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Broken Bluebird Part 2 By a guest

By Anonimoose
Created: 20th April 2021 08:24:25 AM

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  4. Archived from pastebin.com/uJc4Lx65 on 2020.10.23 23:31:06 UTC"Define 'missing'?"
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  7. > "Uh-uh-uh, Anonymous. You wanted the hook, you got it - nothing more."
  8. > Gritting your teeth at the Queen's tone, you squeeze the bridge of your nose.
  9. > Returning Chissik now - while she was still accompanying Trixie - would force you to find another handler for the showpony if you needed to use her again.
  10. > But that could be done, with some time.
  11. > What Chrysalis offered seemed far more critical.
  12. > A princess, missing?
  13. > Why hadn't your ponies reported this - surely they should have gotten word through to you faster than it took to reach the Crystal Empire and then the Changelings?
  14. "Fine. As soon as I can, I will make contact with Chissik and return her to your control. But, in accordance with our earlier agreement, if I need a task carried out you agree to still have her handle it?"
  15. > "Of course, Anonymous."
  16. > Her tone suggests there'd never been any question, prompting you to suppress a snort at the thought of the Changeling ruler being honest.
  17. "Then you have my word - provided this is as good as you say. Talk."
  18. > And talk she does, ignoring your demanding tone to get straight to the point:
  19. > "Twilight Sparkle abruptly vanished from Ponyville two weeks ago and has not been seen there since."
  20. > You're forced to admit - when you'd reached out to Rarity to negotiate the fillies' return, you had been told Twilight wasn't there first.
  21. > At the time you'd thought nothing of it, but now...
  22. "How do you know what's going on in Ponyville?"
  23. > "Oh, Anonymous."
  24. > An amused little titter issues through the speaker.
  25. > "I might not be trying to conquer Equestria at the moment, but that doesn't mean I've told all my subjects to abandon their duty."
  26. "Terms of your treaty with Cadance are that you keep your changelings out of Equestrian affairs, Chrysalis."
  27. > "And I will respect the boundaries of the pink whore's domain. The rest of Equestria has no agreement with me, though."
  28. "Celestia and Luna won't see it that way. Or any of the rest of the government. You're inviting a conflict."
  29. > The Queen's tone turns harder
  30. > "You worry about yourself, Anonymous. I will keep my subjects safe."
  31. > You're about to point out that your safety was as much dependent on her treaty holding, but squelch the words in your throat.
  32. > No time for that argument now, not when something else was on the line.
  33. > You'd deal with the loose cannon that the changeling queen was later.
  34. "Go on, then. I assume there's more than her just not being home?"
  35. > "Two days ago, one of my infiltrators positioned on the docks of Vanhoofer tasted a princess' magic being used - aboard a ship. The crew would not let him get close to investigate further."
  36. "Tell me he didn't do anything rash."
  37. > "Of course not. He told the dock guards that the ship was suspicious, but when they searched it, no princess was there."
  38. "And your agent was certain?"
  39. > "Absolutely. Less than three hours later, the Vanhoover guard suddenly turned out in force to hunt Sparkle. Apparently two ponies came running to the guard saying that she had secretly hired them to help her with something, then suddenly left them as well."
  40. "Let me guess: The guard didn't get aboard that ship?"
  41. > "Before they could reach it the ship suddenly cast off and departed. They chased it briefly, but suddenly came back without reaching it."
  42. > Your brows knit tightly as confirms your suspicion.
  43. > Well-trained guard pegasi, not checking a ship that had only just left port?
  44. "You had the ship under watch the entire time, I presume."
  45. > "Naturally. Just as it was departing, my agent tasted a princess' magic in use again. She was there."
  46. "Those guards were told to stop. Someone didn't want them knowing she was aboard."
  47. > "Of course. I'd love to have asked her hired help what she was doing, but they've suddenly decided to take a vacation to Canterlot - and even I do not risk going there again."
  48. > You can't help but feel a slight shudder at the was Chrysalis places such emphasis on 'love'.
  49. > She wasn't supposed to be holding captives now, but you increasingly suspected that those two ponies would not have been returned from any interrogations.
  50. > But - more importantly now - what would Twilight Sparkle be doing aboard a simple cargo vessel under such secrecy?
  51. > And why hire help?
  52. > Princesses could surely requisition the services of the most loyal of Equestria's guard?
  53. "Well. I do think you've got something there. I'm wondering, though, what is she doing..."
  54. > "That is not my concern. I am still under treaty, after all."
  55. > You grit your teeth slightly at Chrysalis' continued disregard for your situation.
  56. "...fine. Get a proper report put together, with all the information laid out. I'll check my sources. If they match your story, Chissik will be yours again."
  57. > "Oh, excellent!"
  58. > Her tone turns abruptly chipper as the changeling queen claps her forehooves together; you never could quite get those sudden emotional switches she went through.
  59. > Yet, this time she for once sounds genuinely pleased to have her... servant? Subject?
  60. > Whatever Chissik was to her, Chrysalis was glad to have her back.
  61. > "I'm so very, very glad we've come to an agreement."
  62. "As am I. I'll contact you again when there's word of what has happened."
  63. > During the conversation, Dash has twisted herself around to fix you with a worried look.
  64. > When you end the call, she speaks up at last:
  65. > "Master? What's happening?"
  66. "Twilight Sparkle's developed a sudden affinity for seafaring."
  67. > Dash only looks confused at this, prompting a shake of your head.
  68. "She's apparently decided to take a sea voyage without telling anyone, but with the backing of someone important enough to tell the Vanhoofer guard to ignore her presence."
  69. > "Oh."
  70. > Dash pauses, glancing out the window again.
  71. > "Does this mean we're going to have to go soon?"
  72. "We should. It wouldn't have been much time anyhow - another orbit, and we'd have had to leave anyhow before night came to Equestria."
  73. > With one last longing look out the window, Dash nods mournfully.
  74. "Hey."
  75. > You reach over to ruffle her mane lightly.
  76. "Don't worry. There might be a chance to come up here again, and in the meantime I promise reentry will be worth it."
  77. > Without a word, Dash follows close behind you as you start making you way through the weightless corridors.
  78. "Say - I don't suppose you would know where Twilight might be going?"
  79. > "No, Master."
  80. > Despite her inexperience in null-G, Dash seems to have adapted well - keeping up with you while talking freely.
  81. > "We've never really gone sailing. Never far, anyhow - there's rail lines far enough out to almost reach griffon territory, and we've never needed to go further."
  82. "So, whatever she's going for, it's probably something she's never been to before."
  83. > Rubbing your chin, you grimace - it was a fair guess that Twilight was looking for something to defeat you with, but what?
  84. > Equestria was awash in artifacts of varying power already; which might she be seeking overseas?
  85. > "Are you going to try and hunt her down, master?"
  86. > There's a note of worry in Dash's voice.
  87. > Another reminder that however much she might sympathize with you now, she was not yet ready to abandon her one-time friends entirely.
  88. "Sort of. If I can, I will try and find out what she is doing and where... but I've no interest to actually attack her."
  89. > With that you go silent again, left with your own thoughts.
  90. > Even long after the shuttle has undocked itself and the 'Obstinance' carried itself away to an orbit invisible to Canterlot, your mind keeps swirving back to the same thoughts.
  91. > While Dash was enraptured by the viewscreens' images of plasma flowing from the hull as you deorbited, they were barely noticeable to you.
  92. > At a certain point you realize that you are almost certainly obsessing over this.
  93. > Descent had long since turned to flight; the shuttle had reached Equestria's coastline - gleaming waves below turning to trees made to gold by the evening's last light.
  94. > Why were you so fixated on this?
  95. > Equestria's rulers had been working against you for months now, after all.
  96. > The answer comes a moment later, worming its way up from the depths of your mind no matter how stinging it is to admit it:
  97. > You were fixated, because you were scared.
  98. > On some level, being assaulted by three foals had shaken your confidence.
  99. > Their invasion into your home had only been made possible by a fluke - a corrected one - but psychologically?
  100. > Psychologically your home - your fortress - was no longer safe.
  101. > A frown touches your lips as a result of that thought as the shuttle circles about for its final landing - the only outward sign of the discomfort you dare show.
  102. --------
  103. > You rub your chin, reading over the twin reports occupying your screen.
  104. > One was the full version Chrysalis' spy had reported, while another was from a pony who lived in the city.
  105. > Neither should have been aware of the other, but their reports corroborated enough.
  106. > Clearly Twilight Sparkle had been in the city, doing something aboard a ship - and then abruptly departed when it seemed like she had been discovered.
  107. > Departed, or been taken?
  108. > It wasn't an impossibility that she might have been captured somehow, though it was deeply unlikely.
  109. > No - if she had been actually kidnapped, the remaining elements would not have been so calmly living their lives in Ponyville still.
  110. > They knew where she was.
  111. > Then something was very definitely up.
  112. > Briefly you wonder if Twilight would make an appearance at the next meeting you were scheduled to have between Dash and her friends.
  113. > If not - well, that might be problematic in its own right.
  114. > She was supposed to be the one who verified your continued 'treaty' with the elements; if not her...
  115. > Hrm.
  116. > One of the other elements, perhaps?
  117. > But they held no legal authority to deal with you.
  118. > Maybe Cadance?
  119. > The crystal princess had proven agreeable in the past; surely she'd see the benefit in continuing the peace between yourself and Equestria?
  120. > Grumbling, you stand and return up the flight of stairs.
  121. > Following the sound of your prisoner's voice leads you to the next set of problems on your mind.
  122. > While you'd printed a fair number of Equestrian books - both educational and entertaining - the fact was you simply were not prepared to house and keep three fillies for any significant period of time.
  123. > Already you could tell they were straining at the boundaries you had set down for them, and as time went on and you ran out ways to keep them occupied there was no way to be certain what would try.
  124. > Of course the drones were keeping them contained, but accidental injury in an escape attempt was as much a reasonable worry as anything else.
  125. > At the same time, however, releasing them early simply wasn't something you were prepared to do.
  126. > Not until Rarity finished her work in Canterlot.
  127. > At least that much you could safely verify, and give you that much more reason to believe she would uphold her part in refusing to wield her part of the elements against you.
  128. > But until then...
  129. > Pausing in a doorway, you lean against the doorpost and watch your slave and the three fillies as they sat close together on the floor.
  130. > Dash had returned from your trip in a much better state of mind.
  131. > And while you could still see the effects the rejection of her sort-of protege had on her - the little winces, the occasional bouts of morose sulking - you could also see her beginning to recover.
  132. > Suppressing a soft chuckle, you watch Dash show the compass-watch you'd given her to the 'crusaders'.
  133. > "...and when I push this thing on the back, it switches right back to the being a clock again. See?"
  134. > A small chorus of amazed noises meets her demonstration - the fillies evidently either ignoring or no longer distraught by the fact said watch was linked to the metal collar about Dash's throat.
  135. > Only Scootaloo was still ignoring Dash outright, and you could see her shooting quick surreptitious glances at the watch when Dash isn't looking in her direction.
  136. "Can't help showing off a bit, hmmm?"
  137. > Dash nearly leaps straight into the air before bowing and shooting an apologetic smile in your direction.
  138. > "Sorry, master. This thing is really cool."
  139. "I'm not upset."
  140. > Pushing off the wall, you approach the four.
  141. > All of the fillies display varying degrees of hostility, from light fear to a glare that suggests the young pegasus would still throttle you if she could.
  142. > Squatting down, you give what you hope is your best reassuring smile and put o the least-threatening tone of voice you can.
  143. "Actually, I wanted to talk to you three, if I could?"
  144. > No answer is forthcoming, but neither do any of the three visibly refuse.
  145. "How about-"
  146. > The unicorn had always been the most fearful of the three, and fear was easiest to manipulate.
  147. "-Sweetie Belle, yes? Come with me for a minute."
  148. > Waving off the other two before they can object, the little unicorn rises to her hooves and nods.
  149. > "I'll - I'll be right back, girls."
  150. > Two rooms is sufficient distance to be out of earshot, and the dining room seems to be a none-too-threatening space.
  151. > Settling into a seat, you motion for Sweetie to take another.
  152. > Casting a worried glance about, she leaps up into the chair and curls her tail protectively about her legs.
  153. > "So - um - what - how can I, um, help?"
  154. > Casting a hopefully-reassuring smile, you lean back and try to make yourself as non-threatening as possible.
  155. "Just let me ask - before you came to try all of this, did any of you happen to notice if Twilight Sparkle had gone somewhere?"
