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MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 4

By TheManFromAnotherTime
Created: 2021-02-04 21:31:33
Updated: 2021-02-04 03:44:47
Expiry: Never

  1. "Everyday Life With Guardsmares"
  2. by The Man From Another Time
  5. Written for the Royal Guard Mare thread on /mlp/
  7. FAQ, Locations/Character List, and gag list:
  8. (spoiler warnings apply to both links)
  10. CHAPTER 4
  12. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you're not sure if this could be any more awkward.
  13. > It's Thursday morning, and you, and Glamerspear, and Sparkshower, and Ebonshield, are all sitting at a table in the mostly-empty servants' dining hall in Canterlot palace, finishing off breakfast before the Sergeant goes on shift.
  14. > ... Except that she's got last night's 'dessert' with her.
  15. > "Would you like another tortilla, mi pichoncito?"
  16. > The young colt -- a pale-blue unicorn wearing a novice wizard's grey cloak -- pats his barrel with one forehoof, smiling.
  17. > "Oh, no, Miss Purity, thank you, but I'm stuffed."
  18. > With a grin, she leans over and pats his barrel, too.
  19. > "Not as stuffed as somepony else was last niiiiight."
  20. > She giggles, he chuckles, and then her hoof wanders a little lower down and yeah that's enough looking in that direction for now.
  21. > Your only consolation (if you can really call it that), is that as much as this is awkward for you, it seems to be affecting Glamerspear and Sparkshower much, much more.
  22. > The cream pegasus isn't really cream any more -- she's beet-red, and trying her best to bite her tongue and look away from the public displays of affection without appearing rude to the Sergeant's 'guest'.
  23. > All while trying to finish her own second plate.
  24. > Meanwhile, the pink unicorn's snout is so scrunched up, the scullery mares could use the wrinkles as a washboard.
  25. > You're half worried her muzzle is just going to just implode inwards.
  26. > At the 'bring your foal to work day' part of the table, more kissy-kissy nonsense ensues, with Ebonshield nipping at the neck of the young lover who is less than half her age.
  27. > Daring another glance, you see him tremble a bit, his ears twitching as she continues to flirtatiously assault his nape.
  28. > It's questionable if that colt had ever laid hooves on a mare before last night -- or Monday night, if this was in fact the same colt who had invited Ebonshield to the frat party at the Schola Magia.
  30. > Ebonshield hadn't really taken the time to introduce him, so who knows.
  31. > His probable recent virginity redoubled the apparent awkwardness of the whole thing, but it also put your own frustrations in focus.
  32. > As bad as this breakfast was with its uninvited guest, last night's date with Castlerook had almost been worse.
  33. > You'd gone to the trouble of dressing up but then, just as on Sunday night, you lost your nerve somewhere along the way.
  34. > As a result, you wound up with an evening full of noncommittal pleasantries.
  35. > At least Castlerook stopped telling you stories of what was going on with your old friends in Fillydelphia -- which meant you stopped being tempted to drown out the memories with liquor.
  36. > And he also managed to subtly make it clear that he was looking forward to heading back there when this Gala-specific posting was done.
  37. > Back outside your quarters, even though it was obvious that, once again, nothing was going to happen, he'd also less-subtly made it clear that he wanted you to come with him.
  38. > That was the biggest can of worms he's opened so far.
  39. > One thing you'd been certain of for a while was that you never wanted to go back.
  40. > But lately, with how you'd been feeling, you'd started to waver on that point.
  41. > Either way, you hadn't committed.
  42. > And Castlerook hadn't insisted.
  43. > So it was another frustrating night, just you and your pillow, alone with your thoughts.
  44. > What *were* you doing with your life?
  45. > What *did* you want -- from Castlerook, or anypony else?
  46. > "... All right, mi chico y mi cuaternio. I can see that it is time for duty with the Engineer Royal..."
  47. > Oh, thank Celestia, it's just a few minutes to eight.
  48. > Ebonshield gets to her hooves and nods to everypony at the table, with a special muzzle-to-muzzle goodbye for her foal-toy.
  49. > "... Please do not stand up because of me. Enjoy the breakfast. I will see you all in the afternoon. And, chico, you have all your things, yes?"
  51. > The young unicorn nods.
  52. > "Yes, Miss Purity."
  53. > That earns him a reassuring hoof-pat on the back.
  54. > "Good. I look forward to our next encounter, mi amor."
  55. > As Ebonshield leaves the room, swishing her tail, Glamerspear leans over to stare, wide-eyed, in your direction.
  56. > With her snout still about to pop back into her head, she nods sharply in the direction of the enraptured colt.
  57. > Well, what does she want you to do?
  58. > Flush him out of here like a receding tide?
  59. > You nod right back at her half-eaten breakfast.
  60. "Finish your plate, Specialist."
  61. > She's got to learn to hold her damn temper.
  62. > It's just one little wizardling colt, what's he going to do?
  63. > "So, uh, about Miss Purity -- have you mares known her very long?"
  64. > Oh, Tartarus, he's going to try to chat you all up.
  65. > And after happening to swing into a mare who definitely does buck on the first date, he must think he's cock of the trot.
  66. > Glamerspear blinks at you, sucks her face in even more, and then silently gets back to her breakfast, barely stopping her eyes from popping out of her head.
  67. > Sparkshower is still far too rosy-cheeked at all the making out she's just witnessed to even think about replying.
  68. > That leaves you to answer the colt's question, which is still hanging in the air.
  69. "Only for a couple of weeks."
  70. > He lifts his eyebrows up, perhaps surprised by the answer.
  71. > "Ah."
  72. > Or maybe he just has no idea what to say next to a group of three mares.
  73. > You glance down at what's left of your own meal, pushing a couple of cherry tomatoes around with your muzzle.
  74. > Glamerspear had insisted that she take you out dress-shopping this morning, but what was even the point?
  75. > The Gala would be over almost as soon as it started, and nopony would notice the brown mare drinking in the corner, no matter what she was wearing.
  76. > Castlerook would be too busy on duty to hang out with you.
  77. > Was he ready to make a real move on you if he wasn't, though?
  79. > The Gala took up a lot of the palace rooms, but not so many that rumours didn't always swirl about couples disappearing for an hour or two.
  80. > "... And, uh, what are you guys, like a platoon or something? Palace security?"
  81. > Ebonshield's colt of the hour lets out another question.
  82. > You can see Glamerspear's eyes go even wider, and you can practically hear her teeth grinding against each other.
  83. > Sparkshower, at least, is returning to a normal colour, though she's still focusing on her own plate.
  84. > They'd been public just now, but last night Eb and this colt had *not* been quiet.
  85. > Much as you're glad to not be hung over this morning, a little booze might've actually allowed you to sleep through your own frustrations and your neighbour's noisy emanations.
  86. > Sparkshower shared the other wall with the Sergeant, so she must've heard every grunt and moan, too.
  87. > Maybe that's why she took off somewhere early this morning before anypony else woke up.
  88. > With one of the tomatoes in your mouth, you lift your head back up and look over at the colt.
  89. "We're VIP bodyguards for a palace dignitary."
  90. > He nods, happy to at least have an answer, however terse.
  91. > "Oh, that's pretty cool. Who is it?"
  92. > You shake your head.
  93. "Can't say."
  94. > Smirking as if he's in on the joke, he lifts a hoof and taps it on his muzzle.
  95. > "Ahh, heh, yeah, I get it, top secret stuff, heh."
  96. > Apparently pleased with your answer, he takes a moment to glance around the dining hall.
  97. > You leave him to his inspection and look down the row at Sparkshower.
  98. "Hey, Sparkshower..."
  99. > With just small patches of red left on her cheeks, she silently looks up, mouth full of omelette.
  100. "... Where did you scurry off to earlier this morning?"
  101. > Your question erases the final traces of scandalized shock and allows something resembling a smile to show itself.
  102. > "Oh, I went to the post office, Corporal. I wanted to catch the first mail delivery of the day."
  104. > She doesn't volunteer any more, so you just reply with a knowing nod.
  105. > Must've written another letter to her coltfriend.
  106. > She seems chipper enough about it, but maybe she's putting on an air.
  107. > If she really was happy, she's chatty enough to have gone on to talk about the letter a bit.
  108. > A few moments pass in relative silence, with just the background hum and buzz of a few dozen other palace servants and a couple of guards who, like your gang, were a little too sleepy-faced to make their way all the way over to the barracks mess hall, and had chosen to grab a quick breakfast closer by.
  109. > The place has a calming effect on you, which is a bit strange.
  110. > A regular pony would be excited.
  111. > New dress!
  112. > Big gala!
  113. > Getting back in the dating scene with an old flame!
  114. > Not you, though.
  115. > And it just doesn't feel *right*.
  116. > Nothing really seems to any more.
  117. > Except when you're on duty, that is.
  118. > The Royal Engineer was probably the strangest Very Important Pony who'd ever been served by the Royal Guard.
  119. > And he wasn't even a pony.
  120. > But, despite being almost completely focused on his own affairs, he was still a pretty surprisingly considerate employer.
  121. > It would even be fair to call him charming.
  122. > Who else would send flowers and apology to a guard after an argument that she started?
  123. > Or ask his retainers to do anything more than just stand around and look tough, or maybe intimidate some plebs on his behalf?
  124. > "Hey, so uh, heh, maybe this is a long shot, but..."
  125. > Ebonshield sure picked a talkative colt.
  126. > Didn't she say she liked it when they were noisy, though?
  127. > Last week during that drink-and-meet?
  128. > It's all a bit hazy.
  129. > With a dung-eating grin on his face, the novice wizard waggles his hooves out in front of him.
  130. > "... Do any of you mares *also* play Hyperspace Hyperwars?"
  132. > Before you can reflect on what that implies about Eb's activities at the frat party last night, Glamerspear bursts up in her seat.
  133. > "Oh for Celestia's sake! NO, we don't play Hyperspace Hyperwars, or Ogres & Oubliettes, or Dragons & Dragons, or Friendship: The Conclave, or any of that nerdy crap!"
  134. > Gritting her teeth and sitting up high, she looms maniacally over the shocked young colt.
  135. > "... You aren't mister magic-hooves with the mares, you're not our friend, you're not even supposed to be eating here in the servants' mess! You're a just our Sergeant's latest stud. And we don't wanna hear about it, okay?! So just lay off!"
  136. > After that rant, she takes a deep breath, and her snoot seems to finally unscrunch itself a little bit.
  137. > You lift an eyebrow and lean over.
  138. "You know, for someone who's not into 'nerdy crap', Glamerspear, you sure seem to know the terminology pretty well."
  139. > That gets you an incensed glare from the Specialist.
  140. > "I have *three* brothers. And they were all into that stuff when I was growing up..."
  141. > Shaking her head, she rolls her eyes up and stares at the ceiling.
  142. > ".. You would not be-lieeeve how often I got told to 'play nice' with them and join in whatever flavour-of-the-week nonsense game they were into."
  143. > Eb's colt-toy proceeds to say precisely the worst thing he possibly could say at this moment.
  144. > "So you *have* played Hyperspace Hyperwars? We actually run regular campaign sessions on Friday nights, and we have some free tables that could use a few more players, if you're interested..."
  145. > You swear you can see smoke starting to come out of Glamerspear's ears.
  146. > Forget awkward, this is hilarious.
  147. > "... If you don't have an army, I know Chad -- Chad Thunderhorn, he's graduating this year -- is looking to sell some of his collection. I think he's got-"
  148. > "SHUT UP, DWEEB!"
  150. > Cringing, Lily throws her hooves up to her head.
  151. > "... Just, stop talking already! Celestia, I've got a bad enough headache as it is from last night without you upgrading it to a migraine with your crap."
  152. > A headache from last night?
  153. > Her room's not adjacent Sergeant Ebonshield's, so she shouldn't have been too bothered.
  154. > Besides, if she really wanted to shut out the noise she probably knew a spell to shut out sound.
  155. > It was one of those common utility spells every unicorn seemed to pick up for when they needed a moment of peace, or some time to commiserate in private.
  156. "What happened last night?"
  157. > Glamerspear scoffs.
  158. > "Guh! What happened was me wracking my brains to try to figure out how that Ignacio guy pulled off his trick back in the you-know-where. You saw me with that 'De Magia Unicornis' book out, didn't you? I was up reading that thing until after midnight."
  159. > Oh, so that's what this is all about.
  160. > She's probably not actually that frustrated about Sergeant Ebonshield getting laid or having the Sarge's leftovers hanging around past their welcome.
  161. > Just like when she tried to power through the manaburn, it's not the personal, but the professional problem that's driving her up the wall.
  162. > Releasing her head, Glamerspear gestures in frustration with her forehooves.
  163. > "... It's infuriating! I've almost finished reading that thing from cover to cover, but I'm still coming up empty on how he managed that sorcery. Gah!"
  164. > You don't really know what to say; sure, you knew a bit about unicorn magic, but not enough to have any kind of real discussion on spells.
  165. > What the batpony 'Balladeer of Ghosts' had done was unlike anything the Royal Guard's unicorns performed, at least as far as you knew.
  166. > The other horny-pony at the table, apparently still not quite getting Specialist Glamerspear's unsubtle 'hint' to keep quiet, pipes up.
  167. > "Uh, what -- what was this sorcery?"
  169. > You've got to give the colt credit -- he's tenacious.
  170. > Probably explains why he was able to overlook "Miss Purity's" bat-wings, foreign accent, and alien grasp of Equestrian culture.
  171. > Then again, despite her age she was a good-looking mare and probably a pretty aggressive pick-up artist, too.
  172. > Glamerspear scrunches up her face, her horn glowing, and looks half ready to blast Eb's colt-toy out out of his chair.
  173. > "Grrr..."
  174. > Suddenly, her horn-light winks off, yet somehow it feels like things just got more dangerous.
  175. > "... OKAY, college colt, you wanna hear the details? Try this brain teaser on for size:"
  176. > She tries to put on a mean smirk through her angry-face, resulting in a really strange-looking grimace.
  177. > Wearing it all the same, she lays everything out for the colt who didn't know when to quit.
  178. > "... A blind sorcerer stands in front of a big sandpit in an arena. A creature, of a type and example that he's never encountered before, walks into the room, and within just a minute or two, the blind sorcerer magically sculpts a pile of sand to not just *look* like the creature, but to move gracefully just like they would. All without touching or speaking or interacting or even getting closer than a hundred hooves to the subject. How'd he do it?"
  179. > The young Schola student tilts his head sideways, frowning.
  180. > "Is the sand-pit magical in any way?"
  181. > Glamerspear shakes her head.
  182. > Somehow, restating the problem out loud for another mind seems to have brought down her temper a bit.
  183. > "No -- not as far as I could tell, anyways, and I'm pretty good at aura-sensing."
  184. > Grinning, she wiggles her eyebrows.
  185. > "... Oh, and not only has the blind-sorcerer never encountered the creature before, but the creature is just standing there the whole time -- the sorcerer makes his sand-pile move in ways that the creature *could*, but *hasn't*, know what I mean?"
  186. > Tapping a hoof against his chin, the colt nods.
  187. > "Yeah, yeah, I get it... This really happened?"
  189. > She *almost* manages a smile as she points at you and Sparkshower.
  190. > "Uh-huh. They were there, and so was 'Miss Purity', too. So what's your answer, mister college colt?"
  191. > After a few more moments of hemming and hawing, the young wizard lets out a sigh.
  192. > "I... I dunno. Building a golem that looks like a subject usually takes a lot of time and preparation, and requires the mage to examine the subject to be copied. To make it actually *behave* like a subject requires that the mage collect a piece of them, too -- usually a bit of hair or fur."
  193. > Shrugging his shoulders, he shakes his head.
  194. > "... I dunno, maybe there's some way even a blind mage could use magic to shape a copy of something. But when you say the golem 'moved' like the creature, what do you mean? Did it talk like the subject?"
  195. > "No, it just howled and groan. It was combat training -- 'Miss Purity' duelled with the sand-thing, and it moved and fought like the real one could have."
  196. > The colt narrows his eyes.
  197. > "'Could have', hmm... Almost sounds like Method Magic."
  198. > The what now?
  199. > Even Glamerspear seems confused.
  200. > "*What* magic?"
  201. > "Method Magic; they teach it in first year. It's the idea that magical spells should work 'as if' they were the real thing...."
  202. > Smiling, he continues.
  203. > "... You know, like how a magical fireworks spell behaves *as if* it was real fireworks going off."
  204. > Your unicorn squadmade scowls.
  205. > "Well, *duh*, it's a magical fireworks spell."
  206. > The colt shakes his head.
  207. > "Yeah, but it's more complicated than that. Look, I'm not really -- I did okay in that class, but I'm maybe not the best pony to explain it. In Constantine Gloriousson's 'The Method', a mage uses their own life experience to create spells. The goal is to recall real things similar to what they desire to create, and then mentally import that reality to craft the finished spell..."
  209. > Raising an eyebrow, he lays one hoof on the table.
  210. > "... So, even though your blind mage had never met this creature before, maybe they had encountered -- or just been described -- something similar enough to base the sand-copy on?"
  211. > Glamerspear thinks for a second, then dryly dismisses him.
  212. > "Except that the mage is *blind*. He didn't even really realize the creature was in the room -- we all entered as a group along with it -- and later, when the mage met the creature afterwards, he was surprised to realize its actual height."
  213. > There goes that theory, then, you suppose.
  214. > "Oh, hmm... Uh... Maybe he used Ray Casting, then? Though I'm not sure how..."
  215. > Glamerspear doesn't look optimistic.
  216. > "This another first-year-university abstract magical theorem? The sand-sculpting mage wasn't fresh out of the Schola, ya know."
  217. > Before she can shut him off, he protests.
  218. > "No, no! This is really interesting stuff! You haven't heard of Ray Casting? It's really cool!"
  219. > She scoffs back at him.
  220. > "What, like an elementalist's Scorching Ray? Kid, I'm in the Royal Guard. I might be a conjurer who never attended mage school, but I know how the Schools of Magic work -- and I've seen plenty of Scorching Rays get let off; even tried it once or twice myself."
  221. > That gets a chuckle out of the colt.
  222. > "No, it's not like that at all. Maybe it's not the best name, but Ray Casting, as described by Bearapple, is the idea that we can't observe anything directly; we can only observe stuff by bouncing something off of it..."
  223. > He taps his hoof on the dining table.
  224. > "... Like, when we look at this, we're not directly observing *the wooden table*, because the table isn't actually doing anything itself. His proposal was that we are really just seeing the *sunlight* coming in from the window and *bouncing* off of it."
  225. > That's an interesting concept.
  226. "Like an echo?"
  228. > Leaning over to look past Glamerspear at you, the colt smiles even more.
  229. > "Just like an echo! But with light in this case, instead of sound. Anyways, the idea is that if you want to make someone believe there's a table in front of them, you don't have to actually *make* a table, you just have to make something that 'reflects' light, echoes sound, and pushes back against pressure like a table would."
  230. > Glamerspear rolls her eyes.
  231. > "You're just using fancy words to describe what an illusionist does anytime they cast a spell. How'd the *blind* mage know how the creature 'reflected' light, if the mage couldn't *see*?"
  232. > And there goes the young wizard's smile.
  233. > "Oh, right..."
  234. > It seems that Glamerspear's puzzle probably won't be solved by a first-year Schola student with just a bunch of introductory classes under his saddle.
  235. > You can't really fault his trying, though.
  236. > Most ponies in the Royal Guard come out of 'shoe camp thinking they know everything and that they can fix anything if they put their mind to it, too.
  237. > Yourself included.
  238. > Scritching awkwardly at his crest, the colt shakes his head.
  239. > "... I guess... none of the things I can think of really work if he's blind. But, I mean, if *he's* blind, and didn't use magic to overcome that blindness, then maybe he got help from somepony... or some-*thing*, like a spirit... that *could* see the creature?"
  240. > In a final blow, Glamerspear shakes her head again.
  241. > "That still doesn't explain how he made the sand move without seeing the creature move."
  242. > The colt looks defeated.
  243. > "I... yeah. Even the spirit animating a golem needs a link to the original creature to make it act like the original. I guess I'm stumped, too. Sorry."
  245. > Glamerspear chuckles amiably.
  246. > You wonder if she didn't really just need somepony to talk to about this -- even if it was somepony who maybe knew even less than she did.
  247. > "Aw, don't whip yourself over it, kiddo. An old mage like that one has got a ton of tricks up his robes, ya know. You'll start picking up some tricks yourself, too, when you graduate.."
  248. > Taking a deep breath, she leans back in her chair.
  249. > "... Anyways, I need to get my mind off of that problem for a bit. Corporal, you all ready to go dress shopping? Stores'll be opening in an hour or two. Didya want to get your mane done up or anything first?"
  250. > Excuse you?
  251. "Something wrong with my hair, now?"
  252. > Smirking slyly, she squeezes her shoulders together.
  253. > "Well, not *wrong*, just, a braid is kinda plain. You've got all that mane, but you just keep it bundled up all the time. Don't you want to do something more extravagant for the big party? And if you do, then we should get a sampler done of it now so it'll be easier to pick a dress that goes with it."
  254. > You shake your head.
  255. "Just the dress and some makeup will do fine. I'm not looking to win a pageant."
  256. > She wiggles her eyebrows at you.
  257. > "Not with *that* attitude. I keep telling ya, Honour, a little effort'll go a long way. Look at Sparkshower, over there, *she's* gonna have her mane done up special and Canterlot-like even though her coltfriend's from country-town Berry."
  258. > The pegasus in question leans forward to look down the table with a smile on her face.
  259. > "Oh, no, Huckleberry Pudding won't be coming to the Gala after all."
  260. > What?
  261. > It's genuinely disturbing that she seems pleased to say that, after how upset she was about him not replying before.
  262. > What's going on?
  264. > Glamerspear frowns and turns around.
  265. > "Whaddya mean he's not coming? You invited him, didn't you? Did that lame-o turn down a ticket to the Gala?"
  266. > Still smiling, Sparkshower shakes her head.
  267. > "He didn't turn it down, no -- but I knew he would, so I told him he didn't have to worry about trying to figure out how to tell me 'no', and that I understood. That was what I mailed to him this morning!"
  268. > Awfully generous of her.
  269. > Glamerspear scoffs.
  270. > "Whaaa? But what about wanting to dance around the Grand Galloping Gala's Great Maypole, and stuff like that? You're just gonna let this chance slip you by, because your colt won't make the trip up to Canterlot?"
  271. > Sparkshower shakes her head again, *still* smiling.
  272. > "Of course not! I knew he wouldn't come, but I still wanted to do those things, so I asked somepony else!"
  273. > Uh-oh.
  274. > You have a bad feeling about this.
  275. > Beaming broadly and bouncing happily in her seat, Sparkshower drops the bomb.
  276. > "... I asked the Royal Engineer if he would like to dance the Maypole with me, and he agreed!"
  277. > Glamerspear's chin hits the table just as you slowly bring a hoof up to your forehead.
  278. > "... Isn't he a generous gentlecolt?"
  279. > Of course, after an awkward evening and an awkward night and an awkward breakfast, why not finish it off with an awkward social catastrophe.
  280. > Glamerspear is so shocked she actually goes quiet.
  281. > And Sparkshower is so completely unaware of what she's done, she doesn't even recognize the sudden silence as a possible clue that maybe she's made a mistake.
  282. > Looks like it's up to you.
  283. > Rubbing your forehead, you check the facts first.
  284. "Artemis. You asked the Royal Engineer to dance the Maypole with you, and when he accepted, wrote a letter telling your long-distance coltfriend that he didn't need to come because you found another dance-partner?"
  285. > You receive an eager nod in response.
  286. > "Yup! Everything's so much simpler this way, isn't it?"
  288. > No, you foalish young mare, everything's just become much more complicated.
  289. > Especially since it's too late to stop the seven-thirty mail from going out.
  290. "You do realize that the Maypole is normally danced by *lovers*, Sparkshower?"
  291. > The faintest hint of concern appears on her face.
  292. > "Yes, but... you said the Royal Engineer wasn't interested in that! And he didn't make a big deal out of it, either."
  293. > You look Sparkshower right in the eyes.
  294. "Did you *tell* him it's normally a dance for young couples?"
  295. > The smile disappears, and she licks her lips.
  296. > "Not... *exactly*. I told him it was a traditional Equestrian spring tradition. He was worried he would mess up the dance steps, but I told him that it was very easy and that they always began the dance slowly with instructions for first-time participants!"
  297. > She knows she bent the rules a bit, but she still doesn't see the real problem.
  298. "And did you tell your coltfriend you were going to be dancing the Maypole with your *VIP*?"
  299. > Sure enough, she nods.
  300. > "Yeah, of course!"
  301. > You really don't know what to do in the face of her incredible innocence.
  302. > Glamerspear picks up the slack, bursting out.
  303. > "SPARKS! You just sent a letter to your coltfriend telling him that you don't need him to come to Canterlot for the Gala, because you have a new lover now!"
  304. > The pegasus' brow drops, and she looks puzzled.
  305. > "I... no, I didn't write it like that, and Huckleberry won't think that -- I made it clear that Anonymous was a gentlecolt and-"
  306. > Glamerspear stands on her hind hooves and leans over across Ebonshield's colt-toy to get up in Sparkshower's muzzle.
  307. > "EVEN WORSE! Not only is he richer than your Huckleberry, more important than your Huckleberry, more *available* than your Huckleberry, he's also more *considerate* than your Huckleberry! Sparks, you just dumped your coltfriend by mail!"
  308. > You start to see tears form at the corner of Sparkshower's eyes.
  309. > "But... but..."
  311. > Glamerspear relents when she sees the pegasus start to turn, but, unfortunately, you can't leave it just at that.
  312. > There's an even bigger problem she's not seeing.
  313. "Sparkshower, the Royal Engineer may not be well-known *yet*, but he's still a member of the Blue Council, and the Grand Galloping Gala is heavily covered by the press. If he innocently gets you a ticket to the opera as a *partner* instead of making you stand in the hallway as a *guard* on a cheap Thursday night revival, nopony will really notice. If he gets you a ticket to attend the *Gala*, that's not really a big deal either since everypony will just think him eccentric or generous for having invited all of his guards..."
  314. > Her teary eyes go wide as you push the dagger in.
  315. "... But if you dance the *Maypole* with him, at the Gala, in full view of everypony else, then ponies *will* assume you're a committed couple."
  316. > Sparkshower's jaw starts to quiver, and you're forced to twist the dagger, too.
  317. > There can be no half-measures with something this serious.
  318. "... And what's worse, he won't even realize it, because you knowingly concealed the truth from him."
  319. > The waterworks start on schedule.
  320. > "BUHHAHWAAAAAAAAAaaaa! No-n-n-nooooo-I-I-I-Ididntmeaaannnitlikethat. I jus- I jus- I jus thought that- that- that- this wuh-wuh-waaayyy my Huckleberry wouldn-wouldn't have to- to-Oh, my Huckleberry! Buhwaaaaaa!"
  321. > Brusquely shoving Ebonshield's hapless colt-toy out of the way so hard that his chair falls backwards onto the floor, Glamerspear clambers over in a rush to comfort her pegasus comrade.
  322. > The pink unicorn gently pats Sparkshower's crest as she sobs away.
  323. > ".... I muh-muh-muh-miss hiim sooooo much an-an-an I jus- I jus- I jus- wanna make him haaaaaapppyyyyyy-wuhuhuhahaaaa..."
  324. > You'd go over and comfort, too, but you're too stunned by the sudden arrival back in the dining room of Sergeant Ebonshield.
  325. > The Tartarus?
  326. > It's quarter after eight!
  327. > She's supposed to be on duty right now.
  329. "Sarge? What are you doing here? Is something wrong?"
  330. > Surveying the scene of carnage before her -- overturned dining chair, young wizard colt sprawled on the ground not understanding what's going on, Sparkshower bawling against Glamerspear's tuft -- the Sergeant is momentarily at a loss for words.
  331. > "I... ah. I have just come from the office of the Engineer Royal..."
  332. > Everypony looks up at her -- even Sparkshower manages to hold back her tears for a moment.
  333. > "... He said he was actually hoping that the Specialist Glamerspear would be on shift this morning, as he would greatly value her advice in the selection of a fashionable calling-card design. And he hoped that the Corporal Bound would accompany him and provide advice as well."
  334. > That's actually not very surprising.
  335. > Glamerspear, having already served as the Royal Engineer's fashion consultant, should probably have considered that Anonymous' number-one priority would be the situation with Major-General Hoofstrong before swapping shifts with Ebonshield.
  336. > And you've been serving as the Royal Engineer's etiquette coach, too.
  337. > Still unsure of what exactly has just happened, the Sergeant continues.
  338. > "... I informed him that you two were planning to make purchases for the Gala today, and he was most appreciative of the need to properly outfit the Corporal Bound. But he wondered if he might accompany you so that the trips might be combined, provided you would not find it intrusive..."
  339. > Lifting her eyebrows, she looks at you.
  340. > "... This is what I have returned to inquire."
  341. > Well.
  342. > It seems 'awkward' is not quite done with you yet.
  344. Suggested interlude music: (Ariana Grande - 'Problem' [2014])
  349. > You are the Estelar Siete Pureza Ébanoscudo, and you are not quite sure what has just happened.
  350. > Your current lover, a young unicorn colt from the Schola Magia of Canterlot, has been knocked out of his chair and is only now recovering.
  351. > The Specialist Artemisa Sparkshower has been raining tears against the tuft of the Specialist Lirio Glamerspear.
  352. > And the Corporal Honouria Bound looks somewhat displeased at the Engineer Royal's suggestion of combining the shopping voyages.
  353. > That last one, at least, is perhaps understandable.
  354. > Honour turns to exchange silent glances with Glamerspear, so you attend to your poor bowled-over colt.
  355. "Are you alright, Gilberto? Do you need help?"
  356. > Sitting up, he brushes off his grey cloak.
  357. > "No thank-you, Miss Purity. I'm all right."
  358. > Such a polite young colt.
  359. > You have done well to pick this example out of the crowd at 'Earthquake'.
  360. > But now is really not the time to be thinking of play -- it is time to work.
  361. "Chico, have you finished your breakfast? Perhaps it would be best if you left us mares to our business now, yes? You can find your way in the palace, I think?"
  362. > He nods with a broad smile.
  363. > "Sure thing, Miss Purity... I'll see you around later?"
  364. > You smile back.
  365. "Of course, Gilberto Corazón-de-León. I am not finished with you quite yet..."
  366. > Oh, indeed.
  367. > There is much still that this young colt must be taught.
  368. > And these are things which the 'Schola Magia' will surely not have in its curriculum.
  369. "... I will be in touch."
  370. > With his head in the stars, he trots out of the breakfast hall of the servants, and you watch him go.
  371. > He does not have quite the fittest of plots, but he is clever and he does not lack for enthusiasm.
  372. > Good material with which to mold into a fabulous colt.
  373. > Fortunate and overjoyed indeed will be the mare who eventually takes that hoof after his time under your tutelage.
  375. > As you turn around again to face the quaternion, you find Glamerspear shaking her head at you.
  376. > "You have him call you 'Miss Purity'? Seriously?"
  377. > What names you and your pet give each other is really not worth talking about at this moment, so you merely bat your eyelids and smile.
  378. > Glamerspear rolls her eyes in response.
  379. > Artemisa, at least, has stopped crying and now releases herself from her comrade's grasp, whereupon the unicorn turns towards Honoria, waving her forehoof.
  380. > "... Anyways, it's your call, Corporal. You'll be the one trying stuff on for an audience."
  381. > Honour shakes her head, sighing.
  382. > "What choice do I have? If the Royal Engineer wants to come along, then he comes along."
  383. > This answer does not please the unicorn.
  384. > "Whaddya mean, 'what choice do I have'? You and I aren't on duty -- we're just backup, in case he needs the full squad to represent. It won't take long, either -- we can reply that we'll go calling-card-shopping with him in the afternoon."
  385. > Honour sighs again.
  386. > "It doesn't work that way, Glamerspear. When you're in the VIP service, what your VIP wants from you, they get."
  387. > There is a certain tone to her voice which suggests to you that Equestria of today has not entirely abandoned the hospitality ways of the times ancient.
  388. > However, Glamerspear is taken aback by the suggestion.
  389. > "Oh, come *ON*, Corporal! We're his *bodyguards*, not his *friends* or his *slaves*..."
  390. > It seems to you that you have been much more than mere bodyguards to the Engineer Royal.
  391. > Perhaps acknowledging this, Lily shrugs and softens her expression.
