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MLP Everyday Life With Guardsmares Part 7 (in progress)

By TheManFromAnotherTime
Created: 30th September 2021 05:30:58 AM
10th April 2022 05:28:34 AM

  1. "Everyday Life With Guardsmares"
  2. by The Man From Another Time
  3. themanfromanothertime@gmail.com
  4.  
  5. Written for the Royal Guard Mare thread on /mlp/
  6.  
  7. FAQ, Locations/Character List, and gag list: https://ponepaste.org/1058
  8. (spoiler warnings apply to both links)
  9.  
  10. CHAPTER 7
  11.  
  12. > You are Artemis Sparkshower, and you are in unfamiliar skies over an unfamiliar land.
  13. > After all, when have you *ever* had yourself a full (heaping, even) plate of mouthwatering dinner items ready and waiting to be eaten, only to simply leave it sitting on the dinner table, all alone?
  14. > Even temporarily?
  15. > But it was the right thing to do, because you couldn't let Honour go to the buffet all by herself, unescorted.
  16. > Not when there were batponies and drunken sailors and overbearing fathers all marauding about!
  17. > Besides, this way you could usher her to the best grub.
  18. > Well, not that you'd actually *tasted* any of Their Majesties' incredible spread yet, but still -- you remembered what was available at each and every station, and you were more than ready to serve not just as her escort but her guide as well!
  19. > And yes, maybe you could also pick her mind a bit when it came to your Very Important Pony, who wasn't actually pony, but that hadn't stopped you from becoming interested in him.
  20. > As you wonder just how to broach that last subject, waiting in line for the second long serving table, hovering in the air and holding Honour's plate for her, to your surprise it's your comrade who speaks up first.
  21. > "Hey, Artemis. When you were with the Royal Engineer in the ballroom after your dance and my father approach you, he didn't, uh, turn around and say anything after his parting message to me, did he?"
  22. > Lily had already shared how she'd used a tricky little bit of magic to allow Honour -- and herself, and Purity -- to all listen in on that conversation.
  23. > You shake your head.
  24. "No, that was it. I think you heard everything."
  25. > "Hmm."
  26. > Still facing forward at the next pony in line, you notice her furrow her brow.
  27. > You're not surprised she was still turning things over in her head, but the Grand Galloping Gala *was* supposed to be a party.
  28. > Was she going to fall into the same trap that Lily did just minutes ago in this same buffet line, worrying over something instead of letting go and just enjoying herself?
  29. > Putting on a reassuring smile, you try to flutter over into her field of view.
  30. "Don't worry, Honour. If you still want to avoid your father, I'll spot him long before he can find you. Or, if you have something to say to him, I can do that too. I'm sure Anonymous would also be happy to act as intermediary messenger on your behalf..."
  31. > There's no reaction, so you continue.
  32. "... I mean, if there was any doubt before, he's proven himself a real gentlecolt, hasn't he?"
  33.  
  34. > Still staring aimlessly ahead of her, she mutters in response.
  35. > "Sure, even if he's not exactly a 'colt'."
  36. > Exactly!
  37. > Your face erupts into glee.
  38. "And that's what really makes him so special, I think! He's not a pony, and he hasn't even been in Equestria for very long, and by his own admission he's been a bit of a shut-in until Her Majesty gave him bodyguards, but even so, he's observant and clever and he's figured out so much out on his own!"
  39. > All that unmitigated swooning seems to finally pull Honour out of her daze, and she whinnies softly, smirking at you.
  40. > "Still flying high after your dance in the ballroom?"
  41. > You're blushing, but you make no effort to conceal it.
  42. "Yes. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?"
  43. > There's a brief pause where she looks you over from head to tail.
  44. > Then her expression softens.
  45. > "No, I suppose there isn't."
  46. > She goes quiet, facing forwards once more, and you find yourself at a loss for what to say next.
  47. > Did she see something?
  48. > You discreetly scrutinize your own dress.
  49. > Everything seems to be in order.
  50. > It's not like you've spilled anything on it, and it still looks as lovely now as it did when Lily plucked it off the rack in that Hackney Trot discount fashion outlet.
  51. > Even better than then, actually, since she added slits for your wings and corrected the fit for your, ahem, athletic physique.
  52. > You pause to think for a moment.
  53. > The line advances another few hoofsteps, bringing you one place closer to being served.
  54. > That's when it occurs to you: Honour wasn't evaluating your *clothes*.
  55. > She was evaluating *you*.
  56. > Well, wasn't that what she said, after the little incident with you sticking your tuft out at the Royal Engineer?
  57. > When it came to a possible relationship, she said she didn't think Anonymous would be receptive until he thought you'd gotten over your break-up.
  58. > True, it hadn't been very many actual days since that date, but the long-distance nature of the relationship since you arrived in Canterlot for your VIP training had perhaps made letting go a lot easier.
  59. > You certainly *felt* over it, ever since Thursday, and especially since arriving at the Gala, no matter what Lily said.
  60. > And after that wonderful dance with the Royal Engineer less than an hour ago, you didn't feel *big* any more, either.
  61. > It was a wonderful high.
  62. > Is that what Honour saw, when she looked you over?
  63. > A confident mare, soaring proudly on her own two wings?
  64. > Is that why she didn't raise any objection after you gushed just now?
  65. > She'd said she didn't think pursuing a relationship with him was a good idea, not while you were his bodyguard, but she also said that she wasn't going to stand in your way.
  66. > The question of what your quaternion's Corporal saw in you foments a more important question on your mind.
  67. > What did *Anonymous* see, when he looked at you?
  68.  
  69. > If he's as observant and clever as you think he is, he knows you've tried to flirt with him in the past.
  70. > You've never come out and propositioned him -- nothing even close to what Purity did, nor had you been in a private romantic setting as Honour had, in the Canterlot Rookery's 'Well of Life' -- but you *had* made some moves.
  71. > Moves to which he had previously been oblivious, owing to apparently them being uniquely Equestrian and not part of his people's repertoire, but given what Honour said he had learned, he surely *must* understand what you'd done by now.
  72. > Even your unintentional incident with the Maypole dance should have been a fairly obvious early warning sign.
  73. > He had been flattered by being asked to join you later in a ballroom dance instead, though he accepted it as a cultural activity, rather than a romantic one.
  74. > Which was your original intent for both dance requests, or at least your original *conscious* intent.
  75. > As attending the Gala seemed very much to be a one-time opportunity, you wanted to experience this event to its fullest, and if Huckleberry was going to stubbornly refuse to come, then you were going to ask the nearest eligible stallion to join you instead.
  76. > But if Anonymous was still treating the Waltz as simply a window into Equestrian social customs, why the unplanned dip at the end?
  77. > And why no reaction to your kiss, besides a smile in return?
  78. > Wasn't he curious what it meant?
  79. > He'd never shied away from asking questions until now.
  80. > Was this all just innocent play to him, spontaneous expressions of elation from succeeding at a task he'd been nervous about performing, or was he actually testing the waters?
  81. > And if he *was* testing the waters, how serious was he about moving to the next step?
  82. > It's not as if there wasn't a lot he didn't already know about you; what more could he want to discover?
  83. > Hurricanes, it was confusing!
  84. > Things hadn't been this convoluted with Huckleberry, that was for sure.
  85. > Growing up together in the same village made things a lot easier.
  86. > It had been a much simpler relationship, too, based not just on physical attraction but on a mutual social exclusion.
  87. > At school, he was being teased for his rough simplicity, and you for your size; finding comfort in each others' hooves was, in the end, only natural.
  88. > And as wonderful as that natural love had been, being a heavily-teased *equus non grata* amongst village ponies your own age sure brought on its share of difficulties.
  89. > Anonymous might be out of his element in Equestria, but he certainly wasn't a social *outcast*, and you, as an elite VIP bodyguard, attendee of the Grand Galloping Gala, competitor in the upcoming MXP Games' Grand Mêlée, wielder of the Anthony Theolonicus 'Bradamante Lance', and apparently the target of recruiting efforts both by the 1st Air Division, 3rd Armoured Battalion 'Valkyries' and the Princess-Cadenza's Regiment of Auxiliaries 1st Battalion 'Peregrines'...
  90.  
  91. > Well, you were clearly no outcast, either.
  92. > Thinking back to how much you had achieved, how much you had grown over the past few weeks since taking up VIP duties filled you with pride.
  93. > But the hesitation and confusion about how to approach things with Anonymous still lingered in the background.
  94. > Purity was right; you were moving too fast.
  95. > Why rush in?
  96. > It's not as if the Royal Engineer was about to be scooped up by some other mare, despite everypony joking that the Grand Galloping Gala was some kind of magic dating event.
  97. > And this wasn't a race or a competition; your Very Important Pony wasn't surrounded by a ring of other challengers for his affection.
  98. > The important thing, and part of the reason you accompanied Honour on this expedition to the buffet tables, was to make sure that you were secure in moving forwards, regardless of the pace.
  99. > After all, nopony could make a successful advance while their rearguard was being threatened...
  100. > But maybe you ought to take a more cautious route to that action, too.
  101. > Perhaps a little 'covert reconnaissance' was in order.
  102. "Did you and Anon talk about anything interesting while we were up at the buffet?"
  103. > Honour shrugs.
  104. > "Not really. We spoke about the Gala, mostly. He was interested in the Palace itself, too. Basic history-lesson stuff..."
  105. > She glances off into the crowd for a moment.
  106. > "... I also asked him a few questions about Leeward. Nothing worth bringing up again now."
  107. > It's really sad that she has such an awful relationship with her own father.
  108. > You still can't quite believe it -- or that Lily's relationship is, as she claims, even worse.
  109. > Part of you really wants to find a way to help, but you've no idea where to even start.
  110. > Besides, you suppose it really is a personal problem for Honour to sort out.
  111. > All you can do is be her supportive friend, like how the others supported you after your breakup, or how the whole quaternion tried to support Honour when she had her flash-flood storm with Anonymous.
  112. > Come to think of it, you were so elated after your dance with the Royal Engineer, and Honour was so distracted by his conversation with her father, and then you were distracted again by the start of dinner, you never found out if she reconciled things with her own coltfriend!
  113. "Did things go okay with you and your friend Sergeant Castlerook?"
  114. > With a sigh, she steps forward as the line advances and starts to look over the offerings at this buffet table.
  115. > "I suppose so. He agreed we could live somewhere other than Fillydelphia, transferring when both our contracts come up this summer, though he said he still wanted to give one last try at patching things up between me and Leeward..."
  116. > Honour glances up at you as you hover close down to present her with her dinner plate.
  117. > "... I'm not too thrilled about that, but given how Anonymous was able to put him in his place, maybe it's worth a shot."
  118. > Wow!
  119.  
  120. > She nods as you place the plate on the table and she requests service for a few items from the kitchen attendant.
  121. "It sounds like it could be wonderful, on both counts. There's no harm in letting him try to talk to your father, is there?"
  122. > After her plate receives the designated delicacies, you scoop it up again in your forehooves and the two of you head over to the next table.
  123. > "Probably not. Leeward seemed to be pretty subdued at the end of that last conversation, but who knows. Either way, I really don't think anything Alex could say will change his mind one way or the other..."
  124. > She bobs her head sideways, her eyes widening out momentarily.
  125. > "... Though I would've said the same thing about any attempt by the Royal Engineer's as well. Guess I was wrong about that one, too."
  126. > This sounds awfully stormy.
  127. > Let's redirect those dark clouds!
  128. "Well, at least you're not wrong about what you picked for dinner, at least! This all looks great! Not that Their Majesties would put out any dud offerings."
  129. > Honour glances up at what you're holding.
  130. > "I don't really want much more than that to start. And I hate the lineups. The food's not going anywhere; let's just head back for now. No sense in keeping everypony else at the table waiting."
  131. > She disengages from the line-up, and you're left feeling confused.
  132. > Was it something you said?
  133. > You scrutinize the Corporal's face.
  134. > Curiously, despite apparent successes with both her admirer, Sergeant Castlerook, and her father, Leeward Bound, she was still wearing her usual frown.
  135. > And as much as it was *usual* for her, you couldn't understand why she'd be frowning now, in a place like this, at such an event, when everything was going so well!
  136. > It's so confusing that there's just nothing for it but to ask.
  137. "Honour, is everything okay?"
  138. > She sighs, but replies immediately, as if she'd expected the question.
  139. > "It sure seems to be, doesn't it? I sorted out my troubles with Castlerook; Leeward got put in his place; I'm attending the biggest event of the year, surrounded by drink and food and friends..."
  140. > A quick roll of her shoulders and a squirm of her plot shows off just how well her red dress fits.
  141. > "... and I think I'm even getting the hang of this outfit, as outrageously revealing as it might be..."
  142. > Pausing, he looks up at you.
  143. > "... So why don't I *feel* like everything's okay?"
  144. > You've half a mind to tell her that you think she's been 'down' so long it must look like 'up' to her.
  145. > Classic spatial disorientation; happens to tired, cruising pegasi all the time: fly through a cloud, lose visual bearings on the horizon, unintentionally enter a 'graveyard spiral', and come out of the cloud dangerously tilted and pointing down.
  146. > It's a good analogy for the situation, but given Honour's terrestrial roots, you decide the wiser course would be to simply land on your haunches, still holding her dinner plate, and listen.
  147.  
  148. > Honour sighs again.
  149. > "I don't know; I really don't. I'm anxious; I feel like something's missing, or something's about to go wrong, but I can't put a hoof on what..."
  150. > Sitting down for a moment, she throws her forehooves up in the air, exasperated.
  151. > "... Or, buck, maybe I'm just finally losing my mind."
  152. > TROWAL, maybe you *should* have spoken up about her always being down!
  153. > This is worse than when she was kicking herself over making 'the wrong decision' at Newstirrup bridge.
  154. > She was wrong to do so then, but at least she had an argument to make, however poor it might have been!