  156. > "Princess Twilight? Um, no. Not that we knew of."
  157. > Her hoof scuffs awkwardly at the chair's seat.
  158. > "We actually had to be real careful sneaking out just because of that."
  159. "Oh?"
  160. > "Yeah. Well, her castle is kind of the tallest thing in Ponyville. And she has a lot of telescopes to see all kinds of things - stars and planets and the moon and stuff, but ponies too. If she'd seen us..."
  161. > After a second Sweetie Belle builds up enough courage to look you in the eye:
  162. > "Is she coming now, Mr. Anonymous?"
  163. "Unfortunately, no."
  164. > You shake your, frowning.
  165. "In fact, I cannot say exactly where she is at all. I was hoping someone would know, since being able to reach her is very important to keeping everyone here safe."
  166. > That gets their attention, leading you to chuckle softly.
  167. "I don't foresee any problems yet - I'm sure your sister is still doing her best to set up your return, Sweetie Belle - but it is a... concern."
  168. > Far more than you were letting on.
  169. > "Um... Mr Anonymous, that we don't know where she is - is that bad?"
  170. "Not for you - I just need to know if you have any idea of how I can reach her."
  171. > "No. I can't remember anything; she was up in her castle the night we left. She hadn't said anything at my last magic lesson with her either."
  172. "You take magic lessons with her?"
  173. > You're unable to keep the surprise from your voice, or your eyebrows from rising.
  174. > "Uh-huh. Miss Cheerilee's a nice teacher, but she's an earth pony and my parents didn't want to send me away from Ponyville, so Twilight agreed to tutor me."
  175. > Hrm.
  176. > Could their disappearance have provoked Twilight to some action, if she was that close to one of them?
  177. > But she'd already been gone when you reached out to Rarity, with knowledge of the fillies' location.
  178. > And that still didn't answer what the point of that ship was.
  179. "You're certain she didn't say anything?"
  180. > "Nuh-uh. Twilight can get... kind of focused when it comes to teaching. Like, sometimes she'll go on even though we're supposed to be done."
  181. "Did anyone else happen to know you were leaving?"
  182. > For the first time the filly actually works up the guts to give you a look - one that says 'what, are you stupid'?
  183. > Chuckling gently, you nod.
  184. "Point taken. Okay. Thank you, Sweetie Belle. You can go back now."
  185. > Picking through the other two fillies' responses is rather trickier.
  186. > Applebloom's surety that you were some kind of comedic villain and Scootaloo's incessant vitriol masked most of the useful information.
  187. > But in the end you were forced to confront the fact that none of them could give more than childish guesses about what Twilight might be doing either.
  188. > "Master?"
  189. > Dash's voice interrupts your thoughts, dragging you back to the situation at hand.
  190. > You'd returned with Scootaloo, and now all four of them again sat in a close huddle - pairs of eyes peering up at you with a wide mix of emotions.
  191. > "Are you alright?"
  192. "Yes - just, thinking over what options I have."
  193. > Pausing a moment, Sweetie sheepishly adds in a small voice:
  194. > "Sorry..."
  195. > "You don't have to apologize to him for anything, Sweetie!"
  196. "You shouldn't be so hard on her, Scootaloo."
  197. > Turning to the exit, you shoot what you hope is a reassuring smile.
  198. "She's doing the best she can to protect you. Really."
  199. > Giving Dash a brief nod, you slip from the room.
  200. > As soon as you are out of sight, the smile fades from your lips.
  201. > Two calls you would have to place now.
  202. > One of them, to Chrysalis.
  203. > She'd held her end of the deal up; you'd no reason to refuse your own.
  204. > And then - Cadance.
  205. > If Twilight truly had vanished, then your best bet at keeping yourself safe was the crystal princess.
  206. > Slumping back into your seat back in the basement 'office', you feel a lance of pain run through your forhead.
  207. > A vigorous rubbing helps alleviate it, but not remove entirely.
  208. > With a sigh, you return to your business.
  209. > This time Chrysalis chooses to open a full video feed for your call, lounging atop what you suspect is a chaise lounge she wouldn't normally make use of.
  210. > "Well, well. I hope you've found my information satisfying."
  211. "Agreeably so, yes. None of my contacts would have known to make anything of this if they hadn't been tipped off. It'd have just been another 'princess sighting'."
  212. > Hopefully a little buttering-up would do well to soothe the temperamental monarch's ego.
  213. > "Good. Then, your end of the agreement?"
  214. > She really wasn't going to wait at all, was she?
  215. > Fine, then.
  216. "I am, as always, a man of my word, Chrysalis. I will reach out to my contact in Manehattan, pass on the word to release Chissik from my service."
  217. > And to start keeping an eye on Trixie in her stead.
  218. > "Most excellent, Anonymous. We are very, very grateful for this opportunity."
  219. "It has been a pleasure to do business with you again, Your Highness."
  220. > Particularly the part where she didn't try and stab you in the back this time.
  221. > A part of you briefly wonders whether Chissik would be punished for failing her original task.
  222. > If so, it at least would not be on your head.
  223. "Until next time, then."
  224. > The second call you need to place goes to Cadance and Shining Armor.
  225. > Neither of them is apparently around to answer, however, and so you leave a message instead.
  226. > Short, simple, and to the point.
  227. > Twilight is missing, and it is in both your interests to forge another agreement.
  228. > Call back when possible, ta-ta.
  229. > Leaning back in your seat, you can't help but feel a slight twinge of concern.
  230. > What if they didn't respond?
  231. > Could the other Elements continue your agreement on their own?
  232. > Rising from the desk with a sigh, you decide to turn in for the night.
  233. > No point in keeping yourself up over it.
  234. > Ensuring the three filly guests are safely shut up in the rooms you'd set aside from them, you start to make the climb to your room.
  235. > Yet, even as you slip into bed, you find your own mind whirling - unable to so easily let of things.
  236. > Sleep, it seems, is not yet ready to come for you.
  237. > So distracted are you, in fact, that you do not quite hear the sound of hooves on the floor until the bed shifts.
  238. > Rolling to face the opposite side, you find Dash eyeing you with a tilted head.
  239. "Something the matter, Dash?"
  240. > Pawing at the bed with one hoof, her eyes fall.
  241. > "I was kinda gonna ask you the same thing, master?"
  242. > The corners of your mouth turn up in a small smile.
  243. > This kind of actual attention from Dash was a new development, but not an unwelcome one.
  244. > You beckon Dash to come closer, and she sinks into a spot beside you, atop the covers.
  245. "Is it that obvious?"
  246. > "Well, yeah. I've been here long enough to know when you're thinking real hard, and this is even more."
  247. "Hmm."
  248. > Laying a hand on her back, you let your fingers stroke through her coat a few times.
  249. "It's a strange thing to feel, Dash, but for the first time in a long, long while I am afraid."
  250. > "Afraid?"
  251. > She doesn't sound ready to believe her, and you cannot blame Dash for that.
  252. > You'd done everything you could to present yourself as an impregnable bulwark to her.
  253. "Yes, afraid. It is something new to hear me admit that, isn't it? But true - things are no longer moving in my control. It's not a pleasant feeling."
  254. > "Like, being lost here again? After your thing blew up?"
  255. "I suppose. When I first realized I was stranded here, fear never really entered into it; shock and depression yes, but not fear - it was too sudden. Fear... is something new."
  256. > Rolling to rest on her belly, Dash lays one leg atop the other and her chin over both.
  257. > Your hand again settles across her back, feeling the ridges of bone and muscle running beneath her coat.
  258. "If being stranded struck me like a sledgehammer, then this is a gnawing, burrowing thing that worms its way into me."
  259. > "It's okay, Anonymous. It's... not wrong with being afraid, or showing it."
  260. "...you say that, Dash, but have you ever faced true fear? To see your life as you knew it slipping from your control?"
  261. > "Yes."
  262. "Before you came to me, I mean."
  263. > "Yes."
  264. > Still not a drop of hesitation is in her voice.
  265. > "I have. I've been - terrified. I've done crazy things just to stay 'in control', especially of how ponies thought about me."
  266. > Like trying to end her life at the muzzle of your pistol, just to have made the choice on her own to do so.
  267. > Was she trying to draw a parallel to your situation - how you carefully regulated and manipulated your relationships with others?
  268. > Those were business, though...
  269. "You've never been in control, though. Even before me, the princesses would put so many limits on your life, and-"
  270. > "That's not the point, okay? I - I know how you feel about them, but that's not the point."
  271. > Dash flinches as you give her a sharp, spearing glare.
  272. > Helpful or not, she was not supposed to interrupt you.
  273. > It is not one that can persevere, however, and as soon as it drops Dash resumes in a softer tone.
  274. > "So what if I wasn't really in control. I still - I still tried to be, all the time. I fought everyone so I could tell myself I was in control. But... it wasn't needed."
  275. > Breath rushes from your lungs as you feel a touch of a smile again appearing.
  276. "Naive. I see what you're trying to do, Dash - you think if I can somehow stop being afraid, I'll somehow patch over my conflicts with Celestia."
  277. > "Seriously. You're afraid of losing your ship, right?"
  278. "That ship is my life. And, frankly, I have no illusions about what Celestia and Luna will do to me if I am captured either."
  279. > "They - they wouldn't. I could speak to them, tell them -"
  280. "Dash."
  281. > Your smiles grows warmer, though you can feel it never quite reaches your eyes.
  282. "It's appreciated, Dash. But I doubt anything you could say will stop them now."
  283. > Her head hangs somewhat, and your vision returns to the ceiling.
  284. "Things are moving quickly now. Twilight has not gone on some journey for no reason whatsoever, and Chrysalis risks her treaty - our treaty. I feel she's planning something too, and my plans just are not moving fast enough."
  285. > "Hey."
  286. > In a reversal, a hoof comes to gently rest on your shoulder.
  287. > "I'm still the most awesomest pegasus ever, and I don't wanna see this end with anyone more getting hurt either. I'll do my best."
  288. > It's bluster, and the both of you know it.
  289. > Without her flight, Dash wasn't much of a pegasus - let alone an 'awesome' one.
  290. > But still...
  291. "Appreciated, Dash. It is appreciated."
  292. > Unexpectedly, she extends a wing across your chest.
  293. > The fan of blue is still ragged and uneven from where she'd taken out the newly-grown flight feathers.
  294. > Almost unconsciously you find your hands moving to stroke along the tattered span - stroking and adjusting, shifting the few fully-grown feathers she had left back into their proper places.
  295. > A glance aside reveals a flush on Dash's cheeks as your fingers deftly do their work, but unlike so many previous times she does not hide her face from you.
  296. > Instead she almost seems to be... accepting your actions, her head having fallen to rest on the bed and eyes regarding you softly.
  297. > No more words are exchanged between you, and at some point you drift off into sleep with your hands still resting across Dash's outspread wing.
  298. > With the next day's morning comes a pleasant surprise.
  299. > Cadance had responded.
  300. > Unfortunately you had missed her in turn, but when you try and send a message back you're instead met by a live signal.
  301. "Ah, Your Highnesses! I hadn't expected to be able to speak to you directly!"
  302. > "Neither had we expected to hear from you so soon again, Anonymous."
  303. > You aren't quite sure whether that was a shrouded insult from the pink-coated alicorn.
  304. > From her husband you'd have been certain, but he'd fortunately opted to keep his mouth shut and simply skulk in the background of the image.
  305. "Unfortunately, times have become turbulent for the both of us. I think cooperation might again be in our mutual interest."
  306. > "So you have said."
  307. "Twilight Sparkle is missing. I am sure the implications for my situation are not lost on you."
  308. > Unfortunately neither Cadance nor Shining Armor give any indication of surprise at the information.
  309. > Nor that you were aware of it.
  310. > That alone is telling; though they must have expected you would find out eventually, they still felt the need to hide their true reactions.
  311. "Without anyone to secure my ongoing peace with Equestria, I'm concerned that things might become... destabilized."
  312. > A twitch in Cadance's face - though you can't tell exactly for what.
  313. "If you'll remember, your last visit was aimed at being the first step in bringing relations between us to a less fearful state. This current situation puts me at a terrible risk, but it could be another opportunity."
  314. > "I agree. But what do you do on your part? Just another visit?"
  315. "On the contrary. I think it's time Dash was allowed to take a trip out to the real world."
  316. > Two pairs of eyes widen at your words - and then go narrow wish suspicion.
  317. > "What are your conditions?"
