasn't technically breaking the rules being out here, it didn't look very good for him either.
  1205. [Choice]
  1206. "Well-"
  1207. > Your gaze sweeps across the three ponies inside the fence.
  1208. > Two of them - including your little brother - manage to look suitably embarrassed by their actions.
  1209. > The last...
  1210. "All of you, go back home."
  1211. > "But Thunder-"
  1212. "Go back! I'll talk to you later, Rumble, but not right now."
  1213. > Rumble grumbles, then sighs.
  1214. > "C'mon, everypony. Let's go back."
  1215. > Just in case, you wait until they're nearly out of sight before turning back to Current Tap.
  1216. "Sorry about that... I don't know what set them off so badly."
  1217. > "It's okay."
  1218. > The unicorn shakes his head, rough-cut mane swaying gently.
  1219. > "I understand. The little things..."
  1220. "Hey - do you know if Transom will come back for you soon? I'd like to talk with him, if there's a chance."
  1221. > "No, but I bet I know where he went."
  1222. "I..."
  1223. > You glance to the fence.
  1224. > Technically, you were only supposed to be walking around its outer perimeter...
  1225. > Seeing your hesitation, Seismic Shift smiles and shakes his head.
  1226. > "Don't worry, Thunderlane. I'll take the rest of the walk around. See you back at the post later."
  1227. "Thanks, Seismic."
  1228. > Patting him lightly on the side with a hoof, you then step to Current Tap.
  1229. "Okay. Show me?"
  1230. > Following him is a strange feeling.
  1231. > This wasn't the first time you'd been outside the fence, not at all.
  1232. > But just... walking away from it never ceased to feel odd.
  1233. > Just keep walking, and you could walk out of sight and over the horizon.
  1234. > Fly, even.
  1235. > The radio tag hanging around your neck would keep the Detectors from bringing you down.
  1236. > Freedom calls, a siren song, but you shut your ears to it.
  1237. > The good you could do in the camp is an even louder call.
  1238. "So... is it really as bad as you were saying? Nobody respecting him, even though he's free?"
  1239. > "Sometimes. He's not starving, but he's not got a lot of money - and he puts a lot of it aside to pay for a lawyer if they try to pin something on him."
  1240. > Current Tap sighs.
  1241. > "And yeah, people don't always respect him. Especially around here - I've heard it's better in other states; safer, friendlier. Here? He gets ignored, walked over... I've seen people stop him and insist to see his ID card a whole lot, keep him standing around while they make sure he's not on the runaway lists. Tartarus' teats, some of the other ponies here gave him guff for being free at first. How dare he "
  1242. "Not anymore, though."
  1243. > "None of them would. Showed he's still a pony through and through. The other employees here, they mostly respect him too. Works as hard as any of them. And-"
  1244. > A kind of longing, wistful expression comes over Current Tap's face.
  1245. > "-seeing him be able to just... choose. To knock off at the end of the day, to decide he's going to go out to a bar and buy his own drinks... to do that... he has his own apartment, you know? He owns it. His own home. No one else's."
  1246. "...I can see that, yeah."
  1247. > Circling around the side of a future-building's foundation - now little more than an open pit in the ground - you find Transom resting against an earthen berm.
  1248. > He looks up as you approach, eyes cool but expression neutral.
  1249. > Stopping a short distance away, you force yourself to relax:
  1250. > Wings dropping out a bit, and ears perked up - a nonthreatening appearance.
  1251. "Hey. I, uh... I just wanted talk."
  1252. > After a moment of eyeing you with a judging look, Transom nods.
  1253. > Settling on your haunches facing him, you pause - realizing you're not quite sure how to start this.
  1254. > Fortunately, he does for you:
  1255. > "I... didn't mean it as an insult. Just... this is a whole town going up, practically. Lot of ponies are going to live here. I wish it were for free ponies instead of slaves."
  1256. "Ah."
  1257. > Pausing, you glance back towards the fence.
  1258. "And... I'm sorry about that. Some of the young ones here - can sometimes get a little jumpy. Colts and fillies their age, being a slave... sometimes he can get a bit snappy..."
  1259. > "To say the least!"
  1260. "But, also... do you get why it might've sounded... bad to them? I mean... I think you're the first free pony they've seen in... years."
  1261. > "I am?"
  1262. > Transom blinks, considering this, then sighs.
  1263. > "I... I guess, yeah. I know it's something I'm... proud of, sometimes."
  1264. "Not wrongly. But with them... well, they're seeing things from the view of somepony who's been behind that fence for too long."
  1265. > "Y'seem to know them pretty well."
  1266. "Not all of them, but - the grey colt? That's my little brother. A pain and love all at the same time."
  1267. > To your surprise, Transom barks out a laugh and nods.
  1268. > "Yeah, I get that!"
  1269. "You have one?"
  1270. > "I am one. Big sister - Celestia knows what happened to her..."
  1271. > Just as abruptly as it had come the lightened mood fades, but still Transom goes on.
  1272. > "...but yeah, if you were willing to go knock him down like that back there, I know you're not just ragging on me alone. And, I guess saying sorry's in order too. For going off on him."
  1273. "He'll appreciate it, I think. And I'll make sure he understands you had a decent reason for snapping. Current Tap was telling me how rough you have it sometimes."
  1274. > Transom shoots the other stallion a look - but not an angry one.
  1275. > More like friendly exasperation.
  1276. > "Yeah. Some days are better than others."
  1277. "How is it out there? Like I said, you're the first real voice from outside the camp we've had - that wasn't filtered through Anonymous, anyway."
  1278. > Or the rebels' contacts.
  1279. > But you decide not to add that bit.
  1280. > Transom adopts a far-off expression, half longing and half frustrated.
  1281. > "It's about as patchwork as you can get out there. There's some places where we're just not welcome. Some stores I walk in to, they look right through me."
  1282. > Bitterness again fills his voice as he speaks.
  1283. > "There are some whole cities like that. Laws aren't getting much better in most places; the big fat slobs who own a lot of ponies are seeing to that. And... we're leaderless. The Princesses are still nothing but rumors and hope, none of the nobles are able to help us, and-"
  1284. > He turns to the side, spitting.
  1285. > "-some of them are even working for them. Willingly. To keep us in chains."
  1286. > Your thoughts flick back to Haute Glamour, but it's only a detour from the main revelation running through your mind now.
  1287. > Did he not know Cadance was here?
  1288. > Was it that much of a mystery to everypony outside?
  1289. > She hadn't been flying close to this edge of the camp, and wasn't nearly as large as Celestia or Luna were.
  1290. > Are.
  1291. > So maybe he hadn't realized...
  1292. "Nopony else is standing up?"
  1293. > "A few, yeah. Ponies living in the better areas. Coming out here is risky, but they send money. Send supplies. Try to raise money to buy abused ponies out. And that's just the ones who care about their laws."
  1294. > So, the contacts Sunburst had found might not be so unreliable after all.
  1295. > "There's even some human groups who are taking our sides."
  1296. > Here Current Tap, butts in, adding:
  1297. > "They go around in these big buses, finding places where things are getting worse - or could get better. All show up, try and push for things to help us..."
  1298. "So, some of them are helping."
  1299. > "Oh yeah."
  1300. > Transom sighs.
  1301. > "Yeah, they try. Tartarus, there are some places where we're damn close to equal - some places they'll even let Pegasi keep cloud homes over some places. But it's not growing. Not fast enough, anyway. Not in my mind."
  1302. "Can they really try and pull you back into slavery?"
  1303. > "They can try. Some places, they have to convict you of a pretty hard crime. Hard to do. Others, all they have to do is get far enough in debt and they can seize you. Why do you think I need to keep some money set aside?"
  1304. > You wince softly.
  1305. > "That's what I'm really proud of, y'know? Not being set free. All they did then is give me back something they stole. But staying free? Damn right I'm proud of that. Hard, yeah - but I'm no one's slave now. Won't be ever again."
  1306. > That confidence makes you wonder, but then again Transom seemed to have a plan and the drive to carry it through.
  1307. "Is it worth it?"
  1308. > "No doubt."
  1309. > Grinning, he laughs.
  1310. > "No whips. No collars. No working into the dead of night, unless they want to pay. On weekends I can kick back. Go down to the park. I'm thinking about trying to make a little canoe, just because I can. And every time one of them looks down at me, I can look down at them right back. Because I've beaten them."
  1311. "...yeah. That does sound good. Even if I'm - well, I'm allowed certain privileges, it's not the same as being really free. Not at all. I can barely remember what a proper cloud home really felt like."
  1312. > Transom stands with a grunt.
  1313. > "Well, we're back to work. Harmony watch over you, Thunderlane. You're a good pony, even if you are wearing that uniform."
  1314. > As he turns to go, you call out:
  1315. "Can I ask you one thing?"
  1316. > "Sure."
  1317. "If there are some places that're so much better, why not go there?"
  1318. > "Well-"
  1319. > He looks back towards Current Tap.
  1320. > "-somepony's still gotta be looking out for everypony else here."
  1321. > ...
  1322. > Rumble had gone back to his quarters, just as you'd sent him.
  1323. > He barely looks up as you enter, and even as you shut the door and trot to his side, you're realizing this will be less of a lecture and more of an even talk.
  1324. > As you start to shed your uniform - and all the plasticized protective plates and bags it carried - he finally speaks up:
  1325. > "I kinda screwed up out there, didn't I?"
  1326. "Yes, a bit."
  1327. > Climbing up on the bed, you settle down beside him and extend a wing out over him.
  1328. > Warm the days might have been, but nights were still cool enough for the touch to not be unwelcome.
  1329. "Look, Rumble... I know he came off as kind of uncaring and-"
  1330. > "He was a dick."
  1331. "No."
  1332. > Your wing lightly smacks Rumble over the back of his head - not enough to be a real blow, but certainly making your point.
  1333. "He was proud, Rumble. Proud because he'd stuck it to the slavers. I thought you would understand that."
  1334. > "I..."
  1335. "And he apologized, too."
  1336. > "He did?"
  1337. "Uh-huh. I went and talked to him. About what it's like out there. And he knew he'd been pretty rude to you.
  1338. > Looking down, Rumble traces meaningless designs in the sheets with his hoof.
  1339. > He knows what you're looking for, and he knows that he should give it.
  1340. > But pride - young, coltish pride that refused to let him be wrong - prevented it.
  1341. "Bro?"
  1342. > "Yeah."
  1343. > Leaning down, you nuzzle his cheek - drawing a wince from the younger pony, though he doesn't pull away.
  1344. "I'm just worried about you, bro. More ponies are going to be coming, y'know? And they're not always going to see things the same way we do. It's different out there."
  1345. > You pull back, and Rumble looks back up with an uncertain expression.
  1346. "I didn't say anything to anyone about this. I'm not going to. But if you start a fight when any of the new ponies, I might not be able to protect you."
  1347. > And if he did anything bad enough, the little voice in the back of your head whispers, you might have to betray somepony again.
  1348. > Could you send Sunburst to the whipping post?
  1349. > Cadance?
  1350. > Turn the entire escape plan over, even though they were thinking it through this time?
  1351. > Perhaps more importantly, keep Rumble from figuring it out?
  1352. "It's not about rules or anything like that. I just don't want to see you get hurt, y'know?"
  1353. > "...yeah."
  1354. > Flopping down, Rumble lets his ears hang and wings splay out.
  1355. > "Yeah, and - I guess I should say - sorry to him too. If he's still there."
  1356. "That'd be nice, yeah. You know, he said there are better places for free ponies but he's staying here because he wants to keep an eye on his friends?"
  1357. > "Well, I can see why you like him. That's kinda what you do, isn't it? Not leaving, but doing this."
  1358. "...guess so."
  1359. > "Big bro-"
  1360. > Rolling over awkwardly, Rumble grins up at you.
  1361. > "-if I promise to try and not fight some more, will you feel better?"
  1362. > You grin, nodding.
  1363. "Absolutely. Especially if you actually follow through on it!"
  1364. > Rumble's eyes roll exasperatedly.
  1365. "Careful. You keep doing that, they'll fall right out of your head."
  1366. > "Hah, hah."
  1367. "I'm serious. That's the only reason I snapped at you out there - being worried. If Transom hadn't agreed he'd done wrong, if he had reported what'd happened..."
  1368. > "Yeah, I get it."
  1369. > Smile fading down to a more reasonable level, Rumble nods again.
  1370. > "I get it, and I will try. I promise. Really try."
  1371. "I know you will, bro."
  1372. > "I'm just..."
  1373. > Rumble looks away, fidgeting with his wings.
  1374. > Ears turns and swivel, as if searching for something to interrupt what he wants to say.
  1375. > Leaning in, you brush your muzzle across his cheek.
  1376. > "...I'm scared, bro. Really scared."
  1377. "It's okay, Rumble. I'm listening."
  1378. > "What if we get free, and we're just like that? Just... jerks now. Like Anonymous. If being slaves made us give up on everything and stop being... ponies anymore."
  1379. > He swallows hard, ears laying flat against his head.
  1380. > "Or... what if ponies start thinking everypony outside is like that, and they... Thunderlane, what if they stop trying to get our freedom back?"
  1381. > Reaching out with a hoof, he hooks it around your leg.
  1382. > "I don't wanna be broken. I don't wanna be a slave forever..."
  1383. "Hey..."
  1384. > Tucking you wing around his body, you pull Rumble in against your side.
  1385. > He accepts, staying there wedged in against your ribs.
  1386. > Sometimes he was so independent and mature you forgot how young he really was.
  1387. > Forgot that while he was on the edge of being a full-grown stallion, he was still the little colt who needed a big brother to support him as well.
  1388. > A colt who could be very, very afraid of the unknown.
  1389. "You want to know a secret, Rumble? I'm scared too. Especially because of what I do. Because I'm always worried ponies will see this and think it's a good thing. Forget that I'm not doing it for Anonymous. I'm doing it for us."
  1390. > You grimace, hard:
  1391. "I shouldn't have to do this. Shouldn't have to protect ponies from being hurt, shouldn't have to stop them from taking back their freedom because what'll happen to them is worse. But I don't forget it, and I don't let anypony else either."
  1392. > "Yeah."
  1393. > Rumble rubs at his nose, then nods.
  1394. > "I get it."
  1395. "So don't worry too much. When the new ponies start coming here, remember to show them that we've not given up. We're still who we were. Are. Can you do that for me?"
  1396. > "Yeah. I can, bro. Thanks."
  1397. > Laughing, you ruffle Rumble's spiked-up mane - and a second later, are ducking a noogie of his own as Rumble slips out of your grip and returns the favor.
  1398.  
  1399. > "Cadance?"
  1400. > Anonymous' voice catches you by surprise; you hadn't been expecting him out quite so soon.
  1401. > Setting down the pen in your magical grip, you look up and find him walking out across the field towards you.
  1402. "Anonymous."
  1403. > A dip of your head in acknowledgement of his approach.
  1404. "Is something the matter?"
  1405. > "No, no - not yet. I just wanted to come and speak to you, and you weren't in your office..."
  1406. "Oh! It was such a pleasant day, I just took the ledger books outside to work over them - and to give Flurry Heart a bit more time in the air."
  1407. > Lifting a wing, you reveal the rest of the filly - thoroughly conked out against your side.
  1408. "She fell asleep afterward. It's exhausting for her."
  1409. > "Ah."
  1410. > Lowering his voice, Anonymous drops to one knee, then seats himself in the grass beside you and lowers his voice.
  1411. > "Any luck?"
  1412. > Your ears droop an eyes fall, giving him all the answer he needs.
  1413. > Anonymous, too, frowns - eyes
  1414. > "I'm sorry... I don't know why. I spoke with Sunburst, and he says she's advancing well in using her other magic. He's even moving her on to some of the more complex things he can teach."
  1415. "I know; he's been sending me weekly updates too."
  1416. > Sighing, you turn your head down and brush your muzzle through her mane.
  1417. "In truth, I've been bringing her out here alone because I thought she might have been - worried about disappointing you somehow, and if she practiced out of your sight..."
  1418. > "...then it wouldn't be the first thing on her mind. It doesn't seem to have worked, though."
  1419. "No. Now I'm wondering if I approached it the wrong way around - if she needed to have that reassurance that you approved of it."
  1420. > "I'm afraid I can't really answer for that. And, it's getting to be about time for Flurry to head back home and meet Megan when she comes home from school."
  1421. "Is it?"
  1422. > You peer up with eyes narrowed to consult the angle of the sun.
  1423. "So it is; I hadn't realized how long I'd been out here."
  1424. > Standing, you stretch and lean down to nuzzle Flurry Heart.
  1425. > She stirs a bit, yawning wide and stretching out her wings far enough Anonymous has to lean away with a little chuckle.
  1426. "Little Gem... it's time to wake up. You need to go see to Megan?"
  1427. > "Is it time?"
  1428. > Yawning again, Flurry stumbles to her feet - and then a second long, back-arching stretch joins the yawn.
  1429. > "Alright, Mama. As soon as you take me ba- oh! Master!"
  1430. > Immediately she sweeps into a bow, but Anonymous only reaches out and strokes down her neck.
  1431. > "Hello, Flurry Heart. Did you have a good nap?"
  1432. > "Yes, Master. I - I hope you didn't have to come out here for me!"
  1433. > "Not at all, Flurry. But actually, once your mother is done putting her books away - I think I'd like her to come up to the house too."
  1434. > You know an order when you hear one.
  1435. "I'll be up as soon as I can."
  1436. > Anonymous heads off in one direction, your daughter close at his side.
  1437. > You go in another, swinging by the 'town hall' to replace the ledgers and briefly speak with Mayor Mare.
  1438. > She simply nods when you mention your destination, mentioning that Anonymous had been through looking for you earlier in the day.
  1439. > Wishing her a good evening you slip up into the house, you're barely through the first room when Megan rushes past you in a blur of pounding feet, golden hair, and wild giggling.
  1440. > "Hi Cadance!"
  1441. > Galloping close on her heels is your daughter, and half-walking, half-stumbling after her-
  1442. "Hello, Mocha."
  1443. > "Oh! Hello, Miss Cadance."
  1444. > The little unicorn maid smiles, but you can see the tremble in her body from the effort of trying to keep up.
  1445. "Were you supposed to be looking after them?"
  1446. > "Um, no. I was just keeping an eye on them. On my own. Because I, um, don't have too many of my duties back yet..."
  1447. > And yet, Mocha Cream had put her uniform right back on and thrown herself into working again.
  1448. > She'd even re-done her mane into its old, curled style.
  1449. > Her will cannot be faulted, but...
  1450. > Silently you add another curse against the slavery that had left a young mare only able to define herself by what she could do for her Master.
  1451. > Another curse in an already mountainous pile.
  1452. "Well, in that case why don't you come with me?"
  1453. > "O-Okay, Miss Cadance."
  1454. > You slow your pace as Mocha Cream falls in beside you, taking slow steps so as not to trip her up.
  1455. "So, what has Anonymous had you doing?"
  1456. > "Um, a few of my old duties. Like, um, making up his bed in the mornings. But, not many."
  1457. > Softer, in almost a whisper:
  1458. > "I'm not very fast. Since I, um, can't use my magic...
  1459. > This close, you can see a few bumps where she must have tumbled trying to push herself.
  1460. "You know, Mocha, I'm sure he appreciates you still. You don't have to hurt yourself."
  1461. > "Oh-h... It's not too b-bad. I'm working on my magic with Sunburst, though."
  1462. "When he comes here?"
  1463. > "Yes. H-He comes to teach your daughter, but he c-can usually spare a little bit of time for me. I'm doing a little better; he's given me some magic exercises to do."
  1464. > Probably, you think, the same ones he was using to teach your daughter - a filly.
  1465. > Mocha Cream wasn't a fool; she undoubtedly knew she was doing routines meant for ponies half her age.
  1466. > But she needed to believe she was making some kind of progress...
  1467. > "Oh! And, um, I've been - um - I've been l-learning how to. Um. Do massages."
  1468. > You stop in place with a surprised look, noting Mocha Cream's flushing cheeks, but she keeps going on talking:
  1469. > "I've been watching movies showing me h-how. Um, on a computer. Master Anonymous lets me."
  1470. > No wonder she sounded proud; few slaves got access to computers.
  1471. > Even you - the most powerful machine in your office was a calculator.
  1472. "...Anonymous is, is he?"
  1473. > "Uh-huh. He's been really nice, even though I'm n-not very good... he lets me stay with him a lot, and says that when if I get b-better and if I do good at learning m-m-massages he might even - even let me-"
  1474. > She cuts off with a gasp, stumbling - both in word and walk.
  1475. > A second later she is up again, face positively scarlet and tail swishing nervously.
  1476. > "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to-"
  1477. "No, no. It's quite okay, Mocha."
  1478. > Trotting to her side, you lift her upright with a gentle burst from your horn - and then berate yourself for reminding the pony what she could not do herself.
  1479. "Thank you for walking with me. I've got to go talk to Anonymous now."
  1480. > Once Mocha is seen off you let the princess-ly smiling mask slip from your face and head upstairs.
  1481. > Anonymous is waiting for you in his study, and motions you over to his side.
  1482. > "Cadance, hey. I wanted to show you some of the plans, and-"
  1483. > You approach, but other thoughts are swirling in your head.
  1484. > Half of you wants to tell him off for toying with Mocha Cream's heart.
  1485. > Of course the pony needed a goal, needed reassurance.
  1486. > But the way he was leading her on...
  1487. > It wasn't right.
  1488. > Their 'relationship' wasn't right.
  1489. > It was the basic exploitation of slavery; how could he not see that?
  1490. > Was he totally blind to what he was doing to her?
  1491. > Or, worse - did he just not care?
  1492. [Choice]
  1493. > Okay, maybe a full-on lecture wasn't necessary.
  1494. > But it still would be good to mention this.
  1495. "Before we get to anything else, Anonymous, there's something else I want to mention."
  1496. > Catching your tone, he swivels in place to cock his head questioningly.
  1497. > Shutting the door gently you approach him - not sitting, but remaining standing.
  1498. > With him seated, your eyes are just about at the same level.
  1499. > You can almost look at him as an equal.
  1500. "I am... worried about Mocha Cream. Not about her injuries, but about what is happening in her mind."
  1501. > "What about it? You think she's becoming depressed?"
  1502. "I think she is doing something very worrisome to avoid becoming depressed. She is... defining herself by what she can do for you. Totally. All she's focused on is being able to serve you again. And..."
  1503. > Here would be the critical point.
  1504. > This all hinged on whether he cared about her as a living being, a pony, a young mare who had lost foalhood to bondage.
  1505. > Or just as property to do his bidding.
  1506. "...she is devoted to you, Anonymous; I do not have to be the Princess of Love to see that."
  1507. > "I know."
  1508. > He looks away, off towards the window - his favorite spot to stare when he doesn't want to face you.
  1509. > "She admitted it in the hospital after she was attacked. I thought it was the painkillers loosening her lips a little bit... I don't think she remembers telling me."
  1510. "Even if she does not, her feelings haven't changed. And when you tell her to start preparing for - let us be honest - a reasonably intimate activity... she can barely talk about it without locking up and stuttering or stumbling."
  1511. > Stepping around, you force yourself back into his line of sight.
  1512. "Anonymous. I have to ask... what are your plans for her? How long will you keep this up? Do you intend to give her more, or is this just... stringing her along?"
  1513. > He glares, but you hold your ground.
  1514. "The night after Chrysocolla died, when I stayed in your bed with you - you told me then you hadn't brought in another pony to replace Mocha Cream because you were missing her, not just a servant. 'Someone who saw you as something real', I think your words were? But she isn't your equal either, is she?"
  1515. > "No."
  1516. > He sighs.
  1517. > "And you're right. If I'm to be totally honest I am leading her along because - it does feel nice to be appreciated. It's not the only reason - Mocha is a sweet girl, and I like seeing her happy too. I told her to start learning the massage stuff because she was excited about it. But... as my love?"
  1518. > More than just your ears were open.
  1519. > The sense granted by your particular Talent had reached out as well, picking over his thoughts as he spoke.
  1520. > "For two years I barely gave her a glance, and then when I did... after she stopped being scared, Mocha was so grateful. When I was at my lowest, angry at you and myself for what we'd both done she was there for me. So I kept doing that."
  1521. > And all your senses confirm what he is saying:
  1522. > There is something there - care, affection, and maybe even a spark of desire.
  1523. > But not the blooming flame of romance.
  1524. > Not the bond of lovers.
  1525. > In a way, you are relieved:
  1526. > He had to be twice her age at the least, and along with his power over her you can't say you were confident such a love could ever be stable.
  1527. > But on the other...
  1528. "Then I have to warn you - be careful. The longer you string Mocha Cream along, let her indulge this fantasy, the more it will hurt her when she realizes you do not return the same devotion she shows you."
  1529. > "You 'have to' warn me?"
  1530. "Yes. In every role I hold - as the leader of the ponies here, to protect one of mine from being crushed. As your servant, to keep you from losing another pony you rely on very much. And - as your -"
  1531. > You hesitate on the word, not sure if it fits.
  1532. "-As your friend, to keep you from being hurt by it too. Because, speaking as somepony who knows a lot about relationships, it will."
  1533. > "...yes, I guess that is true."
  1534. > His head cocks.
  1535. > " 'Friend', though? Well, not too far off I suppose. You are becoming far more than even an adviser now."
  1536. > Knowing when you cease pushing your luck, you bow your head a touch in a submissive gesture.
  1537. "I'm glad to hear you think that... Master."
  1538. > That placates Anonymous; he reaches out to lightly rub your cheek.
  1539. > "I'm glad you do tell me these things, Cadance. It's always good to know I can rely on you."
  1540. > Reassuring to hear, but you do wonder how he views you - or perhaps ponies in general.
  1541. > Clearly you were more than just a slave - more even than a trusted servant.
  1542. > He'd made that abundantly clear time and time again.
  1543. > But you were not an equal.
  1544. > Friend - that had given him hesitation.
  1545. > Did he fear what he would have to confront in himself if he allowed you to become that.
  1546. > For all the time you'd spent with him, Anonymous - and indeed humans in general - were still an enigma.
  1547. > You wanted to understand them, to figure out what path would lead to the end of this.
  1548. > But how the man that doted on his daughter and comforted Mocha Cream could exist in the same body as the one who kept you in bondage...
  1549. "May I ask you something - difficult, Master?"
  1550. > "If you feel it is important."
  1551. > You don't hear a 'no' there.
  1552. "You missed Mocha Cream when she was away, and even when we were at odds you seemed to want to trust me. I feel-"
  1553. > Not sense.
  1554. > Anonymous didn't seem to know the degree of finesse you could sense the direction of his heart.
  1555. > Best not to drop that now.
  1556. "-like you are very much missing someone in general. Do you... have anyone else who can see you that way, Master?"
  1557. > He gapes; clearly that had not been what he'd expected you to ask.
  1558. > "You know, in another time... that could be seen as far, far overstepping your reach, Cadance."
  1559. "Yes."
  1560. > That was why you'd kept your posture submissive, expression concerned, and called him Master.
  1561. > To avoid that reaction.
  1562. > "But..."
  1563. > If you hadn't been standing in front of him already, he'd surely have turned his eyes from you.
  1564. > As is, he settles for staring at his lap.
  1565. > "...no. Not many. Especially not here - after Megan's mother and I... separated and I moved out here to put that all behind me and begin work on this place... not many."
  1566. "You know, Aunt Celestia once set a great deal of good in motion just by telling a certain pony to go out and make friends. And you saw that I needed a break from my duties when I couldn't. Maybe you need some time off as well."
  1567. > "Maybe."
  1568. > Another hefty sigh, and you're again reminded just how lucky you are to be able to speak freely with him like this.
  1569. > "But if I don't finish this expansion, finding someone to hug will be the least of my concerns. It's possible you're right - but not something I can afford to worry about right now."
  1570. "...I understand, Anonymous."
  1571. > In part.
  1572. > At least he seemed to get the point that leading Mocha Cream ...
  1573. > That, too, would be a fight for another day.
  1574. > "Speaking of which - what I wanted to call you up here for."
  1575. > Swiveling in his seat, Anonymous turns to his desk and pulls up something on-screen.
  1576. > "I've got a major meeting with a number of investors and - now - business partners coming up. Some, the people who are providing my new stock that will be coming in. Others, the equipment vendors I'll be turning to once I know what we're working with."
  1577. > The list of names he has drawn up is meaningless to you, except for one:
  1578. "Randall will be there?"
  1579. > "Yes; he has to be. And, I think, so should you."
  1580. "I understand."
  1581. > "It will not be held here. We're going to have to head into the city to do this - about an hour, hour and a half out. The office belongs to one of the market-owners."
  1582. > Your stomach twists and heart leaps simultaneously.
  1583. > Out of the camp...
  1584. > How long had it been now, since you'd seen anything beyond those fences?
  1585. > This place might have been more comfortable than a literal cage, but metaphorically it still very much was one.
  1586. > Even the brief escapees who had been brought back carried barely any new news; it hadn't been the first things on their minds.
  1587. > At the same time you cannot deny a sense of apprehension.
  1588. > To be seen, to be recognized - not to mention going into the office of a slave trader?
  1589. > Well.
  1590. > It wasn't going to be pleasant.
  1591. "I understand."
  1592. > "Gene will be coming, and - if you would like - I think Mayor Mare could be brought as well. She'd manage."
  1593. "Maybe. I will think it over."
  1594. > Catching the nervous tone, Anonymous reaches out to put a hand on your withers.
  1595. > "It'll be alright, Cadance. Probably easier than the time we had them all over for dinner that one night."
  1596. "I won't have to play your obedient pet, then?"
  1597. > "Obedient, yes. I don't want any lip, no matter what they say. But not a 'pet'; you won't have to wear anything... fancy like you did the last time. We're playing a different game now - they know I can control you, now we show them I can trust you."
  1598. > A baited breath is released.
  1599. "That will be much preferred."
  1600. > ...
  1601. > In the end, you chose to wear something nonetheless, albeit much more rational than the 'outfit' he'd saddled you with last time.
  1602. > A simple shawl thrown around your barrel and helped disguise the bulge of your wings and cover your mark, while your mane had been carefully tied back in a tail before being covered with a headscarf as well.
  1603. > From a distance, at least, you were merely an unusually large unicorn.
  1604. > You hoped.
  1605. > A part of you was humiliated that you were hiding yourself when so many ponies out there needed you.
  1606. > But they did not need to see a princess walking obediently on a leash.
  1607. > Practically from the second the car had pulled away from the camp, your eyes had been glued to the window.
  1608. > Every little town passed, then as you entered the city and its glittering towers of glass...
  1609. > As wondrous as they were, you didn't have eyes for any of the structures.
  1610. > No, you were a constant search for other ponies.
  1611. > A hoof-full had been spotted on the highway, but in the city...
  1612. > Everywhere.
  1613. > Trotting on the sidewalks, saddlebags laden and sagging with loads.
  1614. > Pausing to haul trash-bags from streetside cans and toss them into carts they were harnessed to.
  1615. > Walking meekly at the heels of men and women holding their leads.
  1616. > Some are completely unadorned, while others wear clothes - some rational, others declaring their owners' use for them for all the world to see.
  1617. > But all bear signs of their slavery:
  1618. > Collars on their necks or bridles on their heads, lead by leashes of rope, plastic, or chain.
  1619. > Some wings are bound or feathers clipped.
  1620. > Here and there restrictor rings sit heavy on horns.
  1621. > Sometimes they are close you can see the faded scars of punishments past.
  1622. > Sometimes the scars are not physical, but visible nonetheless - in the fearful glance of an eye or the cringing, skulking walk at an owners' side.
  1623. > Passing through an intersection, the distant repetitive crack of a whip meets your ears.
  1624. > Thankfully it is far enough you cannot see the circumstances.
  1625. > Even where the cruelty is not so immediately apparent, the sheer normalcy of it all adds a whole other layer to it.
  1626. > How many thousands - hundreds of thousands - walk side by side with this every day never blinking an eye.
  1627. > "Penny for your thoughts, Cadance?"
  1628. "Just... thinking about all of this."
  1629. > Shuffling in your seat, you adjust yourself and tug awkwardly at the collar that sits snug on your throat.
  1630. > Anonymous takes a hand from the wheel to scratch beneath it, which you have to admit actually feels quite nice.
  1631. > "Sorry about this, Cadance, but rules are the rules out here. Not on my property anymore."
  1632. "I know. I don't blame you."
  1633. > You're almost happy when he turns into a garage; at least there would not be far to go in public.
  1634. > Anonymous gets out to let the valet in, but you wait until he comes around to your side before getting out yourself.
  1635. > Taking your lead in hand, he straightens his tie and you light your horn briefly to pull the shawl down over your flanks.
  1636. > "Ready?"
  1637. "No, Master. Let's go."
  1638. > Keep at Anonymous' side, head raised but not too high.
  1639. > Don't hold yourself stiff, that only makes your hoofsteps fall harder.
  1640. > Just walk slowly, comfortably, as if this were just another day out and about with Anonymous.
  1641. > In theory, it's simple enough.
  1642. > In practice, keeping yourself calm demands a fair degree of your focus.
  1643. > That Anonymous has to do most of the work - checking in with the security guard and being buzzed in - is something of a relief.
  1644. > So far, at least, your disguise is holding.
  1645. > A handful of humans and ponies glance up as you enter the building's main lobby, lingering on your too-tall form.
  1646. > You can feel their eyes roving over you, but you're hardly the only leggy unicorn out there and none are close enough to realize what the telltale bulges at your sides indicate.
  1647. > "Ah, Mr. Anonymous - welcome, welcome!"
  1648. > One well-suited man had detached himself from the far wall, and was now striding towards you.
  1649. > Though a few other men and women follow close behind him, it's apparent Anonymous is the focus of his attention.
  1650. > "Mr. Stedler? Thank you for taking time out of your day for us."
  1651. > "I'm afraid Mr. Stedler is upstairs dealing with one final matter beforehand. Come on in though; a few of the others are still showing up so I'll take you downstairs and show you around a bit before we get started."
  1652. > "Oh? Would you prefer I send my assistant up to the meeting room while we walk?"
  1653. > Anonymous motions down to you, and later you would realize there'd been a note of implied suggestion in his tone to you as well.
  1654. > In the moment, however, your guide barely spares you a glance; evidently ponies are well-beneath even his briefest consideration.
  1655. > "No, no. It's fine. She seems very well behaved. Considering your business, I'm sure she won't have any problems seeing our work."
  1656. > That comment sets off alarm bells in your head, but by that time it is already too late.
  1657. > To refuse would imply you - disgust rises in your throat - weren't suitably trained.
  1658. > Caught between the two, you only think to put on the appearance of a "properly obedient" pony.
  1659. "I will accompany you, Master, in case you need me."
  1660. > "Yes, she... should be fine."
  1661. > "Good, good! Come on, then."
  1662. > The suit leads you back towards the rear of the lobby, through a huge pair of double doors.
  1663. > From the way Anonymous is looking at you, the suspicion that you'd just made an error was growing.
  1664. > No in anger, but with worry.
  1665. > Why is not immediately apparent; the passage you are walking through is well-appointed and broad enough to fit quite a few walking side-by-side, but otherwise offers no hints.
  1666. > Thinking back, you remember the building being relatively nondescript compared to those around it:
  1667. > Sheathed in glass and steel with an excellent view of the many rows of offices within, though the light gleaming from it was colder than that of the Crystal Empire.
  1668. > It was merely offices, no?
  1669. > "We do most of our sales online now, with delivery straight to the customer's door. Size of our business demands it. Most of our customers aren't making orders nearly as large as yours, of course, but - we do still do a little bit of direct sales from the floor here."
  1670. > A flight of steps are descended, another pair of doors pushed open-
  1671. > And instantly you understand your mistake.
  1672. > The building above may be offices, but down here in the windowless below...
  1673. > Ponies.
  1674. > That was what this business was about, after all.
  1675. > Long rows of pens, barely wide enough to lay down in but with low walls for prospective buyers looking over the edges at the captives seated, standing, or sprawled within.
  1676. > Most wore halters tied or chained to their pens.
  1677. > Every few spaces, however, you saw one who was simply standing there with no need to be held in place.
  1678. > All myriad of emotions expressed in those faces:
  1679. > Fear, concealed barely enough that one unfamiliar to pony body language might miss it.
  1680. > Passive acceptance of the fate they had found themselves in.
  1681. > Most sickening to you, hope.
  1682. > Eyes that peer out as the small group you were part of entered, begging silently that someone might stop and pay attention to them.
  1683. > It's a blow to your gut, a physical kick in the belly.
  1684. > How easy it was, locked away behind the camp's fences, that this was the fate of so many ponies every single day...
  1685. > You almost linger too long, barely avoiding stumbling as the group starts forward and Anonymous tugs your lead.
  1686. > "They all look very well-kept."
  1687. > Huddling close to his far side, you keep him as much between you and the rows of pens as possible.
  1688. > Chuckling, the man guiding you slips back a bit and whispers conspiratorially to him:
  1689. > "Well, of course we put out our better stock right up here first and foremost! These are the cream of our crop - those that haven't been sold yet, anyway. This is basically a mall."
  1690. > He pulls a phone from his pocket and waves it in the direction of the pens.
  1691. > "They can just scan the placard on a pen, then buy online. We do delivery, or they pick them up directly. It's better than having inventory just sitting around doing nothing while we wait for a buyer."
  1692. > Inventory.
  1693. > That's all they are to him - things to be bought, sold, profited on.
  1694. > How many families were split here, lives taken apart simply for the exchange of money?
  1695. > Beside you, Anonymous glances at his phone and raises an eyebrow:
  1696. > "Well, if this is the cost your normally ask then I'm getting quite the discount."
  1697. > "Of course you are! With the size of the order you put in... look, normally people want multiple ponies, they're looking for something kind of specific. You? You're just buying."
  1698. > "I've got a couple of ponies who are real good at finding exactly the right place for all my stock."
  1699. > Anonymous reaches around to give you a pat on the head; rather than his normal attempted-reassuring touch, it feels almost condescending.
  1700. "My Master may have use of those types of services once our first lots have arrived. He is considering further acquisitions once our initial lots have been settled into their new roles."
  1701. > "That so? Well, trust me - if it's on the market, I can find it. People come looking for me with every kind of request - similar talents, special training graduates, similar appearances... we had this one guy who was looking for a couple of sisters, heh."
  1702. > A sick shudder runs along your belly.
  1703. > Not 'family', or 'a sister'.
  1704. > Sisters.
  1705. > Perhaps you are being too harsh; perhaps it was another attempted reunion.
  1706. > But your intuition tells you that it was for a far darker purpose.
  1707. > There was no special cruelty in this place, but neither was there any protection.
  1708. > A glance in one direction, and you see a mare in a stall talking quietly with a young woman leaning over the edge - her hand stroking the pony's neck softly.
  1709. > A look in the other, and a laughing girl reaches into a pen to tug a colt's ears back and forth; her mother babbles away on a phone oblivious to the pony's silent suffering.
  1710. > Head sinking and ears laid flat, you hunch your shoulders and sink in on yourself.
  1711. > Tune out the talk around you.
  1712. > You'd forgotten how this world could be sometimes.
  1713. > Forgotten that for all his cruelty and obliviousness to how he trod on his slaves, Anonymous was not the worst thing out there.
  1714. > More even than the few who did look to hurt, were the many who did nothing to protect.
  1715. > And-
  1716. > "-Princess Cadance?"
  1717. > Even at a distance, the lone pony's voice cuts through the chatter of the men and women around you.
  1718. > Your head snaps up before you can help it, and immediately you understand what had happened:
  1719. > Hunched over as you'd been the shawl wrapped around your barrel had ridden up... exposing the tips of your wings.
  1720. > The purple tints at the tips of your primaries had betrayed you, making wings stand out against coat.
  1721. > "Princess Cadance! It is you!"
  1722. > Too late you realize your error; you shouldn't have acknowledged him but just ept your head down.
  1723. > At every side, the others have paused, looking around in surprise - except for Anonymous, who has realized what is about to happen.
  1724. > "Excuse me, I think we should be-"
  1725. > His attempt to avoid the impending disaster is for nothing, though, as it's already too late.
  1726. > "Everypony! Everypony, Princess Cadance is here!"
  1727. > "What?!"
  1728. > "Who is yelling that?"
  1729. > "Where? I can't see her!"
  1730. > "Look there, on the right!"
  1731. > "You stupid nag, you're seeing things."
  1732. > "No she isn't! I see her too! Princess Cadance!"
  1733. > "There's a princess here?"
  1734. > More and more voices join in, ponies rearing up to peer over the edges of their pens to spy you.
  1735. > "Is she coming to save us?"
  1736. > "Princess! Over here!"
  1737. > "Fuck the princesses. They left us here to rot!"
  1738. > "Hey, fuck you!"
  1739. > "Your Highness!"
  1740. > "She's on a leash! She's one of them now!"
  1741. > "Cadance is here to bring us home!"
  1742. > Your name.
  1743. > Your title.
  1744. > Over and over, in a rising hubbub as word spreads from pen to pen like a leaping flame.
  1745. > Chains rattle and fencing creaks as rows on rows of ponies strain at their leashes to catch a glimpse of their Princess.
  1746. > You...
  1747. > You panic.
  1748. > Terror creeps up like a tide of icy water; you weren't ready for this!
  1749. > Not here, not now!
  1750. > Not so many!
  1751. > Beside you, Anonymous takes hold of your collar and pulls:
  1752. > "I said, I think we should be going now!"
  1753. > This seems to finally snap the guide out of his out of his brain-freeze.
  1754. > "Yes, yes - uh, exit this way!"
  1755. > Calling it a retreat is an exaggeration, but you do leave the space at rather faster than a sedate stroll.
  1756. > Already guards are moving among the rows of pens, wielding cracking lashes and spraying ponies with something that makes them rear back and whinny in pain and fear.
  1757. > Even a whiff of the peppery substance is enough to make your nostrils burn.
  1758. > The doors shut slam shut behind you, sealing you off from the clamor - barely.
  1759. > You can still hear the hubbub beyond, though, and stare back with pinprick eyes.
  1760. > Across the hall, the man who'd been guiding you stares as well - but at you.
  1761. > You cringe back in expectation of an unleashed tirade, but instead it is the doors at the far end of the hall that slam open.
  1762. > The man striding out to meet him is... enormous, in every sense of the word.
  1763. > Fat, yes, but also hugely tall and broad with a deep-booming voice that lends him a larger-than-life presence.
  1764. > Even his mustache is oversized, a bristly bush occupying the entire center of his face.
  1765. > "Anonymous! I heard we almost had a riot down here. Very sorry that happened; I can assure you it's not the norm around here."
  1766. > "I know. I tried to tell him she should have been sent upstairs, but..."
  1767. > Your would-be guide winces at that, and then flinches again as Stedler - and there's no doubt in your mind this is the man you've come to meet - glares at him.
  1768. > "That can be dealt with later. Not your fault, I'm sure you did the right thing."
  1769. > Stedler's eyes hit you, and his eyebrows rise as he takes notice of your covered wings.
  1770. > "So this is her, is it? Your prize, the one who keeps them in-line for you?"
  1771. > "Yes, this is my key."
  1772. > You duck your head in a bow, which prompts a laugh from Stedler.
  1773. > "And very well behaved, too! I didn't quite believe it, but you've done a good job with her."
  1774. > "Well, in truth I was lucky in many respects..."
  1775. > Keeping your voice soft, you add:
  1776. "Master has given me more for me than I had any reason to even hope for."
  1777. > Laughing, Stedler rises back up to his full height.
  1778. > "Never thought I'd see this in my life - they haven't found anyone who can crack the youngest one yet, y'know? Word is she's still a hell in a handbasket any chance she gets."
  1779. > The youngest one.
  1780. > Considering the context there could only be one pony he is referring to, and your heart aches in recognition of what it means.
  1781. > Twilight, what have they been doing?
  1782. > "Well, we can all gawk a bit later. Come on, I'll show you upstairs."
  1783. > Up ten storys into a large conference room where a few familiar faces already are in attendance.
  1784. > Aside from the gigantic man who owned this place, some you recognize from the night of the dinner as well:
  1785. > Posey smiles widely from a spot across the table; you shoot her a smile back.
  1786. > Though Randall cannot see you, he senses something is happening and Posey rears up to whisper in his ear.
  1787. > A second later he offers a wave of his own in almost your direction.
  1788. > Others faces from that evening are notably (and to your relief) absent.
  1789. > Anonymous had kept his word when he'd dismissed Catherine's breeding operation as having any role in this.
  1790. > Behind you, another familiar face enters:
  1791. > Gregory Barker pauses by Anonymous' seat, shaking his hand and even offering to take your hoof.
  1792. > "Good to see both of you! How is everything there?"
  1793. "Much better, Sir."
  1794. > This time, your smile is genuine.
  1795. "There've been no more issues at home, I'm glad to say. If I may ask...?"
  1796. > No need to even finish your statement; Gregory quickly guesses.
  1797. > "Windy Winters is doing fine. Excellently, in fact - no trouble at all and an enthusiastic learner, even if he does have an independent streak. He'll be fine; at the rate he's learning it won't be too long before I'll be sending him to somewhere he'll be really appreciated."
  1798. > The bow you give him is not merely just for show.
  1799. > This once - just this once - a pony had been spared from a worse fate.
  1800. "I'm very glad to hear it. Thank you again for being willing to give him another chance."
  1801. > Any further conversation is interrupted by Stedler barging in again, his presence immediately overwhelming even Gregory's formidable size.
  1802. > He gives the trainer a jovial slap on the back and laughs a deep belly laugh.
  1803. > "Yeah, Greg here has a damn good business going. Y'know, if you ever want that offer is still open."
  1804. > "Afraid I'm going to still have to say no. Independent is just my style."
  1805. > "Bah. One day I'll buy you out. Now, where's Scriptorial? If she's late again I'll give her hide a tanning-"
  1806. > "Right here, Master! Just rounding up the last few documents."
  1807. > An aged, elegantly-dressed pony has just arrived, offering up a sheaf of papers clipped to a tray resting on her back.
  1808. > Both go to sit down; you look for a seat of your own, but a glance at Posey and Stedler's slave makes it clear you're meant to sit on the floor - or stand - by Anonymous' side.
  1809. > Not an equal, merely a pony.
  1810. > "Right, now then!"
  1811. > Stedler's voice booms out again, instantly pulling everyone's attention back to him.
  1812. > "I think we should all know who we are but just in case - Rich Stedler, owner of Foremost Equine Labor Traders. My pony, Scriptorial."
  1813. > "Good afternoon, Sirs."
  1814. > She drops into a quick curtsey, but Stedler is already going on:
  1815. > “Gregory Barker, probably the best high-skill trainer outside my own business. Scott Fledermann, my transportation director..."
  1816. > Mentally you make note of each name and position its bearer occupied, until at last-
  1817. > "And, of course, Anonymous - the reason we're all here - and his pony... Mi Amore Cadenza, is it?"
  1818. > You start, caught unawares by his knowledge of your true name.
  1819. > A moment later Anonymous' hand is resting between your ears, rubbing in a motion that is simultaneously both demeaning and calming.
  1820. > "She simply goes by Cadance."
  1821. > Dropping your head submissively, you try to ignore Scriptorial's unabashed shocked stare.
  1822. "I assist my Master in many respects of running the camp. I will answer any questions you may have to the best of my ability."
  1823. > Once they begin discussing - speaking of allotments, arrival dates, ratios of grades of purchase - you become even less important.
  1824. > Consulted on demand, but mostly there to listen and make your own notes.
  1825. > In between moments of the room's attention being focused on you, your thoughts inevitably stray back to the moment in the basement below.
  1826. > They wanted you to save them.
  1827. > Expected you to.
  1828. > The absent crown weighs heavy on your head.
  1829. > But how could you?
  1830. > Even if Anonymous could buy every pony in that room, it would be a mere drop in the rainstorm.
  1831. > And not be to take them home but merely into other servitude at that.
  1832. > A sharp reminder of the scale of your task.
  1833. > ...and a foretaste of what it would be like when the new ponies arrived.
  1834. > They, too, would undoubtedly expect things of you.
  1835. > And it would be a lie to say you weren't somewhat terrified of the prospect.
  1836. > Eventually a break is called for stretching of legs, refilling of cups, and/or emptying of bladders.
  1837. > The room quickly empties; Anonymous taps you on the shoulder and unclips the leash from your collar:
  1838. > "See if they have some coffee, would you?"
  1839. "Of course, Master."
  1840. > Though not before a considerable stretch of your own.
  1841. > That was your first thing to do - pausing in a quiet stretch of hallway and allowing your long-constrained wings to burst from beneath the wrap covering them, stretching to span nearly wall-to-wall.
  1842. > Their joints pop and groan, and you allow your forehooves to reach out to extend your back and let all four legs stretch too.