  155. > Now she was just agonizing over her future -- a feeling which was all too familiar to you, after your blow-up with Huckleberry.
  156. > Glancing around the sea of dinner tables surrounding you, you spot a free space and quickly deposit your Corporal's meal there for safekeeping.
  157. > Then you step back up and around in front of the glum, red-robed brown pony.
  158. "Whoa there! There's nothing crazy about feeling uncertain for the future. We all feel it now and again."
  159. > She sighs again, casually looking around the room.
  160. > "Sure, now and again."
  161. > Looking around yourself, you see happy faces, laughter, smiles, ponies having the times of their lives.
  162. > Enjoying themselves.
  163. "You've done what you said you were going to do, and things are set the way they are for now. Worrying isn't going to change any of that. Let's just enjoy the night we have here before us, okay?"
  164. > Honour lifts her eyebrows and starts shaking her head.
  165. > "I *want* to, but I... I get in this *state* where right as I'm about to get what I've always desired, I pull back, like it's suddenly turned to poison..."
  166. > With a deep breath, she lifts a forehoof, placing its frog against her forehead.
  167. > "... I did it to Castlerook. More than once, even. I *wanted* him, and I knew he *wanted* me, and I just -- I just pulled back from him, I don't know why..."
  168. > You watch a tear stream down her left cheek, even as she tries to force a smile.
  169. > "... And now it's happening, and he's doing everything I wanted him to do, and I can't even feel happy about it."
  170. > Closing in, you hold out your forehooves in support, and she drops one of hers into your grasp.
  171. > You think back to all those nights you'd spent agonizing over your absentee Huckleberry.
  172. > Even when things were all sorted and arranged properly, like the test visit to Canterlot a few months ago before you started VIP training, there was a gulf that did, at times, terrify you.
  173. > Worse was when you wrote to him to set things up for another visit, and you would wait anxiously for a reply.
  174. > You shake your head reassuringly.
  175. "Because he's not here with you right now. You've set something up, but it hasn't actually happened yet. You're anxious that it might not happen at all."
  176. > Sniffling, she tries to recompose herself.
  177. > "Yeah. Yeah, I guess so. You probably understand that better than anypony else I know."
  178.  
  179. > You nod.
  180. "Uncertainty about plans was one of the worst parts of being with Huckleberry. Even before I came to Canterlot, he cancelled things an awful lot. He would get really nervous about everything, always want to call things off. Sometimes it felt like I had to *force* him into going places, and that wasn't very fun, either."
  181. > Honour nods, and there, sitting in the grand hall, surrounded by jubilant party-goers enjoying the finest culinary delicacies that Equestria had to offer, the two of you share a brief moment of interpersonal synchronicity.
  182. > She was the Huckleberry, you realized, to her faithful Castlerook: hesitant to act, consumed by her own doubts and fears.
  183. > And now that she *had* committed to being with him, she was terrified of it.
  184. > Just as your 'Puddin' had acquiesced to your VIP assignment but been too scared to take the next steps.
  185. > You let go of Honour's forehooves and reach out to embrace her in a big hug.
  186. > Friends didn't let friends feel bad like this without support.
  187. > In the end, you couldn't save Huckleberry, but you won't let the Corporal self-destruct like he did.
  188. > Especially not on a magical night like tonight!
  189. > There's no resistance from her, so you maintain the big minotaur-hug.
  190. > And you'll keep maintaining it until she doesn't need it any more!
  191. > 4th Armoured will always hold the line!
  192. > That was a common motivational slogan at your previous regiment, dating back to an old battle against the dragons.
  193. > Honour's breathing, short and pained at first, starts to calm back down to a steady, if elevated, normal.
  194. > You hear her sigh and feel her lift a forehoof to wipe away another tear.
  195. > "I need to step outside for a moment to catch my breath. You can-"
  196. > Can head back?
  197. > Not happening!
  198. "Nope, I'm coming with you."
  199. > As you release her, she resumes her objection.
  200. > "But, Artemis, your din-"
  201. "I can visit the buffet line again, and so can you and anypony else."
  202. > The brown earth pony nods.
  203. > "Yeah, okay..."
  204. > Then she nods towards the nearest set of doors.
  205. > "... Come on, over there."
  206. > You follow behind her on all fours, pushing open a double set of arched Prench doors which open to a small basement-level stone-paved landing and, on the left, a set of stairs leading up to the main grounds.
  207. > Honour doesn't hesitate to trot right up, and you in turn, until you find yourselves on one side of the palace's grand entrance courtyard.
  208. > This is where the early-arrival guests had been entertained earlier, which you and the rest of the quaternion had observed from that balcony in the West wing's South annex.
  209. > There were still a few refreshment stations here, and a few party-goers, but most of the crowd had clearly moved on inside the palace, and the extensive gardens 'behind' the main building.
  210. > Your brown Corporal comes to a rest only once she's firmly planted all four hooves on the courtyard's trimmed grass, rather than the walkway paving stones or gravel driveway.
  211.  
  212. > That's when you notice her actually start to relax, coming down from the emotional state she'd been in.
  213. > You watch as her hooves seem to sink deeper into the short green foliage.
  214. > A magical connection with the ground was said to be the source of the extraordinary endurance of Earth Ponies, and there were many who believed that direct physical contact with *soil* was a way to replenish that reserve of strength.
  215. > Some of those same ponies also believed that an Earth Pony extensively denied the opportunity to touch hooves with natural, living earth would lose their strength and wither.
  216. > Sort of like a pegasus' wings atrophying if denied the opportunity to fly, you suppose.
  217. > Standing on all fours with her eyes closed and ears flattened back, Honour didn't seem to so much as *breathe* the crisp spring air as she seemed to *absorb* it.
  218. > You join her on the grass.
  219. > Pegasi like you might not have any particular deep connection to the land like your four-limbed kin, but you sure preferred the touch of grass to just about anything else.
  220. > Not to mention, if given a choice of surfaces onto which to crash-land...
  221. > Well, grass was one of the obvious 'good' choices -- and the taller and thicker, the better.
  222. > Taking a deep breath, Honour opens her eyes, lifting her ears back up.
  223. > "Sorry. I got a little worked up in there."
  224. > You shake your head.
  225. "It's all right. I understand."
  226. > She nods.
  227. > "Yeah, you do."
  228. > Honour closes her eyes and takes another deep breath.
  229. > After blowing it out slowly, she opens them up again.
  230. > After that, she just stands there, looking slightly up towards the sky.
  231. > Well, since you're out here, you might as well join her in her silent meditation.
  232. > You're committed to helping her; it's not as if you were going to leave until she was ready to go back.
  233. > There's a burst of raucous laughter over closer to the main entrance doors, but you resist the automatic impulse to turn towards the source of the noise.
  234. > Instead, you just look up at the stars.
  235. > It's a clear night out; cool and fresh.
  236. > A great night for flying, especially with the moon waxing gibbous and high in the sky, draping the world in silver light.
  237. > Another loud blast of laughter from over by the entrance, harsh and throaty, and accompanied by boos in reply -- but you shut it out as you did the first outburst.
  238. > Something's making the stars particularly pretty tonight.
  239. > You don't think you've seen them this spectacular since Her Majesty Princess Luna visited the Royal Engineer.
  240. > And you're not even sure if you'd actually been gazing at the real sky then, or if it was all part of some hypnotic magical illusion.
  241. > A moment of stellar transcendence in the presence of the Princess of the Moon.
  242. > Strange.
  243. > Simply *thinking* of that moment seems to fill you with a sense of calm and purpose, the same as you'd felt in the live moment.
  244.  
  245. > Your thoughts turn to the other stately figure who'd been present in the room.
  246. > He hadn't made the stars rain from the sky like snowflakes, and you don't remember him glowing brightly as you do the other *ponies* in the room, but with his calm, attentive demeanour, Anonymous stood out in his own way.
  247. > Like a quick low-pressure front that comes in to break up an intense heatwave.
  248. > There was just one lingering question in your mind...
  249. > And only one pony who could answer it.
  250. > You could do this.
  251. "Honour, do you-"
  252. > "Artemis, I want-"
  253. > Oh, TROWAL!
  254. > The two of you started speaking at the same time, but Honour recovers more quickly.
  255. > "... Sorry, go ahead."
  256. > You shake your head.
  257. "No, I insist."
  258. > Tipping her head down and pawing the ground with a forehoof, she swallows.
  259. > "I wanted to say, if you're thinking again of going after the Royal Engineer, take it slow, okay? And keep things simple to start..."
  260. > Then she lifts back up and looks you in the eyes.
  261. > "... A peck on the cheek, bringing him his dinner plate, that sort of low-key stuff is all right. Ask him to the dance floor tonight, though I think he'll ask you first -- probably all of us, actually, if we're not otherwise occupied. I think he regrets not dancing when we were out on Tuesday, and that he doesn't intend to make the same mistake twice..."
  262. > Well, that warm front certainly blows away all of your storm-clouds.
  263. > She scrunches up her muzzle a bit.
  264. > "... But even if things go well tonight, remember that he's not from here; he's used to looking at things a different way than us. It'll take time to establish a relationship. If that happens, and if we're still his bodyguards, I'll reign in Lily if she sees what's happening and starts laying into you; Purity too, though I imagine she'll have more discretion..."
  265. > Taking a deep breath, she finally lifts her other hooves as she turns her body towards you -- and the stairs back down into the dining hall.
  266. > "... But don't let anypony push things too fast -- and that includes him as well as you, okay? It'll be for your own good, and his. I don't want to see either of you get hurt, especially not when we all have to work together. That means avoiding rash moves and hasty decisions. You understand?"
  267. > You nod, remembering Kilfeather's assertion that good-looking single ponies wake up to find themselves coupled in the morning.
  268. "I understand. And I'll take it slow. This is actually what I was going to ask you."
  269. > Honour snorts.
  270. > "Yeah, I figured. I may have my troubles, but I'm not blind."
  271. > Smiling, you step forwards and spread your forehooves for another embrace.
  272. > She opens hers in turn and you hug each other, briefly.
  273. > Once you both let go, she sniffs and shakes her head.
  274. > "... Thanks, I needed that -- the trip outside, and the pep talk earlier... and even the hugs."
  275. "It's my pleasure!"
  276. > That's when you hear an echoing shout from over by the main entrance.
  277.  
  278. > "It'll be me pleasure to rearrange yer face, ye scurvy scalawag!"
  279. > You turn to look, and just as you parse the basic arrangement of the scene -- almost thirty sailors, divided in two boisterous groups, grinning and rearing up on their hind hooves at each other -- your view is interrupted as five billowing dark shadows crash down on the throng of quarrelsome ponies.
  280. > Standing atop a suddenly-flattened would-be-brawler, one of the black-cloaked meteorites throws back his hood to reveal a Night Guard helmet -- with a dark head and two yellow slit eyes beneath its armoured brow.
  281. > "In the name ob the Prrrincess ob the Moon, jou are all under arrrrest for disturrbing Her peace. Do not rrresist!"
  282. > Shocked by the sudden arrival, the two groups seem momentarily unable to react.
  283. > Beside you, Honour has noticed the disturbance as well.
  284. > "Looks like trouble."
  285. > A couple of stragglers at the outer edges of the group scurry off, bolting for the palace, but the bulk of the two apparently rival crews stay put, turning away from facing each other, and towards the newcomers.
  286. > One of them, near the front, reaches into his vest and pulls out a flask, quickly uncorking it and taking a swig, before tossing it to the next pony behind him, who dutifully swallows a draught of his own, passing it on in turn.
  287. > "Oh yeah? Well, despite our rivalry, we's all of us loyal merchantpones of Her Majesty Princess Celestia, the Princess of the *Sun*, and we don't none of us take orders from murderin' blackguard *bat* ponies what worship the dark night."
  288. > Cracking his forehooves into each other, he takes a determined step towards the Night Guard soldier, followed soon after by another sailor, and then another, then another.
  289. > You gasp.
  290. "Trouble? Make it double!"
  291. > In response to the menacing advance, the five Night Guard all rear back and kick out their forehooves.
  292. > With a familiar *snicker-snack* that's audible even at this distance, you see they all suddenly have shining steel blades now protruding from their forelegs.
  293. > Oh, hurricanes!
  294. > Almost immediately in response, you three horns glow, a half-dozen pairs of feathered wings extend, a number of hooves holding glass tumblers smash them to make deadly jagged weapons, and a few of the sailors even reach back to their flanks, drawing knives of their own from beneath their belts or breeches.
  295. > Thundering tornadoes!
  296. > Weren't those ponies searched for weapons before being admitted to the palace grounds?!
  297. > Without waiting for the next escalation, Honour launches into a gallop.
  298. > "Come on! We'd better intervene, or somepony might wind up dead!"
  299. > You don't need to be told twice, and flap your wings to blast off right after her.
  300.  
  301. > Except...
  302. > Two unarmoured guarsdponies wearing gala fineries against a gang of thuggish sailors and five batpony 'Swarming Meteors'?
  303. > What exactly are the two of you going to be able to accomplish without any of your *weapons*?
  304. > As you barrel down on the group of armed ponies, you gulp.
  305. > Then you grit your teeth and follow your Corporal's lead.
  306. > 4th Armoured Regiment's motto was 'Prepared and Loyal'; you might not be prepared, but you sure will be loyal!
  307. > Despite Honour's frequent misgivings, she's proven that when push comes to shove, she knows what to do.
  308. > So, beware, miscreants!
  309. > The Royal Engineer's Very Important Pony escort quaternion is here -- or part of it, anyways!
  310.  
  311.  
  312.  
  313.  
  314. > You are Honour Bound, mere Corporal in the Royal Guard, and in just a few moments you're going to find out if you can summon up enough command authority to get a squad of Night Guard and a pack of sailors to both stand down before somepony gets seriously hurt.
  315. > Galloping along next to you, Specialist Artemis Sparkshower turns to speak.