  318. "There is a - a party, I suppose you'd call it, in Fillydelphia coming up. I've been invited, on account of recent actions I took to aid the city."
  319. > "You want to take her for that?"
  320. "Not just for the shoulder-rubbing, of course. The chance to be out in a city again - maybe even a meeting with her friends, face-to-face..."
  321. > Now you've absolutely got their attention.
  322. "You recognize, of course, the immense risk I take in doing this. I trust Dash understands the situation she is in - why she will have to stay with me. But, I'm also going to be trusting Equestria's government."
  323. >>25761661
  324. > "And all of this for us agreeing to provide cover for your imprisonment of her."
  325. "Not really. I want to be able to go to this party as well - that is my gain. But, bringing Dash and allowing her to speak with her friends is a bonus for you. A step towards when negotiations won't be needed to let her do that."
  326. > Cadance draws a deep breath, and nods.
  327. > "You probably know that I don't think you should be allowed to leave that house until you see punishment for your crimes - but I see how your idea would be good."
  328. > Rather than answer, Cadance glances aside to Shining Armor, who has remained pointedly silent.
  329. > Some moment of unspoken communication passes between them, and then she turns back to you.
  330. > "We are on our way to Canterlot. We'll bring up the idea with Princesses Celestia and Luna, and if there are no problems then this would seem to be a good next step."
  331. "Oh? Well - I should say, the element of generosity - Rarity - is already in Canterlot. She's pursuing the same goal; you might want to have a word with her."
  332. > Your voice has been kept steady and calm.
  333. > Internally, though, you are seething.
  334. > The two would have inevitably come into contact even if you'd not mentioned it, but either way it still complicated things.
  335. > Cadance was unlikely to be pleased that you'd used the fillies for leverage, even if it'd been entirely justified.
  336. > ...but at least letting her know ahead of time would make it seem like you were being 'honest' with her.
  337. "Well - in that case, then, I will be waiting anxiously to hear back from you."
  338. --------
  339. > The inside of the shuttlecraft's cabin heavily muffles the roar of passing air, but nothing can entirely hide the noise of the vertical-lift engines cutting in as you bank sharply over Fillydelphia.
  340. > Late afternoon sun flashes through the viewscreens, glinting off city windows and the bay below.
  341. > Having made one low, long circle around the Fillydelphia to announce your arrival, the shuttle is now bleeding airspeed at a fantastic rate - coming in to rapidly close on the plaza cleared by your request to land in.
  342. > Fully a dozen Royal Guard pegasi and four further chariots had closed in as escort.
  343. > You'd recognized the gesture for what it was - a show of force to the ponies watching from below, but meaningless as an actual threat.
  344. > Cadance and Rarity's negotiations might have borne fruit, but they'd come with many attached caveats.
  345. > If anything, the three fillies strapped into the seats behind you were enjoying it the most.
  346. > They'd been quite unhappy when you insisted on strapping them in so they could not release themselves.
  347. > Even without security concerns, however, the tales Dash had told of their escapades would have been reason enough to keep them restrained.
  348. > Now, though, they seemed to have forgotten their annoyance and were quite enthralled with the experience of flight - and almost disappointed when the guard scattered as the shuttle touched down.
  349. > Unstrapping yourself as the engines cycle down, you stand and gesture to the shuttle's last remaining occupant.
  350. "Dash, time for us to go get changed into the good clothes. Girls, we're going to be gone for just a few minutes."
  351. > "Yes, master."
  352. > Noting the brief foul face Scootaloo had made at Dash's use of the title, you chuckle softly.
  353. > Your attire was an easy decision, a simple but sleek three-piece suit apeing the latest in fashions among equestrian business magnates - a reflection of your own intentions here tonight.
  354. > That it did well enough to hide the small electronics package carefully nestled in the small of your back was a secondary bonus.
  355. > The matter of your slave's collar had been a rather more delicate delicate question.
  356. > Equestrian history had done its best to ensure they had a very particular, unpleasant meaning.
  357. > Inexplicably, service yokes did not carry the same stigma; pony psychology still eluded you in some respects.
  358. > Either way, while the collar had been a meaningful tool for breaking Dash in displaying that in public was a bit of theater you felt best to avoid.
  359. > Instead, you'd settled for a bridle; it still implied a degree of control without the dramatic statement a collar implied.
  360. > As best as you could tell, they were a tolerated - if exotic - accoutrement in higher-class circles.
  361. > The remainder of her dress was nothing particularly special, aside from fanning out just behind her withers to form 'pockets' that sheltered her wings.
  362. > Enough feathers had grown back in to conceal what you had done, but not to hide that something had happened.
  363. > Unfortunately, actually getting Dash into the dress was a fair bit harder.
  364. > You'd finished dressing quickly, but Dash wriggled and writhed as she struggled to slip it around her body.
  365. > In the end, you'd had to assist.
  366. > Another round of squirming accompanies your efforts, and Dash grimaces.
  367. > "Sorry, master. I can't help it. Dresses just feel... urgh. So fancy and poofy."
  368. "I understand, Dash. It's okay - come on, let's just get this finished up and tightened."
  369. > Sliding the last of the dress up over her chest, you set the clasps that held it together and tightened it up to her throat.
  370. > The dress' collar might have been snug, but it would not carry the same connotations as a separate, metal one.
  371. > Lastly, the compass-watch was again hung from the clasp on her throat.
  372. > Dash falls back on her haunches, pulling it out on its retractable string to stare at it briefly.
  373. > As if reminding herself it's really, actually there.
  374. "Ready, Dash?"
  375. > She doesn't answer, but clicks the button on the watch's back - switching it to its compass setting - and the hands spiral wildly about as they find their new positions.
  376. "It'll be fine, Dash. If you loose me in the crowd, you can always use that to check back on me."
  377. > Glancing up to you as though checking that the blue hand still points to your heart, Dash gives a shaky nod.
  378. > "I know. I - I'm scared, though. I go out there, they're all going to be looking at me."
  379. "I thought you liked people seeing you when you're in top form?"
  380. > "Am I?"
  381. > Her muzzle wrinkles uncertainly.
  382. > "What if I go out there and - and I screw up and embarass you? I don't... I don't want to make you angry or anything."
  383. > There's a touch of the old fear in there - a hint of her terror at what you might do if she reverted.
  384. > Mostly, though, it seems to be honest worry for you.
  385. "I trust you, Dash."
  386. > Squatting down, you reach out cup one cheek in your hand and scratch lightly.
  387. > Dash's eyes close at your touch, head tilting back.
  388. "I wouldn't have brought you here if I didn't have complete faith in you. Understand?"
  389. > "...yeah. "
  390. "Then let's go."
  391. > By the time you return to the main cabin, the Royal Guard have again surrounded the shuttle - a wall of pikes and fierce glares.
  392. > You, however, step from the shuttle's hatch without so much as a concern.
  393. > They will not dare to strike you.
  394. > Behind you, Dash finishes lowering the would-be heroes to the ground; a quartet of security drones hover just inside the hatch, but you dismiss them with a wave of your hand.
  395. "Alright. Dash, all of you - come on, then."
  396. > Briefcase in hand, you listen for just long enough to ensure you could hear the many tiny hoof-falls following just behind you before diverting your attention.
  397. > Fearlessly you step across the gap between shuttle and guard.
  398. > Celestia had promised you safe passage to this event and back; in your estimation, betrayal was not likely.
  399. > It'd been made abundantly clear, after all, that attacking you here would still have murderous consequences for the rest of Equestria.
  400. > The Obstinance had even been shifted into a closer orbit just in case - a warning that would visibly creep across the sky every hour and a half come late evening.
  401. > A threat was not a threat if it could be put out of mind, after all.
  402. > No - Celestia would not strike now.
  403. > She was more cunning than that.
  404. > Reaching the edge, you nod your head to the most heavily decorated pony.
  405. > This is Stalwart Shield, you presume - the guard captain who Chrysalis' initial envoy had asked you to help bring down.
  406. > One of the Royal Guard, not the city's guard.
  407. > Those less-decorated soldiers watched from further back, having also turned out in force but wearing much more ambivalent looks towards the one who had stepped in to 'save' the city than the harsh stares of Canterlot's guard.
  408. "Captain Shield, if I may pass?"
  409. > He eyes you for one long second before shifting aside with a hefty snort.
  410. > Just behind him stands Princess Cadance and Rarity, to whom you offer a rather deeper bow.
  411. "Your Highness, Miss Rarity. It is a pleasure indeed to be here."
  412. > Cadance manages to force a polite, obviously faked smile on, but Rarity doesn't even bother.
  413. > At least not until a delighted voice squeaks behind you:
  414. > "Sis!"
  415. > All three fillies burst past you, rushing to crowd around Rarity's hooves like a swarm of hooved puppies.
  416. > Leaning down, Rarity dips her head to nuzzle each of the fillies in turn.
  417. > "Oh, Sweetie - all of you - don't you ever dare try anything like that again. You scared us out of our minds, you know that?"
  418. > For all the little filly had seemed to fear her elder sister's wrath, any kind of punishment did not seem to be in the works now.
  419. > That, you presume, comes later.
  420. > Turning back to Cadance, you offer another smile.
  421. > Much like her own, you suspect it comes off as something less than genuinely pleased, but there's a note of honesty in your voice.
  422. "I'm glad we could find a way to resolve this peacefully, Your Highness. It truly is reassuring to see steps towards normalization being taken."
  423. > Cadance seems about to answer, but her vision diverts - to Dash, who has fallen into place quietly seated on her haunches just behind you.
  424. > Something inscrutable flickers across the alicorn's face; when she looks back to you, her tone is considerably softer than you'd expected.
  425. > "It is for us as well. As princess of love, it was painful for me to see a heart so badly crushed with no hope of repair."
  426. > She's obviously referring to Dash; somehow you doubt Cadance could care if you were trapped in your house for the rest of your days.
  427. > Even so, however, there's a noticeable shift in tone towards you.
  428. > It's not hard to guess why:
  429. > Dash's wings were on their way to healing, and she no longer bore the obvious signs of her captivity.
  430. > Except for her behavior, of course, but given Cadance's past as a pegasus she was probably relieved to see you'd begun restoring the means of flight to Dash - if not the privilege just yet.
  431. > Formalities done, you gesture to a nearby road.
  432. "Well. If that concludes things for now, I believe we are to head over to the hall?"
  433. > "Certainly. If we could see your briefcase?"
  434. > A show of made is scowling deeply at Stalwart Shield as he again emerges to quickly rifle through its contents.
  435. > That wasn't a real concern, though; nothing you were trying to smuggle in would be found by the guard.
  436. > It wasn't in the briefcase anyhow.
  437. > Concluding his search, the guardspony nods to Cadance before backing away.
  438. > "If you would come this way, Anonymous?"
  439. > This part of the agreement was rather more frustrating, though.
  440. > If you were to be allowed in the city, there is no way the Equestrians would be allowing you to potentially slip into an unseen carriage.
  441. > Any transport would be theirs and theirs alone.
  442. > Nonetheless, the carriage you are herded towards is well-enough appointed - and perhaps most importantly, enclosed and private.
  443. > Dash casts one brief, wistful glance back towards Rarity and the three fillies from Ponyville.
  444. > Slowing your pace enough to draw alongside her, you murmur:
  445. "In time, Dash. You'll get to speak to her later."
  446. > She doesn't look up to you or reply, but one blue ear flicks about in acknowledgement your words.
  447. > Given the situation, you're disinclined to discipline her for ignoring you.
  448. > As soon as the carriage door shuts, the sound outside defaults to a muted buzz leaving yourself, Dash, and Cadance alone.
  449. "I must admit, Your Highness, I am surprised you husband is not here. The trust shown in allowing us to ride together alone is not unnoticed."
  450. > "Shining Armor has decided to oversee certain other matters for this event, so that his military bearing does not upset the delicate situation."
  451. > Heh.
  452. > After provoking Dash to strike him in their last encounter, no doubt Cadance had insisted he hold back this time.
  453. > Unfortunate, in some ways.
  454. > He'd be easier to manipulate if you needed to start something deliberately.
  455. > As for now, however...
  456. "Dash, if the two of you would like to have a chat, now is a good time."
  457. > After a second of hesitation, Dash scoots away from your side to face Cadance.
  458. > "Hey."
  459. > "Hello, Rainbow. I'm very glad to see you again..."
  460. > Half-tuning the conversation out - there was little chance they'd say anything actually interesting while you were about - you let your gaze wander out the carriage window.