  1843. > A happy little sigh escapes your throat, and-
  1844. > You pause with ears pricked and forward:
  1845. > From somewhere up ahead there'd been a sharp, loud sound.
  1846. > Tucking your wings back beneath their wrap you slip forward - and darken when you recognize what you are hearing:
  1847. > A sharp, repetitive striking and two familiar voices, one raised in pain:
  1848. > "-ever, ever be late like that again Scriptorial. I expect you on-time just like anyone else!"
  1849. > "Yes - ah! - yes, Master!"
  1850. > "This is the biggest business deal I have ever had, and he is only going to buy more. If you ruin it-"
  1851. > "I understand Master - ahhh!"
  1852. > Ears pinned and levity drained, you turn on a hind hoof and flee.
  1853. > Somehow, you reflect as the machine gurgles and hisses while filling the mug, this doesn't feel as humiliating as it might seem.
  1854. > Perhaps because you were not being beaten for such little things-
  1855. > "Cadance."
  1856. > The sudden voice nearly makes you jump as you spin to face it.
  1857. > Scriptorial stares at you with narrowed eyes, as if still studying and judging.
  1858. > In turn you study her:
  1859. > Old enough for a lime green mane to have started fading into grey and her stray coat to begin going dull.
  1860. > Still beautiful in an simple way - and her clothing had been done very well.
  1861. > Yet not slavenly or with intent to... show her off, but with true beauty in mind.
  1862. > Her eyes still damp from earlier, but showing a keen sharpness as well.
  1863. > You are reminded of nopony so much as Mayor Mare.
  1864. "I am."
  1865. > "They're saying you ran away downstairs. Couldn't face any other pony here."
  1866. > Her words are pointed, but not accusatory.
  1867. > It is answers Scriptorial wants, not to see you humbled.
  1868. "It was... close to a riot. Someone - somepony - could have been hurt, and my Master ordered us quickly out."
  1869. > "A riot, I hear, you didn't do much to stop. Hiding your wings too, I see."
  1870. > A motion of her head indicates the shawl over your barrel, and you frown.
  1871. "I was afraid that if I spoke, it would only provoke something worse. I don't think either of us would have wanted that."
  1872. > "Either of us, or our Masters? If not to speak to your ponies, then what do you want?"
  1873. > Again you reassess this pony.
  1874. > Stedler had been beating her, but she did not seem to look to him with fear.
  1875. > She wore a slave's collar, yes, but it was of fabric and not steel.
  1876. > And, of course, she was no fool and seemed to play a pivotal role in his operation.
  1877. > Just how do you answer this...?
  1878. [Choice]
  1879. "Scriptorial, there is no easy way to say this. I am not a - a savior for these ponies. Not coming in with my head held high, wings spread, crown on my head, breaking chains and leading us all out to freedom. That Princess died out in the snow of Equestria, and what survived... I am not a broken mare-"
  1880. > You hope.
  1881. > Have to believe.
  1882. "-but I am not here as a Princess. I am here as my Master's pony, his loyal assistant, a role I have to bear no matter how demeaning or... painful it is."
  1883. > "Have to?"
  1884. > The mare's eyes narrow as she studies you, and you study her back.
  1885. "Yes, I have to. He already owns a large number of ponies already, and their wellbeing must be my first concern. Their lives are... better than this, even if still slaves; if I assume authority I cannot actually wield it would only put their lives on a track to being destroyed. I step out of line, and his image is ruined. But if I assist him - he is here to bring more ponies out of this to that better life. He will. And..."
  1886. > Your head hangs.
  1887. "Do you think it would do good for any of the poor ponies chained down there? If I were to stand up and say yes, I am Mi Amore Cadenza? If I were not to cover my wings? Would they not be driven to even greater excitement? Even more hurt when I cannot help?"
  1888. > The mug full of coffee is still cooling in the machine, but somehow it doesn't seem to matter anymore.
  1889. > Scriptorial continues give you an inscrutable look, and you only blunder further on:
  1890. "I want - I want to help them. So very, very badly. But if I give them false hope - is that help? I can only work with Anonymous and make use of the little gifts he gives us."
  1891. > "With him, is it now? And by first name?"
  1892. > Your breath catches, but Scriptorial shakes her head.
  1893. > "I make no judgements on what you do, Cadance. I know what business Stedler is in, and as much as I hate it and wish I were not... fighting would not help at all. Besides, he is no monster either."
  1894. "He beats you."
  1895.  
  1896. > Scriptorial's eyes flash; she clearly had not realized you'd heard that.
  1897. > But the anger passes in a moment, and she shakes her head.
  1898. > "It sounds far, far worse than it is. Very rarely done, and I only have to make some noise and plead a little to make him stop. I am spared any real cruelty - never whipped, never forced to spread my legs for him, given a room of my own."
  1899. "Still!"
  1900. > "Of all the things I despise in this life, Cadance, that is the least of them. I would take a 'beating' like that every day I have left to live if it would mean freedom."
  1901. > As if to make her point, Scriptorial seats herself without any sign of flinch or tremor.
  1902. > Clothes cover much of her coat, but neither is there any other sign of abuse or fear.
  1903. > "You said Anonymous offers you something."
  1904. "Yes. To me, but also to the other ponies there. But, Stedler does not - offer anything to any other pony here. Beatings or not, why do you obey him if you would prefer not to?"
  1905. > "The same reason almost everypony does: I am scared. Terrified. He is not the worst, and if I am sold elsewhere-"
  1906. "It could be far worse."
  1907. > "Exactly. An old mare like me? I would not last long if I disobeyed. I am under no illusions - Stedler is a monster for what he does. But he is the least of the monsters out there, and even for the littlest things I will cling to him."
  1908. > Nodding, she raises a hoof to jab in your direction.
  1909. > "And if I had to guess, I would say you are terrified too."
  1910. "I am. I won't deny that - but not of Anonymous. I am terrified that I might do something that would send all those ponies who look up to me into even deeper cruelty."
  1911. > "Like the ponies downstairs?"
  1912. "Exactly like them. They look up to me, call me Princess. But-"
  1913. > You lift a hoof of your own to your throat, feeling the collar there.
  1914. > Even though Anonymous had removed the when the meeting began, you can still feel its phantom weight bearing on your neck.
  1915. "-I am not. Not really. I do what I can for everypony I can, because this slavery is an abomination which must end. But I fear I must also become a collaborator to do this, and every second I fear-"
  1916. > You pause, choking on your words - emotions you had only just managed to barely keep down rising up again.
  1917. "I fear I am not doing well enough. That I will fail. Something like... downstairs will happen and something will come that makes it all fall apart anyhow. And then we truly never will have freedom again."
  1918. > "May I speak honestly to you, Cadance?"
  1919. "Do you have to ask permission?"
  1920. > A touch of a smile flitters around Scriptorial's lips.
  1921. > "I didn't challenge you because I thought you weren't afraid. I knew you were afraid. I wanted to know why."
  1922. > You let your head fall a touch, unsure of how else to respond.
  1923. > Fortunately, Scriptorial is perfectly happy to keep going:
  1924. > "I'm not sure we need Princesses anymore. I always did think that even if one of you showed up it just - wouldn't be the same. Your crown, your titles - they're all for a nation we won't ever have back. You lost the right to them when we were taken away."
  1925. > The indictment pierces straight to your heart, but she is not done yet:
  1926. > "But... you aren't claiming titles or authority. You're working for it. You're fighting. You're doing more than I ever could, jumping at the little scraps of 'rewards' Stedler throws in my direction. And maybe..."
  1927. > Now it is her turn to be the one looking down at her hooves.
  1928. > "...maybe you've earned the right to be a leader."
  1929. > Rising, you reach out with a hoof to brush Scriptorial's cheek, then lift her head to face you.
  1930. "I cannot demand respect. Not because I am a slave, but because I don't think I deserve it with all I've had to do. But... thank you, Scriptorial. Your words are welcome."
  1931. > "They're the truth. I can't stop Stedler from buying and selling us. He listens to me, but I can barely even keep him from treating us like dirt. I'm just keeping myself safe. But you… you have a cause."
  1932. "Every bit helps, though. And there are two things you can do for me and everypony who needs it?"
  1933. > "What? What can I do?"
  1934. > There's a fresh edge in her voice, a kind of enthusiasm that belies her age.
  1935. "First: If there are a few ponies who are languishing here for too long, see if you can ensure they are being sent to us. We will look after them - nopony deserves to live like what I saw down there."
  1936. > "I... yes. I can do that."
  1937. "Second, a favor for myself - if you would."
  1938. > "If I can."
  1939. "Twilight Sparkle. I want to know what's become of her and Anonymous does not offer me the chance. Do you know anything...?"
  1940. > "Yes. You really are cut off with him, aren't you?"
  1941. > You nod in acknowledgement.
  1942. "Convincing Anonymous to give us a connection to the outside world is something I hope to work on soon."
  1943. > "Twilight Sparkle... no one could convince her to obey. Not for a second. Fought any chance she could, nearly escaped three times. Did escape once, and got caught. Or, that's what the rumors were anyhow. She's not been sold to anyone for a long time, but there might have been private trades."
  1944. > Scriptorial ponders for a few moments.
  1945. > "I may have to make some... inquiries in Stedler's name. She won't be findable just with a simple search."
  1946. "Is it really that risky?"
  1947. > "He probably won't ever find out. Even if he does... I don't think he'll care that much, as long as I work."
  1948. "Do not endanger yourself for my sake."
  1949. > She shakes her head, seeming read to object - then changes her mind, and instead motions to somewhere behind you.
  1950. > "We should be getting back. And you might want to re-make some coffee; that'll have already cooled a bit much."
  1951. "I... yes. Thank you."
  1952. > Trotting back into the conference room, you're barely able to catch the tail-end of the discussion underway:
  1953. > ...wraps up the deliver plans; I agree, bringing them in all at once would be catastrophic. Better to split it up between a few different groups. Ah, thank you Cadance."
  1954. > Anonymous takes the mug in hand, offering you a nod in return.
  1955. > "Before we go on, one brief detour of a question: I don't suppose anyone here has experience with handling griffons, do they?"
  1956. > Stedler rubs his mustache, and of course is the first to respond:
  1957. > "There've been a decent number that passed through my business at some point or another, but not really enough to draw conclusions. They sell like anything else."
  1958. > Randall shakes his head:
  1959. > "I'm afraid I've never dealt with one."
  1960. > "Well, in my case actually..."
  1961. > All eyes turn to Gregory Barker, who is stroking his beard thoughtfully.
  1962. > "I've had a few pass through. They're... different. How do I explain it..."
  1963. > A tap on his chin as he pauses, and then:
  1964. > "They are... different from ponies, very different. There's no one talent you can direct them at, but their minds are - inquiring. So very inquiring - you can re-train them to do quite a bit. And they'll become very skilled, if you put the time and patience in to training them. Since they don't have the, ah, cutie mark talents a pony would. I consider them a long-term investment."
  1965. > "I see. And they're accepting of training? No behavioral problems?"
  1966. > You hesitate, mouth half-open.
  1967. > Griffons had been something you had - out of necessity - encountered as a princess.
  1968. > But you hadn't been called on.
  1969. > "They require some - focusing to begin with. Griffons will attempt to challenge everyone to determine exactly where they stand. Once you have dealt with that, though - few problems, for the rest of the time."
  1970. > ...but it seemed Gregory had summed up what you were going to say anyhow.
  1971. > Closing your mouth, you settle back in at Anonymous' side.
  1972. > You could tell him later; right now, you were nothing more than an actor playing a role.
  1973. > ...
  1974. > The sun was already low in the sky by the time you walked out the front doors again.
  1975. > Anonymous paused to re-clip the lead to your throat, while you pull the shawl back down over your barrel.
  1976. > Glancing back, you lock eyes with Scriptorial for a just a moment.
  1977. > She nods, and so do you.
  1978. > Then you are back out on the street.
  1979. > Anonymous' car had been driven around to the front, so it is only a quick trip before you can leap into the passenger's seat and quickly shut the door behind you.
  1980. > The world goes quiet, once again sealed in by glass and metal.
  1981. > As he pulls away you return to staring out the window as you had on the trip in.
  1982. > This time, however, you see nothing of the city, people, or even ponies passing by.
  1983. > Your mind is far, far away.
  1984. > Back in the basement beneath that building.
  1985. > Back with your name being called over and over again.
  1986. > No, not even name.
  1987. > Your title.
  1988. > A title half of you still didn't even think you deserved.
  1989. > Eyes squeeze shut as the clamor fills your ears and emotions you'd somehow managed to keep a tight lid on throughout the day boil over at last.
  1990. > So many faces - longing, hoping, even needing a speck of hope - peering up from row after row of the pens.
  1991. > Begging for you to be there for them.
  1992. > Scriptorial had accepted your answer - that to greet them would have given false hope.
  1993. > Would have only made the situation worse.
  1994. > Perhaps turned a near-riot into a real one, and ended with more than pepper-sprays and clubs.
  1995. > But still, you wonder, what kind of princess, what kind of pony, turns away from calls like that?
  1996. > How hard had your heart become that you could do that?
  1997. > So long in the camp had dulled your memories of how callously uncaring this world could be outside, but also you'd forgotten what it felt like to be - recognized.
  1998. > And what scares you the most is the knowledge that all too soon so many more ponies just like that would be showing up at the camp and-
  1999. > "Cadance? Cadance!"
  2000. "Wha-?"
  2001. > Eyes snap open, the city coming back into view.
  2002. > The car was pulled over on the side of the road, blinkers on.
  2003. > Anonymous had a hand on your shoulder, his face worried.
  2004. > "Are you okay? You were freaking out a bit there; what's going on, Cadance?"
  2005. [Choice]
  2006. "Am I okay?"
  2007. > The question is hissed between your teeth as your turn to glare at him with narrowed eyes.
  2008. > That he is slightly blurry in your vision has nothing to with anything but that.
  2009. > At all.
  2010. > Honestly.
  2011. > ...you're very bad at lying to yourself.
  2012. > Though your tail is trapped beneath your haunches, you can feel it trying to flick angrily.
  2013. "No, I am not 'okay'! Not okay at all!"
  2014. > You draw another shuddering breath, keeping control of the torrent of helplessness - and anger now - boiling up from within.
  2015. "What is wrong?! What in Tartarus' wretched halls do you think is going on, 'Master'?"
  2016. > He holds your gaze, though - refusing to flinch or look away.
  2017. > You are the first to break it, turning away with a disgusted scoff.
  2018. > Of course he was completely oblivious to-
  2019. > "I thought you were holding up better. That... was my mistake."
  2020. "Holding up?! Better?!"
  2021. > "Yes."
  2022. > Looking back, you find him still looking at you.
  2023. > One hand reaches out to settle on your withers, but you shove it off with a quick movement of your wing - and just as quickly replace the shawl before anyone can see.
  2024. > You don't particularly feel like letting him touch you right now.
  2025. > Anonymous stares at his hand a moment, then lets it fall with a sigh.
  2026. > "Yes, you did fool me. You managed to get through the last meeting despite being made to dress up for it, and I stayed calm through this one. I guess - I thought you had come to terms with it."
  2027. > It.
  2028. > That's all he calls what is happening to ponies.
  2029. > What happened to you.
  2030. "Oh, so the entire thing - the entire day - you don't see at all what was different? What little, teensy tiny thing might be slightly changed from the last time-"
  2031. > "Yes! Yes, I do!"
  2032. > Before you can go on his hand snaps up, a finger raised to silence you.
  2033. > "And yes. I know you can't help but feel responsible for them, even though it's completely irrational. I-"
  2034. > A groan, and the raised hand turns to slap his face and be dragged down to his chin.
  2035. > "That... was a stupid way to say it."
  2036. "Then be smarter."
  2037. > "Okay."
  2038. > A deep breath, and he begins again:
  2039. > "I know you view them as your charges. You'd been doing so well back home that when you waved off my warning and went in with me, then walked out without breaking down... I dunno. I guess I figured you'd be shaken, but not like that."
  2040. > As he talks, your own anger begins to bleed off - or perhaps more accurately, find its way to another target.
  2041. > He hadn't been oblivious to what had happened after all.
  2042. > Just caught off-guard by your sudden breakdown.
  2043. > "So... yeah. You get in the car just fine and I start driving, and all of a sudden you're freaking out... must've seemed like I was kind of cold about it. Yeah; that was my mistake."
  2044. "Yes. It was."
  2045. > You're still in no mood to hold back - not after seeing that.
  2046. "And you! You did not help in there either. 'They look well-kept' - my rutting flank they're well-kept! Put up on display like that, no one caring one bit about them beyond if they can be sold for profit, a single dash of hope enough to nearly make them riot-"
  2047. > As you recite down the litany of crimes you feel yourself growing more and more agitated, wings shuffling and nostrils flared in fury.
  2048. "-and not only can't I do anything, all you do is push me down further in front of that monster of a man while I am already crushing every cell in my brain that is telling me to save them!"
  2049. > Breathing hard, you finally come to a halt - eyes squeezing shut as they begin to water.
  2050. > "It's been a long time since you've seen a pony market, hasn't it?"
  2051. "Oh, yes it has! You've forgotten, I'm too important to be sold like that! Oh, nothing but private trade deals and special shipments for me. Harmony forbid I be aware of how ponies are suffering."
  2052. > Your legs have begun to tremble, shaking against the effort of holding you upright when half of you wants to leap through the car's window and half collapse into a ball on the seat.
  2053. "So many, Anonymous! So many, with no hope! Just the sight of me - even walking on a leash like a good little pony - is enough to make them risk everything! Because they 'knew' I was there to take them home. They 'knew' I was a princess, and that's what princesses do."
  2054. > Anonymous starts to say something, but you're still going:
  2055. "Even when the last lot of ponies came to the camp, it wasn't like this. But now? Now, I..."
  2056. > The words won't come.
  2057. > Even after that outpouring, you can't bring yourself to admit how shaken you were.
  2058. > "This is..."
  2059. > Hesitating, Anonymous shakes his head.
  2060. > "...nevermind."
  2061. "No, go ahead. Please, I want to hear this."
  2062. > You can't help but have your voice filled with bitterness.
  2063. > It takes him a moment, but eventually he relents:
  2064. > "This is... when the last lot of ponies were brought in, this is why I marched you out at my heels. Because I was afraid they would expect too much, and end up hurting both of us."
  2065. "So you decided to have me trot at your heels like a good little obedient pony?!"
  2066. > "Yes. There wouldn't be any illusions as to what you could do, but then you could show them the gifts I give slowly, over time, and bring them back up!"
  2067. > Finally you open your eyes, turning to skewer him with another acidic glare.
  2068. "Then you still don't get it. I don't want to show them 'the gifts you give'. I want to make them free. Each and every one of them. Marching me out to crush their hopes so I can show them all how 'benevolent' you are isn't any better, and-"
  2069. > The whoop of a siren makes you both jump.
  2070. > In the lane to the left a police officer leans out of his car with a questioning look.
  2071. > Anonymous looks to him and then to the fire hydrant on the curb where he'd pulled over.
  2072. > Right, he had stopped rather suddenly.
  2073. > Fortunately the officer is content to simply let you drive away, but the interruption is already complete.
  2074. > No words are spoken for many long minutes, not until you're well out of the city and back on the highway.
  2075. "...was I really that out of control? When you pulled over?"
  2076. > "Yeah. Eyes wide, breathing heavily, hunched over on the door - I thought you were either about snap and jump out, vomit, or both."
  2077. > No wonder he had been surprised.
  2078. > "I know it isn't what you want, and I won't force you to come out at my heels like that again. Maybe instead - walking out together. As partners."
  2079. "Thank you..."
  2080. > The words are murmured softly, almost whispered.
  2081. "It wasn't right to say you did nothing. You did try to keep me from seeing that; I shouldn't blame you for what happened."
  2082. > A pause, and Anonymous drops a hand from the steering wheel to again rest it on your withers.
  2083. > This time, you let him.
  2084.  
  2085. > Cadance had advised you to do something about Mocha Cream easily a week before the trip into the city, and now several more days had passed since then.
  2086. > At first you'd sworn to yourself that it was simply because things were too busy.
  2087. > Too many meetings, too many phone calls.
  2088. > But eventually you simply had to face up to the honest truth:
  2089. > You were procrastinating.
  2090. > Delaying.
  2091. > Stalling.
  2092. > And Cadance had been right; the poor filly wasn't going to be getting any less fixated the longer you left her be.
  2093. > So you forced yourself to set aside work for a time, and go downstairs.
  2094. > The house-slaves' quarters were in the basement, but Mocha Cream was not there.
  2095. > Instead you found her in the laundry, tongue stuck from the side of her mouth as she carefully pinned sheets between her hooves and folded them over.
  2096. > The room - otherwise a spartan space of boxy machines and cabinets, plastic-tiled floor, and basic fluorescent lighting - was noticeably livened by her presence.
  2097. > She even hummed softly as she worked, a simple tune set to the motions of her actions.
  2098. > But for you that she is not using her horn is already a note of concern; how often she loses her grip on the fabric and is forced to start over anyhow is an even greater one.
  2099. "Hello, Mocha."
  2100. > "Eee!"
  2101. > Jumping in surprise - she'd clearly been far too focused to notice you - the little unicorn spins in place and drops into a bow.
  2102. > "M-Master! I'm sorry, I didn't know-."
  2103. "Shh. It's okay."
  2104. > Taking the last few steps over you reach down to brush back a few curls of mane that had slipped from beneath her headdress.
  2105. > How long, you wondered, did it take her to get that on every morning?
  2106. "Are you doing okay, Mocha?"
  2107. > "Uh-huh. I'm just trying to practice using my hooves a bit more. So I can be better with them, for, um, w-when I..."
  2108. > She trails off, but quickly turns back to her work.
  2109. > "But my magic is getting better too! Look!"
  2110. > Fixing her face in an expression of pure concentration, Mocha Cream lights her horn and - very carefully - pulls the sheet over to fold it correctly.
  2111. > More than once the flickering light of her magic goes out entirely, but she quickly re-ignites it and carries on.
  2112. > "See! I'm much better now!"
  2113. > Truth be told, you aren't sure she is.
  2114. > More focused, yes, but her magic still doesn't seem that much more stable - if at all.
  2115. > Not that you could bear to break her little heart by telling her that.
  2116. "Good job, Mocha."
  2117. > "T-Thank you, Master!"
  2118. > Turning, she leaps from the seat and scurries to your side with a strange limping gait brought on by her two still-stiff legs.
  2119. > Still Mocha manages to make it and rear up to throw her forelegs around you - almost.
  2120. > At the last second, one of her bad legs gives out and the little unicorn almost topples.
  2121. > Catching her, you quickly kneel to give her a better chance.
  2122. > "I-I'm sorry, Master. I d-didn't mean to-"
  2123. "Shush, you silly girl."
  2124. > Looking down into her eyes, you can only see hope, perhaps even devotion peering back up.
  2125. > Rubbing her cheek draws a little coo from the mare.
  2126. > Cadance was right.
  2127. > She was fixated on you.
  2128. "C'mon, Mocha. I'd like to talk for a bit; will anyone else be in your room?"
  2129. > "No, Master. Not right now."
  2130. > The room was shared with two other ponies, but true to her word neither were present right now.
  2131. > It was not exactly bare - you had afforded them basic carpeting, light fixtures while not exactly fancy suffused the room with a warm glow, and the beds were comfortable enough.
  2132. > A few carefully-kept possessions rested on the bedside tables:
  2133. > Little mementos of life.
  2134. > "Th-This bed is mine."
  2135. > Mocha Cream steadies herself and climbs with some difficulty up onto the mattress.
  2136. > A simple step formed of a few pieces of lumber had been placed beside the bed, but she pointedly does not make use of it.
  2137. > You decide to join her, seating yourself on the bed as well.
  2138. "Well. You said you're getting better? At working with your hooves and your magic?"
  2139. > "Uh-huh! I can focus a lot more now, and it doesn't take me as long as it used to. I can, um, get up the stairs without help now."
  2140. > She certainly was trying.
  2141. > And there's no doubt she was simply getting stronger and better at focusing.
  2142. > Her actual coordination, though...
  2143. "Are you still having trouble with some things?"
  2144. > "W-Well, um, sometimes I d-do still slip. If I'm not focused enough. And when I work for a long time my head can start hurting..."
  2145. "Is it hurting right now, Mocha?"
  2146. > "No, Master. I haven't been working for long enough yet."
  2147. > You could believe that; she was terrible at lying to you.
  2148. > But she still seemed to be blaming herself - 'if I wasn't focused enough', as if it were her fault the damage had been done.
  2149. "I'm sure you've been practicing plenty. There's no need to rush."
  2150. > "Yes! The, um, videos you have me learn from are actually really good for practicing. You know, the ones for w-when I'm supposed t-to g-give you a m-massage-"
  2151. "I know, Mocha Cream."
  2152. > Time to pull the discussion away from that.
  2153. > Perhaps a more personal angle would help.
  2154. > After all, your entire business was founded on the basis of playing to ponies' talents.
  2155. "Tell me, Mocha - what actually is your talent? I don't think you've ever talked about it."
  2156. > "O-Oh. Um."
  2157. > She looks back at her mark.
  2158. > Rather than the mug of some drink one might have expected with a name like hers, it was a swirl of cream that almost seemed fit to stand atop a steaming beverage:
  2159. > Shot through with the rich brown of chocolate and white of cream, the same as her mane.
  2160. > "W-Well, I got it when I was making a d-drink of mine for a pony who really needed it and I'm good with all kinds of chocolates, not just drinks. Though, um, there wasn't much time for me to learn before, um..."
  2161. > Before slavery had taken her.
  2162. > "B-But the way I'm good at it is, um, picking up ponies' - and people's - feelings, like having a good chocolate or cream can. My Mom always said that was really my talent, not just things that tasted good."
  2163. > And so she had been in a way.
  2164. > Mocha Cream had been there for you at your lowest moment and stuck through all the way back up.
  2165. > So had she also been there for the camp ponies, really.
  2166. > Perhaps seeing your hesitation, she adds on despite her cheeks flushing crimson as she proceeds:
  2167. > "Um. Master. If I c-can say... I, um, I think I'm r-ready now. T-To give you a m-massage, if you wanted it. I know you have been working hard, and I haven't been doing as much as I used to. If I could h-help pick you up..."
  2168. "About that, Mocha..."
  2169. "Alright, Mocha. We can do this, if you think you're ready."
  2170. > Her face lights up in an instantaneous rush of joy.
  2171. > Perhaps not the most advisable course of action for her eventually, but right now you couldn't just cut her off.
  2172. > It would crush her to feel she wasn't wanted.
  2173. > If she was... unprofessional about the massage, you would stop it then.
  2174. > "W-Where, Master?"
  2175. "Not here; somepony else might want to use this room."
  2176. > Plus, you weren't quite sure how they would react if they came in and saw Mocha Cream working on you.
  2177. "Not my bedroom-"
  2178. > Also might give her the wrong impression.
  2179. "-but actually, how about my study? I'll bring your table upstairs, just come up when you are ready."
  2180. > "Thank you, Master!"
  2181. > The table is not the heaviest thing in the world, but then you had not aimed for the highest-possible quality for this.
  2182. > After all, you hadn't known at the time if Mocha would be able to come through with this.
  2183. > But it was good enough, and easy to lug up two flights of stairs from the basement to your room.
  2184. > Unfolding it also proved easy enough; in addition to the table itself, there was also a smaller platform for her to stand on.
  2185. > But what to do about yourself?
  2186. > You'd been for a professional massage before, but presenting yourself to Mocha Cream in your underwear would definitely send the wrong message.
  2187. > Not even Cadance had seen you like that.
  2188. > But just showing up fully clothed would be sending the message that you did not trust her, which ran contrary to the point of this.
  2189. > In the end, you decide to take off your shirt and leave it at that; pants could stay on.
  2190. > Literally and metaphorically.
  2191. > Climbing up onto the table, you lay face-down - arms at your side and head in the cushioned loop - and wait.
  2192. > Mocha Cream is heard long before you see her:
  2193. > A product of the irregular beat of limping gait.
  2194. > But she still manages, carefully shutting the door behind her and climbing up onto the lowered platform to reach the massage table's side.
  2195. > As she crosses the room you can see that she is still flushing deeply and fiercely crimson.
  2196. > Once she passes out of view to the bed's side, it is instead her breath - coming shakily and nervously - that tips you off.
  2197. "Mocha? Are you sure you're ready for this?"
  2198. > "Yes, Master. I-I'm just... I can't - can't quite believe y-you're letting me do this, and-"
  2199. > A sharp intake of breath held to the count of four, and she blows it out.
  2200. > When Mocha Cream speaks again she is far more calm.
  2201. > "I'm so happy to be able to do this for you."
  2202. "Who taught you to calm yourself like that, Mocha?"
  2203. > "S-Sunburst, Master. When he was helping me with my magic. It helps me focus."
  2204. "Well if you're ready, why don't you begin."
  2205. > Begin she does.
  2206. > It's soft at first.
  2207. > Just her hooves tracing over your back.
  2208. > Feeling the rises and dips of muscle and bone the same way you had done so very often when stroking one of your ponies.
  2209. > Matching them to what she had learned from the videos.
  2210. > Eventually Mocha Cream feels comfortable enough to start pressing in - tracing the lines of stress.
  2211. > Her hooves are surprisingly soft; some of it you were certain resulted from working in the house rather than out in a field or workshop, but it can't all be attributed to that.
  2212. > Just another magical thing about these ponies.
  2213. > They were warm as well, and with some distinction you can even feel the difference between the outer wall and inner frog.
  2214. > "I-Is this okay, Master?"
  2215. "Yes, this is good."
  2216. > There's no lie in your words.
  2217. > Her lingering stiffness and injures do not seem to be inhibiting her that greatly; occasionally you could feel a little tremble or stiffness where a hoof would drag, but never too much.
  2218. > As she worked her motions were becoming more confident, less testing.
  2219. > "I-If it's not improper for me to say, Master - I know this is my first real time, but I think you seem very stiff and tense."
  2220. "I don't doubt it. Things have been very busy."
  2221. > "Then just relax. Please, Master. I want to do this right for you."
  2222. > She's right.
  2223. > You shouldn't be analyzing her performance.
  2224. > With a long and heavy sigh you stretch out on the table and let yourself relax.
  2225. > A few minutes later, you can conclude that this absolutely was the right decision.
  2226. > Mocha Cream may not be an expert, but she had studied well.
  2227. > Sometimes she uses the stiff edge of her hoof, to push or roll stress out of your muscles.
  2228. > Others, tilting her leg to give a gentler impression with the softer frog.
  2229. > Despite having to balance on her hind legs, the little mare was quite adept at using the right amount of pressure.
  2230. > Whenever you give a happy groan or sigh at a particularly pleasurable spot, Mocha echoes it with a soft nicker of her own.
  2231. > You are... profoundly lucky to have found this pony.
  2232. > How had you ignored her for so long?
  2233. > Shifting your breathing to a deeper, slower pace you allow yourself to sink into a sort of hazy fog of enjoyment.
  2234. > Up and down she works, loosening out muscles at the small of your back, digging her hooves in to work around your shoulderblades, and squeezing up and down your neck.
  2235. > So far into the trace-like state you fall that you almost miss Mocha Cream speaking to you:
  2236. > "...ything wrong, Master?"
  2237. "Huh? Wa'izzit?"
  2238. > "I just wanted to know if I'm doing anything wrong? You, um, haven't said anything yet..."
  2239. > Propping yourself up on one elbow, you turn and find Mocha looking at you with concerned eyes and fidgeting hooves.
  2240. "No, no. You're doing great. I'm getting so relaxed, that's why I haven't said anything."
  2241. > "Oh! Um."
  2242. > Mocha flushes hard - whether at your praise or the fact that she is seeing you shirtless you aren't sure.
  2243. > Laying back down you let her resume her work.
  2244. > Now, however, your mind is wandering again.
  2245. > What could you do for her?
  2246. > She needed more friends than you, that much was obvious.
  2247. > Rumble visited her as much as you would allow (and he could stand being in the house), but he was only one pony.
  2248. > Setting her up to work as a chocolatier was obvious, and you wouldn't mind the odd confection either.
  2249. > And Canele - your senior chef - wouldn't mind.
  2250. > Though God forbid your daughter finds out there was a ready source of sugar in the house.
  2251. > But what Mocha Cream had told you was still circulating in your head:
  2252. > A talent of not just sugar or coffee but whatever someone needed for a perk-up.
  2253. > What if...
  2254. "Mocha?"
  2255. > Your voice is a bit muffled coming around the head-rest, but her hearing makes up for it.
  2256. > "Yes, Master?"
  2257. "I've been thinking about other jobs that you could do... especially with your talent. Things to help other ponies too. And I've been thinking... you know how you were taking messages back up to the camp? Maybe you would like to do that... directly. Listen to ponies' issues. Try to help them."
  2258. > Given the way her hooves are pressed into you, it's easy to feel how they stop as she stiffens sharply at the thought of that.
  2259. > "M-Master..."
  2260. > That is... not a good shake in her voice.
  2261. > "Master, please, don't send me out there again."
  2262. "Mocha..."
  2263. > "I... I don't want t-to go, Master. P-Please don't order me; I want stay here with you."
  2264. > Fear.
  2265. > Sheer terror in her voice at the thought of being out among the camp ponies again.
  2266. > Not that you can blame her, but staying cooped up in here forever.
  2267. > Seeming to take your lack of an answer as a denial of her plea, Mocha whimpers.
  2268. > "You're good to me, M-Master. With y-you I feel... I'm safe. C-Cared for. You're fair to me."
  2269. "Yes, but you can't stay cooped up in here. I can provide guards, if that's what you want. But you need friends, like Rumble. Maybe you'll even find-"
  2270. > What was the term they used?
  2271. "-a special somepony. You'll never know if you just stay hiding away."
  2272. > "I want... Master, I know we're n-not the same. I know I'm y-your s-s-slave, and you're not m-my special s-somepony. But Master..."
  2273. > The table creaks and something warm, soft, and heavy settles across your back.
  2274. > She must have spread herself across your back.
  2275. > "...I want to be yours. Y-Your little pony. Entirely. In every way."
  2276. > With a hefty sigh you start to roll over onto the bed; Mocha squeaks and raises herself off you only to give another even more embarrassed squeak as you slip your arms back around her.
  2277. > Her coat is plush and velveteen, her body warm to your touch.
  2278. "Oh, Mocha Cream... you're doing plenty for me, can't you see that?"
  2279. > Instead of answering, she buries her face against your chest and nickers happily, leaving you to stroke her back as she lays sprawled across your midsection.
  2280.  
  2281. > By now you don't even have to go to the mansion to collect your daughter.
  2282. > When it is time for her flying lessons, Anonymous is always already there to drive her out into a nearby field for you to meet.
  2283. > And on Sundays - as today - Megan as well.
  2284. > She always came to watch Flurry Heart try to fly, and despite your daughter's continued firm refusal to do more than glide on frozen wings you were glad.
  2285. > To avoid coming would be admitting failure.
  2286. > You weren't ready to admit failure.
  2287. > The little car pulls up beside you and Megan hops out excitedly.
  2288. > "C'mon, Flurry! Your mom's here already!"
  2289. > After her comes a rather more dejected looking Flurry Heart.
  2290. > She looks briefly up at you, flutters her oversized wings a little bit, and sighs:
  2291. > "Do I have to?"
  2292. "Yes, sweetheart. I want to keep practicing with you."
  2293. > Now that you were seeing each other more often, the enthusiasm she'd previously held at simply being with you was no longer there.
  2294. > Neither was there any bitterness at this.
  2295. > Glancing up, you catch Anonymous' eyes as he steps from the car.
  2296. > He, on the other hand, you had... mildly avoided since coming back from the trip.
  2297. > Despite his attempt to explain himself, you couldn't help but feel a touch of tension had been re-awoken.
  2298. > The idea that you could 'come to terms' with slavery - absurd!
  2299. > Shaking your mind free of those thoughts, you refocus on the matters at hand.
  2300. > Tension or not Anonymous wanted Flurry Heart to fly as well.
  2301. > He would remember what you'd talked about, wouldn't he?
  2302. > Sure enough, Anonymous drops to one knee beside her and place a hand on her withers:
  2303. > "Now Flurry, I just want you to remember: I know this is scary, but I want you to try your absolute hardest to fly on your own. Okay?"
  2304. > "Uh-huh."
  2305. > "And I'm sure Megan wants you to try just as badly too."
  2306. > "I do!"
  2307. > "I'll try, Master. But when I'm up there I-"
  2308. > Hearing the uncertain waver in Flurry Heart's voice, you can't help but step over to nuzzle her.
  2309. > "Shh. Just try your hardest, okay?"
  2310. > "I will."
  2311. "Alright, Little Gem. Now, come right between my forelegs just like we did before..."
  2312. > Taking off with Flurry Heart tucked beneath your belly was by now something you were well familiar with.
  2313. > That alone would not be enough; you had to find some way to motivate her to want to fly.
  2314. > Hopefully Anonymous' and Megan's support would be that trick.
  2315. > But as you climb higher into the sky, you can also feel her once again locking up:
  2316. > Wings held out with a fierce rigidity that actually interferes with your own efforts to carry her into the air.
  2317. > Not enough to actually be a danger, but you certainly can feel it.
  2318. > And despite how many times you circle around with Flurry, whispering soft reassurances into her ear - the reason you'd carried her beneath you, rather than on your back - nothing seems to help.
  2319. > Terror has a complete and total hold on her.
  2320. > You'd be lying if you said you weren't a touch frustrated - not with your daughter of course.
  2321. > Not directly, anyhow.
  2322. > As you touch down - releasing Flurry to glide the last few feet, something she does with equal rigidity - you shoot a glance to Anonymous and subtly shake your head.
  2323. > He, too, seems to sink a bit.
  2324. > At least this you could still find common ground with him over.
  2325. > "...well, it was worth a try. We'll keep trying, Cadance. There's got to be something - Hmm?"
  2326. > Megan has snuck up just behind Anonymous, locking her arms around one leg.
  2327. > "Daaad, can I pleeease have a pony ride?"
  2328. > Despite your feelings a smile touches your face.
  2329. > Every time she'd come out, Megan had begged to be allowed to ride you.
  2330. > And every time-
  2331. > "No, sweetheart. It's not right, and I might not be safe either."
  2332. > "Daddy, pleeeease?"
  2333. > But this time...
  2334. > This time you need something to pick up yourself up as well.
  2335. "Master? I don't mind, really, and I believe it would be safe enough. Look-"
  2336. > Lighting your horn you lift Megan in a field of magic (earning a surprised squeak from her.
  2337. "-even if she slips off of me, I can catch her. And I think it would be a very nice thing for her."
  2338. > "Picking her, over me? It's treason, then."
  2339. > Looking between yourself and his floating daughter - who is giving him the biggest-possible 'foal eyes' she can - he sighs heavily.
  2340. > "...alright, you got me. Just... be careful, Cadance. Please."
  2341. > "YES! Yesyesyesyes! Yes!"
  2342. > Megan is already at your side even as you drop to your belly to let her climb on, dancing from foot to foot with a delighted expression on her face in a way that makes her golden curls of hair bounce wildly.
  2343. "Now, Megan - let me get my wings out, and now you can climb on. Scoot back just a little bit? Yes, just there - that's good."
  2344. > Her shifting weight was now perched in a more favorable place:
  2345. > Behind your wings, but still close enough that she could lean forward to wrap her arms around your neck.
  2346. "Ready, dear?"
  2347. > "Uh-huh. You are okay with this, right?"
  2348. > A touch of warmth blooms in your heart; how nice it was to be asked that!
  2349. "Yes, I am. You asked, and I offered. You aren't forcing me to do this, so it's okay."
  2350. > Again your horn ignites, pinning her to your back.
  2351. > You can feel her little legs tighten against your ribs and hands circle your neck.
  2352. > Not hard enough to choke, thankfully.
  2353. "Now just tell me if you want me to stop."
  2354. > With a single beat of you break free of the ground.
  2355. > Another, and you're climbing.
  2356. > Megan is a touch heavier than Flurry is, but you have an alicorn's strength and the weight is barely an imposition on you.
  2357. > At first she had clung fiercely to your neck with a shriek of surprise, but only for a moment.
  2358. > Fear vanishes from her voice in favor of joyous excitement.
  2359. > "Woohoooooooooo!"
  2360. > Rolling into a shallow turn you can spot several ponies watching you with various expressions of excitement.
  2361. > Despite that you feel a smile coming on.
  2362. > So what?
  2363. > This was good.
  2364. > Megan was not a cruel taskmaster, seeing you only as a beast of burden.
  2365. > She cared.
  2366. > "C'mon, Cadance! Faster!"
  2367. > ...and her enthusiasm is mildly infectious.
  2368. > Her challenge is taken; you tighten your magical grip and throw yourself into a more aggressive series of maneuvers.
  2369. > Though you cannot see, it is easy to imagine her golden curls whipping in the wind.
  2370. > Partway through, in a sharp turn, you spot Anonymous holding Flurry Heart in his arms, both of them staring up as well.
  2371. > A quick tuck of your wings lets you dive hard.
  2372. > Twenty feet above the ground they pop back out, the sudden stop sending a sharp jolt through your body.
  2373. > But hurtling over their heads with all the gained speed and Megan whooping happily in your ear is well-worth it.
  2374. > Beating your wings you climb back up again - and so are facing backwards when Anonymous lets out a sudden shout of surprise.
  2375. > Your first thought is that Megan had begun to slip free, but you can still feel her weight resting on the rise of your hindquarters and in your magic's grip.
  2376. > Turning back, you're just in time to see Flurry Heart finish climbing free of his arms, spread her broad wings, and shakily - but fiercely - start to climb into the air.
  2377. > For a moment you can't even believe it.
  2378. > What your eyes see cannot be denied, though, and a moment later Megan joins in with an equally happy yell:
  2379. > "Flurry! Flurry, you're flying!"
  2380. > Yes, she was.
  2381. > Eyes wide with fear and every beat almost seeming to send her into an uncontrollable spin.
  2382. > But flying.
  2383. > Pulling level to her, you rear back your head to nuzzle her cheek.
  2384. > "M-Mistress Megan! Momma! I'm doing it, I did it! I did it!"
  2385. "Yes, you did."
  2386. > For once, the tears on your cheeks are not of pain or grief or fury but elation, joy, and relief.
  2387. > Flurry Heart was flying again.
  2388. > Even Megan joins in, pulling a hand from your neck to reach out and wrap an arm around her leg.
  2389. > ...
  2390. > To fly does not mean for long, and soon you touch down again beside Anonymous.
  2391. > He looks furious at first, but as you touch down that mask of anger melts away to be replaced by one of happiness as well.
  2392. > "Cadance, I... I don't know. She jumped out of my arms before I even knew what was happening."
  2393. "I saw."
  2394. > Looking back at your weary but smiling daughter - now wrapped in a fresh hug by Megan - you sigh.
  2395. "I hadn't expected it. I don't even know why. This is good, though."
  2396. > Pulling her head free of the hug, Flurry Heart looks between the two of you:
  2397. > "I... don't know. I just - I saw Mistress Megan was happy. Flying. And I wanted - I wanted to be up there with her. Wasn't afraid of her going away, because she was already there."
  2398. > You know what?
  2399. > You can't be bothered to care about the reason.
  2400. > With fresh tears still spilling from your eyes you spread your wings to wrap both filly and girl in the tightest, warmest, hug you can.
  2401. > It doesn't matter why.
  2402. > What mattered was that your daughter was healing.
  2403.  
  2404. > Weeks pass.
  2405. > More and more often Flurry Heart accompanies you outside.
  2406. > Her fear now broken and left behind, she is only limited by the weakness of her wing muscles - atrophied from so long barely in use.
  2407. > With each day of exercise they grow stronger.
  2408. > Work... goes on.
  2409. > Spring turns to Summer, the long and hot days creeping up on you in a way that you could never quite get used to.
  2410. > Unscheduled labor
  2411. > New buildings rise, fresh roads are laid.
  2412. > Supplies are stockpiled.
  2413. > The morning of the ‘delivery’ finds you in your office; you cannot deny your nervousness, and maybe even a bit of procrastination.
  2414. > But the arrivals would wait for no pony.
  2415. > Hiding away would not make it any easier.
  2416. > Besides, you'd wanted to be a proper leader and fleeing like a terrified filly now would do no good.
  2417. > And so you force yourself to your hooves and out the door.
  2418. > Mayor Mare gives you a subtle nod from her desk as you pass it.
  2419. > "I'll be joining you in a moment, Your Highness. As soon as you bring them in to get them settled."
  2420. "Thank you, Mayor."
  2421. > Bowing your head in acknowledgement of her support, you again remind yourself how lucky you are to have her to support you.
  2422. > By the time you arrive at the front gate trucks have already arrived and are starting to be offloaded.
  2423. > Not too many, and you make it into the manor before any can spot you.
  2424. > Anonymous is just coming down the stairs when you arrive:
  2425. > "Ready, Cadance?"
  2426. "More than. Let's welcome them."
  2427. > At least he remembered his promise:
  2428. > There would be not tagging obediently at his heels this time.
  2429. > You walk at his side, head upright and a fearless expression on your face.
  2430. > Look proud, you remind yourself.
  2431. > Even if you are only welcoming ponies from one captivity into another.
  2432. > Put on a strong face and make them think that this is a better place.
  2433. > For many it might very well be.
  2434. > The new arrivals had been marshaled into neat lines and rows by the delivery staff, the odd lash displayed threateningly or cracked on the ground to get slower ponies hurried into position.
  2435. > They have that same look about them as the last lot did at first:
  2436. > Eyes low, tails drooping, shuffling in place as far as the chains that linked them neck-to-neck would allow.
  2437. > Of course, this time there were so many more - a small sea of ponies all now arranged in orderly rows.
  2438. > Despite the early hour summer heat was already rising.
  2439. > You can actually see the ripple that runs through the crowd as you approach:
  2440. > First their recognition at just who was approaching, and then at your proud march by Anonymous' side.
  2441. > Wonder and confusion fill their eyes:
  2442. > What did it mean, to have an alicorn - a princess - walking at her owner's side?
  2443. > "Cadance, did you want to talk to them first?"
  2444. "Later, when they're out of those chains. Can you see to them? I will deal with the delivery people."
  2445. > If Anonymous is offput by the suggestion, he doesn't show it.
  2446. > "Yeah, sure. If they give you any trouble call me over."
  2447. > Avoiding looking at the ponies is possibly one of the hardest things you have done, but time had given you a chance to think this over.
  2448. > Anonymous might have been wrong to humiliate you by forcing you to appear obedient before them, but he did have a point:
  2449. > Making it clear you weren't a savior come to whisk them away was... necessary.
  2450. > So you keep your head set forward as you march up to the delivery-men.
  2451. > A shallow bow sets the tone before you even open your mouth:
  2452. "Good morning, Sirs. I will be taking delivery today."
  2453. > The handlers' eyebrows rise despite your tone being as non-confrontational as possible.
  2454. > As if seeking a countermanding opinion, they glance back to Anonymous.
  2455. > But he is already moving among the ranks of new arrivals with a bucket of water and cup, offering much-appreciated drinks to those who need them.
  2456. "...my Master has trusted me with this duty, I assure you."
  2457. > "Alright, fair enough."
  2458. > Grumbling, the apparent boss pulls out his tablet to let you sign it.
  2459. > A quick flash of your horn whirls the stylus across it surface.
  2460. > "Feels funny giving all of them back to one o'you-"
  2461. > There's no doubt in your mind he means an alicorn, not just a pony.
  2462. > "-but I guess he's got you well-kept. They're yours."
  2463. "Thank you, I-"
  2464. > You're caught by surprise as he wordlessly hands you a folded note.
  2465. > What could this be about...?
  2466. > Some intuition tells you not to read it now; instead the paper is tucked beneath a wing as they depart and you turn back to the crowd.
  2467. > All eyes quickly come to firmly rest on you; awe and confusion appear in equal measure.
  2468. > They stay there as the delivery men move quickly among the ranks, opening collars and pulling chains from the rows.
  2469. > This, you thought, was the most perilous moment:
  2470. > When you would have to show them the narrow balance you walked.
  2471. > So while you walk among the crowd, offering gentle words of support where it was needed, Anonymous is the first to speak.
  2472. > "Hello. I'm, uh, not terrific at speeches so I'll skip right to the point: I am Anonymous. I own this place, and as of now I own you."
  2473. > He pauses to let that settle in, and a few ponies drop into expectant bows.
  2474. > But continues in a softer voice:
  2475. > "I'm not going to hurt you. Not going to whip you or beat you just because I can. This isn't that kind of place. It's not a prison, not a death camp. This is a home. It's a place you will live. You work for me, but I'll do my damn best to look after you too. Cadance?"
  2476. > Your turn.