  392. > "... I mean, don't get me wrong, I like our VIP -- I like him a lot. He's the reason this job has been way more interesting than the snooze-fest I thought it would be! And I know he's the whole reason we're going out shopping, too, 'cause without him we wouldn't have Gala tickets at all! But that doesn't mean we have to let him stroll right into our private lives if we don't want to."
  394. > You decide that your present employer needs to have his intentions reiterated.
  395. "Corporal, the Engineer Royal will certainly understand if you decline. He was very humble in that he did not wish to be an 'inconvenience'."
  396. > Strangely, your attempt to make it easier for her to say 'no' seems only to have made her more upset.
  397. > "It's not like that, Sergeant. Just by having asked for this service, we're not technically allowed to honourably refuse him..."
  398. > She shakes her head again, more rapidly this time, and lightly bangs a forehoof on the table.
  399. > "... Damn it! This is like when he had the movers in without any of us around. He just doesn't *get* how Equestrian society works."
  400. > Sniffling back her final tears, the pegasus Sparkshower raises her head.
  401. > "Isn't that why he needs us in the first place?"
  402. > Glamerspear shrugs, but Corporal Bound fixes your young comrade in her gaze.
  403. > "Sparkshower. You need come up with a proper way to apologize and explain the Maypole situation to Anonymous..."
  404. > The Corporal gets out of her seat and stands on her four hooves, admonishing the Specialist.
  405. > "... *Deceiving* like that could get you thrown out of the VIP corps, and knocked down to Private on the way out, for Celestia's sake -- so you'd better get things cleared up before Temper Vi hears about it. That means this evening, during your next shift. I don't know what you were thinking."
  406. > Full of remorse, the pegasus sniffles again.
  407. > "I- I guess I wasn't."
  408. > Curious.
  409. > What exactly has she done?
  410. > Lied to Anonymous?
  411. > Or, perhaps, failed to tell him something?
  412. > And what is this Maypole?
  413. > Questions for later.
  414. > Honour sighs again.
  415. > "If Anonymous wants to come along while I buy a dress, then he may as well. It'll save us all some travel time, at least..."
  416. > She turns towards you.
  417. > "... Sergeant, you're relieved. Take Sparkshower back to our quarters, will you? Glamerspear and I will take this shift with the Royal Engineer."
  419. > She does not seem pleased with her decision.
  420. "Corporal, I do not understand -- you say with one face that you cannot refuse Anonymous despite his own wishes because of certain rules, and yet with the other you have admonished me for making certain proposals of service to him which you called archaic. What is the matter?"
  421. > She takes a deep breath.
  422. > "It's simple and complicated at the same time..."
  423. > Stepping close so that she doesn't have to speak up, she continues as she beckons you all to gather together.
  424. > Even Sparkshower and Glamerspear are paying attention.
  425. > "... You propositioned Anonymous, which, like I said before, is something that's not *done* in the Royal Guard VIP corps any more -- it hasn't been done in I don't know how long..."
  426. > She swallows.
  427. > "... *But*, *technically*, the way the rules are written in the supplementary contract that we all signed when we took this posting, if a VIP wanted that kind of 'service' -- or anything else -- we're obligated to give it to them."
  428. > Specialist Glamerspear interjects immediately.
  429. > "That's mino-shit, Honour. You know damn well nopony would get punished for refusing *sex* to a VIP..."
  430. > A curious attitude from one who deliberately desires to be the mistress of the rich and powerful.
  431. > Exactly the kind of Equestrians who are entitled to such a service as you are presently engaged.
  432. > The unicorn chuckles before continuing.
  433. > "... Not that *I'd* probably refuse, heh... And it's not like there'd be any real consequences if one of 'em tried to pressure a guard into it, either. But while Lieutenant Vi may be 'by the book', she's not *that* by the book. She knows the difference between rules that can and can't actually be enforced..."
  434. > Lifting her eyebrows, she laughs awkwardly.
  435. > "... You can't seriously be afraid of getting ninja-punched -- or even court-martialed! -- for turning down sex."
  437. > Honour is collected with her reply.
  438. > "Of course not. But what about something more innocent -- something like this?"
  439. > Glamerspear continues to be dismissive.
  440. > "Maybe if he reported it -- maybe. But he's the one asking politely if we wouldn't mind letting him tag along! Why would he complain to the L-T if you say no?"
  441. > Even though it is not how things are among the Children, what the Specialist says does make sense to you.
  442. > You are not intimately familiar with the laws of Equestria, but it is clear that there is a considerable divide between what is inked on paper and what is true.
  443. > A paper with words on it is only as binding as the wills of those who wish to enforce its truth -- and when those wills no longer care for it, it is as good as stricken.
  444. > Why, then, does the Corporal insist on following only what is written?
  445. > Your unicorn comrade shrugs her shoulders and waves her forehooves comically around her head.
  446. > "... What, d'you think he's gonna suddenly turn heel like some kind of pantomime villain? Slap on a big novelty moustache so he can twirl it with his hooves -- his hands, I mean?"
  447. > It is clear from how she looks away, deflated, that Honour has no strong answer to this.
  448. > "Maybe not, but he's not the only one watching."
  449. > Hmm...
  450. > It sounds to you like the Corporal Bound is afraid of the shadows; a common fear among young Children of the Stars -- and even many adults.
  451. > Except that perhaps for her, the shadows do not attend in the dark tunnels beneath the surface, but rather within the hearts of those around her.
  452. > Yes, the pieces begin to fall together for you now.
  453. > For such a pony, there is no convincing with words; experiences alone will allow them to trust again.
  455. > You decide to take a chance and force the issue while the others are too baffled by her response to say anything.
  456. "It seems to me that what the Corporal Bound says has merit. Specialist Glamerspear, you and the Corporal must without delay attend to the Engineer Royal so that a dress and calling-card both of excellent quality can be procured today..."
  457. > Turning towards Specialist Sparkshower, you extend a wing-tip to point.
  458. "... I will escort the Specialist Sparkshower back to our quarters and see that she prepares also an excellent apologia for her misdeeds. Mother willing, we may be forgiven the delay imposed by this discussion most frivolous."
  459. > You receive very strange looks from your three comrades, but you maintain your composure and eventually they all nod and agree to do as you said.
  460. > Though it is clear that for the Specialist Glamerspear, there were several things you have forced her to leave unsaid.
  461. > Despite this, she leaves with her Corporal in tow.
  462. > Which leaves only you and the Specialist Sparkshower now.
  463. > You step up beside her and extend a wing over her back as you lead her out of the dining hall after her other comrades.
  464. "... Now, then, Artemisa. What is this matter so serious which requires an apology to the Engineer Royal?"
  465. > She swallows, following along.
  466. > "I asked him to dance the Maypole with me, because I was afraid my Puddin' wasn't going to come to the Gala... and I didn't tell Anonymous that it's a dance for young ponies in love."
  467. > Ah!
  468. > It seems this is a day for the mending of hearts.
  469. > For the Specialist Sparkshower, perhaps something more immediate may be done.
  470. > For the Corporal Bound, you think, it will require more skillful work.
  471. > May the Mother of Stars bless your endeavours!
  476. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and thundershowers, hailstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes!
  477. > Somehow, none of the curse-words of the civilian Airborne Weather and Climate Service you commonly rely on can match the enormity of what you've done.
  478. > And what a stain on your old unit's honour, too!
  479. > Equestria's illustrious 1st Pegasus Division: 'No Mission Too Difficult, No Sacrifice Too Great. Duty First'.
  480. > You certainly hadn't put 'duty first' last night.
  481. > And what about your particular group, the 4th Armoured Regiment?
  482. > 'Prepared and Loyal'
  483. > Loyalty!
  484. > To your own selfish desires, maybe!
  485. > Oh, blizzards!
  486. > How were you going to make this right?
  487. > *Could* you even make this right?
  488. > The grand corridors of Canterlot Palace seem to close in on you, like physical manifestations of your guilt.
  489. > Lavender-and-gold wainscoted walls, usually reassuring and mystical, now feel cold and stern.
  490. > Red-carpeted marble floors, opulent and serene, now carry whispers against you.
  491. > And the vaulted ceilings loom overhead like your conscience.
  492. > Sergeant Ebonshield's leathery bat-wing, draped reassuringly over your withers as she leads you along, does help a bit.
  493. > It lets you know that she's not just going to leave you out to soak in the torrential downpour you've caused.
  494. > But the setup must look a bit silly to anyone who watches you go by, with the batpony being an inch shorter than you in the shoulders, and considerably more slenderly-built.
  495. > Then again, isn't that how you look when you're comforting your big, strong, Huckleberry Pudding, extending your own wing to cover his grassy-green back and blue overalls as you help him deal with another one of life's problems?
  496. > His pumpkin-orange mane bobbing against your cream feathers as he brings his head up high with your support?
  497. > His legs finding solid hoofing and a steady stride in even the thickest mud?
  499. > His powerful croup bobbing up and down with -- Oh, my.
  500. > You're not supposed to be thinking about your *Puddin'* right now, Artemis!
  501. > You're *supposed* to be thinking of what you've done to your *VIP*!
  502. > Taking a breath, you open your eyes wide and try to turn your thoughts away from how empty your bed has felt without your big, green cuddle-Huckle in it.
  503. > "It has been some time since you have been with your lover, has it not?"
  504. > Sleet-storms, was Lily right about batponies after all!?
  505. > Can they actually read minds?
  506. > Or... maybe your feelings for your absentee coltfriend are simply that obvious?
  507. > You glumly nod your head, and feel the Sergeant readjust her wing to wrap even more around you.
  508. > "... Oh, mi pobre Artemisita, how you have suffered..."
  509. > Rubbing her cheek against your neck, she leads you up the final staircase to your quarters.
  510. > "... Come now, let us make correct the pieces which have fallen apart at your hooves."
  511. > You lift your eyebrows and look over at her.
  512. "Do you really think the Royal Engineer will accept an apology?"
  513. > She smiles and pats your flank with her wing-tip.
  514. > "Of course, jaca! So long as you give it sincerely and with contrition, he will accept -- of this, I have no doubt..."
  515. > Reaching the hallway door to your shared quarters, she depresses the handle and pushes it open with one forehoof.
  516. > "... It is not this problem which troubles me, Artemisa, but the source of your mistake, instead."
  517. > Still leading you with a wing over your back, she flaps her free one and in a single sift motion sweeps the door shut again.
  518. > "... Come now and sit on the sofa, yes? And tell to mamá Ébanoscudo the story of you and this colt."
  519. > Trowal!
  520. > After you were just kicking yourself for thinking of Huckleberry instead of Anonymous, here's the Sergeant dismissing the latter and insisting you concentrate on the former!
  522. > The Sergeant releases you from her wing just in front of the centre cushion of the three-pony sofa, and waits with a gentle smile while you hesitantly take a seat.
  523. > Then, she steps over to the sideboard, fills a pair of cups from the water-jug, and sets them on the coffee table before cozily curling up in the club chair herself.
  524. > Still wearing the smile, she nods and motions for you to begin.
  525. > You're still feeling too depressed and confused to know what to do.
  526. "Uhm... Where... where should I start?"
  527. > The Sergeant chuckles.
  528. > "Why, at the beginning, of course! This 'Huckleberry Pudding', he is your first and only lover, yes?"
  529. > You nod, your hooves in your lap and your shoulders rolled inwards.
  530. "Y-yes..."
  531. > "And where did you meet this colt, then? Did he live always in your village?"
  532. > Nodding again, you rub your hooves together awkwardly.
  533. "Uh-huh. We, uhm, attended classes together. In Miss Magnolia's one-room schoolhouse. He was two years older than me. He still is."
  534. > She rolls her eyebrows and nods knowingly.
  535. > What does she read into *that*?
  536. > "Ahh... And sometimes you played together also as children, yes?"
  537. > With a furrowed brow, you nod again.
  538. "Uh-huh."
  539. > Ebonshield licks her lips and pauses before asking her next question.
  540. > "And... when did you first see him as not just another child with which to play, hmm?"
  541. > Oh, rain-squalls...
  542. > Sitting here and answering the Sergeant's questions may wind up being more uncomfortable than sitting before Lieutenant Temper Violetta and explaining why you thought it appropriate to dance the Maypole with your VIP at the Grand Galloping Gala.
  543. > But, at least here the Sergeant has your best interests at heart.
  544. > You have to really think back to remember when you first saw Huckleberry as more than a school-room playmate.
  545. "Uhm... I think... I think it was the year after I had my last, uhm, 'growth spurt'..."
  546. > Swallowing, you try to relax a bit.
  547. > It's not easy.
  549. "... Heh, momma said I turned from a little cumulus into a big cumulonimbus over the summer break..."
  550. > You chuckle awkwardly.
  551. > She really had said that.
  552. > It was only a joke, but at the time, when you were already one of the tallest ponies in the class, and by far the tallest pegasus, it made you feel like a real odd pony out.
  553. "... I was kinda feeling awkward and big and a little bit strange, and I was getting teased by the other fillies who were my age but hadn't yet grown as I had, while the older mares thought I was too young & childish to play with them..."
  554. > It's hard to remember that far back.
  555. > Sucking in your lips, you pick out the little strands that do come to mind, and gather them together to form a coherent thread.
  556. "... Huckleberry Pudding was the tallest & biggest earth pony in the class, and he was a bit picked on by the colts for it, too, and I guess I kinda... I kinda saw him as a sort of kindred spirit, you know? And I guess he did, too. We started sticking together more and more..."
  557. > What happened after the school year, however, is more clear.
  558. "... That summer, I barely left his flank. I did everything he did and went everywhere with him..."
  559. > Remembering a poignant moment at a late-summer festival, you sigh.
  560. "... It was for a whole sky full of reasons. I liked him, and he made me feel small again because he was even bigger, and he didn't mind me hanging around, and he was kind and gentle, and I liked helping him in the fields, and his family was nice, too, and I think I did it also just because it drove my mom & pop a bit crazy me wanting to be only with him & his kin for the whole season..."
  562. > The second school-year together, however, was a step further.
  563. "... That fall, the second year, I learned how to let him go a bit, because I needed some time alone or in the sky to do my own things. But I still had him in my thoughts, even high up pushing the cirrus clouds around working on the weekends. And I think that's when I started to stick on him, too..."
  564. > You smile as you remember that year's Hearth's Warming.
  565. "... He saved his bits and got me an awful big present for Hearth's Warming Day -- a camera, a 'Little Ludwig' number 2, model D..."
  566. > Clasping your hooves together up in the air, you gush a bit.
  567. "... Thirty-five millimetre film, integrated viewfinder & rangefinder, screw-thread interchangeable lenses, with thirty-five and one-hundred-and-five millimetre ones in the box. Oh, I must've taken a thousand photos a month with it, and I spent every last bit I had on film & development supplies..."
  568. > He'd thoughtfully -- and bravely! -- asked your dad for a gift suggestion in September, you'd learned later.
  569. > Knowing that Huck wasn't from a wealthy family (not that yours was particularly rich, either), your dad had made several cheaper suggestions.
  570. > But your stubborn Puddin' had managed to scrape enough bits to get you the latest model, with all the important accessories.
  571. > There's a photograph of you and Huckleberry on his graduation day in your room.
  572. > Your father took it, using your camera, after you'd taught him how.
  573. > You developed the film and printed the photo yourself.
  574. > Huckleberry has a print of it as well, in a frame you bought for him.
  575. > That wasn't all that happened that year, though.
  576. > Still feeling the same exhilarated rush you felt when you first got your hooves on that camera, you try to relax a bit.
  577. "... And that summer... After he'd graduated..."
  579. > Your gulp.
  580. "... On a hot, muggy July evening... after he'd been working the whole day cutting & bailing hay in the fields... and I'd been up in the sky pushing around clouds for bits & taking aerial photographs for fun..."
  581. > Licking your lips, you take another breath.
  582. "... I saw him relaxing in the shade behind the barn, and swooped down to say hello..."
  583. > It's getting a little difficult to stay focused.
  584. "... And... uhm... He was happy to see me, and I was happy to see him, and... uh..."
  585. > You stretch out your hind legs, swallowing again, and breathing heavily.
  586. "... Uh... and..."
  587. > Jeepers, it's hot in here for May.
  588. > Extending your wings, you fan yourself a bit.
  589. > Ought to crack open the windows in the bedrooms & bathroom.
  590. "... aaaand... Uhm, he, uh, he-he leaned in close, and he, uhm, he kissed me, and uh, I kissed back, and I hugged him... and he hugged back... and... and..."
  591. > Somehow, just thinking about that hot, steamy, sweaty day has caused the weather to manifest here in the common room.
  592. > And you're feeling just as awkward and aroused as you did on that day four years ago.
  593. "... And... And then... we took each others' virginity... With maybe a few, uhm... 'technical difficulties' along the way."
  594. > Whew.
  595. > You feel like a red-sun evening after an afternoon rainstorm.
  596. > Worn out and kind of clammy.
  597. > Sergeant Ebonshield has been sitting in the club chair this whole time, listening calmly, while you told the story of your first opposite-sex best-friend who turned into your crush who turned into your coltfriend who turned into your lover.
  598. > Feeling a bit spent from the ordeal, you look over and wonder what she's going to make of it all.
  599. "... Does that... answer your question, Sergeant?"
  600. > She nods.
  601. > "Oh, yes. It has given me a picture most clear of how your relationship began. And the next summer after this, when you yourself left school -- this is when you joined the Guardia Real?"
  603. > You nod.
  604. "Yes... I'd already been working part-time as a weather-pony in the AWACS, but I'd decided I wanted to do something more exciting. My dad had served a tour of duty in the Guard, and looked back on it fondly, so he supported me enlisting..."
  605. > Looking away, you remember some of the details of that process.
  606. > A lot of evenings spent poring over fliers, glossy brochures, testimonials, and contracts.
  607. > A lot of stories told of glory days in the Royal Guard.
  608. > A lot of mom crying tears of worry and a little bit of dad crying tears of pride, too.
  609. "... I enlisted to become an Armoured Scout because I was interested in it, and because there was a big bonus for pegasi -- they usually can't handle all the armour. But I had played offensive tackle in regional hoofball, the only pegasus on the fillies' team, and I won second place in the Hark County Aerial marathon the year I graduated & first place the year before, so I wasn't worried about bearing the weight or having to fly long distances..."
  610. > Taking a deep breath, you find yourself able to relax again.
  611. > Focusing on the job instead of your relationship problems does that to you.
  612. "... And the 4th Armoured Regiment has its headquarters just outside Cloudsdale, which is so close to Berry that I could fly home every weekend in just a couple of hours, if I hurried and if the wind was favourable. And I *did* get home every weekend, to see my family and my Huckleberry, whenever we weren't out on campaign."
  613. > Ebonshield bends over out of her comfy curled-up position to pick up her water-cup, and takes a sip.
  614. > That makes your throat feel pretty dry, too, so you do the same.
  615. > After a good long drink, you feel like you can finally relax a bit, so you slouch down a bit in the sofa, tucking your hind legs up behind you.
  616. > For servants' quarters furniture, it *is* pretty comfy.
  617. > "What made you wish to join the VIP service instead of remaining in the '1st Pegasus' which are so much closer to your home?"
  619. > That's an easy one to answer, at least.
  620. "The 4th Armoured Regiment HQ is just outside Cloudsdale, but it's still *in the clouds*, which means that it's not very accommodating for Earth Ponies. If we were married..."
  621. > It hurts a bit to say that word, wondering if it'll ever happen.
  622. "... then we'd have access to a small on-base house, but there wouldn't be a lot of work for him there. He'd have to get a lift to Cloudsdale or back down to the ground for his job. And there aren't a lot of opportunities for labourer Earth Ponies in Cloudsdale that aren't hazardous or back-breaking. Even just being an Earth Pony in the city can be dangerous; the clouds aren't always solid underhoof."
  623. > You were pretty sure Huckleberry Pudding was afraid of heights, too, but at least his objections to avoiding Cloudsdale you could understand -- it was his avoidance of your second choice that really confused & upset you.
  624. "... Canterlot is a lot easier. After serving the required time in my original regiment, I thought that taking a posting here would let us live together for whole weeks at a time, instead of just visiting on the weekends. And although it's a bit further, it's only a temporary posting. He was supposed to come and find a job and get comfortable with the city. Then I could try to transfer permanently to one of the regiments based here. There are armoured units in Canterlot, so it wouldn't be too hard. But it hasn't worked out..."
  625. > You trail off, not sure where to take the story next.
  626. > This is where the trouble really started.
  627. > The weekends back in Berry when you were in the 1st PD may have been inconsistently scheduled, their contents unplanned and spontaneous, but they worked.
  628. > It wasn't ideal, but you were happy.
  629. > He seemed happy, too.
  631. > This time, you came up with a plan and a way to satisfy all your needs, you'd thought.
  632. > Yours to stay in the Guard, a job which you genuinely enjoyed, and to be with your Puddin' at the same time.
  633. > His to have meaningful work in a safe, terrestrial environment and, you thought, to be with his 'Sparks'.
  634. > He'd agreed to the scheme, too -- or, at least, never expressed any doubts.
  635. > Surely not every mare had the same trouble with their own colt?
  636. > You look over at the batpony Sergeant First Class twice your age.
  637. "Did you ever have a problem like this with your... with *one* of your colts?"
  638. > Sighing, she glances away.
  639. > "Ah... No. I do not think so. But then again, for such relationships, there are great differences between those on the Moon and here in Equestria..."
  640. > Shaking her head, she continues.
  641. > "... Among the Rocks and the Dust, love of this kind is common, and among the Shadows even as well, but for the Stars and the Lunars, thought to be the finest examples of our race, love is more a matter of breeding..."
  642. > Ebonshield shrugs her eyebrows.
  643. > "... I have had many mates, and I have even loved a few of them, and sometimes been loved in return, despite the brevity of our encounters. But for the rest -- we were performing only our duty to our Houses and to the Children of the Stars as a whole. I have no regrets as to the results, but neither do I endorse the practice."
  644. > That sounds horrible!
  645. > Being *ordered* to mate with somepony -- somepony she maybe hadn't even met, or even heard about, and won't ever see again!
  646. > Is her reason for going out at night to find young colts half her age some kind of rebellion, then?
  647. > The same as when she defied her mother -- twice?
  648. > Or maybe she's just trying to have something she couldn't have before?
  649. "Is that why you do what you do, now? Go to Canterlot clubs to find young colts? To try and have a real relationship?"
  651. > Ebonshield laughs at your suggestion.
  652. > "Ohoho, no, no... 'Real' relationships, I should think, are built on strong foundations and take many months to construct..."
  653. > With a sly smile, she lifts her hind hooves up into the chair and turns sideways, curling herself up into a sort of ball, with her wings wrapped around her.
  654. > "... I am not completely past the age of physical breeding, but I am past the age where my House may demand my service, and anyways I have already given them plenty already. So, I am free to partner with whom I please..."
  655. > Bobbing her head sideways, she chuckles again.
  656. > "... And as for my selections, I think that because I am trying to be a *teacher* in the School of the Shining Stellar Dance, then I should also strive to be a teacher of all other subjects in which I am learned and proficient..."
  657. > Giggling, she rolls her shoulders and re-wraps herself in her wings.
  658. > "... Which includes those arts practiced in the bedroom. And who better to teach than the very inexperienced, that they find success later in life?"
  659. > She's picking up young colts just to teach them how to please mares in bed?
  660. > L-lewd...
  661. > Straining to keep your wings in check, you take another drink from your cup, then return the empty vessel to the coffee table.
  662. "So what do you think I should do? About my Puddin'?"
  663. > Emptying her own cup, she unfurls herself and places it down next to yours.
  664. > "Ah, what I think, Artemisa..."
  665. > With a smile, she gets up and trots over before sitting down beside you, taking your forehooves in hers.
  666. > "... What I think is that your love for this colt has endured for several years now, and it will survive a few weeks or months apart. Do not become discouraged. Do not give up. And do not *panic*. You are a soldier; you know that the greatest menaces on the battlefield are not the blades and the hooves of the enemy, but the fear and the panic within one's own ranks..."
  668. > That's true.
  669. > During the Battle of Newstirrup bridge, you were more afraid of what 'Joker' *might* do to you, than what he was actually able to do.
  670. > And in the end, when you overcame that fear, you defeated him.
  671. > Releasing your hooves, she looks you in the eyes, her muzzle directly in front of yours in her batpony fashion.
  672. > "... Therefore, prepare an apology and an explanation for the Engineer Royal, which you shall deliver tonight. And prepare also a letter to your querido saying that you shall not dance the dance of lovers without him, and that you wish very much for him to come to Canterlot, but otherwise you shall see him when your posting is complete, though your heart aches to say it..."
  673. > Lifting an eyebrow, she spreads one wing open away from you.
  674. > "... You have tried to reason with him, yes? And I wonder if you also have tried to cajole him, perhaps gently?"
  675. > You nod.
  676. > *Reasoning* was where you'd started.
  677. > *Cajoling* is where you've sort of arrived.
  678. > Although Glamerspear's suggestion that you deliberately broke up with Huckleberry was completely false, *Honour's* pointing out that ponies might take you and Anonymous for a couple hadn't completely escaped your mind when you'd sent the letter.
  679. > A part of you -- a mean, cruel, vengeful, part of you -- had *wanted* Huckleberry to read it that way, and to react accordingly.
  680. > That, more than anything else, had made you feel especially guilty about the whole affair.
  681. > Your head droops down with regret, but Sergeant Ebonshield brings her outstretched wing around and places its tip against your down-turned chin, lifting your snout back up.
  682. > "... What I wish for you to do, Artemisa, is try a new approach with your lover. I wish for you to try not for his mind, or for his jealousy, but instead to seize his *loins*..."
  683. > Uh...
  684. > "... I propose that in this letter, you must also inflame his passions, his desires, his *lust* for you. For he *does* lust after you, does he not? And you him?"
  686. > Hesitantly, not because it's untrue, but because it's awkward to admit, you nod your head.
  687. > She licks her lips and continues.
  688. > "... It is this emotional centre which you must attack; there, his defences will be weak, and his shield with break. You understand what I mean, yes?"
  689. > You *think* you do...
  690. "I *think* so..."
  691. > She narrows her eyes, sensing correctly that you actually don't.
  692. > "Chica. You will write to your lover a letter so provocative and salacious, so steamy with suggestion that the mail-ponies will have to deliver it with pliers lest it give them 'the little death' by its merest touch. ¿Comprende?"
  693. > L-lewd...
  694. > You nod your head, wondering what you're about to get into.
  695. > Ebonshield smiles broadly.
  696. > "... And I will help you with this, of course! The pillow-talk, you see, she is a speciality particular of mine."
  697. > Oh, my...
  699. Suggested interlude music: (Salma Hayek - 'Siente Mi Amor', as featured in 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico' [2003])
  704. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and finding a good dress for Corporal Bound is turning out to be harder than you thought.
  705. > It's not that there's a lack of availability -- there's still plenty of stock in the stores you're visiting.
  706. > And the prices aren't bad, either.
  707. > The Corporal hasn't actually balked at any of the digits on price tags so far.
  708. > No, the problem is... she's so *brown*.
  709. > Ponies usually wear colours that match their mane or their coat or at least their eyes.
  710. > But Honour is just brown, brown, brown, and nopony seems to make *brown* dresses!
  711. > Or at least, not nice ones.
  712. > But even if you *could* find a brown dress, you're worried it'd just blend right into her.
  713. > A number of perfectly good and reasonably priced dresses have been tried and rejected, and any of them would have worked for you, or Sparkshower, or Ebonshield, or just about anypony else with ordinary bright-coloured coat (well, bright *mane* in the case of Eb, though at least she's got some violet going on with her body).
  714. > But set against Honour's triple-brown combo, they just look... 'noisy'.
  715. > Like she's trying too hard to catch everypony's attention.
  716. > At least, in your opinion.
  717. > It's not even so much that the outfits look *bad*, it's just that, well, it's the *Gala*.
  718. > An outfit for the Grand Galloping Gala isn't just some clothes you put on, it should be a statement about who you are.
  719. > And about your place in Canterlot.
  720. > For example, take your little black cocktail dress from this year's Louis Valise summer catalogue, paid for by your wealthy benefactor, Captain Mailedhoof.
  721. > It said, 'Here is a well-kept mare with exquisite taste in both gentlecolts and in fashion; you can't afford me, darling, but look all you please.'
  723. > Your Silver Ram, if you chose to wear it -- it was traditional to wear those kinds of honours to the Gala, but you weren't sure if it would really 'go' with your outfit -- also said a thing or two about your *position* in society, too.
  724. > Meanwhile, Sparkshower's satin-and-tulle tea-length boat-neck dress in blush-pink from last year's fashions said, 'I am a modest mare of modest means, simple in wants and graceful because of it; I'm more than my dress.'
  725. > She didn't know it yet -- because you hadn't quite finished altering it to fit her brawny frame -- but she was going to be a knock-out at the Gala.
  726. > Heh, if she wasn't careful, she'd have young gentlecolts swarming all over her.
  727. > Maybe even more than'd be flocking to you!
  728. > After all, Captain Mailedhoof would be there with his wife.
  729. > Your role was to play the little piece of candy tempting him for an after-dinner snack.
  730. > You lick your lips as you wait for Honour to trot out in the next selection.
  731. > Bored, you glance over at the Royal Engineer, sitting quietly with one leg crossed over his knee.
  732. > Though you still consider his presence an intrusion, at least he wasn't getting in the way.
  733. > Anonymous was just wearing his 'everyday' suit with his red sash of office, but the one he ordered for the Gala said a thing or two about him as well, even though it followed the traditional three-piece pattern.
  734. > 'On the surface I am much like any other colt, but look closer and you'll see that I'm not; I have a fine eye for detail, a sharp sense of style, and a healthy respect for tradition.'
  735. > An excellent statement for a colt to make, particularly at an event like the Gala.
  736. > You'll help him pick out a suitable calling-card that will make a similar impression later today.
  737. > Just as soon as you can get Honour into something you like...
  738. > And that she likes as well, of course.
  740. > Over on the right, a brown hoof pulls back the dressing-room curtain, and the Corporal steps out wearing the latest selection.
  741. > It's a fairly simple number in gold satin, with a little bit of ruching at the back, a waistband, and then considerable ruching at the front to give it some texture and a nice dark/light sheen as she moves around.
  742. > Honour steps up onto the podium and looks herself over in the mirrors.
  743. > She doesn't look thrilled.
  744. > Not that she'd probably show it if she were.
  745. > But to be honest, you weren't particularly excited either.
  746. > It *works*, but, again, it doesn't quite seem special enough.
  747. > You decide to test the waters.
  748. "That's a good colour on you, Corporal. How do you like the design?"
  749. > Twisting her head sideways, she examines her flank in the mirror, stepping and stretching her back legs.
  750. > "I don't know... It fits all right, I suppose..."
  751. > Yeah, she doesn't like it.
  752. > Then again, maybe she does -- she seems to be having a little fun bobbing her backside to and fro, watching the material swish around.
  753. > And then she continues to twist and turn, looking it over.
  754. > Well, if she doesn't like it, at least she's paid it more attention than any of the others so far.
  755. > Or maybe she's just starting to have her anti-dressing-up defences worn down now.
  756. > Good thing you saved some of the better stuff for later.
  757. > Frowning, the Corporal looks back at the Royal Engineer, who so far has sat patiently through the whole series of dress-up & look-overs.
  758. > "... What do you think, sir?"
  759. > Surprised to be addressed after all this time, Anonymous lifts his eyebrows and uncrosses his legs.
  760. > "Me? You want *my* opinion, Corporal?"
  761. > Honour replies with a shrug, a neutral expression on her face.
  762. > Well, she might as well get a third opinion while she's up there.
  763. > Provided he doesn't screw this all up by saying something inappropriate!
  764. > Anonymous looks her over.
  765. > "... I-I don't really know what to say."
  767. > You chuckle and wave a hoof up at the Corporal.
  768. "It's not a trick question or anything, sir. Does she look good enough to walk into the Gala alongside a member of the Blue Chamber? After all, we're all going together, aren't we?"
  769. > He smiles.
  770. > "I suppose we are, but I don't know much about Equestrian fashion."
  771. > You scoff.
  772. "That's surprising to hear considering how you've got classical colts' style down pat..."
  773. > He gives you a confused look, so you continue on with a smile.
  774. "... I remember how you effortlessly rattled off that order for your very fashionable Gala outfit, sir. You must know more than you think."
  775. > Curiously, your statement seems to dampen his mood.
  776. > "That was a special case, Specialist. I've bought that exact suit before."
  777. > You furrow your brow.