  461. > Beautiful the views may have been, being all but imprisoned within your hilltop residence had long since become old.
  462. > In comparison, the passing streets of Fillydelphia seemed like an entirely different world - brightly colored, whimsical, counterintuitive in that strange way pony architecture was.
  463. > If not for the fact that your clients and enemies alike were also ponies, you'd be hard-pressed to believe you hadn't injured your head when the drive broke and brought you here.
  464. > The hall that the carriage stops before is enormous and elaborate, occupied a prime spot of real estate facing out into the open bay.
  465. > Huge, crystalline windows reached across the side of the hall, giving you an excellent view of the lavish preparations ongoing within.
  466. > Even before an attendant has approached to open the door of the carriage, you are already gathering yourself up to go.
  467. "Since the event does not actually begin for a couple of hours yet, Your Highness, I presume I will be allowed to circulate in the meantime?"
  468. > "Of course. We only ask that you remain within the city itself."
  469. > There's no need for her to explain nor you to ask how they'd be assured you would remain within the city.
  470. > No doubt innumerable spells were already focused on you, if not a number of live 'escorts'.
  471. "I remember the terms of the agreement, Your Highness. I won't be trying to sneak out."
  472. > After all, everything you need is here in the city.
  473. > "Excellent."
  474. > Dash leaps from to the ground as soon as the door is opened, but before you can join her a copper-booted hoof comes to rest on your arm.
  475. > "Anonymous - just a moment, please?"
  476. "...Dash, just wait there. I'll be along in a second."
  477. > Closing the door, you turn to face Cadance with a tilted head.
  478. "Yes?"
  479. > The princess seems to struggle with her words a moment, but eventually gets them out:
  480. > "...I don't know why you wanted to be part of this so badly, but I'm going to ask you: If you are planning something here, please - please don't do anything that would endanger Rainbow Dash."
  481. > Your eyebrows rise, one more than the other to form a quirked, questioning gesture.
  482. "Given how our last conversation went, I'd have thought you'd be happy if I did something stupid and set myself up to be taken down."
  483. > "I would."
  484. > There's a frank honesty in the rapidness of Cadance's answer.
  485. > "I still want you to face justice for what you did to her. But..."
  486. > A clouded look passes over her face, and again it seems she struggles to reply.
  487. > "...I would rather see Rainbow Dash's heart healed than destroyed. She's already doing so much better than she was the last time. Please, don't break - break that for her."
  488. > For a moment you'd thought she'd been about to say 'break her'.
  489. > If only she knew how much of Dash's 'improvement' was a result of her becoming dedicated to you...
  490. "Well, if it settles your mind: I'm not here to start any wars. Dash is safe from my end."
  491. > "Thank you."
  492. > Releasing your arm, Cadance backs away and allows you to grab the briefcase and slip from the carriage.
  493. > What you'd said was true, of course - but Equestria's government was not the only one here you would be making deals with.
  494. > That would become apparent to them almost as soon as you stepped through the doors to the hall, Dash trotting closely at your side.
  495. > Immediately you were accosted by a wide-smiling stallion who raised himself on his haunches to present a hoof for you to shake.
  496. > "...and you must be Anonymous! A pleasure to meet you at last, especially after all what you'd done for our city!"
  497. "Ah, thank you...?"
  498. > "Hammer Tong! Very, very good to meet you!"
  499. > Of course you knew him already - not just by reputation for the sheer size of his metalworking business, but as one you'd dealt with in more subtle business before.
  500. > Turning to Dash, Hammer issues another slightly-less-warm smile.
  501. > "And you must be miss Rainbow Dash?"
  502. > To your immense relief, Dash seems to have recovered some of her old panache when dealing with others; she meets his hoof with a grin and a nod - at least until he delivers a soft kiss to her hoof.
  503. > You can see her ready to pull away, but she somehow restrains herself until Hammer Tong releases her.
  504. > "Yep! That's me alright!"
  505. > "Well, you are most welcome tonight as well. Speaking of welcome - Anonymous, a few friends of mine are getting together to share some drinks before the event proper beings. Won't you join us?"
  506. "I would be delighted to, of course."
  507. > "Please, then - follow me?"
  508. > An elaborate room within an equally elaborate hotel adjoining the hall is your final destination; staff ponies scatter as the three of you enter, leaving only a handful of inscrutable unicorns behind.
  509. > Also left are a wide selection of drinks in glistening crystalline bottles illuminated by the room's chandelier, but neither yourself nor Hammer move to take one.
  510. > Instead, both of you take seats facing each other; on a motioned command, Dash climbs into a seat beside you.
  511. > "Is it necessary for her to be here? I understand being attached to such famous company, but-"
  512. "Dash is far more than a night's 'company', Hammer. She is safe; we've been... working together for some time."
  513. > One hand settles on the back of Dash's head and a flicker runs through Hammer Tong's eyes; you wonder if he'd heard rumors of you holding the pegasus hostage.
  514. > "...understood, then."
  515. > With a flick of his tail, the four unicorns in the room light their horns.
  516. > Moments later a soft hissing fills the room.
  517. "White noise, to prevent being heard?"
  518. > "Yes; the Crowns' power is in force here tonight."
  519. "Mmm, yes. The Royal Guard, as well as their highnesses from the Crystal Empire."
  520. > "It's worse than that. Princess Luna is here."
  521. > All thoughts come screeching to a halt; even your hand tenses, digging in to Dash's mane.
  522. > She makes a little uncomfortable noise, but doesn't speak up.
  523. "Luna? She must have brought the Royal Guard, then."
  524. > "And her own little troop of Night Guard spooks to boot."
  525. > Thoughts whir in your head; there was nothing in your plans to suggest Luna was coming.
  526. > The Nighttime princess made no secret of her hatred for you.
  527. > But, would she act in violation of a truce signed by her elder sister?
  528. > After some debate, you shake your head.
  529. > To depart at the first sign of trouble would show weakness, and so far this seemed to be little more than a show of intimidation.
  530. > Luna, you doubted, would provoke a war.
  531. "...we keep going, just as planned. Now, anything about that ship whose cargo I asked you to look in to?"
  532. > "Yes, in fact."
  533. > Withdrawing a number of sheets from a case, Hammer Tong passes them to you.
  534. > "I hope these are worth something for you, as I had to dig through a number of layers of lies and false leads to find them."
  535. "We'll see, but you'll be rewarded either way. What do you have?"
  536. > Cargo lists, it turns out - although most of them are nothing more than the obvious needs of a long-term voyage, food and spare ship equipment.
  537. > But others...
  538. "Polishing oil, quart jar, eight. Mounting frame, two. Crystal Mountain crystal samples, circular, polished, eleven..."
  539. > Turning the pages, your frown deepens.
  540. "Cases of plotting and mapping equipment, photographic film, low-light lanterns, star maps, navigation maps... did she suddenly decide to go on a foreign relations spree?"
  541. > Beside you Dash had raised her forehooves to the table and lifted herself up to peer at the papers as well; you shove some closer for her to get a better look at.
  542. "Dash, does this make sense to you at all? Look, here - she's practically dragging a whole photographic studio along with her."
  543. > "I... don't know. Those Crystal Mountain samples, I feel like I've heard about them before. Something Spike told me about once? I don't know."
  544. "You don't remember anything more?"
  545. > "No. I'm sorry."
  546. > From the opposite end of the table, Hammer Tong had raised an eyebrow at Dash's assistance.
  547. > Clearly hadn't realized just how close your relationship with Dash was.
  548. > If there was any question for him
  549. > Shooting him a small smirk, you pat your slave on the back.
  550. "Don't worry about it, Dash. We'll figure out it out. Mr. Tong, the others are here?"
  551. > "Of course. It will be about ten minutes to round them up."
  552. "I will be waiting here."
  553. > As he departs, you return your attention to the papers.
  554. > Some of the inventory makes sense, of course.
  555. > Others?
  556. > None at all.
  557. "...what the hell is she doing with a pair of high-precision clocks and two dozen extra star maps from the Canterlot Academies...?"
  558. > Nothing about this made sense.
  559. > You didn't like it when things didn't make sense.
  560. > Reaching out to Chrysalis again was a possibility - if anyone could dig up the information you needed, it'd be her.
  561. > But the Changeling queen was already plotting something; her odd behavior during your last discussion was evidence enough to you that she was preparing a new move.
  562. > Being even deeper in her debt wasn't something you wanted to be right now.
  563. > Especially since you suspected you'd soon have to move against her when the changelings in Equestria were discovered.
  564. > "Master...?"
  565. > Alone in the room with you, Dash moves from her chair to your lap.
  566. > "Are you going to be alright?"
  567. "No."
  568. > Sighing softly, you lean back in the chair and put a hand on her withers - careful not to crease the dress she wore.
  569. "Not until I can figure this out. You don't remember anything else?"
  570. > "I don't. Sorry."
  571. "Well, you can't help your memory, I suppose."
  572. > A thought suddenly occurs to you.
  573. > If Dash didn't know, then maybe another pony would.
  574. "Dash. When you go to speak to Rarity, ask her if she knows what Twilight's doing."
  575. > "I don't think she'll tell me, master. She knows I'd tell you."
  576. "I know, but we still might learn something from her reaction."
  577. > At this point, you're desperate for any clues.
  578. > "Okay. I guess... what if I tell her too much though? What if she makes me feel..."
  579. > Feel like I should try and get away.
  580. > Dash can't bring herself to say the words, but you understand.
  581. "Trust, Dash. I trust you. Just remember what you are, and what you do."
  582. > "I'm your little bluebird, master. I serve you."
  583. "Yes, Dash. My bluebird."
  584. > Rubbing her back once more, you release her and file away the inventories in your briefcase as the door opens again.
  585. > Hammer Tong returns, followed by a dozen more figures.
  586. > All are familiar to you - pony (and one griffon) business magnates who you'd traded deals and information with before.
  587. > Now, however, they watch each other with guarded eyes; many were rival in their fields and to sit in the same room as so many opponents was a risky thing.
  588. > They all wore the same mask as you did, hiding the predator watching from within.
  589. "...good evening, everyone."
  590. > As they settle into seats, you begin to talk.
  591. > Dash has taken up a spot beside you and slightly to the side; for now, her role is over.
  592. "You're undoubtedly wondering why I've asked you here tonight; the answer is very simple. This visit to Fillydelphia is the only chance I will have to speak to all of you at once, and I intend to take that opportunity."
  593. > Knitting your fingers together and looking about, you find all eyes on you - but none yet betraying a response.
  594. "Speaking of opportunities, that is the other reason I have asked you here tonight."
  595. > A new set of papers are withdrawn, and passed around to each of the other seats at the table.
  596. "You've dealt with me in the past, on small matters and opportunities. What I propose now is a joint venture of massive terms, one to push your businesses head-and-shoulders above the competition."
  597. > "...what exactly are you suggesting?"
  598. > Hammer Tong's muzzle is buried in the papers, so he undoubtedly is getting an idea already.
  599. > But still, he's giving you an opportunity and you're not about to skip it.
  600. "There are a tremendous number of mineral assets which lay untapped in Equestria. You do not have the means to process them into meaningful form, but I do. I, however, do not have the means to extract or transport them, or the market knowledge to put them to use."
  601. > Once last time the briefcase is cracked open; from it emerges a small series of metallic and ceramic ingots.
  602. "The refined product I would produce display strength beyond any metals Equestria has ever produced... flowing solely through your businesses. Their specifications are listed on those papers, but I've prepared samples for each of you to test and ensure I am telling the truth."
  603. > "How large are we talking?"
  604. > That was a different pony - an aged-looking mare who you'd quickly discovered should not be judged by her appearance.
  605. "Colossal. I'll provide instructions on to do the initial separation, so by the time you send it to me it will only be a few tons of ore per month... but the initial mining will be hundreds, if not thousands of tons of ore."
  606. > "And from that, we will get...?"
  607. "A few hundred pounds apiece - but a few hundred pounds of the most incredible materials Equestria has ever seen."
  608. > Eyes all around the table flicker across the sheets held in hooves, magic, and claws, then to their competitors and potential allies, then back to the pages again.
  609. > It was anything but a sure deal; the cost of what you were asking them to undertake was massive.
  610. > But the descriptions you'd provided had piqued their business senses, minds already thinking hard away as they considered the risks and benefits of what you offered.
  611. > The truth of it was, only about half of what you were offering would even use the rare metals they were mining.