  2477. > Setting the jug down, you trot out from amid the row and circle around the crowd at a fast trot to his side.
  2478. > This time you are close enough to hear the murmurs of surprise.
  2479. "Follow us across the camp to the new living quarters. Ponies will be waiting there to assign you places to stay; there is food and beds to rest in once you are there. I will not pretend life is always easy here, but it is as he said a home. I ask - please - if you have questions, ask them. Let me - let us - know."
  2480. > Then you turn your back and start to walk.
  2481. > The first few among them move hesitantly.
  2482. > Uncertainly.
  2483. > But they do move, ranks and rows slowly breaking down until what follows you is a jumbled herd of ponies simply following one they have recognized as a leader.
  2484. > Guards walk alongside on two and four legs but they are not needed.
  2485. > The urge of the herd keeps them together, sticking with a safe-seeming face amid an island of unfamiliarity.
  2486. > As you had said, a row of tables had been set up to sort ponies by their name; at each, a pony you trusted was directing them to their new living quarters.
  2487. > Mayor Mare gives you a warm nod as you pass by her seat.
  2488. > At another, Sunburst waves nervously.
  2489. > It was a measure of Anonymous' trust of the former rebel that he was allowed to be part of this.
  2490. "Everypony, the next few hours are yours while we get your rooms and allow you to settle in. Eat. Rest. Meet your neighbors; some of them have been here a while and will be happy to talk to you. Tonight we will all eat together, and tomorrow duty assignments will begin to come out."
  2491. > With that done you start to simply walk among the crowd - putting them at ease as best you can.
  2492. > Some ponies still stare at you with misty expressions.
  2493. > Overwhelmed by the existence of one they had thought lost.
  2494. > As had happened before, there are breathy and soft whispers of 'Your Highness' as you pass.
  2495. > To those, you neither lecture nor reward - not with Anonymous so nearby.
  2496. > Though he is busy, you are gratified to see, also meandering through the crowd speaking to ponies.
  2497. > Most are still eyeing him with a healthy degree of trepidation, but a handful have already started to be more open with him.
  2498. > Good.
  2499. > You will always be their leader, but for him to become - more than just a distant, looming threat would be good as well.
  2500. > In an odd way, they were perhaps the ones he had the best chance with.
  2501. > New, their views untainted by the past.
  2502. > Is that taking advantage of their naivete, their relief to be in a place even remotely better than whatever Tartarus-like dungeon they had come from?
  2503. > Anonymous was no agent of Harmony, after all.
  2504. > No, they would learn in due time - and it would be good for them to see all sides of him.
  2505. > Not to mention-
  2506. > "Your highness!"
  2507. > That was a touch louder than you would have preferred.
  2508. > Soft-spoken addresses or in private were one thing; Anonymous surely knew they happened
  2509. > But aloud, and in public...
  2510. "Please. I am - not high. Not anymore. No-"
  2511. > You turn, and your breath catches.
  2512. > No wonder they had sounded so reverent.
  2513. > Two ponies stand tall and proud before you, their coats gleaming in the morning sun.
  2514. > More than their coats, even - their whole bodies shine with a fierce luster.
  2515. > Crystal ponies.
  2516. > Your ponies.
  2517. > Your subjects.
  2518. > One a Crystal unicorn at that - a fantastically rare thing, after the ravages of Sombra's reign.
  2519. > Without a word you raise both your wings and they rush into them nuzzling against your neck with soft nickers of relief.
  2520. "I'm so glad you're - I thought - after everything came apart - I didn't know if I would see any of you again."
  2521. > You actually can't say you knew either of these ponies well.
  2522. > Maybe the other one, but not the unicorn.
  2523. > Even so, you can't help but feeling some degree of responsibility for them.
  2524. > A gasp from one of the crystal ponies brings you back to the moment.
  2525. > "Your back! He-"
  2526. > Ah.
  2527. > They'd spotted the scars, from your flogging.
  2528. "Remnants of a mistake. From a while back; he doesn't use whips except for major problems."
  2529. > "I... but you..."
  2530. "Am a pony here, just like you. I am not immune to anything."
  2531. > Releasing both, you take a step back and place a warm smile on your face.
  2532. > Have to show them you weren't just speaking from a script.
  2533. "Really. May I ask your names?"
  2534. > The first, a black coat with lustrous green mane, bows her head:
  2535. > "Tourmaline Twist, Your Highness."
  2536. > On your other side, the unicorn...
  2537. > He watches you with a rather more questioning perspective.
  2538. > "Lattice. I'm Lattice."
  2539. "Is something wrong?"
  2540. > "No, no - I just - I can't believe it's you. Here."
  2541. "Ah. Well. This... is not freedom. This is not what we had. But it could be - was - far worse, and I am thankful for that."
  2542. > "Is it true that he lets you speak your mind?"
  2543. "Yes. Well - within reason. Do not be foolish about it, and he gives us great lattitude. There are a couple of ponies here who help with that. You will meet them in time."
  2544. > Pausing, you add more softly:
  2545. "Have you seen any more of - your kind?"
  2546. > Head shakes from both.
  2547. > "We weren't many to begin with, and spread out so far now... a few, here and there. So few."
  2548. "Well. This place, I hope, will only grow. Maybe, in time, we can find a few more."
  2549. > "Ah... Your Highness? You dropped something."
  2550. > Oh!
  2551. > Lattice passes you the little folded note in his magic.
  2552. > It must've fallen from beneath your wing when you spread them to greet the two.
  2553. "Thank you, Lattice. I would've hated to lose that."
  2554. > "You're welcome, Your Highness."
  2555. > That's odd.
  2556. > He seemed - nervous?
  2557. > ...
  2558. > Later, alone in your office, you cut the tape that had been carefully use to seal the folded paper.
  2559. > Your eyes scan over the paper, progressively growing mistier as the news written in it.
  2560. > 'Cadance -
  2561. > I have stretched the limits of what I can search without involving Stedler to their limits. I can find little on Twilight Sparkle that I did not tell you before; she has been transferred out of my sight through any number of front-businesses and corporate interests. Some of them were not even official sales, but as part of the purchase of entire companies that held her as an asset. I am sorry. I tried what I could.
  2562. > - Scriptorial'
  2563. > So that was it.
  2564. > Your sister in law - missing.
  2565. > Gone.
  2566. > Any hope of seeing more of your family seems to sink ever-further away.
  2567. > Or...
  2568. > Unless you involved Anonymous.
  2569. > Or one of Sunburst's alleged resistance-movement contacts.
  2570. > Could you dare entrust this with them?
  2571. > Was it even right to spend time and resources on this?
  2572. > To have Twilight with you... it would be a beautiful thing.
  2573. > But many more ponies needed your help as well.
  2574. > Wouldn't it be wrong to focus on her over everypony else who could be brought?
  2575. > After all, there was no guarantee any of them could even help if you did mention it.
  2576. [Choice]
  2577. > No, you can't let them be weighted by this.
  2578. > Twilight...
  2579. > You miss her so very, very much.
  2580. > Every fiber of your body aches to have her back by your side, to support her through this as well.
  2581. > After all, in the loss of your husband she had also experienced the loss of a brother.
  2582. > But, what could Sunburst's contacts do?
  2583. > Even if they could find her, liberating her was something they would surely already want to do in the first place.
  2584. > And Anonymous...
  2585. > He would only see her - not entirely wrongly - as another level of control over you.
  2586. > If he could even control her in the first place; most of what you had heard was clear:
  2587. > Twilight was fiercely rebellious.
  2588. > It occurs to you that if she refused to obey, it could ironically undermine this safe(r) haven you have managed to establish here.
  2589. > A second later you feel sickened by thinking of her in that way - your little Twily, a threat!
  2590. > But it is what it is.
  2591. > No, Twilight is a tough mare - solid and reliable in her own way.
  2592. > Despite whatever horrors they were inflicting on her you could not do anything for her through either channel now.
  2593. > For now, you had a camp to run as best you could.
  2594. > One excellent thing that had come with the expansion was a new and improved dining hall.
  2595. > No longer would you have to do with the original facilities, which while adequate had never been intended for this many ponies.
  2596. > A greatly enlarged hall had been added to the new section of the camp, and it is in this that you find yourself eating with a mix of new and familiar faces that night.
  2597. > It wasn't quite homey yet - the paint had only just had a chance to dry, and the building held a very much typical squared-off, boxed-in human aesthetic rather than any nods to Equestrian architecture.
  2598. > In time, though, that would change.
  2599. > What better place to have them begin making the camp their own than the place they ate?
  2600. > Slipping between the tables, you find a seat for yourself.
  2601. > Immediately conversation dulls and all eyes turn to you, but you quickly manage to break the moment with a gentle smile before the awkwardness becomes overwhelming.
  2602. > With careful prodding and the right words you can nudge the conversation back to life.
  2603. > "Misstr- um, Miss Cadance?"
  2604. "Yes, dear?"
  2605. > "Is it true there's a -"
  2606. > The pony in question - a pegasus of light-blue coat and a white-and-blue mane like clouds against the dawn sky and a pattern of stars on her flank - shuffles nervously.
  2607. > "-a place here where we can bring things from - home? And they'll be safe?"
  2608. "The museum, yes. It is real, and you can ask anypony who's been here a while and they can show you the way there."
  2609. > "And... he won't take them away?"
  2610. "I think Anonymous understands how very angry everypony would be if he did that... myself included."
  2611. > The indirect nature of your answer does not go unnoticed, and the mare gives you an uncertain look.
  2612. > Guessing the nature of her inquiry isn't hard.
  2613. "If you have something you want to be shown, you don't have to tell us now. Let it be for a while, and when you feel ready you can bring it there."
  2614. > "Really?"
  2615. > Her expression brightens immediately, and you quickly nod an affirmative.
  2616. "Absolutely. I won't force you to give anything up immediately. Find a mare named Cheerilee when you are ready; she can help you."
  2617. > "What are we going to be doing tomorrow?"
  2618. > Another voice pipes up, this one from an older stallion across the way.
  2619. > "The work we're going to be given... is that all we're going to be doing?"
  2620. "Not at all. We know your general talents, but somepony will have a sit-down with each of you over the next few days and get to know you a bit better - so you're doing something you're skilled at."
  2621. > "O-Oh. I was afraid he was going to put us all on turning over those fields outside or something like that..."
  2622. "No, no! Nothing like that."
  2623. > A tentative hoof taps at your side, and you turn back to find the mare who'd ask the first question looking up awkwardly again:
  2624. > "Miss Cadance? Is it, um - is it true that your daughter is here too?"
  2625. "Flurry Heart is here, yes. Anonymous has taken her to be his daughter's assistant, although I still have time with her."
  2626. > "Really?"
  2627. "Yes. You may see her out with me at times."
  2628. > "And your husband?"
  2629. > The question should have been been expected, but it still manages to strike directly to your heart.
  2630. > Nor can you stop the shudder that runs through your body.
  2631. > "O-Oh..."
  2632. "I have heard... nothing. Not rumor of his freedom, not been able to find record of his being sold, not anything. He is, as best I know... gone."
  2633. > "I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
  2634. "It is fine, dear. I know you didn't want to hurt."
  2635. > Extending a wing, you touch it to the pegasus' back - and when she does not draw away, pull her into a gentle embrace.
  2636. "We have all lost so much to all of this, I am hardly the only one. Though..."
  2637. > You glance about.
  2638. > It wasn't according to the plan; sometimes, though, the moment came before the plan.
  2639. "I was going to announce this later, but I see no reason not to now. In the coming weeks, a way will be provided for you to search for your own families. If you find them - and have not been in trouble - a reunion may be possible."
  2640. > "Really?!"
  2641. > "You'll actually try?"
  2642. > "What, like bringing them here?"
  2643. "Yes. We are still planning this out, but this is something we all want to have."
  2644. > Looking about, you add:
  2645. "Make no mistake: We are still slaves here, with all that means. But that does not mean we cannot try to make something of it."
  2646. > As conversation rises again, you look around - heart rising at the newly-hopeful looks on so many faces.
  2647. > In time, you knew, you would have to break those hopes.
  2648. > Family unfound, or that could not be recovered.
  2649. > But hope was still a beautiful, winged thing.
  2650. > Able to lighten hearts and raise moods.
  2651. > Was it false hope, to tell them that?
  2652. > You didn't think so.
  2653. > Looking up and around, you pause as a familiar face in the distance meets your eyes.
  2654. > Lattice, paused halfway between the food-line and a table with a loaded tray hovering beside him, stares at you with cautious eyes.
  2655. > Your gazes remain locked until a pony coincidentally passes between; by the time they have moved on, Lattice has already vanished.
  2656.  
  2657. > You still can't quite get over the sheer number of new faces in the camp.
  2658. > Sure, you had been there when other ponies had come in before.
  2659. > This was a few times more than that, though:
  2660. > And while those ponies had mostly filled in... vacancies left by the original escape, these new ponies were being given all-new positions.
  2661. "I don't know, Seismic. You really think there'll be trouble?"
  2662. > "This many new ponies? It's bound to crop up, Thunderlane."
  2663. "Yeah, but look at them. They're - stunned. A work camp without whips and guard towers and dogs nipping at their hocks? They're still trying to figure it out."
  2664. > "That's exactly why there'll be trouble. Somepony's going to try and push things."
  2665. "If you say so, Seismic. Maybe I'm just more optimistic. Maybe you need to be more optimistic."
  2666. > "Hah!"
  2667. > Pausing, the bulky stallion raises a hind leg to kick at the uniform where it hung over his withers.
  2668. > You didn't blame him; the stiffened plastic liners that were meant to protect you turned out to itch something fierce in the summer heat.
  2669. > At least you had wings you could shift it with.
  2670. "Okay, maybe there'll be some kind of minor spats here and there. But I'm talking real trouble like before. I don't think it'll happen."
  2671. > Dropping his leg, Seismic Shift resumes walking at your side.
  2672. > This time, your patrol route takes you past the town hall.
  2673. > A few of the new ponies stand in a line outside; within, you knew, Cadance was speaking to each and every one to get a better grasp of their talents.
  2674. > Others were holding their own 'interviews' in other places but she had chosen to try and get ponies into her office.
  2675. > As she'd put it in the planning meeting, to show them it wasn't the impenetrable redoubt of a distant overseer.
  2676. > A broad variety of expressions are on their faces as you and Seismic pass by.
  2677. > Curiosity.
  2678. > Fear.
  2679. > Anger.
  2680. > Wonder.
  2681. > None act on it, even when you shoot what you hope is a warm smile to them.
  2682. > "You worried about them, Thunderlane?"
  2683. "No. Not really. Just want to make sure they understand we're here for them."
  2684. > "What about him - down the street there, with the reddish mane."
  2685. > The stallion in question sat perhaps half a block down.
  2686. > He was unremarkable, except for his attention being locked so tightly.
  2687. > A mess of russet hair fell from in a wild spill down to part around his neck and horn, but he sat with an almost stock-still posture facing the side of the town hall.
  2688. > Staring fiercely, fixedly at the windows to Cadance's office.
  2689. "Yeah, what about him?"
  2690. > "He's been sitting like that since the last time we came around."
  2691. "Has he?"
  2692. > You frown; in all honesty, you had been more keeping a wary eye on the ponies who seemed more likely to act.
  2693. "Well, we can't very well start questioning him just for looking in a specific different direction."
  2694. > "No. But something about him is tickling my tail."
  2695. > That gives you pause; Seismic wasn't always the best at guessing others' intentions, but he was no fool either.
  2696. "Well, I'll keep an eye on him. And-"
  2697. > A deep, distant throbbing noise rises - pulsing like a club beat found only in the grungiest clubs or a foghorn gone berserk before it just as abruptly cuts off.
  2698. > Even at this distance a wave of mild vertigo strikes you as the sonic assault hits your ears.
  2699. "Tartarus' teats!"
  2700. > "What is that?!"
  2701. > A nearby pony similarly affected extends a wing to brace herself as she staggers; more distant cries and whinnies of surprise are also heard.
  2702. "Pegasus detector. Somepony just tried to jump the fence."
  2703. > "You going to be okay, Thunderlane?"
  2704. > Without the far-more-delicate sense of balance that pegasi had, Seismic Shift was practically unaffected.
  2705. "Yeah. C'mon, let's go deal with it. That was pretty close."
  2706. > “I told you somepony was going to try something!”
  2707. > By the time you get there, the situation was practically dealt with already.
  2708. > Two guards were hustling the limp pony away from where they had touched down; they were completely non-resistant and even limp in the guards' arms.
  2709. > You didn't blame him; catching a full-on blast from one of the detectors would be a truly nauseating experience.
  2710. > Sure enough, as you near the fence you catch the sour scent of vomit.
  2711. > "Thunderlane!"
  2712. > From beside the waiting cart, Gene waves.
  2713. "Sir. Any problems?"
  2714. > "Not really. The detectors brought him down, but it was soft - he glided on reflex."
  2715. > At least they weren't hurt.
  2716. > Not that having an escape - and the fallout from what Cadance would inevitably have to do over it - would be good this early on.
  2717. > "Hey, Thunderlane."
  2718. > Seismic nudges your side, then points with an ear.
  2719. > "Over there. It's him again."
  2720. > Sure enough, the russet-maned unicorn-stallion had turned up - watching cautiously from a distance.
  2721. "Yeah, I see him. Alright, let's over and have a talk."
  2722. > His attention is all on the pony being bundled away, though, and he doesn't notice your approach until Seismic speaks up:
  2723. > "Hey. 'Morning."
  2724. > "...good morning."
  2725. > Being addressed seems to finally snaps him out of it.
  2726. > He jumps, then turns to look at you and jumps again and when he sees who is speaking to him.
  2727. "Easy. You're not in trouble; we were just wondering what's up."
  2728. > "I, uh..."
  2729. > As if the windows had a gravitational pull on his expression, he looks back towards where the guards' cart was now pulling away.
  2730. > "...sorry. Just... watching."
  2731. "We saw. You were waiting back by the town hall too. Seemed pretty focused then."
  2732. > "Yeah. I just can't believe it's really her. P- uh, Cadance. An alicorn. Cadance."
  2733. > "She is definitely something special."
  2734. > Seismic's low rumble is answered with another wondering nod.
  2735. > "Yeah, an alicorn... I just... I can't believe it."
  2736. > Another moment, and he finally wrenches his gaze away.
  2737. > "I'm sorry. I'm Copper Dust. Am I not supposed to be here?"
  2738. "Thunderlane; that's Seismic Shift. And no, you're allowed. Might want to get back if you were waiting to have a talk with Cadance though."
  2739. > "Already had it, actually. With somepony else, but I'm not due back on duty for a little while. So I went over to see her."
  2740. > ...huh.
  2741. "Well, you're certainly allowed to sit where you want."
  2742. > "I was actually..."
  2743. > Copper Dust scuffs at the dirt.
  2744. > "...just hoping to see - her again. If it was really Princess Cada-"
  2745. > Eyes go wide and he looks to you with an expression full of fear, belatedly realizing what he had said.
  2746. "It's fine. Her highness-"
  2747. > Somehow he actually manages to look more shocked at the title.
  2748. "-is fine with us speaking about her like that. Just don't do it in front of some of the other guards, or Anonymous. Especially Anonymous."
  2749. > "Ah..."
  2750. > Looking back in the direction the cart had vanished, he adds more softly:
  2751. > "What will happen to him? Some ponies are saying she fights Anonymous for us - to keep us from breaking. But I also heard she had ponies whipped..."
  2752. [Choice]
  2753. "To him, specifically? I can't imagine it will be truly tormenting. At the very worst he could take some lashes for this, but I honestly don't think it will be that bad. Extra work hours for a time, or hobbles maybe."
  2754. > "But - she would -"
  2755. "If she has to, yes."
  2756. > There's a sharp intake of breath from Copper Dust, almost as if he can’t quite believe what he is hearing.
  2757. > You shake your head before he can get the wrong idea.
  2758. "Look, Anonymous was stretching the truth when he told you this isn't a prison. It is - maybe a softer prison, but still a prison for slaves."
  2759. > "And she - helps him?"
  2760. "Cadance... she does what she has to. To make things better; even compared to just a year ago, this place is so much better. Anonymous wasn't lying when he said this isn't a death camp, but Cadance has fought tooth and hoof to make it better."
  2761. > "By taking up a whip against you?!"
  2762. "When. She. Has. To."
  2763. > Each word is enunciated firmly, clearly.
  2764. > Just to make sure your point is made.
  2765. "For things that cause bigger problems, she will deliver lashes. Has, in the past. To me, for that matter. But-"
  2766. > "To you? She whipped you?"
  2767. "Yes."
  2768. > Shifting your wings carefully, you lift your uniform up and let Copper Dust peer beneath to see where your back had been permanently marked by it.
  2769. > He shudders at the sight of them, which you can understand - this stallion has plenty of his own scars attesting to his own rough treatment.
  2770. "But she's also fought for us. The only ponies who've faced the whip are the ones who'd put everypony else in danger, and Cadance gives every pony every chance to lighten their sentence if she can."
  2771. > "She's - a collaborator."
  2772. "Only because she has to be!"
  2773. > "Cadance makes it exactly clear how much she hates all of this. Speaks against slavery to us. You think any other Master would let her do that?"
  2774. > Seismic's rumble draws a nod from you.
  2775. "We're her priority - making the best for us. Anonymous' profit isn't."
  2776. > "I want to believe you. I do. But seeing that..."
  2777. > He motions with his horn towards your back.
  2778. "Just wait. She's behind us, and that's why we stand beside her. Not for Anonymous. For her."
  2779. > Fortunately, that is the last of the 'interesting' things to be happening that day.
  2780. > The remainder is boring - if extended, with the new arrivals still adding to some confusion.
  2781. > At the end of things your hooves are sore and wings only mildly less so; exhaustion has managed to set itself deep into your muscles.
  2782. > You barely manage to reach your living quarters before collapsing.
  2783. > Anonymous had gifted you one of the newly-constructed ones, and you have to admit it was a definite improvement over your previous habitation.
  2784. > For one-
  2785. "Hey there, Vapor."
  2786. > "Thunderlane!"
  2787. > -your marefriend could stay with you in this one.
  2788. > She rises from the bed, closing the distance to you with stiff steps to deliver a soft kiss on your cheek.
  2789. > No doubt her hooves ached as much as yours did:
  2790. > Well and truly swollen with foal, Vapor Trail's belly had grown to be more than a mere inconvenience.
  2791. > Even so, you can see the concern in her expression and affection even before she speaks:
  2792. > "I heard the detectors go off. What happened?"
  2793. "Somepony leapt the fence. Got taken down not more than twenty feet out... not hurt, thank Celestia."
  2794. > "Do you know what's going to happen-"
  2795. "No. But I don't think Cadance is going to be hard on him, though - it was one of the new arrivals."
  2796. > "Ah."
  2797. > Turning her around with a wing on her withers, you join Vapor Trail in stumbling back towards the room's bed.
  2798. "What about you? You were helping them all settle in, right?"
  2799. > "Yes. Doing directions and oversight, since I can't really work as much right now... though I ended up walking them around a lot to show them the right places."
  2800. "Vapor! You're supposed to be resting."
  2801. > You frown a touch at her incorrigible helpfulness, but can't hold it up for long.
  2802. > Not when she is giving you such a needful expression.
  2803. > "...they needed it, Thunderlane! So many don't even know where they're going yet, or what's allowed here!"
  2804. "Fine, fine. I concede."
  2805. > Both of you issue equally relieved groans while climbing up onto the bed and collapsing into it, back to back.
  2806. > After a moment, a simultaneous wave of giggles breaks out as well.
  2807. > This was why you loved this mare; she could brighten any day of yours no matter how dark.
  2808. > "It's a pity. We have this really nice older stallion down in the kitchen now."
  2809. "My marefriend, looking at other stallions? Unbelievable!"
  2810. > Despite her exhaustion, Vapor manages to find the strength to extend a wing and bat you over the head with a laugh.
  2811. > "He's very nice. But scared he won't be able to work well enough, so he actually found out where he'd be assigned to and came down to work yesterday even though he hadn't been officially started yet."
  2812. "Of what? Being thrown out?"
  2813. > "Yeah. He's not a very good cook either - apparently his talent is for metalworking."
  2814. "Well, I'm sure with a talent like that something useful will be found for him."
  2815. > Rolling over in the bed, you slip your hooves around Vapor Trail and pull her close.
  2816. > As if in response, the foal kicks back against your touch and Vapor gives a little surprised squeak.
  2817. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to-"
  2818. > "It's fine. That was just... stronger than normal."
  2819. "Mmmm."
  2820. > Resting your head back against her neck, you sigh softly through your nostrils.
  2821. > Again the foal in her belly shifts as if responding, though more gently this time.
  2822. "Soon?"
  2823. > "Very."
  2824. "I'll be there for you when it happens."
  2825. > Silence reigns for a few moments longer, then:
  2826. > "Apparently Cadance is going to let ponies look for their families... try to bring them here."
  2827. "Yeah."
  2828. > Another pause, while the obvious question hangs in the air.
  2829. > You're no colt; you face the question:
  2830. "Do you want to try and find..."
  2831. > "Would you be angry if I did?"
  2832. "I... don't think so. No, I would understand if you wanted to."
  2833. > "I don't. Want to find them, I mean. Not now."
  2834. > She doesn't elaborate further, and you decide not to push it.
  2835. > After all, this was her choice.
  2836. > With all she's supported you through, simply accepting her choice now would be the least you could do in return.
  2837. "Nothing?"
  2838. > Your eyebrows rise, but Cadance holds her ground.
  2839. > "Nothing severe. I will not be subjecting him to any physical punishment. No shackling in at night, no whipping, nothing."
  2840. > A lessened punishment was something you'd expected, but to eliminate it entirely...
  2841. "Reasoning?"
  2842. > "He's terrified. Thought you were just trying to get everypony to lower their guard, then you would strike and crush everyone."
  2843. "...didn't he speak to anyone else? Like, at all?"
  2844. > "Certainly. But fear is a terrible thing, Anonymous. It blinds you. The way he just leaped the fence? Any rational pony could have seen there must be a way to stop it, but he did it anyway. That's not a planned escape, that's fear."
  2845. > Pondering, you start walking from where you'd paused out of surprise.
  2846. > Cadance continues beside you, with passing ponies giving the two of you a respectful berth in the street.
  2847. "A fair point, I suppose."
  2848. > Her expression suggests she hadn't expected you to give up nearly that easily.
  2849. "Don't look so surprised, Cadance!"
  2850. > "After how you reacted to the last escape..."
  2851. "From ponies who knew I am not a monster, and who put my future at serious risk. One pony acting out of terror, not hurting me or anyone else... I can forgive that."
  2852. > "Good..."
  2853. > Dropping her voice to a note only audible to you, Cadance adds:
  2854. > "I've already flogged a terrified pony once, and I wouldn't do it again. Extra work hours - I can find something for him to do. Maybe even something that will show this isn't the nightmare he was imagining."
  2855. "That's fine. Just, when you let him know - make sure he knows I am fine with it too."
  2856. > "You don't want to tell him yourself?"
  2857. "Given what he how scared you say he is, I think we'll work up to that point."
  2858. > Turning a corner in your walk, you find you'd come to the edge of the camp near your manor.
  2859. > Time to go your separate ways.
  2860. > Almost a touch saddening; it was a pleasant summer evening and wasting it indoors seemed a pity.
  2861. "...no problems with the interviews today, though?"
  2862. > "No. And from what everypony else is telling me, theirs were the same. We should be able to begin organizing proper work schedules within the week; I'll send needed equipment lists up to you when we figure out what we're short on."
  2863. "Good. It's going to work, like we decided on? Find our skilled kernel to build the rest of the workforce around?"
  2864. > "Yes. Most of what we guessed from their on-market profiles was accurate, but with tweaking things around now there will be some minor shifts."
  2865. "I remember, Cadance. I've done this before too."
  2866. > "Yes."
  2867. > The alicorn sighs gently, swishing her tail and looking back towards the camp.
  2868. > "I'm sorry. I just want to make sure we're getting this right."
  2869. "I understand."
  2870. > Despite being in the open, you reach down to rest a hand on Cadance's withers.
  2871. > Her outburst during the trip out hadn't been forgotten.
  2872. "Hey. Look, nothing bad's happened yet, has it?"
  2873. > "No. And your idea of walking out together did work."
  2874. "So I think you'll be fine."
  2875. > "Maybe... actually, one other thing about the new arrivals?"
  2876. "Hmm?"
  2877. > "In particular, the two Crystal Ponies in the camp. I hadn't expected them, or I would have told you more about them. They are both talented crystal-workers - Tourmaline Twist with growing and fitting, according to the one who interviewed her. Lattice says he has more experience growing."
  2878. "You're thinking about a new direction for them?"
  2879. > "Your gem trade is still experiencing the fallout of... the imbalance created by our own. But I suspect that it is still a lucrative business, yes?"
  2880. > Now you begin to understand where she is thinking of taking this, and your eyes widen.
  2881. "They can - what? Fit them, set them?"
  2882. > "More... modify, even grow them. You cannot imagine what it was like to see the Crystal Empire rise from the ground itself."
  2883. > Breath catches in your throat.
  2884. "They - what?! I always thought it was grown over like, years-"
  2885. > Blinking, Cadance shakes her head.
  2886. > "No. But neither can they do it here... not on that scale. Not with so few, and not here."
  2887. > Spotting your raised eyebrow, she adds:
  2888. > "Their magic is strengthened when they are joyful. In slavery... I know you try to be better to us than other places, but it is still slavery. I don't know if they will ever regain their full power."
  2889. > Something about this seems to line of discussion seems to put her on edge.
  2890. > If she isn't sharing, though, you won't push.
  2891. > You doubt she's outright lying; the benefits if they could do so are too obvious.
  2892. "But they could work on a smaller scale still."
  2893. > "If what they have told me is true, yes. Adjust gems that they do have, perhaps fix flaws in them, yes. Build a city, no."
  2894. "Why haven't I heard of someone else taking advantage of this?"
  2895. > Cadance shrugs sighing:
  2896. > "There might be some but they are just staying silent to preserve their secret. Or not; how many care to cater to their slaves' talents and give them the tools and subordinates they'd need? How many slaves would admit that skill to their owners?"
  2897. "We'd have to completely reorganize our plans... but you are right. Gem-working could be incredibly lucrative. Put them at the core of it, establish an entirely new workshop..."
  2898. [Choice]
  2899. "For now, I'll authorize provisionally pulling them off their assigned work details and giving them a limited space to work in - to show me what they're capable of. How much they can do... here."
  2900. > "That sounds reasonable, yes."
  2901. > If Cadance picks up on how skeptical you sound of the whole 'work better when they're joyful' thing, she isn't saying.
  2902. > Then again, it sounds like you might have some researching to do as well.
  2903. > You'd known the Crystal Empire had been grown in place by some arcane means, but that it was raised that short a time?
  2904. > And the same could be done to precious gems?
  2905. > By and large you trusted Cadance to tell you the truth, yet you can't help but wonder if she is stretching it this time.
  2906. "I'll want to speak to them at some point. Also... I think I'll make an announcement tomorrow morning, about this whole escape. Explain myself. Why I'm letting him off, so he can hear it straight from me too. Have him out of his cell tomorrow morning, and in the new dining hall?"
  2907. > The smallest touch of a smile graces her lips.
  2908. > "Yes. I think I can do that."
  2909. > When you raise an eyebrow questioningly, she adds:
  2910. > "I'm glad to see you trying to fix things yourself."
  2911. "...I just don't want to make him panic even more if he sees me marching into his cell."
  2912. > "Well. Tomorrow morning, then."
  2913. > While her day may be mostly over, there is still one thing you have left to do.
  2914. > Sunburst is waiting when you arrive, pen dancing in an open notebook.
  2915. "Sorry to keep you waiting. I had some last-minute discussions with Cadance."
  2916. > "Not a problem, Master."
  2917. > Sinking into one of your favorite chairs, you lean back and let your eyes close with a relieved sigh.
  2918. > "Is... this a bad time, Master? I know there was-"
  2919. "No, it's fine. There's no problems anymore; we talked it over. So, where do we stand?"
  2920. > Looking back down at his notebook, Sunburst quickly dives in:
  2921. > "Flurry Heart is progressing quite well in her magic lessons. She is.. a touch behind when it comes to fine control, but this is to be expected given her situation. Her strength... she is an alicorn. If anything, I am having to teach her to moderate herself."
  2922. "No more broken glasses from your exercises?"
  2923. > Sunburst winces and pushes his glasses back up.
  2924. > "...no, though only because I have switched to those big red plastic cups."
  2925. > That draws a chuckle from you.
  2926. "Alright, go on?"
  2927. > "I expect she will catch up in time. In fact, in magic alone she may prove to be a very capable wielder."
  2928. > Tapping the arm of your chair thoughtfully, you nod.
  2929. "What about a leader, though?"
  2930. > "From what I have seen, Flurry Heart is integrating herself into the camp's other colts and fillies. No problems so far, although it's all been under Cadance's watchful eye."
  2931. "In that case, I'm sure she would have told me if there'd been any issues. Actually, one thing she did mention... you lived in the Crystal Empire, yes?"
  2932. > "Yes, why?"
  2933. "How was it - built? The buildings?"
  2934. > "The crystal ponies..."
  2935. > He pauses, eyes growing distant and hoof coming up to stroke his tuft of beard.
  2936. > "...they called it Forming. Creating the crystal, drawing it up out of the ground itself or changing it. I only partially understood it."
  2937. "And it was - fast?"
  2938. > "Very. Well, compared to other crystal growing. Are you - thinking about the two who came here...?"
  2939. "Cadance says they might be able to grow gems. I don't want a whole building, mind you, but even tiny pieces..."
  2940. > "Yes, and I-Iaaaaaahhhhh-"
  2941. > A terrific yawn cuts off Sunburst's declaration.
  2942. > Cheeks flushing, he adjusts his glasses back to their proper place.
  2943. > "-I'm sorry, Master."
  2944. "Tired, Sunburst?"
  2945. > The flush deepens.
  2946. > "Very. I've been putting in extra hours, to make sure all the new talents and skills fit in well and what we might have to teach them."
  2947. > Well, that wouldn't do at all.
  2948. > Sunburst was one of your prize ponies, now that Cadance had him back in line.
  2949. > Having him work himself into sloppiness, let alone ill health, would hardly be right.
  2950. "Then you're dismissed for the evening. Go get some food and them some rest; we don't have to rush things."
  2951. > "Thank you, Master."
  2952. > Gathering up his books, Sunburst turns nearly reaches the door when you speak up again:
  2953. "Wait! One other thing, Sunburst. Mocha Cream... how is she proceeding."
  2954. > Sunburst's long hesitation says enough.
  2955. "...I see. Thank you, Sunburst; that will be all. Good evening."
  2956. > Once the stallion is gone, you lean back in your seat - fiercely rubbing your eyes.
  2957. > He wasn't the only one exhausted; you'd been putting in many long hours as well.
  2958. > Maybe you'd best take your own advice, and...
  2959. > ...no.
  2960. > Still too many things to do.
  2961. > Tracking down Mocha Cream doesn't take too long.
  2962. > She can always be found in one of a few handful of locations, and tonight is now different.
  2963. > Your feet are soft on the carpeted floor, and the little mare doesn't hear a thing as you stand in the doorway watching her.
  2964. > She was calmly puttering around the room, setting things out for both when you go to sleep that night and wake up the next day.
  2965. > Though her walk is still a limp - one that may never go away - Mocha is far stronger now and both her casts have come off.
  2966. > Physically, at least.
  2967. > As you watch her work, it's abundantly clear her magic is... mediocre at best.
  2968. "Mocha."
  2969. > "Eep!"
  2970. > The squeak only lasts an instant before she's into a bow and facing you.
  2971. > If nothing else, she wasn't nearly as jumpy as she used to be.
  2972. > "Hello, Master."
  2973. > Pushing off the wall, you wander close enough to reach down and scratch around her ears.
  2974. > Wordlessly, Mocha leans her head back - first exposing her cheek, then her chin to your attention.
  2975. "You're working harder again."
  2976. > "It's my job, Master."
  2977. "And I told you that you don't have to overstress yourself for my sake. I thought I suggested that you go see if any of the other house ponies needed some looking-after or help?"
  2978. > "They're fine, Master. I just... get under their hooves."
  2979. > That brings a touch of a frown to your lips.
  2980. "You know, there are plenty of other ponies out there who could use your help."
  2981. > Even with just your fingers brushing her cheek, you can feel how Mocha Cream tenses.
  2982. > "M-Master, please... I'm happy in here working for you. Out there... if I go out there again-"
  2983. "No one is going to hurt you, Mocha. I'll see to that, I promise."
  2984. > Still nothing.
  2985. > Sighing softly, you bring yourself down to one knee and look into her eyes.
  2986. "Flurry Heart, and even Megan go into the camp from time to time and they're fine. Cadance takes care of them. And Rumble sometimes comes up here, even though he doesn't like me."
  2987. > The colt had been coming in to visit Mocha Cream in his (limited) spare time, and so long as he kept his mouth shut and didn't get in any other trouble you were inclined to continue letting him.
  2988. > "I-I know, Master. I just... please."
  2989. > Damn the expression she is giving you.
  2990. > This isn't one you can so easily resist.
  2991. "Mocha..."
  2992. > Seating yourself on the floor, you hold out a hand to her.
  2993. > Leaning in, she nuzzles your shoulder - making little happy noises in her throat.
  2994. "You can't stay cooped up in here forever. That's not a life. There are ponies out there who could use your help - your talent."
  2995. > "But - who would do everything for you? I can't just - abandon you!"
  2996. > You don't have the heart to remind her she wasn't doing nearly as much for you as she used to.
  2997. "That's true, but I would figure out a way to manage."
  2998. > Mocha Cream whines softly.
  2999. > But she's trapped by the arm you've slipped around her neck - or maybe even the comfort offered, as she is not even trying to pull away.
  3000. "Why not go out with Megan or Flurry Heart? I know you care for both of them too, and Cadance would be there to look after you."
  3001. > Your only answer is silent squirming, and it's abundantly clear that if you want Mocha Cream to go out into the camp, you'd practically have to order her.
  3002. > ...or send Megan and Flurry Heart with "orders" - specific or tacit - to drag her kicking and screaming out.
  3003. > That would be playing dirty, but effectively.
  3004. > And dragging her out to start actually making use of her talent might be the only thing that could get Mocha Cream moving again.
  3005. [Choice]
  3006. "Mocha. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to go out and announce something at breakfast. I think you should come with me."
  3007. > A gasp, and now Mocha Cream does pull from your touch to rear away - shaking her head fearfully.
  3008. > "Mast-ter, p-please don't make me-"
  3009. "Yes. This is an order, Mocha, not a suggestion - you'll come with me, stay by my side, and then we'll go home. As simple as that. Just a start."
  3010. > "O-Order?! But if I d-don't obey-"
  3011. "I'll have to give you a few swats around the backside, yes."
  3012. > This time the gasp is rather deeper, and your heart twists at the crimson-cheeked expression of shame she wears.
  3013. > To think you'd ever consider laying a hand on this mare, after all she'd been through for you.
  3014. > Maybe they call it 'tough love' because it's as tough for the one giving it as the one receiving...
  3015. > At the same time, you also instantly realize your mistake:
  3016. > Mocha Cream was distraught at the idea of disobeying, but she is seriously considering it nonetheless.
  3017. "I'll be there the whole time; you won't have to go anywhere without me. And Cadance will be there too; she will protect you too."
  3018. > No longer having any words to argue with, she instead settles for a nervous whine.
  3019. > And yet, she is so very willing to leap back into your arms when you hold them out again - burying her head into your chest, horn pressing firmly (though not painfully) into your shirt and chocolate twists of mane forming a cushion against you.
  3020. > "Master, I'm b-begging you. P-Please, don't make me-"
  3021. "Mocha. I know it's scary, but the ponies who would've hurt you are gone now. And you will always be there with someone who can protect you."
  3022. > Her 'reply' comes in the form of a terrified whimper.
  3023. > With how hard her legs are latched around you arms, she almost seems to have a touch of Earth Pony strength.
  3024. > No, neither your pleading request nor the threat of a spanking would get Mocha moving.
  3025. > You'd have to find another way.
  3026. > Fortunately, tomorrow was Saturday - the beginning of the weekend - and you know just how to make use of that fact.
  3027. > ...
  3028. > "Hey daddy!"
  3029. "Hey there, sweetheart. Can I come in?"
  3030. > "Uh-huh."
  3031. > Megan and Flurry Heart were both stretched out on the floor side-by-side, a broad spread of various dolls in your daughter's hands and slave's magic.
  3032. "You get all your homework done already?"
  3033. > "Yeeesss, daddy."
  3034. > Flurry giggles at the drawn-out reply.
  3035. > "Mistress Megan did, Master."
  3036. "Good girl!"
  3037. > Seating yourself, you mesh your fingers together and look her in the eye.
  3038. "Now. I know the weekend is coming and you're probably going to want to goof off a bit, but I have to ask you to do something special. You know how Mocha Cream is... afraid of seeing other ponies now, right?"
  3039. > A shadow passes over both their expressions.
  3040. > What surprises you is the fury on Flurry Heart's face; it was the first time you'd seen the little filly express real, true anger at something.
  3041. > "It's not good! She's a good pony, she always tries her best for you!"
  3042. "No, it isn't. That's why I want your help with something - both of you. Megan, I know you sometimes like to go with Flurry Heart and Cadance on Sundays to watch them practice together-"
  3043. > "Uh-huh."
  3044. "-so, this time - if Mocha Cream doesn't come out with me tomorrow, I think you two should take her with you. It'll be just you and Cadance and maybe a couple other ponies you meet, so I hope she isn't as scary for her."
  3045. > Your daughter's face immediately lights up, and she beats the floor with a little drumroll of tiny kicks.
  3046. > "Yes! Yes, that sounds great!"
  3047. > "Master? What if she - says no?"
  3048. "If she says no, be... clear. Make it understood I want her to go with you, and a trip out with just Cadance and you two is the easiest it can get. But if she's too panicked to understand..."
  3049. > You hiss between your teeth.
  3050. "...don't drag her out. It won't do any good if she fights. Understand?"
  3051. > "Yes, daddy."
  3052. > Something in Megan's voice gives you pause.
  3053. > It's a tone you're quite familiar with - one that says she's heard you, but isn't necessarily paying attention.
  3054. "Megan, do you understand? If you push her to the point she fights you, I'll be upset."
  3055. > "I understand, daddy."
  3056. > "And I'll make sure she doesn't, Master."
  3057. "Good girl, Flurry."
  3058. > Ruffling both their heads in turn, you place a soft kiss on each their foreheads.
  3059. "Remember. We're trying to heal here, and while she might need a little nudging you can't push too hard."
  3060. > ...
  3061. > By the time you arrive in the dining hall the next morning, it was already packed with ponies still arriving to scrounge whatever they could for breakfast before beginning the day's work.
  3062. > It seemed the new ponies had quickly realized that getting there early was key to getting enough time to properly eat before work shifts began.
  3063. > The alicorn herself is easy to spot, of course, and you pause by her seat to whisper:
  3064. "He's here?"
  3065. > "Yes."
  3066. > Cadance murmurs back, eyes flicking towards one of the nearby tables.
  3067. > "Third table from the back, fourth from the end, the grey pegasus. You see him? Yes, right there."
  3068. > You had seen him, and he had seen that you'd seen him.
  3069. "You spoke to him already?"
  3070. > "Yesterday, and this morning."
  3071. "Okay. I'll speak first, after some others have shown up."
  3072. > "Until then?"
  3073. "I'll get some breakfast, of course."
  3074. > Technically you could have had breakfast afterwards.
  3075. > Mocha Cream had not accompanied you - in fact, not appeared in your room at all.
  3076. > The knowledge of what you would have to do to her was heavy on your heart, but that didn't mean you couldn't put the time to some good use.
  3077. > Cadance's continual reminders to be more involved had stuck on some level, after all.
  3078. > Besides, the breakfasts they made weren't that bad - as long as you stayed away from the hay - and so taking a tray and joining in wasn't anything bad.
  3079. > Of all the little luxuries you'd developed a fondness for in your wealth, extravagant breakfasts weren't one of them.
  3080. > More than a few ponies gave you expressions that varied between surprise and suspicion.
  3081. > There's no denying a sour mood hangs in the air.
  3082. > After all, word of the attempted escape had well and truly gotten around now.
  3083. > Expectation of an impending punishment seemed to have taken on an almost physical weight.
  3084. > One that you'd be all too happy to lift for them.
  3085. > Strangely, but the time you stand to speak Cadance herself has vanished.
  3086. > Odd, but not something you couldn't deal with.
  3087. > There's no proper podium, nor a real microphone - only an old telephone hooked up to the PA system.
  3088. > Inverting the handset you hold it to your lips and speak.
  3089. "Good morning, everyone."
  3090. > Your voice cuts the conversation off as sharply as a gunshot.
  3091. > Accompanied, of course, by the tension in the room dramatically thickening.
  3092. "As I'm sure all of you heard - many at the moment it happened - yesterday a pony tried flying over the fence. They were quickly apprehended by security."
  3093. > Murmurs run through the crowd, and you're quite certain those ponies not yet in the dining halls were listening to the PA speakers with perked ears.
  3094. "Yesterday, a pony made a choice to flee in frantic terror. After less than thirty-six hours here, they fled the belief that if they dared stay I'd hurt them eventually, one way or another. That taking the chance with the guards and danger of fleeing was the less scary option than staying here."
  3095. > You lock eyes with the stallion involved.
  3096. > He shakes in his seat, ears laid flat and lips drawn back despite Cadance's reassurances.
  3097. "I can't imagine the kind of fear that drives someone to abandon shelter, food, safety in favor of the unknown. But I know I can't just order you to stop feeling it... and certainly can't beat it out of you. I can only show you it is wrong."
  3098. > A thousand breaths are held in silent confusion.
  3099. "Normally Cadance handles sentencing you here... but I am stepping in now. For this attempt there will be no beating, no whipping, no torture. No physical punishment-"
  3100. > Any more words spoken are lost in the rising swell of voices.
  3101. > Mutters turn to discussion to yelling.
  3102. > You let it last for a moment before continuing:
  3103. "Quiet, quiet please! Listen - what you ran from, wasn't me. I understand that. It was a nightmare vision of what I would do. Thirty-six hours is not enough for you to fear anything I have done."
  3104. > Now you look around the room, at all the ponies staring in wide surprise.
  3105. "You will be given some extra work shifts. But I understand - there was no violence or anger here, just fear. I want to show you I am understanding. So - no whipping. No torments. Don't abuse my good will, and in return I will do all I can to avoid punishments."
  3106. > This time the rumble of voices is lower, less frenzied.
  3107. > Perhaps a minute or two after you return to your seat, the stallion in question appears at your side with a single question.
  3108. > "Why?"
  3109. "Because if I whipped you, I would never earn your trust again."
  3110. > "I-"
  3111. > He hesitates, wings stirring in uncertainty.
  3112. > "I don't understand. Why do you want trust? We're your slaves."
  3113. "Look around. Do you think any of this would work without trust?"
  3114. > "No, but..."
  3115. > That's odd.
  3116. > The hubbub is growing again, voices rising - something in the entrance pulling their attention.
  3117. > Standing, you crane your neck to see-
  3118. "She didn't..."
  3119. > Your chair practically goes flying back as you leap up and push through the crowd, but what you see is the same at any distance:
  3120. > Megan and Flurry Heart on one side, Cadance on the other, both flanking a terrified-looking Mocha Cream who is still managing to walk on her own.
  3121. > As you approach a new sound was growing - the constant thud-thud of hooves on the floor.
  3122. > At first only the older ponies who'd known who Mocha Cream was, but as word spreads around soon all are joining in until the building itself seems to shudder with their expression.
  3123. > Mocha stares with open-mouthed confusion, cheeks rapidly growing pink as she gawks at the reaction.
  3124. > When it becomes too much she buries her head in Cadance's wing.
  3125. > But she does not flee.
  3126. > When the cheers and stomp-applause have finally begun to die down, you drop to one knee before Megan.
  3127. "And what exactly did you just do? Why are you even up this early?!"
  3128. > "I got Mocha to come out!"
  3129. > Her grin is wide and eyes are lit with a sparkle.
  3130. > " 'cause, I know you said she would be scared, but I told her if we would be brave and go too then she could be brave and come with us-"
  3131. "You walked into the camp with just the three of you?!"
  3132. > "No, Master."
  3133. > Cadance speaks up quickly, shaking her head.
  3134. > "I was with them the whole time, after Canele came to tell me."
  3135. > Well, that explains where she'd vanished to after you arrived.
  3136. > But Canele - your chef in the manor?
  3137. > Yes, there he was.