  316. > "This doesn't make sense! When we met Carmen earlier, she told us the Swarming Meteors were suspended from Night Guard duty because of what Marcos did! Why are they here, now??"
  317. > You're no expert in batpony 'Star-phase' temples, but you can spot the same attack when it's used twice.
  318. > Either some other school has exactly the same swoop-clobbering tactic and hoof-blades, or Reverend Mother Superior Carmen Ebonshield isn't trustworthy.
  319. > And you know where you'd place your bet.
  320. > Okay, Honour.
  321. > You just have to get in there, use your best "I am in charge here!" voice, and nopony will notice you're in a cocktail dress and completely unarmed & unarmoured.
  322. > At the very least you ought to be able to cause enough disruption to delay the impending violence.
  323. > "What's the meaning of this? Who gave you permission to charge and draw weapons, Sergeant? And you, there, you ruffians -- how dare you raise your hooves against the Guard? Back away this instant!"
  324. > But before you can even reach the starting point, a brilliant silver pegasus colt in Royal Guard armour flutters down in front of the Swarming Meteors.
  325. > His uniform has the single epaulette of Lieutenant Junior Grade, but more interestingly, on his right foreleg you see a familiar black band with the letters 'R.U.C.' sewn into it with white thread.
  326. > Royal Undermountain Constabulary.
  327. > From his angle of entry, the officer must have been patrolling with the batponies -- which meant that the Night Guard were on station at the Gala, but they were being *supervised*.
  328. > As you arrive at the scene, you note that the sailors haven't backed away, though they did at least cease their advance.
  329. > The officer, however, seems much more concerned with the behaviour of the batponies.
  330. > "... Well, Sergeant? I want an explanation!"
  331. > For his part, the batpony 'Sergeant' keeps his eyes on the drunk belligerents.
  332. > "Teniente Naranja, dese ponies werrre yust about to-"
  333. > The argent R.U.C. Lieutenant gets right up in his dusky Sergeant's muzzle.
  334. > "That is not an excuse! You forget that you are under strict orders, Sergeant! You are not permitted to take action without consulting with your superior officer first!"
  335. > Pointing down at the crumpled sailor beneath the batpony's hooves, he continues.
  336. > "... Did you do so prior to assaulting these guests, Sergeant?"
  337. > The batpony scrunches up his muzzle for a moment before answering.
  338. > "No, mi Teniente."
  339.  
  340. > Vindicated, the Lieutenant turns his nose up at the batpony, then turns on his heels to face the ornery sailors.
  341. > "Sheathe your weapons and back away, Sergeant. I will take care of this."
  342. > He doesn't audibly grumble, but you can see the frustration written on the Sergeant's face as he nods to his four comrades and they all back away off of their victims, before pausing to re-holster their spring-loaded hoof-blades.
  343. > Now the crowd's attention is on the officer.
  344. > "... Disgraceful! You sailors were invited here to celebrate the anniversary of the Merchant Marine, and what do you do? Draw weapons on the Guard, after nearly coming to blows -- and for what, some trivial argument over whose ship is the fastest? I'll have you all thrown in the donjon for this nonsense!"
  345. > For a junior officer, he's certainly got the right attitude of command, and the ponies before him do deserve a dressing-down -- but you're not sure about ragging on their argument as 'nonsense' or 'trivial' is going to help.
  346. > Sure enough, his final statement elicits a few grumbles and jeers from the crowd.
  347. > "Trivial?"
  348. > "Nonsense?!"
  349. > You even see a few forehooves go up -- with the opposing one placed in the crook of the elbow.
  350. > "Buck you, peeler!"
  351. > "Get lost, butter-bar!"
  352. > "Buzz off, Jack Law!"
  353. > That just sets the officer off even more.
  354. > "How dare you! I am an officer of the Royal Guard, and you are guests here in Her Majesty's palace. You will respect my authority and disperse this instant! Disperse, I say!"
  355. > His Canterlot-accented cries fall flat as the brigands start to advance on him once more.
  356. > "Come on, lads, we'll give this stuffed hat what 'e deserves, then we'll have at the bloody bats!"
  357. > Suddenly aware of his peril, the Lieutenant takes one step back, and that just opens the floodgates -- a moment later he panics, then bolts to take cover behind the five Night Guard soldiers he just disarmed and dressed down.
  358. > "Sergeant, draw weapons and prepare to engage!"
  359. > Before he can even finish barking out the order, the batponies have already readied themselves for a fight once more.
  360. > The crowd surges forward, more energetically than when they were faced with the Night Guard alone.
  361. > Looks like you're going to have to clean up the L-T's mess after all.
  362. > Time for a different strategy.
  363. > With Sparkshower at your side, you just barely intrude in-between the two groups before summoning up the salty bellow of a Fillydelphia dockside mare.
  364. "Anyhow, everypony knows that the Tambermane is the fastest clipper ship on the Four Seas..."
  365. > That gets you a few glances.
  366. > Seems like you're on the right track.
  367. "... Anypony who thinks otherwise must be a fool or a moron, and clearly needs the sense knocked into them, or maybe their teeth knocked out."
  368. > And now you have their attention.
  369. > The advance on the batponies and the embattled Lieutenant comes to a halting stop once more.
  370. "... Isn't that right, Artemis?"
  371.  
  372. > You just hope Sparkshower understands the situation enough to play along -- and that she can dig down and find some source of coarse churlishness.
  373. > "Uh-Yes! That's right! Why, I can't imagine the kind of toothless, er, scurvy-hoofed, uh, freshwater marine who would even consider any other ship for supremacy."
  374. > Good mare.
  375. > The sailor leading the slow charge -- a big earth-pony colt dressed in white slops with a blue jacket and a black bowler cap -- comes to a halt and faces you.
  376. > "What've we got over here? A couple of loud-mouthed mares looking to leave the Gala with shiners?"
  377. > Time to go 'full Fillydelphia'.
  378. > You lift an eyebrow and sneer as you look him up and down.
  379. "As if you could touch me. I've seen better stallions slurping sausage and taking it between the buns behind quayside bars off Front Street."
  380. > A few jeers and guffaws call out from behind him as you can see the sailor-colt's ears start to boil.
  381. > "You're all talk, little filly. Go on and scram."
  382. > Now you slap one forehoof against your flank, lifting your upper lip to crudely show your teeth.
  383. "Make me. You wouldn't last two minutes on the Fillydelphia docks. What garbage-scow do you even serve on, anyways?"
  384. > Snorting out his nostrils, he clops a forehoof into his chest.
  385. > "The Antelope, out of Baltimare, and she's no damn scow."
  386. > You snort right back at him as you lie through your teeth.
  387. "Sure, she's no scow, but she sure needs one to haul her off. I've seen the Antelope down at the docks; she's a sickening sight, with her sails in rags and listing to port. I hear your cook spends his days in the scuppers with the staggers and jags, too."
  388. > Accompanied by boos from some of the ponies behind him, the sailor shakes his head.
  389. > "You've got a nasty tongue, filly. Someone ought to slap it clean out of your muzzle."
  390. > Now, to show him you really are serious about spoiling for a fight.
  391. > After all, it's better that the two of you duke it out with fistihooves than that the Swarming Meteors get involved with their daggers.
  392. > With luck, beating up just one or two of them will disperse the crowd.
  393. > This wouldn't be your first boxing match with a mariner, anyways -- just the first one since you left Filly'.
  394. > Hiking your skirt, you rear back on your hind hooves and defiantly raise up your forehooves.
  395. "Please. There's no way a barge as broad and fat and loose in stays like you will ever hit me."
  396. > Scowling at the latest insult, the colt still hesitates to commit against you, so you get back down on all fours and lower your head down, scraping a hind hoof against the ground as if you're readying for a charge.
  397. "... Come on, bilge rat! Don't tell me you're afraid to hit a mare. That's the only way an ugly picaroon like you could ever get one to stick around long enough for you to wet your whistle, anyhow."
  398.  
  399. > Your final put-down pushes him over the edge, and with the jostling, ornery crowd at his back furiously egging him on, he turns his body fully towards you.
  400. > "Well, we were gonna teach that meddling officer and his scum batponies a lesson, but I guess we've got room for a little appetizer first. All right, foul-mouthed filly, let's dance!"
  401. > You spare a quick glance to make sure that the Swarming Meteors and their R.U.C. supervising officer are staying back and that the crowd's focus is on *you*, before looking back at your opponent.
  402. > He's so confident that he'll end you with just one blow, the muscled stallion simply rears back and steps forward on his hind hooves, then swings wide.
  403.  
  404. Suggested background music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MtOpB5LlUA (Yugo Kanno - "Il Vento D'Oro", from "JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind" [2018])
  405.  
  406. > Transported back to your youthful days brawling in the dockside alleys, time seems to slow down, and you're filled with a serendipitous confidence.
  407. > The turbulent sea of confusing possibilities of what might happen in the future -- with Castlerook, Leeward, Anonymous, Fillydelphia, and more -- collapses into the straight and narrow river of the immediacy of the here and now.
  408. > And that path is so predictable, so constrained, and so familiar that you can completely let go your worries and turn all your attention to the present.
  409. > Unarmed combat between maritime earth ponies.
  410. > With your newfound focus, what was just a sloppy, easily-avoided attack turns into a clownish pantomime sloth's movement.
  411. > You don't even have to *think* to dodge; you've already ducked.
  412. > And now that he's left himself open, how to riposte?
  413. > Certainly, you could try for a fast knock-out as he has.
  414. > A solid hoof to his chin, probably followed by a second, might be enough to get him flat on his back, if he's got a glass jaw.
  415. > But you know from experience that a quick end won't impress nor rattle the crowd as well as a longer brawl.
  416. > You need something with some meat to it, so that your fight with their stallion satisfies their own blood-lust, even if their champion loses.
  417. > Let him take the heavy swings, then, and you'll start with a few body blows to soften him up.
  418. > As you establish your strategy, you can almost see the steps before they come.
  419. > Duck the clumsy haymaker, step back to draw the fighter further away from the crowd.
  420. > Although you're putting on a show for the other sailors, it's still important to try to minimize any interference.
  421. > You need to keep them as spectators to this petty mêlée, not participants, if you want to actually win.
  422. > The sailor's forehoof passes well above and in front of your head, and you line up the next motion.
  423.  
  424. > Aware that you've moved back, but not yet cognisant that you're too fast for this, he takes a heavy step forward and swings wide with the other hoof.
  425. > Already a bit tilted from the first wild swipe, his second attack is more of a proper hook but still puts him dangerously off-balance.
  426. > You lift your head up to avoid the low-aimed blow and prepare to strike.
  427. > As the mariner's hoof sails beneath your chin, you launch forward on your hind hooves, thrusting one forehoof out until it connects with his shoulder.
  428. > Celestia, he's solid!
  429. > That first forehoof finds nothing but thickly-corded muscle and bone, so you launch the other one lower, at his ribs.
  430. > The second connection has the impact you want, and you see the colt cringe even as he lurches.
  431. > From his careless strikes as well as your hit, he's forced to get back down on all fours, or else topple over sideways onto the ground.
  432. > That's when he's most vulnerable, and you take full advantage, planting your own forehooves in the grass and pivoting around on them for a quick double-hind-kick.
  433. > It's impossible to conceal such a big motion, but all he can do when he spots your red dress flying out at him is curl his flank and try to lurch away from you.
  434. > Enough to lessen the blows, but not enough to avoid them, and you can see his cheeks puff up as your kidney double-shot knocks the wind out of him.
  435. > Having completed the attack, now it's you who's vulnerable, your flanks exposed.
  436. > He rears up again on his hind hooves, but having wised up to your speed, he settles for a left-hoof jab.
  437. > You're certain a left-hoof cross is going to follow, so to mix things up you tense and lean into the first blow.
  438. > It hurts, but it works: he's so surprised when his first forehoof ricochets off in an unexpected manner that it spoils the follow-up, sending his hoof wild.
  439. > That creates another opening, and for more, this time.
  440. > Starting with a single hind kick for good measure, you spin around again and pile your head forwards, butting into the back of his flank.
  441. > The impact sends pain shuddering down your neck from your skull, but you mostly catch him in the soft spot past his ribcage, and more importantly your effort actually knocks him off his hooves.
  442. > Struggling in the air, he flails down with his forehooves as you push through to ensure the topple, but your own hooves come up faster, seizing his torso and torquing him sideways.
  443. > Now, instead of landing on his side, he slams right down on his back, knocking his head shortly after.
  444. > He's on the ground, so you leap on top to pound, knocking a gaskin into his groin as you crash your forehooves down into his neck and face.
  445. > With instincts that make it clear he's no tenderhooves, he brings his own limbs up to shield those vulnerable areas, all while trying to buck you off.
  446.  
  447. > You continue to hammer away, trying to break past or get around his guard, but you just don't have the reach, and eventually he manages to shove hard enough that you're kicked over, rolling onto your four hooves.
  448. > Furious at having been knocked around this way, he snarls out as he rolls over and gets back up, a streak of blood trickling down from his mouth.
  449. > "Damned whorse!"
  450. > Them's fightin' words.
  451. "You're in for a wreckin', jawn."
  452. > With a shake of his head, he re-cocks his shoulders and squares up against you.
  453. > His head might still be full of tipple, but at last now he's showing you that he actually has some fighting chops.
  454. > Good, that'll make for a better show.
  455. > As the two of you circle around, sizing the other up, you're momentarily brought brought back to real-time, just enough to hear the crowd's cheers and jeers.
  456. > "Come on, get 'er, Flass!"
  457. > "Clobber that whorse!"
  458. > "Keep your hooves up!"
  459. > Even better; the more they get into it as spectators, the more likely they will be to feel spent if he loses.
  460. > You just have to make sure to achieve that ending.
  461. > Artemis is watching observantly from the sidelines, her eyes darting between you, your opponent, the crowd, and the group of batponies, who so far haven't budged an inch.
  462. > Even the Lieutenant seems to be caught up in the duel.