  612. > Most of the others were built of far more common elements, but valuable all the same.
  613. > In return, the 'missing' half would be going back up to the 'Obstinance' - healing the great wound in her heart.
  614. "You are not obliged to lock yourselves in at this time. However, initial signed commitments would be quite good, so that I know where everyone stands."
  615. > "And what about our safety? The rumor is you're in some trouble with the crown. The Guard's keeping an awful close eye on you."
  616. "I won't deny I've some differences with the crown, but truthfully that's the other reason I've chosen to make this offer now. Considering why I am here tonight, how can they criticize our cooperation? It would raise a lot of questions for them as well."
  617. > Putting a confident smirk on your face, you lean in and raise an eyebrow.
  618. "How could they question someone here as a hero, with an element of harmony at his side? This will only work here and now."
  619. > A lesser businessman might have been offput by your usage of your status.
  620. > But these were all veteran dealmakers; they understood that such an honor was merely a tool.
  621. > The message they got was clear:
  622. > Yours was a limited-time offer, and if they hesitated it would vanish altogether.
  623. > Some of the ponies shift in appreciation of your words, while other remain pointedly impassive.
  624. > At last Hammer Tong coughs politely and speaks up.
  625. > "I'm sure we will all take that under consideration. But for now... let's discuss the particulars of your deal."
  626. > Good on him, backing you.
  627. > You'd have to pay him back soon.
  628. "Of course. We have... approximately four hours before the evening's festivities begin to hash out an initial deal. I'm sure we can agree on something in that time."
  629. > All present produce notepads and pens - mostly quills, but also a few metal cylinders.
  630. > "Well then. Let's get to work."
  631. --------
  632. > By the time you step from the conference room, night has rolled in and a light hubbub can be heard already drifting from the main hall.
  633. > Only half the ponies that had originally sat at the table leave with you; the others had felt the venture too risky.
  634. > That's okay.
  635. > Six was enough for the plan to get started; in time, the others might become interested again.
  636. > You might even get a better deal out of them if they had to come crawling back to you.
  637. > Glancing down you find your eyes lingering on Dash, who still spouts the occasional yawn and slap of her lips within the bridle's confines..
  638. > She'd found the proceedings utterly boring, and chosen to lightly doze in your lap.
  639. > Fortunately her dress was little worse for it.
  640. > Suddenly finding yourself smiling, you reach down and pat her head lightly.
  641. > In turn she looks back up and issues a cautious smile.
  642. > A feeling of slight giddiness runs through you; even with the specter of Luna hanging over the evening's affairs, the hardest part seemed long since past.
  643. > Bargains done, and deals sealed.
  644. "Just one more speech to give, Dash, and tonight will be everything I'd hoped it to be. It took longer than I hoped, but we're almost there."
  645. > "Yes, master."
  646. > She hesitates for just a moment, then speaks again with a hopeful note in her voice:
  647. > "There's still gonna be time for me to see Rarity tonight, though?"
  648. > Briefly annoyance flickers through you; was she still so attached to those ponies?
  649. > But no - it's no reason to be angry with her; you had promised this from the beginning.
  650. "Yes, Dash. I'll make sure there's some time."
  651. > The next pair of doors are watched by a pair of uniformed guardsponies - city guard, thankfully, not the blue-gold-and-white Royals.
  652. > Issuing curt but friendly nods, they step aside to allow you passage.
  653. > Stepping through them brings you into an antechamber just short of the main hall itself - a thought suddenly to your mind as well.
  654. > Unfortunately, just through that door is another pair - this time very definitely one of the heavily-armored guards in from Canterlot.
  655. > Not a blink is spared for you or your slave, yet their massive eyes never quite let you out of the corners of their vision.
  656. > Turning a corner out of their view, a side hallway quickly presents itself; you quickly turn down it and get well out of hearing distance from the main passage.
  657. > "Master? What...?"
  658. "Dash, I need to tell you something I didn't think of earlier."
  659. > Squatting down, you place a hand to her dress' collar.
  660. > It may not have carried as much weight as when her typical metal one was being worn, but the gesture was familiar enough that its effect was automatic:
  661. > Stiffening up, Dash fixates her full attention on you - ears sinking as she realizes how serious this is.
  662. "I don't think that Luna will try anything tonight. Too many innocent ponies dead if she did. But, if something happens anyhow..."
  663. > Why are you hesitating?
  664. "Run. Go back to the shuttle, fast as you can. You're still one of the fastest ponies around; you can do it."
  665. > "But master-"
  666. "No, Dash. Don't argue with me on this. You can't fight an alicorn, and if Luna loses her temper badly enough to attack me she isn't going to play nice with you."
  667. > Shock transforms into a grimace, and then a scowl.
  668. > "I don't like it. She'll hurt you if she can get to you!"
  669. > Way to state the obvious, Dash.
  670. "And she'll pluck you aside like an insect if you get in her way. No, the safest place for you to be will be in the shuttle."
  671. > Hopefully Luna would hesitate to tear open something potentially explosive in the process of rescuing Dash.
  672. > That might be long enough for you to negotiate a way out of it.
  673. > ...if she hadn't just crushed your head like a watermelon already by then.
  674. > Not something to dwell on, that.
  675. "We'll just have to rely on her common sense being greater than her anger. And Cadance possibly halting her; she won't let her plan go down the drain so easily."
  676. > "If - if you say so."
  677. "You know very well how sensitive Luna is about her past. Do you think she'd want to be held responsible for another catastrophe coming to Equestria?"
  678. > The reasoning is weak even in your mind, and no doubt sounded even weaker coming from your lips.
  679. > But Dash bows her head and nods awkwardly.
  680. > "I guess not."
  681. "Then remember: If she does do anything, just get to the shuttle and you'll be safe."
  682. > Running your fingers through her cheek-coat one last time, you rise off your haunches.
  683. > Stretching your legs briefly and straightening your coat, a deep breath fills your lungs.
  684. "Alright. Let's do this."
  685. > Compared to the excellently muffled hallways outside, walking into the main hall is like being hit with a wave of sound.
  686. > Already there seem to be at least a hundred ponies in attendance, and judging by the filled tables this is only two-thirds the expected crowd.
  687. > Not counting the staff, of course, who are flitting between tables with trays of wine and hors d'oeuvres trapped in fields of magic or carefully balanced across wings and backs.
  688. > Catching Dash looking wistfully at one such tray, a small smile touches your lips.
  689. "You're free to get a drink, but only one."
  690. > "Just one?"
  691. "For now. I don't want you making a fool of yourself - and me."
  692. > Or, worse, revealing to any of the ignorant here tonight the exact nature of your relationship.
  693. "For that matter, get one or me too. I'm going to need a little something to steady my nerves."
  694. > After the past few hours, it seems like a small reward is in order - and one helping of wine, especially of the smaller glasses ponies used, would not be enough to completely neuter your wits.
  695. > Watching your slave set off into the crowd on her task, you set about on another:
  696. > Taking a long, careful examination of the room.
  697. > Familiar ponies are noted down - at least eight of the dozen who'd sat with you in the conference room earlier are also already present.
  698. > So are at least twenty other faces you were familiar with - high rollers, business magnates of all stripes, political figures, and monied ponies new and old.
  699. > All rubbing shoulders - and all scoping out potential allies or targets of opportunity.
  700. > While none of them were as vicious as the tight-fisted men you'd once worked for, that did not mean they were stupid.
  701. > Everyone here understood what this night was for.
  702. > Continuing the scan, your gaze falls on Shining Armor standing in quiet conversation with a pair of armored Royal Guard - his dress uniform standing out even among the multivarious colors of mane, coat, and clothing ponies already bore.
  703. > He himself wore no plate, but a unicorn of his talent would not need to.
  704. > The frown that had appeared on your lips is carefully pushed away, your face returned to neutrality.
  705. > You'd known he would be about; no need to show your annoyance here.
  706. > Cadance, however, is oddly absent.
  707. > So is Luna - if the nighttime diarch intends to present herself, she has not yet made an appearance.
  708. > The same cannot be said for her personal guard regiment; dark-coated and dark-armored, they stood mixed with the white-coated Royal and more pragmatically-dressed city guard at regular intervals along the edge of the room.
  709. > A show of force, you remind yourself.
  710. > Just like bringing the Obstinance into a lower orbit - this was all posturing.
  711. > Even so, you must admit some discomfort at being in the presence of so many armed creatures without your own drones.
  712. > "Master?"
  713. > Dash had appeared by your side at some point, a tray held between her teeth with two glasses held on it.
  714. > Selecting one with a thankful nod, you immediately take a sip - letting the soothing liquid run down your throat.
  715. "Well Dash, I don't think we can put this off any longer. Time to go kiss babies and shake hands, I guess."
  716. > "Hooves."
  717. "Those too."
  718. > Grinning, you step into the mixed multitude of ponies looking to find their seats.
  719. > Freed to the invisible social barrier that had restrained them from approaching you so long as you were lingering by the wall, you're immediately set upon by the first wave of ponies eager to greet such an unusual figure.
  720. > A more generous person might have described them as enthusiastic welcomers, but to your eye their approach felt like nothing so much as vultures descending on a bounty.
  721. > Word of your reason for being here - of your 'rescue' of the city and uncovering the 'theft' at their museum - was of course known, and the reappearance of such a well-known pony as Dash at your side draws even more attention.
  722. > Though you are mostly caught up answering those closest to you, the few glimpses you manage to send her way suggest that Dash is doing well at holding her own.
  723. > Hints of her old personality surface - a confidence of voice and pose despite the discomfort at the fanciness of her dress she'd shown earlier.
  724. > From your own mouth flow an endless stream of pleasantries and small talk - distractions and misdirection from the true situation.
  725. > The earlier work already done and the next stage not yet due, you're content to allow the crowd their blatherings while you eye out any potential further allies.
  726. > Instead your gaze falls on a very unwelcome sight, however - richly aquamarine eyes locking to meet your own.
  727. > Princess Luna had arrived.
  728. > She stood a good fifty paces away and surrounded by her own little fortress of fawning appreciators, but from the way she eyes you the rest of the hall may as well be empty.
  729. > There was murder in those eyes.
  730. "...Dash, on me."
  731. > Parting the crowd easily with your stature, you approach the lunar princess.
  732. > Unlike so many other ponies here, she has opted not to pretty herself up for the evening - wearing nothing more than the here normal peytral, crown, and hoofguards.
  733. > At a distance just close enough to be heard you halt - standing erect and straight-backed as you offer a bow in greeting.
  734. "Your Highness."
  735. > "You need not bow to Us, Anonymous. You are no subject of Ours."
  736. > Though her tone is mirthful and light, its message can't be missed.
  737. > In her eyes, your presence here is an affront.
  738. "...ah, the thought is appreciated, but nonetheless. It is good to see you here tonight."
  739. > "We are most pleased by the chance to come."
  740. > Heh.
  741. > Well, if she wants to play that way...
  742. > Dash is nudged forwards with a subtle prod of your toe on her hoof; how bow is considerably deeper and more honest.
  743. > Unfortunate, that she still remained so respectful of the princesses.
  744. > "H-Hey, Princess..."
  745. > For just a second there is a flicker of unmasked emotion on Luna's face - true, deep sadness followed by an easily-missed twist of unmatched fury.
  746. > It's gone just as quickly as it arrived, though, and if you'd not already been watching her closely there was no reason to think it'd have been seen at all.
  747. > "Rainbow Dash. Please, rise."
  748. > When your slave does so - daring to raise her eyes and look Luna in the face - the younger princess leans down to touch her nose briefly to Dash's.
  749. > "We are deeply pleased to see you once more, Rainbow Dash. Too long have we gone without."
  750. > This time, her words are honest and deliberate.
  751. > Dash sees it too - returning Luna's nuzzle with equal gentleness.
  752. > "Yeah. It's, um - It's real good to be back again."
  753. > Best to break this up before it goes any further.
  754. "If you will forgive us, Your Highness, I do believe we should be getting to our seats soon?"
  755. > "Ah - that."
  756. > Luna's head rises again, lips splitting into what might generously be called a smile.
  757. > Though it suggests more that of a shark and not a pony's.
  758. > "Yes, well, why don't you follow me, then? I'm afraid there's been some last-minute seating rearrangements."
  759. > Your own smile is just as false as hers now.
  760. > Surrounded by her own lackeys, then - or even worse, had she decided to place herself at your side to preemptively hobble any planning?