  3138. > Flanks still covered with a slight sheen that spoke of a furious gallop, and peeking out with a nervous but satisfied smile from behind the group.
  3139. "Megan, did you co-opt one of the ponies for your own ideas again? I've told you about that..."
  3140. > Canele laughs - a tired, but satisfied laugh.
  3141. > "With respect, Master, Miss Meghan did not 'co-opt' me. She asked, and I chose to."
  3142. > Of course he would.
  3143. > Every pony in the manor knew about Mocha Cream's plight.
  3144. > If even one of them thought there was something to be done to improve it, they would gladly jump in to do what they could.
  3145. > Taking advantage of your pause, Megan jumps back in:
  3146. > "So, I got up early and asked Canele to go tell Cadance - and then she came and got us, and we came here-"
  3147. "You know Megan, I want to be angry at you for this... escapade. But honestly - honestly, I can only be a little proud."
  3148. > After all, she had done well.
  3149. > Not demanding, not ordering - but making use of what she knew ponies would do if pushed in just the right way.
  3150. "Yes, I'm proud of all of you. But especially-"
  3151. > Reaching out, you touch Mocha Cream's chin and gently guide her head from beneath Cadance's wing to look at you.
  3152. "-especially you, Mocha. I'm so very proud of you."
  3153. > "T-Thank y-you, Master."
  3154. > There are tears in her eyes, but the joyful sparkle behind them clearly shows they were not tears born of fear or sorrow.
  3155. "You did everything I asked. Maybe not the way I expected, but you did it."
  3156. > "Then, M-Master? D-Do you still have t-to p-p-punish me for not coming w-when you asked?"
  3157. "Punish-?! No! Not one bit."
  3158. > A fresh line of tears breaks from her eyes as Mocha Cream looks around the crowd.
  3159. > Ponies part, and Rumble emerges - sides heaving, but also grinning wildly.
  3160. > No words are exchanged between the two, only happy little nickers as they nuzzled each other.
  3161.  
  3162. > Tourmaline Twist is the first to arrive in your office, trotting a happy little trot at the prospect of seeing you again.
  3163. > "Your Highness!"
  3164. > She bows sharply, and you nod with an equally warm smile.
  3165. > A moment later, you reach over and tenderly nuzzle her.
  3166. "Hello, Tourmaline. I'm so glad to see you again."
  3167. > "The same, Your Highness. I heard you have a special job for me?"
  3168. "You and Lattice both, yes."
  3169. > "...ah."
  3170. > You blink, tilting your head.
  3171. "Is something wrong, Tourmaline?"
  3172. > "Forgive me, Your Highness, I don't want to speak ill of him-"
  3173. > Your eyes narrow.
  3174. > Under Sombra's reign, speaking poorly about another pony in certain respects had guaranteed them a visit from helmeted and obsidian-clad ponies looking to ask particular questions.
  3175. > But that would mean Lattice had some problem with you...?
  3176. "I will not punish him for thinking poorly of me, Tourmaline Twist. I realize that I am... not what some ponies expected, but despite holding this position in the camp I will not - cannot - punish thoughts."
  3177. > "...he doesn't hate you, Your Highness..."
  3178. "What, then?"
  3179. > Looking back towards the door - still firmly closed from when she'd entered - Tourmaline Twist leans in and whispers:
  3180. > "I think he's afraid of you."
  3181. > As you'd feared.
  3182. > Another terrified of the camp's 'overlord'-
  3183. > "No, nonono! Not like... he isn't afraid of the guards. Not even Master, I think. It's... just you. Your Highness."
  3184. > Your title added as if needed to placate you.
  3185. "...I don't understand. Has he said anything about why?"
  3186. > "No. We're not quartered together, and only had a chance to speak at mealtimes. But..."
  3187. "Well. I would appreciate your help in doing away with this fear - and you will have plenty of chances. As you'd heard, this is a topic for you specifically."
  3188. > Lattice does appear - albeit only at the exact hour he had been requested.
  3189. > With this new information, you look on him in a different light.
  3190. > Yes, he was scared.
  3191. > Eyes rarely on you, as if looking in to them would reveal something he wasn't prepared for you to see.
  3192. > Half of you wants to confront him with it then and there, let it out in the open before it gets any worse.
  3193. > That was not always a foolproof tactic, however, and you had plenty of other options in the meantime.
  3194. "Lattice, I am told you were skilled at growing Crystal back in the Empire - and Tourmaline, you at shaping and fitting. Anonymous is... interested in these abilities, and has asked that I let you have the chance to show your skill."
  3195. > "Truly, Your Highness?!"
  3196. > The note of elation in Lattice's voice lifts your heart a touch; for just a moment, your office is alight with shimmering light dancing from his coat.
  3197. "Yes. If you do well... we will see, but great things could come."
  3198. > Drawing a shuddering breath, Lattice looks like a foal who'd been shown a cookie and told he could have it if he won the race.
  3199. > Stopping him at all would be hard.
  3200. "A space will be provided for you to work in, and some initial supplies. I will check in with you once every couple days to see what you've managed; again: This will benefit not just you, but everypony here."
  3201. > "We'll do our absolute best!"
  3202. > You pass over slips of paper to each; oddly, Lattice barely lets his field brush against yours.
  3203. > Perhaps something unique to Crystal Unicorns' habits...?
  3204. > They were so very, very rare...
  3205. "These have your new assigned locations. Some basic equipment will be awaiting you there; when you do arrive, make a list of anything else you may need."
  3206. > A hesitation, before you speak more softly:
  3207. "...may I ask a - personal question, of both of you?"
  3208. > "Of course!"
  3209. > Lattice does not answer, but merely nods.
  3210. "I... I know you were so much stronger when your hearts were filled with love and joy."
  3211. > Now it is your turn to dip your head away from their gazes.
  3212. "This is not a place overflowing in such emotions, I cannot deny. If you are not able to work the great things you once were, do not blame yourself. Whatever you can do, be proud of."
  3213. > "Your Highness."
  3214. > It's the first time Lattice has really spoken to you, and his voice almost makes you jump from your seat.
  3215. > "You are proposing giving us our heritage back. A chance to... repay how you have saved us twice now. We will not disappoint you."
  3216. > A warm, rising feeling in your chest makes you sit up just a touch straighter.
  3217. > At the same time, there's still something... distant in his voice.
  3218. > Cautious.
  3219. "Thank you."
  3220. > Sensing their dismissal, both crystal ponies turn to leave.
  3221. > At the last moment, however, you cannot help but call out:
  3222. "Lattice!"
  3223. > He hesitates in the doorway; Tourmaline Twist is already gone and the remaining stallion knows he is alone with you.
  3224. > "...Your Highness?"
  3225. "Please, whatever it is that makes you fear me-"
  3226. > “Is this an order, Your Highness?”
  3227. “No.”
  3228. > "Then don't - don't ask me that."
  3229. > The pain in his voice is almost physical, enough to rock you back.
  3230. > "Just know that you have saved me twice already, and leave me to my crystals. Please."
  3231. [Choice]
  3232. "I will."
  3233. > You bow your head, mane falling forward over your face.
  3234. "I cannot force you to say anything you do not want to. Not when you've done nothing wrong."
  3235. > "Thank you, Your Highness."
  3236. > His whisper is still laden with fear, as if to say anything more would cause you to change your mind.
  3237. > After he is gone you remain, tapping a pencil thoughtfully on the tabletop.
  3238. > Without a doubt something was eating at Lattice.
  3239. > Something that caused him to fear you - fear speaking to you.
  3240. > To not want his magic to touch yours.
  3241. > But what...?
  3242. > Had he heard some rumor about you that would make him fear you?
  3243. > Or was it back from before, in the Crystal Empire?
  3244. > You didn't remember wronging anyone back then, but you couldn't be sure.
  3245. > "Your Highness?"
  3246. "Mayor Mare? Come in; I'm not busy."
  3247. > The graying mare slips into your office and carefully shuts the door behind her.
  3248. > "Did your talk with them not go well? I heard you speaking as you stepped out..."
  3249. "No, it went well. Just, Lattice... I don't understand it. He is scared of me, for some reason."
  3250. > "Because you - manage this place?"
  3251. "I don't think so. Something else - something deeper."
  3252. > "Should I approach him, Your Highness?"
  3253. > That thought sends a soft shudder through your wings.
  3254. "No, please. Even if you meant well, if he -"
  3255. > You pause, hesitating, then continue more softly:
  3256. "The Crystals, Mayor Mare, have very particular memories about being... investigated by authorities. We can set a schedule, but he cannot feel as though we're looming over his withers."
  3257. > "I understand."
  3258. "If we do have to... maybe come with some gifts. To show his work is still appreciated."
  3259. > The older mare cracks a small smile, wrinkles at the corners of her eyes forming.
  3260. > "That sounds excellent. Though I'd hoped he would understand better after that show this morning..."
  3261. "It was quite the display, wasn't it?"
  3262. > "Absolutely. I was most surprised by Megan's role in it."
  3263. "I wasn't - not as much. She's bonding well with my Little Gem -"
  3264. > Chuckling softly at Mayor Mare's confused look, you add:
  3265. "Flurry Heart. They're bonding well together, and not just as Mistress and slave. I'm... glad, as strange as it may sound to hear."
  3266. > "Because she is thinking of helping ponies?"
  3267. > You rise, turning to look out the office's large glass window.
  3268. "It's not just that. She didn't just want Flurry Heart to be happy, she asked ponies who she knew would want to help for assistance. You would not believe how surprised I was when I saw Anonymous' chef come galloping up, flanks covered in froth..."
  3269. > Turning back from the window, you offer Mayor Mare a small smile:
  3270. "She's thinking of us as individuals, not as tools. That gives me hope; if she can think of us like that, then she can question why we are owned like tools."
  3271. > "You think she will free us?"
  3272. "I don't know yet. But I think she is our best chance right now."
  3273. > "I hope you are correct, Cadance."
  3274. > Turning to look at the image of Princess Celestia pinned to your wall, Mayor Mare sighs.
  3275. > "Truthfully, I'd accepted the idea of dying a slave. A mare like me doesn't have too much long left, you know?
  3276. "Don't be like that, Mayor. You can't ever let go of hope!"
  3277. > Still facing the image, she smiles - though the expression doesn't quite reach her eyes.
  3278. > "Now I don't. Now I have you, and perhaps Megan and Flurry to give me hope. But before this..."
  3279. > Wrenching her eyes away, she turns back to you.
  3280. > "No, if you say there's hope I'll trust you know what you are saying. Maybe I can get back what I gave up amid that despair..."
  3281. "You certainly can, if you try. Now, was this the only thing you came to ask about, or...?"
  3282. > "Oh, no! Sunburst left a message for you; he said that something very important had come up and you should come to see him 'as soon as humanly possible'. Those words, exactly. He told me about that."
  3283. > Instantly the edges of your mouth fall in a frown.
  3284. > As soon as humanly possible - that meant come see him much later, because he had resistance matters to discuss with you.
  3285. > But what would he want now...?
  3286. "Was he - nervous?"
  3287. > "No, he seemed okay. Your Highness - do I want to know what this is about?"
  3288. > There's a glint in her eyes, one that comes from somewhere behind the spectacles she wore.
  3289. > Mayor Mare was no fool; if any pony could have discerned that you were planning something it would be the one who helped you oversee so much of the camp.
  3290. > And yet, that she hadn't brought Anonymous down on you...
  3291. > If she was speaking about daring to believe again...
  3292. "I can't tell you whether you want to know. That is for you to decide. I can only say that it is about hope."
  3293. > The answer seems to satisfy her, as Mayor Mare's mouth crinkles into a smile.
  3294. > "I won't pry then, Your Highness."
  3295. > Despite her reassurance, the matter hangs over your head for much of the day.
  3296. > By the time evening rolls around, you're having to restrain yourself from galloping to his office.
  3297. > You tap lightly on the door and wait; a second later it cracks open and a nervous aquamarine eye peers out.
  3298. "You wanted to speak to me, Sunburst?"
  3299. > "Oh! Yes, Your Highness! Um, one moment-"
  3300. > The door shuts, and something heavy on the far side is moved over.
  3301. > One eyebrow rises; just was he up to in there?
  3302. > Finally the door cracks open again, and you slip in.
  3303. > As before, Sunburst's office is a cluttered and chaotic mess.
  3304. > Piles of books rise like stalagmites, and the sole window is half-blocked by one such pile.
  3305. > A musty smell permeates the place despite not being particularly old.
  3306. > Now, however, there is another photo on his desk - a more recent one, provided by Anonymous.
  3307. > Megan, holding Flurry Heart, poses before the camera with him.
  3308. "Something to keep your spirits up?"
  3309. > "Yes, Your Highness. I still don't get to see her as much outside of lessons. Just... short on time. I've been, um. Very busy, with - the plan."
  3310. "The escape plan."
  3311. > "Yes."
  3312. > Sunburst bobs his head, the barest touch of a smile flitting across it.
  3313. > You'd figured it was something like that, but of course his message hadn't outright said.
  3314. > "I told Anonymous it was just the extra work with new ponies coming in - and that is adding some. But teaching Flurry Heart and Mocha Cream, organizing the new workshops, and then staying out to work on the fields late at night..."
  3315. "If you're being overworked, Sunburst-"
  3316. > "I can manage. It's not like I've much else to do..."
  3317. > You hold a flat gaze on him until Sunburst wilts.
  3318. > "...fine, I'll see what I can pass on to others."
  3319. "Good. Because Flurry Heart... she needs you to be more than just an instructor. She needs a friend again too."
  3320. > "And I could probably use one too, huh?"
  3321. > Rubbing his chin, Sunburst sighs.
  3322. > "But - this is important, Your Highness. What's happened now, I mean."
  3323. "I gathered, since you asked me out here. What is it?"
  3324. > "You remember the basics of the plan, yes? We enchant ponies to inhabit books, and then send those out of the camp - right under the guards' noses. But they still need somewhere safe to go. That's been the choke point, the big delay: Making sure nopony would be... lost."
  3325. "And you have something now, I assume?"
  3326. > "Yes!"
  3327. > Sunburst nods enthusiastically, sending his ragged mane bouncing.
  3328. > "We - have verified contact from one of the groups we were talking to. They say they're ready to receive anypony here who needs to get away."
  3329. > Now?
  3330. > It must have been-
  3331. > "Somepony among the new arrivals, yeah."
  3332. > Sunburst nods, having accurately guessed your thoughts.
  3333. "Can we trust them?"
  3334. > "I've verified who they are. The message I received matches their radio broadcasts. And they're one of the better-known organizations."
  3335. > His glasses slip from his muzzle, a rag on the table rising to polish the lenses.
  3336. > Looking back, you suddenly realize how nervous he looks.
  3337. > "Your Highness, I - I don't know what to do. Is this - we started this plan so long ago-"
  3338. "We stick with it."
  3339. > Settling on your haunches, you sigh:
  3340. "Anonymous has... greatly improved. We are now more dedicated than ever before to this place, but we have to be prepared. If something were to happen, or he were to... slip back..."
  3341. > You stomp one hoof - then wince at the noise it created.
  3342. > A second pauses with both of you in silence, ears pricked for any sign of someone having heard.
  3343. "How did they reach out to you, Sunburst?"
  3344. > "A note, slipped into one of our dead-drop locations. I detailed how to reach it on a message out."
  3345. "It couldn't have been read? Found out?"
  3346. > "If it were, Your Highness, we would all be in chains."
  3347. > That is... rational enough.
  3348. > Anonymous had never been one to withhold his anger once roused; if he discovered this plot there wouldn't be any sneaking about, just a single swift punishment.
  3349. "You don't know who it is, then."
  3350. > "No. They are keeping their distance, so far. But, given the timing..."
  3351. "It has to be somepony in the new arrivals."
  3352. > The only question is why they had waited two weeks since arriving to make the point.
  3353. > A second of hesitation, and then Sunburst adds:
  3354. > "...Your Highness, forgive me. I... I've been dedicated to this, but I'm scared now."
  3355. > The glasses fall to his table, the bookish stallion raising his eyes with a fearful, helpless expression.
  3356. > "I don't want to be whipped again! I don't know what to do!"
  3357. "Oh, Sunburst, forgive me..."
  3358. > Stepping around the table, you extend a wing and Sunburst quickly leans into it.
  3359. > "I don't blame you. I don't, Your Highness. You did what you had to, and Celestia knows I'm glad to have time with Flurry Heart too. But I'm scared... scared of losing her. Of going back up on that stage, being tied to that pole..."
  3360. > He shudders, and your heart quakes in sympathy.
  3361. > "Your H- Cadance. Cadance, please tell me - what's our plan here? Are we still trying for this? If somepony did come expecting to escape..."
  3362. [Choice]
  3363. "We pass the same instructions on to them that I've been giving to you: This is our fallback. Our reserve. Our last resort, in case Anonymous... falls."
  3364. > "Cadance, if someponye came in here just to deliver this message-"
  3365. "I know!"
  3366. > Your voice had been sharper than intended, and Sunburst recoils from your touch.
  3367. > Sighing, you extend your wing again.
  3368. "I'm sorry, Sunburst. I didn't mean..."
  3369. > After a moment, he slips back near to you.
  3370. "I suppose... I am afraid too. I fear-"
  3371. > A monster beyond your control.
  3372. > One of your own making, even.
  3373. > Now running beyond your control, making it impossible for you to secure your daughter's safety.
  3374. > Sweet Celestia, what would Anonymous do if he found out?
  3375. > It would be so much worse than when you'd merely been his unwilling slave.
  3376. > Now you were bound up in his efforts; if he discovered your plans now it'd be like -
  3377. > Like a discovering a cheating spouse.
  3378. > He truly believed you were a wholehearted accomplice in his efforts now, and in many way you were.
  3379. > But what were your alternatives?
  3380. > March up to his front door and admit everything?
  3381. > You snort audibly, earning a questioning look from Sunburst.
  3382. > That'd go fantastically.
  3383. > It'd be lucky if you only ended up with the worst whipping of your life, and not hours shackled into that gibbet again!
  3384. > No.
  3385. "Sunburst, let me ask you this: Can you maintain control of your organization? Just the ponies you have recruited so far?"
  3386. > "The ones I know, absolutely. But the way we've isolated each group, each cell - I can't honestly say all of them."
  3387. > Always straightforward.
  3388. "Then here is what you are going to do: Reply to this - messenger. Keep it limited to as few ponies as you can, even within your network. Perhaps even set aside a group just for this purpose."
  3389. > Even as you'd begun to talk, Sunburst had grabbed a paper pad and pencil to begin scratching down your words.
  3390. "Tell them that we're glad to have them here and will be more than happy to continue firming up the plan. I would even like to see some - test runs of the plan with inert objects, to verify it will work as planned. But - we will not be initiating an escape. Not now, and not until we are truly at our last resort. This is now a contingency for emergencies."
  3391. > "Got it."
  3392. > You hiss, glancing out one of the half-blocked windows.
  3393. > Just where was this mysterious messenger-pony...
  3394. "We'll have to keep them at hooves'-length until we can be certain they are patient enough to understand. Until then - our objective is to hold this as tightly as possible."
  3395. > "I understand, Your Highness. And if they do decide that we aren't worth waiting for? If they go to Anonymous?"
  3396. "Then-"
  3397. > Your voice is whisper soft.
  3398. "-then they will only know the ponies who communicated with them. Whoever you ask to do this - make sure they understand the risk."
  3399. > "I will, Your Highness."
  3400. > They might accept the danger.
  3401. > But do you?
  3402. > For that matter, if storm clouds begin to gather over the camp again can you really bring yourself to order another escape?
  3403. > Certainly ponies would obey you.
  3404. > ...most of them.
  3405. > If not-
  3406. > "You're thinking of your daughter, Your Highness?"
  3407. > Sunburst's voice cuts through your thoughts.
  3408. > Though, the way you jump probably has more too do with how accurate his guess is.
  3409. > "Forgive me, Your Highness, I - you had a look I know well."
  3410. "It's fine, Sunburst. I just..."
  3411. > Your head hangs, mane sweeping down to cover your eyes and wings shuffling.
  3412. "...will she follow me, Sunburst? If - if it happens, and we order an escape, will she follow?"
  3413. > "Flurry Heart is not blind or stupid, Your Highness. What she did for Mocha Cream proves it; that would never have occurred to Megan without your daughter at her side."
  3414. "No. I know she isn't, but - Celestia help me - they have their hooks sunk so far into her mind. She's so - devoted. If I ask her to leave Megan-"
  3415. > "I know."
  3416. > Lifting a hoof, Sunburst ever-so-lightly touches your side.
  3417. > As if daring to lay a hoof on your body were - sacrilegious.
  3418. > "But you can stop it before it gets to that point. And if it does - then she can find her voice too, Cadance. Anonymous might have a temper, but he does listen - if not to her, then to Megan."
  3419. > ...
  3420. > Anonymous looks calmly at the small collection of marble-sized crystals you set out on his table.
  3421. > None were very large, and all heavily flawed.
  3422. > Nothing like the pure and gleaming gems that had once risen from the Crystal Empire.
  3423. > He sees it too.
  3424. > Picking up one, he studies it with a critical eye.
  3425. > Beside you, Tourmaline Twist and Lattice shuffle nervously, the latter briefly lighting his horn to adjust the kerchief he had taken to wearing around his neck.
  3426. > Neither was used to the opulence of his office or being in close proximity to Anonymous.
  3427. > "...relax, both of you. I asked you to do this."
  3428. > Setting the stones down, he motions to the pile overall.
  3429. > "This took a week?"
  3430. > "Yes, Master. I - know they're not very good-"
  3431. > Cutting Lattice off with a raised hand, Anonymous shakes his head.
  3432. > "What is this - rubies?"
  3433. > "Mostly, yes. It's - what the soil here is best for. What I can bring up from the ground. Some sapphire, malachite..."
  3434. "They cannot generate gems from nothing, Master. Just like growing plants, the gems need something to grow from."
  3435. > "Rubies, but... very rough, I'd say."
  3436. > He isn't wrong.
  3437. > Each and every one there was shot through with flaws: Cracks, inclusions, impurities.
  3438. > Gemstones were not your specialty, but you had lived long enough in the Crystal Empire to recognize when they were so dramatically imperfect.
  3439. > Tourmaline Twist shifts on her hooves.
  3440. > "We're still - learning how to use the ground here, Master. And neither of us has been able to practice this in a very long time..."
  3441. > "I'm not looking for excuses - Tourmaline, yes?"
  3442. > The mare shifts, looking away as she nods.
  3443. > "I'm not looking for excuses. I just want to honestly know, can you produce crystals I can use for something better? You too, Cadance."
  3444. > Tourmaline is the first to speak up.
  3445. > She even manages to project some force into her voice, even if her ears are still flicking nervously:
  3446. > "I think I can, Master. And even if they aren't good enough to be sold for jewelry - you use other crystals here for enchanted items, correct? Even imperfect crystals we grow can be better for that than whatever you're buying."
  3447. "This is true. Even what is too flawed for a jeweler to use can be used for enchanting."
  3448. > "And it'll be better than what I'm buying? Because those don't exactly cost much."
  3449. "Significantly. Enchantments will take with less effort, and last longer."
  3450. > Rubbing his chin, Anonymous turns one of the gems around in his hand.
  3451. > "Tourmaline, Lattice - there's no penalty here for being honest with me. Can you do better than this? Make enough to support our enchanters?"
  3452. > "Yes! With more time, more practice - we can!"
  3453. > While Tourmaline seems more certain with this repetition, Lattice's ears fall.
  3454. > "I... yes, Master. I - I think I'm already improving."
  3455. "Can you show him, Lattice? Which ones you worked on?"
  3456. > Instantly Lattice flinches, looking to you with fear in his eyes.
  3457. > You're left with the particular sense that this was something he'd rather wished you hadn't suggested.
  3458. > Anonymous, unfortunately, notices it too and leans forward:
  3459. > "Yes, Lattice. Why don't your show us?"
  3460. > Lighting his horn, Lattice carefully removes three gems from the pile - and no more.
  3461. > Not the largest nor the finest of the lot either.
  3462. > "...Cadance, I thought you said his talent was creating these."
  3463. "I did. Lattice?"
  3464. > "I can do better! I can! You - I don't know why - it's not working right, I can-"
  3465. > Tourmaline nuzzles him and Lattice cuts off, burying his muzzle in her mane.
  3466. > Your heart twists; of course he would be terrified.
  3467. > The vicious consequences of failing a slaver was something the Crystal Ponies remembered all too well.
  3468. > "Please, Yo- Miss Cadance! Master Anonymous! I can do better, just - give me time!"
  3469. "...I believe him, Anonymous. Let him keep trying."
  3470. > Rubbing his chin, Anonymous looks at you questioningly - but nods.
  3471. > "Okay. You're both dismissed; return to your work and keep trying harder. We'll check in once you've had a chance to improve."
  3472. > "Thank you, Master!"
  3473. > "Yes, Master! Thank you!"
  3474. > Both all but flee from the room, not even bothering to collect their gems before leaving.
  3475. > Anonymous grumbles softly:
  3476. > "I hope you're right about them being able to get better, Cadance."
  3477. "They just need to be more comfortable, Anonymous!"
  3478. > "So I've been told."
  3479. > Pushing his seat back, he stands and walks to the window.
  3480. > "And Cadance, remember: When we're in front of them, I'm Master. I'm willing to tolerate a bit when it's just us or close friends, but not all the time."
  3481. > Wincing, you follow close behind.
  3482. "...yes, Master."
  3483. > "Good girl."
  3484. > Beneath, the two crystals trot out from the manor and back into the camp proper.
  3485. > "I hate to sound the tough one, Cadance, but it's been a week and they've barely made a handful of dollars. It's not enough to even feed them on."
  3486. "But-"
  3487. > Silencing you with a raised hand, Anonymous shakes his head.
  3488. > "I'll give them time to work. It's only two ponies, and this experiment may yet be worth it. Do what you have to in order to make them comfortable. I admit, though, I'm... not sure. Might've gotten dollar signs in my eyes when I heard the idea."
  3489. > He sweeps back around to settle back into his chair with a might groan from both man and wood.
  3490. > "Lattice is doing poorly at this. He doesn't seem to have much skill at all, despite claiming it's his talent."
  3491. > Still following, you sigh and feel your ears falling:
  3492. "I... am afraid some of that may be my fault. He seems to fear me and it is affecting his skill. I don't know why."
  3493. > Leaning over, Anonymous places a soft, affectionate kiss between your ears - leaving you squirming at the touch.
  3494. > "It upsets you, doesn't it."
  3495. "Yes. Very."
  3496. > "I can tell. You feel - affectionate towards these two. Almost - motherly. But baby birds need to be kicked out of the nest to fly - or, do pegasi do that?"
  3497. "They do not!"
  3498. > Anonymous chuckles at your indignant expression.
  3499. > "I get it. They were your charges. You want to be easy on them. But that's not how things are anymore, Cadance."
  3500. "Believe me, Master, I know."
  3501. > If he realizes the point of you calling him Master, it doesn't show.
  3502. "Once he starts to feel comfortable, he'll do so much more."
  3503. > "I hope so. If we could do this - even just to grow better crystals for the enchanting workshops-"
  3504. > Unconsciously, Anonymous reaches out to begin stroking your mane.
  3505. > You tolerate it silently.
  3506. > It wasn't - entirely unpleasant.
  3507. "There's something else I want to bring up, Anonymous. I think - with all the new ponies coming in, I'll need to take some actions to prevent... more incidents like that escape attempt."
  3508. > "Mmm, yes. We're lucky there hasn't been another one."
  3509. > You have been lucky.
  3510. > No need for you to take up the whip again.
  3511. "Exactly. And, I think, we need to make it clear that just running away without a plan is - dangerous."
  3512. > Anonymous' eyes fly open.
  3513. > Studying you with an intensely scrutinized expression, the corners of his mouth turn down into a frown.
  3514. > Your heart leaps; was it too much?
  3515. > Too blunt?
  3516. > Did he suspect-
  3517. > "I get it."
  3518. > Laughing softly, he leans back into his seat and folds his hands together.
  3519. > "You think Lattice might get some rabbit in his blood, try to run? I don't think you're right, but I'm open. What are you thinking of?"
  3520. > The relief on your face must be clear, even if he doesn't know of the escape plan.
  3521. > What exactly are you thinking of, though?
  3522. > This would have to be done delicately, to avoid the appearance that you've suddenly turned to - promoting slavery.
  3523. > ...even though you kind of are.
  3524. > A lump forms in your throat at that thought - yet another rung down the ladder of dignity for you.
  3525. > Your own fault this time too.
  3526. > You could just focus on contacting one of the ponies that had left with the last plan - have them talk about what hardships they'd encountered on their attempt.
  3527. > Or - or, Thunderlane had mentioned that the construction teams had a free pony on them, and that his life was none too easy either.
  3528. > Perhaps he could talk?
  3529. > Even have Anonymous take some of the others into the city, to see what you had.
  3530. > Would that strike the balance you were aiming for - resist only when necessary?
  3531. [Choice]
  3532. "Anonymous, do you remember when I went into the city? How what we saw... affected me?"
  3533. > "Yes... you want to take them with you?"
  3534. > He's catching on fast.
  3535. "Not them - not the Crystals. It would be too much to think about, and - I'm not sure I can think of a good reason to include them. No, just - some ponies, from within the camp."
  3536. > Besides, the Crystals weren't the ones who you were worried about.
  3537. > "Granted, you'd still need a reason to bring them along."
  3538. "Do we?"
  3539. > Anonymous tilts his head.
  3540. > "Won't it be a bit obvious if we don't?"
  3541. "Yes - well - not having no reason at all. Just, we don't need a specific reason reason for the ponies in question. If we had to..."
  3542. > You tap a hoof thoughtfully; quickly, however, Anonymous speaks up:
  3543. > "I have a potentially risk proposition to suggest."
  3544. "Tell me."
  3545. > "Mocha Cream is - coming down to visit more often now, yes?"
  3546. > Despite the serious topic, a small smile finds its way to your lips.
  3547. "Yes - always with my escort, but she is coming. Has even started speaking to some of the other ponies on her own again. Why?"
  3548. > "The computers I ordered are coming in within a few days."
  3549. > You nod absentmindedly.
  3550. > Deciding that the camp finally merited allowing some more advanced human technology in - albeit under severe restrictions, as he had put it, to avoid ponies using it for 'unfortunate purposes' - had been a welcome one.
  3551. > But you still weren't quite sure how-
  3552. > It clicks, and you breathe softly:
  3553. "The family project..."
  3554. > "Exactly."
  3555. > Nodding in confirmation, Anonymous cracks a small grin in return.
  3556. > "Mocha will announce that opportunity opening up. Once they start identifying possible acquisitions, we can have the closest relative come along to collect them... but for other acquisitions, to fill in work team positions we need, why not have it be by lottery instead? Or 'lottery' anyhow."
  3557. > There's something unsettling about how easily willing he is to bias an allegedly-fair chance.
  3558. > But you can't deny the value of the idea.
  3559. "I think that would work very well, yes!"
  3560. > "Not to urgent a need, to get these ponies out on a trip then?"
  3561. > Snorting gently you shake your head and give your tail a little lash.
  3562. "I'm not expecting a dramatic escape attempt tomorrow, if that's what you mean."
  3563. > "Good. So, you think this will work out?"
  3564. "I can't see any reason why it wouldn't. I appreciate your input-"
  3565. > "Don't worry about it. This is why we talk - to get these ideas out and bounce them off each other."
  3566. > You nod sharply.
  3567. "And in the meantime... maybe I will begin to speak about it a bit more honestly. Not making it overly obvious, but speaking about how much it hurt to... lose some of them."
  3568. > To this, Anonymous doesn't reply.
  3569. > Only jerks his head in an affirmative gesture, his mouth set in a thin line.
  3570. > A second later, though, it softens.
  3571. > "I'm glad to have you on my side now, Cadance. Working through this together is infinitely better than butting heads over it."
  3572. > On his side?
  3573. > You recognize the futility of trying to push an escape early, but no.
  3574. > You are not 'on his side'.
  3575. > Not the side of someone who would so casually dismiss what you had been to your ponies, your bond with them.
  3576. > Just another reminder that Anonymous might be better than he had been, but in so many ways Anonymous still saw you as his things.
  3577. > Turning aside, you look back to the window.
  3578. > Tourmaline Twist and Lattice had long since vanished back into the camp.
  3579. > Part of you wants to lecture him.
  3580. > To explode, even.
  3581. > Let all the frustration and pain and regret that had been stored away inside of you so long burst forth.
  3582. > Would he even understand how much you had lost, if you did?
  3583. > It'd be a gamble at the core - if you didn't get through to him, it was unlikely he would take it lying down.
  3584. > Maybe there'd come a day when you didn't mind that cost, but that day was not today.
  3585. > Today you remind yourself that however much regret was born on your shoulders, Aunt Celestia had undoubtedly borne more through her long life as a ruler.
  3586. > Undoubtedly was bearing so much more now.
  3587. > Anonymous' hand brushes the back of your neck.
  3588. > "Penny for your thoughts, Cadance?"
  3589. "Will we ever be free?"
  3590. > The question is whispered out.
  3591. > Half of you didn't even mean for him to hear it, and that same half worries even that would be enough to provoke an outburst of anger from him.
  3592. > But the other half is honestly wondering how he will answer.
  3593. > "I don't know. There's a political movement here and there, a bill gets proposed in congress every year or two. But the scales are against them. Too many people seeing what could be done with you."
  3594. > With you.
  3595. > Not for you.
  3596. > Not alongside you.
  3597. > That he doesn't even say anything of his own plans tells you enough of what his plans are.
  3598. > You blow a sigh out through flared nostrils.
  3599. "...I see."
  3600. > Behind you Anonymous stirs.
  3601. > "Cadance-"
  3602. "No. I understand."
  3603.  
  3604. > The first time you'd seen the few tents in the distance, you hadn't thought of it.
  3605. > After all, they were on the next hill over.
  3606. > Maybe half a mile from the cam's fence - far too distant to really see anything.
  3607. > Besides, who decided to camp out in the middle of the summer was entirely their business and not your own.
  3608. > But they weren't just camping out.
  3609. > That much became clear when the encampment vanished a few days later, and certain when half a dozen more tents and a pair of large house-like trucks joined them.
  3610. > You missed the start of the real trouble, though - when the banner was unfurled.
  3611. > Heard about it pretty quickly, though, when a pony came galloping down the road:
  3612. > "Mister Thunderlane! Mister Seismic! You'd better come on over, there might be a problem!"
  3613. > Immediately your heart is pounding, adrenaline pumping into your veins.
  3614. "Where?"
  3615. > "I'm from the number four enchanting shop - over in third and 'F' streets, near the fence! But there's a lot of ponies watching now!"
  3616. "What is it? A fight? Is anypony hurt?"
  3617. > "No, just - come and see!"
  3618. > He takes off at a gallop with both you and Seismic Shift following close behind.
  3619. > Your stomach begins to sink as you get close:
  3620. > So many ponies, crowded around near the edge of the fence.
  3621. > Had somepony tried to jump the fence again?!
  3622. > ...no, they weren't surrounding anypony.
  3623. > They were crowding in against the fence, looking out.
  3624. > But why-
  3625. > You follow their eyes, and come skidding to a stop.
  3626. "It's - it's a -"
  3627. > A protest.
  3628. > An enormous banner, easily a couple hundred feet long, had been unfurled:
  3629. > 'WE WILL NOT FORGET YOU'
  3630. > As the wind shifts, distant scraps of singing drift over to your ears.
  3631. > "And where in Tartarus were they when we were being enslaved, huh?"
  3632. > The growled question from Seismic leaves you with an eyebrow raised; he'd rarely given his thoughts about being enslaved.
  3633. > Several other smaller banners had also joined the largest one, some too small to be read easily at this distance while some screamed out their messages in huge block letters:
  3634. > 'SLAVERY = ABOMINATION'
  3635. > 'LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL'
  3636. > 'BREAK THE CHAINS'
  3637. > Tearing your eyes away, you grunt:
  3638. "Where they were doesn't matter. What matters is they're here, now, and we've got work to be doing."
  3639. > Wading into the crowd, you raise your voice and start urging ponies back inside the workshops.
  3640. > Most go, though some take a little more urging.
  3641. > Seismic joins you, as do a few others among the crowd; as you all work cars begin to arrive on the far side of the fence.
  3642. > First one of the camp guards' vehicles, and then two police cars.
  3643. > Soon after, Anonymous himself pulls up and goes to speak with the police.
  3644. > Much as you wish you could listen in on that particular conversation, you have to keep urging everypony back inside and so only catch the very end.
  3645. > "...the hell do you mean, they're on public land?!"
  3646. > "Sir, they're staying on the edges of the county road. As long as they don't block the road or create a hazard for cars, I can't do anything about them."
  3647. > With a sweeping gesture, Anonymous motions towards the rapidly-diminishing crowd of ponies.
  3648. > "They're disrupting my property, officer!"
  3649. > "Yes, sir. But that's their rights. I can't order them to leave unless they present an actual danger."
  3650. > Grumbling, Anonymous rubs his face in a palm.
  3651. > Beside you a voice laughs softly.
  3652. > "It's a good thing he doesn't know some of them were over near the fence before too."
  3653. > Turning, you find Copper Dust still standing out and watching as well.
  3654. "Were they?"
  3655. > "Uh-huh. Not damaging the fence or anything, but talking to ponies. That's why everypony was out."
  3656. "You going to tell him?"
  3657. > "I wasn't. Are you?"
  3658. > You glance back towards Anonymous, who seems to have come to terms with this for the moment and is now taking rather more calmly with the police.
  3659. > No, you aren't going to tell him.
  3660. > Not right now, anyhow.
  3661. "Why're you still out here, Copper Dust?"
  3662. > "I was helping send ponies back inside."
  3663. > "He was."
  3664. > Seismic Shift rumbles.
  3665. > "Saw him in the crowd, trying to wave ponies back inside."
  3666. "...huh."
  3667. > You eye Copper Dust inquiringly; he manages an awkward grin.
  3668. > "Is that - against the rules?"
  3669. "No, not at all. I appreciate it, actually."
  3670. > "He did good. S'got a good, strong voice."
  3671. > Copper Dust rolls his eyes at Seismic's comment, but doesn't argue.
  3672. "You know, if you're that good at it you could always join the camp's watch. We could use more ponies."
  3673. > "I-"
  3674. > Glancing aside, Copper Dust frowns.
  3675. > "Look, I know - I get you're not monsters or bullies or anything. But - I don't think I can do that. Help - them enforce us."
  3676. "It's not like that, Copper. The watch doesn't arrest anypony, doesn't do whippings. They just keep the simple rules. The little rules for life anywhere, not obeying-"
  3677. > "They send reports to the ones who do, and-"
  3678. > Copper Dust bites his tongue.
  3679. > "...sorry. Look, I'm just not going to be a collaborator."
  3680. "I understand."
  3681. > You offer a calm, disarming smile.
  3682. "No one's going to force you. And your honesty's good, I like that too."
  3683. > "Thanks. I guess I should get back inside too, huh?"
  3684. > Turning to go back in, Copper suddenly pauses and looks back towards the protestors.
  3685. > "I just never imagined I would see anything like that - here."
  3686. "You've seen it before?"
  3687. > "Once... or twice. A few times. Humans willing to help ponies. Wanting us to be free. I used to be owned further east. There were sometimes people there."
  3688. "Never seen anything like it. I still can't quite believe it."
  3689. > Seismic gives a dismissive, annoyed snort towards the crowd - that giving his own apparent opinions on them.
  3690. > "Hmm."
  3691. > Copper Dust gives a shake of his long, shaggy mane - lighting his horn to brush it out of his eyes.
  3692. "Y'know, if you want to do something about that there's a mare over on 4th and C streets who can cut it pretty good. She's how I keep mine up."
  3693. > Lifting a hoof, you brush the top of your spiked-up mohawk meaningfully.
  3694. > "Ha. Nah, it's okay. I like it this way. Thanks, though."
  3695. "No problem."
  3696. > As Copper Dust wanders back into his workshop, you turn to Seismic Shift.
  3697. > His eyes have fallen on the distant encampment again, and are narrowed in something that is definitely not pleasure.
  3698. > Ears are pinned too.
  3699. > Eventually he catches your gaze.
  3700. > "Look at them out there... singing songs, holding up banners. Like that's going to really change anything."
  3701. "You don't know that. Humans aren't like ponies. They don't - think like us. We remember the herd, will act to protect it. They... I don't know."
  3702. > Seismic snorts heavily again.
  3703. > "Either act for what you want to see, or keep your mouth shut. Don't go halfway, I say."
  3704. "They could still be trouble, though. We need to be prepared for something."
  3705. > "Agreed."
  3706. > Anonymous is still fuming much later when you get called up to his office.
  3707. > Gene is there too, but looks rather more uncertain.
  3708. > You get the sense he doesn't quite seem to know how to think of this.
  3709. > On second glance, neither does Anonymous:
  3710. > He stands in front of a table, arms folded and staring with dull eyes at the papers spread out before him.
  3711. > "...right, here's the deal. Good news is, I went down and talked with the county police chief. Good news is, cops will hit 'em as soon as they actually cross any lines with us."
  3712. > Slumping back into his chair, he rubs his forehead.
  3713. > "Bad news is, they're professional shitflingers. Some of the banners they've got put up, they're linked to some kind of national movement. They're probably getting advice and planning assistance on how to stay out of trouble while making the most grief for us possible."
  3714. "Do you think they'll stay? A long time, I mean?"
  3715. > "Yeah. Turns out there's some open land maybe forty minutes from here. Once I chatted with the chief a bit he mentioned they've started setting up tents and RVs, settling in for the long haul."
  3716. > Gene makes a little uncertain noise in the back of his throat.
  3717. > "I heard they were over at the fence before you got there."
  3718. > "Did you? Huh. Something wrong, Thunderlane?"
  3719. > Promptly you slam your mouth shut.
  3720. > Damn your surprised look!
  3721. "No. I'm just... I hadn't seen any of that."
  3722. > "Well, that's what happened. I've called up the security company that wired up this house. They're willing to put up some new systems - set some cameras on the fence, wire it all up. Bad news is, it's going to be pricey. And Gene, I think we're going to need a new hire for that?"
  3723. > "Yes. Not enough to watch that many screens now. But, the Pegasus Detectors - I'd have to have someone check it, but a person should be large enough to set them off if they get too close without a tag."
  3724. "Is there, uh, a way to make them not go off like that? Otherwise they could really cause problems just by running up and making them sound off. Those things turn stomachs from a gallop or two away."
  3725. > "...probably. Silent alarm below a specific altitude? Below the fence-top? Yes, I'd have to check the programming for them."
  3726. > Anonymous nods sharply.
  3727. > "Do that. It's still going to be pricey, but if we can use their motion detectors it'll be less so... okay, Thunderlane?"
  3728. > You can already guess what he's going to ask you for.
  3729. "I can find a few ponies willing to pull some extra watches."
  3730. > "Good. It won't be for long, but I'm willing to bet they'll try something like that again and I can't risk-"
  3731. > The office door pops open, and Mayor Mare slips in.
  3732. > "My apology, Sir, Cadance was caught up and asked if I could come instead."
  3733. > "That's fine."
  3734. > Anonymous waves her over, shaking his head.
  3735. > "There's not much to be said at this point anyhow, aside from that some people are going to be coming through to install some security cameras."
  3736. "I'll get some new patrols in place..."
  3737. > Tilting his head, Anonymous raises an eyebrow.
  3738. > "Something wrong, Thunderlane?"
  3739. "Just... Why us? Why now?"
  3740. > In answer, he slides a computer across the table and spins the screen to face you.
  3741. > You don't need to be told what to look for:
  3742. > The article is right there, the headline blaring out:
  3743. > 'Hundreds of Pony Laborers Purchased by Experimental Work Facility'.
  3744. > Somewhat beneath that, in smaller type:
  3745. > 'Large purchase of ponies for once-troubled business raises interest.'
  3746. "...you're joking."
  3747. > "Nope. Someone squealed. Or something, I don't know how. Anyway, it got plastered over a bunch of websites and caught their attention."
  3748. > Your mother once told you that you'd make the news some day.
  3749. > Of course, she meant you'd fly into a building because you weren't being careful and end up being town gossip for a few months.
  3750. "So, now they decide to get outraged at us? Because of this?"
  3751. > A bit of Seismic Shift's ire leaks into your own voice.
  3752. > With good reason, though.
  3753. "What about all those other Tartarus-pits they send ponies to? The ones where they send ponies die?!"
  3754. > Anonymous spreads his hands plaintively.
  3755. > "Hey! Look, do you think I know?"
  3756. "...right. Sorry."
  3757. > Mayor Mare brushes against you with a reassuring touch, and you give her a smile back.
  3758. > "If they do start causing more trouble, Thunderlane? Just let us know. Get Gene, or me, or someone else. Hell, we'll get the police out there."
  3759. "Uh-huh."
  3760. > "Thunderlane-"
  3761. > Sitting up in his seat, Anonymous leans forward.
  3762. > "-you understand?"
  3763. "Yes. I do. Get someone else, don't try and start anything myself. I'll do that."
  3764. > "Good. I think that's everything for now. Mayor - if you have the chance, tell Cadance I'm glad we planned our course of action this morning."
  3765. > You turn to go; behind you he slumps back into his seat and rubs his eyes again.
  3766. > Just before the door closes he mutters:
  3767. > "...at least the shareholders can't blame me for this one."
  3768. > Then it has clicked shut, leaving you out in the hallway.
  3769. > Mayor Mare offers you little more than a brief nod before trotting off, but you barely notice.
  3770. > Now out of Anonymous' presence your thoughts were drifting back to your own emotions.
  3771. > Why had you been so angry at the protesters coming here?
  3772. > Wasn't that at least somewhat of a good thing?
  3773. > A shout, even years-late and aimed in the wrong direction, better than complete and total silence?
  3774. > But you'd been angry...
  3775. > Was it really that they'd been so late, and hadn't gone to one of the worse camps?
  3776. > How did you know they hadn't?
  3777. > Or was it that they were - a threat?
  3778. > Hissing softly through your teeth, you shake your head.
  3779. > You don't want to believe that.
  3780. > Even the possibility seemed traitorous on a whole new level - that you'd actually become comfortable enough in slavery that when someone finally arrived to protest it, you were angry at them for disrupting what meager life you'd managed to cobble together.
  3781. > That was the truth though, wasn't it?
  3782. > You'd grown comfortable in your chains.
  3783. > As if echoing your thoughts, Gene sighs heavily.
  3784. > "These protesters... it is not good."
  3785. "What do you mean?"
  3786. > "Do you remember how I told you once - when I was a boy, we had things like this too? People who got angry enough to act?"
  3787. "Yes. You said they eventually threw them ou-"
  3788. > You start, remembering how the rest of that story went.
  3789. "You're not - you don't think we're going to be chased out-"
  3790. > "No, no!"
  3791. > Holding up his hands defensively, Gene sighs.
  3792. > "No. But if he tells the police to try and remove them - even if some of them do come to the fence - it will be..."
  3793. "Yeah. I get it."
  3794. > "That is not how you win this battle. He can't win it that way."
  3795. "You would know, yes..."
  3796. > "Unfortunately, when I was a boy they did not provide many ideas on how to do it right. But then, they were a lot worse than Anonymous is. I do not want to see him fall like they did."
  3797. > Catching your confused look, he adds:
  3798. > "He has a family. And at his heart, I think he is good. If... easily angry."
  3799. "...do you have a family, sir?"
  3800. > "Yes. My wife, and a son and daughter. The younger is older than Megan. Do you?"
  3801. "I... think I'll have a foal very soon."
  3802. > "Then you understand too."
  3803. > You do.
  3804. > But there's one other pony that qualifies as family you just have to talk to before letting this be.
  3805. > Unfortunately, he's rather less than pleased to see you.
  3806. > The moment you shut the door into your quarters, Rumble quickly preempts you with a single sharp word:
  3807. > "No."
  3808. "Rumble, I haven't even said a thing about why I wanted to talk to you yet-"
  3809. > "It's obvious!"
  3810. > The colt-turning-stallion rolls his eyes, quickly making his way over to your bed and leaping up to it with a flick of his tail.
  3811. > "The humans. Protestors? The protestors outside the camp. You want me to stay away from them."
  3812. "Yes! Yes, I do! Because we don't know what exactly they're going to do yet, Rumble-"
  3813. > With a snort he rolls over onto his back and stares at you from beneath an upside-down muzzle.
  3814. > "Isn't it obvious? They want us free! We're here, so they're here. Finally, the first humans I actually can like a little..."
  3815. "We don't know that yet, Rumble!"
  3816. > Stepping to the bed's edge, you duck your head down to reach head-level with him.
  3817. "We know why they're here, but what they're going to do? No, we don't. Anonymous is upping security at the fence-line; he's worried about what might happen there."