  463. > Back to it, then -- and this time, you'll start the offensive.
  464. > Surging forwards, you grit your teeth and watch the stallion's eyes go wide as you launch a top-hoofed uppercut at his chin.
  465. > Turning his head, he narrowly avoids it, only to catch your cross in the neck.
  466. > He cringes from the pain, but it's not so much that he can't react, and he squats down almost onto his haunches to lift his own forehooves for a reply.
  467. > That might work, if you hadn't already swung your back around to start kicking him in the side.
  468. > A heavy hoof glances off your withers as you spin, and a moment later you're once again burying keratin just past his ribs.
  469. > But you connect with some solid hip-bone this time, which screws your recovery enough that you can't risk a follow-up.
  470. > Recognizing his mistake in sitting down, 'Flass' stands up again and rushes forward, lifting his forehooves wide at the last moment.
  471. > He's going to try to grab you and wrestle you down; can't have that.
  472. > Your head still hurts from the last time, but you tune it out and push yourself to go low, hurtling forward into his attempt at a grapple.
  473. > As his forelegs seize your barrel, your skull slams against the base of his rib-cage.
  474. > The momentum-transfer stops you in your tracks, but you managed to keep your neck straight enough to stay planted.
  475. > While he scrabbles to get hold of you, you thrust your neck up.
  476. > "Argh!"
  477. > You lift him into the air, but you can feel your strength failing -- you can't get him over this way, so you tilt your head to send him sideways.
  478. > With all four of his limbs flailing in the air, the manoeuvre just barely works, and he flops over onto his flank.
  479.  
  480. > Turning to land the easy hits, you get a couple of forehooves in on the same hind spot you've been working so far, but then you feel a jolt of pain in your head and you have to withdraw.
  481. > Buck, did you actually crack your skull against him?
  482. > You blink, and your vision briefly goes blurry.
  483. > Another blink, and you're seeing straight again.
  484. > Still on his side, he's lethargically trying to get back up.
  485. > You don't have the same volume of liquid courage in you that he has, which has been to your advantage so far, but if the alcohol's numbing effect keeps him from going down, that's a real problem.
  486. > That's when disaster strikes.
  487. > "Aw, stinkin' whorse, what a dirty move. I'll get her for ya, Flass!"
  488. > One of the eager audience members -- thankfully, not one of the armed ones -- hustles in from behind you, aiming to grab you.
  489. > And when one comes, another might follow, and another...
  490. > You barely have time to feel panic at the thought of being ganged up on by more foes, when a pink-and-yellow blur goes streaking by over your shoulder.
  491. > "DYNAMIC ENTRY!"
  492. > The outstretched hind hooves of a spiralling Artemis Sparkshower crash into the interloper's muzzle, and she beats her outstretched wings once to come to a magnificent skidding landing on all fours, even as her victim goes tumbling back head-over-hooves, rolling through gaps in the crowd like a stray cannon-ball.
  493. > Instantly, your pegasus saviour spreads her wings wide and rears up on her hind hooves, menacing the crowd.
  494. > "... Epona-a-buaidh! Sow the wind, and reap the Whirlwind!"
  495. > Good mare.
  496. > Really good mare.
  497. > But maybe tone it down, lest you goad more of them into attacking.
  498. > You've got problems of your own again, though -- Flass is back on his hooves.
  499. > He looks steady, but as the two of you face each other once more, something about him seems different.
  500. > It's hard to put a hoof on.
  501. > On a whim, you stand up straight, effectively lowering your guard, goading him to attack.
  502. > Watching you do it, he doesn't seem to know how to react.
  503. > No, that's not it: he knows how he *wants* to react -- but he *hesitates*.
  504. > He's finally feeling intimidated.
  505. > Good!
  506. > With the way your head hurts, and having already attracted one ringer, it's past time you ended this.
  507. > You can't bait any more clumsy attacks out of him, but you can take advantage of his hesitation.
  508. > Kicking up your heels, you charge.
  509. > In response, he has the sense to rear up and throw out a jab to force you away, but he fails to put his full power into it.
  510. > You weather the limp blow against your muzzle even as you rear back yourself.
  511. > He tries to turn away, thrusting out his cross hoof in another keep-away attempt, yet once again it's just hoof and foreleg that connect, lacking the real power provided by the twisting shoulder, barrel, waist, and hips.
  512.  
  513. > The impact of that lame hoof against your muzzle doesn't faze you in the slightest and now, having pushed through his ineffective guard, you unleash your own assault.
  514. > Pivoting on your hind hooves, you wail against him hook after hook, slamming alternating forehooves into his head, battering it back and forth like a punching speed-bag.
  515. "Oorah! Oorah! Oorah!"
  516. > You haven't shouted the battle cry of the 186th Fillydelphia Volunteers since you were fresh out of 'shoe camp, but somehow it just comes out naturally as you pummel your opponent into submission.
  517. "... One-Eight-Six, Fillydelphia Volunteers! Oorah!"
  518. > A final hammer-blow, summoned up with all your power, sends Flass crumpling down to the ground before you, landing on his rear with the rest of him flopping limply out afterwards.
  519. > Huffing and puffing through your nostrils, you pause momentarily, still on your hind hooves, looking down to make sure he's down for the count.
  520. > But when it's clear he's out cold, you finally let yourself get back down on all fours.
  521. > Sweet Celestia of Equestria, you have a splitting headache.
  522. > You need a drink -- but there was something else to deal with first.
  523. > Turning to face the other sailors, you see sad, disheartened faces.
  524. > Perfect.
  525. "Ahoy, you lot! Haul your damned bilge-scum the buck out of here before any more peelers show up! Sharply, now!"
  526. > Exchanging glances, they don't have to be told twice, and a few of them hustle forwards to pick up their fallen champion.
  527. > Sparkshower joins you at your side as you start towards the batponies, who are still posed in front of five clobbered sailors.
  528. ".... Let them go! They won't cause any more trouble, right?"
  529. > That last question is directed back at the former belligerents, who nod and meekly mutter affirmatives in response.
  530. > As if on cue, the Lieutenant steps out from behind his protective wall of soldiers.
  531. > "Ahem, excuse me, but I am in command here, and I will decide-"
  532. > You've seen his kind before.
  533. "Lieutenant, you can either let these five go, or you can deal with fighting the rest of that mob -- again."
  534. > The junior officer goes silent, but his batpony sergeant lifts an eyebrow.
  535. > "Ay am not afrrraid of such a fight."
  536. > You point an angry forehoof at his still-extended hoof-blade.
  537. "You should be. That's a tool for killing; you think your Great Mother wants *deaths* at the biggest party of the year? And for what, instigating a brawl amongst themselves? That's not Equestrian justice, it's a slaughter."
  538. > The use of the batpony term for Princess Luna immediately elicits the full and undivided attention of all five batponies.
  539. > After a moment's consideration, the sergeant nods to his soldiers, and all five back further away from their knocked-out prey.
  540.  
  541. > Even as more glum sailors come to haul fallen comrades back inside -- and probably to the nearest drinks table, for recuperative tonics -- the Lieutenant starts to sputter out protestations.
  542. > "But... At least we should, uh, an arrest, er, we can't just-"
  543. > You ignore him and step up to the batpony leader.
  544. "Now answer another thing for me, 'Sergeant'. Why are Swarming Meteors on duty tonight? The Reverend Mother Superior said you were all on suspension, after what Marcos pulled."
  545. > The blathering Lieutenant's jaw drops open wide, but the Meteor sergeant just lifts the other eyebrow.
  546. > He looks you and Artemis over.
  547. > "Jou... Jou arrre two of the ones he attack-ed. The Caporal Bound, and the Specialisto Sparkshower. La tierra y la pegaso..."
  548. > Tilting his head back, he starts to nod.
  549. > "... Now jour actions makes the sense. Jou know how we fight, so jou interbeened to stop us from killing, jes?"
  550. > When the gears finally tick into place, he steps forward right towards you, coming muzzle-to-muzzle.
  551. > The batpony Star-phase act of respect, opening himself up to a possible head-butt if you are offended.
  552. > "... We Meteors have indeed been shamed by the actions of our Sixth, and rrremoved from the duties rrregular. But, this Gala, she ees exceptional. Therre would not be enough Stars to monitor the skies without us. So, a few grroups such as mine habe been allow-ed."
  553. > That explains it, you suppose.
  554. > If the Royal Guard was on heightened alert for some unspecified threat to the Gala, then it made sense they'd have redoubled the Night Guard patrols as well.
  555. > Even if the biggest threat *to* the Gala was quite possibly the Night Guard itself.
  556. > Softening his expression, the sergeant glances up at your brow.
  557. > "... Eef jour eentention was to aboid the bloodshed, Caporal Bound, ay must tell jou, unfortunately, that you have fail-ed."
  558. > Withdrawing from the tête-a-tête, you lift a hoof to your forehead.
  559. > Sure enough, there's a splotch of blood on it when you lower it back down.
  560. > You probably didn't *actually* crack open your skull against that bull of a sailor, though you clearly broke skin.
  561. > Artemis stares up at your injury.
  562. > "It's just a small patch, Honour. You should get it looked at, but I don't think it's bleeding quickly, if it's even still open at all."
  563. > Well, at least the blood'll go with your red dress.
  564. > The batpony Sergeant nods at you.
  565. > "Jou fight with the great conbiction. Ay see now how Marcos was defeated so easily. Ay am a Fifth of Meteors, Luis Reynauldo. Jou should know, por cierto, that for his crrimes our Sixth has accepted the libertad condicional, the probation, in the serbice of las Lunares. This is an arrangement most unusual; normally, we would habe taken him and meted out the justice ourselbes within our temple, as we did with his conspirradores, but he rrefused."
  566. > Interesting, but you don't really see the relevance.
  567.  
  568. "So?"
  569. > Luis shrugs.
  570. > "Ay tell jou this simply as a courrtesy. Jou habe earned my rrespect; jou should know that the one who sought jour death is free, and no longer underr the control of our temple. For now, eet ees as eef he had join-ed the Lunars."
  571. > Then he smiles.
  572. > "... Eef jour group will again enterr the rookery for trraining in the Grand Hall, have a message sent to me. Eet would be worth being awoken een the middle of the day to watch you again, and ay will bring others. Besides, we owe jou at least this courtesy as well."
  573. > You do remember how every other batpony Star exited the training chamber after your group showed up.
  574. > Purity had said that was down to antipathy against her, more than against Equestrians like you, Artemis, or Lily.
  575. > It seems like you're making some positive waves.
  576. > Maybe Luna's mission to the Royal Engineer wasn't so crazy after all.
  577. "It's not up to me, but sure."
  578. > Luis Reynauldo, Fifth of Meteors, gives you a quick bow, then, replacing his black hood over his head, turns to his commanding officer.
  579. > "Excellenté! May we have now the permiso to rresume our patrrol, teniente?"
  580. > The flabbergasted Lieutenant takes a few moments to pull himself together.
  581. > "Uh... Er... Right, sergeant, move out! Sheathe weapons and resume DRAGCAP at one hundred hooves."
  582. > Acting in utter silence, the five batponies take to the air, as the armoured pegasus officer clatters up after them.
  583. > For a moment, you watch them go, then you turn to Sparkshower, who looks at you worryingly.
  584. > "Are you sure you're all right, Honour? You took some awful-looking hits to your head."
  585. > You smile.
  586. "Artemis, honey, for the first time in a while, I think I actually feel *good*..."
  587. > It was true.
  588. > Maybe it was just a rebound from your breakdown, but you really did feel a lot better after bashing that colt's head in.
  589. > Grinning broadly, you sidle up beside her and are about to hook a foreleg over her back, when you remember that you've probably got *blood* on those too.
  590. > So you just nod at her instead.
  591. "... Now come on, let's get to the little fillies' room so I can clean up."
  592.  
  593.  
  594.  
  595.  
  596. > You are Lily Glamerspear, and you can't catch a break tonight.
  597. > No sooner had your group arrived at the Gala than you were accosted by Honour's hilariously overenthusiastic father.
  598. > And no sooner had he left than you'd all had to flee outside, skipping Their Majesties' receiving line, to avoid a repeat.
  599. > Then Honour had split off, and that was the first departure from your Gala squad.
  600. > Later, just when things were getting spicy from ribbing your Very Important Pony (who wasn't actually a pony) about his tastes in actual female ponies, Eb's mother had shown up to spoil the festive mood.
  601. > The next departure came when Artemis and Anonymous peeled off as a two-pone fireteam to prepare for the Lipizzaner dance.
  602. > That had actually been a good enough show, you supposed, and you had to admit some mischievously smug satisfaction at your little eavesdropping job afterwards.
  603. > But when your crew was finally gathered back together, and when got your hooves on some grub, and when you were really actually starting to enjoy yourself and settle in to party-mode, Purity had pointed out that Artemis and Honour seemed to have disappeared from the buffet line.
  604. > Your cheeks bulging with a mouthful of delicious 'Foin Cordon Bleu', you'd looked around up, incredulous.
  605. > But as far as either you or the Royal Engineer could spot, she was right -- they were gone.
  606. > With Leeward Bound and Carmen Ebonshield both roving around the Gala -- along with who knows else -- their disappearance was concerning.
  607. > Enough so for the Sergeant to suggest that you go looking for them, and everyone had agreed.
  608. > A plan was quickly devised for you and her to search the area, while Anonymous stayed back at the table to hold your seats and to await them in case they returned on the own.
  609. > You'd felt a bit gung-ho, eager to save your comrades from certain peril.
  610. > Some of that was definitely the rum punch talking.
  611. > Having scoured the buffet line as well as the immediate dining room but come up empty-hooved -- and Artemis was *not* a small pony, plus Purity could recon from height -- you were starting to wish you hadn't gotten up from your dinner table at all.
  612. > Yeah, maybe your missing two comrades were in 'certain peril' and you'd be able to ride in, their fellow quaternion members, to turn the tables on whoever had waylaid them.