  778. "Wha..? I thought this is your first Gala?"
  779. > He licks his lips and sits back in his chair, his mood darkening.
  780. > "It is. But that was my wedding suit. Back in my world."
  781. > Oh, crap.
  782. > Corporal Bound's jaw and shoulders drop, and she blurts out a reply.
  783. > "You were *married*, sir?"
  784. > Bucking Tartarus!
  785. > *She's* supposed to be the one to tell *you* to shut up when you've opened your mouth too wide!
  786. > And here she goes digging into Anonymous' past in another world!
  787. > You may not remember every single boring detail Lieutenant Temper Violetta said in her briefing about the Royal Engineer, but you sure as buck remember her admonition not to bring up this sort of thing!
  788. > Involuntary exiles in Equestria usually didn't like talking about their homelands much, especially when there wasn't much hope of them getting back -- and in Anonymous' case, the L-T had said there was practically none at all.
  789. > Surprisingly, the Royal Engineer shakes his head.
  790. > "No. I was only engaged."
  791. > He got zapped to another world before he could even get married?
  792. > Separated forever from his sweetheart?
  794. > Celestia's tears, that's tragic -- and you're not the mushy type, either.
  795. > Sparkshower would probably already be bawling if she were here for this.
  796. > The Corporal's eyes go wide.
  797. > "You left a *fiancée* behind?!"
  798. > Oh great, way to step deeper into it, Honour.
  799. > Really mash your hoof in there.
  800. > Anonymous swallows and adjusts himself in his seat.
  801. > "No. It didn't go through. I, uh..."
  802. > He smacks his lips and stares down at the ground for a moment, then continues.
  803. > "... I called it off."
  804. > Wow.
  805. > *That's* not the kind of thing that's very frequent around here.
  806. > And from the way he says it, it's obviously not frequent over *there*, either.
  807. > Much as it contradicts the Lieutenant's instructions, you're not sure your curiosity will let you go on without hearing the rest of *this* story.
  808. > And Honour, standing in utter shock, looks unable to continue as well.
  809. > Hesitantly, you see if the Royal Engineer is willing to part with the rest of the details.
  810. "What... happened, sir? If you don't mind us asking?"
  811. > Anonymous casts his eyes around the room, then shrugs.
  812. > "I don't mind. It was a couple of years ago, now..."
  813. > You get the sense that, even after two years and getting dumped on another world, he's not really completely over it yet.
  814. > Anonymous clears his throat, placing his hands together in front of him.
  815. > "... There was a breach of trust."
  816. > Honour takes a step forward, wearing a concerned look.
  817. > "She cheated on you?"
  818. > Your first thought as well, but Anonymous shakes his head.
  819. > "No. It was a different problem."
  820. > Now it's your turn to blurt something out.
  821. "Money."
  822. > Both the Royal Engineer and Corporal Bound look over at you quizzically.
  823. > And looking at his face, you know your guess was right.
  824. > You shrug.
  825. "... Infidelity or money; it's almost always one or the other that breaks up couples."
  826. > Anonymous nods.
  827. > "In this case I suppose you could say it was about money, yes..."
  829. > He pauses a moment to take a deep breath and clear his throat.
  830. > "... She was fairly heavily in debt when we first met. Student loans from school, credit bills from a spendthrift post-graduate life, that sort of thing. Myself, I'd been in the black for a while, living at home with my parents, but her debts didn't really bother me. She had a decent job and a good career ahead of her which would easily let her pay things off. And she was taking care to do just that..."
  831. > Dipping his head, he lifts one of his hands up in a dismissive gesture, then lets them both drop down onto his knees.
  832. > "... At least, that's what she always *said*. And when money ever came up, she acted like things were going well, too -- buying expensive things, like a brand-new pricey car instead of a used or simpler one, making it seem like her previous debt was down to almost nothing..."
  833. > Sucking on his lips, he lifts an eyebrow.
  834. > "... After a year and a half of dating, I proposed. She was thrilled. We were happy. She wanted a big, extravagant wedding. I decided I wanted a fancy bespoke tailcoat, so I did my research and came up with that wedding ensemble..."
  835. > A fleeting smile appears on his face, then disappears just as quickly.
  836. > "... About half a year before the wedding, the housing market was getting pretty hot in our city. I thought it would be a good idea if we tried to get in on some property sooner rather than later. A nice condo midtown, or maybe a house in the suburbs. We made an appointment to get a mortgage pre-approval at the bank; she still pretended like everything was going well and that her credit rating was doing fine..."
  837. > Shaking his head, he starts to look a bit depressed.
  838. > "... But when we got there, it became clear that it wasn't..."
  840. > Puffing his cheeks, Anonymous blows out a breath and looks down.
  841. > "... She didn't want to admit the truth. She said she was afraid I'd get upset. And in the end, I suppose I did. Not about the debt, which was bigger than she'd ever admitted, and being paid off far more slowly than she'd claimed..."
  842. > He looks up, fixing each of you in his gaze, one at a time.
  843. > "... I got upset about the *lies*. The constant claiming that her finances were completely under control. The attempts to cover things up by spending big, when small would've done fine, and when she couldn't really afford it. And how she didn't even say anything before the mortgage meeting.."
  844. > Anonymous looks wistfully off away from you again.
  845. > "... Face to face with a banker who knew everything about her financial situation, but couldn't spill the details in front of me without her permission, even then she couldn't bring herself to tell me the truth -- not until the car-ride home, where she broke down in tears..."
  846. > Finally, he shrugs.
  847. > "... What choice did I have? I couldn't trust her after such an extended, concerted deception, no matter her apology. Two years of fakery and lies. You can't marry someone you don't trust. So I called it off, and bid her farewell..."
  848. > The Royal Engineer slouches back in his chair.
  849. > "... I forfeited the deposit on my suit, but that wasn't important. It was the build up and let down of the whole thing; it took something out of me, something much more significant than just money..."
  850. > A sly smile creeps back onto his face.
  851. > "... You know the punchline, though? Half a year later, the bottom fell out of the property market. If we'd bought back then, our mortgage might've wound up uncomfortably underwater. As it was, I made a move and picked up a nice house in a good neighbourhood, all on my own..."
  852. > The smile disappears.
  853. > "... That was a few months before I wound up here."
  855. > Damn.
  856. > You don't really know what to say to all that, and from the look on her face, the Corporal doesn't, either.
  857. > There's a long, awkward, pause, broken only when the Royal Engineer claps his hands on his knees.
  858. > "Sorry. I hope I haven't knocked down the mood too much. Anyways, that's why I was able to 'rattle off' the order for that suit so easily, Specialist Glamerspear. I'd spent a considerable amount of time researching things and learning a lot about traditional suits..."
  859. > He chuckles.
  860. > "... Since I never wound up using or even getting the original incarnation, I'm looking forward to wearing it to the Gala here..."
  861. > Shrugging, he spreads his palms.
  862. > "... As for 'coltish fashion' in Equestria, I think I'm just fortunate it happens to be so much like the traditional formal menswear on my world. It's startling, really. But, when it comes to *female* attire... Well, I suppose there are a couple of similarities in techniques, but the styles are quite different. Equestria seems to prefer much more big, flamboyant outfits than were common where I come from..."
  863. > Smiling, he looks Corporal Bound up and down, and the Corporal stands stark, appearing almost embarrassed by the attention.
  864. > "... I think that dress looks good. The gold colour works well."
  865. > Interesting!
  866. > And what will Miss Bound do with this third opinion, now that she's finally gotten it?
  867. > Honour nods, then turns to look herself over in the mirror again.
  868. > "Let's... put it as a 'maybe', OK?"
  869. > Really?
  870. > That's the first 'maybe'!
  871. > You're still not one-hundred-percent satisfied, but it's growing on you a bit.
  872. > And a lot can be done with *accessories*, after all.
  873. > Honour glances back at you.
  874. > "... There's still a few more to try on."
  875. > You think quickly: if she liked this one, which one's the next best bet?
  876. > Something comes to mind.
  877. "Why don't you try on the red one? With the lace?"
  878. > With a nod, the Corporal trots off to the change-room, drawing the curtain shut.
  880. > You take the opportunity to lean over and whisper at your VIP.
  881. "Psst... Sir, can you do me a favour?"
  882. > Anonymous hunches over and down to your level and whispers back.
  883. > "Certainly. What is it?"
  884. > You nod towards where Honour's changing.
  885. "It's the Corporal, sir. I don't think she's got a lot of self-confidence about her looks, if you know what I mean? And I could use your help with that."
  886. > The Royal Engineer arches his eyebrows.
  887. > "What do you need me to do?"
  888. > You grin.
  889. "Just now, you complimented the outfit -- that's great, and I'm sure she appreciates it. But next time, if you like the way she looks, make sure to phrase it so it's about *her*, ya know?"
  890. > Waving a hoof around for emphasis, you continue.
  891. "... Like, instead of, 'That dress looks good', say, '*You* look good in that dress', get it?"
  892. > The Royal Engineer nods and sits back up.
  893. > "Sure, I'll do that."
  894. > Great!
  895. > Because that *red* thing is something special, and you really want Honour to like it.
  896. > Funny enough, she manages to strip off the gold one & get suited up in the red much faster than any of the previous costume changes.
  897. > The look on her face when she opens the curtains, and the way she opens them -- slowly, like she doesn't want to be seen -- tells you that you've got an uphill battle to get her into this particular outfit.
  898. > "I don't know about this one, Glamerspear."
  899. > For Celestia's sake!
  900. > She hasn't even stepped out of the change-room!
  901. > You roll your eyes.
  902. "What, did your 'drinks-with-just-a-friend' friend happen to walk into the store? Don't want to spoil next weekend's surprise in case he sees you in here?"
  903. > That garners you a nasty frown.
  904. > Touched a nerve with that one!
  905. > Guess Mister Mystery Colt still played it slow last night.
  906. > Regardless, she grumbles, finds some courage, and approaches the podium.
  908. > Now, this a pretty one.
  909. > The *red* colour, you feel, wouldn't really work on a lot of mares, though it definitely works on a brown one, now that you see the Corporal in it.
  910. > The fabric is very nice: a darker red floral lace on top of a lighter beige-translucent backing material.
  911. > That's all reasonable, but it's the cut that's probably making her the most uncomfortable.
  912. > The cut at the *back* to be specific.
  913. > Suspecting that Corporal Bound preferred more conservative choices in outfits, this was the only mini dress you picked out for her, but so far you liked what you saw.
  914. > Sleeveless, low-cut for a sizable amount of exposed tuft, and with a stiffened chest to form the body, the back ended in lacy frills that just barely covered the curvature of her plot below her tail.
  915. > The effect would be striking on any pony, but the red colour went perfectly with Honour's brown coat and mane 'n' tail -- the backing layer seemed to blend right into her body, so that only the lacy outer layer was really visible.
  916. > It's almost as if she were wearing the lace alone!
  917. > And that's part of what made it look great, in your mind.
  918. > Corporal Bound hesitantly looks herself over in the mirror.
  919. > "It's... pretty short back there. I don't know if this is really appropriate for the Gala."
  920. > You scoff.
  921. "Pfft, are you kidding me? Take a look at last year's Canterlot Match magazine; some mares wear dresses cut so short you can almost see everything they've got going on in the rear. You're well above that crass level."
  922. > What you said was absolutely true.
  923. > The Corporal doesn't look that convinced, though, so you keep going.
  924. "... Look, if you feel that uncomfortable, just wear some beige panties underneath it. They'll blend in with the underlayer fabric, the lace'll hide any panty lines, and you won't have to worry about any 'accidental reveals', ya know?"
  925. > That seems to have helped; she doesn't look quite so sceptical about it.
  927. > You decide to stand up and close the sale, stepping up behind her and watching her go over her reflection in the triple mirrors.
  928. > Like with the gold one, she bobs her plot around a bit -- except *this* dress has got a lot more bounce in the back, with the way the bottom splays out playfully.
  929. > And that extra bounce in the *fabric* seems to be encouraging her to let loose a bit more with her derrière.
  930. > She's even grooving with her shoulders, too!
  931. > Damn, maybe the Corporal wasn't always such a grim-faced killjoy.
  932. > If so, could this derby-downer brown mare still tear it up on the dance floor?
  933. > You're getting a bit curious to find out.
  934. > She's not quite ready to say 'yes' to the dress, though...
  935. > The Corporal looks up at the Royal Engineer's reflection in the mirror.
  936. > "What do you think about this one, sir? Compared to the gold one?"
  937. > C'mon, VIP, don't let your quaternion down.
  938. > Give Honour the final push over the edge!
  939. > Anonymous takes just the right amount of time to appear to be giving a measured response.
  940. > "I think you look good in it. The colour works well against yours, and the lace print has an attractive texture. It looks like you can dance in it, too -- there's dancing at the Gala, isn't there?"
  941. > He looks over at you as the authority on the G-G-G, and you grin.
  942. "Oh yeah. They start off with the old-fashioned stuff first, but once that's done the DJ lets loose with modern club tunes. The party goes aaaallllll night -- and sometimes night can go on a little longer than usual, too! 'Cause sometimes Her Majesty is a bit late in raising the sun the next day, ya know?"
  943. > He smiles.
  944. > "I think it'd work very well for high-energy dancing. But if you're worried about dressing too aggressively for the rest of the gala leading up to that, why not get something else to wear on top as a layer? Like a shawl or cape?"
  945. > Buck, that's a good idea.
  947. > You look slyly over at Honour, who's nodding -- with her usual frown on her face, but at least she's nodding.
  948. "I saw a few over in the accessories section, Corporal. Wanna trot over there and take a look?"
  949. > She nods.
  950. > "Yeah, okay."
  952. > As she heads out into the main room, you give an appreciative nod to the Royal Engineer.
  953. "We'll be right back, sir..."
  954. > Winking at him, you whisper as soon as Honour's out of earshot.
  955. "... And thanks for helping seal the deal."
  956. > Anonymous smiles.
  957. > "Any time, Specialist."
  958. > Yeah, any time *you* want, big colt.
  959. > Heh, maybe the batpony had the right idea about him after all..
  960. > You step out of the changing area after Honour.
  961. > Oh, this is gonna be the *best* gala ever.
  962. > Your VIP and the quat' are kitted out like a full-on *squaaad*.
  963. > Gonna kill it at the red carpet.
  964. > Anon in his sharp custom tailcoat.
  965. > Sparks in that cute little sweetheart dress.
  966. > Honour's dressing up to party hard.
  967. > You're rocking the LV badge with a black summer dress and some killer pumps.
  968. > And Eb...
  969. > Wait, what was the Sergeant planning to wear?
  970. > A question for later, after you're done with the Corporal.
  971. > After all, this is the military!
  972. > Things've gotta go up the chain of command properly, haha!
  974. Suggested interlude music: (Madonna - 'Vogue' [1990])
  979. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and it's been another long day.
  980. > By the time you and Glamerspear actually arrived back at your palace quarters, it was almost six o'clock.
  981. > Once again, Sparkshower had been left hanging, wondering when her shift was actually going to start.
  982. > Well, she can wait a few minutes longer while you put away your purchases.
  983. > You plan to escort her on-duty yourself.
  984. > Glamerspear can wait a bit downstairs, too, before she's relieved.
  985. > Picking out your dress, and the matching cape & fascinator, had taken the better part of three hours.
  986. > Pulling the set delicately out of your saddle-bag, you remove the purchases from their paper boxes and lay them out on your bed to look them over.
  987. > How Glamerspear had managed to get you to stuff yourself into that tiny little scrap of red fabric you honestly don't know.
  988. > It was the kind of thing a glittering pop star performing at a Los Pegasus casino in front of thousands of underage whinnying fans would wear.
  989. > Or maybe a riverside Manehattan street-trotter...
  990. > At least the cape provided some modesty, though it too was a bit 'saltine', as was the headgear.
  991. > The consequences of shopping with an ardent practitioner of the custom.
  992. > And you would *definitely* be wearing panties if you didn't want to just be waving your plot in everypony's face on the dance floor.
  993. > *If* you even decided to get up and dance.
  994. > You hadn't made your mind up about that quite yet.
  995. > Despite the time investment involved, the Royal Engineer had been polite and discreet about the whole dress-shopping thing.
  996. > He'd even taken you both out for lunch afterwards, at one of Canterlot's innumerable canal-side patio cafés.
  997. > It's a good thing, too, because as long as it had taken to pick out your dress, designing his calling card had taken even longer.
  999. > Although you had delivered and received plenty of them, you really had no idea how much work and thought could be put into the little paper things.
  1000. > Should the card be rectangular or oval?
  1001. > 'Fan-shapes' were also popular this season, he'd been told, and shown several examples before declining and settling on rectangular.
  1002. > That raised the question of the edges: should they be straight or scalloped?
  1003. > And would he like ribbon or thread sewn in?
  1004. > Should there be printed designs around the edges?
  1005. > Then it was time to look at the thousands of options for stock printed pictures of flowers or doves.
  1006. > Would the gentlecolt like his photograph on each card?
  1007. > And would sir like his name hoofwritten or in one of the standard typefaces (ligatures extra)?
  1008. > And of course that ink could be black, blue, red, silver, or gold...
  1009. > Even the paper itself was a thing to be carefully picked!
  1010. > The colour could be bright white, classic white, bone, ecru, eggshell, cream, ivory, sand -- and that was just the 'off-whites', never mind all the actual colour-colours.
  1011. > Meanwhile, the salespony had pushed the deluxe heavy-weight paper.
  1012. > 'Less prone to bending and turning up at the corners', he'd said.
  1013. > 'Easier to prominently emboss', he'd added, before also presenting the options for *that* little extra.
  1014. > Sweet Celestia, they'd even talked about watermarking!
  1015. > Glamerspear hadn't seem quite as prepared for the Royal Engineer's card-shopping as she'd been for your dress-shopping.
  1016. > She was knowledgeable, and provided some decent advice, as well as feedback, but mostly it had been the salespony and Anonymous going back and forth on various design options with the salespony and the card-company's in-house graphic designer.
  1017. > When asked, you had given some opinions as well, but frankly you felt completely out of your depth.
  1019. > You had almost wished instead you were being forced to drive the Royal Engineer's automobile at break-neck speeds down some narrow, winding, Canterlot alley.
  1020. > In the end, after two hours and the approval of both of his attendant guardsponies, he'd settled on a rectangular card, eighty-nine by sixty-four millimetre, with straight edges in the luxury three-hundred-gram eggshell cardstock.
  1021. > The corners were emphasized by border art in strong black ink: a curly design centred around three stylized rose blooms in the top-left, and the same curly design but with the rose-blooms replaced by cogwheels in the bottom-right.
  1022. > Offset slightly to the left in a retro 'Centaur' typeface was printed simply 'Anonymous, Royal Engineer of Equestria' with 'Canterlot Palace' beneath it.
  1023. > And to the right was embossed the Royal Seal of Equestria, a stylized sun with a crescent-and-star inside it, which he was entitled to use as a member of the government.
  1024. > It would take a few days to prepare the three hundred copies he'd ordered, but the printer rushed out a few quick proofs for him to use in the immediate future.
  1025. > And, of course, a true gentlecolt couldn't simply carry cards like this around in his pocket -- he also purchased a small silver case for them as well.
  1026. > At the end of it, the elated (but exhausted) salespony declared the design 'crisp, clean, and professional'.
  1027. > Glamerspear said she thought it was 'avant-garde' in its simplicity and use of firm pen lines instead of softer watercolours.
  1028. > As far as you could tell, it did what it needed to, and it got the point across.
  1029. > But even you were surprised by the stark black on white.
  1030. > Not a common combination in colourful Canterlot.
  1031. > You look over your very red outfit for the Gala.
  1032. > It was slinky, coquettish, and outgoing.
  1033. > All attributes which you'd resolutely divorced over two years ago, and yet here they are again.
  1035. > Maybe what Glamerspear had really succeeded in doing -- not this morning, but last night, with her speech about 'taking it slow' with Castlerook -- was convincing you that you could still have fun yourself even while being serious.
  1036. > With a sigh, you grab a hangar and gently put away next week's outfit.
  1037. > Even Anonymous, who'd suffered a heartbreak not unlike your own, yet worked a very serious job in a serious manner, managed to enjoy himself now and again.
  1038. > Including during combat training, of all times, but there *was* something invigorating about physical activity.
  1039. > Well, if he could let loose, then so could you.
  1040. > And if you couldn't, well, then that's what the Gala's open bar was for.
  1041. > Stepping out of your bedroom, you find Sparkshower waiting at the door like a puppy-dog anxious to be let out for a walk.
  1042. > "I'm ready for duty, Corporal! Are you finished with what you needed to take care of?"
  1043. > You nod, but when she reaches for the door-handle, you clear your throat.
  1044. "Hold up, Specialist..."
  1045. > She freezes in place, and you step up next to her.
  1046. "... Have you prepared your apology to the Royal Engineer?"
  1047. > Sparkshower nods.
  1048. > "Yes, Corporal. The Sergeant helped me sort everything out. I'm ready to set things right... and to take what punishment may be coming for me."
  1049. > You're really not sure what the Sergeant could have done to help Sparkshower give an appropriate Equestrian apology.
  1050. > Still, she seems contrite enough.
  1051. > With another nod, you bid her open the door and the two of you walk silently downstairs.
  1052. > You hope that Sparkshower's apology goes over well.
  1053. > It was true that the Royal Engineer had been extremely forgiving of your various mistakes -- the Battle of Newstirrup Bridge and your blow-up a few days later, for example -- and had even laughed Ebonshield off the hook when she tried to apologize for messing up the day in the Rookery.
  1054. > He'd been sympathetic to Glamerspear's mana poisoning injury, as well.
  1056. > But this was a different kind of situation.
  1057. > It wasn't just a professional mistake.
  1058. > She'd lied to him, and concealed the truth for her own selfish interests.
  1059. > And that really struck home for you.
  1060. > Anonymous, your Very Important Pony who wasn't actually a pony, had been through a romantic betrayal very much similar to your own.
  1061. > You had wondered if you should tell Sparkshower about his experience -- she hadn't been in the dress-shop to hear it earlier today -- but decided against it, at least until after she's given her apology.
  1062. > If she was nervous, it would only make her doubly so.
  1063. > And it shouldn't change what she needed to say.
  1064. > You sigh, internally.
  1065. > It was just up to you to step in if a disaster was about to unfold.
  1066. > The two of you come to a stop before the Royal Engineer's double chamber doors and Sparkshower looks over at you expectantly.
  1067. > You motion with your head for her to proceed, and she knocks, then exchanges the traditional Royal Guard refrain with Glamerspear on the inside.
  1068. > "By the glory of the Morning Dawn, I hereby relieve you at this post."
  1069. > "By the peace of the Evening Dusk, I stand relieved."
  1070. > However, although the armoured pegasus leaves, Glamerspear stays put, and you enter the room as well.
  1071. > You wanted everypony here to hear this, just in case.
  1072. > Ebonshield left a note saying she was making a quick trip to the Rookery, so she'd have to get the debriefing from someone else later.
  1073. > Anonymous is at his desk, reading over a sheet of handwritten paper.
  1074. > You clear your throat.
  1075. "Sir, could we have a moment of your time?"
  1076. > He looks up, then realizes there's three of you in the room, and lowers the paper onto his desk.
  1077. > "Certainly, Corporal. Is there something wrong?"
  1078. > You look over at the wayward pegasus.
  1079. "Specialist Sparkshower has something she needs to tell you, sir."
  1080. > The heavily-armoured pony steps forward.
  1081. > "Sir! I, wanted to apologize for something I did yesterday. I made a mistake..."
  1083. > Anonymous cocks an eyebrow but says nothing.
  1084. > You can't see Sparkshower's throat behind her gorget, but you do hear her swallow.
  1085. > "... When I asked you if you wanted to dance the Maypole with me at the Gala, which is something I shouldn't have done in the first place, I neglected to mention something very important, about the nature of that activity, which would probably have changed your answer..."
  1086. > She shrinks down in her helmet, her head almost disappearing beneath the bronze.
  1087. > "... It's actually a dance normally reserved for lovers, sir."
  1088. > Even recoiled inside her armour, you can still make out a pair of very rosy cheeks.
  1089. > Frowning, the Royal Engineer gets up out of his seat and walks around his desk, then leans back up against it, half sitting on it, his arms folded in front of him.
  1090. > He takes a moment to process what she's said, then, still looking confused, replies.
  1091. > "Are you saying that you were *propositioning* me last night, Specialist?"
  1092. > Glamerspear stifles back a snort.
  1093. > Well, it wouldn't have been the *first* time one of his bodyguards had done that.
  1094. > Sparkshower's face is now completely red.
  1095. > "Oh, goodness, no sir!"
  1096. > Realizing the impact of that phrasing, she starts to babble.
  1097. > "... I... I mean not that I *wouldn't*, sir, you understand, but that I *wasn't*. I didn't intend it that way. And that's why I shouldn't have asked..."
  1098. > She shakes her head, unable to look him in the eyes.
  1099. > "... I just wanted to be able to say that I'd once danced the Maypole at the Grand Galloping Gala."
  1100. > Anonymous walks over towards your group, stepping around the sofa to stand just a few hooves away from Sparkshower.
  1101. > You can hear her gulp again, but the Royal Engineer looks sad, not angry.
  1102. > "Specialist, I don't mean to pry, but you're still having some trouble with your long-distance coltfriend, aren't you?"
  1103. > She nods.
  1104. > "Yes, sir."
  1106. > The Royal Engineer casually slips his hands into his trouser pockets.
  1107. > "You were hoping to dance the Maypole with him, but he won't be attending the Gala."
  1108. > As she shakes her head, the bronze pieces of her head armour gently brush against each other.
  1109. > "No, sir, I don't think he will."
  1110. > Looking sympathetic, he sighs.
  1111. > "Well, for your sake, Specialist, I hope you can manage to sort things out on that front. Although, I have to admit, I'm a little disappointed..."
  1112. > With his hands still in his pockets, he nonchalantly brushes his leather-shoed foot back and forth on the carpet.
  1113. > Before he can go on, Sparkshower clatters forward and launches into an apology.
  1114. > "I know, sir. I'm ever so sorry to have let you down like this. And I know my personal troubles are no excuse for deceiving you, sir."
  1115. > Surprisingly, Anonymous shrugs.
  1116. > "Oh, no, I'm not really disappointed about *that*, Specialist. There's been no harm done -- it's only been a day, after all. I suppose this is one of those situations like the Opera? There may have been some gossip afterwards?"
  1117. > He looks expectantly past Sparkshower, over at you and Glamerspear, so you nod.
  1118. "There would have been talk, sir, yes."
  1119. > Anonymous nods.
  1120. > "Too bad... No, I'm disappointed because I was actually really looking forward to it."
  1121. > He was?
  1122. > Sparkshower lifts her head so quickly that her visor slips its catch and slams down in front of her face with a loud *clang*.
  1123. > "You were?!"
  1124. > The Royal Engineer shrugs and bobs his head sideways.
  1125. > "Sure. Maybe I've mentioned this before, but although I've been here for almost year, it feels like I've been living *at* Equestria rather than *in* it..."
  1127. > Pulling his hands out of his pockets, he casually gestures in front of him.
  1128. > "... I was a little excited about actually starting to immerse myself in the culture a bit. Get my feet wet. Start to understand Equestria as it is -- so that I can help build it into something better with the knowledge I have from my world..."
  1129. > Anonymous places one hand on his hip, holds the other up in the air, and playfully dance-steps around in a circle.
  1130. > A biped's steps for the Maypole, undoubtedly; Sparkshower must've already worked them out with him last night.
  1131. > "... A traditional folk dance seemed like an easy first step. But I wouldn't want to jeopardize your existing relationship..."
  1132. > Pausing, he narrows his eyes.
  1133. > "... You haven't *told* your coltfriend that we were to dance together, have you?"
  1134. > The armoured pegasus chuckles awkwardly as she squeakily lifts her bascinet visor back up.
  1135. > "I did, actually. But I'm going to send him another letter right away!"
  1136. > The Royal Engineer smiles.
  1137. > "Oh, good. Wouldn't want a jilted lover showing up at my doorstep, ha ha. No, I suppose I'll have to find something else."
  1138. > He wants an easy 'in' on Equestrian culture?
  1139. > You're not sure what to suggest.
  1140. > Glamerspear just shrugs when you look over at her, hoping for inspiration.
  1141. > Well, maybe you can figure out something later.
  1142. > At least the situation is resolved for now.
  1143. > You're about to take your leave when Sparkshower unexpectedly speaks up again.
  1144. > "Actually, sir, if you *really* wanted to dance, there is another one we could do. It's always played at the Gala. And it doesn't have any romantic implications any more, either!"
  1145. > Oh no, mare, what are you doing?
  1146. > Horrifyingly, the Royal Engineer perks up, apparently interested by whatever hackneyed plan she's come up with.
  1147. > "Really? Which one's this, then?"
  1148. > You wait to find out yourself, before you step in and shut down yet another foalish enterprise.
  1150. > "It's called the Lipizzaner Waltz! It's a beautiful and stately pairs' dance; it used to be scandalous but now it's considered a classical ballroom performance. It's got an easy basic step, too!"
  1151. > You know what a waltz looks like, though this particular one is unfamiliar.
  1152. > Clearing your throat, you look at Sparkshower and nod towards your VIP.
  1153. "Specialist, it might be a bit difficult for the Royal Engineer to actually dance *with* a pony owing to the height difference from walking on four legs versus two..."
  1154. > You glance back at Anonymous.
  1155. "... The Maypole is an exception because the dancers just circle around each other holding a ribbon."
  1156. > Before you can gauge his reaction, Sparkshower interjects.
  1157. > "But that's just it! The Lipizzaner Waltz is danced entirely on the *hind* legs! Even the bits where you have to let go of your partner for a few steps! That's what makes it so tricky to do right -- for a pony, anyways. But it's beautiful when executed properly, and I bet you could learn the steps in a snap, sir."
  1158. > Anonymous chuckles.
  1159. > "And you know them already, do you, Specialist Sparkshower?"
  1160. > The pegasus nods.
  1161. > "Yes, sir! I attended a Griffonese dance school in Canterlot during the two-month summer break three years ago!"
  1162. > That gets her a surprised look from everypony, and she goes rosy-cheeked again.
  1163. > "... It was my mom's idea. I think maybe she thought learning something dainty like dancing would discourage me from wanting to join the Royal Guard..."
  1164. > *Your* mother had a very different idea of 'discouragement'.
  1165. > And from the bewildered look on Glamerspear's face, you imagine her parents were the same.
  1166. > Just how the buck did a sweet, innocent mare with loving, caring parents wind up joining the Royal Guard?
  1167. > Believing the hype, probably.
  1168. > Or who knows, maybe it's somehow all completely different when you're a pegasus.
  1169. > Things could look a lot different from up in the air.
  1171. > Looking a bit embarrassed, Sparkshower concludes.
  1172. > "... But I think, if anything, learning under Mister Tanetsov helped get me ready for army life. He was a very strict instructor. And the Lipizzaner dance was always my favourite!"
  1173. > Over by the sofa, Anonymous nods.
  1174. > "All right, I'm game. But we've only got a week, Specialist -- and I'm going to need you to deliver my calling-card to Major-General Hoofstrong nice and early tomorrow morning so we can get things sorted out on that front..."
  1175. > Stepping back towards his desk, he grabs the sheet of paper he was holding earlier, and waves it around in the air.
  1176. > "... As soon as I've figured out exactly what to write on it and have you say to her representative, that is. Let's see if I can get this cleared up before it gets too dark, then you can show me this 'Lipizzaner Waltz' on the balcony, yes?"
  1177. > A heavy bronze sabot clangs into an equally heavy bronze helmet.
  1178. > "Yes, sir!"
  1179. > Your VIP smiles and starts back towards his chair, before pausing and turning to look at you.
  1180. > "Was there anything else, Corporal?"
  1181. > You feel like you've just dodged one spear only to catch three more heading your way.
  1182. > Still, though, Sparkshower was right, as far as you knew.
  1183. > Nopony was going to say anything about a known bachelor VIP having a single courtly dance with one of their guardsmares -- provided it wasn't around the Maypole with ribbons in their mouths.
  1184. > Worst-case, a photograph winds up in the gossip rags making some easily-dismissed suggestions.
  1185. > You shake your head at the Royal Engineer and wave a forehoof at Glamerspear to beckon her back upstairs.
  1186. "No, sir. We'll be upstairs if you need us."
  1187. > He nods.
  1188. > "Very good, Corporal. Although I may perhaps send up a draft of this letter with Specialist Sparkshower later tonight. I'd appreciate an honest opinion on it in the morning."