  3818. > "C'mon, bro - we just had this conversation, I get it!"
  3819. "Apparently you don't, because you're talking about leaping headfirst into a stormcloud again!"
  3820. > "Come on! I learned that lesson - I won't assume anything and yell at them over it. Isn't that what you're saying? Don't just assume they know what's best-"
  3821. "I'm saying, I don't want you mixed up in that period."
  3822. > "Oh, quit losing your feathers over a breeze!"
  3823. > Rolling back over onto his belly, Rumble sits back up and glares at you fiercely.
  3824. > "I'm nearly a full-grown stallion now, bro! I can take care of myself!"
  3825. "Apparently not, if what I saw last time is any indication!"
  3826. > Both your voices are steadily rising, eyes narrowing as the argument grows.
  3827. > "Hey, you don't get to hang that over my head!"
  3828. "I'm not trying to! I'm looking to protect you!"
  3829. > "Yeah, I get it. But you know, I don't need you hanging over my withers all the time!"
  3830. "I'm not trying to hang over you, I-"
  3831. > "Oh!"
  3832. > Both your's and Rumble's ears perk at the sudden gasp.
  3833. > As if a spell was broken, you suddenly realize how you must look:
  3834. > Ears pinned back and wings spread threateningly, hooves tapping on the ground in preparation to charge.
  3835. > ...and of course, who'd come in to see you but Vapor Trail herself.
  3836. > "I..."
  3837. > Confusion reigns supreme in the mare's expression, eyes flicking back and forth between the two of you.
  3838. > "...should I go?"
  3839. > "Nah."
  3840. > Rumble leaps from your bed, tail still swishing angrily.
  3841. > "I think I got the message. See you 'round, Vapor."
  3842. > Then he is gone, leaving only you with your head hanging and tail limp.
  3843. > "Do I want to ask what that was about, Thunderlane?"
  3844. "...probably not. But ask away."
  3845. > Instead she approaches - coming closer on heavy hooves until you can feel her breath on your mane.
  3846. > "What happened, Thunderlane?"
  3847. "I - tried to warn him over something. And it didn't go too well; he thought that I was - I don't know."
  3848. > "What over?"
  3849. "The protesters who showed up today on the edge of camp? With the big banner?"
  3850. > "Oh, yes!"
  3851. > Vapor Trail's eyes light up, and despite her heavy and swollen belly she does a little happy trot in place.
  3852. > "Yes! It's so exciting! I didn't believe it at first, not until Twisty swore it was true!"
  3853. > Despite her jubilation, you can only feel your stomach sinking further.
  3854. > This - this was exactly what you'd feared.
  3855. > "I don't know why, but - oh, thank Celestia, I'm so glad to see some of them are finally opening their eyes to seeing what's happened to us. I wish there was a way we could say 'thank-you' without Anonymous knowing, and-"
  3856. > She pauses, finally having looked back to you.
  3857. > Slowly Vapor Trail's elated smile fades, hooves coming back to the floor.
  3858. > "Thunderlane, what's wrong?"
  3859. "I'm afraid of what they're going to do, Vapor."
  3860. > Forcing the words out takes effort, and gives them an almost hissing quality.
  3861. "What they could set off in here. Ponies could get eager to try and strike out at Anonymous again, to try and run off and - ponies could get hurt."
  3862. > Lifting your eyes, you finally manage to lock gazes with Vapor Trail.
  3863. "He could get hurt. You could get hurt!"
  3864. > "I know you worry about him. But you can't keep track of his every move, and Rumble has to take care of himself too."
  3865. "...it wouldn't be the first time he'd gotten in trouble around the fence."
  3866. > "What do you mean?"
  3867. "Back when the new camp was being built there was a pony on the construction crews. Somehow he and Rumble ended up close to the fence, and nearly got in a fight. It was a misunderstanding in the end."
  3868. > "Oh..."
  3869. > Looking aside, Vapor Trail frowns.
  3870. > "You did talk to him about it?"
  3871. "Yes. And he understood, too. Went back to apologize to the stallion later, he told me. But... what if it happens again? What if - another pony, but starting something that spreads?"
  3872. > "I know that, Thunderlane. I know. But - we have to seize this moment. We can't let it slip away; they have to know we're not satisfied with this life!"
  3873. > Again the question is whispered in the back of your mind:
  3874. > Were you just unhappy with their arrival?
  3875. > Was it the stability that you'd found which was at risk, not Rumble or Vapor's safety?
  3876. > Once more Vapor Trail draws close to you, nuzzling your cheek.
  3877. > "It's a risk, but we can't stop. Not now. Not when we finally have a chance."
  3878. "A chance at what, though? Freezing or roasting while hiding in a ditch? Getting shot by some over-antsy human with a gun?"
  3879. > "At being free, Thunderlane! Maybe not running now, but showing the humans out there - who came for us - that we see them and care! Doesn't that matter to you anymore?!"
  3880. > Eyes beginning to water, Vapor Trail lifts a hoof to her belly.
  3881. > "What about my foal being free? Doesn't what I want still matter?"
  3882. "Yes! Yes, it does! But - I -"
  3883. > The words stick in your throat.
  3884. > Already, your mind could see it:
  3885. > Exactly what you'd feared.
  3886. > What little friendship and love there was in the camp being torn apart by this.
  3887. > All the victories washed away.
  3888. > That vision is broken, though, by a soft brush of muzzle to muzzle.
  3889. > Vapor Trail nuzzles you a touch more; you let your eyes slip shut and nicker softly, which she echoes.
  3890. "I'm sorry. I'm just so scared it will all go wrong."
  3891. > "...I know you are. But you can't control others' wants, Thunderlane. Not anymore than Anonymous can. Stop them from doing anything rushed, yes, but not what they want. And I think you owe Rumble an apology."
  3892. [Choice]
  3893. "...yeah. I suppose you're right."
  3894. > Groaning, you flop back onto the bed.
  3895. > Having to apologize to your headstrong little brother on top of all the other concerns you had was not something you were ready for.
  3896. > Almost immediately, however, Vapor Trail is at your side - her muzzle brushing along your neck and little puffs of breath tickling your mane.
  3897. > "I know. Little siblings can be a real pain, can't they?"
  3898. "Like you would not believe."
  3899. > Pushing out with a wing, you roll around onto your back and smile up at Vapor.
  3900. > She, in turn, smiles warmly right back before placing a soft kiss on your nose.
  3901. > Of course you can't let that go un-returned, and reach up with both forelegs to pull her into a rather deeper, more intimate kiss.
  3902. > An indignant squeak quickly turns into a pleased hum as your lips meet.
  3903. > Once the moment is broken, you whisper up:
  3904. "Thank you, Vapor. For being there for me. For everything."
  3905. > "Quit being a featherbrain, Thunderlane. You don't have to thank me. You're there often enough for me!"
  3906. > She does have a point, and you-
  3907. "Oooof! Careful, you're kind of heavy!"
  3908. > Vapor Trail smirks a touch from where she'd sprawled across your belly.
  3909. > "Are you calling me fat?"
  3910. > Leaning up, you manage to just reach the edge of one of her ears - but still, a perfectly-nibble-able edge.
  3911. "...I refuse to answer, on the basis that there's only one bed in here for sleeping and I'd rather not end up on the floor tonight."
  3912. > Far to busy giggling at your tickling nibbles to respond initially, and when she does it's by scooting up to place a soft kiss on your cheek.
  3913. > "I just told you don't be a featherbrain. I'd never kick you out of bed."
  3914. "I know."
  3915. > Closing your eyes, you wrap your hooves around her and sigh.
  3916. "And - Vapor. I guess I should apologize to you as well. I didn't mean it that I was... ignoring what you want."
  3917. > "I know, Thunderlane."
  3918. > Curling into your touch, Vapor Trail still frowns.
  3919. > "Maybe I'm on a little bit of a hair trigger too. With the foal coming so soon maybe it's hormones, or maybe I'm remembering what I really want for them. But won't let a chance at freedom just... go away."
  3920. > Eventually you drag yourself - most unwillingly - from her grasp and head out.
  3921. > The summer night is warm verging on uncomfortable, but a steady breeze is rolling through the camp.
  3922. > You loft yourself above the rooftops and set out towards Rumble's home.
  3923. > Fortunately he's not hard to find seeing as he's gone to sit on the roof rather than inside.
  3924. > Touching down behind him, you cough softly and speak:
  3925. "...hey, bro..."
  3926. > "Hey, 'lane."
  3927. > He doesn't look up at you, keeping his head tilted up to face the moon in a cloudless sky.
  3928. > But neither does Rumble's tone suggest he's that angry at you.
  3929. > Slipping up and around to his side you find that he was staring up at the moon.
  3930. "Listen, I, uh... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to jump on you like that. I know you're not trying to do anything wrong, I'm just..."
  3931. > It hurts to admit it, but it's the truth.
  3932. "...I'm scared."
  3933. > "Yeah."
  3934. > Rumble grimaces and finally tears his eyes away to look at you.
  3935. > "Guess I am too. S'why I fought back on it."
  3936. "Mm-hmm. I'm afraid, if they do something dumb - Anonymous isn't our friend. But he's not the worst. Not even as bad as he used to be. I'm scared he'll go back to being like that. Whips coming out for the little things - wandering around after curfew, hanging out near the fence...."
  3937. > "And I'll get in trouble again."
  3938. "Uh-huh."
  3939. > Rumble chuckles wryly.
  3940. > "Yeah, I can see why. I would hang out like that."
  3941. "And if it does happen, there's nothing I could do to stop it. He'd take everything away - stop Mocha Cream from coming into the camp to help us..."
  3942. > That, you can see from the way Rumble's ears fall back, has his attention.
  3943. > It's a low blow, using his affection for the filly - but it works.
  3944. "And maybe I'm a little bit angry too. The humans were the ones who put us in this situation, and now they come here instead of any of the much, much worse places... But you were right too: You nearly are a full-grown stallion now, and I can't keep hovering over your shoulder like big horsefly all the time."
  3945. > After a second Rumble extends his wing up over your withers.
  3946. > Not the easiest, seeing as he is still a touch shorter than you, but he manages.
  3947. > "And I get what y'mean, Thunderlane. Figured out we can't just be... jumping at every shadow, making every breeze into a storm."
  3948. "That's my little bro, all grown up now."
  3949. > Seating yourself on your haunches, you let Rumble's wing settle around you.
  3950. > His gaze turns back up to the moon.
  3951. "...what, you like it or something?"
  3952. > "Just thinking. About - how when Princess Luna was imprisoned in the moon for a thousand years as Nightmare Moon, she must've looked down and wondered if she'd ever be free."
  3953. > Rumble's eyes fall to the rooftops of the camp, spreading out before you.
  3954. > "Now I look up, and wonder if we'll be free."
  3955. "Someday, Rumble. Someday we'll put all of this behind us. Every last thing."
  3956.  
  3957. > You hiss softly as Mocha Cream's hooves dig into your back, drawing a concerned gasp from the little mare.
  3958. > "Master! This isn't h-hurting you, is it?"
  3959. "Just the opposite, Mocha. Please, continue."
  3960. > "O-Oh... you're very stressed, Master. I was afraid I was p-pushing too hard."
  3961. > You chuckle softly; this time you were trying the massage with the table nearer to the floor, so Mocha Cream did not have to climb up onto it.
  3962. > The result was that he was rather more stable and could exert more pressure in her work.
  3963. > Not that you minded; as you'd told her, it was quite the opposite.
  3964. "This feels heavenly. I have been a bit more stressed lately, so I would imagine you could feel it too."
  3965. > "M-Master, I-"
  3966. > Her voice cuts off in the sudden way that tells you even without looking that her cheeks were crimson with blush.
  3967. > Instead Mocha Cream waits a few moments before speaking in a softer tone:
  3968. > "It's the p-protesters, Master, isn't it?"
  3969. > This time your groan is not one of pleasure.
  3970. "Exactly what it is."
  3971. > "T-They aren't going away."
  3972. "No, they aren't. Bastards are coming back every day to start it up all over again."
  3973. > "Don't worry about them now, Master. Please, just relax and try to enjoy this."
  3974. > It's a nice thought, but Mocha's questions have already opened Pandora's Box of concerns.
  3975. > Just when it'd seemed things were quieting down, a pile of self-serving hippie-wannabes had shown up on your doorstep to make life hard again.
  3976. > How long would it be before one of them did something stupid?
  3977. > Take some bolt cutters to the fence, throw a walkie-talkie over to get their idiocy inside the camp...
  3978. > It'd only take them encouraging a small fraction of ponies to-
  3979. > "Master! Please!"
  3980. > Mocha Cream's cry is enough of an interruption to let you realize you'd been holding your breath.
  3981. > Letting it out with a loud sigh, you shift on the massage bed and let your mare resume her work.
  3982. "Sorry, Mocha. You're right, this is getting to me."
  3983. > Still, though, the topic being brought up has already opened a Pandora's Box of questions in your mind.
  3984. "Mocha?"
  3985. > "Yes, Master?"
  3986. > If she hears the uncertain tone in your question, she doesn't comment on it.
  3987. "What do you think of them? Of the idea of - leaving?"
  3988. > Her hooves freeze in place on your back.
  3989. > At first you wonder if you'd scared her, but no:
  3990. > Mocha always shivered a touch when she was really afraid.
  3991. > Which means that she is taking time to consider her answer; if possible that is even more alarming.
  3992. > "M-Master, I... I miss my p-parents. I miss w-where I grew up. I miss - not being s-scared. But..."
  3993. > You feel a puff of breath on your back, and then the soft brush of her coat as Mocha nuzzles between your shoulderblades.
  3994. > "I don't want to leave you. You've been good to me. I'm not scared with y-you. And my other pony f-friends here too. I wouldn't want to leave them."
  3995. > Even more softness on your back; you get the feeling she is practically half-laying on it now.
  3996. > "I-If I ran away... I'd n-never have a home again. A-And you'd have to p-punish me-"
  3997. > For the first time she seems to have trouble speaking.
  3998. > "-if I c-came back."
  3999. "Would you want to be free, though?"
  4000. > "Master, I... I don't know what I would do. It's - I'd - if I went with them, I'd have no place. To work, to live... You're good to me. Even if you might have to p-punish me, I want to stay with you."
  4001. "I see."
  4002. > The awkward silence that falls between the two of you is only broken when Mocha nervously tries to change the topic:
  4003. > "C-Could you roll over, Master? I'm just about d-done with your back."
  4004. > So you do, lifting your head up just enough to take at look at her:
  4005. > She wears her typical 'work' outfit - lacy dress included, albeit without the leggings that would have interrupted her immediate task.
  4006. > Catching your gaze, Mocha Cream flushes a touch - and then a bit more when you give her a warm smile.
  4007. "Well, at least there's one pony here I know I can rely on."
  4008. > "Master!"
  4009. > Her squeak is somewhat drowned out by your laugh as you lay your head back down.
  4010. > Soon her hooves come to rest on your temples.
  4011. > Carefully using her frogs. she sets to work on your scalp and forehead.
  4012. > "...b-but I'm happy the announcement I made did go well."
  4013. "About the lottery? It did? Excellent! Would've been better if it came before those protesters showed up so it didn't look like I was trying to buy back ponies from them, but it is what it is."
  4014. > Not that it would matter who really won.
  4015. > For a few spots, at least, you had a list of particular ponies in mind.
  4016. > Ones who could help quash any thoughts of rebellion if they did come back.
  4017. > "I-If there's something else I can m-mention to you, Master? As long as we're talking about going out-"
  4018. "Hmm? Go ahead, of course. Do you want to go on the trip out too?"
  4019. > "N-No! Um, well, maybe. But that's not the reason why."
  4020. > Her hooves switch to your shoulders, working them over one at a time.
  4021. > Ever once in a while you can feel her side brush against your head.
  4022. > "Miss Megan mentioned to me that she wanted to go-"
  4023. "Well, I don't know how doable that will be, since we're probably going to be doing this during the day when she's at school-"
  4024. > "-into the camp more."
  4025. > Oh.
  4026. > Well, that wouldn't be too bad, right?
  4027. > "With Flurry Heart."
  4028. > ...okay, maybe you'd have to think about it.
  4029. > "And not so many g-guards around."
  4030. > Oh hell no.
  4031. > From Mocha Cream's tone, she's already guessed your reaction.
  4032. "Mocha, did Megan get you to ask me about this?"
  4033. > "No, Master..."
  4034. "Mocha...."
  4035. > "She didn't!"
  4036. > Despite your pointed tone, her protest sounds genuine.
  4037. > Yet a moment later Mocha goes on:
  4038. > "I... I overheard something she was saying. A-About how if I was being brave enough to go in with Miss Cadance, then she could too. But that nopony wants to talk with her when there are so many guards or Miss Cadance following her around."
  4039. > Must've gotten a taste of playing with ponies when you took her to see the museum, and now your daughter wanted a bit more.
  4040. "That's a very risky thing, though. You would know."
  4041. > Mocha flinches, enough that the edge of her hoof digs into your bare skin.
  4042. > "Yes, M-Master. I do know. That's why I'm t-telling you."
  4043. > Ah, you'd misjudged her reasoning.
  4044. > "B-But... what you told me is true for her too. If she's supposed t-to eventually be our Mistress some day too, she has to start somewhere..."
  4045. > Not at the cost of her safety, though!
  4046. > And with these protesters maybe riling ponies up now...
  4047. [Choice]
  4048. "Maybe..."
  4049. > You sigh, feeling Mocha's hooves pause on the back of your head.
  4050. "...maybe with some escort. Not specifically a guard, but definitely someone I trust. Closely. And even then, I'd want her to keep to open places."
  4051. > "Yes, Master..."
  4052. > No doubt Mocha Cream understood exactly why you'd be so alarmed.
  4053. > Yes, your ponies had been far more passive once you'd properly dealt with the problematic ones who'd been egging them on.
  4054. > But that didn't mean you didn't worry that some others wouldn't be able to resist the urge to try something...
  4055. > Stupid.
  4056. "Yeah, I think I can do that. Soon Megan will be old enough she can start going on her own. I forget sometimes, it won't be too many years now..."
  4057. > Mocha Cream giggles softly.
  4058. > "She is a very nice young girl, isn't she Master?"
  4059. "Yes, she most certainly is."
  4060. > The moment her hooves leave your skin, you sit up - and before Mocha can pull away, reach out to grab her.
  4061. > Plopping the little maid-pony down in your lap, you look down at her with a wide smirk.
  4062. "And you're being awfully thoughtful for her, aren't you? I mean, if she didn't really ask you to do this..."
  4063. > Squeaking, she flushes up all over again and curls her forelegs defensively over her chest.
  4064. > "M-Miss Megan is very, very kind to us. I c-couldn't let her... she wouldn't ask you herself..."
  4065. > You might've gone a bit pale there.
  4066. > Was she getting to the rebellious age already?!
  4067. > God, you were not ready to deal with that.
  4068. > Restless ponies were one thing, but a recalcitrant daughter was a whole different matter!
  4069. > "Master? Did I-"
  4070. "No, no!"
  4071. > Slipping a hand beneath her chin, you start to scratch through the creamy hair along her throat.
  4072. > Mocha gives a little whinny and rolls her head back with eyes half-closed.
  4073. "No, I'm just... it's one of those things you'll understand when you have a child, Mocha."
  4074. > "O-Oh."
  4075. > Chuckling at her reaction - she'd barely been able to mumble out the single word - you keep scratching.
  4076. "Actually I kind of understand why she'd be afraid to ask me. After all, I once yelled at her for just going over to the security building... so, yeah. No, I'll go have a calm talk with her and we can figure out who will escort her."
  4077. > Fingers continuing to ripple through Mocha's coat, you ponder - and quickly realize there's a pony you know very well.
  4078. "Mocha, what do you think of Mayor Mare? You must've worked with her once or twice now?"
  4079. > "If.. ah, I... um, I can..."
  4080. > You pause your fingers long enough to let her gather some thoughts.
  4081. > "M-Mayor Mare is... a very stern pony, Master. But, um, very nice as well. She, um... I sort of remember a teacher I had before..."
  4082. "I get it. Go on?"
  4083. > "She reminds me of Miss Periwinkle. Like, she's knows exactly what she wants to happen, Master, but will help us get there."
  4084. > That does sound rather accurate to her, yes.
  4085. > Mayor Mare had never shared such a close administration with you as Cadance did, even before the alicorn had arrived.
  4086. > But then, you'd been a lot more distant then - and even so, she'd been a top-tier administrator.
  4087. "So, she can control my daughter then."
  4088. > "Oh, yes."
  4089. > Mocha giggles again, smiling up at you from her upside-down position.
  4090. > "I think she will.
  4091. "But will the other ponies respect her? If it comes to a conflict and she has to shut them down."
  4092. > "If I c-can give my opinion, Master, yes. I think maybe she reminds them all of their teachers."
  4093. > Or maybe, you think, their mothers.
  4094. > Not that you're going to say that; it was enough to have Mocha Cream reminded of her lost family once per day.
  4095. "It's settled, then - Mayor Mare. One or two times, at least - I wouldn't want to pull her away from her work too often. After that we can see about others."
  4096. > ...
  4097. > You walk back and forth in front of the eight ponies, eyeing them cautiously.
  4098. > Each, in turn, regards you with something of a cautious gaze as well.
  4099. > Some are familiar faces:
  4100. > Those who'd been selected to 'win' the lottery, over Cadance's objections, and join you on the trip in.
  4101. > From the look Bon Bon was giving you, it seemed pretty clear she understood that she'd been deliberately selected.
  4102. > Crescent Moon's look wasn't much better, though she also has a look of curiosity about her.
  4103. "...alright, I assume you understand why you're here."
  4104. > "Cadance did explain some of it, yes."
  4105. > Another hoof tentatively rises.
  4106. > "Not me, Master?"
  4107. "Ah, I don't recognize you - you're new, yes?"
  4108. > "Y-Yes, Master."
  4109. "Well, that's fine. The others can fill you in on the finer details, but the gist of it is this: We're going to be heading into the city to pick up some even newer additions. Your job is to help them up to the truck, calm their fears, and introduce yourselves - make them understand there's no need to panic, they aren't going to some hellhole to be worked to death."
  4110. > "W-We'll be riding with you, Master?"
  4111. "On the way in. On the way back, you'll be in the truck. Needless to say, I expect good behavior while we are out there. For your sakes', and for the sake of not creating trouble for your fellow ponies, please think twice before anything stupid."
  4112. > Bon Bon gives you an expression that sneers defiance.
  4113. > If she was planning anything, words alone would not stop it.
  4114. > Pausing in front of her, you lean over to loom above her:
  4115. "Remember. This is for their sake; if this doesn't work out, we'll simply skip it in the future."
  4116. > Of course she doesn't back down, but you can see the cogs turning in her head.
  4117. > Standing back up, you turn to the rest of them:
  4118. "On the way out, we'll be in the van. Back in, you'll ride in the truck with the other ponies. Okay, c'mon - let's get mounted up."
  4119. > The van itself isn't exactly luxury.
  4120. > But it's still far more than most of them have experienced, and you can hear soft mutterings of wonder as they climb into the seats in back.
  4121. > One of the ponies is even so bold as to take the passenger's seat-
  4122. "Sorry, but-"
  4123. > You look over, and narrow your eyes:
  4124. > Meeting your gaze evenly, Bon Bon adjusts her position in the seat but remains pointedly unmoving.
  4125. > ...you know what, fuck it.
  4126. > Leaning to bring your head near, you hiss in whisper,
  4127. "If you try anything, it's going to cost these ponies too. You understand that, right?"
  4128. > "I'm not an idiot. We're not idiots. Nopony is going to try anything."
  4129. > On any other day you'd have at the very least assigned her an extra work shift for that degree of sass.
  4130. > But not today.
  4131. > Today there's a little voice whispering in your ear that if anyone needed to be reminded of how life could be outside your walls, it was this mare.
  4132. "Okay. Seatbelts on, everyone. Let's head out."
  4133. > Before you even reach the highway, however, you're treated to an unfortunate discovery:
  4134. > The protesters had either noticed you were about to leave, or migrated to more than one location.
  4135. > A fact revealed when you turned a corner to come face to face with walls of angry, chanting people and even the odd pony - fists raised to wave, signs shaken like a batter getting a ready to wind up for the swing.
  4136. > Voices rise, loud and clear in unison chanting promises of freedom - and retribution.
  4137. > For a moment you aborting this quest; the tractor-trailer could come to make the delivery on its own.
  4138. > Avoiding them would be to let the protesters win, though, and the police chief had told you they were receiving guidance from some larger organization.
  4139. > In that case, you'd take a gamble.
  4140. > Setting your face in a stony expression, you fix your eyes forward and tap the gas.
  4141. > Not speeding, but not slowing for them either.
  4142. > What you couldn't stop, though, is how the ponies in the back crowd up to the windows - noses pressing to the glass and staring out in awe.
  4143. > Some of the protesters reach out with grubby hands extended towards muzzles and hooves.
  4144. > But, as you'd expected, none dare touch your car.
  4145. > It's still a frightening experience - not unlike what it must have felt like to be in a castle under siege.
  4146. > Besieged by angry voices and stomping feet.
  4147. > When you finally pull away from the last of them you release a breath you hadn't remembered holding.
  4148. > From the passenger's seat, Bon Bon pointedly smirks.
  4149. > You ignore her.
  4150. > The rest of the ride into the city is uneventful.
  4151. > Much like how Cadance had little reaction to the streams of traffic clogging the highways, these ponies seemed almost uninterested.
  4152. > Little bursts of conversation come up behind you, sometimes in hushed tones and sometimes open and aloud.
  4153. > But also like Cadance, once you hit the city proper they go quiet.
  4154. > If anything the reaction is even more striking than hers had been:
  4155. > Every time you glance in the rear-view mirror it seems as if they've huddled into a tighter ball at the center of the van - as if to put the maximum space possible between themselves and this strange, fearsome world that now imposed on them.
  4156. > Not Bon Bon, though:
  4157. > Her expression is a hard, flat one - and eyes almost seeming to see beyond the streets you travel down.
  4158. > Past the ponies struggling under heavy loads, through the dolled-up mares strutting happily at their owners' sides, passing over the ones cringing back as their owners lifted a finger to furiously lecture them.
  4159. > When you lower the window to let the cacophony of sounds join in her ears slam down and back to either side of her head.
  4160. > As if that could block it all out.
  4161. > The tables had now turned; it was a taste of the rest of the world and she was just as besieged by its hostility as you had been.
  4162. > You can't help the smirk that comes to your own face.
  4163. > A crack, gunshot-like, rings out and a pony at an intersection's far corner tumbles to the ground - clutching where she had been struck.
  4164. > No one stops as her (you presume) owner howls at her.
  4165. > Not people, or even ponies.
  4166. > They know better than to be involved.
  4167. > And-
  4168. > "Close the windows."
  4169. > Bon Bon's voice is soft enough to hide any tremble in it.
  4170. > She can't hide the shuddering ripples running through her coat, though.
  4171. "No. We don't need them closed."
  4172. > "Shut the windows, now!"
  4173. > Head whipping around, you scowl:
  4174. "Did you just give me an order?"
  4175. > Drawing a shaky breath, Bon Bon half-closes her eyes - and then forces them open again.
  4176. > Forces herself to see.
  4177. > "Master. Please close the window."
  4178. "There's no reason to. It's not that hot."
  4179. > "You are scaring them."
  4180. > She was right.
  4181. > The ponies in the rows behind were even more nervous than before - huddled close together like a pseudo-herd for protection.
  4182. > But that didn't mean you missed the real meaning of her statement, or that she had pushed herself to call you Master.
  4183. > Clicking your tongue, you let the window roll back up and pull over in the next available parking spot you find.
  4184. > Turning as far in your seat as you can, you face the other seven back there:
  4185. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to terrify you; things are... different out here. I forget how much different, sometimes."
  4186. > Reaching out with one hand, you wait - and after a moment, one of them extends a hoof to touch it.
  4187. > No words are spoken, no forgiveness given.
  4188. > But they believe you.
  4189. > You pull back out into traffic and drive the rest of the way to the market on your own.
  4190. > Once the engine is off you turn back to look at the little group:
  4191. "Okay, we're going to go in and meet the new ponies. Unfortunately, this business requires I keep you all on a leash as long as we're on premises. Don't worry - I won't be yanking you around. Just - try to stay calm? I know this isn't a pleasant place, but we need to keep going."
  4192. > At the end of this your eyes drift to Bon Bon.
  4193. > They would follow her lead - but to your relief, she is still too shaky to object.
  4194. > Unhappily but without protest she sticks her head out and lets you fasten the collar shut around it.
  4195. > In turn, you don't linger on the task.
  4196. > No need to turn a victory into a humiliation.
  4197. > By the time you emerge up into the proper center of the slave market, you feel like one of those fancy dog-walkers:
  4198. > Eight leashes descending from one hand.
  4199. > Your phone clutched in the other.
  4200. > Once again the little herd sticks close together.
  4201. > A few other slave handlers - some obviously enjoying their new purchases wander past.
  4202. > Their attention is firmly focused on those ponies - some of them clearly delighted to be leaving the hated market, others far less so.
  4203. > It also means that none of the ponies see your phone.
  4204. > You hiss softly and shake your head:
  4205. “Well… it seems the order isn’t fully assembled yet. We’ll have to wait an hour or two for them to finish.”
  4206. > “You’re joking!”
  4207. > “Really, Master?”
  4208. > “Can we - we go somewhere else?”
  4209. > “Yes, please Master!”
  4210. > Just as planned - they were already eager to be gone from the market.
  4211. > None of them realized that all you’d actually done is show up a couple of hours early.
  4212. “Well…”
  4213. [Choice]
  4214. "Alright. Let's go grab something to eat, if we're going to be waiting that long."
  4215. > For their sake, you leave the market before seeking out a restaurant.
  4216. > No need to keep them in that place too long; they'd have plenty of chances to see it when you got back.
  4217. > Besides, you'd already hammered home the point hard - perhaps a bit too hard.
  4218. > Instead you end up standing on the street-corner, phone in hand and ponies clustered around your legs as you search out a suitable eatery.
  4219. > Not merely one that wouldn't leave you feeling gross, but one that would tolerate their presence as well.
  4220. > Some locations had - rules.
  4221. > No ponies, or putting them in back rooms.
  4222. > While you'd intended to 'scare them straight', you had a sneaking suspicion that pushing any further would not produce the result you wanted.
  4223. > So with a location in mind you clear your throat and drop down into a squat to bring your face nearer to theirs.
  4224. "...okay, so there's a decent place to eat about four blocks away. It'll be a little tricky to find a parking spot, but if you don't think you can make it we can go back to the van."
  4225. > There's a brief moment of discussion between them.
  4226. > Some audible, some in the silent tongue of glances and body-language.
  4227. > Eventually one - an unfamiliar face - speaks up:
  4228. > "I, um. I think we can walk, Master."
  4229. > Murmurs of general agreement are heard all around, and so you reach out to lightly ruffle their mane.
  4230. "There's a strong mare. Okay, come on - I'll try and go as fast as I can."
  4231. > While the agreement seemed to have been reached by some manner of consensus, their hurried pace and the way they huddle in a bunched-up group on the sidewalk suggests that it wasn't entirely a comfortable one.
  4232. > It isn't helped by the confused, jealous, and sometimes sneering glances shot in their direction by passers-by.
  4233. > So many ponies walking with a single person still stretched the limits of normality even in a city used to equine laborers.
  4234. > In contrast, your little herd was torn between the desire to huddle up into a defensive clump and the wish to see more.
  4235. > Some - Bon Bon - walked ahead with heads raised proudly and eyes fixed ahead.
  4236. > Others kept their eyes and ears sweeping over the surroundings but stayed closely locked together.
  4237. > Paused at an intersection and waiting for the change of a signal, however, Crescent Moon suddenly detaches herself from the side of the group to wander a short distance.
  4238. > You don't notice until the leash goes taut.
  4239. > When you do, your expression hardens as you follow her gaze.
  4240. > Heavy music thumping out of the club wouldn't mark it as particularly remarkable.
  4241. > Everything else, however...
  4242. > A pegasus gyrates on a pole just beside the door, using wings and hooves alike to twirl herself on the post as if she were in mid-air.
  4243. > Further inside, you can glimpse a stage set up with a small crowd gathered around it despite the early hour of the day:
  4244. > A pair of ponies occasionally prance about on it - one with reigns flowing from the bridle she wore and crop clutched between her teeth, the other bearing a saddle laden with so many straps it seemed a miracle she could move in it at all, let alone with as much grace as she did.
  4245. > Even as you watch they pause to accept bills offered up by the audience and a second bridle - this one bearing a bit instead of reigns - is produced to be mounted on the other pony.
  4246. > Crescent Moon takes this display in with a measure of both fascination and disgust.
  4247. > You quickly move to cut her off, but Bon Bon is already at her side - teeth taking a light grip on her mane to pull the younger mare away.
  4248. > "Come on. That's... not something you need to see."
  4249. > It's another block before any of the other speak; the silence had been so complete you'd almost thought they had missed it.
  4250. > "How... is that allowed?"
  4251. "Loophole. Strictly speaking, ponies aren't considered human for the purposes of a lot of laws... including public decency ones, what with you not wearing clothes most of the time and all. Try to stop that, and they'd have to order every single pony to cover up."
  4252. > Some towns, you knew, had in fact tried to do exactly that.
  4253. > In this one, though...
  4254. "Too many people are making good on it."
  4255. > The restaurant you'd selected turns out to be a middle-class kind of place with a vaguely middle-eastern aesthetic.
  4256. > You're glad you'd opted for a more casual jacket on this trip; it kept you from looking out of place.
  4257. > ...mostly.
  4258. > Eyebrows still rose when the ponies followed you in.
  4259. > Yes, the door had a red hoof-sticker plastered in the window beside it - an indication of a restaurant that would do business with ponies.
  4260. > And yes, a few other were scattered around the tables - eating with their owners, waiting with bored expressions for meals they were not part of to be finished, or in one case apparently alone - but none so many as were with you.
  4261. "Yeah, hey, if you can I'll be needing a table for..."
  4262. > You glance back and grimace.
  4263. > Maybe this hadn't been the best idea.
  4264. "...nine."
  4265. > "Just give us a moment to shift some tables, and we'll have seats for you, sir!"
  4266. > Okay, maybe not such a bad idea.
  4267. > Once seats have been provided, you sit down in the first and motion your ponies over.
  4268. > They come nervously, noses twitching and distracted by the smells of so much food all around them.
  4269. > With swift motions you unclip the leashes from their collars and roll them up to be put aside.
  4270. "Here. There's no need for these while we're eating; I trust you'll all behave."
  4271. > A few look surprised, some even managing a murmured 'thank you Master'.
  4272. > You're gratified to see Crescent Moon among those; Bon Bon, however, merely gives you a flat look as she passes in front of you before shaking out her curly mane to hide over the remaining collar as best she can.
  4273. "Alright, take a glance over the menus and see what you want."
  4274. > Orders come soon enough, and unsurprisingly they all opt for vegetarian options.
  4275. > You get a shawarma and yogurt platter, because fuck it - that stuff is good.
  4276. > Setting the menu aside, you lean back in your chair and glance around the table.
  4277. > The ponies were still obviously nervous, but markedly less so now that they were safe within one single space.
  4278. > Reaching out, you let your hand find the nearest one to you and rest it reassuringly on her withers.
  4279. "It's okay now. I know this place can be... intimidating, to say the least, but no one can hurt you while you're with me."
  4280. > After a moment the pony in question lifts her eyes to you and gives a shaky nod.
  4281. "Seeing what you did when we were coming in... I know, it can be a bit of a shock. To be slapped in the face with just how hard it can be for one of you, even out here."
  4282. > "I thought..."
  4283. > The mare draws a shaky breath, closes her eyes, and let is out before reopening them in an almost meditative fashion.
  4284. > "...I thought - it'd be easier. If we - I wasn't locked behind the fence. If I could get out. But it's everywhere, everywhere! And I don't..."
  4285. > She breaks off her thought with another little shudder.
  4286. > "We all did."
  4287. > "Yeah. Master-"
  4288. > Crescent Moon bites her tongue a moment, then finishes:
  4289. > "-do we have to wear the leashes?"
  4290. "I'm afraid so. In the market, at least."
  4291. > "On - on the way back, can we not?"
  4292. > Glancing at the pile of temporarily-discarded leashes where you'd left them.
  4293. > "I hate the feeling of it. I've always hated it, but after I was - my bunk - after I was punished for hitting the guard..."
  4294. > When she'd been chained to her bunk at night, yes.
  4295. > That had been part of her sentence, hadn't it?
  4296. > Spotting your hesitating look, Crescent Moon averts her eyes.
  4297. > "...nevermind."
  4298. "No - you know what, if you promise to stick close to us, you don't need to wear the leash. But, you really have to stay close. Is that okay?"
  4299. > Immediately Crescent's expression slights up again, ears popping back up and a smile creeping onto her lips.
  4300. > "Yes! I'll stay as close as I can!"
  4301. "That'll be fine, then."
  4302. > With any other pony, you'd be... alarmed.
  4303. > But Crescent, despite her past, had proved helpful even if she'd once suffered through a whipping and more.
  4304. > That was why you'd had her selected to come along on this trip:
  4305. > A pony that seemed to have her head in the right place, even if she'd faced a not-insignificant punishment.
  4306. > Perhaps the opposite of Bon Bon, who'd been a persistently hostile figure and who you'd hoped would be broken by the experience.
  4307. > However, you find there's nothing of the sort happening.
  4308. > At least she had settled for just looking away from you rather than starting any arguments, although that still suggested there was something boiling beneath her surface.
  4309. > "Master?"
  4310. > One of the other ponies - a face you weren't quite so familiar with - had hesitantly spoken up:
  4311. > "Is - are - are all cities like this?"
  4312. "In all honesty, that depends. Some are better - that pony getting whipped, some cities have rules about that sort of thing happening in public-"
  4313. > But not against it happening at all, something you're sure they will pick up on.
  4314. "- and others, the leash laws go outside specific businesses and onto the streets too."
  4315. > "O-Oh... um... that wasn't what I wondering about, though."
  4316. > Reaching out across the table, you hold it palm-up in a gesture of openness.
  4317. "It's okay. What's your name?"
  4318. > "Ocean Wave, Master."
  4319. "Well, Ocean - it's okay. There's no hard limit on the number of questions you can ask."
  4320. > "I just meant... is there anywhere we're not like, animals? Not treated like - dogs, or toys? Somewhere we can be like..."
  4321. > His eyes drift, and you follow them - back, to the rear of the restaurant where a pair you had missed earlier is eating.
  4322. > A colt, resting on the lap of a young woman without a collar or apparent concern.
  4323. > Each of them at from separate plates, and their conversation while indistinct was clearly friendly - broken by occasional bouts of distant laughter.
  4324. > You were almost thankful for the distraction.
  4325. > It gave you time to plan out the delicate wording to answer Ocean's perilous question.
  4326. > Because the truth was, there were places that were-
  4327. > Well, 'equal' isn't exactly right; national law and all that.
  4328. > But better.
  4329. > States that did have better protection - the whole reason fleeing ponies tended to head east.
  4330. "..in the end, what really matters is who your owner is. A bad owner can still be bad and a good owner can still be good, wherever you are. That's why I try to make things easier on you, let you all work a little independently."
  4331. > "Why you're letting us look for our families?"
  4332. "Exactly! And why I want you here helping the new ponies coming in understand that as well."
  4333. > With that, conversation seems to open up a bit.
  4334. > Their fear - or any anger at your stunt with the windows - has faded, and willingness to talk rises in its place.
  4335. > Other fears, or hopes for things that might come to the camp.
  4336. > Ocean Wave, perhaps unsurprisingly, wants a pool.
  4337. > You tell him it can't be a promise, but maybe if the camp voted it as their next big project after the museum then you could consider it...
  4338. > By the time the food finally arrives, they barely even notice the meatier contents of your meal.
  4339. > When it is finished, you decide it's time for a bit of a test.
  4340. "Alright. I'm going to go to the bathroom real fast; all of you will stay here, right?"
  4341. > An echo of low 'Yes, Master' repetitions goes around the table, and you stand to go with barely a glance back.
  4342. > Some of them might know that the collars they're wearing are networked and fleeing would do no good in a city this dense, but others would not.
  4343. > Or just be mad enough to try anyhow.
  4344. > With that in mind, you head into the bathroom not that much worried.
  4345. > If the understanding that you were a more reasonable owner was strong enough, there would be no trouble.
  4346. > If not-
  4347. > Barely have you zipped up again when sounds of a low scuffle burst from outside.
  4348. > The door keeps the voices muffled, and you barely have you taken a step towards it when the door flies open and Bon Bon bursts in - head low and nostrils flared, ready for an argument.
  4349. > Somewhere back behind her, a voice calls:
  4350. > "Bon Bon, no, don't-"
  4351. > Then it is shut, leaving you alone with an angry mare rearing up to plant a hoof on your chest.
  4352. > Damn, you'd forgotten how tall they can be when reared back and angry!
  4353. "What the hell are-"
  4354. > "You!"
  4355. > Her voice is hissed through gritted teeth.
  4356. > "How dare you? Terrifying them, and putting on a big smile and pretending you're better than that!"
  4357. "You will take your hooves off of me!"
  4358. > "Oh, what are you going to do? Beat me? Where they can all hear you? See what you do and know you’re not any better than anyone else they see out here?”
  4359. “Bullshit-”
  4360. > “You want us to all close our eyes and forget what you are - because what? You don’t whip us in the street? Take us out for food?”
  4361. > Leaning in, Bon Bon practically bumps her muzzle to your chin.
  4362. > “I saw you smiling, back in the car. It wasn’t enough to scare them, you enjoyed it too! Especially after what you put Crescent Moon through-”
  4363. “I damn well was not! I didn’t even mean to scare them, I just didn’t see-”
  4364. > “Oh, stuff it ‘Master’. I know what you were doing.”
  4365. > Dropping back down onto four hooves, Bon Bon backs away - still glaring fiercely.
  4366. > “Maybe you don’t have us dancing up on a stage for those bastards to ogle and jerk themselves off to, but you’re damn well just as bad as them. You’ve just figured out it’s easier for you to let someone else be the monster so you can pretend you’re better.”
  4367. [Choice]
  4368. > ...no, there's no point in trying to deny this.
  4369. > Bon Bon is not a fool; just trying to play her as one would only backfire on you.
  4370. > Who knew what she would do if you just kept denying it - what she might start in front of the others, instead of chasing you into a private bathroom?
  4371. > And if you punished her for this...
  4372. "You know, Bon Bon, if you didn't push on me so much you'd be perfect for the guard. Tough as nails, and nothing gets past you."
  4373. > Turning her head, she motions to one of the stalls.
  4374. > "I'd rather shove my head in that toilet than be one of your lapdogs."
  4375. > Delightful.
  4376. "Well. You're not entirely wrong, Bon Bon. I did lower the windows to scare them. And yes, I did take a little bit of pleasure at seeing you shaken up by it. That I admit, and... it was wrong."
  4377. > The admission seems to catch her by surprise.
  4378. > "You... no, you're not-"
  4379. "Yes, I am."
  4380. > You glance around, looking for somewhere to sit to lower yourself to something approaching her head height.
  4381. > Unfortunately, bathroom floors are not too promising - and you don't feel like addressing a serious moment seated on a toilet.
  4382. > Instead you squat in front of her and vigorously hope no one else decides to come in and see you making a fool of yourself.
  4383. "I am, because - because whatever else we argue about, we both know that taking pleasure in another's terror is very truly wrong. Or, I should have known when I did that. I..."
  4384. > What did you do?
  4385. > It's going to hurt to admit this, partly because of how much it will hit your ego - and how much it will inflate hers.
  4386. "...showing you what it's like here was always something I wanted to do. But, I saw you grinning when we got past the protesters, and... I guess I wanted to see you cringe too. Show you that you're not immune to it either."
  4387. > "So when I told you to put it back up-"
  4388. "I waited until you cracked, yes. And I truly am sorry for that. It wasn't - wasn't right of me. Anger..."
  4389. > Hissing softly, you shake your head.
  4390. "...it's always been when I'm at my worst. Not excusing what I did, but... I don't know. Hoping you understand."
  4391. > "You're a bastard."
  4392. > Despite your best efforts you snort in reaction.
  4393. > Yeah, hoping for more was probably too much.
  4394. "Yeah, I am sometimes. That's why I'm saying this to you. And when I'm done here, I'm going to go out there and give the other seven a real apology too, because it wasn't fair what I did. Especially to them, when I was really angry at you."
  4395. > "I..."
  4396. > Maybe, maybe just, you're finally getting through to Bon Bon.
  4397. > She seems more uncertain.
  4398. "And maybe you were right too - maybe I was a monster. Maybe I was as bad as some of the others out there, and you're right to hate me for things like how I let my guards abuse you, what I did to Corona, or how I humiliated Cadance. But you know what, there's something else I want to think about too."
  4399. > Leaning in as far as you dare, you pull as close to her as possible.
  4400. "I didn't make up anything you saw out there. I didn't crack those whips myself, or put that club there for Crescent Moon to spot. And you're going to see a lot more when we get back to the market too; none of that is my creation. This is the real world, Bon Bon - and I won't apologize for showing them that. You heard what Ocean Wave said? That's what I want you to see-"
  4401. > "You mean, you want us to despair at ever getting out and being free again."
  4402. > Despite her bitter words, Bon Bon's tone lacked the same bite she'd used before.
  4403. "If you want to see it that way. What would you prefer - I shove you all in a windowless truck? Use bridles with blinkers to keep you from seeing? I might've been a bastard in the past, but now I'm not 'pretending to be better than the next monster' - I am. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
  4404. > You stand again and go to wash your hands.
  4405. > When the water shuts off, Bon Bon finally speaks up:
  4406. > "It does matter. I haven't missed that. Lyra hasn't either. But you know what? You're still a slave owner. Whatever it's like out here, you're still holding us as your property. You turned ponies into things, no matter how 'kind' you are."
  4407. "I try not to. That's why I allowed you the museum. 'Things' don't have museums."
  4408. > "Sometimes I think that makes you the worst of kind of slaver. Because you can hide behind the mask of being 'better'."
  4409. > You're about to snipe right back at her, but Bon Bon suddenly looks aside and sighs.
  4410. > "...and then sometimes I remember that a cruel slaver wouldn't have let us stay together, after we planned an escape."
  4411. > Interrupting seems like a bad call right here.
  4412. > Right when she's finally - finally! - recognizing something you'd done.
  4413. > Eventually, though, you have to speak up:
  4414. "Alright, Bon Bon. Here's how it's going to happen: Like I said, I'm going to go out there and I'm going to apologize - honestly - for what I did. To all of them."
  4415. > Her eyes snap to you, searching for the catch in your generous response.
  4416. > Unfortunately this time there really is one.
  4417. "After that you're going to have about an hour before we get back to the market. And then maybe another fifteen to thirty minutes in that time. And in that time you're going to find it in you to apologize for striking me and ask to get in the truck going home, or you won't be getting in."
  4418. > "...you'd just - throw me out?"
  4419. "I wouldn't lose track of you. Like I said, Bon Bon - I'll give you that what I did was wrong. But that doesn't give you the right to come in and strike me!"
  4420. > You shove the door open and are promptly met by the terrified visages of Crescent Moon and Ocean Wave, both backing off at an angle that suggests moments earlier their ears had been pressed right to the door.
  4421. > Delicate things, pony ears.
  4422. > Evidently not delicate enough, judging by the frantic expressions they bare.
  4423. > Those hold until Bon Bon slips out of the bathroom after you unmarked by any punishment.
  4424. "Hey..."
  4425. > Patting both mares' heads, you motion back towards the front of the restaurant.
  4426. "Let's go sit down, I want to say something."
  4427. > That draws looks more curious than angry, but they do follow along - all climbing into their old seats.
  4428. > As you'd hoped, all the ponies you'd left there are still present.
  4429. > You're equally thankful that the nearest table to you had emptied out before you returned; doing this in front of a public audience wasn't something you were really ready for.
  4430. "Listen, all of you, I..."
  4431. > Hissing between your teeth, you hesitate.
  4432. > Not because you're trying to pick your words, but because the words simply aren't coming.
  4433. "...I want to apologize. Again."
  4434. > You nervously pass a hand through your hair.
  4435. > Why was this so difficult...?
  4436. "The truth is... when were coming in here, I did lower that window on purpose. To let all the - noise in. Partly because I wanted to scare you with the reality of what it is out here. More than just show it to you, I wanted to hit you with it as hard as possible. But also because - I wanted to 'beat' Bon Bon. To win - because she'd been smug about my discomfort, I wanted to break her too. You got caught in the crossfire of that, and it wasn't fair to any of you."