  613. > Or, y'know, maybe they'd just gone to hit up the little fillies' room.
  614. > Purity apparently has the same thought, landing next to you after finishing a quick flap-through of the dining hall annex.
  615. > "I wonder if perhaps they have gone to the lavatory? I could check."
  616. > You nod.
  617. "Sure, I mean, I dunno where else they would've gone. There's guards at the doors, it's not like they got clubbed over the head and abducted in sacks..."
  618.  
  619. > The scenario plays out in your head, and you furrow your brow.
  620. "... Plus, I don't think either of 'em would even go down in one hit. So if there really was a scuffle, there'd have been a real commotion."
  621. > She shrugs.
  622. > "I agree, of course. Although, I note that the Lunars have many means subtle available to them. Still, I hope that no calamity has befallen our comrades."
  623. > You point a hoof in the direction of the nearest servant, a bus-colt with a white apron hastily clearing a dining table to make it ready for the next set of guests who might want to sit down.
  624. "Yeah. I got no idea where the restrooms are around here, so you'd better ask somepony like him. For myself, I'll trot around one more time for good measure and see you back at the table. Hopefully one of us finds 'em, or we'll find them waiting for us there with Anon."
  625. > With a reassuring smile, but her eyes curiously already focused on her destination, the batpony trots off towards the bus-colt.
  626. > The very young, fairly handsome bus-colt.
  627. > And is Eb deliberately swaying her hips by putting one hoof directly in front of the other?
  628. > Hoo, foal.
  629. > Hopefully she remembers to actually ask where the washrooms are, instead of just hitting on the young palace servant.
  630. > You leave your middle-aged colt-slaying cradle-robbing libertine master-of-assassins quaternion-mate to do her thing and turn back towards the buffet and main dining *hall*.
  631. > They *had* to be in here somewhere.
  632. > Squinting, you scan the crowds.
  633. > Even though you were wearing an exquisite Louis Valise dress, part of you wished you had your highly unfashionable, but very useful, Martingale-Locksteed Mark III Air Defence Assisted Targeting helmet on.
  634. > With the ceiling of this room being two floors tall, and with upper-storey viewing balconies all around, the Mk. 3 ADAT's zoom lens would really come in handy in a situation like this.
  635. > Even if it didn't go at all with your LV dress, or your hoofbag, or your mane-do, or your horseshoes.
  636. > Eh, that last one, actually...
  637. > You suppose some actual military equipment might go well with 'Gladiator' style sandals, in a 'Playfoal' sort of way.
  638. > Ancient soldiers wore something like these, didn't they?
  639. > As you're absent-mindedly looking around, a group of swarthy-looking nautical stallions comes swaggering by.
  640. > More than a few of them spare a glance and approving smile in your direction, and you can't help but smirk and wink back.
  641. "Hello, sailors."
  642. > It comes out barely as a whisper, but buck, mare what are you doing?!
  643. > After everything that went wrong with Mailedhoof, rolling in the hay with some merchant mariner is definitely not what you needed right now.
  644. > Although...
  645. > One of the few unicorn colts in the pack swishes his tail in your direction, before tossing back his mane.
  646. > Mmf.
  647.  
  648. > You can see from the trace of blue light from his horn that he's helping to telekinetically carry a passed-out comrade amongst his own.
  649. > A case of too much rum, probably.
  650. > Unlike a ship's grog ration, the liquor dispensaries of Their Majesties' Palace of Canterlot did *not* water down the drinks.
  651. > But that stallion helping cart off the drunk though...
  652. > Mmmm-mmm, yeah.
  653. > You could definitely watch that well-groomed tail go flappity-flap while the firm hindquarters it's attached to are going slappity-sl--
  654. > "Good evening, Specialist Glamerspear."
  655. > Buck!
  656. > Caught 'mirin, you go stiff as a board when you hear Montgomery Mailedhoof's baritone voice speaking almost straight into your ear.
  657. > Ponies you did *not* expect to run into during the Gala included Honour's dad, Carmen Ebonshield -- well, any batpony other than Purity, really -- and one Royal Guard Captain Montgomery Mailedhoof.
  658. > Wasn't his family supposed to be here with him?
  659. > As public as he'd been with you in his professional entourage, there's no way he'd cross the line of rubbing his wife's muzzle in his infidelity.
  660. > You quickly glance around nervously, only to find he's all alone, in a well-fitted three-piece black frock coat with matching pants, a grey vest, and a rakishly-tied cravat.
  661. > Despite him being solo, you figure you'd better start by playing innocent -- and by pretending that you were still his saltine, despite your impending termination of this soured-beyond-repair relationship.
  662. "Good evening, Captain Mailedhoof..."
  663. > Turning your head, you find he really is uncomfortably close in beside you.
  664. > It's a position momentarily excusable given the crowd, but anypony watching the two of you will start to get suspicious.
  665. > You don't know whether you should reposition to avoid that suspicion, so you just roll with his lead for now.
  666. "... How are you enjoying this year's Gala?"
  667. > He inhales deeply through his nostrils, his muzzle slowly browsing down the back of your neck, taking in your scent.
  668. > That sends a chill down your spine.
  669. > But you can't brush him off here and now -- well, not completely, anyways.
  670. > Mailedhoof is the reason you're in this getup, after all.
  671. > "It has its ups and downs. Some of the crowd is certainly more pleasing to the eye than usual..."
  672. > That'd be you.
  673. > "... But others are as unwelcome as they are unsightly."
  674. > Uh...
  675. > He can't be talking about his family, could he?
  676. > Even through your brief but intense salt-lick/saltine relationship, he'd never actually *trash*-talked his wife.
  677. > You'd always thought of somepony who simply wanted more -- or more likely, who believed that they *deserved* more.
  678. > More than just monogamy, to be specific.
  679. > So who's he talking about?
  680. > All the sailors strutting about like they owned the place?
  681. > You could imagine they might get rowdy, and the way Honour's dad trotted off to settle an argument all but confirmed it.
  682. > But that didn't seem like enough to hate on them.
  683.  
  684. > What, did Mailedhoof lose big on last year's Army-Navy hoofball game or something?
  685. > Before you can further ponder that question, Mailedhoof answers it with one of his own.
  686. > "... Who was that red-dressed *bat*-pony with the black hat that I saw you with just now?"
  687. > The way he seems to almost *spit* out the word 'bat' makes it now crystal clear the kind of creature he considers 'unwelcome' and 'unsightly'.
  688. > And Eb wasn't the only one of her kind at the Gala tonight...
  689. > Heck, she wasn't even the only *Eb* at the Gala tonight.
  690. > You don't really know how to answer Mailedhoof; did Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell apply here?
  691. > Even if it, did it matter?
  692. > And why the buck does he care who she is?
  693. > Especially if he's not a fan of batponies?
  694. > Whatever.
  695. > You don't really want to belabour the point with a colt that you're done with, so you just recite the perfunctory truth.
  696. "She's part of my quaternion. One of the Royal Engineer's bodyguards, posted by Her Majesty Princess Luna; he got us all tickets to attend."
  697. > Captain Mailedhoof snorts.
  698. > "Ah yes, our dear Princess of the Night and her loyal minions. Has she been on your assignment for long?"
  699. "No, only two and a half weeks."
  700. > He doesn't need to be reminded that the whole tour of duty has only been a few days longer than that, or that Luna apparently wanted Purity in from the start.
  701. > "Terrible. I'm surprised she's lasted. Didn't you complain to your commanding officer?"
  702. > Yeah, you probably *shouldn't* tell him that by this point you've been through thick and thin with Purity Ebonshield and treat her as you would any other Royal Guardspony.
  703. > Lucky for you, there's a truthful way out again.
  704. "Corporal Bound raised an objection, but it got nowhere."
  705. > "Mmm. Orders are orders..."
  706. > To your surprise, Mailedhoof steps forward, coming out in front of you, almost muzzle-to-muzzle.
  707. > He looks you up and down -- and your blood starts to boil when his gaze lingers on your Silver Ram.
  708. > You haven't forgotten what he did, and how he forced you into it.
  709. > You haven't forgiven him, either.
  710. > What a shame that the Gala was no place for a murder, or even a good solid beating.
  711. > Even though he'd managed to overpower you with his telekinesis in your bedroom, if you could get in a first strike when he didn't expect it, maybe you could still take him down by yourself...
  712. > As if to shut down the very idea, the Captain shakes his head with a stern expression on his face.
  713. > "... Well, my dear, I'm afraid you've been seen by my friends in the company of one of those *creatures*, and there's been questions asked. It's very awkward. I'm sorry you haven't got a choice in the matter; I assure you, neither do I. Of course, I'm very pleased you're here to admire at the Gala, but I simply can't take the risk of associating with their kind through you, so I'm here to tell you that we're through. I don't expect I'll see you again. Good-bye."
  714. > With that, he gives a curt nod and strides off past you the way he came.
  715.  
  716. > What...
  717. > What the buck?!?
  718. > WHAT THE BUCK?!?
  719. > DID *MAILEDHOOF* JUST DUMP *YOU* BEFORE *YOU* COULD DUMP **HIM**?!?
  720. > THAT BASTARD!!
  721. > and...
  722. > and all because of EBONSHIELD?!?!?!?!
  723. > *WHAT* kind of snobbish, inbred, blue-blooded, hawksville-jawed, bucking Sol-Invictus-worshipping, unicorn-supremacist, plothole *racist* would-
  724. > Then you catch yourself, and remember how you first thought of the 'Sergeant'.
  725. > Not badly enough to up and quit or start anything right then and there, but certainly enough to hold her in the highest suspicion.
  726. > Sure, you'd been manaburning at the time, but you couldn't blame that for the entirety of your prejudice.
  727. > After all, you didn't come up with the stories of batponies all being a bunch of fang-toothed, blood-sucking, soul-stealing, foal-napping, nocturnal villains.
  728. > Nor had anything or anypony forced you to keep them in the back of your mind to pull out in case you saw one of the 'beasts'.
  729. > Still, to dump *you* as a saltine because you happened to *work* with a batpony?
  730. > That was beyond the pale.
  731. > Hmm.
  732. > Then again, maybe his friends had had friends in the Watchtower; ponies who had lost their lives during the secret invasion that nopony was supposed to talk about.
  733. > But even Major-General Hoofstrong hadn't been against working with a batpony, and she had been in *command* of the fortress during that assault.
  734. > No, this must be plain old regular garden-variety Canterlot unicorn snobbery.
  735. > His horned peers had seen his squeeze with a batpony, and it's as good as if you'd been caught literally rolling in the mud like a pig.
  736. > Worse, actually -- they'd at least have gotten a laugh out of seeing you in the dirt.
  737. > As a pretty young mare who knew how to dress, and especially with your tale of defeating upstart non-noble Kilfeather, you'd been his asset in social circle.
  738. > Now, with your association to Purity Ebonshield and the rest of her Moon-born race, you were a liability.
  739. > So, just like that, he'd dropped you like a hot potato, without even a kiss good-bye.
  740. > You bet Mailedhoof doesn't even really hate batponies, because you can't imagine Mailedhoof actually giving a buck about anypony who isn't a noble-born unicorn like himself.
  741. > Well...
  742. > In terms of you wanting to break up with the Captain, you supposed this neatly did accomplish that.
  743. > You'd just... pictured *yourself* on top for the encounter.
  744. > There was a dream that he'd be disappointed, maybe even apologetic.
  745. > "No, please don't go, Lily! I can't go on living without your brilliant conversation, roguish grin, and impeccable bearing! Who else can I take to the Officers' Lounge to show off on my foreleg? And who else can I find who will possibly look that good in a Louis Valise original?"
  746. > Mmm, that wasn't quite right.
  747.  
  748. > "No, please don't go, Lily! I can't go on living without your firm plot, tight snatch, and dexterous tongue! Who else can I take to the Officers' Lounge to show off on my foreleg? And how else will I have my balls drained when they become ever so full and laden?"
  749. > Yeah, that's more likely.
  750. > Ehh....
  751. > Given that he was an arrogant, self-centred ass who could probably get just about any guardsmare he wanted, either way your dream was pretty unrealistic.
  752. > Maybe it's better that you avoid putting yourself in the position of trying to end a relationship with somepony who had a lot more clout than you.
  753. > It could've turned into an ugly fight.
  754. > But at least with a fight, even if you'd lost, there would have been some bucking VIOLENCE involved!
  755. > Some Celestia-damned physical catharsis!
  756. > As it was, this was all unbelievably unsatisfying.
  757. > You feel like you just got blue-beaned without even the satisfaction of a titillating build-up.
  758. > Which kinda describes your last couple of encounters with Captain Mailedhoof, now that you think about it.
  759. > Shaking your head, you try to clear what's just happened out of your head.
  760. > Gotta focus on what's important: finding Honour and Artemis.
  761. > If you keep daydreaming about sailors or dominating ex-coltfriends, next thing you know you'll have somepony else sneaking up on you, like Leeward, or Carmen.
  762. > Swivelling your head around to quickly re-establish your bearings, you're pleasantly surprised to see three familiar ponies walking towards you.
  763. > Well, *two* familiar ponies: Artemis and Purity.
  764. > You mostly recognize the third as one Corporal Honour Bound, but what in Equestria has Honour done with her mane?
  765. > And is she actually *smiling*?
  766. > Eb calls out to you as they arrive.
  767. > "Ah, Lily, come and see, I have found our camaradas after all!"
  768. > You nod, still scrutinizing the Corporal's mane-do -- and you note she has a new tail-do to match, as well.
  769. > She's unbraided both of them and appears to have had both hot-blown, too.
  770. > Wavy and flowing, showy and glowing, her new hair now lives up to her racy outfit.
  771. "Yeah, no kidding. Changed your mind about the braids after all, Honour?"
  772. > That quip doesn't even get you the faintest hint of a scowl, but your energetic pegasus comrade jumps in and answers before the earth pony can reply.