  1190. > Bodyguard, cultural guide, automobile-driver, sparring partner, and now proof-reader?
  1191. > If you wore any more hats on this assignment there wouldn't be any left for all the nobleponies at the Gala.
  1192. > You salute before exiting the room.
  1193. "Yes, sir. Good-night, sir."
  1195. Suggested viewing: ("Vienna's Famed Lipizzaner Stallions", by Viking River Cruises)
  1200. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you really aren't sure about this.
  1201. > It's just after breakfast, and on the card-table before you sits the final pencil-written draft of your letter to Huckleberry Pudding.
  1202. > Your follow-up letter, that is -- the one that's going to undo the mistakes of the one you sent off yesterday morning.
  1203. > If you post this one before noon today, it should arrive tomorrow or the day after.
  1204. > Plenty of time to solve the problem you created in Berry.
  1205. > But only if it works.
  1206. > And you weren't entirely certain it would.
  1207. > The washroom door opens, and Glamerspear emerges with a towel around her head and another one draped over her back, fresh from her shower after this morning's Pony Physical Training.
  1208. > She mustn't have been in the mood for one of those quick 'WC-40' unicorn-magic drying manoeuvres, you suppose.
  1209. > With a smile on her face, she settles down onto the sofa, lying on her back, and telekinetically picks up one of her Cosmoponitan magazines.
  1210. > Maybe a fresh set of eyes would settle things.
  1211. > You clear your throat.
  1212. "*cough* Ah, Lily? Could you lend me a hoof for a few minutes?"
  1213. > She turns her head around to face you.
  1214. > "Sure, Sparks, what's up?"
  1215. > You tap your hoof on the table and then slide the paper towards her.
  1216. "It's the letter to my coltfriend; the one that's supposed to set everything straight. Do you think you could look it over for me before I put it in ink?"
  1217. > Lily smiles and, as quickly as she puts the sleazy magazine back down on the coffee table, her teal magical aura moves to envelop your piece of foolscap instead, and she quickly spins around to sit up on the sofa.
  1218. > "Oh, are you already working on that? Why, what's the rush?"
  1219. > What's the rush?
  1220. > This is your relationship on the line, here!
  1221. "I just don't want to have this hanging overhead like a bad storm-cloud for too long."
  1223. > She shrugs.
  1224. > "Ho-kay. Personally, I would've let him simmer for a bit beforehoof. I mean, what's he gonna do? Come to Canterlot and confront you for having another dance partner? Pfft, fat chance if he wouldn't even come when you gave him a free ticket to the Gala. Anyways, let's see what you've got..."
  1225. > She pauses for a moment to re-wrap the towels around herself, then leans forward and begins to read.
  1226. > "... 'My dearest Pudding' -- really, Sparks? You're on a last-name basis with him in letters?"
  1227. > You protest.
  1228. "But I like his last name! It's cute! And he sometimes calls me his 'Little Lightning-Shower', too!"
  1229. > With a snort, she grins and continues reading.
  1230. > "... 'I'm so sorry for what I said in my previous letter. I had to apologize to the Royal Engineer as well when my friends pointed out what I had done. You know that I could never dance the Maypole with anyone else but you, and if you can't come to Canterlot for the Grand Galloping Gala, then I shan't dance it at all'..."
  1231. > Glamerspear shakes her head.
  1232. > "... There's gonna be a thousand handsome colts waiting at the Gala, Sparks. You sure you wanna put that commitment in writing?"
  1233. > You frown.
  1234. > Surely she's not suggesting you abandon your coltfriend now, in the middle of trying to undo damage you caused?
  1235. "Yes, I'm sure, Lily. I'm still committed to him, and you were the one who previously scolded me yesterday morning for breaking up with my colt by mail!"
  1236. > Lifting your head, you sit up straight in the chair.
  1237. "... If I ever do want to change anything between us, Celestia forbid, I'll do it in person like a proper gentlemare."
  1239. > She just shrugs in reply, still grinning.
  1240. > "Your choice. I'm just sayin', the field'll be wide open, and why not prepare him for the letdown when you find a real Stud Charming next weekend... Anyways, what else we got here... 'You must know how much I miss you, my Pudding.' -- Eh, it's all right, I'm still not sold on the last-name-talk, but whatever. 'The weeks we've spent apart have felt like an eternity to me, and I am desperate to see you again.' -- Wow, Sparks, melodramatic much? Or are you quoting a poem or something? -- 'I ache to be in your warm embrace once more, to feel our bodies pressed together against the cold of the world.' -- That's nice, but getting a bit clingy here, I'd say -- 'Oh, my Huckleberry, when next we meet, I need you..."
  1241. > She trails off, mouth dropping open.
  1242. > After a moment's pause, she lifts her eyebrows, licks her lips and restarts the aborted sentence.
  1243. > "... 'Oh, my Huckleberry, when next we meet, I need you to *buck me in half*.'"
  1244. > Eyes widening, she clears her throat and continues.
  1245. > You hang on every word, trying to gauge her reaction.
  1246. > "... *ahem* 'I want to ride you wildly from dusk to dawn, and then back to dusk again. We shall make the bugbear with two backs, my gossamer wings wrapped around your firm haunches, until you have so filled me with your seed that your stones ache and the hay is drenched in my liquid heat. Then you shall recline on fresh bedding and take your rest; I will lie at your hindquarters and devour your hot poker like the delicious lollipop it is...'"
  1247. > She breaks off and looks up at you, confused.
  1248. > "... Sparks, did you write this all by yourself?!"
  1249. > You eagerly shake your head.
  1250. "Oh, no! Sergeant Ebonshield helped me with this part yesterday."
  1251. > It really had been nice of her to lend a hoof.
  1252. > For someone whose first language wasn't Equestrian, the Sarge sure helped you put things in the right words.
  1254. > Glamerspear nods slowly, but your answer doesn't seem to have satisfied her.
  1255. > "Oooo-kayyy... '... I will lie at your hindquarters and devour your hot poker like the delicious lollipop it is, licking and sucking at it, and enveloping your walnuts in my feathers, until I have extracted every last savoury drop'..."
  1256. > As she reads, appearing more and more surprised with every word, you've got your hooves in your teeth, nervous.
  1257. > "... 'By then, I shall be so ravenous for dessert, but your loins will be so completely emptied, that you will have no choice but to hold me down with your mighty forehooves, press your snout against my alley and, with your long pink taster, delve into the ocean of my flower and give me the release I so desperately crave. If my shrieks of pleasure should inflame your passions once more, then I will not object even in the slightest if you flip me over and find yourself at my cellar-door. Knock stoutly and enter inside with rough abandon, my love, and I will greet your firmness with open-mouthed delight as I agonizingly welcome you into the cramped depths of my ecstasy.'"
  1258. > Glamerspear takes a deep breath before reading the final paragraph.
  1259. > "... 'Oh, Huckleberry, my sweet beloved, how wickedly and how gluttonously I crave you, how I wish to gorge myself and feel all of you inside me. Please, do not let me starve without your stout attentions for much longer. Let us rejoice in each others' company before my passions drive me mad. With the tender kisses, your dearest little Lightning-Shower.'"
  1260. > Well?
  1261. > Did she like it?
  1262. > The look of shock on her face tells you nothing, nor the way she slowly, almost reverently, floats the letter down onto the coffee-table before her.
  1263. > "... Wow. I think that was the filthiest love-letter I've ever read."
  1264. > Oh, no!
  1265. "So it's no good?"
  1266. > Glamerspear laughs.
  1267. > "Oh, it's good, all right. Tartarus, you had me buzzing at the horn a bit, and I'm not even the target audience..."
  1269. > She looks over at you.
  1270. > "... This thing is so sordid, Sparks, I can't believe you're not nursing at least a half-wingboner right now."
  1271. > Your wings are still comfortably folded against your body, and you shrug, almost embarrassed at not feeling aroused right now.
  1272. "I guess I've read and re-read it so many times it doesn't really have that effect on me any more."
  1273. > The pink unicorn chuckles.
  1274. > "Well, any colt'd have to be six hooves underground for it not to have an effect on 'em, but I mean, if you asked me how to prop up your long-distance-relationship, I woulda suggested something different..."
  1275. > She would have?
  1276. > Are you going about this all the wrong way?
  1277. > Was Sergeant Ebonshield mistaken when she said that a raunchy letter was the best way to patch things up with Huckleberry?
  1278. > "... I mean, don't get me wrong, the letter's great..."
  1279. > Oh, good!
  1280. > "... But colts are kinda... *visual*, you know? Words can evoke the kinda mental images they need to get their Jennets rustled, sure, but actual *pictures* can go a real quarter-mile further, ya know what I mean?"
  1281. > Pictures?
  1282. > Before you can ask for clarification, she throws off her body towel and scrambles over to where you're sitting, resting one foreleg down on the card-table as she leans over almost sideways in front of you, wearing a sinister smile.
  1283. > "... You know anypony who owns a *camera*, Sparks?"
  1284. > You're feeling a little confused.
  1285. "Sure... I know me, and I own a camera, a 'Little Ludwig' number 2, model D."
  1286. > Glamerspear's smile broadens.
  1287. > "Perfect. Take some photos, then."
  1288. > You furrow your brow and turn slightly away, unsure of what she's going to propose.
  1289. "What do you mean? What kind of photos?"
  1290. > Lily leans in close, almost muzzle-to-muzzle, just like Ebonshield does when she's talking seriously.
  1291. > "Photos of *you*, silly Sparksy."
  1293. > You're even more confused now than ever, and you recoil a little, if only to get away from her imposingly pointy snout.
  1294. "But... Huckleberry already has photos of me... and photos of *us*."
  1295. > She laughs.
  1296. > "Oh, sure! Photos of you in your Royal Guard parade dress, or together at the county fair, or at school graduation, or sitting down for dinner, things like that, in nice pretty frames hanging on the wall or propped up on his bedside table?"
  1297. > The laughter stops, and she shakes her head.
  1298. > "... I'm not talking about those kinds of photos, Sparks. I'm talking about the kind of hot pictures he'll keep hidden away at the bottom of his bedside table's drawer, underneath an old sock with a musty smell to it."
  1299. > That's uncanny!
  1300. > How could she know Huckleberry had one of those in there?
  1301. > Before you can ponder the question further, Glamerspear leans sharply in even closer, taking up the slack space you'd created.
  1302. > From the force of her movement, her towel head-wrap partially unravels itself and drapes down next to her cheek, waving side-to-side at the edge of your vision.
  1303. > "... I'm talking about you, Sparkshower, on your bed in there, facing away from the camera, muzzle down, plot up, tail to the side, wings spread, forelegs spread, *hind* legs spread, and wearing nothing but a smile."
  1304. > Oh, hurricanes!
  1305. > Your eyes go wide as Lily carries on.
  1306. > "... Or maybe lying on your side, from behind, with your back slightly arched and your wings splayed out, looking back at the camera with *smouldering* eyes."
  1307. > You feel a sudden heat in your cheeks, and there's a muffled thud as one of your wings bumps into the other card-table chair.
  1308. > "... Or on your back, everything completely wide open and your forehooves gathered up at your chest, with a look on your face that says, 'please be gentle' and a confidence that says, 'but not *too* gentle'."
  1309. > Tornadoes!
  1310. > It's all too much; you have to take a few deep breaths and shut your eyes for a moment.
  1312. > When you open them again, Glamerspear is sitting beside you at the table, with the letter lying back in front of you.
  1313. > "... *Those* are the kind of photos I'm talking about..."
  1314. > She taps a hoof on the paper.
  1315. > "... Include a few scandalous prints in the envelope with this, and I guarantee you that your colt'll come galloping to Canterlot with a package so stiff he won't be able to sit down on the Friendship Express without poking himself in the eye."
  1316. > Goodness!
  1317. > That's... actually... kind of exactly what you want.
  1318. "But... if I'm in the photos, then who'll operate the camera? The model D hasn't got a timer."
  1319. > You certainly couldn't ask your *father* to take photos like that!
  1320. > Or any colt at all, actually!
  1321. > Glamerspear waves a hoof dismissively in the air.
  1322. > "Oh, I'll help you out, marefriend. I've done this sort of stuff before."
  1323. > Really?
  1324. "Gosh, Lily, thanks a lot!"
  1325. > She grins.
  1326. > "No problem, Sparks. Why don'tcha trot into the shower and get yourself looking all nice and pretty while I finish towelling off."
  1327. "Okay!"
  1328. > You get up, nearly knocking over the empty chair with your wings before you force them to fold back up.
  1329. > As you head towards the washroom, however, the hallway door opens.
  1330. > Corporal Bound steps in and fixes you in her gaze.
  1331. > "Sparkshower. Get suited up in your armour, you're on deck..."
  1332. > Reaching into her saddle-bag, she pulls out a small envelope.
  1333. > "... This is the Royal Engineer's calling-card, along with some notes on what to say. You're going to deliver the card to Major-General Hoofstrong at the Canterlot Sector Air Defence Headquarters and set up the meeting to discuss his airspace needs."
  1334. > Snow-squalls!
  1335. > Looks like your photo session with Lily will have to wait a little longer...
  1340. > You are still Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, formerly 19D Armoured Scout, presently VIP bodyguard, and now on special assignment as an armoured message courier!
  1341. > ... You're not sure what service code that counts as.
  1342. > Maybe there isn't even one.
  1343. > Regardless, with the Royal Engineer's calling-card in your saddle-bag and his instructions memorized, you're in the air and on your way to the headquarters of the 1st Air Division.
  1344. > Unlike the Household Division that was based on the palace grounds, the 1st Air had its HQ out in the city proper.
  1345. > Their home was the tallest building in Canterlot, when measured in terms of elevation above the ground surrounding it.
  1346. > The Watchtower.
  1347. > Capped with a spartan 'helmet' dome instead of the more elaborate 'onion' style used for the Palace and so eagerly copied by other capital buildings, The Watchtower was a monumental fortress-spire at the outer rim of one of the city's middle tiers, with a commanding view not just of the entirety of the metropolis, but of Cloudsdale above and the surrounding countryside below.
  1348. > In effective vertical elevation, it was exceeded by several towers on the upper tier, most of them part of the Palace complex, but none of them exceeded it for sheer bulk.
  1349. > The Watchtower's colossal volume had room for two full regiments of two thousand pegasi each, plus the headquarters and support units of the 1st Air Division.
  1350. > And those stalwart defenders could take off at a moment's notice to defend the capital from the three great and five lesser landing platforms jutting out from the building, or sally forth from any of a dozen simpler portals.
  1351. > There were even arrow-slits for unicorn and earth pony defenders to fire missiles from, and the upper landing platform, facing away from the city, had been modernized to mount a battery of cannon as well.
  1353. > Nearly a thousand years old, The Watchtower was one of the few structures included in the city's original plan, though that was not to say it was still in its original state.
  1354. > Wars, treason, and disasters magical and mundane alike had all taken their toll on the old bastion.
  1355. > Even today, there were still patchwork bits of scaffolding around the spire, hosting crews still hard at work repairing the extensive damage The Watchtower had suffered during the Changeling Invasion.
  1356. > Only the Palace itself had been more thoroughly wrecked.
  1357. > You knew all this not just because you'd taken a flying tour of the city, and read about the illustrious 1st Air Division's history in the Royal Guard archives, and walked into the small visitor's centre on the ground floor in your civvies and taken photos of the mural depicting the fortress' many sieges.
  1358. > You knew all this because you'd thought that The Watchtower would eventually wind up being your home.
  1359. > Yes, you were in the VIP service now, and as thrilling and rewarding as it had been so far, you had never thought it would be a permanent assignment.
  1360. > Once you'd finished a tour of duty serving as a dutiful bodyguard to noble ponies, and even noble non-ponies like the Royal Engineer, and once you'd settled into Canterlot life with your faithful Huckleberry -- Oh, Huck! -- the 1st Air Division was where you would really be headed.
  1361. > Not that you'd say 'no' if the illustrious Household Division at the Palace accepted a request for transfer, of course!
  1362. > You were just setting realistic goals.
  1363. > Those being, a posting somewhere with solid ground underhoof and job opportunities for your partner.
  1364. > You'd miss Berry, but it was hardly so far away that you couldn't visit.
  1365. > The train ride was just a couple of hours, and ran twice a day!
  1366. > And besides, Canterlot's city life held so much promise, so much wonder and excitement!
  1368. > After that eye-opening class trip five years ago, you knew you eventually wanted to end up here, regardless of where you were first posted.
  1369. > Putting your personal thoughts at the back of your mind, you come in to land on the upper of the three great oval 'balconies' that served as the mustering grounds for Canterlot's stalwart defenders.
  1370. > And it was also the closest pad to the actual headquarters, which you knew was just two more stories upstairs.
  1371. > Four lookouts and a traffic coordinator barely take notice of you, but the two pegasi at the doorway into the tower stop you, and one of them steps forward.
  1372. > "Identification, ma'am?"
  1373. > You dig out your ID card from your saddle bag and hoof it over.
  1374. "Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, Canterlot Palace Military Office, VIP Section"
  1375. > Once the guard has looked it over, he lifts his head, still holding the card.
  1376. > "What's your business here today, Specialist?"
  1377. "Message delivery for Major-General Hoofstrong."
  1378. > The guard nods and hoofs you back your ID.
  1379. > "HQ is two floors up. Staircase is on your left once you step inside. Ask for Lieutenant Cloudhunter."
  1380. > Finally, he gives you a salute, and you return it before making your way in.
  1381. > Definitely a bit more order & regulation here with these 1AD pegasi than with those Diamond Dogs from the Princess-Cadenza's 'Peregrines' regiment!
  1382. > You don't need a repeat of that encounter at the gate...
  1383. > Or the mishap that had you speaking to the regimental commander instead of merely the Officer of the Watch!
  1384. > Stepping inside, you tread your way upstairs, your armour clattering the whole way.
  1385. > There really wasn't anything else to do for it -- the tight staircase winding around the outer edge of the tower was far too narrow to risk flying in, at least while dressed like this.
  1386. > And there was no taunting Griffon to follow in the hallway this time, either!
  1387. > Not that you were against a little fun, of course...
  1389. > But it *was* nice to see the Royal Guard at its most well-drilled and brightly polished.
  1390. > Then again...
  1391. > The 1st Air Wing was a part of the 1st Air Division.
  1392. > That means Lieutenant Kilfeather, and his crony Lieutenant Joker, if they weren't both still on medical leave, were somewhere within this tower.
  1393. > With that sobering thought in mind, you turn the corner onto the first landing up, only to bump almost straight into another soldier.
  1394. > "Oh, *good morning* to you *Specialist*!"
  1395. "Guh!"
  1396. > Thundershowers, it's an officer!
  1397. > A Captain, by the look of it.
  1398. > Quick, the greeting of the day!
  1399. > "Good to go, I guess I don't rate a salute either, huh!?"
  1400. > Too slow!
  1401. > You quickly try to snap a hoof up to attention.
  1402. "Uh, I'm sorry, sir, good day to you. It's just that I didn't see you coming around the corner."
  1403. > The officer just keeps walking, though, hiking a hind hoof back towards where he came -- and where you're going.
  1404. > "Carry on, Specialist! You're late enough already without fumbling for excuses!"
  1405. > Late?
  1406. > How can you be late if nopony knew you were even coming?
  1407. > Regardless, you break into a sharp hustle -- and it's so loud the Captain will still hear it even if he's already two floors down.
  1408. > Huffing and puffing, you wind your way around and up the second set of stairs.
  1409. > Hopefully there's no officers at the top of this one, waiting to ambush you with the requirement of a formal greeting and salute.
  1410. > You nervously clear the open doorway out of the staircase, then immediately dart across the hall to the open door labelled 'HEADQUARTERS, 1AD'.
  1411. > But you don't get two galloped steps inside before the glasses-wearing Sergeant sitting at the reception desk looks up from the papers he's reading and scowls at you.
  1412. > "You're daggon' late, Specialist! Get your bronze-coated-barrel in the briefing hall, stat!"
  1413. > Another pony claiming you're late!
  1414. > What was going on here!?
  1416. > Unwilling to argue the point further with an irate Sergeant -- and a Staff Sergeant, at that! -- you wave a hoof-salute in his direction as you take to the air, following his hoof-gesture.
  1417. > And you *don't* forget to give him the greeting of the day on your way past.
  1418. "Good morning, Staff Sergeant!"
  1419. > As you head towards the indicated briefing hall, you just barely hear him mutter angrily behind you.
  1420. > "Daggon' valks, ain't got no daggon' discipline or sense o' time..."
  1421. > Wait, what was that?
  1422. > You don't have time to figure it out, because by the time it fully registers in your mind, you've already reached the double doors labelled 'Briefing Room', and you find yourself automatically pushing one of them open.
  1423. > The scene inside, however, shocks you back to your senses.
  1424. > In a long, high-ceilinged rectangular room with wood-panelled walls, what seems like an entire battalion is seated, listening to an officer speak up on a raised stage.
  1425. > Suddenly self-conscious, you gingerly close the door behind you and sneak as quietly as you can up behind the final row and sit down on your haunches.
  1426. > The officer on stage -- a full Colonel, presumably the commanding officer of this battalion in particular -- continues as if they hadn't even noticed your late entry.
  1427. > "... And that concludes the assignments for this weekend's watch. Remember, soldiers, if everything goes smoothly, we'll be repeating the same thing next weekend for the Gala. Any problems with the enhanced duty roster are to be reported immediately to HQ, is that clear? Any questions?"
  1428. > There's a soft murmur among the crowd, and then a forehoof goes up near the front.
  1429. > "... Yes, Captain?"
  1430. > The inquisitive Captain stands up on their hind hooves.
  1431. > "Sir, do we have any real information about the nature of this supposed threat to the Gala?"
  1432. > That gets more murmur from the crowd.
  1433. > What's this about a threat to the Gala, though??
  1435. > The Colonel raises his forehooves, and the crowd goes silent.
  1436. > "Unfortunately, Captain, no we do not..."
  1437. > That gets some more murmurs going, but the Colonel speaks over them.
  1438. > "... That is why headquarters has come up with this plan to cover all our bases. And until we *do* get more specific details, that's how it's going to be."
  1439. > There's another buzz of conversation, but nopony else puts up a forehoof.
  1440. > "... If that's all, the Division Commander would like to say a few words to all of us. Ma'am?"
  1441. > A pegasus with a short white mane and a red coat gets up from the rightmost seat at the very front row of the audience, beating her wings once to reach the stage.
  1442. > So that's Major-General Hoofstrong.
  1443. > She certainly strikes a distinctive figure.
  1444. > Unlike the Colonel, who's in his armour but with a hat instead of his helmet, the Major-General is wearing her blue Air Service Dress jacket, sleeves down, with the standard lighter blue collared shirt underneath and a neat black tie sealing everything up.
  1445. > There are a *considerable* number of ribbons on her breast, too, all crammed in between the foreleg and the lapel, and framed with the air service badge at the top and the Air Service Cross medal, with oak-leaf clusters, beneath it.
  1446. > Sitting above all that, on top of her head is a blue uniform peaked cap with two rows of silver 'scrambled eggs' leaf embellishments on its black visor, and a row of silver lightning bolts around the band.
  1447. > The room goes quiet as the Major-General takes her spot on the stage.
  1448. > Behind her, the battalion Colonel calls out.
  1449. > "Ten...HUT!"
  1450. > The whole room snaps up to attention, the Major-General salutes, and from the left side of the room, a bugler plays an honour call.
  1452. Suggested background music: (The United States Army Band - 'To the Color')
  1454. > A moment after the bugle is finished, Hoofstrong begins to speak.
  1455. > "At ease."
  1457. > There's a shuffle of bodies and armour as guardsponies settle back down again, then she continues.
  1458. > "... Guardsponies, there's some apprehension going around about what's going to happen next week. About who we're going to have to fight, and when, and where. I don't want any of you thinking about that garbage, because none of it matters. What matters is who *we* are, and what *we* do, and when *we* do it."
  1459. > She takes a moment to look around the room.
  1460. > "... You are here today for three reasons. First, because you are here to defend your homes and your loved ones. Second, you are here for your own self-respect, because you would not want to be anywhere else. Third, you are here because you are real Pegasi, and all real Pegasi like to fight."
  1461. > They do?
  1462. > *You* do?
  1463. > Well, maybe.
  1464. > "... When you were foals, you all admired the swiftest fliers, the best hoofball players, the big-league boffyball stars, the MXP champions. Pegasi love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Pegasi play to *win* all the time. That's why Equestria has never lost and will never lose a war, because the very thought of losing is hateful to us Pegasi."
  1465. > It *was* true that Equestria had never lost a war.
  1466. > As valuable as the Guard had been, though, you'd always sort of pinned things on individual heroes -- famous soldiers & generals, powerful mages, that sort of pony.
  1467. > Her Majesty the Princess of the Sun being foremost among them.
  1468. > But, even growing up in an overwhelmingly Earth-Pony town like Berry, you had to admit that what Major-General said hit home for you.
  1469. > You'd always felt that way about sports and games, always looking up to the champions.
  1470. > Including *yourself* when *your* hoofball team had won the annual cup.
  1471. > Or when you'd come first in the Hark County Aerial Marathon!
  1473. > Up on stage, Hoofstrong continues.
  1474. > "... Now, we have the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best soldiers in the world. You know, by Tartarus, I actually pity any poor bastards who come up against us, by Tartarus I do."
  1475. > She cursed!
  1476. > Are officers allowed to curse?
  1477. > Maybe it's because she's a mustang?
  1478. > The Major-General takes a step forward.
  1479. > "... Whoever dares to strike at our nation's capital, we're not just going to spear the bastards, we're going to cut out their living guts and give 'em to the Earth Ponies to fertilize the fields. We're going to murder the bastards by the bushel, until it rains blood down on the soil below."
  1480. > Gosh, that's an awfully visceral image.
  1481. > Almost worse than the foul language earlier.
  1482. > "... Now, there's another thing I want you to remember: I don't want to get any messages sent to HQ saying that we are holding The Watchtower. The Watchtower has never, in the history of Equestria, fallen to an enemy force. You don't need to hold The Watchtower. Let the enemy try to do that; they'll fail. We are advancing through the city and through the sky and we're not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto them by their snouts and we're going to buck them in the plot. We're going to kick the Tartarus out of them all the time and we're going to go through them like crap through a goose."
  1483. > That last vulgar line gets a few chuckles from the audience.
  1484. > "... Some of you foals and fillies, I know, especially the ones who weren't around here last year, are wondering whether or not you'll Breezie out if a real invasion comes. I can assure you that you will all do your duty."
  1485. > 'Last year' would be referring to the Changeling Invasion...
  1486. > The 1st Air Division lost a lot of good soldiers that day; all of the units defending the Canterlot sector did.
  1487. > The Major-General had good reason to want to pump up the confidence of the fresh recruits who hadn't been tested in that epic battle.
  1489. > You yourself feel a moment of pride to have kept your head during the border skirmish that was your experience of the war.
  1490. > "... One day, thirty years from now -- you may thank Celestia for it, thirty years from now -- you're going to be sitting around your stable with your grandfoal by your flank, and they ask you, 'What did you do during the Battle of the Gala?', you won't have to say, 'Well, I shoved around clouds in Cloudsdale.'"
  1491. > You suppress a gasp.
  1492. > Was she putting down the Airborne Weather And Climate Service, the AWACS?
  1493. > That was every Pegasus' duty to perform!
  1494. > Swearing, grotesque imagery, and now outright sacrilege?
  1495. > This was not the kind of behaviour you'd expected from a modern Major-General!
  1496. > "... No, sir, you can look them straight in the eyes and say, 'Grandfoal, I flew with the great First Air Division and that foal-of-a-nag named Georgia Hoofstrong!"
  1497. > Foal-of-a-nag!
  1498. > Well, she said it, not you.
  1499. > The Major-General nods.
  1500. > "... All right, now, you foals-of-nags, you know how I feel. Oh... I will be proud to lead you wonderful foals & fillies into battle anytime, anywhere. That's all."
  1501. > With that, the Major-General gives another salute, and, as the Colonel calls the room to attention once more, she glides off the stage and, joined from behind by another pony who was sitting in the front row -- her Aide-de-Camp, most likely -- together they stride down the central aisle towards the rear doors.
  1502. > Oh, hurricanes!
  1503. > You can't be seen by them, or else it'll make delivering the message pretty awkward!
  1504. > Making sure to respectfully salute with your eyes forward and your chest puffed out, you inch your way forward to try to blend in with the soldiers in the row in front of you.
  1505. > Except it's not exactly ideal camouflage, because none of them are in heavy armour like you are.
  1506. > When the Major-General's sharp hoofsteps pass you by, you hold your breath.
  1507. > But when they continue and trot all the way to the door, you sigh in relief.
  1509. > Once she's out of the room, the Colonel dismisses the troop, and Guardsponies start to file out, the buzz of discussions filling the air.
  1510. > You let a bunch of soldiers pass ahead of you, then cluster up with a crowd of fellow heavily-armoured pegasi, the better to blend in.
  1511. > Trowal, delivering messages sure was complicated!
  1512. > Armoured Recon ponies were just supposed to skirmish along the front and drive off enemy scouts, not operate commando-style behind enemy lines like this!
  1513. > All this comes from having let an officer (and a desk Sergeant) boss you around.
  1514. > Which, to be fair, was their job, but they didn't have the faintest clue who you were or what you were doing!
  1515. > You didn't even *report* to them!
  1516. > As you head out the door at the back of a herd of similarly-attired guardsponies, you silently resolve not to let anypony else distract you until you had done your duty.
  1517. > If there's a complaint, they can take it up with Lieutenant Violetta and the CPMO!
  1518. > That's when you feel a pair of hooves clasp you on the shoulder.
  1519. > "That's far enough, soldier."
  1520. > Tornadoes!
  1521. > The Major-General's Aide-de-Camp, a Lieutenant, stands before you, with a gruff Sergeant holding you at your side.
  1522. > "... Come this way."
  1524. Suggested background music: (Basil Poledouris - 'Rasczak's Roughnecks', from 'Starship Troopers' [1997])
  1526. > The ADC turns on his heels and the Sergeant releases you, then brusquely motions for you to follow after the Lieutenant.
  1527. > The two pegasi lead you deeper into the headquarters office, away from the bulk of the Royal Guardsponies who are making for the stairs.
  1528. > You pass desk after desk full of weary-looking divisional staff, their tables covered with what seem to be personnel files.
  1529. > From what you've heard it's an awful lot of paperwork, managing a division properly.
  1531. > At the back, huge rows of cabinets flank a pair of double doors, which a private opens ahead of the Lieutenant, saluting as the ADC passes by.
  1532. > Hailstorms, what have you gotten yourself into?
  1533. > Past what was clearly the 1AD's Equine Resources department, you head into what is equally clearly the strategic planning office.
  1534. > The room is dominated by an enormous raised table on which sits a miniature representation of the Canterlot Air Sector.
  1535. > Gosh, it's even got Canterlot Mountain to scale!
  1536. > And Cloudsdale is hanging in the air, suspended by wires from the ceiling, too!
  1537. > You can think of more than a few Hyperspace HyperWars players back in Berry who would love to set their miniatures up on *this* board!
  1538. > Not that they'd get a chance, however -- dozens of pegasi in service uniforms were buzzing around the room like bees, moving markers and updating charts on the walls.
  1539. > With organization like this, it was little wonder that The Watchtower had never fallen...
  1540. > Unfortunately, you can't stop and watch -- the Lieutenant and his surly Sergeant lead you around the table and to another pair of double doors at the back.
  1541. > The Lieutenant pulls the door open himself, and inside you see a big, brown wooden desk.
  1542. > And behind it sits Major-General Hoofstrong herself.
  1543. > Well...
  1544. > This is *one* way to deliver a calling card, all right.
  1545. > Just probably not the *best* way.
  1546. > The Sergeant pulls the doors shut behind you, and you notice that there's another pony in the room as well.
  1547. > Unlike the others, she's not in a service uniform, but instead is armoured from head to hooves in heavy bronze plate almost identical to yours.
  1548. > With the notable exception that her helmet has a pair of decorative wings attached at the temples.
  1549. > Hurricanes, thunderstorms, and hailstorms!
  1550. > It's an actual Valkyrie!
  1551. > Hoofstrong glances at you, then looks at the Valkyrie.
  1552. > "Well, Growler, is this the one?"
  1554. > The armoured figure nods.
  1555. > "Yes, General; she snuck in at the end."
  1556. > That's not fair!
  1557. > Considering the noise your armour makes, you could hardly be said to have *snuck* in.