  4437. > All are listening intently, ears cocked forwards and fixed on you.
  4438. > For many of them, this might have been the most open you've ever been with them.
  4439. "I - terrified you just to make a point... that's not what a good Master does, and I hope you can forgive me but I will understand if you're angry."
  4440. > A long silence follows that.
  4441. > Some of them move their jaws as if trying to speak, but none actually dare.
  4442. > Until finally, Crescent Moon puts her forelegs up on the table and glares at you:
  4443. > "I believe you didn't want to hurt us. But this is what, the third time you've apologized to me - to us? The third time you've screwed up and some pony's gotten hurt in the process?"
  4444. > More than that, you knew, but she was probably only counting the things she'd seen.
  4445. > "You don't see us as - people. We're tools, ways for you to win things. Well guess what, we're not going to be tools!"
  4446. > One of the others tries to bring Crescent back down, hooking a leg around one of hers, but still she goes on:
  4447. > "Well if you're trying to be a "good Master" then you'd better start thinking about us as people, not things, and stop using us as - as tools to win your fights!"
  4448. > A touch of a frown flickers across your face before you can hide it.
  4449. > She just didn't get it, did she?
  4450. > You weren't treating them like they were your property; they actually are your property!
  4451. > At the same time, she also had a point:
  4452. > This wasn't the first time an innocent pony had been 'caught in the crossfire'.
  4453. > It was something you regretted... but would have to do better on.
  4454. "...I know. That's why I'm here saying this."
  4455. > "Yeah, but y'know what? Sooner or later, 'sorry' isn't enough."
  4456. > You simply nod.
  4457. > Now isn't the time to be pushing arguments.
  4458. > And to your surprise, Crescent Moon softens and reaches forward with a hoof to tap your hand.
  4459. > "You're trying, I get that. But what you do to us? It sticks around for a long time after sorry."
  4460. "...like with the leash."
  4461. > Shuddering, Crescent nods.
  4462. > "Exactly."
  4463. > Standing, you circle around to her side of the table and take her hoof again, squeezing lightly.
  4464. "That you're willing to listen to me - to calmly tell me what I need to fix - even after this all, is what I appreciate."
  4465. > Hopefully Bon Bon is listening too!
  4466. > Once you return to your seat, the others are again willing to somewhat open up to you.
  4467. > Soon enough the time is running out; it's time to go back.
  4468. > None of them look particularly happy when the leashes come out again, but dutifully line up as you snap them back onto the collars.
  4469. > Except, of course, for Crescent Moon - who stays well back from the hated things.
  4470. > They actually fare better on the walk back, though.
  4471. > If anything, it almost seems that your admission has convinced them to put on a stronger face - as if to prove you couldn't spook them.
  4472. > But that they had to do that tells you enough about what this place is doing to them, and the closer you get back to the market the more those masks crack - tails beginning to swish, wings rustle nervously, and ears swing low.
  4473. "...alright. I'm not going to lie now: What you see in there will be unpleasant. Upsetting. Angering. If you don't want to, let me know now. I'll have you brought around to the loading entrance so you can wait there."
  4474. > One by one, though, they shake their heads.
  4475. > Bon Bon the last of them.
  4476. "Alright. Here we go, then."
  4477. > After a brief talk at the front desk, you're directed back downstairs again.
  4478. > You wonder briefly if being allowed out on the sales floor again says more about the lack of impact the Cadance-induced riot had, or about the benefit your business had brought them.
  4479. > Either way, you're mercifully unrecognized this time.
  4480. > Just another owner, walking an unusually large crowd of ponies.
  4481. > The few heads that rise to call in your direction do not produce cries of recognition, but of pleading hope:
  4482. > Asking, begging, to join the herd walking at your heels.
  4483. > The members of that herd, by contrast, have again merged into a defensive huddle.
  4484. > Horror fills all their eyes at the ranks upon ranks of ponies lethargically waiting for someone to come buy their services.
  4485. > Or was it the specter of whatever unknown things had caused others to want so badly to come with you?
  4486. > Their relief when you pass through a door into a back room is palpable - at least until you realize this space was little more than a holding facility for ponies not on display.
  4487. > The only difference is the single pens for viewing were replaced with large group pens intended just to keep them in place.
  4488. > Everything else - the tough floors, lax appearances
  4489. > Bon Bon gives you a sharp look, and you passively shake your head in return.
  4490. > This was not something you had chosen to show them.
  4491. > At last you reach the back, where another suited assistant is waiting.
  4492. > No Stedler today, a fact for which you're somewhat grateful.
  4493. > Putting him and Bon Bon in the same room would probably end with one of them breaking a nose.
  4494. > At the very back, near the loading dock, are the pens holding your new purchases.
  4495. > Before shaking hands with the requisite pencil-pusher and signing the final papers, you set your ponies loose.
  4496. > First to nose up to the pens and greet them, and later - after the papers are signed and pen doors opened - to walk alongside them, leashes dragging on the concrete floor, voices at a soft murmur.
  4497. > Evidently the attending staff have either seen this before, or are well-trained enough to recognize what is happening and not interfere.
  4498. > You're betting on the latter.
  4499. > None have the look of the knuckle-dragging, crop-and-truncheon-wielding muscle you'd find at a lower auction house.
  4500. > Time to give the ponies an early taste of the independence you'd offer them:
  4501. "Alright, listen up! I think we can fit ten in my van - one from the ponies who came with me, and nine of the others. The rest of you will take the truck back. Figure out who's going to be going with me, okay? I'd prefer to let you do it, but I'll step in if you can't."
  4502. > "You're sure you want to do that?"
  4503. > The murmur at your ear comes from the attendant, and you respond with a firm nod.
  4504. "I don't know if you're familiar with my operations, but I let them make their calls as long as the job gets done. This is a good way to start with them."
  4505. > "No - letting them ride with you. Is it going to be okay?"
  4506. > You turn and raise one eyebrow questioningly.
  4507. "Have there been obedience problems? I didn't notice anything on their records-"
  4508. > "No, no! But, if one of them does while you're one the road-"
  4509. > You hum softly to yourself.
  4510. "You keep their collars chained during transport, right? And hobbled?"
  4511. > "Of course. For their safety, as much as anything else."
  4512. "I'll show you the anchor points in my van. Your delivery people can get the chains back at my facilities. That acceptable?"
  4513. > "Of course, sir!"
  4514. "Good."
  4515. > To your surprise, nine ponies had already evenly separated themselves from the rest of the crowd.
  4516. > Less of a surprise is Bon Bon joining them in the line for your van.
  4517. > She'd been watching the shackles and chains being applied with hard eyes, and now lays that same fierce gaze on you.
  4518. > When you beckon her over, however, those eyes fall.
  4519. > "I... I am... sorry. Master. For striking you. And yelling at you. I.. I was angry too. And it got out of control."
  4520. > Each word is spit out with almost physical force.
  4521. > "May I get in the van to go back? I - would like to."
  4522. > It is, you suppose, as much as could be hoped from her.
  4523. "Yes. And thank you, Bon Bon."
  4524. > "Yeah, well... thanks too. For letting me do this over here, and not next to them - do they have to be chained?"
  4525. "I understand. And yes, unfortunately. But as soon as we're back, it can all come off. Your collar too."
  4526. > "Right. Let's go home then. Please."
  4527. > ...
  4528. > The ride back is far more peaceful than the ride in.
  4529. > Maybe because these new arrivals are used to a more hard-edged life than you provide.
  4530. > Or maybe because Bon Bon has had enough arguments for one day, and settles for holding quiet discussions in the back with them.
  4531. > Little noise makes its way forward, only low words held in soft conversation and the occasional clink or rattle of chain as one of them moves a bit or you hit a bump in the road,
  4532. > Bon Bon had not been pleased about that, but raised no fuss.
  4533. > Possibly because she'd seen the Foremost ELT staff locking them in place to the truck as well and understood it wasn't something you'd ordered.
  4534. > Either way, they only really start paying attention again when you're nearly home.
  4535. > With the foreknowledge of where the protesters had decided to camp out, this time you take a roundabout path to avoid running that gauntlet, and some of the ponies gasp in surprise as the camp rolls into view.
  4536. > They clearly hadn't been expecting it to be this large.
  4537. > Hooves and muzzles remain practically glued to the windows - or as close as the chains would allow, in some cases - as the gates are rolled open and you pull through.
  4538. > You park beside the manor and quickly set about freeing them from the van:
  4539. "Alright, huddle up here. The truck shouldn't be too far out, and when it comes they can get these collars off of you too."
  4540. > Despite the summer heat the ponies don't mind being outside at all.
  4541. > You’d be soaked in sweat were it not for being in the shadow of your manor, but the camp clearly has their rapt attention.
  4542. > Some are even drawn to stay closer for a better look, nearly disobeying your orders before the tug of their chain brought them back in line.
  4543. > Eventually the truck turns up, brakes squealing as it pulls to a stop.
  4544. > And as if she had been waiting for just that moment Cadance appears to sweep out from within the camp and make her way among the arrivals as the attendants move among them removing collars.
  4545. > By now it seems the ponies who'd ridden in the van with you are just about ready for their eyes to pop out of their head.
  4546. > Chuckling softly, you pat one on the back and point towards the milling crowd of other arrivals as they're herded down and off the truck.
  4547. "Alright, off you go then - line up with the rest of them, we'll get your chains off."
  4548. > They do, retreating in a hurried and lightly-clanking line towards the delivery handlers.
  4549. > That leaves you alone with-
  4550. > "So, do I get my collar off now too, or is this a permanent thing now?"
  4551. > You roll your eyes as you kneel down to take unbuckle the offending instrument.
  4552. "Would it kill you to be polite for once?"
  4553. > "Would it kill you to release us?"
  4554. > Instead of answering, you finish pulling the collar from her neck.
  4555. > Bon Bon rolls her head sharply, then lifts a rear hoof to scratch at the side of her neck.
  4556. "You know, Bon Bon, about that position in the guard-"
  4557. > "Forget about it."
  4558. > Turning to face you, she shakes her head fiercely.
  4559. "I'm not joking. You solve things with words that I don't know how to. You have strength, command respect - I could use that-"
  4560. > "And I said forget about it. You've convinced me that trying to just slip out again isn't going to work, but I won't ever lower myself to actually do your work keeping us here."
  4561. > From the way she says it, you rather suspect that she only thinks it wouldn't work because you'd proven that your eyes and ears were more extensive than she suspected.
  4562. "If you insist. The offer will remain open, though."
  4563. > You stand and dust off your pants.
  4564. "You can head back in. Report to your work station, see if they need you."
  4565. > With a gentle 'hmmph', Bon Bon turns and trots off - head held high and proud.
  4566.  
  4567. > Another day, another shift spent keeping watch on the fence line.
  4568. > Distant strains of music and chanting floated over from the distant encampment, which if anything only seemed to have spread out more.
  4569. "They really aren't going anywhere, are they?"
  4570. > "Doesn't look like it."
  4571. > Seismic Shift grunts, shaking his head.
  4572. > Pulling up a pair of binoculars hung from his neck, he carefully cradles them between his forehooves to peer down the length of the fence.
  4573. > In the distance a pair of pickup trucks sat just beyond the camp's boundary, workers clustered around posts installing cameras.
  4574. "At least they're staying back. I was worried they'd charge the fence."
  4575. > "Cowards. I heard they damn near jumped Anonymous' car when he was bringing the new ponies in a couple of days ago."
  4576. "Yeah, same."
  4577. > "So they go after trucks and yell at us from over on that road, but not actually do anything."
  4578. "You almost sound like you wish they'd come up to the fence."
  4579. > Seismic Shift growls, a deep bass noise that reminds you of an engine's rumble.
  4580. > "Yeah, I almost do. Then I could give them a piece of my mind."
  4581. "You really don't like them, huh?"
  4582. > Swinging the binoculars around, he pans them along the line of protesters.
  4583. > "We aren't the worst off here. There are much, much worse places I'd tell them to go bother. But they'd probably just stand a gallop away and yell at them too."
  4584. "Yeah, I can believe that."
  4585. > Rising, you stretch your wings wide and pop your back.
  4586. > Glancing down at the shadow of the building you sat atop, you grimace.
  4587. "I'd guess it's about two-thirty. We'd better go circle around again."
  4588. > "Suppose we should. Alright, let me-"
  4589. > "Thunderlane! Thunderlane, are you up there?"
  4590. > Scrambling to the building's far side, you peer over that edge in turn to find a sweat-lathered unicorn peering up in turn.
  4591. "Yeah, up here. Something wrong? What's up?"
  4592. > "It's Vapor Trail! You'd better come now!"
  4593. > Vapor-
  4594. > Your stomach falls out, wings instinctively popping in preparation for a leaping takeoff.
  4595. > No.
  4596. > You can't.
  4597. > Not when you and Seismic are on duty.
  4598. > But-
  4599. > A heavy hoof settles across your back, patting reassuringly.
  4600. > "Go. I can tell you're just about ready to go flying off anyway."
  4601. "But walking the fence-"
  4602. > "I can do it on my own."
  4603. > Cracking a grin, Seismic shakes his head eagerly.
  4604. > "They're not going to do anything."
  4605. > You don't need to be told twice.
  4606. > In fact, you're fairly certain that you set the camp's flight-speed record on the way over to the medical clinic.
  4607. > Not a moment too soon, either:
  4608. > Vapor Trail is already resting on the birthing when you arrive, albeit curled on her side and clutching her swollen belly as her legs will allow.
  4609. > The attendants take one look at you and move aside.
  4610. > "We need her to roll over onto her belly, or she won't be able to foal correctly. Can you help?"
  4611. > Does that need to be asked?
  4612. "Vapor? Vapor, listen to - urk!"
  4613. > You'd tentatively reached out with a hoof, and instantly she'd shot out one of her own to latch on to it.
  4614. > "Get this thing out of me."
  4615. > Vapor Trail had yelled maybe twice in your entire time knowing her.
  4616. > Hearing the vicious, pain-driven snarl come from her was like hearing another pony speak through her lips.
  4617. "I know, I know - we will, but you've got to roll onto your belly so you're on the table right-"
  4618. > With an angry, snake-like hiss she twists - belly finding its way into the gap in the center of the table and hooves instinctively going for the stirrups.
  4619. > All bit the one which locks firmly onto your pastern and refuses to let go.
  4620. > "Easy there, Miss Trail!"
  4621. > Instantly one of the nurses is at her side - shifting Vapor's legs and stabilizing her.
  4622. "How close is she, do you know-"
  4623. > "Rutting close, Thunderlane! Gah!"
  4624. > "Her water has already broken and contractions are coming fast. It shouldn't be long."
  4625. > "It could be faster!"
  4626. > You can't help but laugh at the change that's come over Vapor Trail.
  4627. > Any sign of her normal supportive, helpful nature is gone - yet you can't help but find her beautiful.
  4628. > Even if beauty is sweat-covered, heaving for breath, and alternating between pained whinnies and snarling harder than some of the Wonderbolts drill sergeants had.
  4629. > Leaning in, you spread a wing across her back and brush your nose through her mane.
  4630. "Easy, Vapor. Easy. You've been there for me often enough, now let me take care of you."
  4631. > "You need to push, Miss Trail - push, as hard as you can!"
  4632. > "What in Tartarus' dark halls do you think I have been doing?!"
  4633. > It's true, her sides are spasming with a force that goes beyond merely her heavy, labored breathing.
  4634. "Do you have something you can give her? A painkiller, or-"
  4635. > "Not this late, when the foal is already coming!"
  4636. > Hissing, you pull close to Vapor Trail and rest your head next to hers.
  4637. > Your hoof might be going slightly numb from the intensity of her hold on it, but that doesn't really seem to matter right now.
  4638. "Focus, Vapor. You remember - remember back when you were getting ready for the tryouts to for the Wonderbolts?"
  4639. > "What - agh! - what does that matter?!"
  4640. "Well, if it was anything like what I went through they pushed you - and just kept pushing, until everything from your tipfeathers to your tail-hair hurt. But, you kept on going, didn't you? You got through, just kept beating your wings and flying."
  4641. > Her attention now fixed on you, Vapor grits her teeth and nods.
  4642. "It was hard. We all-"
  4643. > Something splatters against the floor, a pungent odor rising from it.
  4644. > Your throat closes up, but the nurse shakes his head:
  4645. > "It's fine! Keep going, that's normal!"
  4646. "We kept wondering if it was worth it. Everypony in my group, and I bet everypony in yours."
  4647. > "I - I had -"
  4648. > Vapor Trail gasps sharply, her head rolling back.
  4649. > "-had somepony helping me through."
  4650.  
  4651. "Then let me be the one who helps me for this. You need to keep going, keep pushing just like you did there. Keep pushing, and it'll be over and you can rest with-"
  4652. > It hits you all at once.
  4653. > A foal.
  4654. > Vapor Trail is going to have a foal.
  4655. > Of course you'd come to terms with it - a long while back.
  4656. > But this is...
  4657. > Is this what being a parent feels like?
  4658. > You aren't the parent, of course - not literally.
  4659. > But it was close enough that you were feeling like -
  4660. > Like -
  4661. > "With my filly."
  4662. "Yeah. With your - filly?"
  4663. > "Mother's intuiti- ahhhh! Intuition!"
  4664. > Laughing, you wrap both your wings around Vapor and squeeze her tight as you can.
  4665. "Filly, then. Just - just keep going."
  4666. > "Yes, keep going! I can see the head - she's doing fine, I can see her moving."
  4667. "Hear that, Vapor? You're almost there!"
  4668. > An sharp, ear-aching whinny is your answer, shortly followed by a twitch of Vapor's hind legs.
  4669. > "There! The foal's just about out, just a few more-"
  4670. > Vapor Trail howls one final time, and the attendant whoops.
  4671. > "There we go! All done, let me just get this off-"
  4672. > Sinking back into the table, Vapor simply lays in place - side still heaving, wings spread limply, and staring into the distance with a little smile on her face.
  4673. > "Thunder? I - I can't get up to look. Can you-"
  4674. "Sure."
  4675. > You kiss her cheek, smiling warmly.
  4676. "I'd love to, Vapor. But you'll need to let go of my hoof first..."
  4677. > Flushing, she releases her demon-grip on your fetlock.
  4678. > You try to keep your weight off of it, just in case.
  4679. > Circling around behind her, you try and ignore the... mess that had been deposited in a pan carefully placed beneath the birthing bed.
  4680. > Focus on the squirming, howling bundle of fur that the nurse was finishing toweling off.
  4681. "Hey, Vapor? I - I guess you're a pretty good judge of foals."
  4682. > "It's a - a filly?"
  4683. "Uh-huh."
  4684. > She's darker-coated than Vapor, a blue-green like the rough-stirred sea but with the barest touch of light-yellow mane.
  4685. > You can't see her eyes yet - they're still squeezed tightly shut - but it's enough.
  4686. "She's beauti-"
  4687. > Vapor gives a laugh of joy and then a whimper as her body heaves one last time, expelling - something.
  4688. > You're trying not to think about what, but had strayed a little too close to look at the foal and oh sweet Celestia it splattered all over your legs why-
  4689. > Too late you feel your gorge rising, but at least the pan is there for your to lean over and add your vomit to.
  4690. > "Thunderlane? Thunder! Are you okay?"
  4691. "I'm fine. You just, uh - I - I think - I need a shower."
  4692. > The nurse leans over to whisper in your ear:
  4693. > "Five doors down on the right. They'll let you in."
  4694. > "C-Can I see her?"
  4695. > Oh, right.
  4696. > Swallowing hard and forcing thoughts of wet stickiness clinging to your coat out of your mind, you take the now-bundled foal in mouth and carry him over to the bed.
  4697. > "Oh, Thunderlane, she's beautiful..."
  4698. [Choice]
  4699. > The shower is... deeply welcome.
  4700. > Following the nurse's orders you'd found the washroom and slipped in.
  4701. > The one other pony within had given you one look and pointed wordlessly to the shower stall.
  4702. > You surely weren't the first to stumble in covered in something indescribable.
  4703. > Despite all efforts to not think about exactly what is washing out of your coat, you nonetheless find yourself lathering up and rinsing off over and over again.
  4704. > Is it really just the disgust?
  4705. > Or something more?
  4706. > Are you - afraid?
  4707. > The thought draws a chuckle from your lips - Thunderlane the big tough guardspony, afraid of a foal!
  4708. > But there was much to be afraid about.
  4709. > This was effectively making you a father, even if you were not the sire.
  4710. > And what would Vapor do now...?
  4711. > Bearing the foal had tethered her to the camp - and would tether her, if you remembered anything of how your own parents had been stuck when Rumble had been born.
  4712. > Heh, Dad had even said he had the opposite temperament to you to complement his opposite colors.
  4713. > Always seeking attachment, looking for somepony to be with...
  4714. > No.
  4715. > Focus, Thunderlane.
  4716. > ...and quit scrubbing your legs for the fifteenth time, you'll scrub the coat right off of them!
  4717. > Were you actually scared of what was coming?
  4718. > Maybe.
  4719. > But if you're scared, then you can bet Vapor Trail is terrified.
  4720. > Which means she'll need you, and it's time to shut off the water and go be there for her.
  4721. > By the time you get back to the room they've already taken away the birthing table and transferred Vapor Trail to a proper bed.
  4722. > She still looks shaken and exhausted by her ordeal, but her face lights up when you enter nonetheless.
  4723. "Hey there. You feel better?"
  4724. > "Achy. Tired. I think I smell."
  4725. > You laugh softly and draw close to nuzzle her.
  4726. > Vapor does smell, the stale tinge of old sweat on top of hospital antiseptic and other more exotic scents.
  4727. > But who are you to tell her that?
  4728. "Can I see her...?"
  4729. > Lifting a forehoof and the sheet, Vapor reveals the filly clasped to her chest -
  4730. > A tiny little ball of barely-stirring fur and-
  4731. "...huh. I - don't remember Rumble's hooves looking like that when he was born."
  4732. > "Weird, right?"
  4733. > Vapor giggles.
  4734. > "You missed when I noticed and shrieked a little. The nurse says it's normal - they'll turn normal in a few hours."
  4735. > Lifting a hoof, you peer at the underside questioningly.
  4736. "...I really can't see it."
  4737. > "Neither can I, but-"
  4738. > Leaning in, she kisses her between the ears.
  4739. > "-here she is."
  4740. > In response the foal twitches, half-open eyes rolling and limbs stirring.
  4741. > Wings still looking more like combs of un-fletched pins stretch and limply beat before curling up again.
  4742. "She really is beautiful... have you chosen a name yet?"
  4743. > "Sunbreak. The light coming through after a storm."
  4744. > As if in response to hearing her name, little Sunbreak flutters her eyes and gives a tired, squeaky cry.
  4745. > Vapor Trail brushes her with a wing until she returns to lightly snoozing.
  4746. > "And I swear right now, Sunbreak will not live her life a slave. We will find some way to be free. You'll know what it's like to fly freely."
  4747. > Just the hormones talking, or a sign of something more serious?
  4748. > You don't know.
  4749. > But now isn't the time to be worrying of such things.
  4750. > Steadying yourself, you climb up onto the bed beside Vapor Trail.
  4751. > Fortunately it's quite a large bed compared to the cots in most of the slave quarters and plenty enough room for all three of you.
  4752. > Three.
  4753. > Are you - a family now?
  4754. > Of all the things you'd thought of finding in slavery, family wasn't one of them.
  4755. > "Thunderlane?"
  4756. "Uh?"
  4757. > Vapor Trail giggles softly.
  4758. > "You were kind of staring at the wall."
  4759. "I'm just... thinking. About all of this."
  4760. > "I kind of guessed."
  4761. > She looks back down at Sunbreak and then back to you, frowning.
  4762. > "I'll - understand if you don't want to stay anymore."
  4763. "...do I honestly give the impression of a stallion who'd just - leave you?"
  4764. > "No, but - she's going to cry. A lot."
  4765. "I wasn't that young when Rumble was born. And he was a loud little foal - I know what it's like."
  4766. > "Was he really?"
  4767. "Very. I used to tease him that he'd never really grown up like that."
  4768. > Vapor giggles softly but tiredly.
  4769. > Lifting your head over her barrel, you drop your muzzle to Sunbreak and blow a soft puff of breath through your nostrils.
  4770. > It stirs the little burst of mane she has, and Sunbreak lifts her head to peer around until her nose bumps yours.
  4771. > Her nostrils flare too, taking in your scent - and then she nickers gently before laying her head back down to rest.
  4772. > You respond with a soft nicker of your own and a wide smile.
  4773. "Yeah..."
  4774. > Laying your own head back down across Vapor, you kiss her gently on the cheek.
  4775. "...I'd say we're going to get along just fine."
  4776. > "Do you have to go soon?"
  4777. "No, I can stay for a while. Seismic said he can take this walk-around alone for once. Job or not, we're not in crisis and I'm not inclined to leave you - or Sunbreak - all alone."
  4778. > A gentle cough draws your attention to the doorway.
  4779. > The nurse had returned - and looked away with a mild flush at having intruded on your personal moment.
  4780. > "I'm sorry, I have to take her basic measurements and give a checkup."
  4781. "That's fine. Isn't it, Vapor."
  4782. > Her expression had turned hard, but eventually she lifts her leg that had curled defensively around Sunbreak.
  4783. > Approaching, the nurse lights his horn to lift her into a blanket.
  4784. > Sunbreak stirs in worry, then calms as she is swaddled in the soft fabric.
  4785. > "I heated it up before coming out here, so she'll be comfortable. Don't you worry."
  4786. > Despite his words Vapor keeps a fierce eye on the pair as he goes through the motions:
  4787. > Stretching a measuring tape out to find Sunbreak's length, height, and wingspan, weighing her, peering into her eyes and ears...
  4788. > Murmuring quietly to himself, the nurse scratches out his findings on a pad of paper.
  4789. > "...well, it looks like you've got one very healthy pegasus filly here. Does she have a name, yet?"
  4790. "Sunbreak."
  4791. > "Sunbreak..."
  4792. > His pen dances along the sheet, scratching away.
  4793. > "...is there any history of any sicknesses in your family we should know about?"
  4794. > "Not that I know of."
  4795. > Vapor Trail casts her eyes down, frowning.
  4796. > "I - don't know about her sire, though. I don't think so, though."
  4797. > "That's fine. Actually, can one of you come help hold her? I need to take some blood for testing and give her a couple of injections."
  4798. > Quickly putting a hoof across Vapor's withers, you shake your head:
  4799. "I'll deal with it. You rest."
  4800. > Standing, you stretch and amble to the nurse's side.
  4801. "What do I do?"
  4802. > "Just hold her carefully - but loosely. Let her squirm a bit."
  4803. "Got it."
  4804. > Sure enough, the moment the needle goes in Sunbreak begins to squirm and howl.
  4805. > As soon as the blood is drawn you lean in, nickering and brushing her mane back with your muzzle.
  4806. > It takes a few moments, but she quiets - at least until the next injection goes in.
  4807. > "Sorry. Might want to wait until we're just about done before doing that."
  4808. "I don't mind."
  4809. > Two shots are delivered before the nurse turns aside with a confident nod.
  4810. > "There you go. All done."
  4811. > You set Sunbreak back down on the table, while he looks down at the papers beside him and sighs:
  4812. > "Now for the part that hurts me..."
  4813. "What do you mean? What are those?"
  4814. > Registration forms. For Anonymous. To know he - has another pony."
  4815. > "What?!"
  4816. > Vapor Trail's ears were pinned back and despite her exhaustion and soreness she was struggling to rise from the bed.
  4817. > "No. No, don't you dare! My foal won't be a slave. I won't let you!"
  4818. "Vapor, don't-"
  4819. > "I'm sorry, it's - just something we have to do. I can't skip it, he'd find out!"
  4820. > "I don't care. You tear up those papers or I will. He isn't owning my filly."
  4821. > Now everypony's ears are pinned back and tails are beginning to lash worryingly.
  4822. > Despite her legs wobbling Vapor puts one hoof forward after another.
  4823. > She closes in with head lowered and wings spread aggressively.
  4824. > "Give Sunbreak back to me. Then give me the papers so I can tear them to rutting shreds!"
  4825. "Stop it, Vapor! Think! Think with your head-"
  4826. > With a wordless shriek she leaps for the nurse, but you're already moving, intercepting Vapor Trail in mid-air and wrapping your wings around her to catch her.
  4827. > In her weakened state the mare is no match for you and screams into your chest.
  4828. "Vapor! Vapor listen - it's paper. Just paper. That's it. No matter what he writes there, Sunbreak won't be any different. And if he doesn't, Anonymous will want to know why. He'll just get another pony to do it."
  4829. > Over your protestations comes another sound:
  4830. > The howling of a newborn foal unaware of what the raised and angry voices all around her meant.
  4831. > Slowly, Vapor breaks down and begins to softly cry.
  4832. "...come on. Let's get you back into bed, and then I'll bring Sunbreak back to you. Okay?"
  4833. > Though she doesn't speak or even nod, Vapor lets you guide her back onto the mattress.
  4834. > As soon as you bring the swaddled foal to her side she latches on to the bundle.
  4835. > Turning to the nurse - shaken, wide-eyed, but still standing - you sigh:
  4836. "Can you do me a favor? Don't mention this."
  4837. > "Yeah. Of course. I - you aren't the first pony to be upset at this. I understand, Miss Trail."
  4838. > Vapor still doesn't answer.
  4839. > Once the nurse is gone again, you curl back up - wrapping your wings around her in a warm shelter.
  4840. > That, in turn, lasts perhaps a few hours before there's another knock at your door.
  4841. > Not a nurse this time, but Seismic Shift.
  4842. > One look at him tells you enough:
  4843. > There's a problem.
  4844. > Pulling the covers over the now-sleeping Vapor, you slip out into the hallway with a sigh:
  4845. "How bad is it?"
  4846. > “I don't know. You'd better come see this, though. Then you can go back to her."
  4847. > Ultimately Seismic leads you back towards the building you'd been staked out on before.
  4848. > He seems - worried, but not terrified.
  4849. > Cantering, but not galloping.
  4850. "Celestia help me if this is..."
  4851. > "It's important, Thunderlane. Trust me on this."
  4852. > While you can simply climb to the rooftop with a few beats of your wings, Seismic has to climb the stairs - and for his sake you follow close behind.
  4853. > "I just hope she's still there..."
  4854. "What are you on about, Seismic? Who's out there?"
  4855. > "Not saying yet."
  4856. "Seismic-"
  4857. > "I don't want you to be biased. I might be mistaken, but you have to see for yourself."
  4858. > Out on the rooftop, he sits on his haunches at the edge nearest the fence and sweeps the binoculars you'd left with him across the crowd.
  4859. > "Come on, please still be there, please still be there..."
  4860. > Now you're actually starting to worry - what could have stirred him up like this?
  4861. > Seismic wasn't normally the most impressionable stallion...
  4862. > "Ah-hah!"
  4863. > All but shoving the binoculars into your muzzle, Seismic points out towards the crowd:
  4864. > "Look - find the banner that says 'no freedom = no backing down'."
  4865. "...uh, okay. I see it?"
  4866. > "Now, follow that a little bit further down and to the left. Look for any familiar faces."
  4867. > Familiar faces?
  4868. > What is that supposed to mean?
  4869. > You sweep the crowd again, a wall of human faces sweeping before your eyes.
  4870. "Not entirely sure what you're looking f-"
  4871. > Words choke off as your throat closest.
  4872. > No doubt, that was a face you wouldn't be forgetting.
  4873. > It's severe features - hard and angry - belonged to the woman who'd nearly driven you to the point of breaking as she'd hammered you with questions about Chrysocolla's death for hours on end.
  4874. > Lowering the binoculars, you find your hooves actually shaking.
  4875. > Your voice, when you speak, is a bitter hiss.
  4876. "Nightmare's black teats, that's her. Arlene Donovan."
  4877. > "I thought so. Didn't want to tell you. See if you agreed with it."
  4878. > The binoculars tumble to the ground in front of you.
  4879. [Choice]
  4880. "...alright. Seismic, stay here and keep an eye on her. I'm going to let Gene and Anonymous know."
  4881. > "You don't want to go out there? You've got your tag, you could-"
  4882. "Do what? She's a police officer - or something close to it. I can't order her to stop."
  4883. > She, after all, isn't a slave.
  4884. "Best case, I get an idea of why she's here... but maybe I rile up the crowd to do something stupid, and then that'd fall on me."
  4885. > "Yeah, I guess. I just really don't like that she's out there. She was looking for some way to pin a crime on Anonymous, right? What if she's the one who riles the crowd up until he does something."
  4886. "Then we deal with that then. But not now. Keep an eye out."
  4887. > He huffs softly, but scoops the binoculars back up.
  4888. > "Yeah. I will. Just can't help but wonder if she's part of the reason they're here instead of some worse place."
  4889. > That's a thought on your mind too, and one you pass on to Gene.
  4890. > For his part, he listens with an increasingly dark scowl before calling Anonymous and letting you repeat it all to him too.
  4891. > Anonymous replies with an equally frustrated-sounding huff - at least, that's what you presume it is.
  4892. > Over the phone it comes across as a staticky hiss.
  4893. > "Thanks, Thunderlane. I know you wouldn't have brought this to my attention unless you were certain it was her, so I'm pretty convinced. Alright, Thunderlane - head back to duty, I'll make what inquiries I can."
  4894. "Understood."
  4895. > "Gene, if you want to put a permanent guard team on that side keeping an eye on her - one pony, one employee maybe? I know we're a little short on staff right now, so I'll leave that up to you."
  4896. > "Going to have to say no. Not until the cameras are finished going up, anyway; we're spread thin enough trying to watch the other spots along the fence."
  4897. > "I get it. That's fine; I'll look into further acquisitions to cover this."
  4898. > Another staticky-hiss sigh.
  4899. > "It's going to be pricey, but we're already seeing revenues up so I guess that's the price we pay. Thanks Gene, Thunderlane."
  4900. "One other thing I thought you should know. Vapor Trail, uh, gave birth."
  4901. > "Did she? No problems?"
  4902. "I think she might've sprained my hoof from holding on so hard, but no. A filly - her name's Sunbreak."
  4903. > "Sunbreak, huh? She's been talking to Sunburst, has she?"
  4904. "...huh?"
  4905. > "Nevermind, poor joke. That's really excellent, Thunderlane. Great to hear - I know you must be overjoyed."
  4906. > And he really actually does sound thrilled to hear about it - not just pleased to add another pony to his holdings, but genuinely happy.
  4907. > "If you have a chance, pass on my congratulations as well."
  4908. "I will, yeah."
  4909. > ...you might skip that.
  4910. > Or at least hold on it until Vapor Trail's hormones have calmed down a bit.
  4911. > She was still sleeping when you returned, but climbing back into the bed caused her to stir and yawn.
  4912. > "Thunderlane?"
  4913. "Hey..."
  4914. > Whispering softly, you slip beneath the sheet to lay belly-to-belly with her - Sunbreak tucked between the two of you.
  4915. "Go back to sleep, Vapor."
  4916. > "What happened? Did you have to go?"
  4917. "Yes. Just to check in on something. It's no emergency."
  4918. > "Oh. Good."
  4919. > Vapor smiles and lets her eyes flutter shut again.
  4920.  
  4921. > "Your Highness!"
  4922. > Sunburst ducks into a bow the moment you step in, and you quickly motion for him to rise - horn flashing to shut the door behind you.
  4923. > Once again a rough stack of papers is hefted aside to give you room to seat yourself before his desk.
  4924. > "I wasn't expecting you. Has something come up?"
  4925. "In a manner of speaking. Sunburst, have you heard anything more of the resistance contact."
  4926. > "In a way."
  4927. > His horn lights, shuffling papers around on the desk.
  4928. > Not to search for something, but as a nervous tick.
  4929. > "We verified their legitimacy. Got a message out from them, and waited to see our message pop up. So, they're definitely who we thought they were."
  4930. > Unless the whole thing is a trap.
  4931. > Seeming to guess at your thoughts, Sunburst shakes his head.
  4932. > "I really doubt it's a trap. For an operation of this scale, somepony from somewhere else would have been caught. We would have heard."
  4933. "I hope you're right. But how did they take your order that we should hold back on any impending plans."
  4934. > "They took it..."
  4935. > He hesitates, and your heart plunges.
  4936. > "...there was a bit of back and forth messages between me and them. They're not happy. I don't think they were expecting to be staying long themselves, and now you might want them not to leave at all...?"
  4937. > You bite your tongue to avoid making a sour face - a habit you'd never quite been able to kick.
  4938. > No matter how many times your aunt had said it made you look like you'd bit into a particularly rotten fruit.
  4939. "I wish I had known they were going to do this. I would have told them not to - not for our sake..."
  4940. > "I know, Your Highness."
  4941. > Sunburst takes off his glasses and lifts a leg to rub at his eyes with the fetlock.
  4942. > "For what it is worth, they probably won't make any... risky moves. Not yet."
  4943. "Even with the crowd out there now."
  4944. > "Yes. Though, I'm not the best judge of intentions. But I think they understand you're in command here."
  4945. > You heave a quiet sigh of relief.
  4946. > One less thing to be concerned about.
  4947. > For the time being, anyway.
  4948. "Now, I have to ask another question, Sunburst. And I need you to tell me honestly: Is Vapor Trail involved in one of your cells?"
  4949. > "Vapor Trail?"
  4950. > His eyes flick away, and instantly your worries are back - settling over you like a net.
  4951. > "I... can't say-"
  4952. "I have to know, Sunburst. She gave birth recently, and -"
  4953. > Sighing, you seat yourself before his desk.
  4954. "- at the time, I convinced her to remain by telling her that there would be a time when her foal would be free. I'd hoped she would grow attached, which she has. But now, if she knows there is a potential route out of the camp..."
  4955. > "With the cells broken up as they are, I can't be certain if she is directly involved."
  4956. > Your frown deepens.
  4957. > That was a non-answer if you've ever heard one.
  4958. "Sunrburst-"
  4959. > "I can - guess. And my guess is - she is. You sent Derpy to speak to her, didn't you?"
  4960. "Yes. One mother to another."
  4961. > "Along with some other things I've heard... I have to think she is. But I honestly don't know what part of it she is!"
  4962. "And that'd determine how much she knows about the escape plan?"
  4963. > This time his nod is much, much more confident.
  4964. > "And I can't dig to far in without having to re-organize the whole thing."
  4965. > Only one real choice, then.
  4966. > You'd have to get the answer straight from the source.
  4967. > Hopefully Vapor Trail would still want to speak to you...
  4968. > "Your Highness? One other thing before you go."
  4969. "Of course, Sunburst?"
  4970. > "The new Crystal Pony, Lattice... have you found him... reluctant?"
  4971. "Reluctant?"
  4972. > "To speak with you, to be around you?"
  4973. "Yes."
  4974. > You nod, though more softly.
  4975. "I do not understand why. But he seems to be terribly fearful of me."
  4976. > Sunburst, to your surprise, seems almost relieved.
  4977. > "I'm just glad I'm not the only one."
  4978. "Wait, with you too?"
  4979. > "Yes. Tourmaline Twist was all too happy to see someone else from the Empire, but Lattice... avoids me."
  4980. > You frown sharply.
  4981. > Both of you, no...?
  4982. "Does he talk with Tourmaline Twist? They're supposed to be working together."
  4983. > "Yes. Often. I've... watched them at a distance."
  4984. > Just yourself and Sunburst, then...
  4985. > "There's something else, Your Highness. That scarf he's taken to wearing all the time? I think he has something hidden beneath it."
  4986. "Something, like what?"
  4987. > "I don't know."
  4988. > Frowning, Sunburst tugs at his scruff of beard - eyes somewhere far away.
  4989. > "I've considered trying to find a spell I could cast to scry an enchantment on it, but no luck so far. We could just... take it..."
  4990. "Don't. I'll seek a less - intrusive path. Unless we think he will be a problem, I can't agree to spying like that."
  4991. > "Understood, Your Highness."
  4992. > You'd entered the office hoping to have settled your worries, but instead you emerged back from its crowded confines with yet another thing on your mind.
  4993. > Vapor Trail is still resting in her bed when you arrive.
  4994. > Her smile widens as you enter, and the beating of your nervous heart slows some.
  4995. > No hate, then.
  4996. > Thunderlane is there too, on the far side of the bed - and seems to be having a similar reaction to your presence.
  4997. > But you understand him taking a few moments off for this.
  4998. > One of your special reassuring smiles calms his feelings, bringing his ears right back up.
  4999. "Vapor Trail, Thunderlane - good evening."
  5000. > "Your Highness! Would you like to see her?"
  5001. "I'd love to, Vapor."
  5002. > The blanket is pulled back and she lifts a hind leg - Sunbreak had found a teat, and was busy sucking hungrily.
  5003. > You flush a touch, but Vapor doesn't seem to mind.
  5004. > Some ponies were more... communal about these things than Canterlot's esteemed halls, and it had been many long years since you'd actually lived among them.
  5005. "She's beautiful..."
  5006. > Coming to the bedside, you drop to your knees.
  5007. > Sunbreak feels your breath and raises her head to sniff curious, nickering in curiosity.
  5008. "Hello there, little one..."
  5009. > Both your nostrils flare, exchanging scents back and forth, and then she goes back to feeding.
  5010. "...my, she is hungry isn't she?"
  5011. > "Uh-huh."
  5012. > Vapor giggles softly.
  5013. > "Mom warned me about what giving birth would be like. But she didn't say anything about suckling - it feels super-weird."
  5014. "Well, that's one thing that is universal. Princess Celestia never mentioned it when I was learning about... all that at the time either."
  5015. > "Celestia taught you about - about -"
  5016. > The idea of the solar princess speaking of matters of mares and stallions seems to have put Vapor's whole mind on hold, while Thunderlane was merely trying to hide his blush.
  5017. "She did, in private and with much protest from me at the time. But still... maybe not mentioning suckling is a little private joke passed down mother-to-mother, generation after generation."
  5018. > "Maybe. And Thunderlane, that doesn't give you an excuse to tell either!"
  5019. > "My lips are sealed, 'Trail."
  5020. > "Good!"
  5021. > Lightly tapping him on the snout, Vapor turns back to you.
  5022. > "Your Highness, I - I hate to ask this of you now, but - will I have to go back to working?"
  5023. "Certainly not immediately. You need time to recover and for Sunbreak to settle. After that - well, we normally have nurses to help looking after your foal, but I understand you are working in a kitchen at the moment?"
  5024. > "Yes, but I was told that was only until the foal came..."
  5025. "Then we will see if you can keep her with you, at least until she is a little older and separation anxiety is passed."
  5026. > Immediately her expression noticeably brightens, as does Thunderlane's.
  5027. > That lifts your heart some too:
  5028. > It was rare for true love to be seen in these testing years, but that only made their bond stand out like a blazing torch in the night.
  5029. > Strength like that would carry them far, you thought.
  5030. > Your ear flicks around as the door clicks; just as quickly your heart sinks as you hear familiar shoes on the tile floor.
  5031. > "Cadance, I didn't expect to see you here. And Vapor Trail, hello!"
  5032. "...hello, Master."
  5033. > While you and Thunderlane answer quickly, Vapor's expression only tightens.
  5034. > Out of the corner you can see her leg fall back down, protectively covering her still-nursing foal.
  5035. > Unaware of the darker feel he had brought to the room, Anonymous wanders further in with a wide smile on his face.
  5036. > "I just wanted to say congratulations. I know you were... uncertain when you first arrived here, but I'm glad we were able to convince you otherwise."
  5037. > He motions to the foal still half-hidden beneath Vapor's leg and the blanket.
  5038. > Disturbed from her suckling, she'd instead taken to huddling close beside her mother's belly.
  5039. > "She's beautiful. I mean it - she is. Sunbreak, yes?"
  5040. > "Yes."
  5041. > Vapor's response is terse and flat, the single word spat out.
  5042. > Anonymous does not miss it either.
  5043. > "...Vapor. I'm not pulling anything, or trying to mock you. I'm just trying to be nice."
  5044. > No talent is needed to see the invisible tension is building between them.
  5045. > Thunderlane's hoof snakes over Vapor Trail's withers, as if to hold her back.
  5046. > But the mare isn't going to attack.
  5047. > Ruffled feathers settle back down on her sides, and Vapor's eyes tilt down to where Sunbreak peers up at her mother.
  5048. > "...yeah. Okay. Thank you, I guess."
  5049. > "I'd like to hold her, if I could."
  5050. > The words lie; there is no question in his tone.
  5051. > Instantly Vapor's ears snap back down.
  5052. > "No."
  5053. > "I'm not going to hurt her! I know how to deal with foals. You aren't the first mother here."
  5054. > "That has nothing to do with it!"
  5055. "It's nothing harmful, I promise. He handles Flurry Heart often, and she hasn't ever been hurt."
  5056. > "Not the point."
  5057. > Shrugging off a wing Thunderlane had tried to slip over her, Vapor Trail struggles upright and glares fiercely at him.
  5058. > "My filly is only a few hours old, and already you've just - decided she belongs to you!"
  5059. > "That is how it works, yes."
  5060. > "Vapor-"
  5061. > "No! Don't try and stop me, Thunder! You stopped me before but now I'm going to say my part."
  5062. > Turning back to Anonymous, she goes on:
  5063. > "You don't own my Sunbreak. You never will. I swore the day I got here no foal of mine would live their lives a slave. If - if you pick her up, make her yours -"
  5064. > Stepping between the two of them, you speak softly in a tone that you hope will calm both tempers.
  5065. "When they're just born, foals will... imprint, to those around them. If you take hold of Sunbreak, she will - be familiar with you."
  5066. > "I know. Like I said, she is not the first pony to have foaled here. I don't want to steal her from you. Vapor Trail. Just - make her familiar with me."
  5067. [Choice]
  5068. "No."
  5069. > Slamming a hoof to the floor, you fix Anonymous with a withering glare.
  5070. > The noise cuts through the room, giving everyone pause.
  5071. "Listen to yourself, Anonymous. And then look at her. She's terrified of what you mean to do. Whatever you think you're doing - to her, you are threatening to steal her child."
  5072. > "I am not-"
  5073. > He actually manages to catch himself, if not quite soon enough.
  5074. > Even so the danger signs are all too apparent:
  5075. > Hands curling into fists on his lap, teeth gritted against one another.
  5076. > The moment is still a powder keg, if one no longer with a lit fuse.
  5077. "...if you will allow it, I think I would like a few minutes to speak to Vapor Trail - alone."
  5078. > Just like how he had spoken before, the tone of your voice hammers home that there is no real question in that line.
  5079. > Anonymous regards you for several long moments before standing.
  5080. > "I will be waiting outside."
  5081. > Of course he would be.
  5082. > You keep your gaze on him right up until the door clicks shut.
  5083. > Only then do you leap to your hooves, walking in a tight circle with your tail lashing.
  5084. "That - that stuck-up, blind-as-a-rutting-mole, stubborn-as-a-mule's-own-- agh!"
  5085. > Slamming back down on your haunches, you snarl at the tiled floor - so fiercely you can almost imagine it bubbling and boiling under the assault.
  5086. > How much of that was a show-off for Vapor Trail and Thunderlane, to convince them you were on their side, and how much was real anger?
  5087. > You aren't sure, but there certainly was a real current of anger beneath there.
  5088. "How doesn't he understand - how can't he see!"
  5089. > "Because he's a slaver."
  5090. > Vapor Trail's voice drips condescension, and it's honestly the angriest you think you've ever heard her.
  5091. > From Thunderlane's expression, it's also the angriest he's ever heard her too - which means a lot more, considering how close they are.
  5092. > "He doesn't see us as real, thinking things. He's got a daughter, right? What would he be saying if that were her?"
  5093. > You freeze, thoughts whirling.
  5094. > Daughter.
  5095. > Megan.
  5096. > She had a mother - one Anonymous had once told you he was 'only technically' married to anymore.
  5097. > ...what would he think, indeed?
  5098. > Whirling about, you stalk towards the door.
  5099. > Anonymous is just outside, leaning against the wall with an expression that suggests he felt even the few seconds he had been kicked out were a few seconds too many.
  5100. > That dies when he notices your lashing tail and pinned-back ears.
  5101. "Why don't we find somewhere private for this?"
  5102. > "That... sounds like a good idea."
  5103. > The next room over is open.
  5104. > This time you don't even wait for the door to shut before laying in:
  5105. "Do you have any sense of tact? Any idea what subtlety means?"
  5106. > "You don't have to yell at me about that, Cadance."
  5107. "Don't I? It feels like this is all I do anymore - lecture you when you make one bungle after another. If it weren't for the fact that you own me, it would almost be funny."
  5108. > "It isn't funny, though. At all."
  5109. > That flat and soft voice sets off warning bells in your head, but Anonymous doesn't seem angry.
  5110. > Disappointed, from the way his head hangs.