  761. > Worst fears are confirmed as you follow Luna to another table, where a folded card on a plate announces your seat.
  762. > Neither seat on either side happens to have Dash's name on it, however.
  763. > Rainbow rapidly comes to the same conclusion, looking first to you and then to Luna with a worried expression.
  764. > "Princess, I - I, um..."
  765. > "Why don't you take a seat, Anonymous, and I will show the Element of Loyalty to her seat?"
  766. > Damn - now, how to confront this without seeming too-
  767. > "Um, Princess Luna - if, uh, I'd kind of like to sit... next to him."
  768. > Rainbow's stuttered response has more to do with the alicorn she is facing down - an alicorn bearing a rather surprised expression.
  769. > "Surely you would wish to-"
  770. > "I"m sorry, Princes - but, uh - I'd really like it if I could stay with Anonymous."
  771. > For a few moments everything stands in absolute stillness.
  772. > The two lock eyes, a silent test of emotions running between them.
  773. > Even the other ponies standing about seem to have paused, and you're reasonably certain you have temporarily stopped breathing.
  774. > Luna flinches first, however.
  775. > "...very well, then."
  776. > Gaze switching to skewer you once again, she makes it abundantly clear - if not in her voice - that she had not been expecting Dash to be this resistant, and held you fully accountable for it.
  777. > "We will make further rearrangements to accommodate this."
  778. "Very much appreciated, Your Highness."
  779. > With a huff Luna turns to wander off; conversation returns to something approaching normal in her wake.
  780. > "M- Anonymous?"
  781. > Dash peers up at you with eyes wide and uncertain.
  782. > "Did I-"
  783. "No, Dash. You didn't do anything wrong at all."
  784. > Though she'd nearly been about to call you 'Master'; this much have truly shaken her in that state.
  785. > Thank everything that Luna hadn't felt like picking a fight right then and there.
  786. "Come on then, Dash. Let's go find our seats."
  787. --------
  788. > The dinner is, frankly, exactly what you'd expected of it:
  789. > The mayor of Fillydelphia making a few empty speeches you barely paid attention too, nibbling at overly-fancy and unfilling food, clapping at the proper moments...
  790. > ...and fuming at Luna's revenge.
  791. > If she could not separate you from Dash, she had concluded, then she would enforce her own iron grip on your interactions at all times.
  792. > Not directly, of course - your slave's refusal had put Luna into an unpleasant mood as well, and she was keeping her muzzle pointedly shut lest her true thoughts slip out.
  793. > But instead by seating you at a table with not only herself, Cadance, and Shining Armor, but with every seat stacked by ponies firmly in her court.
  794. > Now, if anything, your mood was the reverse of earlier:
  795. > Despite your main objective for the evening having been accomplished, you couldn't help but feel frustration building in your gut.
  796. > And it was affecting Dash, too.
  797. > Every few minutes she would glance to you with a noticeably worried expression, which on its own was doing you no favors.
  798. > Yet none of this precluded you from playing your part for the night.
  799. > Appearances were half the reason you had pushed to be here, and so they had to be kept up even as you contemplated how to confront Luna's moves.
  800. > A point you are once again reminded of as another self-aggrandizing speech is completed and you politely bring your hands together to join the chorus of ponies pretending to appreciate the speaker.
  801. > Few of them were making moves in their own subtle games of intrigue; the presence of royalty had cast a pallor over their normal ambitions.
  802. > Another pony rises to be recognized in turn - some artist who had recently completed a piece for the city.
  803. > Whatever empty words she is speaking barely register with you; your attention is on the two white-coated ponies seated at your right hand - one a Canterlot noble with a rich, blue mane; the other, a mare with a pink one and slender figure.
  804. > While the former's threat was obvious, you'd concluded the latter was playing her role as eye candy clinging to his leg just a bit too perfectly.
  805. > No doubt she was another player in the game, then - and another reason to watch be careful with every move you made.
  806. > All your attention needed to be on every word they spoke and each reply you gave.
  807. > Ordinarily your anger at being restricted like this would have been too much, but tonight two factors kept it in check.
  808. > One sat beside you, nervously picking at her meal.
  809. > Risks simply could not be taken while you were out here - for Dash's sake as much as yours.
  810. > The second was the anticipation of revealing what to Luna what you'd already done - the delight that you would take in her shock.
  811. > Between them, those were enough to reign in your fury to merely simmer just below the surface.
  812. > From the looks Luna occasionally sent your way, there was little doubt she was feeling the same way.
  813. > ...frankly, how the others hadn't noticed the princess' ire was beyond you.
  814. > Maybe they had, simply preferring to play their roles and be done with it.
  815. > "-and now we recognize a first-time visitor to this event, but no less distinguished for it. I'm sure you all remember shock our city received when we were seemingly under attack by a dragon..."
  816. > Ah, your turn.
  817. > Fixing the warmest, friendliest, most welcoming smile you can muster, you wait for the introduction to finish.
  818. > "...and his quick actions lead to not only the apprehension of the would-be thieves, but the safety of irreplaceable artifacts of Equestria's history. Mr Anonymous, if you would please rise?"
  819. > Here you go.
  820. > Feeling to retrieve the signed slip of paper from your briefcase's depths, you come to your feet amid the thunder of hundreds of hooves 'clapping' against the ground.
  821. > Towering over the seated ponies, it suddenly occurs to you that this is the most public you have been in easily months - quite possibly years, if your time before coming to Equestria counts.
  822. > And right now there are a huge number of eyes on you.
  823. > No way you could back down from this now; you needed to do this.
  824. > Even so, you stomach does a little flip and your throat is dry when you swallow.
  825. > Abruptly something brushes against your thigh.
  826. > Dash had stretched one wing out, laying her feathers - uneven, but more in their full length now than still showing signs of your mutilation.
  827. > Her head is ducked nervously still, eyes on the plate in front of her - but even so the message is clear.
  828. > You'll have to reward her for that later.
  829. > The introduction is almost done now, some little meaningless medallion you would receive having been shown off.
  830. > Your turn to speak.
  831. > Once more your throat is cleared, and you begin:
  832. "Thank you - thank you very much for welcoming me here, Fillydelphia. Though - I should not just say Fillydelphia, but all of Equestria. I've come from quite far away, you see, and not entirely on purpose - but nonetheless Equestria has provided for me: A place to stay, a business, and of course excellent company."
  833. > Here you rest your hand on Dash's head, palm nesting over her namesake mane just between her ears.
  834. > A small echo of polite laughter runs through the crowd, but you feel Dash sit up straighter anyhow - a little bit of pride returning to her posture.
  835. "I admit I'd been reluctant to openly engage with Equestria, at least in part due to the distance between our cultures and races. Even so, I found those willing to come reach out and work with me - and when the time came to step into the open and help Fillydelphia, I was shown that I had nothing to fear in doing so."
  836. > A smattering of applause, and then you go on:
  837. "Instead of fearing me, you welcomed me. Instead of rejecting me, you honored me. You showed me that no matter any previous setbacks, even if the road would be rocky, I could have a place in Equestria."
  838. > Risking a glance down the table, your gaze meets Luna's once more.
  839. > The anger is still there, but cautious is evident on her face as well:
  840. > Something about your tone, your confidence has set off warnings in her head.
  841. > Cadance, beside her, looks positively pleased to see you layering on the praise this way.
  842. > That was more of a surprise; surely she'd seen enough of your planning to know what your actual purpose was here?
  843. > Refocusing your attention, you draw the paper up and hold it out for all to see:
  844. "And now, to thank this great city for how good it has been to me, I am proud to announce that I have signed and sealed plans for a brand-new large production venture for which Fillydelphia will be a keystone: Working together, we will produce works unlike any ever made here before! Thank you, Fillydelphia - thank you, for allowing me this!"
  845. > Cheers erupt, hooves stomping and pounding on tables.
  846. > Not even the paper bring ripped from your hand by a burst of midnight-blue magic can dampen the exhilaration running through you.
  847. > When Luna looks up at you from her examination of the document her pupils are wide and nostrils flared.
  848. > In contrast a smile splits your face from ear to ear, giddiness flowing through you at what you'd just done.
  849. > Despite how unwise it would surely seem in retrospect, you can't help but mouth silent words to her:
  850. > 'Got you.'
  851. > Luna's mane seems to not so much flow as lash about while she floats the agreement back over to you; returning to your seat, you abruptly find a hoof resting on your shoulder.
  852. > Smile wide and joyful, Dash's wings are half-open in an indication that she is every bit as thrilled as you are.
  853. > "That was great! I didn't - I didn't know you were going to say anything like that! That you even felt that way!"
  854. > For a heartbeat your smile slips.
  855. > The poor thing; after everything she'd been through, did Dash truly think you were trying to put the matter to rest between yourself and the princesses?
  856. > If she did, sore disappointment was soon to follow.
  857. > Gradually you become aware of the world around you again; though another pony was speaking, you could tell the true attention of those at your table was on still on you.
  858. > Soon after the speeches end and general chatter returns one of them finally initiates the questioning you'd been expecting for some time:
  859. > "So, Anonymous - you really must tell us: What really convinced you to come out here tonight. Surely it wasn't on such a whim alone?"
  860. "...well, really I must thank Princess Cadance for helping. She was instrumental in this - doing a great deal to convince me that it was safe to step into a more public position."
  861. > "If that speech you gave is anything to judge by, you didn't really have anything to fear at all."
  862. > That draws a small laugh from your own lips.
  863. "Oh, it's not just that. I had some... concerns that I wouldn't be welcome, but they turned out to be needless."
  864. > Your hand slips around, coming to rest on your slave's neck.
  865. "Though, Dash here helped a great deal as well. She and another friend of hers - Rarity, if you've heard of her?"
  866. > "Oh, of course!"
  867. > That from the leggy, pink-maned mare to your opposite side - still clinging to the arm of her blue-maned, monocled stallion.
  868. > "We've met her many a time! In fact she was in Canterlot only just recently, along with Princess Twilight's baby dragon."
  869. "Ah, yes. I'm... familiar with him as well."
  870. > "Incredibly dedicated little fellow. Practically loves Her Highness like his mother."
  871. > That from the noble-stallion, who nods knowingly as he speaks:
  872. > "Did you know, he once went all the way up to the Crystal Peak looking to get her a gift?"
  873. > Though you'd had a drink or two by that point, your mind was not so far gone as to miss a very particular phrase.
  874. "Oh? The Crystal Peak? Do tell, what for?"
  875. > "Well, the crystal itself of course! I understand he was looking to get Princess Twilight a new telescope - she loves stargazing, you know - and the very best lenses come from there. Of course Princess Celestia went with him, but I understand he..."
  876. > Nothing more reaches your ears - a roaring filling them instead as several facts slide into place.
  877. > Unbidden, Sweetie Belle's words come bubbling back up from your memory:
  878. > 'And she has a lot of telescopes to see all kinds of things - stars and planets and the moon and stuff...'
  879. > So too does the list of items on the manifest from earlier.
  880. > Jars of polishing oil.
  881. > Extra star maps.
  882. > Photographic film.
  883. > High-precision clocks
  884. > Yes, Twilight certainly did have a love of watching the stars - or planets, or the moon.
  885. > Or spacecraft.
  886. > You're dimly aware of a shriek as your fist comes down hard on the table and a quiet oath is sputtered from your lips.
  887. "...that purple bitch!"
  888. > "Master?"
  889. > That one word is all it takes to drag you back to reality.
  890. > Now, all eyes were truly on you - the impact of your fist having knocked a glass over to spill across your plate.
  891. > More important is the hoof curled anxiously around your arm.
  892. > Her eyes fearful, Dash is looking to you.
  893. > She isn't the only one watching you though; many sets of eyes on the table are focused on you and all other conversation has ground to a halt.
  894. > It didn't seem like any of them had heard her, though.
  895. > Or if they did, they hadn't realized the importance of what Dash had said.
  896. > Your gaze falling back to her, you realize that Dash is tense and coiled in her seat - ready to spring for an escape to the shuttle, as you'd warned her earlier.
  897. > Slowly you reach up and clasp your hand over her hoof.
  898. "Thank you, Dash. I'm good now."
  899. > Another steadying breath is drawn before you look around again - face once more controlled to show only what you want on it.
  900. "...my deepest apologies. I've just realized, someone who I thought could be trusted to stay rational has... gone and done something very stupid."
  901. > "And I wonder, Anonymous, how exactly you would be aware of that...?"
  902. > Luna's voice is so close you can almost feel her breath washing over your ear.