  1558. > The General looks in your direction again.
  1559. > "Stand at attention, soldier."
  1560. > You snap into a salute.
  1561. > Georgia Hoofstrong steps around her table to sit in front of it, crossing her forelegs in front of her chest.
  1562. > "... You're not one of my Valkyries. Who are you, and what were you doing in my briefing hall?"
  1563. "Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, Canterlot Palace Military Office, VIP section, ma'am! I'm here to deliver a message, and I was directed there by mistake."
  1564. > The Valkyrie scoffs, but goes silent when the Major-General shoots her a glance.
  1565. > Then she turns her eyes back on you again.
  1566. > "Are you making an accusation against a member of my staff, Specialist?"
  1567. > Oh, Celestia, you've got to be awfully careful about how you word this.
  1568. "No, ma'am, but... Given my attire, I believe the desk clerk may have mistaken me for a tardy Valkyrie late to the briefing. A Captain in the staircase just before that may have done so as well."
  1569. > One of the Major-General's white eyebrows lifts up.
  1570. > "A tardy Valkyrie? Now there's a thought. Who could possibly have cause to accuse a Valkyrie of *tardiness*?"
  1571. > There's a funny tone to her voice, but it's when the actual honest-to-Celestia Valkyrie in the room straightens up in her armour and opens her mouth to speak that you get the impression that Hoofstrong may have been speaking sarcastically.
  1572. > "General, I-"
  1573. > The division commander lifts a hoof.
  1574. > "Don't interrupt, Growler; I'm asking the questions here. Now, why are you in heavy armour, Specialist? Was it your *intention* to be misidentified?"
  1575. > You shake your head.
  1576. "No, ma'am. This is my standard combat outfit; I'm a 19D Armoured Scout originally from the 3rd Pegasus Regiment."
  1577. > The General licks her lips and shakes her head, sighing.
  1578. > "All right, I've heard enough..."
  1580. > She nods at the Valkyrie, Growler.
  1581. > "... Major, take better care that your troops show up to meetings on-time and maybe random guardsmares in heavy armour won't be mistaken for one of them..."
  1582. > As the General turns back to you, Major Growler frowns, and you can tell the frown is directed your way as well.
  1583. > "... As for you, Specialist, go on and deliver your message. Sergeant, please direct the Specialist where she needs to go."
  1584. > She waves a hoof and then begins to step back behind her desk.
  1585. > Whew.
  1586. > But before the Sergeant moves forward to come up beside you, you speak up, maintaining your salute.
  1587. "Ma'am, with respect, the message I'm carrying is actually intended for you."
  1588. > Hoofstrong pauses and looks up, curious.
  1589. > "Oh, is it? And what does the CPMO VIP section want with the 1st A-D? No, no, don't tell me, let me guess..."
  1590. > She takes a deep breath and, stretching her wings out slightly, sits up in her chair, then leans forward, placing her forehooves together and her elbows on the table.
  1591. > "... This is about the unauthorized aerial training exercise on the palace grounds two days ago, isn't it?"
  1592. > Celestia, she's sharper than a January cold front.
  1593. > You nod.
  1594. "Yes, ma'am. The Royal Engineer of Equestria sends his apologies, and his calling-card."
  1595. > She nods, and you drop out of your salute to pull Anonymous' card out of the small letter-pocket in your saddle bag.
  1596. > You hoof it over to the Major-General, who pulls it forward across the desk with one hoof, then flips it over to look at the back.
  1597. "... He would like to arrange a meeting at your earliest convenience to present his apologies in person, and also to obtain an authorization to resume the aerial training exercise in question as soon as possible. He's available at your discretion."
  1599. > Hoofstrong leans back in her chair and exchanges an exhausted glance with her ADC.
  1600. > "Now? Really? The Royal Engineer wants to conduct live-fire exercises on the palace grounds a week before the Grand Galloping Gala?"
  1601. > You shake your head.
  1602. "With respect, ma'am, it wasn't live-fire. I was being shot at by practice rounds only."
  1603. > That raises eyebrows all around the room.
  1604. > Well, what?
  1605. > You were!
  1606. > The Valkyrie, Major Growler, grumbles out a question before anypony else.
  1607. > "You were serving as a living target *yourself*? You weren't just towing one in the air?"
  1608. "I was the target, ma'am. I was performing mock strafing runs against an armed mobile ground unit."
  1609. > Growler scrunches up her snout.
  1610. > "Armed? Armed with what, a cannon?"
  1611. "No, ma'am. An anti-air unicorn member of my quaternion; a Centurion of the Ram."
  1612. > Your answer just confuses the Valkyrie, and she goes silent.
  1613. > Major-General Hoofstrong leans forward again.
  1614. > "Specialist Sparkshower, what exactly were you testing out on Her Majesty's Royal Eastern Cottage racetrack?"
  1615. "The Royal Engineer's new Self-Propelled Air Defence Weapon, ma'am. It's an awfully clever machine."
  1616. > Your answer only seems to have confused the two-star general of the Royal Guard, so you press on.
  1617. "... I'm not too familiar with the workings of it, but I'm sure the Royal Engineer would be happy to tell you all about it himself, General. He says it's going to revolutionize Equestrian warfare."
  1618. > Hoofstrong frowns and looks back down at the calling-card for a moment, then begins to shake her head.
  1619. > "Specialist, I've got almost the entire 1st Air Division working double shifts patrolling the Canterlot airspace between now and the Gala, and my headquarters staff is waiting on the tips of their hooves for any new information about the supposed threat that Intelligence has signalled. It's really not the best time..."
  1621. > Sighing, she pulls the card off the edge of the table and into her hoof, holding it up.
  1622. > "... But, let me see if I find a spot in my calendar for your VIP. Return to the Royal Engineer and tell him I'll send a messenger of my own with the meeting time later today. Got that?"
  1623. > You salute once more.
  1624. "Yes, ma'am!"
  1625. > With a grin, she nods at the Valkyrie.
  1626. > "And if anypony else mistakes you for a tardy Valkyrie in the Watchtower, blow them off and tell them to bring it up with Major Growler, understand?"
  1627. "Yes, ma'am."
  1628. > "Right. Dismissed."
  1629. > With a final salute, you turn around and find the Sergeant's already opened the door for you.
  1630. > Well, sunshine and rainbows, that wasn't too hard in the end!
  1631. > Though it certainly looked stormy at the beginning...
  1632. > You hope the eventual meeting with the Royal Engineer goes as well...
  1634. Suggested watching: (Opening scene from 'Patton', 1970)
  1639. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you're looking forward to a nice, quiet day.
  1640. > No unpleasant surprises from the junior enlisted under your charge.
  1641. > No nearly-underage batpony coltfriend on display.
  1642. > No pressure to try on scandalously high-cut dresses for the Gala.
  1643. > Just you, and your armour, and your spear, on guard beside the Royal Engineer's doors.
  1644. > And the Royal Engineer himself, sitting on a stool at one of the recently-installed workbenches in his quarters, working on some mechanical thing or another.
  1645. > And Specialist Sparkshower on the other side of the doors, just in case anypony comes for a visit.
  1646. > She deserves the extra shift to make up her mistake -- to the Royal Engineer, for having deceived him, and to you, for having embarrassed the quaternion and given you a headache.
  1647. > Much as you know that Anonymous wants to get things sorted out for his 'Self-Propelled Air Defence Weapon' demonstration, you'd much prefer a nice, quiet day.
  1648. > Nothing but some tinkering with his tools, maybe a quick trip down to the carriage-house for some adjustments to the vehicle, possibly even yet another driving lesson -- which was stressful, but becoming less so, at least -- and then an easy hoof-off to Ebonshield for the night shift.
  1649. > Easy-keeper little-hay-eater.
  1650. > Provided Glamerspear hadn't somehow managed to start some utter nonsense upstairs, things might just wind up going that easily.
  1651. > You're just starting to feel relaxed when there's a knock at the door.
  1652. > This interruption, you hope, is just an expected delivery.
  1653. > Cracking open the door, you see a pair of brightly-coloured unicorn colts in dark grey frock coats, with brown waistcoats underneath, and matching bowler hats on top.
  1654. > They're a bit overdressed for a simple delivery.
  1655. "Yes?"
  1656. > The older colt's horn glows orange as he floats off his grey hat.
  1657. > "Mister Henry Fortstable to see the Lord Engineer, ma'am?"
  1659. > It's a surprise to hear the gentlecolt himself at the door.
  1660. > The Royal Engineer told you only that he was expecting a delivery from Henry Fortstable & Co., renowned Canterlot coach-builders, and not that *the* actual Henry Fortstable would be making the trip.
  1661. > From behind you, you hear the Royal Engineer call out before you can relay the greeting.
  1662. > "Did I hear Mr. Fortstable himself at the door, Corporal? Please show him in."
  1663. > It sounds like your employer is equally surprised.
  1664. > As you and Sparkshower pull the double doors open wide and allow the two unicorns to enter, you notice to your relief that the other colt is quite clearly an assistant, as he's got a pair of heavily-laden saddle-bags slung over his haunches.
  1665. > Since it was just a package delivery, you hadn't even thought to check on Mr. Fortstable's affinity.
  1666. > Anonymous puts down his tools and stands up, wiping his hands on his leather work-apron.
  1667. > "... Ah, Mister Fortstable, you really didn't need to attend to me personally like this. Surely your business must be bustling with the Gala coming up."
  1668. > The older colt smiles.
  1669. > "My Lord is too kind. But my faith in my employees is exceeded only by my desire to satisfy my most valuable customers."
  1670. > Anonymous chuckles.
  1671. > "I'm not sure how I managed to reach that lofty height with just two orders under my belt."
  1672. > Two orders?
  1673. > Henry Fortstable & Co. built the base chassis for the Royal Engineer's steam-powered 'automobile'.
  1674. > Had he ordered a second one already?
  1675. > Maybe so, but your VIP had said that today's delivery would be relatively small; just a few parts he was looking for.
  1676. > What could they possibly have brought?
  1677. > As if to answer your question, the younger assistant, at Henry Fortstable's beckoning, trots over to one of the workbenches and telekinetically hoists the bags off of his back.
  1679. > Then your Very Important Pony (who isn't actually a pony) grabs the floating bag and places it on the table, flipping open the cover to pull out...
  1680. > A large black metal coil?
  1681. > Fortstable watches as the Royal Engineer looks the thing over.
  1682. > "I hope it meets your specifications, m'lord."
  1683. > Anonymous squeezes the coil at its ends, squishing it almost flat, and then lets go with one hand.
  1684. > The coil expands itself back into place.
  1685. > It's some kind of spring?
  1686. > "Seems about the right stiffness. Sorry I couldn't be more precise in my instructions -- I assumed I'd have to do a bit of tweaking myself, possibly cutting it down to size. What did you make of my other proposal?"
  1687. > Now it's Fortstable's turn to pull something out, and his horn lights up as a folded-up piece of paper appears from underneath his coat.
  1688. > "I think I've grasped the concept, m'lord. Here's the design we've produced. With your approval, we can begin work as soon as the Gala is over. I'm afraid for this more involved task I can't spare the workers until then."
  1689. > Putting down the coil-spring, Anonymous unfolds the sheet and looks it over, then nods again.
  1690. > "Seems correct to me. And I understand perfectly about the timetable, of course..."
  1691. > He hands back the paper and picks up the spring once more.
  1692. > "... I'll use this for the accelerator for now, and if the brakes work out on your end, then we can hook them up as well. Here, let me show you what I've got in store..."
  1693. > Accelerator?
  1694. > Brakes?
  1695. > The carriage already had brakes, though the experience almost running over Lt. Vi at Royal Eastern racetrack had made it plainly obvious that they were both far to easy to accidentally leave on, what with the surprising puissance of Anonymous 'steam-engine', as well as difficult to reset in an actual emergency.
  1696. > 'Accelerator' also made you think of the awkward little screw valve used to adjust the engine's power.
  1697. > Maybe he was planning to rectify those problems?
  1699. > But how would *springs* help?
  1700. > All Anonymous had told you was that he was planning some enhancements to his 'automobile', and you, feeling a bit exhausted and overwhelmed this morning from everything that had happened up until now, declined to press him for the details.
  1701. > You knew he would freely tell you his ideas if you asked, and you probably would inquire about them later.
  1702. > But you were not really in the mood to ask, today.
  1703. > Today, you just wanted quiet.
  1704. > The Royal Engineer leads Fortstable and his assistant over to another workbench and unrolls a blueprint, and you shut their conversation out of your mind.
  1705. > There are already too many things galloping around up there already.
  1706. > Sparkshower's impropriety.
  1707. > Glamerspear's repeated outbursts
  1708. > Ebonshield's stand-out difference.
  1709. > The Gala.
  1710. > Your dress *for* the Gala.
  1711. > (How did Glamerspear manage to con you into that one, you'd thought, after looking yourself over in the mirror again later in the evening).
  1712. > Then there was Castlerook.
  1713. > And Castlerook's offer for you to return to Fillydelphia.
  1714. > The way he phrased it, in his usual easygoing style, it was something like a casual invitation.
  1715. > But something told you he intended to pursue it as a solid plan.
  1716. > Which meant at some point he'd stop leaving things at an awkward goodbye outside your door.
  1717. > You still weren't sure how to feel about that.
  1718. > And with that feeling came all the rest: your personal despair at having failed to achieve success in life, the ongoing exceptional experience of working for the Royal Engineer, the whole strange situation with the batponies, the embarrassing and exhausting training of your VIP in combat, Glamerspear's feud with Kilfeather, Anonymous' incredible *flowers* after your gaffe, Bitsmount somehow getting away with blaming everything on a subordinate, your alien employer's naivety about Equestrian society...
  1719. > There's another knock at the door.
  1720. > You pull it open a crack and peek out.
  1722. > It's another colt dressed in ordinary day wear -- a plain brown suit with a rough-looking bowler hat, but worn by a big earth pony, this time.
  1723. > Must be another one of Fortstable's employees, maybe come to check up on his master.
  1724. > Anonymous and him have been chattering away at his desk for quite a few minutes, now.
  1725. > The Royal Engineer's trying to explain something to him about springs and wheels and brakes and such, but you just don't have the concentration to follow along today.
  1726. > You nod at the new visitor.
  1727. "Yes?"
  1728. > He doesn't remove his hat.
  1729. > "I'm here for the Royal Engineer. It's a delivery."
  1730. > Must not be with Fortstable after all.
  1731. > Well, whatever.
  1732. > The Royal Engineer doesn't have to tell you about every *package* he's receiving.
  1733. > With that particular carriage-parts delivery, he must have suspected it could turn into a meeting.
  1734. > You clear your throat.
  1735. "Another delivery for you, sir."
  1736. > Anonymous barely looks up from where he's still discussing plans with the carriage-builder.
  1737. > "Sure, sure, let them in, Corporal."
  1738. > You nod at Sparkshower and you pull the doors open in unison.
  1739. > It's a bit annoying, having them open inwards.
  1740. > You always feel like your view of the visitors is always completely obscured until they step well into the room.
  1741. > Most noticeably with Her Majesty Princess Luna.
  1742. > You wonder when -- *if* -- she'll visit again.
  1743. > Will she want a debriefing on your quaternion's experiences with her batponies, her 'Children of the Stars'?
  1744. > Maybe an opinion or two on where to go next with integrating them into Equestrian society?
  1745. > Right now, all they seemed to have was a small colony underneath Canterlot and a little work guarding the palace walls at night.
  1746. > Though the minotaur smith, Bronzehorn, insinuated that he'd met some of them before, and his shop was all the way out in Newcastle-upon-Mare, so some of the batponies must have permission to roam a little more widely...
  1748. > Or maybe they *didn't*.
  1749. > That would be an interesting report to give.
  1750. > The big, young-looking green colt in the brown suit steps forward into the room and pauses a moment before clearing his throat.
  1751. > "Mister Anonymous? Royal Engineer of Equestria?"
  1752. > He mumbles the line a bit, the sign of an amateur delivery-pony.
  1753. > Same with failing to remove his hat -- not a polite thing to do.
  1754. > You also notice he doesn't have any saddle-bags.
  1755. > Must just be a letter-courier.
  1756. > Strange to see an earth pony working that gig instead of hauling heavy cargo, though.
  1757. > Then again, right before the Gala was the second-busiest period of the year for the postal service -- and for every private delivery company as well.
  1758. > Plenty of invites being sent out, plans being made, orders being placed, after-parties and before-parties being set up.
  1759. > No surprise a private firm would pull their big haulers off of low-profit bulk work to put them on higher-margin letter jobs.
  1760. > Anonymous looks up with a smile.
  1761. > "Yes, hello, that's me. Do you need me to sign for something?"
  1762. > The big colt shakes his head and sits down on his haunches, putting his forehooves together and fussing with them for a moment.
  1763. > "No, sir. To *answer* for something."
  1764. > In the blink of an eye, there's a sharp *PANG* noise as the visitor absolutely whips one of his horseshoes down at the carpeted floor between him and the Royal Engineer.
  1765. > The metal U-shape ricochets up in the air before falling back down just a few hooves in front of your VIP.
  1766. > Throwing down a horseshoe at the Royal Engineer?
  1767. > Now what in the violet Tartarus was this?
  1768. > You have your answer when there's a clattering of heavy bronze armour from the other side of the open door.
  1769. > "HUCKLEBERRY?!"
  1770. > Oh, buck.
  1771. > Reaching back for one of your javelins, you push your door closed and see Sparkshower stepping forward.
  1773. > Her previously-long-distance-but-now-uncomfortably-close-distance coltfriend doesn't so much as make a single glance in her direction, keeping the Royal Engineer fixed in his gaze.
  1774. > By now, Fortstable and his assistant have looked up and turned around as well.
  1775. > But while they're shocked by the interruption and the challenge, your VIP just looks perplexed, staring down at the iron horseshoe with a furrowed brow.
  1776. > He can't possibly have any idea of what's just happened.
  1777. > You hastily close the other door as Sparkshower approaches her apparently jilted lover.
  1778. > "... Huckleberry, what are you doing here?!"
  1779. > He just keeps on ignoring her, speaking to your VIP instead.
  1780. > "Well, mister Anonymous? This here's a matter of honour. Are you an honourable colt?"
  1781. > Sparkshower answers before the Royal Engineer can.
  1782. > "Huckleberry, speak to me! What's this all about? Why are you here?!"
  1783. > Finally, as you also step up behind him, he deigns to briefly look over at her.
  1784. > But he equally quickly snaps his eyes back up at your employer.
  1785. > With a loud sniff, he licks his lips before speaking again.
  1786. > "You know what this is about, mister Anonymous: you've taken somethin' that don't belong to you. I'm here for satisfaction -- that's what I want."
  1787. > There's some hesitation in his voice when he speaks the second line.
  1788. > No surprise somepony idiotic enough to issue a challenge like this may not have entirely thought things through.
  1789. > You sidestep the furniture and circle around to get closer to your employer.
  1790. > Formal challenge or no, you're not going to take any changes with this big colt.
  1791. > Sparkshower continues to harangue her beau.
  1792. > "What do you mean 'taken'? Is this about the Maypole? That was *my* mistake, Huckleberry. I asked the Royal Engineer to dance, and I didn't think through the consequences. But I changed my mind and was just about to write to tell you so."
  1794. > You see the green colt's jaw clench and unclench, but he maintains his firm stance, even as he finally addresses the pegasus in the room.
  1795. > "This don't concern you, Thunder. This is between me an' mister Anonymous here."
  1796. > Having thus been acknowledged, she steps out in front of him, interposing herself between her angry colt and her baffled employer.
  1797. > "What do you mean it don't concern me?! It's *about* me, isn't it?"
  1798. > She lets a bit of her country Berry accent slip out when she sends Huckleberry's words right back at him.
  1799. > "I said it's a matter of honour, Thunder. Mine, and mister Anonymous' here..."
  1800. > Standing up on all fours again, he lifts his head above hers and once again calls out to your VIP.
  1801. > "... Well, what's it going to be, mister?"
  1802. > But Sparkshower flaps her wings to get back up in front of his face.
  1803. > "Don't just dismiss me like that, Huckleberry! I'm not some piece of your personal property!"
  1804. > Instantly, he snaps back.
  1805. > "Oh, so it's true, then."
  1806. > She reverts to pleading her case.
  1807. > "No, it *isn't*, Huckleberry, but how can I explain it when you aren't listening to me?"
  1808. > He shakes his head.
  1809. > "You don't have to explain anything. You're free to make your choice; free as a bird, if you please."
  1810. > She throws her forehooves up, almost dropping her spear in the process.
  1811. > "But I *didn't* change anything! You didn't say you were coming and I made a mistake!"
  1812. > Huckleberry manages a halfhearted scowl, but it becomes grim when he peeks around his estranged marefriend in your direction.
  1813. > "Not as big a mistake as your new coltfriend just made. He accepted my challenge! And I got witnesses!"
  1814. > Oh, no, please Celestia please don't say that Anonymous picked up the horseshoe.
  1816. > You glance behind you and, sure enough, the Royal Engineer is holding up the curved piece of iron like a delicate flower -- albeit at a distance from himself, as if it were a particularly foul-smelling one.
  1817. > "I'm sorry, I think there's been a terrible misunderstanding here. Mister Huckleberry, is it? What's the meaning of this? What exactly are you accusing me of having done?"
  1818. > The colt replies plaintively, raising his voice even more.
  1819. > "You know what you did, you damn dirty mare-stealing ape! Otherwise, you wouldn't have picked up my horseshoe, would you? There's witnesses here, too! It's a challenge good and proper!"
  1820. > Sparkshower is too shocked by her coltfriend's name-calling to interject, and Huckleberry continues on.
  1821. > "... Come on, you there, mister unicorn, what's your name? This is a matter of Equestrian honour!"
  1822. > Fortstable steps forward, a weighty frown on his face and a pair of 'pince-museau' reading glasses on his muzzle.
  1823. > "My name's Henry Fortstable, foal. But I'm not witness to anything -- not anything legitimate at any rate."
  1824. > Huckleberry appears confused and infuriated.
  1825. > "What?! You were right here, mister Fortstable -- You heard me call him out and saw him pick it up! That means it's a duel!"
  1826. > Fortstable shakes his head.
  1827. > "Foal, I may disapprove heavily of the ancient barbaric tradition of duelling, but at least I know the rules for it..."
  1828. > He turns to Anonymous and nods.
  1829. > "... Lord Anonymous is a member of the Blue Chamber of Equestria. Celestia's privy council. I don't know your exact station in life but I'm guessing he's well above it, and therefore within his rights to dismiss your challenge out of hoof."
  1830. > Huckleberry stamps his four hooves on the ground angrily.
  1831. > "Yeah, maybe he can -- but he didn't! He picked it up anyways! Come on, mister Anonymous! Are you going to rob my honour and spit in my face at the same time?"
  1832. > For a green pony, he's getting pretty red in the face.
  1834. > This could easily escalate into a fight; you ready your javelin, but Sparkshower's on top of the big colt before you can do anything else.
  1835. > "Your honour! Your honour?! Is that all you care about now, Huckleberry? Your honour? Since when did you get so callous?"
  1836. > Huckleberry looks her straight in the eyes and deadpans his next words.
  1837. > "Since you came flying away here."
  1838. > The words pierce straight through Sparkshower's armour, and she drops out of the air down to her hooves with a loud metallic clatter.
  1839. > "I... I came to Canterlot *for you*, Huckleberry! I wanted to find somewhere we could both live and work and not be so far apart all the time! Somewhere safe for a pegasus and earth pony alike!"
  1840. > The colt's face is hardened, his jaw is clenched; he doesn't reply.
  1841. > "... Why won't you answer me?"
  1842. > Huckleberry looks down at Sparkshower, then up at Anonymous, then back and forth once more, before muttering to himself.
  1843. > "If that's the way it is, then that's the way it is..."
  1844. > Finally, breathing heavily, and with a sharp sniffle to begin, he addresses himself to the Royal Engineer -- but looks at his marefriend while speaking.
  1845. > "... Have a care with this one, mister Anonymous. My momma always told me not to fall in love with a pegasus, 'cause one day she'd surely fly away and break my heart. I guess she was right."
  1846. > You hear, rather than see, Sparkshower's jaw drop against the inside of her bassinet helmet.
  1847. > "You... You..."
  1848. > Her wings trembling, Sparkshower shouts up at her ex-lover.
  1849. > "... You came all the way to Canterlot to defend your supposed honour, when you wouldn't come for your marefriend or for a career or even a golden ticket to the Grand Galloping Gala itself!"
  1850. > Panting heavily and with tears streaming from her eyes, she continues.
  1851. > "... I send you letter after letter after letter pleading to see you again, and I get nothing in reply! And when I *do* see you again, you won't even say hello to me?"
  1853. > Even the large earth pony's imposing iron jaw seems to be softening from the withering verbal assault.
  1854. > "... And Lord Anonymous! He offered that Gala ticket to you and me both out of the kindness and generosity in his heart! He never treated me as anything other than a valued bodyguard -- never as a piece of property! And you come in here and throw your horseshoe down at his hooves just like that?"
  1855. > Gritting her teeth, Sparkshower launches herself up into the air, twirls her spear around in the air, then dives down and slams the butt loudly against the ground, before finally brandishing the weapon aggressively at the colt, hovering in place.
  1856. > "... Do you want a duel with the Royal Engineer that badly? Well, I'm one of his bodyguards, and, Mister Pudding, let me tell you that you may be a big colt, but I'm still a persimmon well above your huckleberry!"
  1857. > "But Thunder, he picked up my-"
  1858. > She instantly prods the spear closer towards his face.
  1859. > "Don't call me that when you're not acting like a friend should, Huckleberry! And don't make this about you and Anonymous when it's really about you an' *me*!"
  1860. > Still furious, she pauses her rant to wait for a reply.
  1861. > Huckleberry swallows and sniffs, but continues to scowl.
  1862. > "You can say what you want, Artemis, but ponies are talking back in Berry. I've been made the town fool 'cause of you an' him!"
  1863. > He points a forehoof at Anonymous, but all you can think is: 'wrong answer, buddy'.
  1864. > Sparkshower shakes her head, sniffling but still holding her spear steady.
  1865. > "Huckleberry Pudding, I don't know if I care to see you ever again."
  1866. > For once, her words seem to have the same effect on him as his words have had so far on her, and the green colt starts to lose some of his nerve.
  1868. > He loses a lot more of it when she nods her visor down across her eyes and pokes her spear towards his sternum.
  1869. > "... In the name of Anonymous, by Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer of Equestria, I order you to vacate these premises immediately!"
  1870. > Finally, Huckleberry yields to the bronze armoured pegasus and backs up a few hooves, followed closely by Sparkshower, before turning to grab the door-handle.
  1871. > Facing the room one last time, he pauses for a moment as if to give some parting words, but either can't think of anything or decides, wisely, to keep his mouth shut.
  1872. > The latch clicks softly back in place behind the big colt.
  1873. > Sparkshower just floats down to the ground in front of the double doors.
  1874. > You glance back up at Anonymous, who nods knowingly in her direction.
  1875. > Replacing your javelin, you head over to Sparkshower.
  1876. > She's panting heavily and still holding her spear at the ready.
  1877. "Artemis? Are you all right?"
  1878. > There's a sniffle from within the helmet, and she raises a hoof to lift the visor.
  1879. > Her eyes are bloodshot and her muzzle is soaked with tears.
  1880. > "Permission to be relieved of duty, Corporal?"
  1881. > You nod.
  1882. "You're dismissed for today, Specialist. Report to the barracks."
  1883. > Sparkshower nods, then tries to wipe the tears from her face with a foreleg -- but bronze armour isn't exactly the most absorbent material, so all she manages to do is smear it around.
  1884. > Despite that, she leaps into the air with a surprising energy and spreads her wings, twirling her spear dramatically around above her head once again.
  1885. > Floating above your head, she spins around, rearing back to clang her off-hoof sabot into her visor, addressing your VIP.
  1886. > "Specialist Sparkshower retiring from duty, sir. I'll be upstairs if you need me."
  1887. > Anonymous nods.
  1888. > "I'm sorry about what happened, Specialist. Why don't you take it easy for a while?"
  1890. > You pull the door open for her, and she flaps her way out of the room without so much as another sniffle.
  1891. > For what *that* just was, she seemed to handle it pretty well.
  1892. > And despite lacking confidence at the beginning of the Battle of Newstirrup Bridge, Sparkshower was a pretty tough mare.
  1893. > She could make it through this rough break-up, you were certain.
  1895. Artemis Sparkshower's theme song: (Adele - Set Fire to the Rain [Thomas Gold Remix])
  1900. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and ordinarily, two spa days in a single week was a real luxury.
  1901. > But it didn't feel very luxurious, lying at the edge of Spa Dalecarlia's warm pool, dangling a forehoof down the side into the water, watching your heartbroken comrade float aimlessly on her back in the centre, as still as a corpse.
  1902. > Sparkshower had been quiet when she came upstairs earlier -- *too* quiet, heading straight to her room with barely a hello.
  1903. > Sulking in her room, you'd had to get the story out of Corporal Bound at lunchtime.
  1904. > Honour had agreed to allow you to haul your comatose comrade out of bed and to the spa -- provided you both stuck around until two o'clock to see if Major-General Hoofstrong would call a meeting for today.
  1905. > When the hour had come and no messenger had yet arrived, you gently barged into Sparkshower's room, spa membership card floating above your head, and ordered her to accompany you.
  1906. > She hadn't so much as uttered a peep in complaint.
  1907. > Or any peep at all.
  1908. > Is this even doing anything for her?
  1909. > She didn't want a massage or preening, she didn't want the hot tub or the sauna, she apparently just wanted to... float... in the pool.
  1910. > It's a bit concerning.
  1911. > If there was anypony else around, they might be worried, too.
  1912. > But it's a Friday, and the Gala's next weekend, and Celestia's still holding the weekend day court that pulls in the masses from across Equestria.
  1913. > As a result, anypony who *can* get out of Canterlot *has* gotten out of Canterlot, and anypony still in the city probably has something better to do than to sit at the spa in the early afternoon.
  1914. > Heck, on a day like this, even in the Canterlot Royal Guard, half the officers who didn't have duty on the weekend would already be out the door.
  1916. > The other half would tell their Sergeants after lunch to let everypony waiting on standby go for libo at four o'clock sharp, while they themselves promptly headed for the nearest family villa, private club, upscale saloon, or theatre-slash-bawdy-stable well before then.
  1917. > So, no surprise you were alone and private in the bath-halls of the public spa.
  1918. > Things were likely to pick up in an hour or two, though, when most ponies closed up their businesses for the evening -- or the weekend.
  1919. > Suddenly, there's a tiny splash from the pool, and you see Sparkshower lift one of her wings a few inches, then drop it down again.
  1920. > Well, it's a start.
  1921. "How you doing over there, Sparks?"
  1922. > No reply but a deep breath.
  1923. > That's a bit of a snub to you, but considering everything that happened, you can hardly blame her.
  1924. > First love and first break-up -- and what a break-up!
  1925. > Previously incommunicado coltfriend makes sudden unannounced arrival and challenges the Royal Engineer to a duel for Sparkshower's hoof!
  1926. > It'd almost be romantic if it wasn't so wrong-headed.
  1927. > And if, according to Honour, the colt hadn't seemed more intent on fighting than on winning back his marefriend's love.
  1928. > You swish your forehoof around in the pool.
  1929. "... You wanna talk about what happened at all?"
  1930. > Again, nothing but another deep breath in response.
  1931. > It was maybe a little more of a sigh, though, so you lift your head up a bit and carry on.
  1932. "... It can help to talk about it, if you want."
  1933. > Nothing from her, not even a pointed breath.
  1934. > You shrug and splash your hoof around some more, like a fishing cat.
  1935. "... But if you don't wanna quite yet, that's fine, too. I'm just sayin' I'm here for you, Sparks -- ya know what I mean?"
  1936. > There's a pause, but then you hear her speak -- though she doesn't move a single other muscle.
  1937. > "I know. And I'm glad you're here for me, Lily. But I don't want to talk about it yet..."
  1939. > Without making even the slightest ripple in the surface, she turns her head towards you.
  1940. > "... I'm still trying to come to terms with it myself."
  1941. > You nod.
  1942. "Sure, of course..."
  1943. > Sparkshower looks back up at the ceiling, again seeming to do so without disturbing the water at all.
  1944. > Semi-unintentionally, you find yourself thinking back to a long time ago...
  1945. > Well, it was actually just five years, but hey, that was almost a quarter of your life.
  1946. > You've done a lot since then, and it sure *feels* like that was a long time ago.