  5111. > But not ready to blow his top.
  5112. "No, it isn't. Anonymous, this can't go on forever. One day I'm not going to be next to you to bail you out, and something is going to turn ugly."
  5113. > "...you're only the second pony to tell me something like that recently."
  5114. > You're not sure whether to be glad that somepony else was standing up to him or aghast that it was already happening out of your sight.
  5115. "You need to think about everything you do. Every little step you make, every thing you do - think about what it feels like from our perspective! Because in Vapor Trail's eyes, you just walked in and demanded that she hand over a foal she'd only just had to be 'normalized' to your presence!"
  5116. > "Yes, Cadance. That's exactly what I did."
  5117. > Snarling, you whirl about to face him with narrowed eyes - lifting a leg to jab up at his face.
  5118. "Then what in all of Tartarus' dark halls did you expect to happen?!"
  5119. > Before answering, Anonymous goes to slump down in a spare seat meant for a visitor should the room be occupied.
  5120. > It's meant for a pony, and so doesn't quite fit him right.
  5121. > He doesn't seem to notice, though.
  5122. > "The same thing that happened with ponies who've foaled here before, Cadance. That she'd give me the foal, I'd - touch it once or twice, the foal would get to know me a little. And ponies who saw would see me holding a foal and very definitely not hurting it."
  5123. "And what if 'the foal' doesn't want to be held? What if she cries?"
  5124. > "Then I gently try to quiet her, and if that doesn't work I give her back - without being angry. And they see again they've nothing to fear from me."
  5125. > Chuckling softly, he adds:
  5126. > "Maybe she'd even vomit on me. That happened once. The poor mare was mortified, but I just laughed. Had to throw away the shirt, though."
  5127. "That... is not the point."
  5128. > "Yes, it is."
  5129. > Leaning forward, he props his elbows on his knees.
  5130. > "You tell me to think about it from your point of view. Now think about it from mine. Vapor Trail is... not a friend of mine. I don't have many ways to show her I'm not something to be afraid of. But this is one of them: Taking a way that she is tremendously vulnerable in the deepest ways, and showing her I can be trusted with it."
  5131. > His argument... is not without logic.
  5132. > But he's still not quite getting it.
  5133. > Not comprehending why Vapor Trail wouldn't look favorably on him - quite possibly ever.
  5134. > You're going to have to fight dirty.
  5135. "What about your wife?"
  5136. > Anonymous' head snaps up again so hard you're almost afraid he'll hurt himself.
  5137. > "What?"
  5138. "Your wife. You told me once you are 'technically' married. Would you trust her with Megan?"
  5139. > "Now just one moment! That is not the same-"
  5140. "Isn't it? I don't need magic to tell that the rift between you is deep and hurting. If she came and - demanded Megan again, insisted you could just trust her, would you?"
  5141. > Anger begins to twist his features.
  5142. > "You have no idea what she was like. The kind of poison that came out of her mouth!"
  5143. "No. I don't."
  5144. > The sheer bitterness radiating from him is enough to make your heart twist, though.
  5145. > How could love turn to something so twisted and sad?
  5146. "I have no idea what it was like. But I can see that the thought of even having Megan with her is enough to make you feel vulnerable - and let me tell you, Anonymous: I know what it feels like to be vulnerable. Every day of my life is being vulnerable."
  5147. > Stepping up to him, you lift your muzzle until it reaches his head.
  5148. "Being a slave is being vulnerable. Knowing that at any moment someone could come in and just - demand her. And you just did."
  5149. > The slap is unexpected, jerking your head aside so hard your vision spins.
  5150. > How long had it been since he'd struck you like that?
  5151. > "I am - nothing like her. I wouldn't ask Vapor to give her daughter up to that!"
  5152. "You are her owner. And that is enough. You are the one keeping her vulnerable, and she doesn't see any reason why you shouldn't want her to be."
  5153. > This time, Anonymous doesn't answer.
  5154. > Just looks aside, as if taking that perspective for the first time.
  5155. > Your cheek stings, pins and needles or a small haze of heat seeming to rise from where he'd stuck it.
  5156. > Still, you dive ahead:
  5157. "...it's the problem with your argument, about wanting them to see you can be trusted. At some point, the threat that we'll be punished - whipped, sold off, privileges taken away - it's still there. That's why you can't erase that distrust. And I shouldn't have to tell you this."
  5158. > Nothing more is said.
  5159. > You don't have anything left to be said.
  5160. > At last Anonymous reaches up and strokes a hand back through your mane, then down to your still-prickling cheek.
  5161. > "I hit you."
  5162. "I knew what I was doing, using that against you."
  5163. > "Still. I shouldn't be beating you for speaking out, when I need your advice so badly. I don't think it'll bruise, though."
  5164. > He sighs, shifting in the chair.
  5165. > The aging upholstering seems to wheeze in sympathy.
  5166. > "...alright. I - don't understand why they can't see I'm not this monster keeping them in chains, but I believe what you're saying."
  5167. "What will you do, then?"
  5168. > "I'd still like to hold the foal. I still think there's some good in it, even if it won't do everything I thought it would. Do you think you can convince her?"
  5169. "I don't know."
  5170. > Grimacing, Anonymous shakes his head.
  5171. > "Try. Please. I'd even settle for just stroking her a little."
  5172. "...okay, I will attempt. But Anonymous - understand, please, if she refuses."
  5173. > After far too long a pause, he nods.
  5174. "Wait here. I'll go to speak with them. See what I can do."
  5175. > Slipping back over to Vapor Trail's room, you open it while still pondering what you are going to say - and promptly realize you'd stumbled into something else.
  5176. > Thunderlane has left the bed and is still posed facing it, his barrel held ramrod-straight and wings outstretched, while Vapor seems to be trying to mimic the position but hasn't quite made it off the mattress.
  5177. > Both have whirled around to look at you.
  5178. > Seems you and Anonymous weren't the only ones having... a spirited debate about things.
  5179. "Please. Sit down."
  5180. > Vapor does, curling back up around Sunbreak.
  5181. > A moment later Thunderlane joins her.
  5182. > It takes him a bit longer though.
  5183. "...may I ask what I interrupted?"
  5184. > "Nothing important."
  5185. > "S'nothing."
  5186. > Both squirm like guilty foals, and you can't help but smile.
  5187. > Even in this moment of high emotions they knew they shouldn't be arguing.
  5188. > Maybe because you were the princess of Love, after all.
  5189. > Striding forward, you extend both wings to lightly brush each of them.
  5190. > Striding forward, you extend both wings to lightly brush each of them.
  5191. "You shouldn't be afraid to admit you're disagreeing. But please, don't let those differences warp into anger."
  5192. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  5193. > "Okay, Your Highness."
  5194. > Vapor sounds rather more reluctant but still manages to echo Thunderlane.
  5195. > A moment later, though, she adds:
  5196. > "So he's gone now, right?"
  5197. "...he is not. Anonymous would still very much like to hold Sunbreak, but-"
  5198. > "No. I won't let him lay a finger one her, do you get it? Not a rutting finger!"
  5199. > You wait for her to finish her rant before speaking:
  5200. "Vapor, please listen to me. This is not a - a breeding facility."
  5201. > The mere mention of such a place is enough to send a very visible shudder down your spine and to the tips of your wings.
  5202. "He is not strapping you to a rack and whisking away your foal the moment she is born. He just wants to hold her - or even just touch her - under your supervision, and Thunderlane's too. He isn't forcing her to submit to him."
  5203. > "My Sunbreak won't be 'familiar' with a slaver!"
  5204. "But she won't know what he is. He's just a man - and even if this does end tomorrow or we all break free, she will have to be around humans all her life too. That will not change."
  5205. > "She's right, 'Trail."
  5206. > Thunderlane takes the moment to back you up, settling a wing around her shoulders again.
  5207. > "He's not teaching her to bow, to obey. Just - to see who he is. Is that so bad?"
  5208. > The mare's shoulders tremble, her forelegs closing more tightly around the tiny filly buried within them and eliciting a tiny nicker from her.
  5209. > "...I don't want him to touch her."
  5210. "Vapor - what are you so afraid of? He won't take her away. I will promise you that, one mother to another."
  5211. > "But if he - he -"
  5212. > She sucks in a breath and finally raises her eyes to look at you.
  5213. > Anger still rages in them.
  5214. > "I want you to promise me that. He can't ever take her away - now or ever. If he tries, you have to stop him. Can you promise me that?"
  5215. [Choice]
  5216. "I promise, Vapor."
  5217. > Leaning in, you brush noses with her and puff breath softly through your nostrils.
  5218. "I can't let him take your Sunburst any more than I could let him take my Flurry Heart. I promise you, with every ounce of strength I have I will always fight for her to stay with you."
  5219. > You try to ignore that it was the same unwillingness to be separated from Flurry again that had driven you to work with him in the first place.
  5220. > Vapor stirs, finally untensing and rolling her head forward to brush against your neck.
  5221. > "I... I can't..."
  5222. > Her resolve is faltering, though.
  5223. > Clearly she had not expected you to fall out that strongly on her side, and that is something you can work with.
  5224. "If I can't protect that most sacred bond between mother and foal, Vapor, what right do I have to ever call myself your leader? And if Anonymous tries, do I have any right but to stand between him and you?"
  5225. > You can feel Vapor Trail's coat ripple with a fresh shudder, a confused noise in her throat.
  5226. > Besides, you think:
  5227. > Anonymous wasn't in the business of selling slaves.
  5228. > The only one time he had sold a pony off, it had been punishment for Mocha Cream's mistreatment.
  5229. > Never before or since, even when ponies had fallen ill, passed away, or resisted his rule.
  5230. > Of all the risky bets you took, that he would not decide to suddenly sell in the future seemed like a safer one.
  5231. > "...okay. He - he can hold her. I'll let him. But you have to be here -"
  5232. "Where else would I be?"
  5233. > Both your wings wrap around her.
  5234. > A moment later you feel Thunderlane's settle over your own, enfolding the mare in a feathery cocoon from all sides.
  5235. > "I'll be here too, 'Trail. And remember, it's my duty to protect ponies too. I took my job because I could protect a pony, and I won't give that up."
  5236. "We'll both be looking out for you, but you are a strong pony yourself. You can do this."
  5237. > "Yes..."
  5238. > Slipping free of the huddle, you step out into the hallway once again.
  5239. > Again Anonymous is waiting expectantly just outside.
  5240. > He waits for you to step out and close the door before speaking - concealing his presence from the ponies you had just left behind.
  5241. "You can hold her. But be gentle, Anonymous, and be respectful. Remember what I said about thinking over every little step you take. If you stumble again and enrage her, I won't stand in her way."
  5242. > "I understand."
  5243. "I've told her you won't take her foal away."
  5244. > He just nods an affirmative - agreement?
  5245. > Concurrence?
  5246. > You aren't sure.
  5247. > But you are certain he understands the implications.
  5248. > Opening the door reveals that Thunderlane has backed off a touch - a wing and a foreleg still remaining wrapped around his mate.
  5249. > Vapor remains with Sunbreak tucked protectively between her legs as she sits on the bed.
  5250. > Her gaze seems to skewer Anonymous as he approaches.
  5251. > A few paces from the bed he drops to one knee, holding out a hand at a distance.
  5252. > "May I?"
  5253. > One leg is lifted to allow Sunbreak out; she emerges sniffing cautiously at the air.
  5254. > Anonymous scoots a touch closer, letting his fingers brush the foal's cheek.
  5255. > A few more sniffs - and a sneeze!
  5256. > The tension in the room is broken as all involved laugh, even little Sunbreak adding in a little confused whinny.
  5257. > Within seconds, however, she is sniffing again and no objection is made when Anonymous settles his hands over her sides and lifts.
  5258. > Vapor Trail tenses again, but Thunderlane is still holding her.
  5259. > Sunbreak squirms awkwardly in midair, but settles when Anonymous tucks her into his arms and quickly resumes exploring the strange new limbs she now nests in.
  5260. > After a few moments she seems to conclude the are safe - and warm, too! - and nests down in them - tiny wing-stubs buzzing fluttering against her sides.
  5261. > Seeing that he has been accepted, Anonymous rises to sit on the edge of the bed.
  5262. > His arms are held low so that Vapor Trail can watch and see that all he does is stroke Sunbreak's head - brushing back the first wisps of mane.
  5263. > Which Vapor does.
  5264. > Closely.
  5265. > Yet even she seems to have overcome the worst of her fear now that the moment has come.
  5266. > You, on the other hand...
  5267. > You wonder.
  5268. > How much did Anonymous actually care?
  5269. > When you told him off, he sulked like a teenage colt.
  5270. > Arguing had earned you a slap - admittedly you had been treading on bitter territory, but still.
  5271. > And even after apologizing for that, he had still wanted to go through with it.
  5272. > You wanted to believe Anonymous was not like Sombra - that he still had some part of a good heart buried within him.
  5273. > But how much could you rely on that coming through...?
  5274.  
  5275. > You stare down at the tiny ball of fur and prickly feathers curled in your arms, radiating warmth and eyes half-open as your fingers' touch lulled her ever closer to sleep.
  5276. > Sunbreak might not have known you yet, but she was acclimating well.
  5277. > Even the ever-watchful Vapor Trail seemed to understand that all you'd ever wanted to do was hold her - feel her weight in your arms and the softness of her coat against your skin.
  5278. > To see her stare up with those big, dark, liquid eyes in something that wasn't quite understanding but was more than just confused staring.
  5279. "I know you don't trust me. And to be honest, Vapor - I understand why. But please, believe me when I say I know what it feels like to be a parent. To - be scared of losing your child. Of seeing her become something else. Something sickening."
  5280. > Leaning down, you bring your nose close to the foal's muzzle and let her sniff - tasting the smell of your breath.
  5281. > Abruptly something wet and slimy covers your nose, and you laugh at her curious lick.
  5282. "Separating a child and parent is a cruel thing - and Sunbreak is far too beautiful. I'd tell you to treasure her, but I feel that'd be redundant."
  5283. > With great care you hold the half-asleep foal back out to Vapor Trail; she quickly pulls Sunbreak back into the safety of beneath her belly and the foal quickly nestles into his mother's coat.
  5284. > Her mouth opens, as if to issue a retort - and then shuts.
  5285. > You, too, ponder a reply to that unspoken statement.
  5286. > But you also likewise conclude that it was best to let this moment pass.
  5287. > The ritual was complete, and there wasn't any need to potentially undo what you had won.
  5288. > Not after so much struggle.
  5289. > Rising, you offer both Thunderlane and Vapor Trail and small nod and turn from the room.
  5290. > Not too long after that Cadance emerges again.
  5291. "Walk with me?"
  5292. > "Of course."
  5293. > Ponies smartly step aside where you encounter them in the hallways, sometimes with an accompanied greeting.
  5294. > Even so you don't stop until you are outside.
  5295. > You drop to a knee and hold out a hand to the alicorn following you.
  5296. "Can I see your cheek?"
  5297. > There is, perhaps, some flushing still in the cheek where you'd struck her.
  5298. > The tingling in your hand had long since gone away, but a phantom pain remained - as if your own skin wanted to remind you of your mistake.
  5299. "Does it still hurt?"
  5300. > "A bit."
  5301. > Sighing heavily, you take a seat next to her on the hard, hot pavement.
  5302. > At this time of day there were few ponies about.
  5303. > Though you wouldn't have minded them seeing you sitting with her.
  5304. "I'd say 'I'm sorry' again, but you're right. Hell, Bon Bon was right. At a certain point 'I'm sorry' doesn't cut it."
  5305. > "Anonymous - I do not fear that you will beat me."
  5306. > One hoof rises to settle on your leg - a comfortable, reassuring weight.
  5307. > "Maybe once you would have. But you stop yourself. And I see the regret when you do. I can - survive a blow now and again if-"
  5308. > And much weight is given by her voice to that 'if'.
  5309. > "-it means you realize what it is you're doing wrong that pushes me to argue with you like that!"
  5310. > Your forehead drops into one palm to rub soothingly.
  5311. "That doesn't make it right. I can't be hitting you when you're trying to give me good advice."
  5312. > "No. It doesn't. But right now, I am less concerned that you hit me and more that afterward you still insisted on holding to your plan... and even greater worries beyond that."
  5313. > You lift your head, turning to look at Cadance.
  5314. > Despite her face being half-hid by her mane you can still see the far-off expression it holds.
  5315. "Something I should know about?"
  5316. > "We are... not having luck with Crystal Ponies."
  5317. "With the gem-growing?"
  5318. > She nods, fractionally, as if hesitant to give more than the tiniest answer.
  5319. "Have you been afraid to admit this to me, Cadance?"
  5320. > "A touch. Not because you would hurt them for failing, but because it would mean taking them away from their talents."
  5321. "I know. But there's only so long I can keep funding this experiment. Especially with the costs of having to hire new guards."
  5322. > "Yes."
  5323. > That single word carried the weight of recognizing the inevitable in it... and something more.
  5324. "Something you're not telling me?"
  5325. > "You know me too well, it seems."
  5326. "What is it, then?"
  5327. > "Lattice is... scared of me. I can't fathom why; I've no memory of ever having to deal with him as a subject, and even if he doesn't trust my word he should have heard by now that I can be trusted not to harm him."
  5328. > You take the hoof that still rested on your leg in hand and give it a little squeeze.
  5329. > It was quite clearly something that was weighing on her.
  5330. > "I... don't know what I did to him. It must be something, and I'm worried it's affecting his ability to work."
  5331. > With her remaining forehoof, Cadance idly scratches meaningless designs on the pavement.
  5332. > "If he can't do what his mark is telling him to do because of some mistake I made..."
  5333. "I'll go have a talk with him."
  5334. > "What? No! He'll only-"
  5335. "Cadance. I'm not going to go interrogate him, or give him a rough time for making you worry. Just talk to him. Hell, I'll make it clear again that he doesn't need to be afraid of not being able to do everything we'd hoped for."
  5336. > She frowns, but nods.
  5337. > "...just don't - make it sound like I sent you over, okay?"
  5338. "Of course."
  5339. > In fact, both crystal ponies were quite busy when you arrived.
  5340. > Tourmaline Twist was hunched over a low table, a lamp pointing a glaring beam of light down at the workstation before her.
  5341. > In her mouth was a clamp that held the tiny, berry-sized gemstone she worked on, while one hoof had been fitted with a hammer-like shoe which she carefully tapped it with.
  5342. > Further back, Lattice stood amid a section of the building that had been opened to the ground below.
  5343. > He was stock-still, eyes squeezed tightly shut and horn alight; despite the apparent dearth of action, his flanks were shining with sweat.
  5344. > You think.
  5345. > It was kind of hard to tell, with how the Crystal Ponies held up to their namesake.
  5346. > Tourmaline Twist in particular was remarkable.
  5347. > Her obsidian-black body seemed to sparkle every time she moved in the light.
  5348. > He was definitely doing something, though - the evidence of several past excavations into the ground testified that this was where they'd been working on their 'gem forming'.
  5349. > Lattice was in fact the first to notice you, during a brief break in which he opens eyes just a crack.
  5350. > The shock of seeing you leaning against the doorframe into their workspace must have been great, because he whinnies sharply and rears up.
  5351. "Easy there!"
  5352. > "M-Master! I didn't - we weren't -"
  5353. "You were just working, I know."
  5354. > Pushing off the wall, you pad further in and grab a spare seat.
  5355. "And from the looks of things, you were both hard at work. So it's okay. You don't have to have to be worried."
  5356. > Lattice approaches a few steps but stops to fall into a deep bow - almost low enough his muzzle touches the ground - before rising again.
  5357. > Once she had removed the boot from her hoof, Tourmaline does likewise.
  5358. > "I'm afraid we've not been able to make too much headway, Master."
  5359. [Choice]
  5360. "Here - you've obviously been hard at work for a long time. You can take a while off; why don't we go for a bit of a drive."
  5361. > "Drive, Master?"
  5362. > Tourmaline seems wary.at best, but Lattice's face is inscrutable.
  5363. "Yeah. Just to go and see things, you know? Come on."
  5364. > Regardless of their feelings on the matter both follow obediently.
  5365. > The electric cart you'd parked outside the shop has more than enough room for both.
  5366. > To your interest, Lattice takes the passenger's seat beside you; unlike with Bon Bon, however, there's no challenge or dare implied in it.
  5367. > He just... slips in, looking away when he notices you watching.
  5368. > The cart's motor is far less than the rumble of an engine, but to the delicate ears of a pony they may as well have been the same.
  5369. > Certainly you weren't going to be sneaking up on any of them; all are quite busy as you pass by.
  5370. > "So many..."
  5371. > Tourmaline's soft voice flows from the back seat.
  5372. "Yes. Nearing two-thousand, with the latest batch of arrivals now."
  5373. > "You must be very wealthy, Master."
  5374. "I am, in fact, in debt at the moment. Loans, to fund this newest expansion."
  5375. > "To buy - us?"
  5376. "I suppose you could look at it that way. But the basic idea is holding - I build jobs around positions ponies are happier in, so I can do things with them no one else could. I should be able to pay them off in time."
  5377. > And next time, hopefully not have to deal with bowing to the whims of investors.
  5378. > Cadance would probably appreciate that too.
  5379. > "When - we're successful with the gems... will that mean there will be more ponies coming then?"
  5380. "If you are, yes."
  5381. > A turn at the next corner, and you lift a hand in greeting to Cadance and Mocha Cream as you pass them.
  5382. > The latter mare still limped and hung close to the alicorn's tail - as if ready to dive under it for protection at a moment's notice.
  5383. > But not quite as close as she once did.
  5384. > She's even managing a little smile as she trots along.
  5385. > That brings a smile to your face as well, but when you glance over to Lattice he couldn't be further from that.
  5386. > Stock-still, his jaw set hard and eyes fixed straight ahead with one hoof curled around the kerchief he wore tied around his neck.
  5387. "...what's wrong, Lattice?"
  5388. > Your voice seems to finally snap the stallion out of his moment; he shakes his head as if to clear it of old thoughts.
  5389. > "N-Nothing. Sorry."
  5390. > But it isn't nothing.
  5391. > Even with Cadance long left behind, he's anything but relaxed.
  5392. "Hey, Lattice..."
  5393. > A hand finds its way to his withers and the stallion starts, but quickly relaxes.
  5394. > "...I'm sorry."
  5395. "Don't be. Just - tell me if there's something wrong."
  5396. > "Yes."
  5397. "I mean, it half seems that you're more afraid of her than me! For most ponies it's the other way around - though I don't bite either, I promise."
  5398. > Your attempt at a joke falls totally flat, though.
  5399. > Lattice doesn't say more, and a fast glance in the rear-view mirror shows Tourmaline shooting frowning, nervous looks in his direction too.
  5400. > No sense in pushing this further right now, though.
  5401. > You have other alternatives.
  5402. > The first stop is out on the fields, where a dozen ponies move among hundreds of planters in neat rows.
  5403. > Each sprouts dozens of violet flowers; Tourmaline's expression and the beginnings of a smile appear on her face.
  5404. "You like the flowers?"
  5405. > "I like the colors, Master. Any kind of colors... flowers, stones... that's how I got my mark. I wanted to cut a stone just right to bring out the best colors in it, and..."
  5406. > She pauses and shakes her head.
  5407. > "What are they? The flowers, I mean."
  5408. "Saffron crocus. They harvest some threads from the middle of the flower - one of the ponies who came in with you had a real talent for producing the highest-grade material, so she's heading up the crew and keeping the rest."
  5409. > "Ahh."
  5410. "I need to stop here and check up on something."
  5411. > Strictly speaking, there's no need to have them come along - but why not?
  5412. "Buzzy!"
  5413. > Marching across the field, you call out to a yellow and green mare.
  5414. > She waves back, leans in to whisper something to the plant in front of her, and then trots over.
  5415. > "Yes, Master?"
  5416. "Did you deal with that hive in the living quarters over on third and 'C'? I don't want anypony else stung."
  5417. > "Of course, Master. But they were yellowjackets, so we couldn't do anything with the hive."
  5418. > You can hear the disappointment in her voice and so offer a light head-rub in consolation.
  5419. "I'm sorry, Buzzy. I know it always gets you when you have to do that."
  5420. > "It's okay. We got the honeybee hives moved over from the third and sixth fields, though! I'm just introducing them to the flowers over here now."
  5421. > As if to prove her point, a fat bumblebee lands right on the mare's nose and drives her cross-eyed.
  5422. > Rather than panic she grins and wrinkles her nose until it takes off for another flower.
  5423. "Yep! Looks like you've got them well under control."
  5424. > "Uh-huh. Who're these, though?"
  5425. > Both crystal ponies had indeed followed you into the fields, and now suffer the attention of Buzzy being firmly locked on them:
  5426. > While you introduce them, she walks in a slow circle around each of the crystals in turn.
  5427. "These are Lattice and Tourmaline Twist. I just wanted to bring them out and about with me while I looked over the camp."
  5428. > "Wow! You're both so - glittery! Like, um, iridescent! Like an insect's wings!"
  5429. > She's not wrong; Tourmaline in particular was something remarkable - her obsidian coat twinkling in the summer sun.
  5430. > "O-Oh. Um, thank you?"
  5431. > "Oh, I hope I'm not getting too close..."
  5432. > Buzzy rubs her neck apologetically.
  5433. > "Ponies always say I'm too exerb... exublant... ex-ub-er-ant!"
  5434. > This actually manages to pull a laugh from the stoic Lattice, who shakes his head with a grin.
  5435. > "No, no. You're fine."
  5436. "Indeed. It seems like everything is going good over here, so I'll let you back to your work."
  5437. > "Okay, Master! Bye Lattice, bye Tourmaline! Maybe I'll see you later."
  5438. > She trots off, and you head back to the cart.
  5439. > "She was... nice."
  5440. "She is. One of the first ponies I brought in; she's always been delighted to be here. Not many places would let her pursue a talent of working with insects."
  5441. > "I... can imagine, yeah."
  5442. "The two of you might be a little more interested in the next place. It's kind of the other end of what you're currently doing."
  5443. > That causes both of them to perk up, heads cocking curiously.
  5444. > "That would be... one of the enchanting shops, Master?"
  5445. "Exactly!"
  5446. > Turning to glance into the back seat, you shoot Tourmaline Twist a smile.
  5447. "You've been paying attention, huh?"
  5448. > She squirms a little, but nods.
  5449. > "S-Sometimes at dinner I talk with one of the ponies in there. She sets the gems in their settings once they're enchanted."
  5450. "Ah, good! Glad to hear you're making some friends. Then you should be pretty familiar with this."
  5451. > Unlike the fields - which seemed to exist at a placid, almost lazy pace - the enchanting workshops are anything but.
  5452. > Here there was a constant sense of movement, activity, action.
  5453. > Unicorns with any talent for magic, enchantment, or particular brands of magic that were valuable enough to sell sat at tables, carefully pouring their arcane flows into the gems before them.
  5454. > Elsewhere, those with artisanal or metalworking talents constructed the trinkets into which the gems would be inserted:
  5455. > Each a carefully-worked piece, not a factory-line reproduction.
  5456. > There were reasons they commanded such a high price.
  5457. > And there's a marked change in both of the crystal ponies too:
  5458. > Before, in the fields, they had been merely interested.
  5459. > Now they are excited.
  5460. > Both keep their heads on a swivel as you walk between the rows of working desks, occasionally peering over at a work in progress.
  5461. > Ears that had been lowered or even pinned back are now fixed-forwards, and even their resplendent coats seem to gleam a bit more brightly.
  5462. "Easy there, Tourmaline. Don't want to distract them too much."
  5463. > Reaching out you ruffle the mare's mane; the result is something like if you'd dumped a whole load of glitter in amid the hair.
  5464. > Briefly you wonder what Tourmaline would look like if she were to try dancing...
  5465. > That obsidian coat and green tail flicking about...
  5466. > No dress though, or at least not much of one.
  5467. > That'd cover her up and ruin the effect.
  5468. > Tearing your mind away from those thoughts, you look for Lattice and find him staring with distant eyes out across the room.
  5469. > One hoof has come up to clutch the kerchief around his neck and at first you wonder if he is going to need to dab his eyes with it.
  5470. > But no - he is a unicorn, after all.
  5471. > And how his hoof is curled around the fabric, holding it tightly...
  5472. > He's holding on to it - or something within it.
  5473. > Now what would that be about, you wonder.
  5474. "Come on, you two."
  5475. > With the two ponies following close behind you lead them into the back of the workshop.
  5476. > Here row upon row of boxes stand - trinkets waiting to be sent out with the next delivery.
  5477. > Though you have no magic of your own, you can almost feel the slight hum in the air - the buzz of all that latent magic contained within the enchanted gems.
  5478. > Once the door closes, Lattice finally finds his voice:
  5479. > "When we get our project to work right - when we make the gems - this is what they'll be going to? Will there be more ponies working on this?"
  5480. "If you do, some of them will. Right now we buy relatively low-grade gems - amethyst, quartz, citrine, and so on. They're not the best for enchanting - or so I'm told."
  5481. > "But if we can provide higher-grade crystals..."
  5482. > You nod in Tourmaline's direction.
  5483. "Exactly. If you don't, though - it's not the end of the world. You won't be put to work mindlessly hauling things around, or anything like that. There are other roles here for you."
  5484. > An unused stool makes a decent seat; you take it and beckon both closer.
  5485. "That's what I'm trying to show you. You were so worried when I walked in on your work - afraid I'd punish you?"
  5486. > You shake your head.
  5487. "This was always an experiment. I hoped, but if you can't do the gem-forming that's not something I'll discipline you for. I won't even take you away from your talent; it just won't be the exact same process."
  5488. > Tourmaline Twist looks away - first to one side, and then to the other, as if trying to gauge Lattice's reaction.
  5489. > After a few moments, she speaks softly:
  5490. > "I-If you want to end the 'experiment', Master, I think I could work in one of these shops. Doing the cutting and setting of the enchanted crystals."
  5491. "That would be fine. With your skill, I could even give you an overseer position."
  5492. > "But... Lattice..."
  5493. > For his part the stallion seems uncertain.
  5494. > As if there is something he wants to say, but can't.
  5495. > Again his hoof has come up to toy with the kerchief, curling and uncurling.
  5496. > Absentmindedly you note with a degree of mild surprise that even the frogs of their hooves had the same crystalline appearance.
  5497. > But if only you had a pony's sensitive hearing - you could hear if something was going on inside of there!
  5498. > As it is, though, you're forced to keep guessing.
  5499. > ...or you could just ask him.
  5500. > Though you'd only half-joked earlier, he almost did seem more comfortable with you than Cadance.
  5501. [Choice]
  5502. "Tourmaline? Why don't you go out and speak to the floor manager. You'll find her pretty easily. Talk to her - or, hell, talk to anyone - and find out what you'd like to be doing here, okay?"
  5503. > "Yes, Master."
  5504. > She can't keep the nervous little tremble out of her voice, though, nor stop her eyes from darting to Lattice.
  5505. > Still, Tourmaline obediently steps out of the storage room.
  5506. > Even shuts the door behind her.
  5507. > Lattice doesn't look scared, exactly, but certainly a bit nervous.
  5508. > Fortunately, you don't have any intention of doing anything but putting him at ease.
  5509. "Look, Lattice... I don't know what your issue with Cadance is. I don't know why you're struggling. And I don't know what you've got hidden under there."
  5510. > "I-"
  5511. > You hold up a hand to silence him.
  5512. "But I can tell you this much for starters: I don't forbid ponies from holding on to keepsakes."
  5513. > You lean back on your chair with a hefty sigh.
  5514. "And honestly... I don't think you should fear her. Cadance has done a lot for you all. Stood toe-to-toe with me - hoof-to-toe, I guess - when her conscience demanded it."
  5515. > "Can't..."
  5516. > Lattice's voice is a low murmur, and there's the hint of a damp shimmer around the edges of his eyes.
  5517. > "If she knows who I am - she'd know - I wouldn't have anything left."
  5518. "Is that what you've got there? Something that'd tell her who you are?"
  5519. > He nods.
  5520. "And she wouldn't trust you if she saw it?"
  5521. > "Nopony would, if they knew who I am."
  5522. "Should I not trust you?"
  5523. > A pause, then a firm shake.
  5524. > It still isn't adding up, though.
  5525. > He hadn't seemed to like the enchanting shop anymore than he'd liked the princess.
  5526. > For a moment you ponder if he'd stolen something from the workshop - but no.
  5527. > How would that identify him?
  5528. "Is what you've got there magical somehow, Lattice?"
  5529. > The way he freezes up tells you the question was spot-on.
  5530. > "I'd - really prefer not to talk about it. Please."
  5531. "...as long as it isn't a weapon or meant to stir up rebellion and you don't cause any other trouble, you're welcome to keep whatever it is. I swear. I don't forbid ponies from keeping keepsakes."
  5532. > "Thank you, Master..."
  5533. "And Lattice - if you can't do the crystal growth work, there's no shame in admitting it. No punishment either. Talk to Mayor Mare if not Cadance."
  5534. > You leave him be with that, stepping back outside to find Tourmaline.
  5535. > She's deep in conversation with the forepony, but detaches to come back over when you approach.
  5536. > "Yes, Master?"
  5537. "Walk with me a moment?"
  5538. > You wait until you're decently far from prying ears before squatting down to speak with her.
  5539. "Listen: Something's eating at Lattice. He won't tell me what, and I can't force him. But the two of you are close - co-workers, and the only two crystals."
  5540. > "I know, Master."
  5541. > She huffs softly, and her obsidian coat seems to subtly sparkle a fraction less.
  5542. > "I can see it a lot."
  5543. "I'd rather something be done about it before it crushes him. Do you know anything about it?"
  5544. > "Just... he mentioned something about his family once. That if we knew his family, nopony would trust him here."
  5545. > Lattice had just said something similar, hadn't he?
  5546. "Nothing else?"
  5547. > A hesitant shake of her head - and then a little voice, cautious and indecisive.
  5548. > "Well... I - I don't know for sure, but I think he wants to do good. He wants to be able to use his talent. I think he really, really wants to talk to Cadance some more too."
  5549. "But he won't, because he's too afraid."
  5550. > "Yeah."
  5551. > Tourmaline nibbles on her lip, tail flicking this way and that.
  5552. "If you think it's going to drive him into doing something bad, you let me - or someone - know, okay?"
  5553. > "Yes, Master. Certainly. I don't want him hurt either."
  5554. > Well, that didn't answer all your questions.
  5555. > But probing more right now, you sensed, would not end well.
  5556. > Instead you head back up towards your house.
  5557. > As you near the door another familiar face appears - Mayor Mare, moving at a relaxed trot in the heat.
  5558. "Mayor!"
  5559. > "Master!"
  5560. > Bowing gracefully, she shoots you a little smile.
  5561. > "I was just on my way to come pick up your daughter. I'm supposed to take her on a little tour around the camp today?"
  5562. "Ah, yeah! Enjoy; I imagine it'll be a nice change from your normal work?"
  5563. > Indeed, Mayor Mare smiles.
  5564. > The corners of her eyes crinkle up and greyed mane bobs as she gives a little laugh.
  5565. > "Plus, I've always been a touch fond of the little ones."
  5566. "Well, just be careful with her okay? Both of them - my daughter can be a little bit of a hellion, and she's rubbing off on Flurry Heart a bit."
  5567. > "I'll look after them like they were my very own, Master."
  5568.  
  5569. > By this hour of the afternoon, a drink of cold water is quite welcome - your dark coat seemed to absorb heat like a sponge, and the guard uniform did little to protect.
  5570. > The liquid was frigid enough to almost burn as it went down your throat, yet you can't stop until the bottle is empty.
  5571. > Letting it fall you give a hugely satisfied sigh followed by a rather more satisfied burp.
  5572. > "Enjoying yourself over there, Thunderlane?"
  5573. "Oh, shut up Seismic. You can't imagine how good disgusting I feel right now."
  5574. > "Hah! Wishing we were still watching the fence instead of patrolling by hoof?"
  5575. "All I'm saying, is someone's sitting in the air conditioning looking at all that video and we're out here in the blazing sun..."
  5576. > "You wanna sit around all day, you'll get fat. What would Vapor think of that, eh?"
  5577. "Yeah, yeah..."
  5578. > Picking up the bottle, you find a trash bin to dispose of it in.
  5579. > Something Seismic had said is still weighing on your mind, though.
  5580. > The fence - the protesters - her...
  5581. > What if something did happen?
  5582. > Some kind of - of accident, or breakout, or...
  5583. > Something thing that would give her an excuse to come in and interrogate you again.
  5584. > Celestia's sake, are you scared of her?
  5585. > ...yes.
  5586. > You are.
  5587. > And-
  5588. > "Thinking about Arlene again?"
  5589. "Yeah. How'd you guess?"
  5590. > Seismic grunts softly, rolling his shoulders and huffing.
  5591. > "You had a look. It was either Vapor Trail or Arlene. I guessed."
  5592. "Heh."
  5593. > "Thunderlane, there are people watching them. Ponies, too. She's not going to just - come barging in."
  5594. "Yeah. You're right, and -"
  5595. > The radio strapped to your side squawks angrily; both your ears perk to attention.
  5596. > "Thunderlane, Seismic, are you anywhere near C and Twenty-third?"
  5597. > Awkwardly twisting a leg around, you press the reply button:
  5598. "Yeah, pretty close."
  5599. > "Alarm box pulled, no contact, no violence. Check it out, see what happened."
  5600. "On it!"
  5601. > It doesn't take long to figure out the problem.
  5602. > A familiar face lingers around an alarm box, rubbing her hooves together with a downright terrified expression on her face.
  5603. "Mayor Mare! What's wrong?"
  5604. > "Thunderlane!"
  5605. > She actually jumps, not in shock but rather in delight at seeing that it is you.
  5606. > "Thunderlane, I don't know what to do! I lost them, and nopony saw-"
  5607. "Wait, who's 'them'?"
  5608. > "Megan and Flurry Heart. They just vanished!"
  5609. > It's as if harmony itself had heard your thoughts and decided to put you to the test.
  5610. > If there was ever something that could upset everything...
  5611. "Go back to the beginning. Tell me everything!"
  5612. > "I picked them up from his house when she got back from school. He wanted me to take Megan on a tour around the camp - show her more of it than she can see from the house, introduce her to a few ponies... only safe areas, of course. He was quite adamant about that."
  5613. > Of course.
  5614. > And now that you're thinking clearly, you remember hearing about this at briefing before you went on-shift.
  5615. > "I took them around - I was keeping to open areas, closer to the house. She's already seen the rec hall, but she wanted to see it all over again... and of course Flurry was following close behind her, they're so close-"
  5616. "Were there any problems? Anypony following you?"
  5617. > "No, no!"
  5618. > Mayor Mare frantically tugs on her wavy mane with such force you're scared she's going to start tearing clumps out.
  5619. > "You don't understand - she wasn't taken. She got away from me herself!"
  5620. "What?!"
  5621. > She snort-laughs sharply, tears beginning to gather at the corners of her eyes.
  5622. > "The old hey-look-what's-that trick. I wasn't paying attention and when I looked back they were both gone and oh Celestia, Anonymous is going to flay me alive!"
  5623. "Easy, now. Easy..."
  5624. > The fact that Mayor is easily old enough to be your mother does little to dissuade you from taking her head into her hooves.
  5625. "Listen. Do you have any idea where she went? Any places she wanted to see...?"
  5626. > "No! Well, um, except the Rec Hall, but we'd already been there and I checked already to see if anypony had seen where she went-"
  5627. > If it were any other situation, you'd be furious.
  5628. > With Mayor Mare, though, somehow you can't bring the anger up.
  5629. > Trying to solve this on her own before calling in the guard was entirely reasonable, considering what would happen when Anonymous caught wind of this.
  5630. > Especially if it caught wind before Megan was found.
  5631. > The question of what would happen if they were found hurt isn't even something you can think about.
  5632. > Neither, it seems, can Seismic Shift.
  5633. > Your partner snorts with nostrils flared, but without any anger.
  5634. > Turning to him you
  5635. "Luna guide us... okay, I'm going to have to report this in-"
  5636. > "Please, Thunderlane!"
  5637. > "Anonymous won't flay you, Mayor."
  5638. > Seismic's rumbled reassurance does little to actually help her, though.
  5639. > Indeed, Mayor Mare snorts angrily.
  5640. > "You know what he did to the two that hurt Mocha Cream. If I lost his daughter, I doubt he'll be merciful."
  5641. "She tricked you. If there's anyone I fear for, it's her if she's found unharmed."
  5642. > "If."
  5643. "She will be."
  5644. > An hour later, however, she hasn't.
  5645. > Despite all available guard staff being flushed out into the camp, no one has found any sign of the girl or filly.
  5646. > You'd taken Mayor Mare back to her office in the meantime; she'd promptly slumped down at her desk and stayed there, staring into oblivion.
  5647. > Never once had you seen her so despondent, and even you can't deny that you're becoming a bit nervous.
  5648. > Visions of having to turn the entire camp upside down again are floating in your head.
  5649. > When you'd done that last it'd uncovered the resistance cell and ended up with ponies getting whipped.
  5650. > Including Crescent Moon.
  5651. > What would it dig up this time?
  5652. > And-
  5653. > Hoof taps on the door draw your attention.
  5654. > Opening it reveals a unicorn stallion rubbing his legs together nervously.
  5655. "What? Unless it's important, we don't really have time-"
  5656. > "I now where the Master's daughter is."
  5657. > Relief rushes through you, an even more welcome sensation than the cold drink you'd downed earlier.
  5658. > Similarly, Mayor Mare perks up from her desk.
  5659. > "You do?! Please, tell me she's okay!"
  5660. > But something is tingling at the back of your skull.
  5661. > A sense that something isn't quite right.
  5662. "...where is she, then?"
  5663. > "She is okay. Perfectly safe and not hurt."
  5664. "That's not an answer."
  5665. > "We're just showing her around. She said she wanted to some more, so we're going to. She'll come back completely unharmed, I swear."
  5666. > There's something off about this, though.
  5667. > If she was fine, why couldn't he just bring you to her - or vice versa?
  5668. "I think we'll be cutting this tour short. Take us back to her, now."
  5669. > "Not just yet. We're-"
  5670. > Mayor Mare was not a young mare, and while she could put up a decent gallop you'd never actually seen her move that fast.
  5671. > All of which make the blur of movement from her desk all the more surprising;
  5672. > One moment she is sitting slumped at it; a second later there is a flash of metal and a fearful yelp followed by a heavy thud.
  5673. > She'd actually pinned the stallion against the wall with her barrel and forehoof
  5674. > "Answer his question, you gutless, worthless fleabag!"
  5675. > He doesn't seem to quite know what to make of it, and honestly neither do you.
  5676. > Never had you imagined that this pony lurked somewhere beneath her placid exterior.
  5677. > "W-We're not hurting her, I swear! She said she wanted to see the camp - all of the camp - so we're just showing her the parts you wouldn't!"
  5678. > The mayor's other hoof rises, and your stomach plummets in turn at the scissors clutched in it.
  5679. > "If you've been terrorizing her, I swear to Celestia I will geld you!"
  5680. > "No! Honest, we aren't-!"
  5681. > "Then where is she?!"
  5682. > Shock alone has kept you from acting.
  5683. > Mayor Mare seems to have transformed into a completely different pony, eyes narrowed and teeth bared like a feral animal.
  5684. > Not that you don't understand why.
  5685. > If anything did happen to Megan, Tartarus itself would come crashing down on everypony.
  5686. > And getting between the two of them right now could be... risky.
  5687. [Choice]
  5688. "Mayor, enough!"
  5689. > Pulling her off of the stallion isn't as simple as you'd hoped.
  5690. > Mayor Mare may be a few decades older than you, but she was still in earth pony - and still had their legendary resilience and strength to prove it.
  5691. > Her leg was locked in place like an iron vice, and it takes all but your full strength to dislodge her.
  5692. "You can't hurt him! Let go, Mayor!"
  5693. > Something in your words finally gets through to her.
  5694. > Falling away, she all but collapses into her seat and folds her head into her hooves - shoulder shuddering as she begins to cry.
  5695. > You want to go comfort her.
  5696. > Right now though, you have other priorities.
  5697. > Like this idiot of a stallion, who your take the recently-vacated position of dealing with him.
  5698. "Now. You."
  5699. > Just in case he missed how angry you are, you press him right back up against the wall.
  5700. "I want you to think about what you're doing for just one moment. This - this is foalnapping. I don't care what your intent is. I don't care if you think it's brave or right to play rebel. I don't-"
  5701. > "We're not - not trying to play rebel! She's fine-"
  5702. "Aren't you? I want you to consider what you're doing. You know why Mayor Mare is torn up like this? Because you are putting her fate at risk with this if she isn't found. So is Cadance. You're beyond at risk - you're not new here; you know what he did the last time someone he cared about was attacked."
  5703. > You don't add that Megan herself is at a fair bit of risk.
  5704. > Not just from whoever these ponies were - but from Anonymous too.
  5705. > "We're not doing anything to her I swear by Celestia's-"
  5706. "I don't care what you swear!"
  5707. > You drive your head against his and glare at him practically eye-to-eye.
  5708. > Risky, but it hasn't passed your attention that he hasn't lit his horn despite the position he finds himself in.
  5709. > This wasn't a hardened rebel - just a pony who hadn't thought things through.
  5710. "Listen to me: You get one chance. One. That's it. You take us there. And if you don't? I turn you over and Anonymous drags the answer out of you. Trust me, I've seen the things he has in there. But Mayor Mare's safety is at stake here, as is Cadance's. If you won't think about Megan, think about Flurry Heart-"
  5711. > "I'll take you! I'll show you where she is, okay?!"
  5712. > He's cracked.
  5713. > Terrified, even.
  5714. > Trembling with his forelegs clutched defensively to his chest, eyes wide and rolling.
  5715. > "Please, we didn't want to cause any trouble - I swear! I'll take you to her!"
  5716. "I'll call some guards. Mayor Mare, you're coming too."
  5717. > "Just - not Anonymous. She won't be hurt. Neither of them will. I swear!"
  5718. > You don't know how much you trust his word, but at the very least you are pretty certain he thinks they will be okay.
  5719. > Rather than directing you to some cellar or rat-hole hideaway, he leads you straight to one of the newly-built residential blocks on the new side of camp.
  5720. > Heads turn at the passing of your group - yourself, Thunderlane, two other guards, Mayor Mare, and of course the stallion guiding you.
  5721. > "There. It's just inside that building. They might've gone to one of the ponies' rooms, but she'll be in there."
  5722. "Alright. You're coming with us."
  5723. > You pause by the door, laying an ear to it.
  5724. > There are clearly voice just inside, in the common area between the individual ponies' rooms.
  5725. > It's impossible to know for certain what you'll find in there, but you brace yourself anyhow before throwing the door open to reveal -
  5726. > Megan stretched out on the floor, legs kicked up, a game board laid out before her.
  5727. > Beside her, Flurry Heart - also the image of relaxation, all legs tucked comfortably beneath her with a wing stretched out of her mistress' back.
  5728. > Looking up in surprise, Megan's face splits into nervous smile.
  5729. > "H-Hey, Thunderlane. I'm in trouble?"
  5730. > You don't even have words to answer her.
  5731. > Instead you march up, peering down at the game board.
  5732. > A crudely colored map of Equestria meets you.
  5733. > While some cities have been more or less faithfully reproduced, paths that you're reasonably sure never existed litter the continent.
  5734. > A few game pieces - crudely carved depictions of ponies, walls, and other things you aren't sure of are spread around it, as are a set of dice in a bowl.
  5735. "...you've been - playing games?"
  5736. > "Uh-huh."
  5737. > Megan bobs her head nervously, an arm reaching out to protectively slip around Flurry Heart's neck.
  5738. > "Well, we are now. They took us to see some of their bedrooms before this. And, um, the places where they work. And... the, uh... where ponies are buried.
  5739. > The little graveyard, up on the top of its little hill.
  5740. "...right. Well, I'm very glad you're safe, but they-"
  5741. > "Thunderlane?!"
  5742. > You know that voice; spinning around you find Crescent Moon descending down the stairs from the second floor.
  5743. > "I didn't know they'd send you! When I sent him to go to the town hall and find..."
  5744. > She'd finally laid eyes on the guards accompanying you, and finally realized something was terribly wrong.
  5745. > "...oh. Oh, no. No, nonono!"
  5746. > Marching up, Crescent Moon jabs a hoof at Megan.
  5747. > "You told us you were allowed out into the camp!"
  5748. > "I am!"
  5749. > "Then why are they all here!"
  5750. > The girl squirms fiercely.
  5751. > "Um..."
  5752. "Wait - you didn't take her?"
  5753. > Crescent Moon shakes her head.
  5754. > "We found her wandering. Took her in because - y'know, she could be hurt. Then brought her here and sent a message back to the town hall, but she asked us to see a couple of places, so we took her before..."