  773. > "We had to pull the braids out, unfortunately. She needed a quick wash after getting into a fight outside -- there was blood stuck in her mane and on her coat."
  774. > You lift an eyebrow.
  775. "No kidding, got into a scrap at the Gala? And didn't even think to invite the rest of us -- or at least *me*?"
  776. > In another surprise for you, the brown mare whinnies with amusement.
  777. > "Heh, I didn't invite you because I was trying to put a *stop* to some violence, not escalate it..."
  778.  
  779. > She nods her head back towards a set of doors.
  780. > "... A bunch of sailors were about to have a scuffle outside when the Night Guard intervened, and the crews turned on them instead. Knowing what we do about batpony fighting, I figured it'd have turned into a bloodbath if we let them come to blows. So, Artemis and I inserted ourselves as targets instead. I knocked out the ringleader, while she took out his would-be backup..."
  781. > Then she chuckles.
  782. > "... I got some blood on me, like Artemis said, so we headed to the washroom to clean up. It's insane in there. Never mind a quiet servant at the door dispensing perfume and marely essentials like a fashionable club has; in the Gala's little fillies' room they have full-on blow-dry operators and stylists ready to administer a quick wash-n-trim."
  783. > Artemis's eyes bulge out a bit.
  784. > "I couldn't believe how busy it was! Dozens of mares, just sitting in a washroom, talking and working on their manes and tails! Why, when there's a whole party out here to enjoy??"
  785. > You grin.
  786. "Eh, if the lavatory's an event of its own, why not? And I guess it makes sense. It's a long night, ponies travel from far and wide, and even if guards like Honour's Sergeant Castlerook are posted to cut down on the unauthorized explorations, guests do get up to things and need a way to get back in order. If the place is bumping now, I wouldn't be surprised if it gets even busier once the dance floor opens up."
  787. > Honour smirks.
  788. > "I could believe that...
  789. > Then she glances up at Sparkshower and then Ebonshield in turn.
  790. > "... Anyways, I'm all done cracking hooves and heads now, could we get back to the dinner table?"
  791. > Don't have to ask you twice.
  792. "Yeah, sure thing."
  793. > But who is this well-groomed, zesty Changeling infiltrator and how have they managed to replace your frumpy-frowny Corporal without anypony noticing the difference so far?
  794. > And would they mind sticking around for a while -- at least the rest of the evening?
  795. > Ah, but all of a sudden there's the familiar glower back on her face.
  796. > "Wait, where's Anonymous?"
  797. > You jerk a forehoof over your shoulder towards the main dining room.
  798. "Holding down the fort at our table with our now-cold dinner plates, why?"
  799. > Honour's look of concern turns to despair.
  800. > "You left him all alone? After he talked about not wanting to be abandoned at the Gala?"
  801. > Artemis gasps, slapping both forehooves against her muzzle.
  802. > "Oh, no! That's right!"
  803. > Snorting dismissively, you turn to head back.
  804. "Ah, come on, he was only joking. Besides, we've only been gone a few minutes; just long enough to look around a bit to find you two, and heading back to him whether we found you or not."
  805. > Apparently that isn't good enough, and Honour actually pushes by you, taking the lead.
  806. > Unsurprisingly, second place is quickly occupied by Sparkshower, who flaps overhead to trail right behind the Corporal.
  807.  
  808. > You and Purity might as well follow at the faster pace the two of them are now setting.
  809. > Not like you expect there's anything to be concerned about.
  810. > How hard could it be to sit at a round table and keep four other seats empty for a quarter of an hour?
  811. > As you finally make it around a large crowd that was blocking the view of your seats, you're thoroughly unsurprised to see the Royal Engineer still sitting down in the same chair he was when you left him.
  812. "See, he's fine. No problem being left alone."
  813. > It's Artemis who answers, landing in front of you.
  814. > "He's not alone."
  815. > Her tone's a bit cold.
  816. > Ah, there's a *mare* speaking to him -- sitting on her haunches behind one of the chairs, rather than on it.
  817. > A purple unicorn in a bustled blue dress, from what you can see.
  818. > The pegasus emits a quiet grumble which grows in volume when she sees Anonymous tilt his head back in laughter.
  819. > But it disappears once he notices your approach and gets to his feet with a smile.
  820. > "Ah, here's my companions now, actually."
  821. > The unidentified unicorn rises up on her hooves, and that's when you notice she's actually no mere unicorn -- she has feathered wings at her sides, too.
  822. > While you're processing the presence of this alicorn from out of nowhere, the Royal Engineer looks your group over.
  823. > "... I hope everything's all right?"
  824. > Honour steps up towards the table.
  825. > "All fine; I just had to freshen up."
  826. > Anonymous turns down towards the purple pony -- who must be some kind of *royalty*, you realize, for her to be walking around with horns and wings at the same time.
  827. > "Oh, good. I was just telling Princess Twilight Sparkle that we've gotten into so a number of unbelievable adventures together already, I was concerned another one was about to begin. But I guess since you're all back safe and sound we can put our next perilous undertaking off for another day."
  828. > Geez, a Princess; guess you ought to bow?
  829. > She's regular-size, though, not big and tall like Their Majesties.
  830. > Well, at least a curtsy would be polite -- any noble would appreciate that.
  831. > But before you can even begin, Princess whatshername telekinetically pulls out a scroll from a case on the belt around her dress.
  832. > With a quill retrieved from the same location, she quickly scribbles something on the paper, then tucks her pen away.
  833. > "I'm happy to hear it! Well, as I said, I saw an unfamiliar creature looking a little lonely at this table here, and thought -- we can't have any loneliness at the Grand Galloping Gala, it wouldn't be right! But I've got a long list of things I need to do if I'm going to officially take over planning and running next year's Gala, and I've got to get back to it. I'm sure we'll speak again, Lord Anonymous."
  834. > Anonymous bows as she withdraws.
  835. > "By all means, your Highness; anytime you are in Canterlot Palace, please drop by my office."
  836.  
  837. > The four of you give proper signs of respect to the cheerfully busy purple alicorn before taking your seats at the table once more.
  838. > The food's a little colder now, but you don't doubt it'll still be good.
  839. > Anyways you can always get up and grab some more -- the buffet line's looking a little less busy now.
  840. > Anonymous looks happy, and so does Purity.
  841. > But Honour and Artemis both seem concerned.
  842. > The pegasus' attitude, you understood -- after all, the Princess was *unescorted*, as far as you could tell.
  843. > But had Honour lapsed back into dourness?
  844. > And what was Anonymous' take on the whole thing?
  845. > Let's shake this tree of mystery a little and see what fruit falls down.
  846. "So, we leave you alone for a few minutes, and you're already chatting up a Princess, huh? Guess maybe Lieutenant Kilfeather was right about the Gala being hookup central after all."
  847. > He just laughs off your comment.
  848. > "Oh, that was nothing; we barely said two words to each other before you all got back..."
  849. > Then you can't help but notice his gaze drift towards the Corporal.
  850. > "... Decided on a different hairstyle for the rest of the evening, Honour?"
  851. > Suddenly in the spotlight, she turns her head down towards her plate, picking up her fork with a forehoof.
  852. > "Uhh... Yes."
  853. > Reminded of the meal before him -- and before each of you -- the Royal Engineer picks up his own cutlery in response, as does everypony else at the table, but he's still looking Honour over.
  854. > "It looks good on you. I think it gives you a more... convivial appearance."
  855. > Honour almost chokes on the food she's just shoved into her mouth.
  856. > Can't take a compliment, huh?
  857. > That's back to standard.
  858. > Artemis speaks up, deflecting attention back towards herself.
  859. > "That's right! And there's just something about your usual mane-style which always seems strange to me... When I was younger, the first time I saw a mare in braids was on a class trip to the old Prench fort of Trois-Rivières. One of the historical reenactors playing the medical nurse had a braid and would just constantly tug at it. I think she was a bit nervous about her performance..."
  860. > Scooping up a heaping mouthful of 'Quiche Lothringen', she concludes.
  861. > "... I never saw you do that, Honour, but I always wondered why you wore your mane in braids, when it looks so much better this way."
  862. > The Corporal sighs.
  863. > "It's just easier to manage when it's done up. Although, to tell the full story..."
  864. > She looks around the table.
  865. > "... I used to wear my mane and tail like this all the time. Right up until my divorce."
  866. > Artemis gasps.
  867. > "Oh, no. I'm sorry, Honour! You should have said something, we could have taken the time to weave it up again."
  868. > But the earth pony just smiles as she shakes her head, wavy mane following along.
  869. > "No, no. It's all right like this for now. Like I said, I feel a lot better."
  870.  
  871. > Anonymous reaches for a bottle of champagne that's been set in the middle of the table.
  872. > Well, hello, that's a tasty new addition since you got up to look for the wayward pair.
  873. > "Shall we toast your good feelings and new style, then? A sommelier came by with this while you were all off, I asked him to leave it corked until you got back."
  874. > Deftly unscrewing the retainer, he places the bottle in his lap and pushes the cork off with his fingers.
  875. > *POP*
  876. > Yeah, burst that cork, colt.
  877. > Wisps of vapour emerge from the mouth of the bottle for a moment, before he starts to dole out the bubbly.
  878. > Honour takes her filled flute but looks embarrassed.
  879. > "Not my hair, please. We ought to salute something greater than that."
  880. > The Royal Engineer grins.
  881. > "All right. I'll keep it simple, though. Here's to a wonderful evening!"
  882. "I'll drink to that!"
  883. > "So will I!"
  884. > "Me too!"
  885. > "¡And I also!"
  886. > As everypony else lifts their glass in agreement, before tipping back and drinking a sip of *brut*, you can't help but wonder what's going to happen next.
  887. > There was still the Games, the Royal Engineer's 'foundry' project, your sessions with the batpony Eclipse...
  888. > And then there was tonight.
  889. > Now that you were *officially* single, you had no intention of leaving this Gala without seriously playing the field.
  890. > And from what you had seen, this was just as target-rich an environment as everyone had always said it was.
  891. > Glancing over at Purity and Artemis, tonight's other two players on the 'mares' team, you wonder how well they'll do.
  892. > Then you slyly look over at Anonymous.
  893. > Would he pick up on Artemis' attempts at a pass?
  894. > Or would he instead go long, and see that purple Princess again?
  895. > Or maybe there was something else in his cards?
  896. > Anything other than the first would hurt Artemis, sure, but then, you were just as sure you could find her a colt as well, if she struggled to find another on her own.
  897. > Anyways, single and looking at the Grand Galloping Gala, in a Louis Valise dress?
  898. > Yeah, this is going to be the best night ever.
  899. > Lowering your drink, you find yourself grinning from ear to ear as you lean back in your seat.
  900.  
  901. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajmI1P3r1w4 (Terror Squad - 'Lean Back', featuring Fat Joe and Remy Ma [2004])
  902.  
  903.  
  904.  
  905.  
  906. > You are Sergeant Blacks- err, no, wait a moment.
  907. > That was the disguise you wore for the presentation of the 'Whirlwind'.
  908. > Yes, you are Purity Ebonshield, and all this drink is clearly starting to go to your head.
  909. > The food helps, but even so, you are feeling quite 'happy'.
  910. > And you are greatly to imbibe further, for at this Grand Galloping Gala of Equestria there is absolutely no shortage of alcohol.
  911. > Still, you should restrain yourself.
  912. > After all, if you go too far, then you will have difficulty enjoying the dancing later.
  913. > Besides, there is no need to drink for mere entertainment, as there is enough of that on offer already.
  914. > A great deal of it, in fact.
  915. > Start with the larger show, more distant.
  916. > The ballroom has opened once again, and from your table you can admire the traditional and formal dances being conducted within.
  917. > An orchestra of over twenty musicians sits on a raked platform at the far end, performing for a crowd consisting mostly of middle-aged and older ponies in elegant suits and rich, ornate ball-gowns.
  918. > There are a few junior members in the crowd as well; débutantes and other scions of the nobility, according to Lily.
  919. > Whatever their age, the dancers flow around the room with grace, though the music is, in your opinion, rather stilted -- almost as if they are dancing to an Equestrian military march with a very rigid beat.
  920. > The harmony of the orchestra is very pleasing, of course, but they're not playing the style of dance music you're used to, nor like what you've heard at Canterlot nightclubs, which was more familiar and enjoyable.
  921. > You're looking forward to dancing to that sort of beat later in the night.
  922. > Regardless, the majestic sight of so much coordinated movement is still certainly something to behold, even if it is somewhat removed from your table, and a little obstructed by the heads and hats of interposed ponies.
  923. > And those are the next most proximate source of amusement.
  924. > For as guests finish their meals, they begin to move from table to table, greeting each other, respectively admiring the latest fashions, and generally catching up.
  925. > With all the furniture, it's not quite as social an environment as the grand staircase entryway and hall, but there are still many faces and outfits to be seen for a perceptive voyeur such as yourself.
  926. > Perhaps nothing quite so exotic as your genuinely otherworldly outfit, but still, you did not stand out quite nearly so much as you expected when surrounded by so many other styles, all adorned with glittering jewellery, tall decorative feathers, fur shawls, bold capes, and more.
  927. > You attracted attention, to be sure, and that too was amusing.
  928.  
  929. > There were several very promising candidates for dance partners later, when the music was more to your taste and your belly was not quite so full.
  930. > And, with a certain subtlety, you have made sure to let each of those handsome colts know that they will be welcome with you on the dance floor at that time.
  931. > Not all of them were brave enough to come by and introduce themselves, but that's quite all right with you.
  932. > You'll remember their faces for later, and you're perfectly capable of seeking them out yourself if you run out of, or grow bored with, the more aggressive suitors.
  933. > Ah, the beautiful game of romance hoof-loose and fancy-free.
  934. > How hard would it really be to find a little bit of privacy later in the evening?