  1947. > But this particularly memory still stings on those occasions when it bubbles up to the surface.
  1948. "... The first break-up always hurts the most, I can tell you that."
  1949. > You hadn't been as deeply involved with your colt as Sparkshower had been with hers.
  1950. > Nor had your relationship gone on for nearly as long.
  1951. > But you didn't think those details really altered the pain very much.
  1952. > It was just the ending that hurt; the ending of something that could've lasted forever.
  1953. > The ending of innocence, maybe.
  1954. > There's a tiny splash from the water as Sparkshower pushes one of her hind hooves out slightly.
  1955. > Ah, so that's what she's doing.
  1956. > Looking up at the ceiling, she's using the patterns in the mosaic tile to align herself in the pool, keeping station in the absolute dead centre, regardless of the subtle flows of water from the recirculation pumps or from your aimless splashing.
  1957. > A kind of mind-clearing exercise, you suppose.
  1958. > Focusing on a simple task to forget about her troubles.
  1959. > Despite that meditative focus, however, she speaks up.
  1960. > "What was your first time like?"
  1961. > Well, painful awkward memory or no, you asked for this.
  1962. > Thankfully there's not much to tell.
  1963. "It was a high school crush. He was a senior, I was a junior. We started seeing each other in the fall..."
  1965. > You try to force out a chuckle, but it doesn't sound very authentic.
  1966. "... Heh. I was foalish, and I thought it meant more to him than just the kissing in-between classes, or the snuggles after school, or the trysts in Central Park -- at lunchtime, after supper, and almost every weekend."
  1967. > You shrug.
  1968. "... But it didn't -- or maybe it did, for a while, and he just changed his mind about it or about me. Either way, after a steamy fall and a tender winter, he chilled on me in the spring."
  1969. > Swinging your free forehoof back and forth, you send some more ripples Sparkshower's way.
  1970. > Give her something for her to think about other than just her own problems and your foalish first romance.
  1971. "... I thought it was just his nerves from prepping for the exams, and maybe it was a bit of that. But while he started increasingly cancelling our meet-ups, he also started hanging around the senior mares as well."
  1972. > Sure enough, your minute watery vibrations force Sparkshower to pick one of her own wings up and then drop it down again to compensate.
  1973. "... The exams came and went, but he got frostier than ever. Things finally came to a head when he told me a week before the senior prom that he'd be bringing somepony else."
  1974. > Perhaps sensing that this was the really juicy bit, which it was, she turns her head in your direction once more.
  1975. > You swallow and pull your forehoof up.
  1976. "... There was an ugly fight between us that night, and if I'm being honest, I did most of the fighting and most of the uglying."
  1977. > Smiling awkwardly, you snort.
  1978. "... He didn't wind up looking so good in his prom photos with that black eye that took two weeks to heal up... But I'm still the one who ran away in tears from him. And it took me the same two weeks to bring myself to show my muzzle around school and talk to just about anypony again."
  1979. > And thus began your long and exciting descent into a career in the Royal Guard!
  1981. > All because you managed to win a dirty high-school mage-duel -- well, mage-*brawl*, really -- against a unicorn colt a year older than you.
  1982. > Sparkshower's still looking in your direction.
  1983. > "Did your older brothers do anything?"
  1984. > Of course, she remembers your outburst yesterday morning.
  1985. > Good to know the break-up hasn't ruined her powers of observation and memory.
  1986. > You shake your head.
  1987. "No. My ex had suffered enough at my horn; they knew he didn't need more punishment, and anyways they weren't really into fighting like that..."
  1988. > You think back to how, before the breaking point, they'd kept pushing you to stay home and join in their stupid nerdy table games instead heading out to call on your love when he'd already told you he was busy and to stay away.
  1989. > It had seemed like obnoxious interference at the time, but in retrospect...
  1990. "... I think they saw the break-up coming, though. And they'd tried, in their own clumsy, ways, to make it so I'd get out easily."
  1991. > You chuckle, and this time, it's genuine.
  1992. "... Heh. It didn't really work, though. I don't think they quite realized until then what a Tartarean fury their little sister could be."
  1993. > Nodding, you continue.
  1994. "... But they respected my need for some private time, and they helped me out -- in the small, tender ways that tell you when somepony really cares for you."
  1995. > "What're those?"
  1996. > Ooh, that's a loaded question.
  1997. > You probably shouldn't have started to talk so much about your own family.
  1998. > Sparkshower didn't have any immediate siblings to lean on as you did -- well, not outside of her brothers & sisters in the Equestrian Royal Guard, anyways.
  1999. > Hopefully those'll do, though.
  2000. > You shrug.
  2001. "You know, little things. Bringing water and food when it wasn't even asked for. Taking care of my laundry and cleaning up my room when I was out -- again, without asking. Even showing up at my school and getting homework & notes from my teachers..."
  2003. > Sighing, you start to think fondly about those three dorky brothers of yours.
  2004. > You did love those freakin' dweebs.
  2005. > Oughtta take a trip back to Manehattan and visit them again soon...
  2006. "... Just... making sure I didn't fall completely apart, ya know? Making it so I could deal with my heartache without losing my place in the world."
  2007. > Once again, you chortle to yourself.
  2008. "... Heh, ya know... I know I'm not the most fastidious mare in Equestria at the best of times; I know my quarters aren't as neat as they could be, but mare, when I'm feeling down the dumps, you can really see it... and you can smell it a couple of days later, too!"
  2009. > That actually gets a little chuckle out of Sparkshower, too.
  2010. > It's good to hear her project a little emotion.
  2011. > You nod in her direction.
  2012. "... Some ponies, I know, are the opposite, though. Something bad happens that they don't want to deal with, they get all fussy about the little details as a way of coping. I knew a mare who rearranged all the furniture in her room *twelve times* in almost as many hours when she was going through a breakup..."
  2013. > Smirking, you drop your forehoof back down into the pool and send a splash Sparkshower's way.
  2014. "... Some of 'em stare up at the mosaic ceiling in Spa Dalecarlia's warm pool and count the number of tiles that're up there, even."
  2015. > She doesn't miss a beat in replying.
  2016. > "I lost count at ten thousand one hundred and fifty-three, and I didn't even get out of the main spiral. I didn't feel like restarting."
  2017. > Damn.
  2018. > No wonder this mare earned herself an early promotion.
  2019. > While everypony else was hollering about getting overrun by innumerable hordes of changelings, she probably managed to scout a whole swarm of them and report back with their exact number -- minus casualties inflicted, of course.
  2020. > You smile.
  2021. "It's okay. So long as you don't ask to come back again every day until you can manage the exact count."
  2023. > She snorts, and you chuckle, but then the sauna door at the back of the room swings open with a creak.
  2024. > Three pegasi mares step out and look like they're heading for the pools.
  2025. > Darn, and just when you were starting to manage a connection.
  2026. > Oh well, an interruption was bound to happen anyways.
  2027. > As the winged ponies step over to the shower alcoves to wash the sauna-induced sweat out of their coats, you can't help but notice one of them staring in your direction.
  2028. > She seems to discreetly point you out to her companions.
  2029. > Now what the buck was this?
  2030. > Friends of Lieutenant Kilfeather, on the lookout for you, maybe?
  2031. > Not that Valiant really had 'friends', but he *did* have a crew.
  2032. > And that included a pack of mares who were every bit as awful as he was.
  2033. > Whoever they were, you resolve to ignore them for now.
  2034. > If they wanted to start something in the baths, well, three pegasi against one unicorn with a shell-shocked comrade in the water wasn't exactly fair odds.
  2035. > But with low ceilings and slippery floors, nopony was going to get the drop on you.
  2036. > Still, the calm and friendly moment was ruined, for you at least.
  2037. > You tried to think of what to say to Sparkshower once the three gawkers finally got on with their own business.
  2038. > Would it be better to analyze the past, or focus on next steps first?
  2039. > Does she feel undesirable as a result of the breakup?
  2040. > You had sure felt that way five years ago, and it's partly what led you down the path of a saltine, but then her situation was different.
  2041. > Maybe take her out tomorrow night?
  2042. > See if Mailedhoof will help you get her into the Officer's Club as well, as a filly-friend?
  2043. > Eh... probably a bit too full of drunken officers.
  2044. > It could get uncomfortably hoofsy in there.
  2046. > Should you go see a show?
  2047. > It's not really your thing, but before the implications were explained to her -- and after it turned out there weren't actually any intended implications at all -- she said she'd had a good time with Anonymous at the Sardinia.
  2048. > A good comedy could help cheer her up.
  2049. > Ooh, or how about something a little more punchy and in-the-moment?
  2050. > Several music-halls and taverns did run little comedy revues in the evenings...
  2051. > Or did she want to think about next weekend, the Gala?
  2052. > You'd barely had any time to shop for accessories with her!
  2053. > Her dress just needed a teeny-tiny bit more adjusting before it was ready, which you could easily finish tonight and tomorrow morning, then you could take her out with it and find the last touches that would make your filly-friend a proper mare?
  2054. > Even if she didn't want to shop, you ought to finish her dress soon, though.
  2055. > "Pardon me for interrupting, but would you be Specialist Artemis Sparkshower of the Royal Guard?"
  2056. > Son of a three-headed Tartarean hound, it's those three pegasi from the sauna and the showers!
  2057. > They're all standing at the opposite edge of the pool; it was the oldest-looking one in the middle who had spoken, a mare in her mid-thirties, with a distinctly Canterlot accent.
  2058. > Sparkshower turns towards the newcomers, still floating in solitude.
  2059. > "Yes?"
  2060. > The speaker smiles pleasantly, while her companion on the left grins and nods, and the one on the right just stares at Sparkshower, looking her over like a butcher a piece of meat.
  2061. > "I do apologize, miss Sparkshower, but when Captain Goldenfoil pointed you out to me, I felt compelled to come over and speak to you. Could you possibly spare me a moment of your time?"
  2062. > *Captain* Goldenfoil?
  2063. > What are they, the ponice?
  2064. > Did Sparkshower's ex file charges of assault against her for how he'd been driven out at spear-point?
  2065. > You rise to your hooves, indignant.
  2066. "And just who are you supposed to be?"
  2068. > She gives you a slight bow, pressing a forehoof to her chest.
  2069. > "Major Lady Amberline Growler, commander of the Royal Guard 1st Air Division's 3rd Armoured Battalion, 'Valkyries'..."
  2070. > Rising up, she smiles down at Sparkshower, whose mouth has dropped open to match her wide eyes.
  2071. > "... I believe we met earlier today, miss Sparkshower."
  2072. > This time, there's no little splash, but a full tidal wave as your floating comrade instantly flips over and thrashes her way airborne out of the pool to render a mid-air hovering salute.
  2073. > "Major Growler, ma'am!"
  2074. > Sweet Sun-raising Celestia, Sparkshower, the Major's in civvies and this is a spa, not the Canterlot Palace parade grounds.
  2075. > Every pony you can take out of uniform, but some you can't take the uniform out *of*...
  2076. > Growler and her entourage politely return Sparkshower's salute, but then the Major smiles.
  2077. > "Please, Specialist, there's no need for formalities here. We're all civilians at the moment..."
  2078. > Lowering her salute, she waves a hoof towards the loungers.
  2079. > "... But, I would greatly appreciate it if you could grant me the privilege of a brief audience?"
  2080. > She's reached levels of politeness that shouldn't even be possible.
  2081. > A *Major* -- and a noble one, at that; she did say *Lady* Amberline -- requesting the *privilege* of an *audience* with a lowly *Specialist*?
  2082. > As Sparkshower flaps over to solid ground, you go and join her.
  2083. > "Uhm... Of course, Major. What can I do for you, ma'am?"
  2084. > Artemis seems to be just as confused as you are by the situation.
  2085. > Well, she met the mare earlier, didn't she?
  2086. > In the Watchtower, presumably?
  2087. > Did something weird happen there?
  2088. > Lady Growler bows her head again.
  2089. > "Miss Sparkshower, I have come to realize that this morning I did you a great disservice by accusing you of espionage. My plan was to send you an appropriate card expressing my regrets, but finding you here I thought I might render my apology in person, if you'll permit it."
  2091. > You blink and do a double-take.
  2092. > What kind of noblepony Major apologies to a Specialist?
  2093. > Sparkshower actually glances in your direction, but you don't have any answers for her.
  2094. > "Oh... There's really no need to apologize, Lady Growler. I completed my mission to deliver a message, after all. And I'm sorry for having intruded on the Major-General's briefing."
  2095. > Growler frowns amiably.
  2096. > "Nonsense, miss Sparkshower! A gentlemare always settles her debts. And, after I made some enquiries into your personnel file, I realized that I owe you rather considerably, as do my Valkyries."
  2097. > Things just get weirder and weirder.
  2098. > Sparkshower screws up her eyebrows.
  2099. > "Ma'am?"
  2100. > The noble Major continues with a smile.
  2101. > "Of course, I doubt you would have appreciated it at the time, but by defeating Lieutenant Kilfeather and his associates at Newstirrup Bridge, you all but guaranteed that my top squadron of Valkyries would be the shoo-in favourites to win this summer's MXP Games..."
  2102. > Ah, so *that's* what this all about.
  2103. > It's not an apology for a military mistake, but a noblepony's tribute to an ally.
  2104. > Those, at least, can cross social boundaries.
  2105. > Heck, it was the most common way for non-noble ponies to become officers in the Royal Guard, before the Royal Artillery School and, more significantly, the Royal Officer Academy was founded.
  2106. > Growler looks in your direction.
  2107. > "... May I take it that you, miss, are Specialist Lily Glamerspear?"
  2108. > You nod.
  2109. "That's me, ma'am."
  2110. > Sitting down, she extends her forehooves wide.
  2111. > "'Nemo nisi per Amicitiam cognoscitur', Centurion. Embrace me as your Tribune."
  2112. > 'No one learns except by Friendship', the motto of the Order of the Ram.
  2113. > And this old-fashioned noblemare was a Tribune, the next rank up from you -- reserved for nobleponies?
  2114. > Well, it was hardly a surprise that the commanding officer of the famed Valkyries would be a member.
  2116. > As required by the order's rules, you step forward and put your forelegs around her in a hug, retiring only when she releases you.
  2117. > "... Ah, Centurion. By plucking Kilfeather's wings you have tilted the golden scales of justice in our favour. I salute you."
  2118. > You knew that this was exactly how nobleponies behaved -- or were supposed to behave, at any rate.
  2119. > But it was still really, really, really weird to see it in person -- and in a public spa's pool-room, to boot.
  2120. "If you'll excuse my asking, Tribune... what are you doing in the Spa Dalecarlia?"
  2121. > Growler cocks an eyebrow.
  2122. > "You mean, as opposed to of one of Canterlot's more exclusive establishments?"
  2123. > Exchanging knowing glances with her associates, she continues.
  2124. > "... I'm afraid that as Equestria's grand capital city is run by the five-limbed variety of pony, facilities here often do not cater appropriately to those ponies with four or six."
  2125. > It was true that unicorns, the ponies with 'five limbs', basically ran Canterlot.
  2126. > But she surely couldn't be saying that no private club would refuse a 'six-limbed' pegasus, could she?
  2127. > You feel certain you'd have heard about it if it were true.
  2128. > She must have some other complaint.
  2129. > "... I have a membership with a private club in Cloudsdale, of course. And it provides me with associate access to its exclusive partner here in Canterlot. But the staff at these otherwise excellent establishments simply do *not* understand how to give proper massages to a pegasus, nor how to properly preen a client. Whereas here... Miss Sparkshower, I do hope you've engaged the services of the resident griffon masseuse, miss Pogranichovna?"
  2130. > OK, now, her presence made a lot more sense.
  2131. > Elite ponies being picky about the quality of their servants?
  2132. > Everyday occurrence in Equestria.
  2133. > The Major probably similarly pooh-poohed most restaurants here as well.
  2134. > Sparkshower nods her head.
  2135. > "Yes, I had a massage from Nina on my first visit. She's very skilled."
  2137. > The three pegasus mares nod almost in unison as Growler carries on theatrically.
  2138. > "And that's why you've come back, isn't it? The griffonese massage? Goodness, but she knows how to wring every last drop of exhaustion out of you, doesn't she? Having one's wings attended to by her expert claws and beak is akin to being in the tender loving embrace of the Sun-Princess herself, I imagine..."
  2139. > The Major composes herself, putting on a stern face.
  2140. > "... You know, miss Sparkshower, since the Valkyries were first founded, one rule has been kept above all others: 'Everypony fights. No-one quits. Anypony who breaks formation to flee will be speared by the commander herself.' I say this to you only to make it clear that I, too, require her attentions. Why, I recommend the Spa Dalecarlia to all of my soldiers -- officers and enlisted alike..."
  2141. > She gestures at the pony on her left with a wing.
  2142. > "... Otherwise, Sergeant-Major Treechopper wouldn't know about this place either, would you, Morgan?"
  2143. > The indicated pegasus shakes her head and answers in a heavy lower-class Cloudsdale accent.
  2144. > "Nae I wouldn't, Growler."
  2145. > With her intonation, it sounds a little more like 'Growl-Ah' when she says the Major's name.
  2146. > Turning back to Sparkshower, Growler pauses for a moment to look her over.
  2147. > It's strange -- you've never really seen Sparkshower in the company of several other pegasi without her armour on.
  2148. > The chow hall, literal zoo that it is, doesn't really count, because everypony's bustling around instead of standing still.
  2149. > Plus, you're mostly sitting down in there.
  2150. > But standing in before these three Valkyries, it becomes apparent once again just how tall your comrade is for a pegasus -- and how well-built she is, too.
  2151. > It'd been obvious when shopping for dresses, of course, but a mare being frustrated that sizes didn't fit right was hardly a novel experience.
  2152. > Sometimes it seemed like nopony made clothing that fit any mares at all.
  2154. > But seeing Sparkshower towering a full head over two of these pegasi, and half a head over the third, really put her dimensions in perspective.
  2155. > The Valkyries were, after all, some of the strongest pegasi in the Equestrian Royal Guard.
  2156. > A whole battalion of mares, all flying around in heavy bronze plate armour.
  2157. > Growler lifts an eyebrow and nods at Treechopper.
  2158. > "Well, Morgan, what do you think of miss Sparkshower now that you've had a look at her? I trust in your discerning eyes."
  2159. > Treechopper nods, looking up at your big pegasus comrade.
  2160. > "Absolute unit, Growler. I'm in awe at the size o' this mare."
  2161. > Sparkshower's cheeks go a bit red, and she seems to hunch down a bit to try to lower her height, but the noblepony doesn't seem to notice, and carries right on.
  2162. > "I wonder, miss Sparkshower. Why become a 19D Armoured Scout, instead of a 19K Armoured Infantry? And to have requested a posting in the 4th Armoured Regiment? We would have been pleased to have you swear the 'Immaculate Pledge' of the Valkyries, I should think."
  2163. > Awkwardly scratching at one foreleg with the other forehoof, Sparkshower replies.
  2164. > "Er, well... I enjoyed photography, and I didn't really know how I felt about being in heavy combat... and I wanted to be stationed closer to home... and the signing bonus was a lot bigger for a 19D."
  2165. > The Major nods approvingly.
  2166. > "Sensible, sensible... Of course, we have a few 19Ds in the Valkyries as well, but they're in such demand that we don't often get first crack at new recruits unless they specifically request to try for us..."
  2167. > Sighing, she collects herself.
  2168. > "... The reason I ask, besides my interest in the betterment of my battalion, is to ensure I repay my debt to you properly. It's a matter of honour, you see."
  2169. > Instantly, Sparkshower rolls her head and slumps her shoulders.
  2170. > "Not another matter of honour!"
  2172. > Her outburst shocks the three Valkyries, and while your comrade nearly crumples to the ground as the weight of this morning's events crash down on her, you step up to lend a hoof in pulling her back up.
  2173. "It's kinda a long story, Tribune. A personal thing came up this morning. Coltfriend problems, you understand?"
  2174. > Once Sparkshower's back on her hooves, albeit looking much less collected than before, Growler speaks up again, frowning.
  2175. > "Well, I certainly don't wish to pry into your personal affairs, miss Sparkshower. But I suspect I may know what may be ailing you. May I offer some words of advice, from a senior pony to a junior?"
  2176. > Swallowing deeply and still a bit shaky, Artemis nods, and Growler continues.
  2177. > "... It is often said among nobles -- by colts, of course, but by many mares as well -- that only colts have 'honour'. That this abstract attribute is exclusively masculine, and that although mares may also serve in the Royal Guard, only colts may gain honour by valorous behaviour on the field of battle and by proper behaviour in society, as they may lose it by cowardice and impropriety..."
  2178. > Sparkshower lifts her head a bit as the Major continues.
  2179. > "... Mares, by contrast, are said to have only 'shame' instead, a property which is given to them at birth and may never be increased but only reduced, either by the machinations of lechers or by their own supposedly sinful impulses. And it is a property which must be defended at all costs by those colts who do not wish to lose 'honour', whether they are linked to the mare by blood or merely by love..."
  2180. > Growler shakes her head.
  2181. > "... I suppose that perhaps your coltfriend subscribes to the same theorem, and this is why you recoiled at my mention of the word 'honour'. But, as the commander of one of the fiercest battalions in the Royal Guard, and as a member of the Cloudsdale noble House of Growler, I say that it is utter, utter, nonsense..."
  2183. > Sneering, she looks around as if the targets of her scorn were present and heckling.
  2184. > "... Those who believe and promulgate such beliefs are the same ponies who, if asked to name Equestria's greatest mage, would reply immediately with 'Starswirl the Bearded', as if Her Majesty Princess Celestia, the immortal sovereign who has guided and watched over our great nation for over a thousand years, simply did not exist. It is sheer folly..."
  2185. > To be honest, you might've named Starswirl as well.
  2186. > Nothing against Princess Celestia, of course; and, upon reflection, her accomplishments were incredible.
  2187. > *Nopony* living in Equestria was as good a mage as she was.
  2188. > But it was hard to tell epic stories about somepony who was still *alive*.
  2189. > Starswirl, by contrast, was dead, and maybe that's why he was such a big name.
  2190. > Plus, the Princess wasn't just a great sorcerer -- she was also a great *ruler*!
  2191. > That made it hard to think of her as just a 'mage'.
  2192. > Though you can probably think of a few famous generals who might beat her out on a list of Equestria's greatest leaders, again from ancient history.
  2193. > On your left, Sparkshower seems to have regained her composure, and Growler looks her up and down.
  2194. > "... Do not allow others -- be they colts or mares -- to use prevailing customs to define you, Specialist. Rise above and meet their challenge. You are an honourable mare who deserves to be treated as such. Do you understand?"
  2195. > Sparkshower nods hesitantly, and Growler smiles knowingly at Captain Goldenfoil on her right.
  2196. > "... Well, now. This has been a pleasant conversation. Having rendered my apology and spoken with you a while, I now think I have some idea of how to make the remainder of my amends. You are billeted in Canterlot Palace, are you not?"
  2197. > Artemis licks her lips before replying.
  2198. > "Yes, Major Growler."
  2200. > The noblepony officer nods approvingly.
  2201. > "Capital, capital. May I ask if you have ever found a noblepony indebted to you on some prior occasion?"
  2202. > Sparkshower shakes her head, and Growler indicates Captain Goldenfoil with a wing.
  2203. > "... No? Then, as you are not noble-born, I shall ask the good Captain to explain some matters of etiquette to you, and take my leave. The three of us have prior appointments with Miss Pogranichovna, you see, and I should not wish to miss mine for all the clouds in the sky! Farewell, miss Sparkshower and miss Glamerspear."
  2204. > Sparkshower snaps to attention like it's still bucking 'shoe camp.
  2205. > "Major, ma'am!"
  2206. > You suppose you owe Growler a salute as a Centurion of the Order as well.
  2207. "Tribune."
  2208. > The Major gives a polite curtsy and, followed closely by her senior NCO, exits the pool-room, leaving only Captain Goldenfoil behind.
  2209. > She immediately launches into a hasty brief.
  2210. > "Specialist Sparkshower, Major Lady Growler has authorized me, as her chief of staff, to ensure that you receive a token of her appreciation. This gift will satisfy the debt of honour that Her Ladyship owes you. Such gifts are common among nobleponies when the deficit has been caused primarily by the receipt of a good deed rather than the giving of an offence, as with the present case. I will arrange for the Major's gift to be delivered to your quarters tonight..."
  2212. > The Captain lifts an eyebrow.
  2213. > "... You should know that this object was selected specifically for you, after I reviewed your file with the Major. It is of some considerable value, perhaps even in excess of the debt owed, but it is being given in the hope that you will repay the kindness by favouring the Major in the future. However, if you are discomfited by the magnitude of her Ladyship's beneficence, it would be proper to return the gift to her, via my office, within a reasonable time frame, on the order of a month or two, with your profoundest apologies and thanks. Beyond that point, you may return the gift only if you feel the Major has given offence or if her Ladyship's name brings shame upon your person; otherwise, you would cause offence yourself. These are the rules of correct behaviour. Do you understand what I've just said, Specialist Sparkshower?"
  2214. > Artemis nods, but speaks up.
  2215. > "Yes, but may I ask a question, Captain?"
  2216. > "Certainly."
  2217. > "Why *did* the Major have me arrested as a spy as soon as the briefing was over? I know I wasn't supposed to be in there, but it seemed to be a low-security meeting, with no guards at the doors, and I did have permission to be in the Watchtower."
  2218. > Goldenfoil flexes her wings and flares her nostrils, but it seems to be borne out of frustration rather than anger.
  2219. > "Because the Watchtower *has* been infiltrated, Specialist. We don't know who or how, but the reports of missing documents, suspicious personnel lurking in restricted areas, and unexplained noises & shadows are too numerous to be ignored. Somepony, or someponies, are sneaking in, and doing so with worrying regularly..."
  2220. > Sneering, she shakes her head.
  2221. > "... That's why the Major sent me to contact the General's ADC as soon as the meeting was over. And why you were hauled in as soon as you exited the room; we had guards watching you inside as well. With the Gala coming up, and with the unspecified threats to it, we weren't taking any chances."
  2223. > Sounds like somepony's playing pranks in the Watchtower to you.
  2224. > Maybe one of the all-unicorn 'corn-field' battalions stationed in the Watchtower decided to have some fun messing around with the 1st Air Division's pegasi.
  2225. > There were an awful lot of illusionists in Canterlot's anti-air gunnery brigades, and they were all mischief-making rascals, every last one of them.
  2226. > What's this about a threat to the Gala, though?
  2227. > Before you can think about it, Captain Goldenfoil turns to you.
  2228. > "... Centurion Glamerspear, the Major also authorized me to provide you with a small token of her appreciation as well. I am the executive coach for our MXP Games team, so the job you did on Lieutenant Kilfeather puts you in my good book too, and I insisted upon a reward when we saw you here with miss Sparkshower. However, we were at a loss to determine an appropriate recompense on such short notice. Her Ladyship the Major therefore requests that you consider her able to perform for you some small favour of your asking, at the time of your choosing. I have noted this in her records, and you may come to me directly if believe that your request will not require her personal attention. Is that understood?"
  2229. > Neat, a noblepony's get-out-of-trouble-free card.
  2230. > You'd always wanted one of those.
  2231. > Smiling, you salute the Captain.
  2232. "Yes, Captain. Thank-you."
  2233. > Goldenfoil smiles.
  2234. > "No, thank you both. With 'Icepone' and 'Joker' out of the way, the Valkyries will sweep the skies at the MXP Games. I'll make sure you have tickets to the event -- on top of the gift and the favour, of course..."
  2235. > Returning your salute, the Captain turns to leave, but then pauses and looks back at you and Sparkshower.
  2236. > "... Oh, and miss Sparkshower. Do take care with the Major's gift. It can have a temper of its own. Under no circumstances should you experiment with it inside Her Majesty's palace, is that understood?"
  2237. > "Yes, Captain!"
  2239. > You turn to Sparkshower once the Captain leaves, your comrade's final answer echoing around the tiled room.
  2240. "A temper of its own? And don't use it indoors? What the buck is she sending you, a barrel of gunpowder from the Watchtower's magazines?"
  2241. > Your comrade frowns.
  2242. > "I... I don't know. Unless..."
  2243. > Suddenly, her face brightens up.
  2244. > "... Oh, clear skies and sunshine... I think I *do* know. Let's get back as soon as we can! I want to be there when it arrives!"
  2249. > You are still Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and you're pretty confused about what, exactly, Sparkshower's coping mechanisms were.
  2250. > At first, after the big break-up, she was comatose, arriving upstairs without a word, skipping lunch, and staying incredibly quiet even as you insisted on taking her out.
  2251. > Then, she seemed to lose herself in minutiae, counting the tiles in the mosaic ceiling above the Spa Dalecarlia's indoor pool.
  2252. > But, with the promise of some kind of gift from the pegasus noblemare, Major Lady Amberline Growler, commander of the Valkyries, she had swung completely over to the hyperactive side.
  2253. > She had hustled you out of the spa faster than anyone had ever been hustled out of a spa before.
  2254. > And then she'd immediately booked it back to the palace, alighting at every corner only just long enough for you to catch up before she bursted ahead again.
  2255. > By the time you arrived back at the complex of buildings you presently called 'home', you were more worn out than after one of Anonymous' late-night 'jogs'.
  2256. > Is this what Sparkshower could do when she wasn't burdened down with armour?
  2257. > Anyways, after all that double-quick marching to get back to her quarters before Major Growler's mysterious gift arrived, what does she do, your heartbroken pegasus fillyfriend?
  2258. > She declares that she's absolutely famished!
  2259. > No duh, Sparks, that's what happen when you fly around all morning, and then skip lunch, and then race back to the castle at warp speed!
  2260. > Before you even got to rest your plot for ten seconds on the sofa, it was another race to the chow-hall, which was surprisingly busy -- lots of guardsponies looking to get a quick early snack before leaving on libo.
  2261. > It wasn't so busy that you had to push or shove, but it still took a few minutes to find a table, even with a wildmare recon pegasus floating overhead.
  2263. > When you did finally seat yourself, relieving your aching hooves, your quaternion-mate sat down as well with a plate so full you could swear she just grabbed the whole buffet stand.
  2264. > And then she ate it all, too!
  2265. > A filly who can stuff all that down her gullet oughtta... well, never mind.
  2266. > Now was *definitely* not the right time for that kind of playful innuendo.
  2267. > You were following around your comrade in order to provide emotional support, after all.
  2268. > Finally, after the gallop to the palace, and the other gallop to the enlisted mess, and the metaphorical gallop to stuff her face with a meal, and the third actual real gallop out of the mess hall, you're finally, finally, back at your quarters.
  2269. > It's almost four o'clock, too; time for the shift change.
  2270. > Sparkshower blasts through the door so fast you don't even see her work the handle, and as the white-painted elegantly-decorated wooden slab clonks angrily into the rubber stop on the inside wall, you're half-worried she's knocked the thing completely off its hinges.
  2271. > You hustle up to catch her and step inside, finding the pegasus zipping around the common room.
  2272. > "Is it here? Did it come yet?"
  2273. > Before anypony can answer, she darts into her own bedroom, blowing through that second door like a hurricane.
  2274. > Seconds later, an unusually startled-looking Sergeant Ebonshield, dressed for duty, steps out of the washroom.
  2275. > "¿Qué? Is what here, Specialist?"
  2276. > She barely manages to get the last word out before Sparkshower comes screaming out of her room again like she's been lit on fire.
  2277. > "The package! The delivery! I'm expecting something very important from somepony just as important! Did anything come for me, Sergeant?"
  2278. > Ebonshield shakes her head, still confused.
  2279. > "No, nothing has come, and I have been here since just after mid-day."
  2281. > Defeated, Sparkshower finally starts to calm down from her frenzied pace, dropping to her hooves.
  2282. > "Oh, Trowal! I thought it'd certainly be here and we could go out and try it before the sun sets tonight... But I guess testing it may have to wait until tomorrow."
  2283. > You narrow your eyes.
  2284. "*Testing* it? Sparks, you don't even know what it *is*."
  2285. > Instantly, she brightens back up again.
  2286. > "Yes I do! Or, at least, I think I do!"
  2287. "Oh, yeah? What is it, then?"
  2288. > Sitting on her haunches, she taps her forehooves together.
  2289. > "Well, Major Lady Amberline Growler is the leader of the Valkyries, and she's from the Cloudsdale Growlers -- you know who they are, right?"
  2290. > You shake your head.
  2291. "Never heard of 'em. Though, I tend to pay more attention to Canterlot noble families than ones from Cloudsdale."