  5755. > Taking a deep breath, Crescent looks you straight in the eye.
  5756. > "Thunderlane, we weren't doing anything to her. I promise, to you!"
  5757. "Then why did he-"
  5758. > Everyone jumps as the front door slams open.
  5759. > Anonymous stalks in, practically seeming to bring a miasma of red-hot fury with him.
  5760. > A path is cleared for him as he stomps up to his daughter.
  5761. > "You..."
  5762. > So too is his voice laden with anger, a low growl:
  5763. > "What is this?"
  5764. "Board game, Master!"
  5765. > You regret the words the second they come out of your mouth, as even speaking draws his eyes up to you - and Crescent Moon.
  5766. > Yet he doesn't seem angry anymore.
  5767. > More...
  5768. > Tired.
  5769. > Confused, maybe.
  5770. > "A board game..."
  5771. "Yes. And they weren't forcing her to stay here either. They found her, and took her here to be safe."
  5772. > "We thought she was allowed out! She told us she was!"
  5773. > The volcano-like explosion of rage that you feared doesn't seem to be coming, but even so Crescent Moon's tone retains an element of terror.
  5774. > "You - protected her?"
  5775. > "Uh-huh. Because she's just a girl, and she wanted to get out and see more of our lives!"
  5776. > Seconds tick by, and you wonder if that rumbling in your ears is your own blood rushing or the volcano coming back to life.
  5777. > Finally, Anonymous spins on his heel to look at Megan.
  5778. > To take her measure.
  5779. > It only takes a moment:
  5780. > Megan looks down, nervously playing with the edge of her dress.
  5781. > "S'true. I just - wanted to walk around. They didn't do anything to me. I woulda come back before dinner, I promise!"
  5782. > Nodding, Anonymous draws himself up.
  5783. > "You are both beyond grounded. Go back to the house, and go to your room. Because I am far too angry to deal with either of you right now."
  5784. > "But Dad-"
  5785. > "NOW!"
  5786. > She does, scurrying out alongside Flurry Heart.
  5787. > It's one of the only times you can remember seeing him raise his voice to his daughter, though admittedly you haven't seen much of them together.
  5788. > What's all the more amazing, though, is that he stops.
  5789. > Well, not immediately.
  5790. > First he turns and stomps over to where she had been sitting.
  5791. > Everypony backs off in preparation of fresh punishment being handed out.
  5792. > But it never comes.
  5793. > Instead he squats down at the edge of the game board.
  5794. > "What is this?"
  5795. > Crescent Moon cringes back, wincing.
  5796. > Nopony else feels like explaining either, and you have a feeling he's going to-
  5797. > "Thunderlane?"
  5798. "It's... called Gather The Elements. You - have to go through Equestria, gathering tools and friends to find the Elements of Harmony before the game ends. Get around the obstacles. Each, um, city can hold different things that might be valuable to you."
  5799. > "I... I see. And this is a game you all made up?"
  5800. "Not - really. The idea is from back in Equestria. This one, um. It was made here."
  5801. > As if that wasn't obvious.
  5802. > The map is sketched by hoof or horn, albeit with incredible detail.
  5803. > Far more obviously hoof-written are the playing cards for each space on the map.
  5804. > "...right. And where else did you take my daughter, Crescent Moon?"
  5805. > She jumps in place, having nestled into your side in an attempt that seems half to hide herself against his attention.
  5806. > "T-To see some of our rooms. In here. And the, um, the graveyard."
  5807. > That is almost squeaked out in terror, but when nothing happens she goes on with increasing confidence.
  5808. > "One of the workshops, after our work hours ended. Not letting her into it, just to see."
  5809. > "And is that it?"
  5810. > "Yes. Somepony suggested the rec hall, but she said she'd already been there."
  5811. > "...I see."
  5812. > Anonymous looks down at the game board again, then turns to go.
  5813. > "I see. That will be all, then."
  5814. > In the second that ticks by for Crescent Moon to realize neither she nor anypony else here is going to be punished, Anonymous almost reaches the door.
  5815. > Almost.
  5816. > "Wait!"
  5817. > Leaping from your side, Crescent Moon calls out:
  5818. > "Wait. You can't punish her either!"
  5819. > You wince as Anonymous looks back again, some of the smoldering anger re-lighting in his eyes.
  5820. > "Are you telling me what I can or can't do with my own family?"
  5821. > "No. Yes! Because it's us too!"
  5822. "Crescent, stop. This is beyond us now-"
  5823. > "No, it isn't."
  5824. > Taking a deep breath, she looks straight at Anonymous:
  5825. > "Why are you angry with her?"
  5826. > "Why? Because she ran away. She tricked the one adult that was supposed to be looking after her."
  5827. > "But why was that bad?"
  5828. > "Because -"
  5829. > Anonymous throws his hands up.
  5830. > "Because she could've been - been -"
  5831. > "Hurt? Attacked? Yes, she could have. And that's why we looked after her. Because she isn't you, and whatever issues I have with you - they aren't her fault. She's - nice. Even if she tricked us."
  5832. > Taking a cautious few more steps forward, Crescent Moon looks up to him - daring him to reject her.
  5833. > "We're not all like the ponies who hurt Mocha Cream. If you heap punishment on her for this, you're saying you don't trust us either."
  5834. "Crescent-"
  5835. > "Why are you afraid of us?"
  5836. > The question hangs in the air - a challenge.
  5837. > A threat.
  5838. > And Anonymous doesn't have a response - not one he can easily give.
  5839. > That's all the opening Crescent Moon needs.
  5840. > "What is it? That she'd be hurt? I told you - we aren't going to let that happen. We helped you find the ponies who did that, and we knew you would do to them. And now we know that there are ponies who will do that, we know to watch out for the ones who need protecting. And we'd fight anypony who tries to kick her just for being your daughter."
  5841. > This actually draws some low mutters of approval and agreement from around the room, and Crescent pushes another step closer to him.
  5842. > "Megan was safe the whole time. Or is is something else you're afraid of? Afraid she'll understand what you do to us? If you're afraid of that, maybe it's time to think about her growing up-"
  5843. "...Crescent, that's enough. I understand what you're saying. But this isn't the time for it. Megan is his family."
  5844. > And in a way, Flurry Heart is too.
  5845. > You can't deny she has a point, but is now really the time to push it?
  5846. > Moving to her side, you extend a wing over her back.
  5847. "We can't tell him what to do-"
  5848. > She shrugs off your wing, taking a step closer to Anonymous.
  5849. > "I want to know. Even if it costs me. Why are you afraid of Megan being with us in the camp? Don't you trust us?"
  5850. [Choice]
  5851. > "You know what, Crescent Moon? I trust you. I really, honestly do."
  5852. > He turns around now to fully face her, and actually kneels down - holding out a hand to her, which she cautiously raises a hoof to touch.
  5853. > "And I think I owe you an enormous thank-you for this. You took it upon yourselves to do much, much better than some others would have and kept my daughter safe. Hell, you even showed her around, took her into your home, and then stayed to play games with her. It's... a lot more than I might've expected."
  5854. > "It's what was right."
  5855. > "Whatever the reason, I owe you deeply for that. If there's some reward I can give-"
  5856. > "No. Not to me, anyway."
  5857. > Crescent shakes her head sharply.
  5858. > "Because that - that'd make it a thing about earning rewards from you. But that's not why we did it. We did it because we don't rip innocent children away from their parents. We're better than that."
  5859. > You aren't sure if that's supposed to be a jab at Anonymous or slavery in general, but either way he doesn't react to it.
  5860. > "And that's exactly why I know I can trust you. But you're one pony out of two thousand. Everyone in this room - a dozen, out of two thousand. A lot of that two-thousand only arrived a few weeks ago. So yes, I trust you - but I don't trust everyone."
  5861. > You nod, again moving to stand at Crescent's side.
  5862. "He's right. That's part of why we're here. The guards, I mean - because not everypony is as honestly good as you. You found her first - but what if somepony else had?"
  5863. > "Then we would have gone to save her-"
  5864. "And if you weren't fast enough? It's not a strike against you, but wandering off alone like that could still have been a very dangerous thing for Megan."
  5865. > "I..."
  5866. > Crescent looks down, her hoof drawing small circles on the floor.
  5867. > Again, you put a wing across her back in comfort.
  5868. "You said yourself - you stepped in because you saw her wandering about alone. You aren't dangerous, and this isn't about you. It's about what she did, and he's entirely in the right to be angry about that with her."
  5869. > "Exactly, yes. You know, when it was originally proposed Megan start visiting the camp without me, I decided it would be fine as long as she was with a pony I trusted. I think I would be okay with introducing her to you all... slowly."
  5870. > "I... understand. But if you punish her for wanting to see the camp, will she ever come again?"
  5871. > Both you and Anonymous laugh simultaneously.
  5872. > "...oh yes. My daughter has a bit of an independent streak. She'll be back, eventually."
  5873. > This, at last, seems to placate Crescent Moon.
  5874. > She actually manages a small smile, and looks up at him.
  5875. > "I'll hope to see her again soon, then."
  5876. > "...well, I don't know how soon. She's going to be grounded for a long, long time."
  5877. > He stands, turning to the one critical pony in the room who hadn't been addressed.
  5878. > Mayor Mare still cringes back when he comes near, but Anonymous short-circuits that with a shake of his head.
  5879. > "None of this reflects on you. You did everything right, and once I've had words with my daughter I'll make sure she gives you your due apology as well."
  5880. > After the door closes after him, a long and heavy silence holds in the room.
  5881. > Nopony can quite seem to believe that just happened - that anypony had escaped without serious punishment.
  5882. > Crescent Moon falls to her haunches, still staring at the door.
  5883. > "Did... he really just thank me for that...?"
  5884. "In the end, he is a parent. Megan is one of the few things I think he truly, really loves. All he wants to know is that she'll be safe. It's -"
  5885. > You tap a hoof on the floor, thinking.
  5886. "When Sunbreak was born - Vapor's foal - Anonymous wanted to hold her. Vapor was... not happy. Scared Sunbreak would be taken away. In truth, I was a little scared too. Because when you're a parent, your child means everything to you."
  5887. > "...this is one of those things I'm only going to understand when I become a parent, isn't it?"
  5888. > The tension breaks as everypony breaks out laughing at her sarcasm-laden tone - perhaps even harder because of the weight suddenly lifted from your back.
  5889. "Yeah, I suppose it is. Just... trust me when I say that I'm not surprised he came charging in here ready to breath fire down all our necks."
  5890. > "Heh, I got it."
  5891. > Turning for the door, you pause before reaching it.
  5892. > One last thing to do.
  5893. > The stallion who'd delivered the message had thoughtfully hidden himself off in a corner, but that only makes it easier for you to keep him from running.
  5894. "Listen to me: The next time you get told to run a message, you give us the whole damn story. Got it? No bluster, no ego. Just tell it straight. Because I was all of about two seconds away from reporting you to Anonymous, and then this whole thing could have ended a lot worse for you than it did."
  5895. > You don't wait for his reply.
  5896.  
  5897. > Close.
  5898. > He had been so close to her.
  5899. > His - his daughter, that he had thought lost so long ago.
  5900. > Ripped away from him by them.
  5901. > And now close enough to know she was still lost:
  5902. > Close enough to hear her laughter alongside the human girl's, close enough to catch a glimpse of her tail in the distance through a cracked door.
  5903. > To see the collar around her neck.
  5904. > And yet he couldn't show himself.
  5905. > Was it fear, of what she would say?
  5906. > Or confusion at everything he had seen?
  5907. > This place was not like what Corona had told him about, but that didn't mean there wasn't something to be afraid of.
  5908. > After all, it clearly enough had once been - and how much a mask it was, how long before the whips came out again, was something he wasn't sure of.
  5909. > The latter was easier to admit to himself, because there was no shame in admitting confusion.
  5910. > But the way she was with the girl...
  5911. > ...at least she had that much; he could believe 'Megan' was good to Flurry.
  5912. > Even so, some corner of his heart gnawed at him.
  5913. > Telling him he was a coward, a broken stallion, for not daring to approach her.
  5914. > All he needed was a little bit of time alone - enough to truly speak to her and find out what was true and what was not...
  5915. > At least the disguise enchantment was still holding.
  5916. > There would be another chance to reach out to her.
  5917. > To get her back.
  5918. > Hopefully before it was too late.
  5919.  
  5920. "She did what?!"
  5921. > "Yeah, that was about my reaction too."
  5922. > Anonymous slumps in his chair, rubbing his forehead.
  5923. > If he hadn't warned you before explaining that they were both fine, you'd be out of your mind with panic.
  5924. > As it was, your heart was still pounding.
  5925. > "I've got them both in one of the spare bedrooms right now. I wanted to cool my head a bit and confer doing anything rash. Threw her in there, took a long shower to cool my head, and then sat down to think. Because honestly, I was just about ready to give the both of them a badly-smarting backside right then and there."
  5926. > You wince at the thought of your daughter being beaten, yet you can't deny the impulse to lash out somehow is strong.
  5927. > What had she been thinking, going along with this?
  5928. "Do you have any sense of which of them was leading it...?"
  5929. > "If you're hoping I can say Megan pulled her into this, no. I can't say I do."
  5930. > Your head falls; that had been you hope.
  5931. > "No, from what I could tell it was both of them. At the very least, neither was willing to blame the other. Which, for kids who know they're in for it, says things."
  5932. "Yes, it does."
  5933. > "Once they're done, I'm going to invite Mayor Mare into the house so that she can get a proper apology from Megan. From both of them. And so she can know I'm not out for her head on a pole or anything."
  5934. > Looking up sharply, you scowl at Anonymous.
  5935. "Wasn't she told-"
  5936. > "Of course I told her. But it's going to take a while until she's not going to be looking over her shoulder again. Apparently she was downright terrified."
  5937. "...at least there was no reason."
  5938. > "At least."
  5939. > Anonymous groans, and you rise to approach him.
  5940. > Seeing this he reaches out to gently brush your mane back.
  5941. "It could have been much, much worse. With those protesters out there, and the police woman-"
  5942. > "I know, Cadance, Trust me, I know."
  5943. "...I didn't mean to seem nagging-"
  5944. > "You didn't. I'm just not sure what we're going to do about this. Your daughter's situation, at least, I'll leave up to you."
  5945. > Cocking your head, you raise your eyebrows questioningly - yielding a shrug from Anonymous.
  5946. > "She's your daughter, and I get the feeling you're just as appalled by this as I am. I don't think I need to worry about you being unfair. Did you want to go see her?"
  5947. "Very much so, if I could."
  5948. > "Yeah, we'd better. I'll go in first."
  5949. > It seems to take Anonymous considerable physical effort to drag himself from the chair, but he leads you to the spare bedroom they'd been locked in.
  5950. > You wait just outside the doorway while he steps through.
  5951. > "Alright, you two. I'll only ask one more time: Do you have anything to say for yourselves?"
  5952. > No answer comes, and he huffs softly.
  5953. > "Megan? Nothing? Not a word about how you ran away from the pony who was responsible for both of you and scared her half to death?"
  5954. > Still, silence.
  5955. > "Okay then, Megan. How about you tell Cadance why you put her daughter in danger like that."
  5956. > Your cue to step in, obviously.
  5957. > The room is practically untouched; homework sits neatly stacked on the floor where it must have been left while both girl and filly rest atop the bed.
  5958. > A brief thought is given to how nice it was that they were obviously still taking comfort in each other... right before your anger at both their reckless behavior comes flooding right back.
  5959. "And maybe, Flurry Heart, you can tell me why you were so thoughtless with Megan's safety as well. This is not something you should be encouraging her to do!"
  5960. > Your entrance has a marked effect on both of them.
  5961. > Megan twists her golden curls nervously about a finger, eyes flickering about here and there.
  5962. > Flurry gives a gentle 'eep' and buries her head beneath one expansive wing.
  5963. > Slipping past Anonymous you approach the edge of the bed, head held high and domineering.
  5964. "Flurry Heart. I am... unimaginably disappointed in you. There are certain rules we have in life - certain things we do - for our own good and safety. What were you thinking?! I know you have friends in the camp, but that doesn't mean it was safe to just - run along like that!"
  5965. > No doubt they've already heard this from Anonymous.
  5966. > Possibly repeatedly.
  5967. > Even so your lecture causes Flurry to tuck her head even more firmly beneath her wing, until there's little more than a bit of mane and the tips of her pinned ears remaining sticking out.
  5968. > Megan puts a protective arm around her and fixes you with a hard look.
  5969. > "You're scaring her!"
  5970. "I was scared! So was your father, when he heard!"
  5971. > "We - just wanted to see more. Mayor Mare was like... it was like being on a field trip at school. Walk this way, see this stuff, go on now... We wanted to just - see! Miss Mocha has been telling us about the things she sees in there, and we wanted to see too!"
  5972. > Wrapping both arms around the filly in a hug prompts a muffled nicker from the muzzle still hidden away.
  5973. > "And it's not like we were ever really in danger. We woulda screamed! And Flurry could have defended me. She's been taking lessons from Sunburst!"
  5974. "And what if she could have not? What if nopony had heard? I know this time, the walk-around wasn't really what you were expecting - but that doesn't mean you can just run away!"
  5975. > You drop your head to rest on the edge of the bed in an effort to appear less threatening.
  5976. > A moment later, Flurry twists - eyes glittering as they cautiously peer out at you.
  5977. > The bed creaks as Anonymous seats himself on the far side.
  5978. > "And besides, you still scared the daylights out of Mayor Mare. Both of you. And I know I raised you better than that, Megan!"
  5979. "Yes! She thought she was going to be punished terribly for losing the two of you. Like it was all her fault. Is that right?"
  5980. > You lean in closer, softening your voice:
  5981. "Imagine if you had been hurt, and Mocha Cream heard. How do you think she would feel then?"
  5982. > It isn't a pretty thought, and both shift uneasily.
  5983. > "...w'could say sorry t'miss Mayor..."
  5984. > Flurry's cracked voice suggests she's been crying, but at least she is talking now.
  5985. "You will say sorry to her. That is the least you can do."
  5986. [Choice]
  5987. > You sigh heavily.
  5988. "I am so very, very deeply disappointed - in both of you. After how Flurry was neglected, I took a great deal of comfort that my daughter would be with someone who would care for her and look after her."
  5989. > She shudders at those memories, the feather-tips of her spread wings trembling.
  5990. "And, in turn, I knew she would do her absolute best for you as well, Megan. This... you put both yourselves at such terrible, terrible risk. And you did it together, neither of you leading the other on. Or ordering."
  5991. > Anonymous nods, putting a hand on his daughter's shoulder.
  5992. > "And the same for me, sweetheart. You were supposed to be a model for Flurry as to how a leader should act. And Flurry, you were supposed to moderate my daughter when she was doing something foolish as well."
  5993. > Letting your eyes slip shut, you sigh.
  5994. > This is going to be painful to do, because you have a reasonably good idea of what Anonymous is going to suggest will be done with them.
  5995. > Lifting your head from the bed, you open your eyes just in time to catch both their heads swivel around to focus on Anonymous - wondering what punishment will be handed down.
  5996. > It takes a moment longer to realize you were doing the same as well.
  5997. > Some desperate hope still driving you to hope that he wouldn't-
  5998. > "Okay, then. Here's what's going to happen: First, Megan, I'm going to give you a spanking for this-"
  5999. > You think your flinch is worse than what the two of them do.
  6000. > But you can't deny that if it were going to be done for anything, it would be for this...
  6001. > "-and then two of you are grounded for at least two weeks... at least half of that, separately from each other. Megan, you will do your chores and your homework without Flurry's help. I hope it gives you some time to think about what you have done and, more importantly, why I am so angry about it."
  6002. > "No!"
  6003. > Almost reflexively the two curl even more tightly around each other, Megan tightening her hug and Flurry shifting over a wing to shelter her mistress.
  6004. > When Anonymous remains utterly unmoved, they both transfer their pleading expressions to you.
  6005. > As if they could make you undo your earlier ruling.
  6006. > ...as if you could.
  6007. > In the end, you can't overrule Anonymous' choices for Megan.
  6008. > And besides, he'd said he held certain - expectations for what you would do.
  6009. > ...just like when he had laid the fate of the escape's ringleaders at your hooves, there was really no choice at all.
  6010. "No matter what your place in life is, the fact remains that your actions have impacts. Consequences. Flurry, you had an equal part in this and so you will share the punishment as well. Equally and evenly. There will be no exceptions."
  6011. > "Momma!"
  6012. > Ignoring her tearful cry, you go on:
  6013. "Chores will be found for you in the meantime. Perhaps something to do with the management here, so that you can understand why we have to make these decisions that we do and cannot just go off and do what we wish."
  6014. > Anonymous nods in confirmation.
  6015. > "That sounds like a good idea, yes. You put yourselves on a pedestal above all the rules here - even rules of common sense. In addition to that, you are going to go apologize - heavily - to both Mayor Mare and Mocha Cream."
  6016. > When they look confused at the addition of the latter pony, he adds:
  6017. > "For not learning better from her experiences too. You cannot squander lessons like that!"
  6018. > "After we get - um - get..."
  6019. "Yes. After that."
  6020. > You try and keep the nervousness over that out of your voice.
  6021. > There were going to have to be - words with Anonymous first.
  6022. > "And you'll be apart starting tonight. Flurry, we'll put you in a spare bed in Mocha Cream's room."
  6023. > Ouch.
  6024.  You had a sneaking suspicion that Mocha Cream would be giving a stiff lecture of her own; she might be nervous and stuttering around Anonymous, but she had a strong, determined heart to see the best for other ponies.
  6025. > "I'll take Megan to her room for-"
  6026. "Master. May I have a word with you for - a moment?"
  6027. > "Of course. Megan, Flurry - go wait outside. And don't even think about running; the staff knows you're not supposed to be going anywhere."
  6028. > When the door shuts he turns to you, head cocked questioningly.
  6029. "I..."
  6030. > Your cheeks are flushing, and you can't raise your eyes to him.
  6031. > "Cadance? What's wrong?"
  6032. > Seating himself again on your edge of the bed, Anonymous reaches out.
  6033. > "You don't have to do this, you know. If it's too hard for you-"
  6034. "No, I - I..."
  6035. > You wince.
  6036. "...I don't know how to spank her."
  6037. > A long silence follows, then-
  6038. > "What?"
  6039. "I never had to! It's - not something a lot of ponies do, okay?! Celestia - disciplined me once or twice, but she never really showed me how. And I wasn't exactly paying attention to her technique right then!"
  6040. > "Well, it's not - too tricky."
  6041. > Putting his knees together, Anonymous pats them and shoots you a suggestive grin.
  6042. > "Here! Just lay down across and I'll show you exactly how."
  6043. > Your outraged squeal draws a long, loud laugh from him.
  6044. > If your cheeks weren't red before, they certainly are now!
  6045. > Celestia was one thing, but the thought of being an adult over his knees while he even pretended to beat your-
  6046. > No.
  6047. > Just, no.
  6048. > It'd be almost as humiliating as when he'd paraded you around in that disgusting tack-and-chains outfit!
  6049. "It's not funny!"
  6050. > "Sorry, sorry - just trying to lighten the moment."
  6051. "It's... just not funny. Flurry was never a deliberate terror as a foal - accidental, yes, but never deliberate - and there wasn't ever a reason to. Barely any time for her to be one before I... lost her."
  6052. > Throughout that your voice had steadily fallen from an angry high to a passive low.
  6053. > By the end, Anonymous reaches out to place a hand on your back.
  6054. > No apology is spoken, and none is needed.
  6055. > Your head shifting to rest against his arm is a sign enough that his thought is accepted.
  6056. "...I suppose having to deal with your child doing something so utterly foalish is almost a rite of parenthood."
  6057. > "Yeah. Children aren't that different, no matter the species."
  6058. > That actually manages to bring a little smile to your lips.
  6059. "At least I have her back now. Even if I have to do this, I'm almost glad I can do it at all."
  6060. > "Yeah..."
  6061. > Something in his voice makes you look up questioningly to Anonymous.
  6062. "Is something wrong?"
  6063. > "I'm... worried. About what got into Megan to do this; both of them were so torn up over what happened to Mocha, so why this?"
  6064. > His head falls a bit,
  6065. > "...it's her mother's influence in her. The whole 'put on a pedestal above others'... that's her. I don't want to let Megan grow up like that."
  6066. > You can feel his hand tightening into a fist, and the truth is that you don't have an answer.
  6067. > He feared losing his daughter to becoming something else - her being broken by this legacy.
  6068. > Flurry Heart had already been lost once.
  6069. > Possibly broken as well.
  6070. "There is still a good heart in her. Moments like these are the exception. Remember, I wasn't lying when I said I truly do believe Flurry Heart is safe with her."
  6071. > "Yeah. True."
  6072. > Un-bunching from its fist, his hand slips up to rub your neck.
  6073. > "Cadance, if you really don't want to do this..."
  6074. "I can. Will. Because she is my daughter, and because I think she needs to know I will not shelter her from some things."
  6075. > "Alright. In that case, I, uh..."
  6076. > Anonymous grimaces.
  6077. > "..I don't honestly know if I can give you any advice, except - you'll figure out how hard pretty quickly. It sounds cruel to say, but if it feels like you're overdoing it, you probably are. And use a brush or something; your hoof might be too hard."
  6078. "...that makes sense. I... suppose I should go deal with it now. I'll go get one of her brushes."
  6079. > When you return, Flurry Heart is alone in the spare bedroom:
  6080. > Crouched on the bed in a nervous ball, awaiting her fate.
  6081. > Even so she tries one last time, peering up at you with wide and shimmering eyes.
  6082. > "M-Momma? Do you really have to-"
  6083. "Yes, Flurry. I do have to - and keep you apart from Megan. What you did was... incredibly bad. Some things, Flurry, have real consequences that cannot be avoided."
  6084. > You glance aside at the coat-brush floating in your magical grasp.
  6085. "When I heard, I wasn't just angry. If Anonymous hadn't told me ahead of time you were safe, I would have been out of my mind with fear. Even knowing that."
  6086. > A sharp breath is drawn and forced back out again.
  6087. "I lost you once, Flurry Heart. I made terrible, terrible mistakes and you were hurt... if you hadn't been so lucky now, I could have lost you again."
  6088. > And to the hooves of your own species, too.
  6089. "Do you understand? I can't just dismiss this."
  6090. > Stretching out one expansive wing, she touches your cheek.
  6091. > "Okay, momma..."
  6092. > Stretching out on the floor, you lay your forelegs out in front of you.
  6093. > Despite your conscience being clear - this was not an act of slavery, but an act of parenting - it still feels awkward to do.
  6094. "Here. Come lay across them. Careful now - yes, just like that. Now, tail out of the way and-"
  6095. > ...
  6096. > It was not pleasant, hearing your daughter squeal, cry, and whimper in pain.
  6097. > But not the worst you had ever done either.
  6098. > Not by far.
  6099. > Now, back in your office, you sit staring at the picture of Shining Armor you kept on the table.
  6100. > If there had been more time - if this all hadn't happened, and Flurry Heart had grown up with you - what would he have thought...?
  6101. > Would your husband have been the one to take a brush to her haunches?
  6102. > Despite his years of military discipline, or perhaps specifically because of the self-control they had brought, Shiny had never so much as lost his temper with his daughter.
  6103. > But for something like this...
  6104. > Would he have hated you for doing this?
  6105. > You can't know, and now wouldn't ever.
  6106. > The thoughts keep slipping in your head, though.
  6107. > Eventually you pull yourself into bed and somehow manage to find sleep.
  6108. > Next morning comes soon enough:
  6109. > The camp's wake-up alarm sounding over the PA to pull everypony from their beds; you are no exception.
  6110. > With blurry eyes and a wide yawn you drag yourself from the bed and in to the bathroom, pausing only to kick at an itching ear with one hindleg.
  6111. > One of the few luxuries you had - a private place to wash, rather than the communal showers everypony else made do with.
  6112. > Actual baths were an even greater luxury, but standing with your muzzle under the lukewarm spray and imagining yourself underwater was a close-enough approximation.
  6113. > Plus it was a fast way to get the shampoo all the way out of your mane quickly enough.
  6114. > And-
  6115. > That's odd.
  6116. > Pulling your head from beneath the showerhead, you cock an ear.
  6117. > The wake-up alarm had already sounded, and the next - a warning that time was passing and everypony had to hurry on to report for work on time - couldn't possibly be sounding yet.
  6118. > It takes you another moment to realize the atonal, buzzing siren is neither of those.
  6119. > The lockdown alarm!
  6120. > What now?!
  6121. > Why now?!
  6122. > Was a moment of peace too much to ask?
  6123. > You barely bother to shut off the water before leaping from the bathtub and charging for the front door.
  6124. > Drying off is skipped altogether, and you leave a liberally-scattered trail of droplets in the early-summer-morning cool while galloping for the security post.
  6125. > A leaping launch and you're in the air.
  6126. > Instantly you angle yourself - redirecting towards the edge of the camp where the small convoy of the guards' cars are already traveling.
  6127. > And where, in the dawn's growing light, you can see the cause of the alarm:
  6128. > Whereas before the protesters had held a reasonable distance in the past, now they had formed ranks practically at the very edge of the fence.
  6129. > Even from this distance you could hear their chanting and clapping; a rising tide of raucous of voices.
  6130. > They must have been intending to catch ponies' attention as they scattered out to their morning jobs.
  6131. > From the corner of a building near the boundary you catch Gene waving sharply at you.
  6132. > Touching down in front of him draws a relieved sigh.
  6133. > "Thank God, I caught you."
  6134. "What do you mean?"
  6135. > "They've all fucking lost their minds. What do you think would happen if you'd shown up right in front of them?"
  6136. > A point.
  6137. "Did something set them off? Or-"
  6138. > "No, no. The motion sensors went off, we came out. The police are on their way."
  6139. > It suddenly occurs to you that he was not in his regular uniform but a wrinkled, more informal appearance outfit.
  6140. > Must be what he had slept in too.
  6141. > There's something new in his voice that you only recognize now too:
  6142. > Fear.
  6143. > He was afraid of this running out of control.
  6144. "Gene, if I go out there I could tell them to back off-"
  6145. > "No! I know Anonymous trusts you, but I am security! Let the police come!"
  6146. > You don't like the idea of letting the situation fester, but he has a point.
  6147. > Instead you remain seated, ears pricked and listening to the repeated chants issuing from the crowd:
  6148. > "Freedom for all, no surrender!"
  6149. > "Emancipate, no more hate!"
  6150. > "Two legs good, four legs still good!"
  6151. > "Laws for us all, not for the money!"
  6152. > Some part of you so dearly wants to believe their message is wholeheartedly true.
  6153. > That they really do want nothing more than to live in peace and equality with ponies.
  6154. > But from this distance, you can feel something more:
  6155. > Sheer anger, fury, indignation rolling off of them is palpable, an almost physical force pressing against you.
  6156. > How much of that is your talent for sensing emotion and how much is just interpreting their screaming and chanting you aren't sure.
  6157. > Though a good part of it seems to be the latter, considering how nervous the guards look.
  6158. > At last a siren splits the air in the distance.
  6159. > Everyone's attention is drawn by it, and in a surprisingly orderly fashion the protesters begin to break from the fence and retreat back towards the road.
  6160. > They must have planned this:
  6161. > Avoiding a confrontation with police by departing as soon as they arrived.
  6162. > Watching the last of the departing crowd warily, Gene grunts.
  6163. > "That's that. Done. Cadance, do you want to go?"
  6164. "Yes. I - should go make an announcement while everypony is still having breakfast."
  6165. > "Go. But, maybe brush your mane first?"
  6166. > ...oh.
  6167. > Right.
  6168. > You did still look like you'd just had a minor tornado manifest over your head.
  6169. "Yes. Let me - get right on that."
  6170. > In the end, there's little trouble that follows the lockdown or your announcement over breakfast.
  6171. > Well, less announcement and more update-turned-warning not to egg on the protesters in turn.
  6172. > Whatever it was, most ponies took it in stride.
  6173. > No, your problems begin after that - when Sunburst stumbles into your office, wild-eyed and flanks lathered with sweat from the gallop he had made.
  6174. > "Your - your highness!"
  6175. > Ah.
  6176. > So this was it, then?
  6177. > You'd known Sunburst would find out what you'd done sooner or later, and you would have to address it.
  6178. "I understand it may have seemed rash, Sunburst, but the truth is I simply could not let what Flurry Heart had done go unpunished. What she did I had to deal with - not as a slave, but as a parent."
  6179. > The stupefied expression Sunburst gives you suggests a terrible miscalculation on why he was here.
  6180. "Or - is it something else?"
  6181. > Sunburst kicks the door shut and pulls a book from his saddlebags, then a note from within that.
  6182. > "What were you talking about?"
  6183. > He listens while you speak, ears steadily drooping and a hoof rising to nervously twist at the scruff of bear on his chin.
  6184. > When you are done, he is all but shaking.
  6185. > "I - I understand. You could have lost her, and - I don't think you could have taken that."
  6186. > More softly:
  6187. > "I know I couldn't have."
  6188. "I know she means so much to you."
  6189. > "The both of you mean everything to me, Your Highness. If I lost either you or Flurry... it'd be the end of me."
  6190. > It occurs to you that it might perhaps be a good idea to find Sunburst a marefriend, but you don't know if he was emotionally past the loss of Starlight.
  6191. "And don't think I do not know that. But, what did you come to tell me?"
  6192. > "Oh!"
  6193. > The note he'd withdrawn earlier was passed to you.
  6194. > "There - was a radio broadcast this morning. You know, how we get messages in from our... outside associates."
  6195. "Yes."
  6196. > Unfolding the note, you read it once - and then again, just to be sure.
  6197. "An apology?"
  6198. > "For the lockdown this morning, yes. Apparently the message was relayed from someone in the crowd out there; they didn't realize we would be locked down harder than normal if they did that."
  6199. > You snort gently.
  6200. > Of course they wouldn't understand how much relative freedom you had in this camp.
  6201. > They were probably used to dealing with far, far more tightly-restricted labor camps.
  6202. > "But... that was just the first message."
  6203. "There was a second?"
  6204. > Another note is passed to you, and this one raises your eyebrows considerably.
  6205. > 'To: Cadance,
  6206. > I have not given up up my goal, but I need your help. I can protect you and your daughter if you help us, maybe even give freedom. Need evidence of Anonymous' mistreatment. Send your reply through the normal route.
  6207. > ~A'
  6208. > There's no doubt in your mind who the one who sent this is.
  6209. > Only one could have been so fantastically bold as to announce her intentions...
  6210. "Has anypony else seen this?"
  6211. > "Only whoever recorded the message and decoded it. After that - me."
  6212. "Good."
  6213. > "What do you intend to do about it, Your Highness?"
  6214. "If I tell Anonymous, I will have to explain how we have been receiving messages from the outside. Sending, too. That would be catastrophic. I will deal with her myself."
  6215. > "Are you - really going to tell her-"
  6216. "Nothing yet. First, I want to see what she wants. The impression I got when she was interrogating Thunderlane was not pleasant. And besides..."
  6217. > You lift a hoof to hold it out to Sunburst.
  6218. "I could never trade for my freedom and leave you all here."
  6219. > That much reduces the agitation he shows, and Sunburst even manages a little smile.
  6220. > "Thank you, Your Highness."
  6221. "Now, go on. I'll be about."
  6222. > You hear nothing more of that for the rest of the day, thankfully.
  6223. > In fact, compared to the preceding days things are... downright peaceful.
  6224. > At about dinner, Lattice approaches you with a soft murmur:
  6225. > "Y-Your Highness, may we have a talk?"
  6226. "Of course, Lattice. What can I do for you?"
  6227. > "I..."
  6228. > His eyes search the crowd nervously, as if trying to pick out somepony in particular.
  6229. > "It's - about my work. I haven't been doing well enough, and I'm sorry. I think it's time for me to - to give up. Transfer me to one of the other workshops."
  6230. "Is there something else going on, Lattice?"
  6231. > "N-No! Your Highness, it is my fault. I just - cannot do enough. You shouldn't waste time on my mistakes."
  6232. > Head hanging, he adds:
  6233. > "I don't deserve so much heaped on me."
  6234. > When had deserving anything come into this conversation?
  6235. > An inkling begins to form in the back of your mind that perhaps there was a touch more to this conversation than Lattice was telling you for starters.
  6236. "...come, sit down. I think we can make room here for another pony?"
  6237. > "Your Highness, I couldn't!"
  6238. > Even as he protests, a few ponies around you scoot aside at the tables - allowing room for him to set his meal tray beside you.
  6239. "Lattice. I insist. Please."
  6240. > Rather than the gesture comforting, his nervousness only seems to redouble.
  6241. > He does sit, though.
  6242. "Now... tell me, what's brought on this sudden request?"
  6243. > Instead of answering, Lattice again looks around the table.
  6244. > "I... Ponies... ponies are saying we are getting better treatment. Because of who we are. Tourmaline Twist and I, I mean - because we're Crystal Ponies."
  6245. "Lattice..."
  6246. > "They're saying that we're stringing everypony and Anonymous along by telling you we can grow the crystals. That it's just a fantasy, and we aren't going to be able to do anything. We're just using you to get out of real work."
  6247. "You know that is wrong though."
  6248. > "But it isn't!"
  6249. > The outburst is followed by a moment of silence, during which Lattice's cheeks color considerably.
  6250. > More softly, he continues:
  6251. > "We are wasting time, Your Highness. I'm not going to be able to do this. And you already spared me twice..."
  6252. "What do you mean?"
  6253. > Lattice swallows hard.
  6254. > "Bringing us here, of course. Anywhere else we could have been sent... and before that, from Sombra. It's been a mercy. "
  6255. > How had you 'spared' him, though?
  6256. > Rescued the Crystal Empire and its ponies from Sombra's grasp, but why 'spared'...?
  6257. “Well, at the very least I will have to have a talk with the ponies who have been telling you these things-”
  6258. > Clear panic fills Lattice’s face.
  6259. > “No! Your Highness, please - that would only prove them right. It would make me - special. I… don’t want to be special again.”
  6260. [Choice]
  6261. "Well. If you really insist, then I'll see about transferring you."
  6262. > Lattice slumps in relief.
  6263. > "Thank you, Your Highness."
  6264. "There is no need. We will have to find a proper place for you to work, though."
  6265. > "Anonymous took us into one of the enchanting shops. Even if I cannot grow the crystals from nothing, I think I can still form them - mend them, make them better for enchanting."
  6266. "That would be good. Do you know what Tourmaline's preference is?"
  6267. > "No, Your Highness. You would have to ask her yourself."
  6268. > From the way he said that, you have to suspect he would much prefer not to be the one asking her.
  6269. "Very well. Anonymous will have to give his approval for shutting down this experiment, but-"
  6270. > "Oh, that won't be a problem! He took me aside and explained that I should feel free to speak up if I didn't think the project was going to work."
  6271. > Somehow you're actually delighted to hear that.
  6272. > Anonymous taking a direct, sympathetic role in managing the ponies?
  6273. > Perhaps your efforts had been getting through to him after all.
  6274. "Excellent."
  6275. > Unfolding a wing, you lay it across his back.
  6276. "There's no shame in this, Lattice. We may be slaves, but all I ask is that you do all you the most you can."
  6277. > His head falls, shoulders actually shaking a bit.
  6278. > As if your wing was a far heavier weight.
  6279. > "I don't deserve your kindness"
  6280. > Channeling your best impression of your Aunt Celestia's ever-calming tones, you use your wing to draw him in against your side.
  6281. "Everypony deserves kindness, Lattice."
  6282. > "Not me. I don't want to be special. I don't want to be a leader or anything like that."
  6283. "Well, no one is telling you that you have to be."
  6284. > "G-Good. I'll just - just take a quiet job in one of the shops. And that - that will be enough. No more. Thank you, Your Highness."
  6285. > His breathy expression of relief is almost euphoric in nature.
  6286. > What did he fear - standing out?
  6287. > Being recognized by Anonymous?
  6288. > But he said it was Anonymous who talked him into saying this...
  6289. "Lattice, I've said before there's no need to thank me."
  6290. > "Yes. There is. You're too kind. I don't deserve any of this... recognition, and somewhere else... I never told any of my previous owners about my magic."
  6291. "Were you afraid you wouldn't be able to use it?"
  6292. > "I was afraid I would be."
  6293. > He does not elaborate further, but instead just opts to eat the rest of his meal in silence.
  6294.  
  6295. > In the exact center of your study, the two miscreants stand facing a different form of judgement.
  6296. > On the one side, Flurry Heart sits with wings hanging limply at her sides and eyes locked on the floor.
  6297. > From the way her haunches are held just off the floor despite how it must be making her legs ache, you can guess that Cadance hadn't been easy on her.
  6298. > Next to her Megan stands similarly bowed.
  6299. > You know you hadn't gone soft on her.
  6300. > Sandwiching the two opposite your own stern gaze was Mayor Mare.
  6301. > If anything, she seemed even angrier than you:
  6302. > Jaw fixed hard and eyes alight with anger.
  6303. > "The two of you have no idea what you even started here. Look-"
  6304. > A hoof is pointed out the window, towards the camp in the distance.
  6305. > "Look at that. All of it. And then believe me when I say that every day we struggle to make it work, because your father has given us something great. He has given us somewhere we can be comfortable. Where we don't have to fear cruelty."
  6306. > She marches forward and to draw herself up, and while Mayor Mare might not objectively be as tall as Megan her presence is far more overwhelming.
  6307. > "Do you know what would happen to us, if you got hurt? Everything out there would burn to the ground. That would be it. The end. The police would get involved, Anonymous would be shamed, and he would never be able to give you what he wants."
  6308. > Megan turns back to shoot you a pleading look, but you only offer a shake of your head.
  6309. "Don't look at me. You knew this would happen."
  6310. > Again her head falls down, but a moment later Megan manages to speak:
  6311. > "I'm sorry, Mayor Mare. I - shouldn't have run off like that. You are right. I didn't know."
  6312. > "Uh-huh. I... I'm sorry, Mayor Mare. Please don't be angry?"
  6313. > Both apologies barely seem to phase her.
  6314. > Instead she eyes each with a fierce expression:
  6315. > "I almost throttled the stallion when he came in to tell me you were running off with random ponies. That's how scared I was. That's how angry I was. Do you think that is enough?"
  6316. > Megan hangs her head again, golden curls falling to either side of her face.
  6317. > "M'sorry..."
  6318. > The furious look holds for a moment longer, and then Mayor Mare huffs angrily.
  6319. > "I want to forgive you. I really do. But you can't understand how terrified I was. I might follow your father's orders, but I look out for everypony here."
  6320. > Sniffling gently, Megan nods.
  6321. "Mayor, come to my side."
  6322. > "Do we go back to our rooms now, Daddy?"
  6323. "Not yet. There's one other pony you need to apologize to first. Mocha?"
  6324. > Both girl and filly jerk upright as your maid enters the room - but she seems just as nervous as those she is going to lecture.
  6325. > While Mocha seemed ready when you left her waiting just outside, now she stared with glassy, distant eyes.
  6326. > Finally she speaks:
  6327. > "Didn't you all learn... anything from me?"
  6328. > Lifting a foreleg - the one that had been broken - she turns it over to stare at the underside.
  6329. > "I... you are my Master's own daughter, Miss Megan. You know what this cost me. You know there are ponies who would be willing to show you what you were hoping to see if you really asked."
  6330. > When neither of them give any response Mocha turns more resolute:
  6331. > "I'm - I'm crippled! I'm broken! Master Anonymous paid so much to have me healed back up and even now, I'm still-"
  6332. > Her horn sparks to life - fitfully, erratically, as it often still did when she was worked up.
  6333. > Mocha takes a few moments to calm her breathing, and the burst-popping of her horn slowly fades back to silence.
  6334. > "...did you know, when I was hurt he came down to my hospital room and held me? Told me it was his fault. His. Fault. He was hurting so badly and I could tell even though I was the one who'd been beaten. Hurting. For me. And that hurt even more. I'm nopony. You're - you're his daughter and Miss Cadance's daughter."
  6335. > Another hard swallow while she catches her breath.
  6336. > "Don't you dare make my Master feel like that again. Don't you dare. Especially you, Miss Megan."
  6337. > Cautiously, Megan reaches out with a hand:
  6338. > Palm up, open almost as if in a peace offering.
  6339. > "No!"
  6340. > Mocha backs up, warding the hand off with a raised hoof.
  6341. > "I'm - I'm not going to give up. I know what could have happened too, and that - that really scares me. I don't want to see you hurt. I don't want to see you hurt Master."
  6342. > Instead, Flurry Heart stands fully up and mumbles something.
  6343. > You can't hear what, but Mocha's ears rotate forward.
  6344. > Evidently it was enough said, however, as when it is done she ventures forwards to nuzzle Flurry Heart's cheek.
  6345. > You're not surprised she'd cracked early.
  6346. > Mocha Cream might have been distraught, but she was still soft at heart.
  6347. > Still, as you watched Megan nervously step forward to join in the hug you can't help feeling a little glad as well.
  6348. "Mocha, why don't you take the both of them back down to their rooms?"
  6349. > Extracting herself from the hug, she dips into a bow before rubbing her eyes clear.
  6350. > "Y-Yes, Master. Come on, both of you."
  6351. > After the door shuts, you turn to eye Mayor Mare with one raised eyebrow.
  6352. "So. You almost throttled a pony?"
  6353. > "I... yes, Master. I actually did - he was so surprised I don't think he even tried to stop me. It's a little bit of a blur."
  6354. "You know, if you need some time off... Cadance needed it badly, and if you're lashing out now-"
  6355. > "No, I think I'll be okay."
  6356. > She wrinkles her nose, and somehow the wrinkles spread to meet with those reaching down from her eyes.
  6357. > "When he came in and said she was off running with Celestia-knows-who I saw the whole thing crashing down. I was thinking it would be the end of this place, we would all be sold off..."
  6358. "That thought really scared you, huh?"
  6359. > "Master Anonymous - like I told you before, for an older mare like me there aren't many options. I don't have many decades left to work, I'm not the strongest pony, and my talents... not many people would have a good use of them."
  6360. "You do have talents, though. That's why I gave you this role."
  6361. > "You did. But before I came here..."
  6362. > She sighs, moving to sit facing you.
  6363. > The glasses come off her muzzle to be held in one hoof and rubbed nervously.
  6364. > "When I was first taken, they needed to keep everypony in line. I pretty quickly figured out that I would be going nowhere good unless I showed myself useful, so - I kept ponies in line. I quieted them, I browbeat them, I applied my talent to make sure they were passive even when they were being pulled from each other and sold off."
  6365. > Every word is spoken with a kind of heavy weight only memories can bring.
  6366. > "It would have broken me eventually, I think. One day I wouldn't have been able to do it anymore, and I'd have been sold off to a hard-labor camp. That'd have been the end of an old mare like me. Then you brought me here. I saw somewhere I could do this - and instead of ponies just being treated like things, we had homes. We had each other."
  6367. "I wasn't exactly the kindest Master back then, though."
  6368. > Despite the protest you reach out to brush your hand through her mane.
  6369. > Mayor Mare hesitates a moment, then tilts her head into the touch.
  6370. > "It was enough. You were... hard sometimes, but not a monster. I felt we had a future again. So I gave you all I could."
  6371. "And that's just fine."
  6372. > You hold the pose a moment longer, sending a few strokes through the mare's thinning mane before leaning back in your seat.
  6373. "Unfortunately, I might have another challenge for you and Cadance to handle."
  6374. > "Do tell."
  6375. "Actually, you tell me first - has anypony located their family through the computers I gave you? The ones connected to the markets?"
  6376. > Mayor Mare's face brightens noticeably, ears perking up.
  6377. > "Yes, Master. A few. Would you like me to send them to you?"
  6378. "Immediately. I'd like to bring them in at the same time as I bring in new security... which, especially after the incident this morning, I'm going to have to. Some will be hired, but - do you remember how I was talking about bringing in a few griffons to act as security?"
  6379. > "...yes, Master."
  6380. "You sound uncertain."
  6381. > Mayor Mare shuffles her hooves nervously.
  6382. > "I've only met a griffon once in my life, Master. She was... not pleasant."
  6383. "Well, I'll hold them to the same standards I expect out of you. So, about those reports?"
  6384. > "Of course. I'll go right and get them."
  6385. > What lands on your desk, however...
  6386. > Many of these ponies are not what your first choice would be.
  6387. > Some have behavioral flags on their records; others have no particular skills you can integrate at this late stage of the expansion.
  6388. > Others are just...
  6389. > Old.
  6390. > Very close to the age when they'd be assigned fewer hours or light duty.
  6391. > That would be a weight on your profits, even if it would improve morale altogether.
  6392. > There was a very good reason the ponies' little graveyard didn't take up much space.
  6393. [Choice]

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