  935. > Honour told all how the Royal Guard is corralling the guests in the main public areas in an effort to curb such dalliances, but there are always unguarded avenues, and the Stellar Dancers are, after all, masters of infiltration.
  936. > A shortcut through a kitchen or closet, an unlocked second-floor window or skylight, or even an out-of-the-way lavatory...
  937. > In the worst case, you can simply go back to your own room in the upstairs in the West wing, though it was quite a distance to travel just for a quick little 'encounter'.
  938. > And besides, you ought to reserve your own chambers for the final catch of the night.
  939. > With so many attendees visiting from far away, you doubt you'll find anyone to outright replace your young student, Gilbert Lionheart, but he was often busy with his studies at the Schola Magia, and it would be pleasing to have a 'backup colt'.
  940. > Which brings your attention to the closest source of entertainment.
  941. > The poor, lovestruck pegasus Artemis Sparkshower.
  942. > It's really a bit villainous of you to enjoy this, but you can't help yourself.
  943. > She squirms in her seat, sighing and looking wishfully at the formal ballroom dancers.
  944. > Every once in a while she glances back at the Royal Engineer, your Very Important Pony (who isn't actually a pony).
  945. > He's enjoying the show, too, but it's clear he knows as little as you do about the steps for these formal dances.
  946. > And while he was perfectly happy to practice for and then perform one of them earlier, he's certainly not about to get up and make a fool of himself by struggling to learn brand new moves in front of hundreds of Equestria's gentry.
  947. > Even worse, unlike the 'Lipizzaner Waltz' he performed earlier, almost all of these dances you're watching now are done down on all fours.
  948. > Anonymous wouldn't even have the benefit of trying to copy other colts; he'd have to come up with his own manoeuvres all himself.
  949. > As a result, getting up and dancing with Sparkshower was completely out of the question, and understandably so.
  950. > Hence the frustrated squirming by your poor unfortunate pegasus comrade, who from the way her head bobbed at every beat and followed every bob and weave of the dancers, clearly did know the steps.
  951.  
  952. > She wanted to get up and dance, and who could blame her?
  953. > The grandest social event of the year, a by-invitation-only exclusive ordinarily reserved for Equestria's gentry?
  954. > Artemis was unquestionably a beautiful young mare, and in her adorable tea-length dress, you had no doubt that if she were to get up and dance then she would not merely meet the standards of the floor but, if accompanied by a suitable colt, actually raise them.
  955. > As amusing as it is to taste her silly self-imposed vexation, you can't sit idly by and watch it go on any longer.
  956. > After all, what kind of a friend are you to let this suffering go on?
  957. "Artemis, dear, why don't you get up and join the dancing?"
  958. > You point a forehoof at a gaggle of tuxedoed colts huddled around the bar closest to the dance floor.
  959. > It's like a Canterlot cab stand of dance partners; a shop window with everything on display.
  960. "... Look at all those fine young stallions eagerly looking for the next elegant mare who will allow them the privilege of leading her out onto the floor."
  961. > From the way she writhes in her seat you can tell she's been thinking about this already.
  962. > But in her mind she probably believes such a thing would be a 'betrayal' of her current beau, even if they're not formally attached.
  963. > Or even informally attached, for that matter.
  964. > You decide to go straight to the root of the problem, and turn to face the object of her desire.
  965. "... Our little table ought to be represented in these formal dances, don't you think so, Great Lord?"
  966. > Anonymous smiles at you, then Artemis in turn.
  967. > "Of course! I wish I could join you again, but I'm afraid I'd make a terrible fool of myself. The music strangely familiar, but all I'd be able to do is repeat our dance steps from the Waltz, and that's clearly not what they're doing out there..."
  968. > He chuckles.
  969. > "... Don't let my earlier request not to be left alone stop you from enjoying the party. It was partially in jest, anyways. We're all here as private individuals, and I don't want anybody thinking they're on a leash..."
  970. > Then he grins, lifting his eyebrow and looking around.
  971. > "... I *am* definitely looking forward to getting up later, when the modern stuff starts. It's a lot closer to what I'm used to from my world."
  972. > Poor Sparkshower still seems to hesitate, and she turns to her other comrades.
  973. > "Well, if it's all right with you..."
  974. > Glamerspear is the first to reply, blowing out dismissively as she holds her drink up in a teal telekinetic aura.
  975. > "Pfft, of course you should go, marefriend! If you're worried about beating off unwanted suitors, I'd be happy to come with ya."
  976. > Honour shakes her head, her recently-liberated mane flowing behind.
  977. > "You'll be fine. This isn't my kind of dance either, but go up and enjoy yourself, Artemis. We'll keep our eyes on you from here."
  978. > With some trepidation, the pegasus climbs out of her chair and down onto all fours.
  979. > "Okay..."
  980.  
  981. > She takes a deep breath and scans the lingering colts in the distance, as if trying to identify a target, her ears flicking left and right as she does so.
  982. > "... Okay! Right!"
  983. > Having clearly made her choice, Sparkshower bursts into what begins as a marching gait, before relaxing into something formal but properly less rigid, trotting gaily over towards the dance floor.
  984. > All four of you still seated at the table watch as she makes her way around the tables and through, around, or over, the occasional crowded bottleneck, until she stands a few hooves away from that same little herd of colts.
  985. > She has their attention almost immediately, and seems to give them all a final look-over.
  986. > Then she takes another bold step forward and appears to fix her gaze on a single individual.
  987. > He's a dapper young unicorn stallion with a steely-blue coat and a brushed-back orange-yellow mane, broad-shouldered in his suit compared to Artemis with her haunches bare and just as tall as her -- though the horn gives the appearance of him being slightly taller.
  988. > Mmm, tall, dark and handsome; she has a fine taste in gentlecolts.
  989. > You don't know what she says, or how he replies, but immediately after that exchange she gives a petite curtsy and he a quick bow, and moments later he's leading her to the dance floor.
  990. > And just a few steps after that, she's now a part of the fluid, elegant display.
  991. > Honour glances over towards you, speaking softly.
  992. > "Thanks for giving her that kick, Purity. She needed it."
  993. > You just nod and resume your enjoyment of the show.
  994. > It's difficult to keep a constant eye on your comrade as she sails and whirls across the ballroom along with her colt, but you do try, at least for this first piece.
  995. > After all, you're curious to see if she sticks with the same companion for a second go-around...
  996. > When the music slows and the dancers comes to a halt, you're pleasantly surprised to see her still standing with the same colt, waiting expectantly as the orchestra pauses momentarily to flip their music sheets to the next tune.
  997. > Just as the musicians take up their instruments once more, that's when you hear an all-too-familiar voice speak up from behind you.
  998. > "My dear Royal Engineer, how good to see you again! I was so hoping we would run into each other again this evening..."
  999. > Great Mother help you!
  1000. > You are far too drunk to handle your actual mother right now.
  1001. > Putting on your most pleasant smile, you pivot in your seat along with everyone else to once again greet Carmen Ebonshield, Reverend Mother Superior of the Children of the Stars.
  1002. > You don't have to turn far, for after a quick introductory dip, and faster than your VIP can get to his feet, she strides over to Sparkshower's vacated chair.
  1003. > "... Please, please, don't get up on my account. May I join you?"
  1004.  
  1005. > Without waiting for any more answer than the absence of a frown, she immediately seats herself and tucks right in, clasping her forehooves together with a smile before spreading them wide on the tablecloth, as if holding court.
  1006. > Holding court is what she generally does in the Rookery and on the Moon, so why not here, too?
  1007. > Even with the friendly, casual veneer she's presenting at the moment, her imposing presence is enough to make Glamerspear straighten up a bit in her seat.
  1008. > With a faint smile, Carmen looks around the table before settling her gaze on Anonymous.
  1009. > "... Well. It seems I owe a number of debts to you and your entourage, my Lord..."
  1010. > Raising her eyebrows, she shoots a knowing glance at Honour, and then at you, before shaking her head and lifting her eyebrows.
  1011. > "... I must confess, I am beside myself with shock at the events which have transpired this evening. But let it not be said that I am incapable of admitting my own faults or of trying to remedy them, though of course I must first pay penance and seek absolution..."
  1012. > Inhaling deeply, she faces the Corporal, turning her forehooves frog-up and bowing her head in a posture of supplication.
  1013. > "... My child, I am deeply in your debt for your actions on the front lawn. I shudder to think at what tragedy might have resulted if Reynauld's Swarming Meteors had been unleashed upon those unsuspecting Equestrian sailors, and your timely intervention saved not only lives but has also prevented a scandal that might easily have ruined this wonderful evening..."
  1014. > Tilting her muzzle back up, she continues.
  1015. > "... And, if you'll forgive a little brutal honesty -- I'm afraid I must blame it on the free-flowing drink -- such an incident would certainly have been a considerable setback for the Great Mother's goal of reintegrating our peoples."
  1016. > The stoic Corporal doesn't seem to quite know what to say.
  1017. > "Uhm... You're welcome, Your Reverence. It was nothing; I saw the potential for trouble, and I dealt with it."
  1018. > Is that a hint of rosiness in her cheeks?
  1019. > Will this earth pony forever be embarrassed to take a compliment?
  1020. > Carmen titters with amusement at the reply.
  1021. > "Ohh, but you are too modest! You must know that I consulted privately with Lieutenant Orange afterwards, and he expressed his appreciation. The Sixth of Meteors also spoke most admiringly of your prowess. By his account, you completely outplayed your opponent..."
  1022.  
  1023. > Reaching out a forehoof, she gestures at Honour's mane.
  1024. > "... And, lo! You've come out of that brawl looking, if I may be so bold, even more stunning than when the evening began! What a beautiful mane you have; you really must consider wearing it down like this more often. And how well it goes with that lovely red dress! I can't imagine why you're not already surrounded by suitors eager to ask you to the dance-floor. Don't tell me you're so demure as to turn the poor gentlecolts away? I'm sure your coltfriend, that handsome Sergeant, wouldn't mind his mare being exhibited in the ballroom for all to properly appreciate."
  1025. > Your brown comrade's cheeks become a little more red.
  1026. > She has to clear her throat before answering.
  1027. > "It's not really my thing, your Reverence."
  1028. > Carmen nods as if she understood everything implied by that sentence absolutely perfectly -- which, given her considerable information network and expert skills at personal manipulation, might actually be the case.
  1029. > "Well, perhaps I have something more to your liking. Carlos?"
  1030. > At her command, the same young dark-grey moustached colt you saw her with earlier approaches the table with a rectangular wooden box tucked under one foreleg.
  1031. > Sitting down on his haunches, he pulls it out and presents it, removing one of the sides with a forehoof to reveal a large wine-bottle inside, surrounded by straw.
  1032. > Making sure she has the attention of everyone present, Carmen gestures at the offering.
  1033. > "This is a *magnum* of what I consider to be the Moon's finest *cava*, the word we give our sparkling wine; it means 'cellar', since of course the wine must be cellared to become bubbly..."
  1034. > Everyone leans in to take a closer look, yourself included.
  1035. > Is it the vintage you think it is?
  1036. > "... Grand Mountain sparkling wine, aged fifteen years. On the Moon, you know, wines and beers are considered precious because of the amount of water required to produce them, as well as contained within the finished product. Distilled spirits such as 'Maestro Cazador' are the preferred tipple of the lower phases, owing to their reduced water content and therefore price. We Lunars reserve gifts such as 'cava', which requires additional water, time, and labour, for only the most deserving of individuals and occasions. I think you will find this Grand Mountain vintage is more than competitive with the best Prench Champagnes."
  1037. > Yes, that's the good stuff, all right; but was that a direct attack on your prior choice in smuggled liquor?
  1038. > You can't help but riposte.
  1039. "It would seem Your Reverence has come to the Gala bearing more than just pretty mares and handsome colts with which to woo the Equestrian elite."
  1040.  
  1041. > As you expected, she isn't fazed in the slightest by your irritated outburst.
  1042. > "Of course! One mustn't come seeking favours without bringing gifts. But this is for you, as well, Stellar Seven. I owe you a great apology; far greater than I could repay even with all the sweetest wines of the Moon..."
  1043. > What is she talking about, now?
  1044. > With a deep sigh, Carmen raises one forehoof towards you, then drops it defeatedly back down.
  1045. > "... You were right, my daughter. You were right, and I was wrong..."
  1046. > This is a joke, right?
  1047. > You've never heard her admit being wrong before.
  1048. > "... It was a mistake for me to try to subvert the Great Mother's wishes by manipulating her into taking one of my Lunars for the Royal Engineer's bodyguard. I thought I was improving our chances at progressing integration by preventing someone untrained and unprepared for diplomacy from being assigned here on the surface, and yet here we are. There have been troubles, yes, but even so you have done more in these few weeks than I could have imagined happening for months..."
  1049. > She's playing again, acting.
  1050. > This is not sincere; it can't be.
  1051. > "... An Equestrian soldier who rushes to rescue Stars from their own inadequacies. Batponies openly attending the Grand Galloping Gala. Equestrians who come freely of their own will into the Rookery, to converse with our Rocks and our Stars and our Eclipse, to trade and to train, bringing gifts and opportunities..."
  1052. > Carmen indicates the Royal Engineer.
  1053. > "... And the prospect of Rocks coming to the surface to aid in an Equestrian project, as well. All of this, without any command or instruction, let alone scheme or grand plan..."
  1054. > Your mother, her coat almost unrecognizingly bare of the chalky makeup she has worn for your entire life, looks at you ruefully, her speech slowing from her usual rapid patter.
  1055. > "... The Great Mother's blessing is upon you, my child, whether you know it or not. There is no other explanation. I bore the blessing when I correctly predicted Her return and secured my place at the top of the Lunar hierarchy. I thought that would stay with me forever, and in my arrogance I have lost it..."
  1056. > A tear escapes her left eye, and she brushes it away with a forehoof.