  2292. > Not that you had anything particularly against pegasus nobleponies, or even pegasi in general, but when it came to your choice in salt-licks, thrifty Cloudsdale colts couldn't compare to free-spending Canterlot elite or even the landed earth pony gentry.
  2293. > Besides, everypony knew Canterlot was the style and fashion capital of Equestria, with Manehattan coming in second.
  2294. > Cloudsdale barely even made the list.
  2295. > Sparkshower points a hoof at you.
  2296. > "You may not have heard the *family* name, Lily, but I bet you'd recognize their property; you served us some last Wednesday, when we got to know Sergeant Ebonshield over some bottles of 'Maestra Cazador'. The Growler family owns the Dragoon brewery in Cloudsdale -- as in Dragoon Pale Ale."
  2297. > You raise your eyebrows.
  2298. "Really? Huh. I wouldn't have figured Major Growler for a brewery heiress."
  2300. > Sparkshower nods.
  2301. > "That's because the Growler family is more famous for their soldiering; every generation of Growlers has served with distinction in the Royal Guard. The Dragoon brewery was founded by Barclay 'Blondie' Growler who was wounded and honourably discharged while serving in the Princess' Dragoons almost two hundred years ago, hence the beer's name."
  2302. > Hmm...
  2303. > That makes you wonder what *you* would name your drink if you retired and founded a brewery -- or a distillery, or maybe even a winery.
  2304. > You could do without the heroic injury, though.
  2305. > Just the heroism would be good enough for you.
  2306. "Okay, okay, so they're a big name. What does that have to do with Lady Amberline's gift to you?"
  2307. > Sergeant Ebonshield perks up a little bit upon hearing the reason for Sparkshower's excitement, but she doesn't interrupt, allowing the pegasus to answer you.
  2308. > "As a result of such a long history of service, the Growler family is also famous for having amassed a considerable collection of arms & armour. And it was a Growler -- Griselda 'Ginny' Growler -- who petitioned Princess Celestia to found the mares-only Valkyries battalion, donating some of the Growler family collection of weapons for use by the top soldiers..."
  2309. > Sitting up straight, she continues, a look of awe in her face.
  2310. > "... All the Valkyries of the elite 1st platoon of 'A' company, Major Amberline Growler included, are equipped with an heirloom ancestral spear and magic helmet."
  2311. "Spear and magic helmet?"
  2312. > "Spear and magic helmet!"
  2313. "*Magic* helmet?"
  2314. > "Yes, a *magic* helmet! And if that's what she's given me, I'll give you a sample! Valkyrie magic helmets are said to be able to control weather with the merest thought, or to ward off the most devastating blows, or even to suppress other spells around them..."
  2316. > Wings spread wide, she gestures with her forelegs.
  2317. > "... And the spears are no less impressive, either, said to be capable of shooting lightning, or of instantly returning to your hoof after being thrown, or are even capable of aiming themselves at targets and never missing..."
  2318. > She claps her forehooves together and inhales deeply, looking up reverently at the ceiling.
  2319. > "... That's what I think Major Growler is giving me, or else why make such a big deal about it like she and Captain Goldenfoil did? And that's why I'm so excited! Joining the Valkyries was a childhood fantasy. This'll be like being an honorary member..."
  2320. > Turning back to you, she quickly gets back down on all fours.
  2321. > "... Lily, do you know how to use a camera? If it's still light out when the gift arrives, I want to go outside to take some photos to send to my family!"
  2322. > You shrug.
  2323. "I mean... Sorta, yeah. Look in the window, make sure you're in it, push the button, and then twist the windy-thing, right?"
  2324. > Your answer seems to dismay her somewhat.
  2325. > "Well, it's more complicated than that, at least with a nice camera like I have. There's focus and aperture and shutter speed and... Oh, but I can set that all up for you ahead of time. Yes, all you'd need to do is just what you said! Let me go get it ready right now."
  2326. > Without waiting for a reply, she zips into her room and shuts the door.
  2327. > "... Nopony come in while I'm preparing! I'll be handling film, so I don't want any stray light!"
  2328. > How long is she gonna be this energetic for?
  2329. > You're not sure if you can keep up.
  2330. > Maybe Honour can tag you out if it keeps going late.
  2331. > Beside you, Ebonshield clears her throat.
  2332. > "Well, this is interesting. I am now curious about this gift, and the circumstances behind it. But it is time for me to go and relieve the Corporal Bound; I will have to find out tomorrow, or perhaps later tonight, if anyone is still awake when my duties are finished."
  2334. > Something about Valkyries and their magic hats and super spears makes you think back to the fantastic performance that the batpony 'Balladeer of Ghosts', Ignacio Blazon, gave you with his animated sand-creatures.
  2335. > How he did it was still a frustrating mystery to you, but maybe the Sergeant can give you a clue with that...
  2336. "Sarge, can I ask you a question before you go?"
  2337. > She stops and politely turns to face you, but -- thankfully -- doesn't get all up in your snout.
  2338. > "Of course. What is it?"
  2339. > You purse your eyebrows pleadingly.
  2340. "Do you know anything about the kind of magic that Ignacio used? He asked me to try to figure it out, but I'm kinda stumped."
  2341. > Ebonshield smirks.
  2342. > "Oh, you are? Interesting. I think it will amuse him to hear that you, a unicorn, could not comprehend his magic."
  2343. > You frown.
  2344. "Why's that? He's, like, twice my age; there's plenty of older unicorn mages trotting around Canterlot with tricks I'd have trouble figuring out on my own without some more experience under my yoke, or at least some clues."
  2345. > The batpony nods.
  2346. > "Yes, of course. But you must understand, although the Children of the Stars have been taught that our form is the most superior out of all the kinds of pony, we have also been taught to beware the unicorn magic most powerful. It is said that even the spells of our Eclipse can compete with the speed and the power of the unicorns only through the preparation most thorough."
  2347. > What?
  2348. "I don't get it. Batponies think they're the best pony, except they're not?"
  2349. > She shakes her head.
  2350. > "No, no, we do think ourselves best, but it is because of our *combination* of traits..."
  2351. > Extending a wing, she elaborates.
  2352. > "... We are not as swift as the pegasi, but we are agile, and we do not tire as easily -- though we cannot endure as long as the earth ponies, though against them we have the advantage of flight..."
  2354. > Ebonshield folds up her wings and looks up at your horn.
  2355. >" ... Against the unicorns, we are taught to pit our guile and cunning, to confuse and terrify and scare them away. But if one of the Children is caught by a unicorn out in the open, and this is not part of some greater plan of the Child, and the unicorn does not run from fear, then, even if that Child is of the Eclipse, the unicorn will almost certainly triumph. The rapidity of the magic, and the power brutish of it, we cannot match head-on."
  2356. > You nod.
  2357. "Okay, I guess that makes sense. Your average unicorn has been practising telekinesis for about as long as they've been able to walk, after all."
  2358. > She shrugs.
  2359. > "Yes, exactly... But as for explaining the magic of Ignacio to you, this I cannot do. Nopony understands the magic of the Eclipse besides the Eclipse themselves. What Ignacio said to you about his kind being held apart from the rest of the Children is true; they interact very little with the other Phases. I have never heard of them having ever shared this knowledge outside of their own circle."
  2360. > Damn.
  2361. > Looks like Ignacio was just yanking your reins when he asked you to try to figure it out.
  2362. > The Sergeant's right; that old coot'll probably get a real kick out of hearing you failed.
  2363. > Well, damn it, you weren't giving up yet!
  2364. > There were still books in the library you hadn't consulted yet, and still pages in the 'De Magia Unicornis' you hadn't studied!
  2365. > You would show that creepy old batpony that unicorn magic really was the best in Equestria!
  2366. > Perhaps seeing the frown on your face, Ebonshield speaks up.
  2367. > "... Specialist Glamerspear, I must say also that I do not think Ignacio set you this challenge in order to mock you..."
  2369. > Lifting her eyebrows, she grins and spreads her bat-wings.
  2370. > "... Like the rest of the Children, I am certain that he has heard many stories about the power fantastic of the unicorns. You are probably the first one he has ever met in person, and I think he simply wishes to know if the stories are true. Your curiosity inspired his own; if the challenge is impossible, do not take it as an insult."
  2371. > Hmm...
  2372. > Maybe.
  2373. > You nod.
  2374. > Ignacio *did* heal Ebonshield, and for a cranky old nag, he *had* been somewhat pleasant, if cryptic.
  2375. > Even the Sergeant had expressed surprise at his supposed 'good' manners when you'd all been down there.
  2376. > Squinting, you look your local batpony up and down.
  2377. "Say, what's the deal with you and Ignacio, anyways? He called you something strange in your language when he healed your wound."
  2378. > Ebonshield sighs.
  2379. > "He called me his 'little angel of death', yes..."
  2380. > Inhaling deeply, she glances anxiously at the clock.
  2381. > "... It is complicated, our relationship; too complicated to explain at this moment. Let me say only that between us there is a bond of admiration mutual..."
  2382. > Turning back to you, she pleads.
  2383. > "... Ask me this question again, when there is more time."
  2384. > What a weird answer.
  2385. > Well, whatever, it's two minutes to four, and now really wasn't the right time for more chit-chat anyways.
  2386. > You nod.
  2387. "Sure, Sarge. Talk to you later."
  2388. > "If you are not awake when I my shift is ended, then I bid you good-night, Specialist."
  2389. > Receiving a casual salute from you in response, the batpony Ebonshield heads out the door.
  2390. > With Sparkshower still fussing over her camera in her room, you profit from the moment of quiet to finally, finally, lay your back on the sofa.
  2391. > Ahhh...
  2392. > Damn mare has had you running around for almost two hours straight.
  2393. > Damn heartbroken mare.
  2394. > With a sigh, you look over at the enormous 'De Magia Unicornis' tome on the coffee table, and the skimpy pair of 'Cosmoponitan' magazines next to it.
  2396. > Mailedhoof hadn't sent you a note yet, which probably meant he didn't need -- or maybe 'want' -- you around tonight.
  2397. > Tomorrow, probably.
  2398. > He couldn't go a week without having a little of the Glam, you were certain.
  2399. > You could take it easy for tonight.
  2400. > Watch Sparkshower wave around her fancy new whatevermajig, snap some photos of it for her folks, maybe head to the commissary to pick up a 6-pack of 'Dragoon' Pale Ale in tribute to Her Ladyship, and then just relax on the sofa.
  2401. > Split the bill and share the booze with Honour & Artemis.
  2402. > As you dream of a simple evening, Corporal Bound steps into the common room.
  2403. > Pulling off her helmet, she gives you a nod.
  2404. > "How's she doing?"
  2405. > You jerk a forehoof in the direction of Sparkshower's door, speaking quietly.
  2406. "She's all excited. We ran into the commander of the Valkyries, of all ponies, at the spa. Apparently, us wrecking Kilfeather & company two weeks ago did them a big favour for the MXP Games, so she promised me a favour and Sparkshower a gift, which Sparks thinks is gonna be some ancient magic stick or hat from the Valkyries' collection, on account of her being warned not to use it indoors."
  2407. > Honour stops and screws up her snoot.
  2408. > "The buck? Just for winning the pas-de-sabots we didn't even really want to fight? And where's my favour or gift, then?"
  2409. > You shrug.
  2410. "Sorry, Corporal. Her Ladyship said I wasn't due to get anything more than a thank-you card, originally. Seeing me there changed things. But I guess she also had something to make up to Sparkshower this morning, too -- something about her being arrested for espionage?"
  2411. > Honour's snoot goes from 'scrunched' to 'mega-ultra-scrunched' in no time flat.
  2412. > "What? Arrested? She didn't say anything about that when she came back from delivering the calling-card."
  2414. > You shake your head and snort.
  2415. "Apparently they're paranoid about infiltration over there at the Watchtower. Misplacing papers and chasing shadows and thinking it's super-secret spies. It sounds like just a bunch of bored-but-creative illusionists to me, but it was enough for them to accuse Sparks of trying to impersonate a Valkyrie."
  2416. > The Corporal looks over at Sparkshower's door.
  2417. > "Whatever. I just hope it doesn't screw things up for us tomorrow. Major-General Hoofstrong sent her message -- she's invited the Royal Engineer to her office in the morning..."
  2418. > Honour looks down at you.
  2419. > "... We're on deck, you and me. Me, because I'm the senior member of the Quaternion, and you, because you're a decorated Centurion; we'll leave the batpony and the Valkyrie impersonator back here, got it?"
  2420. > You nod.
  2421. "Sure, Corporal. Makes sense to me..."
  2422. > Picking up your head, you peek over the back of the sofa at Sparkshower's door.
  2423. "... I'm still worried about Sparkshower, though. She hasn't... y'know... *cried* or anything. Wasn't she with this colt since, like, high school? She hasn't said one word about the breakup since she came upstairs. Heck, I barely got a little laugh out of her before Major Growler came and swept her off her hooves. You don't think it's unhealthy for her to hold it in?"
  2424. > Honour shakes her head and blows air out her cheeks.
  2425. > "Maybe, but don't bring it up unless she does. Let her handle it her way."
  2426. > Just then, there's a knock at the door.
  2427. > Before either you or Honour can answer it, Sparkshower whips her bedroom door open and launches herself towards the hallway passage, nearly knocking the sofa over in her wake.
  2428. > "Yes! Coming! I'm here!"
  2429. > The door slams open, shuddering against the rubber stopper, revealing a well-dressed unicorn deliverycolt levitating a small clipboard in front of him and a long box behind him.
  2430. > "Good afternoon, I have a delivery for Specialist Sp-"
  2432. > "Yesthat'smewheredoIsignisithereokaydonethereyougobringitrightinplease."
  2433. > Having yanked the clipboard out of the colt's telekinetic aura, she signs her name in a flash and thrusts the papers back towards his chest, eyes on her prize.
  2434. > Momentarily dazed by her speed, the unicorn takes a second to find his bearings, then steps inside and lays the package on the ground.
  2435. > From here, you can see that it's actually not just some shipping crate, but a glossy case with an elegant wood grain.
  2436. > "Have a good even-"
  2437. > "Yesthankyougoodevening."
  2438. > Once again, Sparkshower slams the door, this time narrowly avoiding the hapless deliverycolt's face.
  2439. > As she scrambles over towards the delivery, you place your forehooves down at your sides and push your back off the couch.
  2440. "Come on, Sparks, this isn't the barracks, don't go slamming Her Majesty's doors like that."
  2441. > Sparkshower pays no attention to you, and immediately proceeds to set her hooves opening the case's five latches -- only to be immediately stopped by Corporal Bound, who places a hoof down on top of hers, to the pegasus' shock and indignation.
  2442. > "Negatory on opening this up in here, Sparkshower. Whatever this is, you were told to play with it *outside*..."
  2443. > Before Artemis can protest, Honour looks over at you and continues.
  2444. > "... Come on, Glamerspear. Pick this thing up and let's take it to the drill field. At this hour, on a Friday, it'll be empty."
  2445. > That gets Sparkshower happy again.
  2446. > "I'll get my camera! Oh, this is going to be amazing! I can't wait to see what it is!"
  2448. > A little voice in your head tells you this won't be the quiet, relaxing evening you hoped for.
  2449. > Another little voice pipes up and says that thinking those kinds of thoughts was a sure sign you're getting older and wiser and, probably, slower.
  2450. > With Sparkshower loading her camera into a saddle-back and Honour looking wary and tired, but interested, you pick up the wooden case in your teal aura.
  2451. > And you tell both little voices to shut the buck up.
  2453. Suggested watching: (Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd - excerpt from "What's Opera, Doc?")
  2458. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you are so very, very excited right now!
  2459. > Yes, okay, Corporal Bound had made you wait while she wrote a note saying where the three of you would be, in case an emergency arose and the Royal Engineer needed any one of you.
  2460. > Or all of you.
  2461. > And then there was the moment, just as you'd all started to step out the door, when she pointed out that if you were going to be 'foaling around' with a 'probable weapon', then you and Glamerspear had better put on your combat armour.
  2462. > But golly, had you ever donned your barding quickly.
  2463. > Quicker even than Lily had put hers on, and she didn't even have as many pieces!
  2464. > Or need to rely solely on her hooves & teeth to suit up!
  2465. > Still, you could hardly accuse her of being laggardly.
  2466. > She seemed just as interested -- if, perhaps, not as excited -- as you were to learn what was in the very long box from Her Ladyship, Major Amberline Growler.
  2467. > You look up at the package, floating beside you in Glamerspear's teal telekinetic grasp as the three of you walk in the late afternoon sun to the palace barracks' firing grounds and drill field.
  2468. > Surely the gift couldn't be a Valkyrie helmet; the case was far too large for that.
  2469. > And yet it seemed too *short* to be a spear; shorter than your current longspear, at least, which was so big that it unscrewed into four pieces just to be able to fit on your back.
  2470. > Your current weapon, in fact, was twice as long as one of Honour's javelins or Lily's conjured ammunition.
  2471. > But the mysterious gift was scarcely longer than those short weapons -- far too small a weapon to wield in a pegasus' hooves.
  2472. > Could it perhaps be an accessory?
  2473. > An antique caparison blessed with some magical property?
  2474. > Or even something as simple as an ensorcelled banner to be affixed to your own spear?
  2475. > A Growler family version of the ancient Pegasus Aureaflamma war-banner?
  2477. > Perhaps it was an enchanted piece of armour?
  2478. > A well-sized banded criniere would fit in the case, if taken apart.
  2479. > "Sparks, you can stop staring up at the box, we're here."
  2480. > Oh, sunshine and rainbows, so you were!
  2481. > It looks like Corporal Bound was right, the place really was empty.
  2482. > The wide open square field, with the thirty-hoof-tall safety berms around three sides, was completely devoid of anypony else.
  2483. > Not even a sentry or range officer!
  2484. > It's not like there were any weapons about, though.
  2485. > Just the straw targets in the walled-in corner, shaped like bulls-eyes or pressed into bales for general use.
  2486. > "Why don't you set the case down there on the commander's podium, Glamerspear?"
  2487. > Honour points a forehoof at the small raised wooden platform which allows even an earth pony or unicorn to have a good clear view of the field.
  2488. > "Yeah, sure thing."
  2489. > Oooooh, it's aaaaalmost time to ooooopen iiiiit!
  2490. > You're as happy as an early duck in an advanced spring!
  2491. > Stepping up on the platform next to where you've landed, Corporal Bound fixes you in her gaze.
  2492. > "Okay, Sparkshower, crack it open and let's take a look -- but hooves off the merchandise until we figure out what it is."
  2493. > You barely hear her admonishment in the back of your head as you flip up one latch, then another, then the other three, and then slowly open the hinged case.
  2494. "Ooooohhhhhhh!"
  2495. > You're transfixed by the sight.
  2496. > It was like nothing you could have expected!
  2497. > It was like nothing you've ever seen!
  2498. > It was... what *was* it?
  2499. > "What the heck is this? It looks like some kind of antidequusian torture device."
  2500. > You doubted it was *that* old, but Glamerspear did have a point about recognizability.
  2501. > Before you, sitting in the folds of the plush dark burgundy satin that lined the box, and held in place by several boiled-leather hard straps, was a royal-blue thing that could perhaps be described as 'polearm-esque'.
  2503. > The front -- if it was actually the front -- of the supposed weapon was shaped like a jousting lance, with a narrow conical shape that tapered to a point, painted with a spiral blue-and-white pattern.
  2504. > But the 'rear' side of the cone, rather than of widening into an ordinary-sized hoofguard, instead flared out into an asymmetric shape.
  2505. > It was big and broad on one side, gently curving outwards and back, but on the other side the hoofguard came to a thin bar, curving back only slightly.
  2506. > The thin side was almost like some kind of hook.
  2507. > Maybe for driving it into the ground?
  2508. > Was this a magic-shooting lance, intended to be emplaced and fired?
  2509. > Beside you, Honour offers up her own opinion, her snoot scrunched up in confusion.
  2510. > "I've never seen anything like this. What's that thing on the left?"
  2511. > Behind the main guard, the pole was straight and thin, as would be expected of a jousting lance, but this regularity lasted for scarcely a single hoof-length before another confusing appendage stuck out.
  2512. > This time, it was a somewhat long leather strap with, of all things, an arched brass *stirrup* at the end.
  2513. > Not that you were going to say *that* word out loud!
  2514. > You'd been embarrassed enough when you'd half-drunkenly blurted out one detail of your actual private life.
  2515. > You weren't about to let out a fictional detail, now of all times.
  2516. > Anyways, the strap with the... 'hoof-rest', if it was a hoof-rest... extended a few hooves just to the left side of the box, where it was joined by yet *another* protrusion, this time in the form of some kind of 'rear crossguard' -- a short perpendicular bar placed at the butt of the pole, scarcely two hooves wide on either side.
  2517. > All in all, the lance-ish looking weapon was about four hooves of conical lance, and maybe two hooves of grip.
  2518. > Not only was it *short*, but it was extremely lopsided, too.
  2519. > You think you've learned about all you can from just staring at Her Ladyship's gift.
  2521. > Clearing your throat, you look over at Honour.
  2522. "Well, uh, Corporal, may I draw arms?"
  2523. > With a wary look on her face, she nods, and you lie down to set about unhooking the stiff leather straps holding the 'lance' firmly in the case.
  2524. > As you undo the first one, you notice there's a tiny bronze plaque, surrounded by satin, in the middle of the inside of the lid.
  2525. > Leaning in close, you can just make out the shallowly-engraved words...
  2526. > 'Bradamante Growler'
  2527. > That'll be the original owner, surely.
  2528. > It must've been made specifically for her, whoever she was -- and whatever *this* was.
  2529. > There's another couple of lines beneath it, in smaller text.
  2530. > 'A. Theolonicus'
  2531. > Instantly, you recoil back from the case in shock, falling onto your back, your mouth hanging agape.
  2532. "Holy hurricanes!!"
  2533. > Honour and Lily both stare down at you like you've lost your mind.
  2534. > You point a hoof at the plaque.
  2535. "... It's a Theolonicus!"
  2536. > The Corporal lifts her eyebrows knowingly and turns to squint at the plaque.
  2537. > Glamerspear, however, screws up her snout like you've just spoken in another language.
  2538. > "It's a *what*?"
  2539. > Getting back to your hooves, you explain.
  2540. "It's a Theolonicus! You know, as in made by Anthony Theolonicus? The famous unicorn armourer?"
  2541. > She shakes her head, lip curling up.
  2542. > "Who?"
  2543. > Honour lifts her head up from the case.
  2544. > "I thought you liked paying attention to the luxury market, Glamerspear. Theolonicus lived around three hundred years ago, and he's said to have been one of the finest armourers Equestria's ever seen. All of his works have a reputation for being just flat-out better than anything else around. Today, his most famous works can sell for literal boatloads of bits at auction."
  2545. > Glamerspear snorts.
  2546. > "I pay attention to luxury *fashion*, Corporal, not historical oddities and curiosities. And I *don't* mix business with pleasure..."
  2548. > Placing a hoof on her chest, she curls her shoulders inwards playfully.
  2549. > "... If my salt-lick wants to show off his latest painting or statue or whatever, I'll fawn over it, but I don't pretend like I know what the buck it's about or who the buck made it."
  2550. > Corporal Bound sighs and rolls her eyes, turning back to the weapon.
  2551. > You look down at the last line on the plaque.
  2552. > '712'
  2553. > Hurricanes!
  2554. > This was a two-hundred-and-ninety-year-old weapon!
  2555. > You try to suppress your exuberance as you explain things for your unicorn comrade's benefit.
  2556. "The plaque inside the case says Anthony Theolonicus made this two hundred and ninety years ago for a 'Bradamante Growler'..."
  2557. > Sitting up, you cross your forelegs and tap one forehoof on your chin.
  2558. "... Usually, Theolonicus weapons are named for their original owner, so I guess that makes this the 'Bradamante'. But I've never heard anything about that particular Growler; I guess they weren't very famous."
  2559. > Honour nods.
  2560. > "That would probably explain why Lady Growler was willing to part with it as a thank-you gift."
  2561. > You go back to undoing the leather straps -- more carefully and reverently, this time.
  2562. "I suppose so. But even the less-famous ones are still very valuable; it's a piece of Equestrian cultural history!"
  2563. > Bobbing your head left and right, you undo the final strap.
  2564. "... Captain Goldenfoil, her Aide-de-Camp, did mention that if I thought it was too great a present, then I was welcome to return it in a few weeks."
  2565. > You hear Corporal Bound mutter under her breath.
  2566. > "Where's my buckin' too-great-a-present..."
  2567. > Ignoring your superior's indignation, you flap your wings to hover in mid-air and gently try to pick up the strange weapon.
  2568. > It's heavier than your greatspear, which was heavy enough as it was, and hoisting the strange Theolonicus weapon into the air is made doubly awkward by the fact that it's so front-heavy -- the thing is *all lance* and no shaft.
  2570. > There's almost *nothing* to tuck under your torso and hind legs!
  2571. > And you can't just grab it higher up the point -- the strange lopsided hoofguard gets in the way of your... well, your everything.
  2572. > Glamerspear looks up at you.
  2573. > "Genius armourer, huh? He must've been having an off day when he made this one..."
  2574. > She smirks as you struggle to get a grip on the thing.
  2575. > "... Or maybe this 'Bradamante' was, like, missing a couple of hooves or something?"
  2576. > As you wrestle with the weapon, it starts to seem like your unicorn comrade might be right.
  2577. > Honour narrows her eyes and stares at the strange device.
  2578. > "How about you try putting your forehooves behind the lance-guard, and then put your hind hooves on that crossbar thing just behind it?"
  2579. > You frown as you consider her idea.
  2580. "If I do, though, my hooves'll all be pressed together. I won't have hardly any grip, and I won't be able to tuck it up against my body!"
  2581. > Regardless, you give it a try.
  2582. > It's awkward, but it does seem to be manageable.
  2583. > However, the weapon is utterly useless like this, unless it spits magical fire -- and even then, it's hardly ideal, because your grip is so loose that you're worried about dropping the antique.
  2584. > Also, you definitely don't have a firm enough grip to aim it very well.
  2585. > You're left just sort of hovering in the air with your back up vertical, struggling to support the lance's weight in your forehooves alone.
  2586. > Honour nods and points at your hind hooves.
  2587. > "What happens if you try to pull your hindlegs back?"
  2588. > Pull your legs back?
  2589. > There's nowhere to pull your legs back *to*.
  2590. "Okay, Corporal, but I don't want to damage what could be one of Lady Growler's priceless heirl-"
  2591. > *ka-CHONK*!
  2592. "-ooms... Oh."
  2593. > As soon as you applied firm pressure with your hind hooves while still holding the guard with your forehooves, the rest of the shaft -- which was apparently tucked up inside the lance-point -- came dropping out into place with an angry metallic crash.
  2595. > You now hold a lance of proper point-to-shaft proportions, with a haft long enough to tuck under you and a reasonably-sized 'business end'.
  2596. > It's still shorter than your great spear, however.
  2597. > *And* it's still bizarrely accessorized.
  2598. > Tucking it up underneath your body as you would any other polearm, you realize that the crossguard at the butt end of the shaft is now perfectly positioned as a rest for your hind-hooves.
  2599. > And the strangely-shaped front guard seems to be encouraging you to place *both* of your forehooves on the grip, with the wide flared part serving as a kind of built-in jousting shield on your weapon side, and the narrow spike-like protrusion acting as a bar to allow you to rest some of the weapon's weight on your crossed foreleg.
  2600. > After another moment or two of fiddling, you settle into a reasonably comfortable pose with the weapon.
  2601. > It still looks bizarre, and the need to use *all four* of your hooves to hold it is still very unusual -- and very limiting, too, as you don't think you could swing it around at all, not like your current great-spear.
  2602. > You're basically stuck in place like this; only your head and wings can move.
  2603. > But... with a little practice, you could see using the 'Bradamante' lance in a charge, at least.
  2604. > Not very versatile, and you imagine it would also *stick* in whatever you lanced, but still a weapon.
  2605. "Hmmm... I guess this is it, then. It doesn't seem very useful. Maybe it was a ceremonial weapon, for tournament jousts?"
  2606. > Glamerspear just shrugs, but Honour shakes her head.
  2607. > "Maybe, but that doesn't really make sense. I don't think anypony was running serious tilts even four hundred years ago, never mind only three. By the 700s, they would've just been for show, as they are now. Strange to order a custom weapon from Theolonicus merely for play-jousting. And why bother making it collapsible? That's something you'd want more on a weapon to carry into battle..."
  2609. > You don't have answers to those questions, but then Honour nods at the stirrup.
  2610. > "... And what's that thing, down there? A sling attachment, for carrying it casually? Is there a shoulder-strap still in the case?"
  2611. > She peeks into the box, but you know she won't find anything in there.
  2612. > That stirrup-on-a-strap could be only for one purpose -- holding one of your hind hooves.
  2613. > The only question was, why?
  2614. > What could the stirrup do that the crossguard hoofrest couldn't?
  2615. > You look down at the rear of the lance.
  2616. > Just slightly ahead of the rear crossguard, the stirrup was hanging neatly against the shaft.
  2617. > Funny enough, the strap holding it in place was actually held up against the shaft by a series of small brass hoops only slightly larger than the strap itself.
  2618. > And rather than being fixed to a stud, the cord appeared to actually go up *into* the body of the weapon through a small hole.
  2619. > What in Celestia's name could it all be for?
  2620. > You turn around in the air and nod at Glamerspear.
  2621. "Lily, can you tell if this weapon is *magical* at all?"
  2622. > Scrunching up her snout a bit, she shrugs.
  2623. > "I dunno. I don't *feel* anything, but, like, lots of magical stuff doesn't really radiate magic unless it's being actively used, ya know? It takes a certain skill to detect those kinds of dormant energies -- and I haven't got it. Sorry..."
  2624. > She lifts an eyebrow.
  2625. > "... Did this Theolonicus colt even make non-magical stuff? So wouldn't this one have to be enchanted, too, if it's not a knock-off?"
  2626. > There *were* plenty of Theolonicus imitations and fakes, but it seemed unlikely that the Growler family would have kept something non-genuine in their famed collection.
  2627. > You nod, feeling uncertain of just what you were supposed to *do* with this gift.
  2628. "Yes, all of Theolonicus' weapons are supposedly magical, but often the magic was just to keep the blade very sharp, or to make the weapon lighter than usual..."
  2630. > Feeling the lance's weight drag you down a bit, you adjust your grip and flap yourself a bit higher off the ground.
  2631. "... I think we can rule out that last one; it's *heavy*. But this, uh, 'sling attachment' seems just big enough to rest a hoof in. Let me see what happens if I take one of my hind hooves off of the crossbar and place it i-"
  2637. > You are still Specialist Artemis Sparkshower... you think.
  2638. > Whoever you are, you are now lying sideways on what you hazily presume is the drill yard's well-worn turf.
  2639. > Everything is a blur, except for the memory of a deafening noise, and a sudden jerk of movement, and then seeing sky-ground-sky-ground-sky-ground-sky-*GROUND*.
  2640. > The latter being accompanied by a spray of earth and another forceful blow.
  2641. > *CLONK-CLONGGGGGgg*
  2642. > Somewhere off in the distance, it sounds like a metal flagpole just toppled over.
  2645. > There are familiar voices off in another direction, but all you can think about is when you're going to take your next breath.
  2646. > Something earthy and grassy seems to be impeding your ability to breathe.
  2647. > Involuntarily, you convulse in a cough, and a mouthful of dirt and grass comes out.
  2648. > Oh, that'll be wh-
  2649. > Before you can think another thought, your lungs, aching for air, start you furiously retching and choking.
  2650. "*COUGH* *HURH* *KUH* *KUHUHUHHHR* huuuuuu-haaaaa huuuuu-haaaaa huuu-haaa"
  2651. > Regaining your breath, you scrape together enough concentration to bring a hoof up to your muzzle to clear away some of the muck that's encasing your face.
  2652. > "Sparkshower! Sparkshower! Talk to me!"
  2653. > As the haze lifts from your eyes and you spit out the last bits of earth from your mouth, you manage to turn your head slightly to see Corporal Bound standing over you, a worried look on her face.
  2654. "Uhnn... Hello, Corporal."
  2655. > Before answering you, Honour hollers back over her shoulder in the direction where Lily was still calling for help.
  2656. > "She's conscious! Glamerspear, get over here!"
  2657. > The Corporal looks down at you.
  2658. > "... Are you hurt? Can you see? I can't believe your helmet's still in one piece after that landing."