  903. > Barely restraining yourself against leaping from the seat, you find she is indeed just behind you.
  904. > You hadn't even seen her leave her own seat - how had she gotten over so quickly at just the right moment?
  905. > Unless it hadn't been just the right moment.
  906. > Unless she'd planned that turn of conversation out; after all, the story would be meaningless unless you knew just what was on that ship already.
  907. > And like a fool, you'd walked right into her trap even after realizing that noblestallion and his mare were themselves participants in the game.
  908. > Damn!
  909. --------
  910. > Luna.
  911. > Of course Luna would do this.
  912. > She was always the more aggressive one; while Celestia was patient, Luna would be the one to push a conflict with you the first chance she had, no matter the cost.
  913. > Each princess a different kind of dangerous.
  914. "Your Highness, perhaps we could go discuss this somewhere less public?"
  915. > She seems ready to deny the request, but something halts her - a last gasp of discretion warning that pulling your spat into the open would be just as bad for her.
  916. > "...of course."
  917. > No request to follow her is made; Luna simply turns aside and walks stiffly from the hall.
  918. > You rise, as does Dash until a hand on her withers halts her.
  919. "No, Dash. I need you to stay here. If something happens, remember my order from before."
  920. > "I..."
  921. > She doesn't look happy at the idea, shifting from hoof to hoof with nervous energy.
  922. > A sign of her old personality slipping out again - the confident mare ready to face any threat, no matter how foolish.
  923. > Hardening your voice, you repeat the order:
  924. "Stay, Dash."
  925. > The commanding tone cracks her defenses, and Dash sinks back down.
  926. > "Alright, alright."
  927. > Her lips nearly form an 'm', but she manages to stop herself from calling you 'Master' aloud.
  928. > "But if something does happen, I'm not going to just sit around-"
  929. "You'll get to the shuttle, Dash, any way you can."
  930. > "...yes, sir."
  931. > Good - no need to repeat things this time.
  932. > Luna is waiting for you in one of the hallways just off the main hall.
  933. > Even with only one pair of doors between yourself and the hubbub of conversation, everything seems more muted:
  934. > Softly-flickering candles recessed into spots on the walls and lushly-carpeted floors replace arcane chandeliers and polished stone tile.
  935. > It's almost like being in another world, and briefly you wonder if there was some sound-muffling magic at work as well.
  936. > The change in scenery, however, has done nothing to diminish Luna's emotions.
  937. > If anything they are now on full display, her lips drawing back into a snarl that displays her pointed canines and eyes narrowing to blue slits as she spots you.
  938. > "Anonymous."
  939. > Her voice is little more than a hiss, and only now do you realize just how much she had been holding back in public.
  940. "Luna."
  941. > Folding your arms, you eye her levelly and nod.
  942. "I have to ask you directly - why now? Why provoke me like this?"
  943. > "Provoke you?"
  944. > Bristling at the phrase, Luna begins to circle you with slow, silent steps - her hooves entirely muffled by the thick carpeting.
  945. > You're reminded of nothing so much as a carnivore circling with a rival - or stalking its prey.
  946. > "You talk of provocations, Anonymous, but you are the one who paraded Rainbow Dash in front of Us as a reminder of Our failure to protect her."
  947. "Paraded? Do you think that's why I brought her - to gloat or something?"
  948. > "Is that not what you do every time you hold her in front of us? We have heard how you behaved with her in you 'meetings' with Twilight and the other elements. You relished in showing them what you were doing to her."
  949. > In retrospect, you have to admit to yourself, that may not have been your smartest move.
  950. > Seeing your lack of a response, Luna stops circling and turns to face you directly.
  951. > "Every second you show off the damage you have done to that mare's mind, it is like being stabbed through Our own chest."
  952. "You seem to care very deeply about Dash in particular."
  953. > "Rainbow Dash saved Our life, Anonymous, and quite possibly that of Our sister as well. If not for her and the other Elements, We would still be lost to the Nightmare."
  954. > Luna approaches you with her muzzle held high and proud - perhaps trying to make up for the fact that she is only slightly above shoulder-height to you, though no less intimidating for it.
  955. > "And We remember what it was like to have Our mind held in thrall by a darkness. That We have permitted you to inflict the same on Rainbow Dash is an unforgivable stain on Our honor; that you show off the damage you have done to her an even further insult."
  956. > This is getting off topic - and frankly, you can't afford to let her get worked up.
  957. "...irregardless of personal feelings, Luna, Twilight departed long before tonight. I know what she's doing, and it's not appreciated."
  958. > "You think We are preparing to attack you?"
  959. "I know it. Components for high-grade telescopes? Quite useful for viewing an object in near orbit. Using those clocks to synchronize times in two different places, she can get a very good idea of distance and location as well."
  960. > Folding your arms again, you let your eyes narrow.
  961. "I know what being scouted for an attack looks like. Do I have to remind you what will happen if you start a war with me?"
  962. > For once, Luna is on the defensive - her eyebrows rising in shock.
  963. > Clearly, she hadn't expected you to know that much detail of Twilight's plans.
  964. > But she obviously knew you weren't stupid, either - which implied she hadn't expected you to know that much in the way of the cargo's detail.
  965. > Good; Hammer Tong hadn't sold you out, then.
  966. > More likely been fed some information himself, then gone farther with it than Luna expected.
  967. > "And if we do nothing, then what? The next time we see Rainbow Dash, will there be anything left of who she is? A speck of loyalty remaining her heart? What will you move on to next?"
  968. "You're talking like I'm trying to turn her into a nervous wreck for fun. Let me remind her that it was only you and your sister's intervention that forced us into this standoff in the first place."
  969. > "And it was you who endangered Our little ponies - arming whoever came to you, no matter what their intent! Do not act so innocent, Anonymous."
  970. "What they choose to do - with my arms or another's - is not my responsibility, and I will not be held accountable for others' choices."
  971. > "Responsibility is not something so easily absolved, Anonymous."
  972. "Strong words, coming from someone with your past."
  973. > The words slip out before can halt them.
  974. > Damn - Luna seemed to be able to push your buttons in just the right way to get you to screw up.
  975. > Avoiding her in the first place really had been the best choice.
  976. > Rather than grow angrier, however, Luna instead holds her head high and proud - eyes flashing and mane whipping about wildly.
  977. > The hall seems to grow darker, halos of light from the candles lighting it shrinking back and wobbling wildly in time with their flames in an unfelt wind.
  978. > "At least I have the good sense to be ashamed of the monster that I was."
  979. "At least I have the intelligence to know I do not need to be."
  980. > "Then your heart is already dead, and nothing more will be lost when it ceases beating."
  981. > Pinching your forehead, you squeeze your eyes and try to ward off the rising ache.
  982. > This was not the time to trade petty insults - you were falling in to her trap.
  983. "We're coming off-topic again. The point, Your Highness, that escalating things with me - let alone right now - will never end well for you."
  984. > Dropping your hand to your side again, you fix her with your strongest stare.
  985. "Believe it or not, I actually want to be left alone to do my business. I'm not out to conquer Equestria, steal your thrones, throw everything into evil, yada yada. I only respond to moves against me."
  986. > "Your business is the business of bloodshed, Anonymous. Those with power have a responsibility to ensure it is used fairly."
  987. "And pressuring me is the last thing you want to do if avoiding bloodshed is your goal."
  988. > A sudden thought comes to your mind - something that hadn't occurred to you before.
  989. "What about Princess Cadance, then? Is she in on this too, or did you go around behind her back to try and drop this on me?"
  990. > Luna looks away, shadows retreating and candle-light reasserting itself, and you have your answer, a small smirk coming to your lips.
  991. > "...Our niece is kindhearted, but she has not been tested. She has not seen the darkness the way We have."
  992. > Interesting.
  993. > Something to put to use later on, perhaps.
  994. > But for now - to try and defuse.
  995. > Maybe even escape with your head intact.
  996. "I think we've both been caught in the act, Your Highness. If I can suggest a bit of detente, however, allow me to prove that at least I did not bring Dash here with the intent to torment you."
  997. > That catches her attention; though her eyes remain narrow slits and her coat bristles, Luna's tone suggests she is at least considering it.
  998. > "What do you suggest?"
  999. "Another one of the elements is here tonight - Miss Rarity? Why don't we give them some time to catch up?"
  1000. > No reply is immediately forthcoming, but you can see the gears turning in Luna's head.
  1001. "I say I brought her to do some actual good. You want proof I'm not some kind of... foal-eating monster-"
  1002. > Luna's eyes narrow and she snorts angrily, pawing at the ground with one hoof.
  1003. > Bad choice of words, that.
  1004. "-so give me the chance to do it. Dash can have some time with her friend - unsupervised time, by either of us. No one pulling on her, just time for her to be herself. Is that agreeable?"
  1005. > Long and hard she stares at you - as if trying to suss out whether your offer was honest, a trap, or some other means of lording your control of Dash over her.
  1006. > "...how long do you suggest?"
  1007. "The party will wrap up within a couple hours. Why not allow her some time at the end of that? A couple of hours, say?"
  1008. > If you were lucky, you could end up giving no more than what you'd already promised Dash...
  1009. > "Unacceptable. You believe allowing a passing conversation will show any sense of remorse on your part?"
  1010. > No, but that was kind of the point.
  1011. > You were trying to show you weren't malevolent, not that you somehow regretted resisting the sisters' rule.
  1012. > Gritting your teeth, you manage to growl out:
  1013. "And what would you suggest instead, Your Highness?"
  1014. > Of course Luna has an answer ready to go.
  1015. > "Allow them to stay the night together."
  1016. "Is there a room available?"
  1017. > Luna's lips finally break from their snarl, the corner of her mouth turning up in a worryingly smug smirk.
  1018. > "We have had one prepared for this eventuality. One where they can stay undisturbed. Food is prepared as well."
  1019. > Now you find yourself backed into a corner once again.
  1020. > Staying the whole night had never been part of your plan, and not something you were particularly confident about.
  1021. > But to refuse now - that would paint you as the inflexible one.
  1022. > Maybe this had been her plan in agreeing to your suggestion all along.
  1023. > There was still a margin of error if something went wrong, the threat of Equestria's fiery death hanging over her head to dissuade any foolhardy plots.
  1024. > But Luna had already proven herself willing to act aggressively, pushing where her sister showed patience.
  1025. > One last idea to make her think twice.
  1026. "Princess Cadance will need to know."
  1027. > Success - Luna hesitates.
  1028. > "You are going to insist on this."
  1029. "Yes, I am. Frankly, Your Highness, I distrust you. You've acted on your own to try to entrap me once already; Cadance has at least always been honest with me."
  1030. > One eyelid twitches as she weighs the demand in her head.
  1031. > If you brought this to Cadance, then the crystal princess would know what Luna had been doing behind her back.
  1032. > But Luna clearly wants something as well, and apparently she finds it sufficiently alluring to tolerate the fallout from her little escapade.
  1033. > "Acceptable. We will speak to Our niece as the party ends, then."
  1034. "Understood."
  1035. > "Do not think that this remotely changes our thoughts on you, however."
  1036. > Lips drawing back into a feral smile once again, Luna glares directly at you.
  1037. > "One day - one day soon - justice will be done for what you've done to that mare."
  1038. > Without a word, you turn back and reenter the main hall.
  1039. > Let Luna threaten - she had already made a mistake you fully intended to exploit.
  1040. > Dash looks up as you return to your seat, her wings fluttering lightly with relief at seeing you return unharmed.
  1041. > "How'd it go?"
  1042. "...as well as could be expected, I suppose."
  1043. > Shooting the noblestallion seated beside you a foul look as you return to your seat - one he and his arm-candy mare pointedly ignore - you lean over and murmur to your slave:
  1044. "I have a job for you, Dash."
  1045. > "Huh?"
  1046. "Luna is going to have her attention solely on me for a while. I'm going to need you to slip away and carry a message to Princess Cadance."
  1047. > "Sure. What is it?"
  1048. > Dash listens carefully as you outline your message - what Luna had done, and your agreement regarding Dash staying with Rarity for the night.
  1049. > No doubt Cadance would be furious Luna had worked behind her back - just as there was no doubt Luna would be furious you were the one to bring Cadance the news.
  1050. > But she'd never said you shouldn't, merely expected that you would.
  1051. > If not for her stunt attempting to entrap you, that kind of grace might even have been given.
  1052. > But then, if she hadn't tried that you wouldn't have anything to report to Cadance anyhow.