  1057. > "... I know I am very demanding, and I have asked a lot of you, Purity. I never approved of your choice to live as a Star. And when you refuse me even the slightest thing, I am sinfully filled with wrath. I have commanded outrageous things be done against you in my vengeance. And yet here you have given the Children more than I could even have conceived of asking for..."
  1058.  
  1059. > Taking a deep breath, she sighs.
  1060. > "... I'm not going to pretend I'm capable of stopping my petty schemes and manipulations; they're simply in my nature. And I'm not going to beg your forgiveness here and now. But I am sorry, my child. I am sorry for what I've done, and I'm stunned and ashamed at what great strides have been made in spite of me, rather than with my help."
  1061. > You cannot deal with this right now; not with your mind so foggy from alcohol.
  1062. > Evaluating the truth of anything Carmen said was difficult enough without also being a little drunk.
  1063. > Then again, she was more than a little drunk herself as well -- though that too, could be faked, and she had a greater tolerance for the stuff than you did.
  1064. > Best to just change the subject to something more immediate.
  1065. "I see. Well. I suppose we can speak of this more later. I take it having delivered your apology and the cava you will now be off to entice some other elder statestallion in the name of the Children?"
  1066. > Carmen whinnies, tossing her head back and actually *slouching* down a little in her chair.
  1067. > "Oh, no, I'm spent for the evening. I'm not the young mare I once was, you know; and anyways, the crowd of 'elder statestallions', as you say, is growing thin. They, like me, are forced by age to retire earlier than you young foals and fillies. And I'm afraid my own talents are rather disadvantaged when dealing with youth..."
  1068. > With a chuckle, she points at the table's own white-label champagne bottle, and her companion Carlos quickly reaches over to pour her a dollop into one of the unused glasses surrounding the floral centrepiece.
  1069. > Looking frankly exhausted -- you've never seen exhaustion under her eyes before, not with all the makeup she always wore -- she tips back and downs the glass in a single mouthful, before signalling for another.
  1070. > While that's being sorted for her, she looks over at you and a wry smile appears on her face.
  1071. > "... But what's this I'm hearing? Say something else, my dear. In Equestrian."
  1072. > Eh?
  1073. "Huh? Say what? I don't understand what you mean, Reverend Mother."
  1074. > Lifting her eyebrows, she starts chortling uncontrollably, looking all around at everyone else.
  1075. > "Ohohoho! Don't tell me I'm the only one who hears it? No?"
  1076. > As the second serving of champagne is presented to her, she lifts the glass, still laughing.
  1077. > "... My dear darling daughter, you are skilled without equal in a great many things, but your Equestrian has always left something to be desired. Understandable, of course, for as a Star you were not extensively trained. Yet here you are, a few hours after we last met, speaking now without an accent and without any of the errors in grammar so common to our kind when they use the Solar tongue..."
  1078. > With tears in her eyes, she takes a drink.
  1079. > "... You must be absolutely hammered. Ahaha!"
  1080. > Flabbergasted, you turn to your companions for confirmation.
  1081.  
  1082. > Anonymous nods pensively.
  1083. > "You know, now that your Reverence has pointed it out, I can hear it, too."
  1084. > Impossible!
  1085. > Lily chimes in as well.
  1086. > "Hey, yeah. Your accent's gone. That's pretty funny."
  1087. > Even Honour shrugs and nods at you.
  1088. > This is absurd!
  1089. > Liquor can do a great many things, but it can't suddenly make you speak proper Equestrian, err... speak the Equestrian proper -- wait, which order are the words supposed to be in?
  1090. > You clearly need to lay off drinks for a little while.
  1091. > Just how much alcohol is in this special celebratory 'rum punch' drink, anyways?
  1092. > The fruit juice must be masking the bite.
  1093. > Still giggling at her revelation, Carmen sits up straight again and sets her glass down, once again appearing to hold court.
  1094. > "Now, I just have one more item I would like to discuss. I see that Specialist Sparkshower is enjoying herself on the dance floor, and we've already discussed Corporal Bound's present situation. My dear Purity, I know you're unfamiliar with these formal Equestrian routines, though I'm sure you've already got your keen eye on several choice stallions for later. But Specialist Glamerspear? How is that so luxuriously-accoutered a mare such as yourself does not have a handsome colt to hang on her foreleg and dote on her every need?"
  1095. > Lily swallows, before licking her lips.
  1096. > "I'm actually taking a break from playing the field right now."
  1097. > Your mother feigns shock.
  1098. > "Heavens! Don't tell me some tragedy has befallen your love-life?"
  1099. > The unicorn narrows her eyes before replying.
  1100. > "Something like that. Not that I'd say 'no' if the right colt came along, but I'm gonna play things slow for a little while."
  1101. > Reverend Mother Superior smirks knowingly.
  1102. > "I see, of course. You must forgive my prying; it is one of the responsibilities for a Reverend Mother to play 'matchmaker' for the Children of their House, particularly the Stars and Lunars who are required to breed as instructed, but we also help facilitate matches for Rocks and Dust as well, and this is a duty which I absolutely relish. Sizing up potential mates, determining who would be happiest with whom, and calculating which pairings will produce the finest of offspring -- it's a grand, complicated game, and I do very much enjoy games -- and the more complex, the better..."
  1103. > She grins, turning to the Royal Engineer.
  1104. > "... Which brings us to the final member of this table. Come now, my Lord Engineer: tell me you've already had several proposals this evening from eligible members of the landed gentry. Or at least, given your proclivity for military affairs, a fine young officer or two -- a Captain, at least, or perhaps a Major."
  1105. > Singled out once again, your VIP can't help but chuckle.
  1106. > "I'm afraid I'm flying solo at the moment, your Reverence."
  1107.  
  1108. > Carmen sighs.
  1109. > "Tragic. I accept that you refused one of my nubile young Lunars and declined Purity's offer, but you must allow me to help you in this matter as best I can. I assure you I have made several contacts of interest already; all I need is the information to better understand your Lordship's pleasures."
  1110. > Now Anonymous' chuckle turns into laughter, and Lilly guffaws behind a raised forehoof.
  1111. > "It's not the first time I've been asked to explore that topic tonight. I'm not sure if a second interrogation will yield much better results than the first."
  1112. > With a sly expression, Carmen looks over at the unicorn.
  1113. > "I see. It's good to know your guardsmares are on top of things when it comes to your best interests. I suppose the best I can do is make a few more proposals of my own..."
  1114. > Picking up her wine-flute, she swirls the champagne around a little bit, observing the bubbles precipitate.
  1115. > "... Upon reflection, the landed gentry are likely to be too provincial for someone who wishes to industrialize Equestria. You need someone more urbane; an heiress, perhaps, to a brewery or distillery, or a mine or mill. Something largely self-sustaining, so she can give you and your projects the attention they deserve..."
  1116. > Tilting her tufted ears, she taps a forehoof against her chin.
  1117. > "... A military mare would still be a good match, I think. You are trying to bring a new, higher order to the Equestrian economy, and as a capable military is also well-regimented but forward-looking, a proper officer should appreciate and support such an endeavour..."
  1118. > Taking a sip, she licks her lips.
  1119. > "... Or perhaps you aspire to loftier heights? We have not yet conversed at length, true, but I judge you a fine gentlecolt from what I have seen so far. You are learned, with an impressive physique as well. And I understand you have formed a close relationship with the Equestrian diarchs, particularly Princess Luna..."
  1120. > You can't help but snort out as soon as you realize where she's going with this.
  1121. "Reverend Mother!"
  1122. > Carmen only purses her lips slyly.
  1123. > "What? Am I not the head priestess of our Great Mother? Am I not obligated to tend to her every need? And she is a mare, with a mare's needs..."
  1124. > Leaning forwards, she lowers her voice.
  1125. > "... Believe me, I know. Her Majesty has, at my urging, availed herself on several occasions of the services of my prime Lunar stallions. But the lamentable truth is that she restrains herself to an unhealthy infrequency, probably out of some desire to not overindulge to excess. I think it would be far better for her mental state if she had a single, dependable partner to rely upon for her needs, both physical and emotional."
  1126. > You can't believe you're hearing your mother propose this openly.
  1127. > The shock of it makes you even ignore the fact that she has just casually spilled a very secret detail of the Great Mother's private life.
  1128.  
  1129. > Your jaw hangs down, and when you glance around the table, you see bulging eyes and open mouths all around.
  1130. "You would endorse the joining of Anonymous and Luna?"
  1131. > The Reverend Mother Superior gives the slightest of shrugs.
  1132. > "Why not? Not to insult the Lord Engineer, but I can certainly think of worse matches..."
  1133. > Carmen licks her lips, gesturing dismissively with one forehoof.
  1134. > "... It's no secret that the Great Mother has difficulty communicating with we, her Children. After all, we developed on our own for a thousand years while she slumbered in torpor. She made us physically, yes, but our society is alien to her, and this saps her confidence in dealing with our issues. Even Equestria has changed in ways she doesn't recognize, and this makes things worse as she's without any stable base besides the support of her sister -- which is considerable, to be sure, but still a very narrow platform..."
  1135. > She looks at you.
  1136. > "... You've spent some time in her company, and the Stellar Dancers are mystics who profess to understand the Great Mother through asceticism. Surely you have noticed these issues as well."
  1137. > You furrow your brow.
  1138. > She's not *wrong*.
  1139. > Yes, the Great Mother sometimes appeared unsure, probably in part because of the reasons that the Reverend Mother has described.
  1140. > And you would be overjoyed to see your peoples' Goddess paired up with a handsome stallion who could live up to the very high standards expected of him.
  1141. > The Royal Engineer might just fit that bill, and personally you did not see anything wrong with the Great Mother pairing up with any creature at all, provided they were worthy.
  1142. > But you found it impossible to understand how Carmen could make this proposal.
  1143. > You remember her eagerness to trigger the invasion when Nightmare Moon awoke, how she spoke of the dream of a world dominated by your kind, with other breeds serving at best as second-class citizens, and all other intelligent creatures relegated even further beneath.
  1144. > You remember, too, her frustration and almost complete breakdown when the invasion failed and Nightmare Moon was 'reduced' -- that had been Carmen's choice term -- to Princess Luna.
  1145. > Perhaps she really has altered her goal to be the successful integration of batponies into Equestria, but you can't imagine that she has completely abandoned her racist principles.
  1146. > She was unquestionably a batpony supremacist; and this was no surprise, for batpony supremacy was part and parcel of everything taught to foals in the crèche.
  1147. > The Children of the League of Stars were the predestined rulers of Equestria and of the whole world.
  1148. > The Children were smarter, faster, stronger, and purer, than the Equestrians could ever hope to be.
  1149. > The Children would win because the Moon is harsh, producing a hardy breed with strong institutions, while the Equestrians had grown soft in their lush paradise.
  1150. > They were weak, and the weak should tremble before the strong.
  1151.  
  1152. > This was the dogma all foals of the Children were made to take to heart, yourself included.
  1153. > It was only when you joined the Stellar Dancers that Master Draxon was able to open your eyes to recognizing that truth was not to found in the repetition of absolutist mantras and simplistic arguments of supremacy.
  1154. > You never fully appreciated that lesson while he was alive, but afterwards were infinitely grateful, for it deadened the impact when the inconceivable news arrived that the invasion had failed.
  1155. > The Shadows, Dust, and Rocks were also fortunate; they may have had this fanaticism drilled into them in the crèche, but in the absence of reinforcement in their mundane daily lives, they soon lost it like a useless appendage.
  1156. > But for the other Stars, and worse, the Lunars?
  1157. > The invasion's failure was considered apocalyptic, and many of them were still struggling, two years later, to come to terms with reality.
  1158. > And that's why you were perplexed that Carmen, of all Children, would ever accept, let alone propose, not merely a non-batpony, but a complete non-pony, as a suitor for the Great Mother.
  1159. > You knew she was a creature of very few scruples, but surely this was a line she was incapable of crossing while still maintaining her supremacist beliefs.
  1160. > And you refused to believe she had abandoned that supremacism.
  1161. > As these deep thoughts continued to tumble about in your half-drunken mind, it's Anonymous who comes to the rescue by grounding the conversation once more.
  1162. > "Your Reverence advances a number of intriguing ideas. I appreciate the offer of your services as a, uh, facilitator in these matters, but I'm in no rush. I've been in love before, and I find it's best to let things happen naturally."
  1163. > Carmen appears half-frustrated at being denied and simultaneously half-amused for the same reason.
  1164. > "Hmph. Well, let no-one say I didn't try. As for letting things 'happen naturally'..."
  1165. > Downing the rest of her champagne, she delicately flutters out of the chair and back onto all fours, smirking.
  1166. > "... I suppose all I can answer is that I am curious to see where this magical night of nights leaves you in the morning. I do hope you awaken with a warm and supportive presence beside you. And with that, I bid you all a good evening; I shall retire to the Rookery..."
  1167. > After a graceful bow, she waves a forehoof at the boxed bottle of sparkling wine.
  1168. > "... Carlos will deposit my gift at your office, my Lord, so that you needn't be burdened with keeping track of it tonight. I don't dare try to upstage Their Majesties' cellars, and there will be an occasion for you all to enjoy it in the future, I'm certain."
  1169. > With a bow of his own, her colt closes the box and places it back under one foreleg, before bowing again and following the Reverend Mother Superior off towards the main hall.
  1170. > There's a long silence at the table.
  1171. > Carmen does have that kind of effect on things: sweeping in like a tornado, leaving destruction in her wake.
  1172.  
  1173. > Anonymous puffs his cheeks and blows out loudly.
  1174. > "Your mother sure is something, Purity."
  1175. > It's the understatement of the century, and it completely wipes away the troubling thoughts you'd been having.
  1176. > You can't help but laugh and relax into enjoying the pleasant vibes of the Gala once more.
  1177. "Yes, she is."
  1178.  
  1179. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=889H0Am7vFo (Axwell - 'Feel the Vibe' [2005])
  1180.  
  1181.  
  1182.  
  1183.  
  1184. (Chapter still in progress...)

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