  2660. > Scrunching up your snout, you shut your eyes and brush a hoof around again to sweep more dirt away.
  2661. > There's the sound of galloping hooves nearby.
  2662. "I... I think I'm okay. What happened?"
  2663. > Glamerspear's face appears in your line of sight.
  2664. > "What happened? What happened was you took off like a buckin' firecracker! And I guess you weren't holding on too tight either, 'cause about a half-second later you let go and slammed into the ground!"
  2665. > You flex your legs and roll over -- slowly -- onto your front.
  2666. > "Take it easy there, Sparkshower. That thing launched you halfway across the drill field. You might've broken something."
  2667. "I *think* I'm okay. Nothing really hurts."
  2668. > Honour doesn't appear convinced by your statement, but you struggle to your hooves anyways, flexing your wings as you go.
  2669. > Glamerspear wears a big smile when she sees you stand up, apparently unharmed.
  2670. > "Sweet Celestia of Equestria, Sparks! If you'd shot off into the sky instead of hugging -- and then slamming into -- the ground, all of Canterlot would've thought the Gala was starting a week early. What'd you do, put all your weight in that hoof-sling? You've gotta take it easy your first time, filly."
  2671. > Now that you're upright and no longer eating dirt, you *do* start to recall some of the details.
  2672. > And, yes, you *do* remember being perhaps a bit heavy on that one hoof.
  2673. "I guess I might've stepped in it too hard, but... who knows if it even *has* multiple speeds, like the Royal Engineer's automobile? Maybe it only has 'go'?"
  2674. > Lily grins and laughs.
  2675. > "Well, if you actually manage to hold onto it next time you make it 'go', then we're gonna have to come up with a new MOS code for you..."
  2676. > Rearing up on her hind hooves, she spreads her forehooves wide.
  2677. > "... So long, Specialist Sparks, Armoured Scout -- Hello, Specialist Sparks-*ter*, Rocket Knight!"
  2679. > Honour steps up and looks you in the eyes.
  2680. > "That was a pretty big hit you took just now. Don't push yourself too hard; we can test your new toy some other time."
  2681. > Absolutely not!
  2682. > You were determined to figure out the 'Bradamante Lance' this evening.
  2683. "I'm okay, Corporal. I want to try it again... Where did it land, actually?"
  2684. > Glam jerks a forehoof in the direction where you'd heard the 'flagpole' fall over.
  2685. > Clearly, that was the lance itself, crashing back to the ground.
  2686. > "As soon as you let go, it tipped upwards and flew in the air for a little while longer before falling just at the edge of the berm. I can go and grab it, if you want."
  2687. > You nod.
  2688. "Sure, I'd appreciate that, Lily."
  2689. > As she trots off, she shouts back at you over her shoulder.
  2690. > "And this next time, I'll have the camera ready, too!"
  2691. > You look over at a frowning Corporal Bound.
  2692. "Am I cleared hot?"
  2693. > With a grumble, she nods.
  2694. > "Yeah, okay, you can try it again. But this time, climb to a higher elevation first, so you have enough time to recover under your own wingpower if you have to let go. Angle the lance upwards a little before triggering it, too, so you're not rocketing straight into the ground. And lower your visor this time, if you don't want another face-full of dirt..."
  2695. > She turns her head and looks around the drill grounds.
  2696. > "... Keep the first flight short; release the hoofrest as soon as you're comfortable doing so. Try to stay within the bounds of the practice area if you can, though I guess it'll be pretty difficult if that thing can sustain its speed for any length of time. Stick to the *barracks* boundaries at the very least -- we don't want to be raining Royal Guards *or* pointy heirloom Theolonicus weapons down over the civilian areas of the palace or city."
  2697. > You salute her respectfully.
  2698. "Yes, Corporal!"
  2700. > Honour rolls her eyes.
  2701. > "And knock that off. I want you paying attention and being careful, not sticking to protocol for protocol's sake. Launch that 'Bradamante Growler' lance -- with or without you attached -- at anypony who isn't wearing heavy armour, and I doubt they'll be getting back up again..."
  2702. > She gives you a final stern look as Glamerspear comes trotting back over, with both your camera and the lance in her telekinetic grasp.
  2703. > "... All I'm asking is that you treat that thing with the respect that a *very* dangerous and lethal weapon deserves."
  2704. > You nod.
  2705. "I will. Captain Goldenfoil did say that it had a 'temper'... I can't imagine what would've happened if I'd tried to use it indoors."
  2706. > "Canterlot Palace would've had a buncha new hallways drilled into it, that's what!"
  2707. > Glamerspear smirks as she lowers the lance in front of you.
  2708. > "... And I don't think Their Majesties would've been too pleased about you turning their palace into a block of Einsiedler cheese, either, ha!"
  2709. > You look at your Little Ludwig camera.
  2710. "Let me get things set up for the photograph first?"
  2711. > "Sure thing. You gonna pose before taking off, too?"
  2712. > Sitting on your haunches, you shake your head as she lowers the camera into your forehooves.
  2713. "No, let's do the portraits another day. My armour's all muddy from the failed test-firing, now. I'll set the camera for you to take a few 'action' photos."
  2714. > Should've brought one of your telephoto lenses in addition to the portrait 35mm, but it'll do if you can stay within the boundaries of the drill field.
  2715. > It's late afternoon, but there's still quite a lot of sun, so you set the focus to infinity, aperture to f/4, and shutter speed 1/500th of a second.
  2716. > That should be fast enough to capture a good snapshot of the lance -- and you -- in motion.
  2718. > You hoof the camera back to her.
  2719. "... Okay, here. Hold off if a cloud casts me in shadow, if I'm too small in the viewfinder, or when I'm closer than twenty hooves -- the photo will be either too dark or too blurry. Otherwise, it should be fine. There's a full roll of twenty-four shots in there, go ahead and use them all if you can."
  2720. > Glamerspear nods and telekinetically lifts the camera viewfinder up to her muzzle.
  2721. > "Sure thing, Sparks! I'll getcha, don't worry!"
  2722. > As you pick up the lance, Honour taps Glamerspear on the shoulder with a forehoof.
  2723. > "Come on, paparazzo, let's get behind the commander's podium before this rocket blasts off again."
  2724. > You lower your visor and take to the air while your comrades seek cover below.
  2725. > It's a bit of a struggle -- the 'Bradamante Lance' really *was* heavy.
  2726. > And this from somepony who flies around in thick plate armour nearly all the time!
  2727. > Hmmm... it'd be a lot easier to climb to a safe altitude if you used the lance *itself* to propel you upwards...
  2728. > Something to try later, lest you earn Corporal Bound's ire.
  2729. > Eventually, you reach what you consider to be a safe height, and Honour & Lily reach the relative safety of the sturdily-constructed wooden platform.
  2730. > Angling the weapon generously well above the horizon, you lift your right hind hoof off of the crossbar hoofrest and place it just above the activation stirrup.
  2731. > Here goes attempt number two -- may Bradamante Growler guide you in using her weapon!
  2732. > You gently flex your right hind leg back.
  2733. > There's an audible *CLICK* from inside the pole, and then-
  2736. Recommended video: (S-400 'Triumf' [NATO reporting name: SA-21 'Growler'] anti-aircraft missile launch)
  2738. > Holy Coriolis, Mother of Hurricanes!
  2739. > The deafening noise, the tremendous power, and the incredible rush of wind!
  2741. > Your wings are pressed tightly against your flanks from the force, and it's a real struggle just to keep your hooves in place.
  2742. > The hind hoof-rest 'cross-guard' now makes perfect sense not just as a way of expanding the weapon, but an essential requirement for riding while the 'Bradamante Lance' is thrusting forward.
  2743. > And the strange cross-foreguard is clearly not intended to help in holding the weapon, but again a necessary aid for simply holding *on*.
  2744. > You look down, and realize you've not just completely cleared the drilling ground, but are almost at the edge of the barracks complex itself.
  2745. > Bracing for the sudden deceleration, you lift your hoof out of the stirrup.
  2746. > *TSSSSSSsssssssss*
  2747. > An angry hiss accompanies the abrupt slowdown, and the front-heavy lance immediately tips downwards -- with you attached to it.
  2748. > You spread your wings to arrest the descent, then stop to hover in place.
  2749. > Incredible!
  2750. > Flying from the drill grounds to here would take you almost a full minute even *without* your heavy armour on.
  2751. > This thing flew you here, fully suited up, in a matter of a few seconds!
  2752. > How quickly could it take you all the way to the other side of the Canterlot Palace Barracks?
  2753. > Only one way to find out...
  2754. > Aiming yourself above the horizon at the opposite side of the barracks grounds, you move your right hindhoof just above the stirrup again.
  2755. > You'll really have to be quick on the release this next time, because while on your present side of the complex there's just another one of the palace's innumerable gardens -- Her Majesty's Tulip and Daffodil Nursery -- the other side of the barracks abuts the Palace itself.
  2756. > And you definitely don't want to be making a hole in Their Majesties' official residence.
  2758. > Tilting the lance up even higher than before, so that if you *do* release late, at least you'll clear the first few low buildings, you brace yourself and apply hoof to stirrup once more.
  2761. Suggested background music: (Yoko Kanno - 'Fly up in the air' [excerpt], from 'Macross Plus' [1995])
  2763. > On your third trip, the terror starts to diminish, and you find yourself wearing a smile on your face.
  2764. > Not that anypony could see it, with your visor down, but it was there.
  2765. > This thing was incredible!
  2766. > Lady Major Amberline Growler really had given you a wondrous gift.
  2767. > A fine example of Anthony Theolonicus's unparallelled abilities as a master armourer!
  2768. > And Bradamante Growler, the original purchaser & owner?
  2769. > Why, she must have been a ferocious warrior if she managed to make good use of it!
  2770. > You feel privileged to merely *touch* her lance.
  2771. > And now it's *yours*!
  2772. > Yours to keep, if you wanted it, though you imagined that Lady Growler would probably expect some favours in the future.
  2773. > But until then, the Bradamante Lance was propelling you across the sky so fast that even the Royal Guard's Wonderbolts stunt racing team might have trouble keeping up.
  2774. > Just another five seconds, and you'll let go to stop short of the palace proper...
  2775. > *TSSSSSsssssssssss*
  2776. > Wait, what?
  2777. > With your hoof still hard on the stirrup, the propulsion cuts out on its own.
  2778. > Reflexively, you spread your wings to arrest the fall, as you look down at the weapon couched under your body.
  2779. > Was that all the lance had to give before it ran out?
  2780. > Twenty or so seconds of thrust?
  2781. > It was twenty ferociously fast seconds, to be sure, but it didn't seem like a whole lot.
  2782. > You wouldn't be crossing Equestria with just the 'Bradamante Lance' alone, that's for certain.
  2783. > Still, though, it would be enough for one heck of a combat charge.
  2784. > Or a great emergency tactical withdrawal, too!
  2786. > Hmmm...
  2787. > But how were you supposed to know when the Lance was ready to-
  2788. > *CLICK*
  2790. > Buck!
  2791. > Jerking your hoof off the stirrup, you struggle to keep your wings open just enough to serve as control surfaces, rolling over to one side to pull away from a violet-painted bulbous onion-dome -- Canterlot Palace's Royal Library.
  2792. > *TSSSSSsssssssssss*
  2793. > Not ideal to be making big noises just outside of what was supposed to be a place for quiet study!
  2794. > You decide to proceed away from it under your own power for a little bit before engaging the 'Bradamante Lance' once again.
  2795. > *CLICK-AHHhhh*
  2796. > That noise was probably to let you know the Lance was fully charged again.
  2797. > Hmm, you *did* manage to open your wings for a little bit while the thing was running.
  2798. > It *must* be possible to perform some course corrections while under the Lance's power.
  2799. > Maybe if you only open your wings a tiny bit, leaving them swept back, you can have just enough surface to aim yourself properly.
  2800. > It's a theory worth testing out -- and, now that you're well clear of Her Majesty's book repository, you aim to do exactly that!
  2802. > Yes!
  2803. > It's incredibly tough to do, but with a little effort you can climb, dive, and even roll over to bank!
  2804. > Nopony will be confusing you for a member of the supremely agile 1st Air Wing, but with speed like this, who cares?
  2805. > By the time your target hears the ear-splitting howl of the 'Bradamante Lance', it'll be too late -- you'll be on them already.
  2806. > As you come up on the drill field, you release the stirrup, to the now-familiar *TSSSSSsssssssssss* noise, and prepare to line up for a run on one of the larger, elevated hay-bale bull's-eyes.
  2807. > Hitting things in the air was all good and well, but there were always going to be targets on the ground, too!
  2808. > Heck, Honour could chuck javelins up high if she wanted to, as well!
  2810. > And even Glamerspear could hurl her anti-aircraft spears at enemies on land!
  2811. > You spot the unicorn in question snapping photos of you as you fly over, dive down low, and then stop to hover at a comfortable twenty hooves above ground.
  2812. > *CLICK-AHhhh*
  2813. > Perfect, you'll be able to give it everything the Lance has got.
  2814. > You'll have to mind the shock when you slam into the target.
  2815. > The only question was, should you lift off the stirrup before impact, or ride it straight through like a hammerhead?
  2816. > You'd definitely have to pull off immediately afterwards, lest you crash into the berm fifty hooves behind it.
  2817. > Well, there was nopony here but your quaternion, and nothing behind the berm but another two hundred hooves of open field with nopony else there either.
  2818. > Heck, the barracks building opposite the field was probably half empty, according to Glamerspear, with most of the garrison away on weekend liberty.
  2819. > And you weren't injured, and you were wearing your armour.
  2820. > When else would you be able to push it to the limit like this?
  2821. > With a grin of glee on your armoured face, you slam your right hind hoof into the stirrup.
  2823. > Squinting your eyes against the strands of hay you're worried would poke through your visor's slits, you make only the slightest of corrections to stay on course.
  2824. > The big round target goes from small far-away circle to huge disc in almost no time flat, and you doubt if you even could have lifted off in time to avoid it.
  2825. > You barely feel the contact, as the light straw objective neatly splits in two, one half brushed aside by the large forward guard, and the other by your own shoulder armour.
  2826. > Releasing the stirrup to a satisfying hiss, you unfold your wings wide, making use of the forward momentum to launch yourself up high, then rolling off at the top to come around and glide back towards the commander's podium.
  2828. > Lily and Honour step up out of their cover when they see you coming in to land.
  2829. > You pick your hind hooves up off the crossbar and tilt the lance up above your head to free your hooves for the ground, but with a neat *shrrr-CLACK* the haft automatically retracts itself into the lance-point.
  2830. > That leaves one forehoof free to lift your visor up so your quaternion-comrades can see just how happy you are.
  2831. > Glamerspear is all smiles when you land.
  2832. > "Nice going, Sparks! I think I got a good one or two of that attack run you made!"
  2833. > You're still breathing heavily from the thrill of it all.
  2834. "Thanks, Lily. Did you use the whole roll?"
  2835. > She nods.
  2836. > "Yeah... I'm not so sure about some of the early ones, though. You zoomed by so fast overhead I think all I managed to do is get a blurry spec at the edge of the shot. Sorry."
  2837. > You shrug.
  2838. "That's okay. I can always get more film. And we can always come out again and take some more."
  2839. > Honour steps up.
  2840. > "Don't be too sure about that. I'm starting to wonder if we haven't just hurt the Royal Engineer's prospects for talking to Major-General Hoofstrong tomorrow with all this loud flying around. At least you stayed entirely within palace grounds and didn't fly too high up; so hopefully nopony from the 1AD's Canterlot Air Patrol noticed. Hopefully nopony calls in to complain about the noise, either..."
  2841. > She nods at the Bradamante Lance in your hooves.
  2842. > "... I suppose the fact that it was a gift from Major Growler will help, as will the fact the exercise had nothing to do with the Royal Engineer himself. In any case, it's something to be aware of when you're there with me tomorrow morning, Glamerspear."
  2843. > You sit down to strap the lance back in its case, and Glamerspear floats your camera over.
  2844. > "Sure thing, Corporal. And here's your Ludwig, Sparks. You gonna send these pictures back home to your folks?"
  2846. Strongly recommended background music: (The New Queen's Hall Orchestra - 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis', as featured in 'Master and Commander' [2003])
  2848. > Your folks?
  2849. > It'd been a little while since you'd actually *written* to your parents.
  2850. > You normally saw them often enough, taking your weekend leave back to Berry.
  2851. > Being in the VIP section changed that, though -- no weekend leave meant they hadn't heard from you in over two weeks.
  2852. > Three, actually, since you didn't get the weekend off beforehoof.
  2853. > A lot's happened.
  2854. > You've got a lot to tell them.
  2855. > About the Royal Engineer, and about everything else that came with him.
  2856. > Seeing that wonderful musical at the Sardinia theatre, fighting the battle of Newstirrup Bridge, meeting the batpony Ebonshield -- no, that'll get censored by the Royal Guard, you'll have to skip over it.
  2857. > Meeting Princess Luna, making the trip to Fort Newcastle-Upon-Mare and placing an order the minotaur blacksmith Bronzehorn...
  2858. > The trip under Canterlot Mountain to the Rookery will have to be left out, again due to DADT.
  2859. > After that, there was experiencing the Royal Engineer's new steam-powered automobile, discovering the Spa Dalecarlia, buying dresses with your new best friend Lily...
  2860. > And then there was Huckleberry.
  2861. > How were you going to explain Huckleberry?
  2862. > What are you going to tell your parents?
  2863. > Your friends back in Berry?
  2864. > Not that you had a lot of them...
  2865. > You look at the lance, running a hoof reverently down the striped tip.
  2866. > Where would you be now, if it wasn't for Huckleberry?
  2867. > "You okay down there, Sparks? All that flying around wear you out?"
  2868. > Glamerspear is beside you, still waiting for you to finish so she can trade your your camera for the lance-case.
  2869. "I'm all right. Just... thinking."
  2871. > "'Bout the weapon? It's a real wonder, all right -- and a wonder you didn't hurt yourself trying it out. I guess she wasn't going to dole it out to anyone who didn't wear heavy armour. If you decide to keep it, I'm sure Lady Growler will have some expectations that you'll do her more favours, intentionally or not..."
  2872. > She shrugs.
  2873. > "... At the very least, I'd expect her to make another push for you to join the Valkyries, probably with the promise of getting one of those magic helmets to go along with the lance."
  2874. > You remember looking over all the possibilities when you got your Equestrian Services Vocational Aptitude Battery scores back.
  2875. > There were a lot of offers that you'd had to rule out because of Huck.
  2876. > Including the Valkyries.
  2877. > Shaking your head, you speak aloud to nopony in particular.
  2878. "I couldn't. There was too much travel."
  2879. > Glamerspear nods.
  2880. > "Yeah, I guess the Valkyries do travel a lot, what with every other unit needing heavily-armoured fliers to play OPFOR for their training exercises."
  2881. > Turning away from the priceless heirloom that had been so casually given to you by someone for whom it was merely saddlebag change, you look off at the setting sun, dumbstruck, muttering aimlessly.
  2882. "I did it all for him."
  2883. > Glamerspear lifts an eyebrow.
  2884. > "Huh? Did it all for-hey!"
  2885. > Honour steps over and elbows the unicorn in the shoulder, just underneath her armour.
  2886. > "Shut up for a minute, Glamerspear."
  2887. > You take a deep breath, just watching the sun play among the clouds on its way down to the earth.
  2888. "With my ESVAB and fitness scores, I could've gone straight into the Valkyries, or any of the armoured units... Maybe even the Hussars or the Household Cavalry..."
  2889. > You take another breath.
  2890. "... But it would've meant being away from him, immediately. Long train rides to Berry making for little time at home, or long flights and I'd arrive too tired for us to enjoy the time. So I went with the 1st Infantry Division, 4th Armoured Regiment..."
  2892. > A cloud passes in front of the sun, becoming shadowed and dark, while orange rays splay out in all directions from behind it.
  2893. "... I took the Armoured Scout MOS, because the signing bonus would make our down payment on a stable almost anywhere we might've wanted to live..."
  2894. > You sigh, lifting your eyebrows.
  2895. "... And I visited him every weekend, and I fought for him to get a raise at the Strawberries' farm, and I pushed away the bullies in Berry who teased him and called him names, and I tried to help him every way I could... And then I realized maybe Berry was the problem, so I paid for him to visit Canterlot with me, thinking it'd do him good to try another life..."
  2896. > Something's blurring your vision, collecting in your eyes.
  2897. "... When I was promoted, I transferred to the VIP service, figuring it would be the easiest way we could try Canterlot out together. A short service period, with not much travel, and easy liberty off-duty..."
  2898. > Instinctively, you put one hoof up to your muzzle to wipe the clear fluid away.
  2899. "... I didn't... I didn't come here to be invited to the Grand Galloping Gala, or to be taken to musical shows, or to learn about secrets under Canterlot mountain, or to have nobleponies lavish gifts on me..."
  2900. > You find your breathing becoming irregular, erratic.
  2901. > Something dribbles out of your nose, and you try to sniffle it back up.
  2902. "... *sniff*... I did everything for him..."
  2903. > Your jaw starts to quiver.
  2904. "... And... And now he's gone... And... I'm the one who told him to leave..."
  2905. > You bring your other forehoof up to your muzzle, as if it'll stop the impending flood.
  2906. > But it's like trying to plug a dam that's sprung a leak with just a few stray leaves and twigs.
  2907. > Inevitably, it bursts.
  2908. > Tears pouring out of your eyes collect in the base of your bascinet-helm and dribble out the breathing holes whenever you jerk your head forward, falling onto the wooden platform and into the Bradamante Lance's silk-lined box.
  2910. > You feel a pair of forelegs wrap around your torso just underneath your shoulders, and a metal-clad chest scrape against your own.
  2911. > Corporal Bound holds you up, as you bawl your misery out on her shoulder.
  2912. > The Lance, the Spa, the sitting awake in the bed trying not to *think* about what had happened.
  2913. > You'd thrown every available distraction up like a bulkwark against this morning's meeting.
  2914. > None of it could compete with the years of memories that all come pouring in.
  2915. > After a while, your eyes and cheeks drenched, you lift your head up again and look into Honour's calm, knowing face.
  2916. "... Do... Do you think I'll ever see him again?"
  2917. > She shakes her head.
  2918. > "I don't know, Artemis... Do you *want* to?"
  2919. > You feel emptied, and you look away from Honour, off towards the setting sun once more.
  2920. "I don't know. But... I just don't know what to do without him."
  2921. > She nods.
  2922. > "You start by taking it one day at a time, Artemis. One day at a time... until the day when you find yourself again."
  2923. > Your lips quivering, another flood on the way, you try to hold it back by swallowing and taking a deepb reath.
  2924. > Then you ask the question you dread to hear her answer.
  2925. "How long will it take?"
  2926. > Honour blows out, puffing her cheeks, and gently shakes her head.
  2927. > "I don't know. But you'll make it."
  2928. > You collapse in tears onto her shoulder again.
  2933. > Your eyes snap open in the darkness, and you are the Sergeant Purity Ebonshield.
  2934. > It is still night outside.
  2935. > Good.
  2936. > You creep stealthily out of your bed -- leaving it empty, alas.
  2937. > Your Leónito, that young stallion full of life, you had to refuse company for tonight.
  2938. > Because tonight was not a night for pleasure.
  2939. > Tonight, you were going to work.
  2940. > Pulling open your bedroom door slowly, you peek out and glance up at the clock on the wall in the common room.
  2941. > One-thirty in the morning.
  2942. > Bueno.
  2943. > You have slept the ninety minutes as you planned.
  2944. > Without pausing, you shut the door silently, cross your room, throw on your cloak, and open your window.
  2945. > Then you take to the air and push the window closed, leaving only a fluttering of leathery wings barely audible against the gentle mountain breeze blowing across Canterlot.
  2946. > It takes you only a few minutes to arrive at the orchard garden-shed which serves as border post run by the Royal Undermountain Constabulary, the Military Ponice who guarded the secret gates between Equestria and the ponies of the Moon.
  2947. > Your favourite RUC Lieutenant, the handsome young Rounds Rapid, had just arrived on duty, and he quickly cleared you for transit into the undermountain as he had done so many times before.
  2948. > However, as he floats over your papers in his unicorn-grasp, he looks up with an air of curiosity.
  2949. > "By the way, is it business or personal this evening, Sergeant Ebonshield?"
  2950. > You take the Royal Warrant which grants you full and complete access to both the surface and subterranean worlds and place it back in one of the small concealed pockets sewn into the inside of your cloak.
  2951. "Tonight, señor Rápido, it is business."
  2952. > The unicorn appears concerned, and tenses up in his chair.
  2953. > "Business for your VIP, I trust?"
  2954. > Your other kind of business, you know that he did not endorse.
  2955. > And he was certainly not alone in this.
  2957. "Yes, it is for the Royal Engineer. I am conducting some diplomacy on his behalf."
  2958. > 'Diplomacy' was a word which could mean a great deal many things.
  2959. > Either the Lieutenant had not yet learned this, or else he trusts you perhaps too much, for your answer appears to reassure him.
  2960. > You see him relax, his back slouching almost imperceptibly.
  2961. > "Very well. Good-night, Sergeant."
  2962. > Bowing, you back away towards the Rookery entrance.
  2963. "Buenas noches, teniente. I will return shortly, I hope."
  2964. > He nods, and the other RUC guards pull open the doors to let you in.
  2965. > Unsurprisingly, you do not encounter any checkpoint on the other side.
  2966. > Which was not to say that there were no guards -- you spotted two Righteous Hatchets, lurking in the stalactites just before the Cave of Pillars, carrying on idle conversation by whispers.
  2967. > They saw you too, but far too late, when you had already flown them by.
  2968. > Slothful, slothful, slothful!
  2969. > Still, nopony would have expected an incursion into the Rookery at *night*.
  2970. > Without torches or lights, or even the sound of hoofsteps.
  2971. > The Hatchets were more vigilant during the day, and when the Night Guard shifts changed.
  2972. > But at almost two in the morning, long after the Night Guard midnight meal?
  2973. > No, the guardians were as sleepy as the rest of the Rookery would be.
  2974. > After coasting around the waterfall, soaring through the Cave of Pillars, and then flapping your way to the bazaar, you are unsurprised to see the caverns almost completely empty of any Children.
  2975. > Many of the stalls were even closed for the after-midnight, to reopen in the evening when the contingent of Night Guard returned for supper -- their most valued customers, paying in Equestrian bits and often covertly smuggling in Equestrian goods.
  2976. > However, after flying past a few sleepy rows, you can see that your destination is still open, to a degree.
  2977. > You land silently just in front of the store-front counter.
  2979. > Behind it, sitting on a stool with his back slouching against the wall, his head propped up in his hooves, and his wings wrapped around himself, the middle-aged proprietor of this establishment was snoring gently.
  2980. > You address him in your native tongue.
  2981. «Good after-midnight, Joseph.»
  2982. > With a startle and a snort, José wakes up, looks at you, glances around to see that you are alone, then coughs twice as he gets off his stool.
  2983. > «Good after-midnight, Madam Star-Phase. Welcome to Horchateria Joseph. What may I serve you tonight?»
  2984. > You slither up one of the raised chairs at the counter and look the square-jawed batpony colt in the eyes.
  2985. «What dost thou have?»
  2986. > José licks his black-moustached lips and reaches down for a rag, then proceeds to idly wipe the counter, shaking his head.
  2987. > «The horchata is made fresh this evening, with tiger nuts delivered only yesterday. I also have some small breads and pastries left-over from breakfast.»
  2988. > You nod amiably.
  2989. «Then I shall have a small horchata to begin with.»
  2990. > The proprietor turns around towards the drink-jar, picking up a ladle in his hoof, his heavy black mane brushing against the top of his red-embroidered black vest.
  2991. > «Certainly, madam.»
  2992. > As he returns to face you, placing a small glass of the thick drink on the counter with a cork coaster underneath, José looks you warily in the eyes.
  2993. > Looking him right back, you pick up the glass and take a tiny sip of the cool, refreshing beverage.
  2994. > You lick your lips and place it back down on its little saucer, withdrawing your forehooves into your cloak.
  2995. > «... Is it to Madam's liking?»
  2996. > Frowning playfully, you tilt your head back.
  2997. «It requires some accompaniment, I think.»
  2998. > José rolls his head to the side slightly.
  2999. > «Would Madam care for a pastry? Or a biscuit to dip in it, perhaps?»
  3000. > You shake your head, lowering it down again.
  3001. «No... But I understand that conversation goes well with drink.»
  3003. > The black-maned colt sits back on his stool, folding his forelegs in front of him and his wings behind him.
  3004. > «Ah. And about what subject would it please madam to converse?»
  3005. > You sit back in your seat, placing one forehoof confidently on the counter.
  3006. «I think, perhaps, I should enjoy it if we could speak on history.»
  3007. > His eyes narrow.
  3008. > «If Madam Star-Phase is curious of history, then she should seek out a Lunar. Rocks such as myself are not permitted authority in these things outside of our own professions.»
  3009. > You take another sip from your glass.
  3010. «This is true. Yet I believe thou art an expert in the particular item of interest to me this night.»
  3011. > José licks his lips.
  3012. > «And what item might that be?»
  3013. > You fix him in your gaze.
  3014. «The Reconquest.»
  3015. > There is a long pause before he answers.
  3016. > Doubtless, he wonders why you have come today to ask this question.
  3017. > Is it your motive which concerns him?
  3018. > Or, perhaps he is merely considering how to answer you while keeping his obligation to his Phase.
  3019. > José shakes his head.
  3020. > «This is a very old subject, Madam. She is not a very current event.»
  3021. > An evasive answer; you press on.
  3022. «Dost thou deny having familiarity with her?»
  3023. > His obligations to his own Rock Phase required him not to speak with authority on the subject of historical events.
  3024. > But his obligations to Phases above his required that he be obedient to his betters.
  3025. > The horchateria-tender chooses to fly with his wings held close to his chest.
  3026. > «This is a horchateria, Madam. I serve horchata, baked goods, and omelettes. Not lessons in history.»
  3027. > You lean in to force the confrontation, placing your brow close enough for him to easily butt it, if he dared to.
  3028. «I have questions about the Reconquest, Joseph. And I am not leaving here until thou answerst them.»
  3029. > José meets your brow, but does not challenge you.
  3031. > Instead, he glances down at your half-empty cup.
  3032. > «In that case, I fear madam will be drinking rather a lot of horchata tonight.»
  3033. > Ay!
  3034. > The reputation of this colt as stubborn and witty was well-deserved.
  3035. > Picking up your glass, you take another small sip and then put your forehooves down on the table quickly and with some force, so that your blades clatter against the counter.
  3036. > A cheap tactic to draw attention, but José does not even bother to look down at your weapons.
  3037. > He only shakes his head, his brow inches from yours.
  3038. > «... I know nothing worth somepony paying for my name to appear in your famous book, Madam of the Shining Stellar Dance.»
  3039. > You raise your eyebrows.
  3040. «Do you not? Why else art thou kept around here, then, Joseph?»
  3041. > Your insult garners you a swallow and the beginning of a frown.
  3042. > «Madam would have to consult with the Reverend Mother for the answer to this question...»
  3043. > With a grumble, he leans away from you, then gets off his stool and steps out from behind the bar, heading to one of the tables behind you with a cleaning-rag in his wing-arms.
  3044. > «... If madam will excuse me a moment, I must prepare for the afternoon business.»
  3045. > Surprised, you turn and watch him go.
  3046. > Just like that, he backed out of your challenge?
  3047. > It was certainly his right, as a Rock engaged by a Star.
  3048. > However, it was not in keeping with his previous reputation.
  3049. > Not that you had ever known him personally, but it was disappointing to see how far he had fallen.
  3050. > You decide to try a compliment to offset your earlier insult.
  3051. «I do believe that the Engineer Royal enjoyed thy hospitality on Wednesnight.»
  3052. > In the middle of wiping down a wooden chair, José nods.
  3053. > «Then madam may convey to him my deepest thanks for his generous business.»
  3054. > Frustrated, you take another drink of the horchata, emptying the glass but still holding it in your hooves.
  3056. > You may as well get some other business out of the way while you are here -- and while he continues to block your efforts.
  3057. «Wouldst thou be willing to host another conference between him and the ferriers?»
  3058. > «Certainly, Madam. Though, a little advance notice would be appreciated.»
  3059. > All right, then, good.
  3060. > Now, enough games.
  3061. «Joseph, I want to know what happened to thee during the Reconquest.»
  3062. > He does not even lift his head up from his work cleaning a table and setting its chairs.
  3063. > «That story is known to the public already.»