  1053. "...and some ponies my try to stop you. Some of them might be innocent, but it's also possible there are other ponies working for Luna in the crowd."
  1054. > "I gotcha. I can get past them."
  1055. "Dash."
  1056. > Your hand settles on her shoulder just below her mane, squeezing lightly.
  1057. "This is serious. Don't be overconfident. Be careful."
  1058. > "I understand, sir."
  1059. > Luna had long since returned to her seat, having quickly followed you back in, and is pointedly refusing to make any eye contact at the moment.
  1060. > Which of course means she is watching from the corner of her eye instead.
  1061. > A nudge to Dash's side is all it takes to send her off.
  1062. > Slipping from her seat, Dash trots off into the crowd.
  1063. > A few ponies move to intercept her, but she brushes them off with a confidence that leaves you wondering just how much of Dash's old personality was stirring.
  1064. > The night-time princess is still looking away, but you've no doubt she was alerted.
  1065. > This time, though, the huge crowd at the dinner plays to your advantage:
  1066. > There's no way she could make any open moves without raising questions.
  1067. > When you catch sight of Dash's return, however, a feeling of unease begins to grow in your stomach.
  1068. > She looks uncertain, almost a little surprised.
  1069. > Had something gone wrong with Cadance?
  1070. > Climbing back in to her seat, you lean over to hear Dash's report whispered into your ear:
  1071. > "She... knew already."
  1072. "What?"
  1073. > "Everything you told me about, she said she'd already heard."
  1074. > Whipping your head around, you find Luna is still staring off in a different direction - but now with a small smile playing about her lips.
  1075. > "And, um. Master? I don't think she was happy."
  1076. > So annoyed are you that even Dash's use of your title goes unnoticed.
  1077. > That was Luna's game, then.
  1078. > If she could not intercept your messenger, she would send one of her own and be the first to report.
  1079. > Make what she could of the situation anyhow.
  1080. > You'd fallen into the same trap you'd expected to exploit against her - taking her statement that she would 'talk to Cadance after the party ends' to mean that was the only time Luna would talk to her.
  1081. > Instead she'd decided to take her lumps and make he preemptive move.
  1082. > Stupid - more stupid than you could afford to be.
  1083. > Was this night really weighing on you that hard?
  1084. > Whatever the case, there's little that can be done about it right now.
  1085. > Luna's made her move and handily outmaneuvered you...
  1086. > ...which only made you more concerned by whatever Celestia was up to.
  1087. > Picking up your fork, you once again don the mask of the polite guest and wait for the evening to be done.
  1088. --------
  1089. > The party has only half-wound down when you stand to leave, a small but increasingly inebriated cadre of ponies holding out against the inevitable turn of the clock.
  1090. > You were long since ready to go - there wasn't much small talk to be had when you knew for a fact that your table was populated by ponies lined up against you.
  1091. > Decorum insisted that you at least wait until your hosts were departing, however.
  1092. > Dash had nearly fallen asleep at your side, kept awake only by her determination and an occasional nudge to her side.
  1093. > Good that you hadn't allowed her much alcohol; at this rate, she'd have been snoring away.
  1094. > When Luna rises - still without so much as a glance in your direction all night, as if acknowledging your existence would legitimize your cause - you do so as well.
  1095. > Taking your lead without a word, Dash falls in behind you as well.
  1096. > She didn't know exactly where you are going, but follows obediently at your heels.
  1097. > Luna is waiting just outside the doors from the hall; her eyes fall to Dash before she spins to present her hindquarters to you and struts off.
  1098. > "Come. Miss Rarity is waiting."
  1099. > "Rarity...?"
  1100. > Dash's voice is small; she looks up to you for guidance.
  1101. "Yes. You're going to have a chance to spend some time with Rarity, Dash. I thought it would be a nice reward for doing so well tonight night."
  1102. > Luna's ear flicks at that, but she doesn't interject any further.
  1103. > "I..."
  1104. > Dancing from hoof to hoof, there is clearly something Dash wishes to say.
  1105. "Go ahead, Dash. Speak your mind."
  1106. > "Thank you!"
  1107. > Leaping up to practically tackle you, Dash beats her wings furiously in a desperate attempt to remain airborne as she hugs you.
  1108. > "I thought you'd forgotten and it was getting late and stuff, but you didn't and-"
  1109. > Wrapping your arms around her in return, you gently set the joyful pony down again.
  1110. "Didn't I did tell you there would be a chance, Dash? I don't break my promises."
  1111. > That last bit, of course, more for Luna than for Dash.
  1112. > Having halted in front of you, the princess is watching from the corner of her eye.
  1113. > You catch that gaze as you stand back up, meeting it easily and with a small smile of your own.
  1114. > She wanted to accuse you of parading Dash in front of her?
  1115. > Then let her see how close your bond actually was.
  1116. > Huffing softly, Luna resumes her walk.
  1117. > Leading you through twisting and turning hallways, Luna barges through another large pair of double-doors into what you presume is the VIP suite quarters.
  1118. > Beyond wait several pair of her dark-coated Night Guard, slitted eyes fixing on you from the moment of entry.
  1119. > No salute or bow is given to their diarch, but hooves visibly tighten around spears.
  1120. > Their eyes and ears remain locked on you with every step you take down the hall.
  1121. > If it is meant to be a display of intimidation, it is empty:
  1122. > Your moves were already done for the night; Luna's only remaining option - to set them loose to imprison or kill you - would be one of suicide.
  1123. > And so you stride between them with confidence.
  1124. > Finally stopping at an elaborately engraved door, the princess calls inside:
  1125. > "Miss Rarity? May We enter?"
  1126. > "Oh! Oh, Princess - she's here!"
  1127. > Cracking open under a cloud of aquamarine magic, the door reveals a nervous Rarity peeking out from behind - and then opening entirely with a happy squeal from the unicorn.
  1128. > "Rainbow!"
  1129. > Dash seems about ready to leap in... and then pauses, halting and looking back at you.
  1130. "Go ahead, Dash."
  1131. > You offer a small smile and a nod.
  1132. > Hopefully the mask you've slipped over your real emotions holds.
  1133. > At the very least you'd hoped to use this to paint Luna in a poor light - but now, all you can do is fume silently and watch your pony walk through that door.
  1134. > The door shuts with a powerful slam - one that carries a strong sense of finality to it.
  1135. > The first time since she had come to you there was a barrier between yourself and Dash.
  1136. > And while you're certain she would not actively betray you now, confidence that she could defend herself if someone else tried to manipulate her was not high.
  1137. > Beside you, one particular someone finally deigns to look at you directly.
  1138. > "Your time here is done, Anonymous. In the morning we will send somepony to you."
  1139. "And I presume I'm supposed to find my own way to my room?"
  1140. > Once more Luna flashes a toothy smirk at you.
  1141. > "Your room? We did not ever agree to find a room for you, nor do We particularly find ourselves in the habit of lodging..."
  1142. > Her eyes rove over you as though she were examining some particularly repulsive sight.
  1143. > "...creatures, who would dare harm our ponies."
  1144. "You're playing a dangerous game, Your Highness."
  1145. > "And you are playing a despicable one - taking the lives of others hostage to your will."
  1146. > Snout rises again, Luna's glare sharpens.
  1147. > "You have been welcomed here as a visitor tonight, an act which I find repulsive and a stain against the honor of both Equestria and Ourselves. We are not, however, obliged to give shelter to monsters."
  1148. > "We are obliged to give to guests, however."
  1149. > Cadance's approach had not even been heard, but she makes herself known now.
  1150. > Something passes between the two alicorns - some bit of unspoken communication that you are not privy to.
  1151. > Then Luna whirls about with a huff, retreating with her wings spread.
  1152. > Waiting until she is out of sight and then some, you turn to Cadance and give a thankful nod.
  1153. "I appreciate that, Your Highness."
  1154. > "Oh, shut up."
  1155. > The sheer surprise from hearing those words emerge from the mouth of royalty is enough to give you pause.
  1156. > "I'm not pleased with you either. I was willing to argue with my aunt, with my husband to let you come here - and you thank me by pulling that stunt of an announcement, trying to tattle on Princess Luna like a colt on the playground?"
  1157. > One bronze-clad hoof rises to jab at your chest.
  1158. > "Everything you do here reflects on me. Remember that, Anonymous."
  1159. > Down the hall, one of Luna's guards' ears twitches towards the altercation and suddenly you understand.
  1160. > Cadance may be genuinely angry with you, but this chewing-out wasn't entirely directed at you alone.
  1161. "I understand, Your Highness. Nonetheless, I still appreciate what you are doing."
  1162. > "I would hope so."
  1163. > Turning and strutting off without waiting for you, Cadance forces you to tail behind her.
  1164. "Where are we going now, if I may ask?"
  1165. > "Your room. I presume there will be no issue with what we are preparing for you?"
  1166. "You stepped into my home with only my word as to your safety. I'll return the same favor."
  1167. > "Good."
  1168. > Something else about her visit bubbles up from your memory; on a whim, you decide to bring it up:
  1169. "Though, leaving behind those whatever-they-were crystals when you did wasn't necessary. Really, I understand -"
  1170. > Despite her annoyance with you, Cadance tilts her head at your words.
  1171. > "Crystals?"
  1172. "You scattered them around my property. Some kind of magical listening or monitoring devices, I presume?"
  1173. > Halting, Cadance turns to give you a confused look.
  1174. > "We did no such thing, Anonymous. Myself or Shining Armor - I'll give you my word on that."
  1175. > Your first intuition is to ignore her denial as scripted and meaningless - she was, after all, playing a role here.
  1176. > But Cadance is one of the few ponies and only princess who's proved remotely worthy of your trust so far, and both of you had long since left Luna's snooping attendants behind.
  1177. > There always was the chance she truly didn't know...
  1178. "In that case, someone is playing your guard against you. I didn't count it as a strike against you at the time because frankly, I expected you to make some empty gesture of subterfuge for the sake of appearances. But if you genuinely didn't know..."
  1179. > Gaze falling to the ground, Cadance softly mutters:
  1180. > "Between this and the Changeling..."
  1181. "Changeling?"
  1182. > "Chrysalis warned me one of her infiltrators - Chissik, apparently - has gone rogue and headed back into Equestria. I don't like dealing with that parasite, but if this is going to endanger our treaty..."
  1183. > Biting her tongue and expression making it clear that only the distraction of her drifting thoughts had let that slip, Cadance halts.
  1184. > For you, though, it's enough to draw a note of surprise.
  1185. "Chissik? What is she doing?"
  1186. > "You knew about her?!"
  1187. > Cadance's shocked cry snaps you out of your thoughts.
  1188. > You give a small shake of your head in the negative.
  1189. "I knew of her. I didn't know she's broken from Chrysalis... or why Chrysalis didn't tell me about this."
  1190. > For a long time nothing is said; you issue a soft hiss.
  1191. "It seems we're both having plays made behind our backs."
  1192. > "It does."
  1193. > Swallowing heavily, Cadance resumes her talk to your room.
  1194. > Arriving at the door, she turns to give you one last look.
  1195. > "I do not know if I will be here in the future, but - Anonymous, thank you for letting Rainbow Dash stay with her friend."
  1196. "And here I thought you were angry with me."
  1197. > "I am."
  1198. > Settling on her haunches, Cadance eyes you neutrally.
  1199. > "But it's still good that you let her have some part of this evening for herself as well."
  1200. "Hmm."
  1201. > Stepping halfway through the door, you look back and offer a gentle bow.
  1202. "Goodnight, Your Highness."
  1203. > "Goodnight, Anonymous. I will see that you're aren't bothered in the morning."
  1204. > The room is everything that would be expected from a place hosting royalty.
  1205. > Carpet thick, bed plush, and ice box well-stocked with a variety of vintages.
  1206. > And yet, sleep eludes you.
  1207. > There's something missing from this, and it isn't hard for you to guess at what it was.
  1208. > Dash had taken to staying by your side every night as of late, occasionally in the light bondage she found somehow comforting.
  1209. > A reminder that she was not alone.
  1210. > The absence of that presence - the warm mass of feathers and fur curled against your side, the soft tickling of her coat as she gently breathed - ironically left you very aware of how alone you were.
  1211. > Very aware that Dash was away, outside of your control.
  1212. > They would not try anything too risky, surely - but even so you cannot shake a sense of nervousness.
  1213. > Nor can you easily find rest, thoughts and worries whirling in your head long into the morning.
SIM SLAVE PONY

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